Monday, May 28, 2012

Ants and Copernicus

Formicidae Denizens

I have a colony of ants in my bathroom.  The colony is part of a massive one that is, no doubt, scattered throughout the entire apartment building.  I've had my little battles with them for a couple of years now.  I always ALWAYS feel guilty for setting traps.  I don't like killing anything.  But I see it like this: they're destroying the structural integrity of the home in which my son is sleeping.  An earthquake plus rotting wood frame does not equal safety.  So I set the traps.

Well, I think about ants now and then.  Probably more than a gal should.  Collective species, eausocial, superorganisms, they are.  They share information with each other about where to find food, where is the nearest threat, should they build up or out despite zoning laws, etc.... The queen is the brain, in a way.  The nexus of the collective.  Her wishes become the colony's missions.  The workers carry out the mission while soldier ants protect them from invaders.  The collective system is strong and runs like a well-oiled machine.  That is the world of ants.  Ants don't survive well alone.

Ants don't survive well by themselves, (unless there are other bugs to help them).

Well anyway, I take a shower and see ants taking the food from the traps.  The food contains boric acid, which mixes well with sugar and slowly kills the ants and queen, since she is fed this food like a diva being fed bonbons.  And I think about this.  The queen eats this stuff, maybe detecting something odd, knowing it's not a normal food, and still wants more.

The ant queen, middle, is the nexus of the colony.  Is she wants poisonous bonbons, then you better dang well get her some poisonous bonbons.

Her wishes become the colony's mission, remember? They keep eating the poisonous food and bringing it back to her.  They are all living for the next 24 hours on borrowed time, all because momma queenie has to be kept happy and fat.

You better keep her happy!

Well, I see some poor ant there in the shower with me.  Now I have a vivid imagination.  I imagine she's talking to another ant, most likely about where the bait is, maybe about how hot and humid it got suddenly, who knows.  She kinda stops a bit, appears perplexed, like something is amiss, then regains the pheromone trail the others are on.  I look at this worker ant, just there, doing her job, and I think, "I bet she knows there's something wrong with this food."  (Another part of my brain goes on a tangent thinking, "Awww crap.  The ants.  They know too much!" And a 1940's noir-style scenario where the ants are like an insect mafia and I'm an undercover cop starts taking off.  That scenario runs in my mind's background and amuses other parts of my brain at that point.)

But Yelp said the food in Sarah's bathroom was awesome!

This poor worker ant.  She tastes the food, says, "Something is horribly wrong with this food source.  We shouldn't be eating this," and has no choice but to carry out her mission.  It would be nearly impossible for her to walk away from her colony and away from the danger.  She'd have no protection, no communication, and a sense that she is not fulfilling the mission she knew from the first time she left her larval stage.  She is doomed, and she knows it.  She will watch her sisters die, her queen die, and she won't be able to stop it.

The little worker ant in my shower has this on one of her Pinterest boards, I bet.

I then start thinking about humans that have been in this sort of position.  Those people who say, "Hey, something isn't right here. This doesn't make sense."

A person who sees a truth the others don't is a very lonely person.  Everyone else around this person goes along with some directive without questioning "Why?" If he or she says, "You know, this doesn't add up" she/he feels or actually is oustracized, belittled, made fun of.  A lonely life.  That person has to decide "do I go along with the crowd because they are my family and friends, or do I stay here alone with the truth?"

Copernicus.  He was sure the earth revolved around the sun and not the other way around.  He was also very afraid to offend the church and his collegues with the truth he knew.

Nicolaus Copernicus was one of those people.  He has been credited with the heliocentric model.  He said the earth revolves around the sun, not the other way around.  He was really, really nervous about telling everyone about his findings.  His closest friends knew what he had found, and said, "Come on, Nick, publish this!" but he was so worried about religious objections that it was only at his deathbed that De revolutionibus orbium coelestium was printed.  If it weren't for the support of his closest friends, the heliocentric model of the solar system and subsequent discoveries would have been in jeapordy.   Around 50-60 years later Kepler and Galileo gave Copernicus's theory the world-wide treatment it deserved.  Both of these men, too, were alone in their ant-worlds, pointing to a truth the established colony denied existed.

Seems like such an ordinary fact to you and me, but in the mid 1600's this picture was heresy and could get you killed. Times change, science advances, humanity advances.  What seems far-fetched and blasphemous to many now may be an ordinary fact in a 100 years.  You or I could be one of the people who change humanity's mind, if we're brave enough.

In the 16th century, it took guts for a man to say, "The earth is not the center of the universe."  That takes cajones.  Guys like Copernicus stood to lose everything, including their lives.  We look back at people in that era and say, "Those guys, were stupid!  Of COURSE the Earth revolves around the sun.  Pfft, everyone knows that!"   Well, we know it now because brave people decided to ask a few questions instead of just accepting what everyone simply accepted as truth.  In fact, most of the advances in science and morality that we take for granted-take as fact now, were only brought to light by men and women who stood alone in a sea of hatred and contempt with nothing but their belief in their truth.

It's a lonely world for these people. Humanity moves forward, and it has done so on the backs of lonely and accused people.


A look at how far humanity has come in what we know to be true.

Monday, April 30, 2012


I follow the Dalai Lama on FB and Google +.  Today he posted about patience.  

"...The practice of patience guards us against losing our presence of mind. It enables us to remain undisturbed, even when the situation is really difficult. It gives us a certain amount of inner peace, which allows us some self-control, so that we can choose to respond to situations in an appropriate and compassionate manner, rather than being driven by our disturbing emotions."

Humans are amazing.  We can suppress the urge to kill each other by using patience.

I normally consider myself really patient.  Lately, that has not been the first adjective that I would have used for myself.  Oh, I've been patient with my goals and such, but lately my patience with people has waned. 

In the past I have had to exercise extreme patience with my son.*  Kids with processing problems need patience or else they start to feel unworthy.  (They need love, too, but that goes without saying.)  I think I've always had the ingredients for that kind of stamina, but I think my son taught me Industrial Strength Patience.  I later had "patience refresher training" when I helped my mother care for an Alziemer's patient and my dementia-suffering grandmother, all under the same roof.  

I think being a parent has increased my capacity for love, and therefore by association, patience.  I am less likely to, say, sucker-punch a lady if I look at her and think, "Bless her heart, she's someone's baby.  I guess I'll just put my fists back in my pocket."  This strategy has worked well for me, so I stick with it.  

The trick, I've found, to employing patience to avoid multiple homicides is directly related to 2 things.  The first is money.  Being paid money to be patient.  The more money they pay you, the more patience you have.  Any geriatric nurse or Fox Studios errand boy will probably agree with this.  It's horribly true.   Money can fix many problems.  And those it can't fix, it can at least render neutralized for a while.

The other thing that is directly proportional to patience, is love.  Good old, sucka-fool love.  If you are a parent, you know this. If you are caring for your aging parents (and haven't killed them yet), that's love working right there. Good on ya'.  

Well, it works most of the time.  I have a few friends who test my patience on a regular basis.  One or two of them do it everyday.  In unique ways, I love them.  Lately, I have had to juggle a couple of these noodle-heads along with everything else.  I try to do the "someone's baby" thing with them, but it only works for a second or two until the next sentence comes out of their mouths.  My defense is like a phaser blast that just impacts on the surface. It doesn't go in.  So I desperately whip out the auxilliary strategy - I pretend they have cerebral damage.  But they vote and drive cars and such!  My logic tells me they would not be able to do these things if they were truly incapacitated, so I get upset again. This has happened over and over lately. 

So I sit and ponder, "What can I do to be more patient?"   Well, I can't change them all.  (I can influence them, but I can't change them.)  I can change me.  I can change my reaction, my choice of words/retorts, my interactions.  It's the right thing to do, and it's cheaper than hiring a violent crimes lawyer.  Like my buddy DL up there says, "...patience... allows us some self-control."  
I want self-control. 

The problem is actually my perception.  I perceive an issue that rattles my view of the world, and I react to that. Therefore, I should only have to change my perception of the world, or of the idiot  -I mean, per-son in front of me, or stop and acknowledge that this is a situation that I cannot control, and I should trust in something greater... to key their car for me.**  

Perhaps, with this new strategy, we can see the following scenario, instead of crime scene tape:

Friend:  I'm going on a trip and I'm going to leave my car unlicensed in a remote location no one can get to. hahaha

Me: You're an idiot. I am impatient with your behavior.

Friend: Hahahaha.

Me: Let me help you fill out a power of attorney for it, and I can register it and take care of that problem.. again.  (Bless his heart he's someone's kid.  :/ )

Friend:  Nope.  I want to make it difficult so I can learn things.  Learning is so much fun.  It will be awesome to experience the pain of learning.

Me: Have you ever had a CAT scan of your frontal...?  Oh never mind.  (Auxillary patience strategy depleted.)

Friend: The car is not street legal, by the way.

(Here is where I have to guard my presence of mind.  Friend is young.  He is learning. He's allowed to make mistakes just like I was.  People were patient with me, I should pass that forward to him.  The perception of the scene changes, and I can be patient because I know I only saw it from my point of view.)

Me:  I won't kill you after all.

Friend: Hahahaha

By the way, Friend is actually a great guy.  Love the kid.  He should write about the picture-perfect stupid things I do.  It would be a good thing.

*I'll write more later on autism because I feel I need to share with other moms who may be going through that emotional roller coaster.

** I don't key cars and would never do such things, but I imagine it would render some level of satisfaction.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Arise! Leviathan of the Deep!

At six every morning a group of people start to assemble on the cliffs of Rancho Palos Verdes.  Below them, under the blue Pacific, are their targets.  Other groups like them form loose squads up and down the Pacific Coast.  They volunteered for their mission, and yet they are unarmed.  They set up their positions, check their bearings, and begin scanning the blue horizon.  They peer quietly through their binoculars or telescopes.  The ignore the tugs and freighters, quickly dismissing their markings and bearing.  What they seek lies below the surface, moving quietly and with purpose.  This morning, I was with them.
Scanning the horizon.

The grey-haired gentleman to my left, who is scanning the southern sector suddenly stops, breaths in a bit and bellows, "Arise!!! Leviathan of the Deep!!!"

Suddenly, there is much more activity.

"Where?  Bearing?"

"136!  Do you see it?!"

A pause as everyone focuses their eyes.  Suddenly, I see what they are looking for.

Gray whales spouting.

A shiny, deep gray form breaks the surface of the water, moving north.   A whale!!!  Then I see the plume.  I can hear it breathing in!  Powerful!

Whales. A pod of four gray whales breaking the surface of the water to breathe before they go back down for about 4-5 minutes.  Beautiful creatures!

Cetacean comparison chart.

The group chatters excitedly and documents everything. Their enthusiasm gets carried over to the joggers and walkers along the coastal hiking trail. These people are not part of the Civil Defense or Coast Guard Auxiliary, looking for enemy submarines. They are whale watchers. Volunteers, all of them. These men and women are whale spotters for the American Cetacean Society's (ACS) Gray Whale Census.

ACS Gray Whale Census Volunteers.  I was told the patches on the chairs are designed by volunteers and represent each season in which the volunteer participated.
The group tracks and counts gray whales and other marine mammals that move up and down the US Pacific coast.  Their "camp" is the Point Vicente Interpretive Center, a nature center that showcases the flora, fauna, history, and marine ecosystems of the Palos Verdes Penninsula near Los Angeles, Calif.

This season's whale counts have been big. There have even been orcas spotted in the harbor this year. 

This morning the group consisted of local residents Jean, Bob, Steve, Nancy, and Stephanie.  Bob tells me that the group has been doing this for around 30 years.  They are unpaid, dedicated, and work in all kinds of weather.  (Read the Wall Street Journal article -if you subscribe - about these dedicated people.)

Volunteers keep an eye on the gray whale pod they spotted traveling north.

The group tracked a pod of grays as they moved north up the coast.  Several species migrate along the Pacific coast, but the ACS, based in San Pedro, Calif., tracks the Eastern Pacific gray whales because they frequently use the California coast and Channel Island corridor as their route.

The Pacific ocean from the Palos Verdes Peninsula looking toward a hazy Malibu in the distance.  The Channel Islands, out of view but to the left, create a very busy cetacean migration route, mirroring the human, yet just as busy 405 Freeway that runs the same direction on land. 

The whale spotters track numbers, species, behavior, and the number of calves they see.  They only see a handful of a great number of migrating whales, but their data is indicative of the overall health of the migrating species. This year there has been a record number of southbound gray whale sightings.

Stephanie, a veteran whale counter, uses a telescope to track a gray whale pod.   She recorded the number of whales, times they surfaced, and if they "fluked" - showed their tails before diving under.
As the pod began to move out of sight, I took my leave (and took a a few pictures) just as a group of school kids arrived at the center.

Kids line the railing next to the Pt. Vicente Interpretive Center.  
I watched as they were quickly ushered to the railings to catch a glimpse of the whale pod as they took their deep breaths before going under for another 4-5 minutes.  I saw the ACS volunteers watch them with pleased smiles. I wondered if the kids realized how lucky we are to see such magnificent animals.  Maybe one of them will be watching for whales one day.

Resources and Sites:

Blue Whale Census and Behavior Project at

The ACS Los Angeles Chapter at

Slide show of whale watchers in the WSJ images about the whale watchers

Follow the ACS on Twitter @CetaceanSociety

They're also on Facebook at

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Birthday 43: Carpe Diem

Lanterns above the Mad Hatter tea cup ride.

January 26th was my birthday.  The day before my birthday was preceded with a week of deep blue funk.    It took a week of meditation and social networking abstinence to make things right again.  The day I finally cleared that hurdle was January 25th, last Wednesday.

Now, the week in question must have been prey to some horrid cosmic influences (besides the CMEs that plagued the upper atmosphere that week) because there was a spike in the suicide rate among Airmen. Twelve Airmen took their own lives between January 1st and the 23rd.  That's unreal.  And in the Air Force culture, it feels unforgivable. So the military's response to this kind of spike is to stop all operations and look at what is causing the problem. At upper levels this is a valid response.  When the order gets filtered down to lower levels it may suffer a bit and turn into an email like the one I got that said I was required to come to work on January 26th and participate in mandatory fun and don't-kill-yourself briefings.  

After a week of working through anger and sadness to get myself out of a deep, blue funk, the very LAST thing I wanted to do was attend mandatory-fun and don't-kill-yourself briefings.  A co-worker said, "Tell them if you have to sit through this you will kill yourself." I laughed, but there was a small truth there.  I wanted to celebrate, not wade through mindless talks about depression.  I made it out of a little whole, and I wanted to smell clean air and drink coffee in the sunshine.  

So I hijacked my birthday.  

Months ago my sister and her boyfriend, Dimitri, grabbed tickets to a Disneyland after-hours event for JPL employees.  Tickets were for January 26th, my birthday.  The park would close at 8 to the general public and remain open to special ticket holders.  We had 4 tickets, so I planned to keep my son from school that day and bring him along for the celebration.  This is a once in a lifetime kind of thing, so having my office demand my presence on this particular day was deeply ironic. 

My birthday was a blast.
My sister and I at 1AM after Birthday 43 celebration was over.

I ate junk food.  I rode anything that was open.  I screamed like a kid.  I danced down the street behind the parade.  I freaked out when I saw Tigger.  (He was day-glo orange!)  I was a kid again.  I haven't had that much fun on a birthday since I was 6.  

I seldom make a big deal about my birthday.  I assume people will forget it.  I don't ever expect a cake or presents (When I get them I am always grateful, however.)  I never plan parties.  This year was different. though. This day was different.  This was MY day.  I didn't want to attend a suicide briefing.  I was rewarding myself for making it this far, through whatever crap I had gone through in my life and would go through in the future.  I was seizing the day. 

In my 43 years on this planet I have endured death in the family, countless moves and painful goodbyes, heartbreaks, teasing, being used, being forgotten, the guilt of hurting others, spiritual upheaval, watching my son struggle with autism, divorce, depression, denial, loneliness, yada, yada, yada....  I have also lived in other countries, seen amazingly beautiful creatures and people, watched my son overcome autism, made supernatural friendships, and have been constantly (and I mean constantly) amazed by nature. You would have to pull me kicking and screaming from this planet, this time and this space.    

The twelve Airmen who took their own lives must have been at the depth of sadness. Each one of their lives is irreplaceable. I know that suspending business to review what went wrong is the generally the right thing to do.  Looking at ourselves and our co-workers and asking, "Are you doing ok?" is a great start.  But doing this over and over can have an adverse effect.  Bringing the discussion of suicide to the front of conscious thought over and over may create the perceived option of suicide where none existed before. 

I've been depressed.  It's sobering.  For me it was like a dark fog that clouded my brain so that the things that anchored me to this world were becoming obscured.  To some people I think it's full of screaming sounds and firey colors and light, so painful and loud that death itself is the relief.  For some it might be the dark, still ocean that obscures the friends that care, the sunshine, and the small things that anchor them to reality, until its vapor invades their lungs and smothers their life.  And for some, I think the boundary of this reality and another universe becomes a fine line, and they willingly go to the other place, sensing, for some reason, that life is better over there, not here.  

I kicked my depression with trips to sunny places (a basic SAD cure and one reason I live here in LA), art therapy and journal-writing.  I have a network of friends in place.  Guided meditation, writing this blog (and others), along with time alone in nature is my psyche's EMS.  I have even found solace in twitter hashtags that gave me proof I wasn't alone, something that made loneliness disappear in an instant.

The day after my birthday I found out that, while I was chasing Tigger at Disneyland, an 18 year old kid threw himself off of the ledge less than a mile from my patio, where I sat and had coffee that morning.  He was trying to get to the next world. His mother, sister and others had spent the morning trying to talk him back to reality.  They watched him run and jump off the ledge to his death.  He left them behind.  His mother and sister had to watch the fire department airlift his body from the rocks below.  Later they will have to pick out his clothes for a funeral.  They will have to answer questions.  They will carry guilt with them the rest of their lives.  They'll have to carry the memory of the moment of his death the rest of their lives.  This is what suicide does to the living.  This is why you seize your days.

I don't need a briefing to understand this.