July Fourth is one of two holidays that are dear to my heart (can you guess what the other one is?). Our country’s independence is more than just fond childhood memories of BBQs and small town parades. It is the time when I take a moment to reflect how lucky I am to live in a place where I’m free to live as an individual. Not to say I don’t shake my head in befuddlement on occasion, but hey, who said life was perfect.
People ask what my fondest Fourth of July memory is. Was it a particular family event, fireworks on a small New Hampshire lakeshore, or my girls running around in the dark with sparklers when they were young?
Fresh out of college, when adulthood broadsided me, a biology degree didn’t offer much in the way of gainful employment at the time, so I chose a path less traveled and joined the Peace Corps. It promised adventure and a chance to do something special in a third world country. Being the impressionable young man with noble dreams and zero sense of reality, off I went to the Philippines as a Fisheries Biologist for a two-year, non-stop assignment without home leave. I left just after July 4, and returned two years later in mid July.
Oh, the places you’ll go, claims the time honored Dr. Seuss story. I had a new passport, and a portfolio of cluelessness. On our chartered flight to Manila, we all favored sitting on our right butt cheek from multiple inoculations for various tropical diseases. First six weeks in country went by in a flash with orientation, language lessons, and a few tips from departing volunteers. They handed me a plane ticket to an island centered in the archipelago, where I was to board a train to a tiny port town in one those open air cars with wooden seats you see in National Geographic photos. Reality hit about the time when passengers aboard the train all crowded into my car to stare at the “cano” – the entire seven-hour journey.
Nothing prepared me for an assault to the senses. Damn near about-faced and came home with tail between my legs. Made my first vow as an adult to stick it out, no matter what. With the help of an amazing family who practically adopted me, I learned to make some major adjustments. First was to embrace locality. Forget about what normal used to be. Don’t judge because they do things differently. Found a used off-road motorcycle to get around with, but some places just didn’t have roads.
What impressed me most was how quickly they accepted me. They’d been doing fish farming for centuries, yet listened with open minds to suggestions from a college kid who read about some things that might improve yields. Think I learned more than they did, especially the art of eating with your fingers.
A moment forever etched in memory, was a time when I gathered in a jungle area with local villagers and a couple fellow volunteers who rode in for a week. It was July Fourth, a roaring campfire, plenty of San Miguel beer and cheerful camaraderie. Pilipinos love music. Someone always had a guitar. They offered ancestral stories, patriotic tunes and love songs (their favorite). Just for grins, we canos broke into the Star-Spangled Banner to celebrate our national holiday. We stumbled on a couple verses (give me a break – we were alcoholically compromised). The guitar player picked up the tune and helped us sing it correctly. Pilipinos in general had a deep appreciation for America in those days, fostered by our alliance during World War II, and the thousands of Pilipinos working in the US, many of whom became American citizens. But here we were, about as remote as one can get, and a local villager not only knew our national anthem, they knew it better than we did.
I returned home after two-years, irrevocably changed. Yeah, that’s me the day I got back to the family homestead. I weighed all of 150 lbs. Wouldn’t I love to have that girth back. Isn’t a day go by I don’t think about my service in the Peace Corps. The experience instilled a simmering desire to know more of diverse cultures whose way of life may teach something more about mine. In later years, I had the fortunate luck to live in Asia for ten years as a professional businessman.
I firmly believe we can’t truly appreciate what we have in America, until you “walk a mile in their sandals.” If it were up to me, every American coming of age should have a choice of two-years of compulsory service. Serve in any one of several military branches at home or abroad, participate full time with agencies assisting disadvantaged Americans or citizen candidates who need mentoring, or live in a third world country where we can help others less fortunate than us. I guarantee you’ll walk away with a profound sense of respect and gratitude for the life we have in America.
No matter where you live, we humans all have the same dream. To live in peace, be a part of a productive society without fear, to be included without prejudice, to be spiritual without reprisal. Many thousands of years into the human experience, too many places in the world have yet to get there, or have had it taken away.
So when you light up that grill, put on the star-spangled shirt you wear every year, and toast the good life this country has given us, keep in mind that we are a nation of diverse migrants, most of who fled persecution or poverty. Ask any common man outside our borders. They wish for a similar existence that fits their unique culture.
God Bless America, and all the people of the world who wish for the same dream.
Next week, our nation takes time off to remember the brave souls who paid the ultimate price for keeping us safe. Many of us have never experienced the horror of armed conflict. Because of our veteran’s sacrifice, most of us will never have too. Our national day of remembrance ensures we never forget them.
My throat locks up when I visit veteran memorial parks. Headstones seemingly stretch to the horizon. Who were these brave souls? What dreams went unrealized? How many hearts were broken when they didn’t come home? How many sons and daughters went without a parent? For those whose remains are interred in this hallowed ground, the living will plant a flag on their grave in reverence, perhaps kiss a faded photograph, or touch a brittle love letter written long ago. But not all will be remembered this way. Countless tens-of-thousands throughout our country’s history are buried beneath forgotten soil, their legacy lost to the ages, their memory but a solitary memorial to the Unknown Soldier.
Near my childhood home in rural Connecticut, was a tiny graveyard dating to the eighteenth-century. Hidden by trees, weed-choked and overgrown, wild honeysuckle bushes along a crumbling stone fence revealed its location. Many of the deceased buried there lived during the Revolutionary War. I wondered if any of them gave their life, or lost a loved one in the first American conflict that gave birth to our country. Hard to know, since no one placed little flags on gravesites for Memorial Day. No one remembered them. Thankfully, the National Center for Preservation Technology, an arm of the National Park Service, now helps to conserve the nation’s oldest graveyards. Maybe someday, I’ll go back to the old graveyard to see if it’s better preserved, if any flags decorate headstones on our day of remembrance, and see if the honeysuckle still blooms in summer.
My father was a naval officer during World War II. No amount of prodding as kids got him to tell us much of what he experienced. Every time we’d ask, he’d joke “I was a hero”, then leave it at that. We found no shoebox of memories when he passed on twenty-years ago. When the last of his sisters died, we discovered scrapbooks and albums hidden in her basement. A treasure trove of clippings, letters exchanged, and photographs of Dad, gave us a first-ever peek into my father’s life during the war. None of the letters hinted of his experiences aboard a destroyer in the Pacific, but he was one handsome dude in uniform. We’ll honor his service with a flag on his marker, and give thanks for his being a great dad.
I scanned the weekend newspaper listing the township events for Memorial Day, one of ten federally recognized days of observance that shutter government offices, banks, and many private businesses (not to be confused with Hallmark Card Day in February, and a day to recognize a Spanish-Italian explorer who got lost trying to find America). There will be a few parades, times to meet volunteer gatherings at the cemetery, and fireworks. I’ll be smoking up a storm for a BBQ and icing drinks in a washtub.
Pinterest – US News / NBC News – May 2012
But I will remind myself it’s less a “holiday”, than a time of reflection for those who died protecting our way of life, and compassion for the loved ones left behind with an empty chair at the table, a photograph on the mantle, newspaper clippings browned from age, and a hole in their hearts that will never completely heal.
Monday I will bend a knee in thanks for noble soldiers whose dreams went unfulfilled, so we the people could fulfill ours. I will add a prayer that someday, we humans will finally get it, and cease the endless violence that fosters the reason we bow our heads once a year in remembrance.
Curricular options for me in college didn’t include subjects pertaining to astrobiology. In my day, most budding biologists were encouraged to focus on earth-bound developmental sciences, provided you could get through university weeding courses in organic biology and biochemistry. Life sciences were about life on earth. Even hinting of life in the cosmos got you the evil eye, a lower grade for being stupid, or a semester of janitorial service cleaning up after freshman lab orientation. Times have changed.
First, a definition. Astrobiology is a branch of biology concerned with the study of life on earth and in space. The earth part of it focuses on finding answers to how life began on earth. As for space, the research has to go beyond the study of fossils and other earthly evidence. Astrobiologists must look for the presence of organic materials outside our solar system, and hypothesize how these materials become the molecules of life.
Jeffery Kluger of Time Magazine wrote an article last February, The Perfectly Sane Case For Life in Space. Kluger tagged along with astrobiologist, Scott Sanford at the NASA Ames Research Center, who demonstrated an updated cosmic primordial soup device that would make Dr. Frankenstein very proud. Sanford filled a chamber with elements you’d find in space (stellar dust, gas), duplicated the chill of space, and instead of lightning, used the same kind of radiation expected in the cosmos. The result yielded thousands upon thousands of chemical products, many of which included molecules needed to spark life. What Sanford stated in Kluger’s article caught my attention.
“The universe is hardwired to be an organic chemist. It’s not a very clean or tidy one, but it has really big beakers and plenty of time.”
Add a little water to the mix, and stuff starts jiggling.
Wait a minute. Water? Where’s that coming from? Most people aren’t aware that water is very abundant in the universe. Our own solar system is awash in water (NASA JPL), trapped in neighboring planets and moons, and cosmic Gunga Dins in the form of comets composed of rock, water ice, and other frozen gases.
Okay Mr. Science Fiction, if the building blocks of life are so common, how come ET hasn’t dropped in for a visit? I mean, jeez, with anywhere from 100 – 400 billion solar masses in the galaxy, not to mention maybe a 100 billion galaxies outside our borders, what’s taking so long?
Astrobiologists aren’t necessarily looking for ET – yet. Biology is about everything living, from bacteria to mammals. But if there’s cellular life, it could lead to the evolution of sentient beings. It’s a big if. The presence of single cell eukaryotes doesn’t guarantee development to – more scientists.
A key factor in cosmic organic roulette is time. Scientists in this field work in cosmic time. I sort of touched on this in a previous article, Message in a Bottle. We conceptualize life on earth in human time. How does the average person grasp that human existence on earth, is less than a nanosecond in the scheme of cosmic time. Or as Carl Sagan conceptualized in his famous cosmic timeline in a year, organic life took hold on earth sometime in September, and humans in the last 60 seconds of the year. Astrobiologists have to work with a magnitude in the billions-of-years.
Kluger quoted an astronomer who stated, “Life on Earth got started very quickly – like walking into a casino in Vegas, pulling the handle, and winning the jackpot. Is it luck, or not a difficult bet?”
Pull the handle enough in cosmic time, eventually you get a winner. Unfortunately, we puny humans may be caught in an unobservable, otherworldly dead zone. With our youngish 4 billion year-old birth certificate in a universe that is well past puberty at fourteen billion, civilizations may have gone extinct before earth was born.
Astrobiologists only have what we know here on earth, and what we can observe in the cosmos. According to Kluger, they’ve only had access to a tiny fraction of what’s out there. It’ll take many years to document it. But if organic construction materials are as common as believed, I’m willing to bet life is abundant as well, and at least one them is the ace of sentient beings.
When out-of-town friends come to visit, sightseeing Amish country outside Lancaster, PA, is on our top list of excursions not to be missed. Each visit, I learn a little bit more of the simple life that survived inside our 21st century, helter-skelter world, and it re-stokes the scenic muse in my writing. We recently revisited our favorite back roads to observe the Amish farmers prepare for another growing season. The following article is something I wrote three years ago, and worth a revisit.
It’s a great time of year to observe a friendly, humble people who resist the temptations of a modern life. They bear it well, but living in a fishbowl where the English “observe them” as anomalies of society, has to be somewhat nerve wracking. Shunning electricity and other modern conveniences, the Amish have carved a unique niche in a country gone amok with technological advances. Where most of us gather food from sterilized packages in gleaming stores, ride around in motor vehicles, wear clothes made in a third-world sweatshop, and entertain ourselves with endless media options, our modern selves are anything but simple. Turn off the switch, and most of us are likely to fumble in the darkness.
The phrase, Men Behaving Badly, is rather gender specific. Fair to say, it is a well-earned aphorism. History is rife with examples of male instigated-warfare, greed, corruption, and scandal. Let’s give ourselves a big ole testosterone-infused high-five.
In the current sci-fi world I’m crafting, I want to explore a ravaged earth saved by benevolent aliens, with one nonnegotiable premise in exchange for helping to clean up our planetary playpen. Cede earth to the females, serve, nurture, and respect them without fail. Not the first time writers have played with dominate female societies, but while researching popular titles of the genre in fiction, my spam folder got a serious workout. Movies were fifties-era bombs like Cat Women of Mars and too many book-covers with copycat characters right out of Legend of the Cryptids (see The Good, the Bad, and the Scantily Clad).
The challenge? Can I construct a quasi-utopian, matriarchal society that may over time, deteriorate into suspiciously male-like irrationality, and not have it become a comic book Wonder Woman society of Amazons that reads like a guy wrote it?
Extinction is a fascinating subject to me as a writer, especially if it has a dystopian plot line around a group of humans barely surviving a decimated landscape from any one of natural or manmade calamities. It’s all about the human equation, but what makes it really compelling, is a natural disaster by which we have no control. I’m obsessed with The Apocalypse Waiting Beneath Our Feet, and other earth-based, regularly-scheduled natural disasters mentioned in an article I wrote a couple years ago. Not to say meteor impacts are passé, it’s been a hotly debated subject for decades, but I viewed heavenly body impacts as random events, like chances of winning the lottery (or in this case … losing).
They say that spring will come again
No one knows exactly when
Still the suns a long lost friend
on the longest night of the year
You might recognize the opening lyrics from the Mary Chapin Carpenter song, “The Longest Night of the Year”, from her holiday album, Come Darkness, Come Light.
For those of us who sprouted roots above 40°N latitude, daylight works part-time during the winter solstice, and night becomes the primary custodian of our diurnal rhythm. The official longest night of the year occurs on December 22, a few days shy of Christmas day. It’s a harbinger of the season, like evergreen trees, cozy fires, and that Jack Frost nipping at your nose. After January 1, we shovel the light of holiday cheer back in the attic and have to contend with long dark nights on our own. About the time February arrives, many of us grow frustrated with winter, wondering if spring is ever going to return. The calendar says spring equinox officially begins March 20, yet we had snowfall well into April last year.
When I read articles and references about the universe and quantum theory, I have to tread lightly (loosely interpreted as, I’m way out of my league). My degree is in biological sciences. Physics and advanced mathematics had me shaking during exam time, but that was a hundred years ago. Reading Brian Greene’s, “The Elegant Universe”, and Richard Panek’s, “The 4% Universe”, took more than one sitting per chapter. Stephen Hawking’s, “Briefer History of Time”, a rewritten version of his earlier publication so nimrods like me might understand it, still sits partially read on my nightstand, mocking me for being a wuss.
So why do I torture myself? Because writing with science fiction elements today, one must be familiar with terms used in quantum theory 101 (or in my case, just “one”). What makes current quantum theory so much different, are recent discoveries that theoretically explain things we once made-up for fun. Fermions, bosons, black holes, wormholes, dark matter, dark energy, multiverses … neat stuff … though I’m sure astrophysicists have better descriptors than neat. And holy solar flare, Einstein’s theories are actually in question with discovery of particles traveling faster than light.
A recent review by WSJ’s John Gribbin, “The Loose Ends of the Universe“, summarized a book by Scientific American’s George Musser, with a title coined by Einstein to describe entangled particles, “Spooky Action at a Distance.” I like Gribbin’s reviews. He cliff-notes in simpler language complicated theories to spare me a WTF glaze-over in chapter one. And who can resist the use of Spooky in science literature?
One of the more difficult tasks for me as a new writer, besides crafting a query letter, or synopsis (which I irreverently call suck-nopsis), was to create an author bio. Who wants to know anything about me?
Apparently everybody, according to experts who eat and breathe social media every day.
I did all the how-to research, perused examples of like-minded writers. I came up with the usual anecdote, you can read it here on my “About” page. Short, concise, move on.
At last year’s Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group (GLVWG) conference, The Write Stuff, we had the privilege of booking social media maven, Kristen Lamb, author of Rise of the Machines – Human Authors in a Digital World, and lead honcho of WANA International (We Are Not Alone). Most of what I learned about an author’s process for blogging and establishing a social media presence, came from Kristen’s earlier book, “We Are Not Alone –The Writer’s Guide to Social Media.” That’s me, towering over the writer/blogger who’s larger than life.