Eyes In The Darkness

A picture of darkness. Who knows what might be in there!!?

My 5 year old son is going through a bit of a phase right now where he is scared of being almost anywhere in the house by himself.  Even in the day time.  He wants someone to walk with him to the bathroom, his bedroom, the basement, etc.  He says he’s scared that their might be monsters, while at the same time freely admits that he knows monsters aren’t real.  But how does he know such things, other than the fact that his parents have told him so?  My wife was able to prod the reason for his current phase out of him.  He says that he thought he saw something like a monster in the dark once and since that time is when he’s started being scared going from room to room.  So here there is a clash between something he “knows” because it is has been told to him by authority in his life and something that he has experienced.  Now obviously he is misinterpreting his experience and there aren’t monsters.  There is no way he can be reasoned with through conversation.  It will simply dawn to him at some point after enough time has passed and no monsters have appeared that he might have been just imagining it.  And in between he may see other disturbing shapes in the darkness that might worry him further.  This will take time.

As a parent it is easy to be a bit frustrated with this, especially since it is enough work watching the 15 month old, and to now have to escort a 5 year old everywhere in the house, even when it is bright and sunny is a bit annoying.  But then I remembered back to how I was no different as a child.  One of my first memories, although more like an emotional imprint, is that I remember being scared of the moon.  Apparently this happened around the age of two.  I remember that the moon would sometimes be visible outside my window, and I remember being scared of it.  I don’t remember when I got over that fear, but my dad says they had to move the bed so that I couldn’t see out the window from bed.  Then everything was fine.  Of course now I think the moon is full of romance and beauty and I can think of no logical reason why I would fear the moon.  It

The menacing Daffy Duck,

was clearly an irrational fear.  When I was older, maybe around 7 I also remember being scared of a stuffed Daffy Duck.  It sat next to my bed and like Daffy should it had big eyes with a fair amount of white.  That white almost glowed in the dark, and so when I would see the Daffy Duck sitting upright near my bed it started to freak me out.  In fact I have recollections of it just appearing to me that way rather suddenly, and not having frightened me prior to that.  Maybe I had some experience that made me worried about eyes in the dark.  I don’t know.  Needless to say I had to hide the Daffy Duck and then everything was fine.

All this made me think about fear.  My friend Esme had a post where she asked her readers to come up with an analogy for fear and mine was “Fear is like water.  We need a little to live, but too much and we drown.”  I think this is a pretty good analogy.  But even if some fear is good, there are rational and irrational fears.  The fact that we would fear things irrationally makes no difference to evolution.  We need to be creatures that feel fear, because there are actually things to fear in this world.  And what we fear can’t be so hardwired into us, because then how would we be able to adapt to new threats and dangers?  So we are just going to feel fear for all sorts of things, whether it is a poisonous snake, or the imagined menace of the eyes of a stuffed duck in the dark.

It seems to me that one of the purposes of our ability to reason (maybe the most important part) is that we can try to sort out the rational from the irrational fears.  And then at a higher level of reasoning we can then try to prioritize those fears to help us make better choices about where we expend our energy to try to mitigate those things which pose the greatest threat.  Anybody who is paying attention in this world knows that we are terrible at both of these things.  One reason we might be terrible at this is that in general, nature really only cares that we live long enough to reproduce.  As social species even if we died shortly after reproduction there would still be people in our community that could potentially raise those young.  So we need to feel fear, and we need to feel it strongly to get us to the point of sexual maturity, but beyond that fear loses its utility.  It seems to me that for most of us we live in a world where making it to the age of sexual maturity isn’t so difficult anymore, but our brains are still going to be wired to feel fear.  And this fear can, and is exploited intentionally, or unintentionally every day.


But even if we do make a correct decision about something we should rationally fear, if there is nothing we can do about it, how do we as humans deal with such fear?  The example that often comes to mind for me is how humans at the dawn of civilization, after we discovered farming and lived in close proximity to each other and animal feces, is death to diseases we did not have immunities to.  Somewhere around 80% of the aboriginals in North America died of such diseases when the Europeans came.  Things like small pox and influenza.  Of course you can still be killed by such things today, but most of us don’t because we’ve had so many generations of living with these things our bodies have built up an immunity.  Imagine living in those early days of farming and seeing people die in the prime of their lives from the flu.  Not just one person who was already a bit unhealthy but many people.  This would be a reasonable thing to fear.  But T-cell backgroundwhat could one do about it?  The microscope was not invented until 1590.  It’s not that humans didn’t try to combat this reasonable fear, but in the absence of being able to know what germs, viruses, and infections were at that microscopic level, truly doing something about that fear would have been hard to do.  The boon that farming brought would have easily given us a blind spot as to what might be the source of problems.  When I really read the entirety of the Leviticus in the Bible it was clear to me that this was how we went about combating reasonable fears.  Practical advice (for the time) mixed with storytelling.  Science is really also about building a narrative for why things happen the way they do, and how to go about solving those problems.  I do think narratives, and stories, are important for contextualizing fears.  So we can say “Alright well here is a thing that I fear, and here is why it happens, and now I can start taking steps to avoid these things.”  The problem being that when you have the wrong explanation, you can expend a great deal of energy and not really solve the problem, even if you do conquer your fear.  To the local follower of some divine word, it must have been a great surprise to the one who believed and did as they were told that disease still ended their lives.  Leaving those alive to suspect that the only reason the person died couldn’t be because they had an incorrect narrative for the fear, but that the person who died wasn’t following the narrative correctly or worse yet rejected the narrative secretly.

Note the “Think! Try Again”

One of the things that I like about the scientific method is that built-in is a self-correction mechanism so that we can constantly question the narrative.  Certainly there have been scientists who have stuck to a particular paradigm, or who let ego override their humility, but I think people who don’t really understand science, underestimate how much self-correction is built in to the methodology.  Maybe that’s also why the biggest religious zealots have a hard time seeing science as fundamentally different from religion.  We see the narrative science builds change;  openly and unabashedly.  Yet books remain unchanged.  Of course, this isn’t strictly true, because narratives evolve, translators change things, and some beliefs fall away from various denominations, but the story that religion often tells is that it is unchanging and forever.  Such is the nature of institutions.

Maybe fear can become addictive in the brain as well.  Maybe this is why it feels like so many people are drowning in it today.  I think that’s what makes me the saddest about religious fundamentalists or conspiracy theorists, because for all their narratives they just seem really afraid and all I can think is “Things aren’t really as fearful as you think.”  This is also what angers me about fear mongering.  It really might be the worst human behavior.



IMG_20160401_191926 (1)I’ve loved mangoes ever since I can remember.  For me they are by far the tastiest fruit out there.  Love probably isn’t the right word, but it’s the best I can do.  I remember when I was young boy, my dad would cut up fruit for us to eat on Sunday mornings, and it was a real treat when mangoes would be in season.  He would spend a lot of time cutting, and end up eating little.  Very often I would eat an entire big mango in a sitting, and as the last piece was given to me I would express some faux-guilt about eating it all and my dad would look at me and say “don’t worry son, I’ve eaten so many mangoes in my life that you could never catch up to me anyway” and happily give me the last piece.  He did grow up in India and I am sure he did have a lot of mangoes.  Maybe to him it was like an apple.  But I don’t know, if I had mangoes as readily available as apples I don’t think I would crave them any less.  As I got into my teens, still every bit a mango fiend, and thought about someday sharing mangoes with my child I questioned my ability to be so generous.  I mean sure I’d share, but give all of it to him?  That’s not possible.

So here I am a parent and mangoes are in season and my son just loves them.  And I am happy to say I know exactly how my dad must have felt.  It makes me so happy to see that joy of being able to taste sweet, juicy, and wonderful fruit.  I cut away, and feed him as many slices as he wants.  I feel grateful that I am able to give him his heart’s desire in the form of fruit (knowing that such fruit would be a luxury for many families) and I even think to myself how many mangoes I’ve had in my life, and maybe it’s not as many as my dad, but I’m happy to let my son try and catch up.  His joy is so much better than a mango.

IMG_20160513_093359It’s easy to get caught up in giving our kid the things we didn’t have when we were children, but thus far it seems a far more spiritually fulfilling experience to share with my son the things I did have that brought me joy, because I know what it feels like, and I can connect with him in a way that I couldn’t by simply giving him something I didn’t have.  And if we feel positive about the people we are now, maybe those things you missed out on aren’t quite as important in the end.

Out Under The Sky

When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer by Walt Whitman
When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

A friend of mine and I had a wonderful discussion about magic and perfection the other day. It got me thinking about what it means to appreciate the magic something.  For her it was about the pure and the simple.  On a wonderful little gift she gave me, the tag on the gift had the line from the following Walt Whitman poem above “from time to time, Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars”.  When I looked up the entire poem and read the words (as I had never read it before) I found it funny how much the meaning of the poem had to do with what I was sorting through in my mind (by the way this friend was a student in my Introduction to Earth Science class and wonder if there isn’t more of a message in there for me lol).  The words from the poem she shared with me are good advice.  But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I could no longer follow such advice.  Have I lost something?  Have I lost the appreciation for magic?  Am I unable to enjoy things in perfect silence?  My mind singular on the beauty I behold?  Not too long ago another blogger I follow who writes poetry that I always connect with wrote a poem about missing when life was simple called Old Happy Stars.  I do long for that.  I think we all do to a certain degree.  I also know that you can’t go back and making things feel so simple an amazing is very hard for me.

This discussion about magic came up because we were discussing Santa Claus. She was a firm believer in Santa Claus until the 4th grade, and is raising her daughter, like many people, to see all the magic that is Santa Claus.  I am someone who never once believed in Santa Claus, and thus even I were to want to give my son Santa Claus at Christmas there would be no level where I could really fake it.  I have no memories of any magic associated with Santa.  She said it’s important for children to have those magical things.  And I have to say I agree with her.  After the conversation I started to ponder what the magic was in my childhood.  I remember looking at lightning in thunderstorms and feel that it was absolutely magical.  Thunder seemed magical, the smell of rain seemed magical.  For me there was a lot of magic in the sky and I am certain I had some moments of perfect silence, even if it wasn’t actually silent.  I think sometimes in such moments we feel perfect silence because we are in perfect solitude, shutting out the rest of the world while we are singular in our focus.  When I came home I started watching my son and how amazed he is by things, whether it’s trains or the planes up in the sky.  It seems to me that even they begin to learn what these things are and what their purpose might be, they have no idea how they work.  Something that seems to moving but has no muscles, no animal-like locomotion, no feathers for flying must seem like absolute magic.  If I wasn’t forming a lot of long term memories, and I saw this metal object flying in the sky I would be pointing up every single time too in excitement.  I think, at least I hope, kids always see things as magical, even if you don’t give them Santa.  For them, every object that they’ve dropped or thrown up in the air comes down.  That plane up in the sky has to be some pretty crazy stuff to them, and what other choice do they have but to take it on faith that it will not fall down from the sky.

That thought made me happy, but I started to get a little bit sad, because I am not sure that I could just gaze at the stars in perfect silence. Because in that poem I am the Learn’d Astronomer, and if I was a student in that class I would be enthralled by the equations, the figures, and the charts.  When I look at the stars I can’t help but think what the humidity might be that is impacting their twinkle.  I would think about how far away those stars are, and how trigonometry gives us a way of telling how far away they are through stellar parallax.  I would think about how the stars are like a portal back in time, knowing that I am seeing what a star looked like 10,000 years ago, and how at that time human civilization was just dawning.   If you can’t tell already, it’s hard to quiet my mind.  I look at everything like that.  Sometimes I am wondering and questioning, maybe coming up with some hypothesis to explain what I’m seeing.  Perhaps I would make an analogy.  Or perhaps I would simply think about all the forces at work, or the history of the object, the big picture, the detailed picture, related pictures.  Sometimes I contemplate all the connections that one thing has to others.  All that comes to me in a flood and I feel overwhelmed by how amazing this universe is.  And then I started to smile, because maybe it’s not magic, but it’s still amazing.  It’s still beautiful.  I t still leaves me in awe and wonder even if I know exactly how it works and think about every variable in the equation.  And maybe for every person that walks out on the Learn’d Astronomer and enjoys that perfect silence at the stars, there is a student who stays and listens and just takes it all in and the amount of seemingly simultaneous thoughts grow like the branches of a tree.  And I’m not making a comment about level of intelligence because my friend is extremely intelligent and I feel like she experiences those moments of perfect silence frequently, perhaps even at will when she needs to.  But maybe it’s just really a different way of approaching the same beauty in life.  There are truly times when I wish I could experience such moments that Whitman describes, and so I envy her.   But maybe the beauty I see is just as enviable.

So as I began to smile I thought back to just that morning and how when I drove in to work just sliver of the crescent moon was visible as the moon waned. Often, at about an hour before sunrise, there is enough reflection of the Earth back to the moon and you can see the rest of the lunar sphere, even though it’s featureless.  Then I thought in my mind about the geometry of all 3 objects and had this model in my head.  And I decided to write a poem.  The one I just posted a few days ago.  And like magic I took all those thoughts and imagined almost like a love affair between the Earth and the moon.  So even if I stare at the moon and explain its beauty while also appreciating it, such thoughts can still inspire, still create, and still bring me a great deal of wonder that I think can be considered a type of magic.  And maybe that Learn’d Astronomer is just as lost in his world of equations and charts as the star gazer is lost in his moment of perfect silence.  Maybe it’s not so important how you experience magic in the world, but that you do experience it and never lose that ability to get lost in wonder and awe at beauty.

A Little Red Wagon

Dhyan_wagonI’m trying hard to have the occasional short post for people who are tired of my long posts, so this seemed like a good one. 🙂  A friend of ours had no use anymore for a Roadmaster red wagon that their grandchildren had outgrown and gave it to us.  My son took right away to sitting in the wagon and has opted to be pulled around in the wagon instead of being pushed in the stroller.  I have taken him a few times now on a two mile route around my neighborhood in which one leg of the journey goes down one of the main roads in town and I have to say it’s a special experience.

It’s interesting how the red wagon seems to evoke emotion in the faces of others.  For most it brings smiles and a sense of nostalgia.  Today one gentleman was outside his home and on his phone and he called out to me and told me to stop and wanted to take a picture and he exclaimed to the person he was talking to “You’ll never believe it, but there is a guy pulling his kid around on a red flyer!”.  And he did take a picture of me and my son.  🙂  The reaction is much stronger than pushing him around on the stroller.  A lot of people point, or wave to him (he sort of just stares blankly unsure of why he has become so popular).  Maybe it’s because it is a classic wagon that the nostalgia is stronger.  Maybe the reaction would not be the same if it was some other color or some other brand.  Some people seem to feel a little sad though.  Nostalgia tends to do that as sometimes I see faces with a little bit of longing, perhaps for the past long since gone.  And sometimes I swear I see a deeper sadness, perhaps wishing that their mother or father would have taken them on wagon rides, or the remembrance of a parent that has passed on.

It’s nevertheless comforting to me that such simple things can evoke such emotion.  That small things can feel so grand.  I enjoy the feeling of taking him for a walk on a warm autumn day.  And for a short time that little wagon becomes a grand chariot to my son and to all around him, and even though I’m the one pulling it, I feel as rich as any king.

A Little Respect

From http://masalamommas.com

In a conversation with a good friend who was born and raised in India, we had one of those east vs. west discussions.  I think it’s natural to always defend the values of where you were raised to a certain degree, for me I was raised in the west, but had an Indian father and thus spent time with many Indian friends and relatives as well as having been to India a couple times so I’d like to believe that I can look at both sides objectively and see the best and worst of both worlds.

This particular discussion was about family values.  My friend argued about the lack of family values here in the west, specifically the lack of respect for one’s

parents.  I think even a lot of parents here might support her claim.  In India there is a lot more respect for parents and the elderly in general.  Before evaluating whether or not such statements are even true, let’s perhaps breakdown some factors that might be important in the different attitudes of children in the west vs. east.  (Note here in the east I will be focusing about India, but India does share similar values with other countries in Asia towards family and parenting, and for the west mostly U.S.A and Canada).

In the west we might attribute a lack of respect to the following:

  • Both parents working meaning less time to spend, discipline, and guide children
  • In the west there is a general rejection towards authority, government, and hierarchy
  • High divorce rate
  • Highly valuing individualism over collectivism
  • A tendency to be more mobile and not living very close to family
  • A long history of a strong economy allowing for greater financial independence at advanced ages

In the east we might attribute greater respect to the following

  • Relatively low divorce rate because of the emphasis towards arranged marriage, binding families and resources over an emphasis on romantic love
  • Like many nations that have had historically high poverty rates (although India is an economic powerhouse now) have created a system in which there was simply no plan for the elderly to be taken care of should they become unable to take care of themselves. Thus grown children are expected to take care of their parents financially when they can no longer work.
  • High population density and again the historically weaker economy means people are less likely to leave the area near where their parents live
  • Less job opportunities for women historically and thus allowing many women to remain at home giving more time for discipline and guidance. This also reduces the amount of retirement money that would come into a home when the parents are older

I am sure there are probably others, but honestly I feel like a weaker economy historically and a lack of social security and retirement plans for older people has created a system over time that required closer family unity.

But regardless of the reason let’s take a look at whether or not it is actually true whether or not there is an actual difference of respect.  First of all I have never actually seen a study that proves this is true.  Certainly there are many studies that talk about the differences in behavior culturally between young and old, or parents and their children.  However none of those studies really measure respect.  The dictionary defines respect as the following:

“A feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements”

It seems to me the first error in this discussion is that maybe we aren’t talking about respect, but duty, or obligation.  I guess it could be respect if say “abilities” involves the ability to parent a child, but that’s a bit of a stretch, given that even a weak ability in raising a child can get one to adulthood.  So respect seems to be something different and it is not clear whether there is a difference between east and west. A soldier in the military can follow the orders of a superior out of duty, but still not respect that superior.

I have known numerous Indian children who were given little freedom in choosing what they wanted to be, who they can marry, how they want to marry, etc.  Well I’m not saying they obeyed purely out of duty, because clearly there is love there as well,  but I do know some children who resented their parents for taking advantage of that sense of duty and love to set them on a course in life that they did not want.  It’s somewhat questionable to me how much respect there was.   They often did what they were told even though they were unhappy about it.  Parents in the east would do well to recognize that their kids are not simply extensions of themselves but individuals.

On the other hand, parenting is not really easy.  It’s easy to doubt yourself and your actions.  A lot of times you might just default to what your parents did to

From http://blogspot.com

you instead of really adopting a practice you are not comfortable with.  Raising kids takes time, energy, and resources.  Kids growing up in western culture would do well to remember that and appreciate more often the sacrifices and difficulties associated with raising them.  However, does not listening to your parents indicate a lack of respect for them? If we value individuality as a nation, isn’t likely that your child is simply expressing that individuality.  This can be hard when you see them making mistakes, especially the same ones we made.  But isn’t that how we also learned some important lessons.  Again, just because a kid chooses to ignore your advice and do their own thing, doesn’t mean there is a lack of respect, it just means they feel more compelled to exercise their own judgment right or wrong and see where it leads them.

Whether it’s duty or respect, I asked myself after the conversation with my friend, why did I have a child?  Was it so I could raise somebody who would listen

From http://www.childandfamilymentalhealth.com

to everything I had to say about what to do in the world?  Was it so I could instantly have someone who respected me regardless of my flaws, weaknesses, and the way that I treated him/her?  The answer of course is no, but what is absolutely wonderful about the parent – child relationship is that it begins with love.  There is an implicit trust and affection built in, and so we only have to think how best to foster and grow that love from the simple biological relationship to the complex relationship that binds any two people together.  As I watch my son grow I can already see his sense of self forming, and I know it will only get stronger with time.  It seems that we always have to remember that respect runs both ways with our children and I hope I have the wisdom to know when to let him express his individuality even if it runs against my better judgment and my need to remain his protector.  Being able to let go is also a quality worthy of respect and it seems to make some sense that as children grow the qualities that they admire in you and others change.  I hope that I will be able to grow along with him and adapt to his changing needs and desires while remaining an ever present part of his life.

While there are differences between east vs. west parent – child relationship I don’t think any one of those is a better way of doing things.  Respect is always earned and I think it is best earned when a parent demonstrate an ability to understand what their children are going through and by constantly being there for their child.  I think this is what builds a lasting respect between parent and child.