Our connection to nature

A couple of weeks ago, you joined me in a walk through my family tree.

When I first saw the 60-page printout of our genealogy, I remember reading the names of ancestors and wondering, who came before these people, and before them?

My family’s name is Morton, which was derived from Moor Town, or the “town on the moor (or hill).” That small description of the family name paints a picture in my mind of scraggly folk tending flocks on the knolls in the old country. I imagine them being like the ragged Scots in “Braveheart,” the hugely popular Mel Gibson movie from 1995, which told the (inaccurate) tale of the Scots’ fight for freedom from England in the 14th century.

I wonder about going back further in our genealogy, back to prehistoric times, back to the Neanderthals, to chimps, to reptiles, to fish, back to single-celled organisms.

There’s a wispy thread from me (and you) all the way back to the beginning of life here on Earth, 3.6 billion years ago.

One might say “life” began when the Big Bang happened, 13.8 billion years ago, when all of the physical matter for life spewed across the newborn universe.

Or one might say that life began 6,000 years ago, when, according to some people’s interpretations, the Bible says God created the universe.

I’ve been relishing the past few weeks in all the amazing programs having to do with our past, our evolution, our genealogy.

I’ve written about the new “Cosmos” series already. Every week, it goes deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole. If you’ve missed any episodes, you can find them online at fox.com.

Then there was “Your Inner Fish” series. Jaw-dropping. The first episode of the three-part series was about our waterborne ancestors, the next about our reptilian forebears and the last about our primate family. You can find them online at pbs.org.

And this past week, I’ve been watching the “Inside Animal Minds” series at www.pbs.org/nova.

Here’s what I’ve been learning:

•  We have more atoms in one eye than there are stars in the known universe (and there are trillions upon trillions).

•  We evolved from tiny reptilian, fur-covered creatures. They were small so they could burrow underground at night, safe from the bigger creatures, like dinosaurs. Because of their burrowing nature, they weren’t wiped out when the mass extinction happened 65 million years ago.

•  We wouldn’t be here if the dinosaurs hadn’t died off in that mass extinction.

Even if you don’t believe in evolution, even if you can’t imagine we evolved from apes or monkeys or fish, watching these programs helps us see how we’re related to the other creatures in our world by the material we’re all made of — carbon atoms from star dust. Carbon is the main ingredient of proteins, fats and DNA. And DNA is the life code of all species of animals and plants.

We’re all made of the same stuff.

We have hands whose skeletal and neurobiological systems work the same way as other primates and reptiles. We use the same strategies for sight, for hearing, for touch, for smell  (some species have senses that are far more evolved than ours); the same patterns for circulation, for breathing, for digestion, for growing hair.

We have the same physical responses to pain and emotional responses to loss and fear.

Watching these animals, how they’re built, with their exotic colors and patterns and innumerable variations, fills me with delight as I wonder at the face of God in creation.

Every life is a demonstration of the life force — the beating heart, the breathing lungs, the electrical pulses that send trillions of signals a day — to our brains, back to our limbs and our eyes and ears and mouth and nose — telling us moment by moment where we are in the world.

Just as these life forces work in us, the same mechanics are operating in the guts of all the animals on the planet. They are Earth residents, just as we are.

Seeing these programs also fills me with sadness over the ongoing disruption and destruction of habitats throughout the planet, the fouling of air and water, the blotting out of the Earth’s species, as most of us live under the insane notion that we can continue living without regard to the consequences placed upon all of Earth’s creatures.

This first appeared May 4, 2014, in the Salina Journal.


Posted in Evolutionary Thought, Family, Spiritual thought, Sustainability | Comments Off

Embracing my depression

I’m embracing my depression.

One thing I’ve been reminded of since the big disclosure about NSA surveillance is that you might as well not have any secrets. If you don’t care what anyone knows about you, you can live openly and freely, without any worries about what someone might find out.

So I don’t care if anyone knows that I deal with depression.

It occurred to me recently that I’ve dealt with depression most of my life. I remember being in foul moods as a teen, moods that would sometimes last for weeks. I didn’t call it depression; I’d just go through long periods when I hated life.

Just as some people deal with asthma, arthritis, acid reflux or allergies, others deal with depression, traumatic brain injury, dyslexia, PTSD or a host of other maladies that can affect how our brains work.

It’s common sense that if you break your arm, you go to the doctor and get it fixed.

If you’re experiencing depression, you should get it fixed, too, like anything else, using the latest treatments, including counseling, diet, exercise, group discussion, hypnosis, pharmaceuticals — whatever it takes.

For that sort of matter-of-factness, we need to talk openly about what sorts of things can happen to your brain that can cause paranoia, confusion, deep sadness or anger. There’s no reason we shouldn’t treat those symptoms and underlying causes just like any other ache or pain or malfunction in the body.

According to Central Kansas Mental Health Center, “Mental illness affects 54 million Americans each year, regardless of ethnicity, race, age, sex or socioeconomic class.” That’s about 20 percent of the population, about 1 person out of every 5.

A 2006 study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that more than half of all jail and prison inmates have mental health issues.

For me, I get sad for no reason, like I’m living under a dark cloud. Sometimes I get mad about trivial things; I rarely lash out at others — rather, I direct my anger toward myself. I can quickly go to thoughts of worthlessness and suicide.

Nationwide, more than 100 people commit suicide every day.

About nine years ago, when a whole lot of things seemed to come crashing down in my life, I went into a long, deep depression. After several months of feeling sad every day, I finally went on an antidepressant. The day I went on the antidepressant, which was supposed to take about two weeks to take effect, I also saw a program that showed in graphic format how certain receptors in the brain are created in relation to mood. In simplistic terms, if you think sad thoughts, more “sad” receptors are produced in the brain, and if you think happy thoughts, more “happy” receptors are produced. Thus, if you think sad thoughts, they tend to propagate; likewise with happy thoughts. This idea put me on a mission to just walk around thinking happy, or at least neutral, thoughts on purpose in order to create more “happy” receptors in my brain and let the snowball effect take over.

I’d walk around consciously thinking, “The sky is a nice blue color,” and, “That was a nice breeze,” and, “I feel OK right now.”

It worked. Eventually, those pleasant thoughts gained momentum and my depression dissipated. No doubt, the antidepressant kicked in, as well. Bottom line, I felt normal again.

For the past several years, I’ve tried going off the antidepressant. I don’t want to take a drug every day for the rest of my life. My doctor said I could safely just stop taking the medication without any worries.

But for some reason, every time I’ve tried to stop taking the medication, even when I’ve tried weaning myself for weeks or months, I would have the same reaction: I’d shudder internally, every minute or so. It’s very annoying and distracting — to the point of being counterproductive; I’d eventually return to my former dosage. I’m currently in the weaning process again, and right now, I’m down to a half-pill once or twice a week.

I’m actually thankful for my depression. And I consider myself fortunate that my version of it is treatable and isn’t so debilitating that I can’t work or function.

It’s taught me a lot. I understand, after much meditation and reading and practice, that I am not my depression; rather, it’s something that’s happening to me. I can’t eliminate it completely, perhaps, but I can deal with it in productive ways.

I can acknowledge it and accept that it’s there, rather than fighting it.

I can witness it, watch what it does and how it behaves in conjunction with various daily events.

I can detach from it and find my essence apart from the depression and live from there.

I can practice not making up a story about why I’m sad or why I’m angry.

I can see what triggers make the depression more or less pronounced.

In the end, we all have our own crosses to bear, our own sets of struggles in our lives. I’d rather deal with depression than, say, diabetes.

A saying a friend told me seems fitting: If all our troubles were hung on a line, you’d probably take yours and I’d probably take mine.

— This first appeared in the Salina Journal on July 27, 2013.

Posted in Optimism, Science | Comments Off

What we say to each other

I’ve never used the N-word other than to talk about the N-word. 

 We’ve probably never heard it as much as we have in the past couple of weeks. 
I’m not going to talk about Saline County Commissioner Jim Gile … much. I’m pretty much with Jesus on this one, who, when a woman was caught in adultery, said, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7). 
I think it’s healthy to have the discussions we’ve been having. But, since I’m not black, I don’t think I have the right to say whether Gile should resign or not. I don’t think we haolis (Hawaiian for whites) can feel the full weight of hurt or humiliation that comes from that term. 
I’ve certainly put my foot firmly in my mouth over the years. I’ve said things that were hurtful and insensitive, things I regret. 
My parents would never in a million years use the N-word. But my dad did use a phrase with dubious origins. He used to say, once in a great while, if one of us kids had our hand in the cookie jar or some other off-limits place, “Get your cotton-pickin’ hands out of there!” 
A couple of years ago, my son and I were talking about racial epithets; I don’t remember why. He told me he heard my dad use that phrase, and Kris told him, “Grandpa, you can’t say that!” 
I asked why. 
“Because it refers to slaves!” Kris said, looking at me incredulously. 
It had never occurred to me. As far as I was concerned, it was a random group of syllables that meant Dad really wanted me to get away from whatever I was into, immediately. The literal meaning of the words had never entered my conscious thought process. 
So, there but for the grace of God go I. 
One of my friends said that white folks picked cotton, too, of course. But the point is that it refers to people who are perhaps lower on the totem pole, to use an American Indian term. … It’s hard to get away from those racial references, isn’t it? 
I went online to look up racial slurs. Wow. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of them. Seems we’ve been actively putting each other down for a long, long time. 
And it’s confusing, if you don’t keep up with political correctness. When I first heard the term “black” referring to those we called “Negroes” or “colored” at the time, I thought it sounded course. It reminded me of Black Panthers, who were rather militant. 
Now, “black” is preferred, “colored people” is antiquated, but “people of color” is fine. 
And then, there’s the word “niggardly,” which, etymologically speaking, is completely unrelated to the N-word. But because it sounds similar, people have gotten fired for using the term, which means “stingy” or “miserly.” Best to stay away from that one, although people at the Saline County Commission meeting Tuesday tried to put a version of the less-offensive word in Gile’s mouth. He, admirably, declined to revise history. 
For my generation, one of the most common slurs, although not racial, is “retarded.” It’s been used for all kinds of things, not just people: This test is retarded, this car is retarded, these shoes are retarded. When it gets to that point, it loses its original meaning altogether, but it still is hurtful for those who are sensitive to it. 
But everybody says, “You’re crazy,” or “That’s insane.” As far as I know, those aren’t considered slurs, are they? 
Personally, throughout middle school and high school, I was called “Shorty,” “Pint-size” and “Snoid.” Then, Randy Newman wrote a song about short people. Some of the lyrics: 
“Short people got no reason to live 
They got little hands, little eyes 
They walk around tellin’ great big lies 
They got little noses and tiny little teeth 
They wear platform shoes on their nasty little feet 
Well, I don’t want no short people … ’round here.” 
Thanks a lot, Mr. Newman; that really helped my self-esteem. 
It turns out, Newman says he meant the song to point out prejudice, not expand it. Based on all the additional ribbing I got when the song came out, I don’t think it worked. And of course I know this is nowhere near as offensive as being called the N-word. 
Back to the situation here, according to our story in the April 6 edition, “In addition to building Habitat homes, Gile has been involved with CAPS, DVACK, the Food Bank, Salvation Army and Salina Rescue Mission, and he helped start Hunger Barrel, Souper Bowl and Project Salina. 
“In 1989, Gile was awarded the J.C. Penney Golden Rule award for his volunteer work and he was given the Salina Award for Outstanding Citizen in 2009.” 
I’ve never volunteered enough to garner even an honorable mention. I give money to charity, but it takes a special kind of person to go out the door, get your hands dirty and give up your time. 
If Gile is willing to embrace sensitivity training (along with everyone else in the meeting who snickered at his ultra faux pas), should he be given a second chance? I don’t know. 
One friend of mine said that righteous indignation drives the wedge between us even deeper. 
“We’re all trying to learn and grow,” she said. “He could become the greatest advocate for this kind of sensitivity.” 
But I said I wouldn’t talk about Gile … much. 

This column first appeared in the Salina Journal on April 20, 2013.

Posted in Integral Philosophy, Peace, Politics / Government | Comments Off

Wedding bells for pool and me

I love my pool.

I love my pool so much I want to marry it. (I know, this is what you were afraid of when the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage — pretty soon people would want to marry their dogs and cats, trees and pools.)
My pool is so good to me, once we’ve gotten past its annual funk, when I wake it from its long winter slumber.
Some years are better than others when it comes to opening the pool. This year was interesting. I bought a new winter cover last year that was “meshy,” meant to allow the melted snow and rain from the winter to pass through into the pool while keeping stray leaves and bugs and stems and small shrubs out. 
When I took the cover off in  late May, the pool water was dark green (I keep about half the water in the pool over the winter). By the time I got the water level up to where I could run the pump and filter, it was a lighter shade of green, but I still couldn’t see the bottom. No worries, said the meshy pool cover seller, just “shock” the heck out of it (use lots of chlorine) and run that pump a lot.
Two weeks later, after running the pump 24 hours a day and putting in copious amounts of chlorine, anti-algaecide and clarifier, the water was cloudy white, but I still couldn’t see the bottom. 
Hmmm, I thought. Time to get out the vacuum. Within about a minute of running the pool vacuum, the catch basket filled up with a foul sludge of decomposed leaves, bugs and seeds. I could see that this job was quickly going to become unpleasant. 
Turn off the pump, unhook the vacuum, close up the intake and output openings and empty the catch basket.
The catch basket is vacuum-sealed, so it takes some muscle to get the lid off, empty it of sludge and put the lid back on. Then open the intake and output, hook up the vacuum, turn on the pump, run it for about a minute, and repeat the whole process. 
Every year around this time, I think to myself, “I’m too old for this crap,” and I think about selling my house and giving up all the pool problems and yard work. 
But I continued with a few rounds of this and soon decided it was time to rent a sump pump so I could bypass the catch basket and make the process move along faster. That’s when my, shall we say, “pool boy,” went out and bought a big ol’ honkin’ gas-powered pump. Within 24 hours, the pool was nearly empty, with me in the middle mopping every bit of foul-smelling sludge toward the pump’s hose, my two dogs running around in the muddy yard, one of them occasionally rolling in the expunged, wet goo. 
Four days and 9,000 gallons of hose-filling later (I don’t want to see my next water bill), my pool was sparkling with crystal-clear water, and a couple of days after that, it was warm enough to swim in. June 20 is the latest I’ve had my pool opening day, but from that very first swim of the season, I’m in love again. 
Some days, if I happen to wake up extra early (admittedly, it doesn’t happen often), I’ll watch the sun rise from the pool, listening to the crickets’ chirping fade away and the birds starting to wake up. 
Sometimes I swim in the middle of the day and laugh at the sweltering sun. 
Sometimes I’ll swim late at night and watch the moon rise over the trees. There’s the drone of the traffic from the interstate highways in the distance. You can’t hear it during the day when the regular activities of the neighborhood are humming, but at night, when everyone’s gone to bed, the distant rumble of the interstates is more pronounced. Over the past weekend, when we had our “super moon” show, one night it was almost as bright as day; the next night, you couldn’t see a star in the sky, just a fuzzy, warm, undulating blanket of clouds lit from behind, horizon to horizon. 
Swimming is such good exercise, even in an 18-foot round pool. I go into a zone — stretching and pulling, going round and round, back and forth, facing up, facing down, breathing, moving, thinking, not thinking — for about 40 minutes a day.
I think of women all over the world swimming, bathing or washing clothes in their local pools, lakes or rivers, and I feel a kinship with them.
Swimming is our first mode of transportation … it’s so primal, gliding through the water as it both envelops you and magically holds you up. I like to let go of all my thoughts and just linger in my reptilian brain, where it’s all about observing without naming, without using any words. 
Of course, this is impossible at public pools, with people everywhere and incessant music playing. 
That’s why I love my pool, where it’s just me and the crickets and birds and the wind in the trees and the moon in the sky.
Swimming isn’t something I do, it’s somewhere I go; a place where I’m graceful and strong and all is right with the world.


This column first appeared in the June 29, 2013, edition of the Salina Journal.

Posted in Evolutionary Thought, Science, Spiritual thought | Comments Off

Do we really have a prayer?

I’ve always felt squeamish when people have asked me to pray for them or a family member — even when I was a Christian. 

It felt like a big responsibility. What if I don’t pray hard enough or long enough or the right way? What if, because I fail at praying with enough desire or belief or persuasion, the person doesn’t improve? What if it’s up to me? 
These days, I don’t believe in that sort of thinking. I can’t imagine a loving God being so capricious that he would withhold healing from the millions of people who are prayed for each day because people don’t quite measure up in their prayerful efforts. 
I think prayers “get answered” based on innumerable factors, seen and unseen, and a certain amount of randomness. 
Certainly, many people have prayed for healing for whom healing hasn’t come; people have prayed that storms would pass them by, yet their homes have been sucked up off their foundations. That doesn’t seem to deter anyone from continuing to pray and believe and ask others to pray for them and their loved ones. 
It would be interesting to see statistics detailing the success of prayers to make storms blow another way. But, of course, you’d never know how many people had actually prayed. 
I remember when Star Jones, one of the former commentators on “The View,” talked about how God was so good because he spared her life during the horrific tsunami the day after Christmas 2004 in Sri Lanka and Indonesia (while more than 200,000 others died). Yeah, that was nice of God to spare her. 
In news stories, we read about so many people praising God and giving thanks because they survived various weather events. I’m all for being thankful and glad, but it seems strange to me to not equally curse God for all the deaths that do occur in the midst of horrendous devastation. I guess we like feel-good stories and they’ve-got-it-worse-than-we-do stories. It makes us glad to be safe at home. Makes us want to write checks and donate money to help those who’ve been struck. 
Maybe I just don’t get it. 
I do understand that people want support. They want to know that we’re thinking about them, that we care, that we are hoping the very best for them, and that, if we could, we’d make things better. 
And if things don’t go well, we’ve invested our hopes and wishes into the effort, and those hopes and wishes draw us closer together; they help those who’ve asked for the prayers feel supported and cared for and not alone. 
I’ve definitely had times of sobbing and blubbering on my knees seeking healing, answers, solutions to various crises. When you’re dealing with matters beyond your control, praying at least gives you something to do. 
What drives me nuts, though, is the idea that it is up to us to get God to act — by praying harder (whatever that means) or longer (how long is long enough?) or with more desire or just the right kind of faith. When prayers aren’t answered, the disappointment and disillusionment with the prayer system (and with God) can be devastating. But, of course, we’re told at that point that God had other plans and we can’t know what those plans are, but they’re always for the best. 
In Philadelphia, another child has died because his parents believed God would heal him through their prayers (and without medical intervention). This was the second child these parents allowed to die rather than get medical attention. 
The parents, Herbert and Catherine Schaible, are being held on murder charges after their 8-month-old son, Brandon, died of pneumonia in April. In 2009, their 2-year-old son, Kent, died of the same disease. Prosecutors say both boys were sick for nearly two weeks. 
The couple belong to a small fundamentalist Christian church in Philadelphia. Their seven other children have been put in foster care. 
It’s a form of magical thinking. In children, we encourage, or at least overlook, this kind of thinking: belief in Santa Claus, talking animals, fairies and invisible friends. 
But when a child dies because parents refuse to take him to a hospital, thinking God will surely intervene, it’s criminal — it’s taking that magical thinking too far. 
The vast majority of Christians, of course, would never withhold medical treatment, despite their belief that prayer works. 
There’s a long continuum from having absolute faith that God will act on one’s behalf to believing that things on Earth happen randomly and there’s no God there to listen, let alone act. 
We all fall somewhere on that long, fuzzy line. It’s interesting to ponder where we fall and why, when life brings us to our knees.

This column first appeared in the Salina Journal on June 15, 2013.

Posted in Bible, Integral Philosophy, Religion, Spiritual thought | Comments Off

Heavenly hedge from hell

Don’t we love this time of year, with everything in bloom, all the colors deep and radiant? And we’ve been having such glorious weather … between storms. 

 While we mourn for all of our fellow Americans who have been through devastating weather events recently, we’ve been enjoying some of the most beautiful days ever in Salina. 
Outside my house, the Japanese honeysuckle is in full bloom. The heavenly fragrance when I open the door, front or back, fills me with joy. 
This hardy, reasonably attractive shrub runs from one end of my property to the other. Draped over my neighbor’s front chain-link fence, it creeps over into my driveway so that I have to cut it back periodically, or run it over. 
When I do trim it, I bring the mesmerizing fragrance into the house with me, wrangling the oddly shaped, contorted stems into vases of water. 
That’s the good part. 
The bad part is that it’s trying to consume my privacy fence all along the west side of my property. The fence is groaning under the heavy profusion from my neighbor’s side, and one of the fence posts has broken at the bottom. It’s eaten some large structure in my neighbor’s backyard; I’m not sure what it is — a boat? 
It climbs trees and twists around shrubs; like an insecure geisha, it seems to be jealous of any other flora and tries to smother its competition. 
The strangest thing is that it’s scaling its way inside a treehouse in my backyard. The plant has flung a suckling branch across a 2- or 3-foot span in mid-air to grab hold of the roof’s support plank. How did it do that? 
Have you seen those programs on NOVA and Discovery that show plants scaling walls, sparring and even seeming to play? It’s extraordinary. We think of plants as being stationary, stuck where they are, but they’re really moving, grasping, hooking and clinging with finger- and toe-like appendages. When we can see them filmed with time-lapse photography, we discover that they’re very much like animals — only moving imperceptibly slowly. 
It reminds me of something Ralph Waldo Emerson said: “Earth laughs in flowers.” 
I went online to see what other people do with their bountiful, or should I say invasive, Japanese honeysuckles. Diligence is key, I’ve read. Cut, cut, cut, then apply chemicals, then keep cutting and poisoning for the rest of your life because it puts out runners 10, 20, some say 30 feet long and will surely outlive you. As Anton Chekhov has said, “Only entropy comes easy.” 
My next-door neighbor whacked her side of the bounty/infestation once. Underneath all the pretty white and yellow flowers and abundant foliage were thick, tangled, gnarly branches. It was frighteningly grotesque. 
But not to worry, because it came back the next year with a glorious vengeance. 
So much pleasure, so much consternation from one species. As in a spicy romance, one minute I want to embrace this honey-boy, and the next, I want to send him packing. 

This column first appeared in the Salina Journal on June 8, 2013.

Posted in Optimism, Salina | Comments Off

Coming out for PC words

I’m thinking about words today, or the lack thereof. As I’m writing this, it’s Thursday, which is awfully late to be working on my Saturday column.

But a couple of words are coming to mind as I write this. The word “crippled” comes to mind because a reader said that the word “nauseated” him when he read it in the headline of my column a couple of weeks ago: “Bring me your crippled.”

The reader said I should use the phrase “person of disability,” with emphasis on the word “person” coming first. He sent me definitions of the word “crippled,” which, as he let me know in no uncertain terms, are deemed out of date and offensive and carry meanings such as “something flawed or imperfect.” He wondered why we didn’t have software installed on our computers that would flag nonpolitically correct words so we could refrain from offending persons with disabilities.

I stand (crippled and) corrected. I definitely didn’t mean to offend anyone with disabilities; I meant to pay tribute to them and applaud them.

We’re having a hard time with political correctness around here lately, aren’t we?

This reader, when he learned we didn’t have non-PC-flagging software, suggested I get a list of PC words and keep it handy.

So I went online to find such a list.

Here are some politically correct forms of common words from a variety of websites:

Actress: actor

Alive: temporarily metabolically abled

Angry: passionate

Arguing: sharing

Bald: hair disadvantaged

Blind: visually challenged

Body odor: nondiscretionary fragrance

Book: processed tree carcass

Cheating: academic dishonesty

Cigarette smoking: assault with a deadly weapon

Cowardly: challenge challenged

Dead: living impaired

Deaf: aurally inconvenienced

Disease: condition

Dishonest: ethically disoriented

Dominant: oppressive

Drooling drunk: person on floor

Evil: potentially good

Fat: people of mass

Gang: youth group

Homeless: outdoor urban dwellers

Housewife: domestic engineer

Inmate: guest

Insane people: mental explorers

Loser: uniquely fortuned individual on an alternative career path

Mentally retarded: exceptional

Mistake: learning experience

Negative: uninformed

Old: experientially enhanced

Perverted: sexually dysfunctional

Prostitute: sex-care provider

Shoplifter: nontraditional shopper

Stupid: intellectually impaired

Victim: survivor

And perhaps the most caustic and non-PC (and a personal favorite) — wife: unpaid sex worker.

The phrase “coming out” used to mean “emerging from the indoors.” Now it means “a figure of speech for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people’s self-disclosure of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.” It also can mean “announcing one’s stance on social issues,” as when numerous politicians, including Salina’s own mayor, Barb Shirley, recently “came out” in favor of gay marriage.

And then we have the words describing evolution.

One of the problems inherent in the English language is the confusion around multiple meanings for the same word. That’s true of the word “theory.”

In common, everyday language, the word “theory” means “an idea used to account for a situation or justify a course of action.” For example, “I have a theory about why my roof is leaking here.”

It can also mean “a belief” or “hypothetical set of facts.” An example might be, “In theory, this should work to solve the problem.”

But in scientific discourse, “theory” means “the highest degree of certainty.”

Similarly, the word “law” in the scientific sense has nothing to do with the police or courts or cultural norms. In the scientific sense of the word, it is an obvious fact recorded after observations, and has no explanations or exceptions when it is framed.

Although we refer to the “law” of gravity and the “theory” of evolution, the “law” isn’t a higher standard or somehow more factual than a theory. They’re two different things but interrelated. A theory is the reasoning behind a law.

Evolution is a theory in the sense that the atomic theory — the idea that all matter is made up of tiny indivisible particles (atoms) — is a theory.

It’s a theory just like cell theory, one of the basic principles of biology, which states that all living things are composed of cells.

It’s a theory like the theory of plate tectonics describes the large-scale motions of the Earth’s crust and mantle.

Evolution can be seen in the laboratory (diseases adapting to become resistant to drugs) and in nature (new species of flowers, mice, insects, etc.). And there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of artifacts collected by thousands of people all over the world revealing change over time.

“Time” is another word that carries a heavy burden of multiple meanings.

In everyday language, time is usually about appointments, where we have to be and when, in order to meet someone or catch a flight or watch a movie.

“Time” in the sense of evolution is about millions and billions of years, the kind of span that is nearly impossible for us to fathom.

And with these flimsy things called “words” we have to describe our vast and unimaginably complex universe and communicate our thoughts to each other with sensitivity and courteousness.

— This first appeared in the Salina Journal June 1, 2013.

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Death takes no holidays

Several weeks ago, we ran a column in which a number of people contributed their favorite quotes.

I included one sentence that got a bit of a backlash. I said that I had seen signs on the interstate saying, “Every abortion stops a beating heart.” When I saw those signs, I thought, “Every hamburger stops a beating heart too.” (I know that isn’t strictly accurate, but you can’t eat even one hamburger without killing a cow. … And it’s also true that the cow wouldn’t exist in the first place if we didn’t plan to eat them.)

I got several emails about that segment of the column.

One person thought I meant that hamburgers, being (usually fatty) red meat, contribute to heart disease and thus the deterioration (and eventual stopping) of a beating human heart. A couple of people thought I meant that cows should be revered and protected as much as preborn babies.

It was neither. I was simply noting that both acts stop a beating heart. There was no subtext supplied or intended.

I certainly don’t think cows should be sent to school and allowed to go to prom.

But I think sometimes we forget all the creatures around us have beating hearts, and we as a society stop those hearts in huge numbers all the time.

Again, no subtext here. Just noticing.

There are lots of ways to stop beating hearts.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, just over 3,000 people in the U.S. have been killed as a result of terrorism.

Car wrecks have killed 445,000 in the decade from 2000-2010. Around 100,000 people a year die from infections they get while in the hospital — not infections they brought with them.

About 300,000 people’s hearts stop beating every year from obesity-related diseases.

Meanwhile, abortions average about 1 million a year. That’s about 20 women 15 to 44 years old out of every 1,000 deciding to end a pregnancy. The number has been dropping steadily over the past few decades.

Cows slaughtered for meat accounted for 34.1 million beating hearts stopped in 2011.

Also slaughtered for meat in 2011:

* Pigs: 134 million

* Turkeys: 284.5 million

* Chickens: 9.3 billion

The Associated Press offered a story recently in which it revealed that bird deaths amounted to 573,000 a year by way of wind turbines.

According to the American Bird Conservancy, that’s nothing compared with cats, which kill about 500 million birds a year; and cats are nothing compared with windows, which stop about 1 billion birds’ hearts a year; 130 million to 174 million birds die by way of power lines; pesticides account for 70 million bird deaths; autos, 60 million to 80 million; and communications towers, 40 million to 50 million birds a year.

What about dogs and cats euthanized in animal shelters? 3 million to 4 million a year.

The drug war has left 70,000 people dead in Mexico since 2006.

There have been well over 100,000 Iraqi and Afghani civilian deaths from violence since the two wars began. Exact figures are difficult to come by. By comparison, about 6,500 U.S. soldiers have been killed in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s easy to see why we’re not exactly seen as liberators there.

Speaking of liberation, we were heartened to read about hundreds of chimps released at the beginning of the year from federal research labs to sanctuaries, where they could live out the remainder of their lives rolling in grass and swinging in trees instead of sitting in cages year upon year waiting to be pricked, poked, prodded and operated upon and eventually dying in their tiny cages. Finally, we’ve come to the realization that chimps are our closest relatives, that they feel pain, as well as loneliness, sadness and depression. And that in the wild, they have lifelong relationships, love to play and learn and even teach new skills to each other.

Our views change and evolve over the decades, varying by culture, about which lives are valuable and worthy of respect and compassion.

Take dolphins and porpoises. Americans have adored them for as long as we can remember. We know they’re intelligent beings, and with their permanent smile, they appear always happy. We used to have a popular TV show called “Flipper” in the 1960s about a charismatic dolphin, starring dolphin trainer Ric O’Barry. He has since become an activist whose movie, “The Cove,” won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2010. The film documents mass kills of about 23,000 dolphins a year in Japan, where the brutal slaughter turns the cove blood red.

In my humble opinion, the Japanese fishermen who slaughter the dolphins are less evolved than Americans, as are the bureaucrats who know what’s going on and don’t stop it. They don’t value the animals’ intelligence or familial characteristics the way we do.

By the way, I’ve learned a new word for myself: I’m a pescetarian, a person who eats a vegetarian diet but includes seafood. Why is it OK for me to eat fish, which have beating hearts, but not cows? I couldn’t tell you. Maybe it’s because fish are quiet.

Well, like I said, this is a dismal topic. No subtext, no agenda.

Just noticing.

— This column first appeared in the Salina Journal on May 25, 2013.

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Bring me your crippled

Just as I was leaving for vacation, I hurt my thumb. I remember unlocking the front door to run in and grab one more thing, and a sharp, intense pain ran from the joint of my thumb up my arm. Three weeks later, it still hurts. 

Thinking it was “jammed,” I kept pulling on my thumb, hard, to unjam it. That didn’t help. 
A week later, I Googled “what to do for a jammed thumb” and read that I should wrap it in bandages to protect it and let it rest. 
Doh! I should have been protecting it, not continuing to use it and certainly not yanking on it! 
Now, I know that having a jammed thumb is nothing compared to, say, losing a thumb or arm or leg. 
It’s pretty inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. But I still notice the pain — every time I brush my teeth or my hair, get dressed in the morning and undressed at night, eat with a spoon or fork, lock or unlock the front door, open or close windows, tie my shoes, start my car and put it in gear, write a note, unscrew a bottle cap, clean my glasses, open my mail and wash dishes. Other than that, it’s nothing. 
And, unfortunately for you, I can still type without discomfort. 
I’ve taken up a different grip for my toothbrush and eating utensils, and I open doors and windows with my left hand as much as possible. Other than that, I just try to be as gentle with my thumb as I can. I’m eschewing bandages and braces. 
For as long as we’ve had wars, soldiers have come home missing appendages and must learn to manage with mechanical versions of limbs, or do without. 
Traumatic brain injury is incapacitating thousands, and though that kind of injury can’t be seen, losing the ability to think clearly has got to be extremely difficult to deal with. 
Farmers and ranchers notoriously lose fingers from time to time as they work with dangerous equipment. 
And diabetes and cancer claim body parts sometimes. 
My good friend Willow lost a limb to cancer when she was a teenager. Went in for exploratory surgery; came out with her leg gone, all the way up to the hip. Can you imagine? 
I’ve seen her, as an adult, go hiking and swimming and raise children just like any other active woman. I love hearing her tell the story about when she was injured doing taekwondo when “the prosthesis buckled from underneath me and I fell backward catching myself with both arms and fracturing both wrists.” 
Her husband was working in western Kansas at the time, so she was essentially a single mom with 8-year-old twins and a 5-year-old at home. 
“I couldn’t bathe myself, as I had to wrap both wrists up in plastic, and it was painful to do turning motions like turning on the water faucet,” Willow told me. “I couldn’t don my prosthesis, so friends needed to come over to help me put my leg on … which is a very simple process for me, the amputee, because I can feel subtle pressures and know how to manipulate my residual limb, but for someone not living in my body and therefore not able to feel those kinds of pressures … oh, my goodness! It was definitely a challenge and provided us with some comic relief!” 
She couldn’t do laundry, cook, wash dishes or do other household cleaning tasks for about a month and said she was forever grateful to one of our friends for helping her manage the finer details of using the bathroom. 
Salina police officer Chuck Huen has surprised us all with his nonchalant attitude toward losing an eye during an incident in September that involved a 19-year-old man who fired multiple shots from a basement after Huen and other officers entered the house in question. 
“I don’t know why, maybe I’m just dumb,” Huen told Journal reporter Erin Mathews in a May 3 story, “but the whole getting-shot part never has really bothered me.” 
Huen, who resumed full-time duties with the police department April 20, has a prosthetic eye that’s so natural-looking it’s hard to tell which one is which. 
Dealing with my gimpy thumb the past few weeks has got me wondering about how people cope with more extreme injuries, such as losing a limb, or like Huen, an eye. 
So if you have a story, would you like to share it? 
What did you lose, and how? When did it happen? How have you coped with the loss? 
I’d love to share your stories here. 
Let’s honor our nature to overcome obstacles, meet challenges and pull through because you just have to. 
It seems that when we lose something, we gain an opportunity to be richer for it by learning to adapt. 
And maybe losing a body part helps clarify what’s important in life. As Officer Huen said earlier this month, “I realized you might not have another chancetomorrow.” 
And as my dad used to say, “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

This column first appeared in the Salina Journal on

Posted in Family, Optimism | Comments Off

Quick trip to Earthships

This gallery contains 25 photos.

I’ve just returned from a quick trip to Taos, N.M., to visit the Earthship headquarters and Greater World Community of Earthship Biotecture. A month or so ago, I wrote about a workshop I attended in Denver to learn more about … Continue reading

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