Thursday, June 25, 2009

An Argument with Crows

Walking to the bus stop after work yesterday I encountered a man having a heated argument with a crow. The man was dressed shabbily, with wild curly hair. The crow was in its usual sleek black feather regalia with its beady little eyes polished to a particularly reflective shine. The man was clearly distressed by something the crow was saying and was beyond the point of rational discussion.

"Shut up!" he yelled at the crow. The bird was situated across the street from the man. It seems that whatever argument they had had was volatile enough to make the man flee from the vicinity, signalling that no further debate on the topic would be allowed.

"SQUAWK" said the crow.

"Shut UP!" the man reiterated.

"SQUAWK," said the crow.

"I'm not talking to you about this anymore," said the man.

"SQUAAAAAWK," said the crow.

The man stormed onward toward the beach and the crow eventually took flight. They seemed very much like angry lovers having a quarrel in the street. And I don't necessarily blame the man for becoming angry, as crows are prone to starting arguments and generally attack before even listening to your side of the story. My experience shows that it's very difficult to reason with a crow.

There has, for instance, been a crow that sits directly outside my bedroom window at the ungodly hour of 4:30 am and begins shouting obscenities in its distinctively grating voice. No amount of gentle coaxing will get it to stop and I have to wonder if all crows are plagued by Tourette's syndrome, or some bird equivalent. I have, on these early morning occasions, been tempted to scream "SHUT UP" at the top of my lungs, and have only restrained myself due to the certainty of startling M. out of a deep sleep. M. seems to be immune to the voice of the crows, as he is immune to most noises in the darkest hours of the night. But the crow rouses me from sleep and yells at me like a demon straight out of hell and I can see why they are associated with death, decay, and illness. They provoke humans to anger and then fly away, cackling at their own joke, their ability to quickly turn innocent and contented slumber into a red hot flash of rage.

But I wonder if their vindictive and cruel characters come from the pathetic hand they have been dealt by nature. How difficult it must be to sit on your branch and listen to all the other birds singing sweetly and only be able to manage an ugly croak yourself. I wonder if, when the crows have finished their daily rounds of torment, they retire to the most secluded boughs of the highest trees and dream the music and lullabies that are trapped in their little black souls, unable to emerge from their broken throats.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Cyborg


I am merging myself with technology--attaching my body to metal and highly honed mechanisms in order to be faster, stronger, more powerful...okay...actually I just got clipless pedals for my bicycle. Lots of people do it. It doesn't mean I'm morphing into a robot, however the shoes that clip to my pedals are distinctively space age in style and M. told me a few days ago, as I headed off to work with my bicycle, that I looked as if I had just stepped out of Star Trek. This might be true. I was wearing Lululemon capri pants, a tank top, and a rather sleek work out jacket. I also had red thermal knee socks on, my bike helmet, and sunglasses. The bike shoes were the kicker with their Velcro-chic styling. I may, in fact, have looked as if I was about to head to space.

The clipless pedals were something I had been thinking about for awhile. The thing is that people have been passing me on bicycles on my way to work pretty much every day. I feel a bit like a bicycle sloth. In my defense, most of these lightning fast cyclists are 30-something men with calves like tree trunks, and a Terminator glint in their mirrored, wrap-around sunglasses. I, of course, have no chance of keeping up with people who ride bicycles in their sleep and have installed bicycle powered televisions in their home, and pedals on their toilet seats so they can be cycling 24 hours a day. (I assume this must be how they stay in such incredible shape and seem to be able to power up any hill with little to no effort!).

And there I was, plodding along the road like I imagine that proverbial fish on a bicycle would do. And I thought it was due time that I gave myself a bit of a power advantage. The quickest way to do this (aside from working out like a maniac) was to invest in clipless pedals and do the potentially insane thing of physically attaching my feet to my bicycle. M's father seemed to think that doing such a thing would lead to my demise. M's dad has had a first hand glimpse of my lack of athletic prowess on the famed ski trip to Whistler, so I can understand his hesitation. It is also true that I have had three bicycle accidents over the course of my life.

1. I'm riding around a carless track, listening to Madonna on my CD player. A guy is coming in the other direction on a bicycle and not paying attention because he's trying to find his son on the soccer field. I'm not paying attention because I'm listening to "Ray of Light." So we have a head on collision. I fly over my handlebars, get some serious road burn, and come home full of gravel where I startle my brother with my bloody elbows and knees.

2. I'm riding on a car-free island (Pelee Island) with a bunch of other cyclists. The guy in front of me stops suddenly. I slam into him. He falls. I fall, with my bike, on top of him. I sustain no injuries because his body broke my fall. He gets serious road burn and an elbow full of gravel. We bond over our shared accident, but no romance ensues. Sorry to disappoint.

3. I'm on a blind date, and despite two previous bike accidents, decide that a nice ride along the Ganatchio trail is a good first date idea. I meet my date and we set out for a ride. A freak accident occurs where he swerves suddenly and his back tire gets caught on my front tire and I go flying off my bicycle into Riverside Drive, a rather busy road, and narrowly avoid getting run over. My date fixes my bent handlebars and then says, "nice to meet you, bye" and I never hear from him again.

And with all this in mind I must note that clipless pedals are a little tricky to get the hang of. And since your feet are attached to the bike it's not that easy to stick out a foot and stop yourself from toppling over if you get into trouble. And I seem to have a rather long history of crashing on bicycles. So I suppose you must question my sanity in deciding to purchase the clipless pedals, but I can announce that so far there have been no incidents. And I passed two people on my way to work the first time I tried them out! I admit, one of these people might have been a decrepit old guy wearing a helmet left over from the 70s, riding a bicycle that was so old it may not even have had gears. But still. In Vancouver I consider that an accomplishment. The old people here are deceptively strong. They hide in wrinkled bodies, but actually a lot of them could kick my ass. It comes from a lifetime of doing the Grouse Grind for fun and believing that running around Stanley Park is no big deal.

The bottom line is that so far I love the clipless pedals. I'm not really sure how I rode without them. They make climbing hills a lot easier and improve the ergonomics of riding since my feet can't slip anymore. I also feel decidedly cool while I'm cycling now. Like I've joined some sort of secret clipless pedal club. Like I've been given some esoteric bicycle knowledge and have heightened my cycle awareness to a new plane. Like those men on bikes that look more like machines than human beings might be looking at me pedalling along and think, "hey, that girl knows what she's doing." Nevermind...I think I took things a bit too far with that last one, but you get the point. Three cheers for clipless pedals!

Friday, June 19, 2009

Kafka's Metamorphosis: Disney Dismissed

I recently finished reading Kafka's novella "The Metamorphosis." I somehow managed to miss reading this in school. I assume it was left off the curriculum because it was captivating and highschools wouldn't want their students to actually like reading. Why I didn't encounter it in University is a bit of a mystery. But, of course, the bodies of literature available are so vast that you can't possibly encounter it all in the matter of a few years of study. I'm happy that I encountered it now though, and spent an enjoyable couple of hours puzzling over the absolutely bizarre plot.

The story opens with Gregor Samsa, a travelling salesman, awaking to find that he has been transformed into a beetle overnight. Most of us are quite used to suspending our disbelief when it comes to stories, movies, and other forms of entertainment, so the fact of this transformation is not in and of itself particularly startling. (Though when I was telling M. about this story at dinner he was reminded of "The Fly" and the resulting mental images were startling enough to make eating his sushi a bit difficult!). What is incredibly odd about this tale is that Gregor takes his transformation entirely in stride and doesn't seem disturbed or frightened in the way most of us would expect to be were we suddenly to find ourselves with an armour-like, segmented body, and multiple small legs. Gregor does not succumb to panic, he doesn't even wonder much about why this has happened to him. The disproportional calm exhibited by Gregor combined with his detachment from his insect body (illustrated by a complete inability to control his many limbs, which wave about of their own accord) work to break down the traditional symbolic interconnections between physiognomy and the internal self.

In literature and art we are used to external aspects of the body reflecting internal characteristics. We expect an ugly exterior to reflect some blemish of spirit or character. We expect outer beauty to hint at inner beauty. Kafka denies these connections, contending instead the external form has no bearing on internal values. In fact, the external body, being completely discontinuous can never be used as an indication of the nature of the self. To believe this is to be deeply deceived.

That Gregor is not extremely startled by his new form is perhaps less confusing when we consider the constant flux that our own bodies are in. Bodies are not stable in the least. We age, we sustain injuries, we become ill, deformed, and crippled. A tragic accident could leave any of us suddenly in a state of bodily disarray where we can not control our limbs or muscles and have to learn all over again how to live within our bodies. Paralysis has a similar effect of separating the mind and the self from the physical characteristics of the body entirely. One of the central arguments in this story is a contention that we are not our bodies. Our actions, thoughts, and intentions, in fact, are more indicative of our state of being than our bodies are. And so, even as Gregor undergoes grotesque physical transformations, the reader can still succeed in seeing him as human. His constant love for his family, concern over their well-being, and determination to carry on to the best of his abilities despite his deteriorating physical state are admirable qualities, which we ascribe to the deeply "human." While Gregor's body signifies vermin, low-life, creepy, debased, animal existence, this physical form is brilliantly overwritten by his distinctly human attitude and never faltering compassion. What the reader finds is that the despicable body does not displace Gregor's status as "human" due to the persistence of his human character traits.

In contrast, Gregor's family retains attractive human form, but are perhaps slightly sub-human in their actions. The family undergoes a metamorphosis as well--transforming slowly from compassionate human beings to self-interested vermin. Gregor's sister begins by trying to help him, to feed him, to make him as comfortable as possible. But by the end of the story she insists that "he has to go" and that the animal can no longer be thought of as Gregor. She insists upon the disposal of the beetle/brother in order that she might live a less burdened and painful life. It so happens that Gregor's own concern for the well-being of his family causes him to lose his will to live. The thought that he is a burden to them causes him to let go of his life and die quietly, alone in his cave of a room. This death sparks the final metamorphosis of his sister who "at the end of their journey...stood up first and stretched her young body." This final image is reminiscent of the emergence of a butterfly from its cocoon. Free from the burden of her brother, Grete emerges from her cocoon/prison and embraces her own youth and beauty. But, while beautiful, we must note that she is characterized in terms of insect rather than human traits.

Kafka presents what I like to think of as an anti-Disney sentiment--something I think we need a lot more of. He inverts the relationship between internal and external beauty, making that which is most physically beautiful the most vile, and that which is most externally grotesque the easiest to love. This is something to be considered carefully, for it is inevitable that whatever physical beauty each of us possesses can quickly slip away. We too metamorphose on a daily basis. We wake up to find ourselves older, more blemished. Perhaps we wake up from surgery to find ourselves scarred and disfigured. Perhaps we wake after a devastating accident to find that we are no longer in control of our limbs or physical functions. We are at the mercy of constant transformation that is usually so slow as to be imperceptible, but can occasionally be dramatic and horrifying. What Kafka would have us hold on to are our internal traits. It is the invisible characteristics of love, compassion, determination, and good-will that ultimately determine our humanity, and it is these that we should work to develop in light of the inconsequential nature of our bodies. Take that Sleeping Beauty.

If you are at all interested in reading the story it can be found on Project Gutenberg, as well as at the following link:

http://records.viu.ca/~johnstoi/stories/kafka-E.htm

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

French Baguettes at Twilight

Bakeries have become instruments of torture. There is one such place of torment on the corner of my block, and when I cycle by in the morning I am assaulted by the smell of fresh baking bread, pastries, and cookies. Since I am no longer allowed to indulge in food products containing gluten I must cycle by knowing that I will never again be able to eat a slice of sourdough with butter and honey without paying in prolonged pain. Rice bread, though acceptable, is just not the same.

In order to romanticize my host of stupid allergies, I imagine that I'm sort of like a Twilight style Vampire, except rather than forgoing human blood, I'm forgoing gluten containing grains, eating instead only unsatisfying substitutions. My desire for bread is beyond craving, it's bread-lust. When I catch a whiff of fresh bread on the Kerrisdale breeze my mind starts to spiral into a frenzy. I salivate like a lion on the hunt when I think about muffins and hot cross buns. Even the thought of a grilled cheese sandwich made out of Wonderbread creates powerful urges to binge on all the foods that would ultimately destroy me.

Robert Pattison has nothing on me. He thinks it's difficult not to drink the blood of some weird teenager who wants to become a vampire to be with him. But me, I must restrain myself from eating every baked good that crosses my path, and let me tell you, there's a lot of them--the cookies at staff meetings, the cakes at birthdays, and the very worst thing of all: Pizza. I expect that eventually I'll develop the sunken, pale, dark vampiric look that has made the Twilight cast so popular. I will walk about with the haunted eyes of a person who must continually deny herself the release of sinking her teeth into even a single left-over Tim Bit on the staff room table.

I'm pretty sure M. is a bread Vampire as well, and I think he turned me into one. Now for eternity we must roam the world trying to survive on the rock hard substitutes the the Celiac world has developed. I am doomed to bake flavourless birthday cakes that have the consistency of year old biscotti, and taste like rocks sprinkled in cocoa and sugar. I will forever have to pay $8.00 for a box of 6 egg, dairy, and wheat free waffles.

I think I'll make a movie about this one day. It will be called Twi-Light Rye. I expect it to be a Blockbuster.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A Meditation on the Breath

My grandmother recently broke her wrist--the bone went straight through her arm, leaving her in extraordinary pain. At the hospital she was given morphine while she waited in emergency. With the drug coursing through her system, making her not quite herself, and with the pain refusing to recede, she said to my father,

"I just don't feel like breathing anymore." She did not say this in a morbid fashion, but more as one might announce that you no longer want to play Monopoly, or you don't feel like walking any further. It was not as if she wanted to give up on life, but it seemed as though breathing itself had become tiresome, and she wished to relinquish her duty to do it.

"Well Mom, you have to," Dad said.

"Yes, but I don't feel like it."

"Well, don't think about it and it will happen on its own."

"I don't think it will, but I'll keep trying," she said.

When my grandmother came through her surgery without any complications my father and I laughed about her strange rejection of breathing. We don't usually think of breathing being a choice, or something we would ever tire of. The breath is such an integral part of our being that we mostly forget that it exists at all. But philosophers, poets, and Buddhists have frequently drawn attention to the breath as something profound. Mindfulness meditation asks participants to use the breath as an anchor--to see it as the calm beneath the surging waves. Just as the water in the depths of the ocean is not disturbed by a storm on the surface, so we too contain silent depths that rock us gently while the tempests of life rage. The breath resides in these depths and we can return to it in times of distress, noting that through every event of our lives we are accompanied by the constant inhalation and exhalation of our breath.

The more one focuses on the breath the more profound it becomes--the breath, our constant companion, the symbol of our embodied existence. Rilke writes the following in the second part of Sonnets to Orpheus:

Breath, you invisible poem! Pure
exchange unceasing between the great
ether and our existence. Counterweight
in which I rhythmically occur.

Single billow whose slow degrees
of ocean take place
in me; most frugal you, of all possible seas--
winnings of space.

How many parts of this space already were
within me! There's many a breeze
like a son to me.

Do you know me, air, full of places where I
used to be? You, once smooth rind,
roundness and leaf of my words.

Rilke sees the breath as connecting us to the world outside our bodies. When we breath we contain space, creating a continual process of expansion within the self. We carve out new places within ourselves with the breath, building an internal geography made only of air. With each breath we acquire a new piece of the world, and with each exhalation we give a piece of ourselves back. Rilke echoes the Buddhist sentiments about the breath and the ocean of stillness within us when he compares each breath to a wave, culminating in "slow degrees of ocean."

The breath, Rilke observes, is also at the root of our speech. Note that here words are a fruit and the breath is a quality or an extension of speech, rather than words being a quality or extension of the breath. The words take shape like fruit on a tree and the breath gives them shape (roundness), a container in which to reside (rind) and specialized characteristics (leaves). The breath gives physical properties to the word, but is not the word itself. And so in Rilke's hands the breath grows complex--it is a silent, constant poem, a rhythmic phrase that is the birth of music, a wave becoming an ocean, a space in which we reside and enter into intimate exchange, and the vehicle of speech itself.

And so perhaps, under the influence of morphine, the meaning of Breath became too much for my grandmother. Maybe she was overwhelmed by the ubiquity of the breath, its ceaseless ebb and flow, and she suddenly felt that it would be nice to take a break, perhaps exist in an unimbodied state for awhile where breathing is not required, where pain can not follow.

Friday, June 5, 2009

The Life and Death of Bees



It's funny how the smallest life can take on great significance in one instant while seeming inconsequential or perhaps detestable in another. I speak here of the lives of bees, with which I have had fair interaction over the past week. It seems that there is a hive somewhere in the vicinity of our apartment, because there has been a tendency for bees to fly in through one of our open windows and become too disoriented to escape. I have spent many anxious moments trying to usher the creatures back out the window from whence the came, mostly with success and without getting stung.

Bees are actually fascinating insects, so I will take a brief foray into bee facts before continuing with my story:

A honeybee flaps its wings 11,400 times/minute, but it is actually the small muscles in its back that make the distinctive buzzing sound. A bee can buzz without its wings (as I have now experienced first hand, but more on that later!)

The average honey bee will make only about 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime. Think about that the next time you're putting honey in your tea!

Female honey bees are the workers, live 6-8 weeks, and do all the work of collecting pollen and producing honey. Only the females have stingers, and will die once they sting.

Male honey bees are called drones and their only purpose in life is to mate. They have no stingers. *I'll let you draw your own parallels between bees and human males and females!*

And so, with all these interesting facts aside, I have come into rather close contact with the bee world since so many of its inhabitants insist on dropping by for a visit. One day last week M. nearly stepped on a bee that was crawling along our floor. It seemed to be injured or dopey from cold and wasn't flying. M., in a manly attempt to save me from possible harm, grabbed a paper towel with the intention of killing the offending creature. I didn't really have any objection to this until M. got down on the floor and tried to get the bee to crawl onto the paper towel to avoid making a mess when he squished it against the floor. He coaxed the slow moving bee that was dragging itself along to crawl up on its death platform.

"Come on little guy, you can do it!" he encouraged. And suddenly I just couldn't take it. The bee was being encouraged in a way that suggested altruism, but in fact was being led to its death. It all seemed so tragic as I imagined this weary and unsuspecting bee walking laboriously to its demise. I thought of a story by Alistair McLeod about a horse that refused to board the knacker's truck. The horse only goes when his master leads him--the poor animal trusting this man in the moment of greatest deception. That story made me sob when I read it and I was on the brink of tears thinking about this bee meeting a similar fate. So I stopped M. and suggested that since the bee was already on the napkin it would be just as easy to throw her out the window to freedom as it would be to kill her. So I ran over to the window and threw it open wide, and M. (very bravely since he has had an unshakable bee phobia ever since he watched a wasp crawl up his brother's nose as a child!) carried the napkin and the bee across the room and dumped the bee out the window. Since the insect no longer had a choice, finding itself in a free-fall, it flew. So that story had a happy ending.

However....a few days later we were woken from a deep sleep at 5 am by a very loud and distinctive buzzing noise in our bedroom. A bee had become trapped between the window and the curtains and was having a bee fit. M., remembering my insistence upon the value of the lives of bees, tried desperately to get the bee to fly out the window. The bee wouldn't go. It just kept crashing into the frame of the window and was too stupid or insane with desperation to make it out the open window. M. tried for nearly 15 minutes to get it to fly out, but to no avail.

"Just kill it!" I said. Having been wrenched from sleep I couldn't muster up any sympathy for the bee. Death, I figured, was just about what it deserved. So M. got a milk container and whacked it. The bee fell. There was a distinctive smear on the glass. We figured it was dead and went back to sleep.

Five minutes later the buzzing began again in earnest. It turns out that M. ripped off one of the bee's wings but didn't actually kill it. This is why I know that it's true that lack of wings does not diminish the power of buzzing! That bee, striving for life with all it was worth, was dragging its mangled body across our radiator. But in our exhaustion we had no mercy. We pulled the bed away from the wall. M. took the milk container and hit that bee a good number of times, until it was actually in two pieces. We collected the broken body and threw it out the window. I didn't really get back to sleep but I felt no remorse.

And so it's funny....funny how someone can experience a moment of deep love for another creature one day and such deep hatred the next. Our love is not boundless, but restricted by circumstance. Objectively, one bee was not more deserving of life than the other. They were both just trying to survive. The only difference was my own perception--I saw one bee as an innocent victim and the other as a bothersome menace. My resulting actions were vastly divergent. And I began to wonder about how often I might do this in the human realm. How often do we become angry due to a perceived injustice against us? How often is this injustice a matter of pure circumstance rather than conscious intention? What would life be like if the path of altruism was chosen more frequently? What does all of this teach us about the power of our own perception to control the reality of a situation? The second bee was not intrinsically bad, just as the first was not intrinsically good. I created these qualities and it is a power that I have, we all have, in many of our daily interactions.

These are complicated questions and issues with significant repercussions. I thank my tiny bee teachers for raising them and showing me the incredible plasticity of my own mind.


And, for a strange cooincidence: the two most recent posts on Wired Science were about bees and altruism! So now you can read about both of these things separately if you're interested.