Sunday, June 27, 2010

Porifera Love: A Play in One Act

I have not posted much fiction on this site…mostly because it is too long. But I enjoyed this little piece and thought I’d post it.[1] I wrote this while I was supposed to be studying for my Aquatic Invertebrate Ecology final. I justified it by telling myself “You’ll never forget the Porifera life cycle.

Warning: The first line is quite a bit more crass than the rest of the "play".[2]

Porifera Love

Fera: “Well, I ejaculated this morning.”

Pori: “Good for you. Hey, you never know.”

Fera: “You know, you said that last year.”

Pori: “And it is just as fitting this year”

Fera: “This makes three years for me…more for you. I’m honestly getting tired of it. Just sending it out there. I mean, what if we are alone here? We still don’t have any evidence that there are others of our kind close enough to matter. I am probably just sprinkling the lake bottom with the spent relics of my misguided attempts to reproduce. Seriously, I’m thinking about…”

Pori: “Here we go again. If our populations are thin here, the last thing we need to be thinking about is asexual reproduction. Robust populations…”

Fera: “Screw meiosis. (Pori giggles at the pun) I’m officially thinking about fragmentation. There is no evidence that there are others out there. It might be time to take matters into our own hands…”

Pori: “What’s a hand?”

Fera: “It’s an expression.”

Pori: “I don’t know how you could even consider fragmentation. Honestly, we really should wait until dark to talk about this. You are probably scaring your algal symbiotes.”

Fera: “They’ll live. I know it isn’t romantic. All hot and diploid. But maybe it is time to just grow up and get past sex.”

Pori: “You’ll never talk me into fragmentation. It is just too existentially violent. You really want to rend your psyche into pieces? You really want to wake up the every morning and know that you are no longer the only you? Little gemules of yourself spread who knows where. It’s creepy.”

Fera: “It really depends on how you look at it. What if it’s true that sponges aren’t actually individuals at all, but colonies of self-interested cells?[3] If I am not a unified self, anyway, but a colony then fragmentation makes a lot of sense. I would just be starting a bunch of little me franchises. Most of our kind eventually resort to it, Pori. I’m starting to feel like I want to persist as more than just a filtering shell of myself.

Pori: “Oh, I see what this is about. You are just feeling existential since I told you that we will continue to filter water after we are dead.”

Fera: “Come on, you have to admit, its creepy. But, yes, the idea that I will keep filtering water after I go all abiotic[4] has got me thinking about stuff. “

Pori: “You are a sponge, Fera. You are about two defining characteristics away from being a plant. Thinking is not your strong point. But in the filtering and sperm propulsion departments…you are king of the lake.”

Fera: “Well, if you object so much to fragmentation, there is another option."

Pori: “Don’t say it!”

Fera: “I’m just sayin.”

Pori: “Don’t say it!”

Fera: “It would alter the nature of our relationship.”

An uncomfortable silence hangs in the water between the amorphous organisms. The sound of water jetting from their osculums, usually unnoticeable in its constant familiarity, became deafening.

Fera: “I mean, we are very close and…”

Pori: “I’m not doing it!”

Fera: “Come on, you never know until you try. You might make a stunning lady. Seriously, you might be really sexy.”

Pori: “I’m not turning into a lady…you turn into a lady.”[5]

Fera: “Well, I guess I kind of assumed you would do it.”

Pori: “You would.”

More silence

Fera: “Awkward.”

Pori: “Identifying a moment as awkward does not make it less awkward.”

Fera: “I guess relationships are complex even when you aren't.”
[1] As I am still mostly confused about what constitutes quality blog content.
[2] Biology students of all kinds forget that sperm is not a topic of polite conversation. Once, when one of my classes ended, one girl said to another behind me, “We talked about sperm in every one of my classes today. I bet English majors don’t have to deal with this.
[3] Actually, it is no longer debated whether or not sponges are individuals. The cells are too specialized and interdependent to be considered their own organisms. The debate is if sponges have ‘tissues’. If you put some of my tissue or your tissue or the tissue of any non-sponge animal in a blender and press the red button…it will remain blended. But a sponge will reassemble its cells into their appropriate position and functionality.
[4] Sponge morphology is so well optimized for filtering water that it doesn’t require the thousands of little flagellated ‘motors’ to push the water through. An empty sponge skeleton will continue to filter water.
[5] Sponges can go through a one year process of changing sex.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Cities Part 2: Portland

I love cities. So, a few months ago I started a series of posts on the various cities that my work takes me to. This week, I returned to one of my favorite cities in the country. Really, only Seattle, New York and San Francisco come close to Portland in the contest form my favorite US cities.

Unlike most cities, the Portland experience begins with getting there. The 1 hour and 23 minute flight, along the I-5 corridor, from Sacramento to the Pacific North West is one of the most is one of the most interesting flights in our nation. It is likely the most interesting as a ratio of intrigue to length. You definitely want a window seat.

There are two things that strike you as you fly north into the Pacific Northwest. The first is the clear cuts. The patchy vacancies of the wooded slopes tells a thousand tales of our collective appetites. [1]

But the real highlight of the areal approach to Portland is the Cascade Range. The cascades are unlike any other mountain range in the United States. They are benignly disguised as their more innocuous brethren but their solitary nature betrays a more menacing reality. Unlike the great communal mountains of bygone orogeneys in the central and eastern US (done growing and now, like most of us, experiencing the slow but relentless tug of entropy an gravity) the Cascades stand alone. These solitary frosted peaks loom ominously as signposts of volcanic power along I-5. It is as if, like Lewis’ inhabitants of Hell, their isolation is a function of their wrath.[2] We call them ‘dormant’ but that is a polite way of saying ‘not currently exploding’.[3]

The incredible experience of flying through the Cascades is that peaks that look so solitary from the ground line up like single file soldiers keeping ominous watch into the horizon. At one point you can see uncannily symmetrical and identical peaks[4] lining up like disciplined sentinels, successively monitoring our northward approach.

Mount Hood is the soldier Portland’s assigned soldier.[5] It seems more sinister in that it is only periodically visible (on Portland’s notoriously infrequent clear days).[6] But despite their digression, there is no major environmental hazard that is more visually ubiquitous. The northwest lives with its risk.

Portland’s highlight is the Waterfront. If Portland is a city that lives openly with its hazards, it is also a city that enjoys connection to its great river. There are walking/biking paths along both sides of the waterfront that makes you actually want to run.

They also claim the biggest bookstore in the country: Powells. Now this is cool enough to warrant checking out in its own right. You may not find a bigger fan of than me[7] but I do miss the many hours Amanda and I would spend on date nights in Madison Wisconsin wandering the dusty shelves of the town’s many book stores search of that rare gem. But Powells has been on my radar since it was practically a character in Don Miller’s Blue Like Jazz.
I ate at a couple of fun places like The Oyster Bar, which is over 100 years old.[8] I also finally made it to Voodoo Doughnuts. Voodoo donuts is home to some of the most original raised dough concoctions you will ever encounter. They include the maple bacon bar[9], m&m, tang, coco pufff and Captain Crunch[10] covered doughnut, doughnuts that resemble lit joints and a wide array of creative variations of the doughnut theme.[11] One of the odd things about V[12] is that you can get served in a relatively timely manner in the morning, but in the evening, forget about it…the line snakes down the block.
I got them for the class I was teaching on Thursday, the day I started with a theoretically difficult two hour lecture.

But, in my opinion, the highlight of the Portland food scene is ‘the carts.’ Along the outer edge of most downtown parking lots, people have parked converted wagons, vans, campers or tents and sell a huge variety of different foods. Overhead is low, so variety is high and it gets the city out of the office and onto the beautiful streets at lunch time.

I think one of the real attractions of Portland is that it manages to feel simultaneously small and cosmopolitan. You can walk the whole downtown in an hour and feel relatively safe at night, but it seems to bustle with culture and opportunity.

I think my least favorite thing about Portland is the uncanny density of strip clubs. I didn’t count, but the strip club/acre statistic has to be up there with any downtown in America.
Portland traffic is notorious…but it is really commuting traffic that is bad. There is surprisingly light traffic downtown for such a vibrant town. I wasn’t the only one who noticed this. The downtown traffic is comparable to a depressed rust belt city…but the downtown itself is buzzing with activity. I think the answer to this riddle is public transportation, walking and biking as Portland is perennially rated highly in each category.

As has become my custom on business trip I brought one book to read (John Updike’s In the Beauty of the Lilies) and one to listen to as I explore the city (Marylyn Robinson’s Home). By some strange coincidence or by some unsettling commentary on my literary preferences, both these books are period pieces about Presbyterian ministers and their deeply damaged children.

My last evening in town I took the light rail to the park.[13] Not like a standard urban park, more like a stand of well maintained woods on the edge of the city. Instead of the well maintained and obviously manicured lawns of the parks in San Francisco, Saint Louis or NYC, Portland’s Park appears to be a bonified wood managed for the outdoor enjoyments of its inhabitants. The number of runners and cyclists I saw here provided a hint to the dilemma I articulated in a mid-week facebook status:
Stanford Gibson thinks Portalnd is a magical place. They put bacon on their doughnuts and their sausages and still remain mysteriously thin.

I got out early on Friday and returned to the park to check out the zoo. The zoo was unremarkable, but its grounds were. It was built into the wooded hill of this great park, maintaining most of the towering trees, creating the illusion of a kind of wild otherness despite the teeming humanity.
One other thing I liked about this park was the subway station. You have to take an elevator down 250 feet from the park to the platform. There, on the platform (which is new, bright and clean) they display one of the borings extracted to explore the subsurface for subway construction. It is incredibly well done. 250 feet of 3” diameter baring cores were displayed in a horizontal acrylic tube. Each facies change was identified, dated and correlated with the palohistory of the region. There was ash and lava[14] and glacial silt and outwash from the Missoula flood[15]. Now, I know I enjoyed this more than most, but what a great opportunity to expand the pedagogical value of the museum stop for the park by providing something really interesting and subway related to help people usefully pass the time they spend waiting for the train.

Next Stop: Las Vegas
This post was prepared while listening to The Hazards of Love by The Decemberists[16]
[1] I often wonder if there isn’t a substantial upside to well managed logging from a climate change perspective. In the classic global carbon budgets (the ones that demonstrate that there is a 4Pg surplus of carbon going into the atmosphere over historical levels) there is the curious phenomenon of ‘the missing Carbon’. The global Carbon balance does not balance. There is one Pg that is unaccounted for. Some speculate that it is in the wood that is sequestered in buildings around the world (wood that would have otherwise released its carbon into the atmosphere during the decay process). In a sense, buildings are the carbon swamps of our era.
Planting trees does not provide Carbon mitigation in perpetuity. There is an early benefit as carbon is fixed, but photosynthesis is mirrored by an exact reverse process that releases the Carbon as the trees die and decay. The replacement vegetation fixes approximately the same amount of Carbon, meaning that once an acre has mature trees it has maximized its carbon fixation capabilities. And while we are talking about atmospheric Carbon loads, few people realize that the carbon budgets identify soil disturbance from agriculture as an equal contributor as fossil fuel use. But, I digress.
[2] Lewis depicts hell in The Great Divorce as a vast suburban sprawl because the inhabitants of hell can not stand each other and want to be as spread out as possible, leaving an ever growing, sparsely populated, decaying urban core. My wife’s response to Lewis’ hell (before he revealed what it was) was ‘this place sounds like Buffalo.’
[3] The latent destruction these quiet cones represent is particularly real to me since most of my trips to Portland have dealt with the aftermath of Mount Saint Helens
[4] Well, identical except this one: Crater Lake.
[5] The video game that historically consumed the largest chunk of my time was the original SIM CITY. SIM CITY was a great urban planning game but once you got board planning your own cities, they had a dozen or so ‘scenarios’ in which SIM models of actual cities experienced disasters and your job was to re-plan the city in the aftermath. It included a dirty bomb in NYC and an alien invasion in some other town. But the most memorable was Portland. In the first time step of the Portland Scenario, a brand new volcano formed in the middle of the city and after the emergency management stage of the game, you had to re-plan the city around the volcano.
[6] Actually, Hood is sleepier than the peak overlooking Seattle. The catastrophe waiting to happen is Rainier which some volcanologists (people who study volcanoes not Star Trek cultures) say is way overdue.
[7] The diversity and mailability of books optimized the business for internet shopping and this is one area of my life where I prefer efficiency and affordability to human contact.
[8] I have mixed feelings about old-school restaurants. It is indisputably fun to go to a place that has been part of its city for generations. But I worked at a legacy restaurant in high school and they had simply been surpassed by more innovative establishments. It got that feeling a little bit about the Oyster Bar.
[9] This is exactly what it sounds like, a maple bar with a strip of bacon…and it is exactly as good as it sounds like.
[10] (that they cleverly call Captain, My Captain)
[11] Apparently, they had peopto bismal doughnuts for a brief period until the health department shut that down.
[12] This is how they abbreviate their business…not to be confused with the recent, surprisingly watchable alien show that borrows heavily from Battlestar Galactica (I’ll have more to say about that in my next fragments post). I can’t imagine why they don’t want to go with the natural abbreviation for their business (VD).
[13] I ended up encountering a professional soccer match on the way home. I had to choose between it and watching game 7 of Celtics-Lakers. It was a tough call…but I had gotten sucked into the Boston-LA narrative.
[14] Insight into the both the frequency and magnitude of the Hood’s awakenings.
[15] The Missoula flood is one of the great glacial paleo-floods of the Northwest. The story goes that as the glaciers melted, great lakes formed behind ice dams that periodically collapsed, releasing the biggest floods in history, the results of which can still be observed throughout the region.
[16] A Portland band.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Paul being Paul and The Dialectic of Humaness: Three Thoughts on Cold Souls

Amanda and I went through an extended film slump. We watched a string of films so disappointing that we started Netflixing (verb?) almost exclusively documentaries and television shows. So after a few months of film sabbatical, we were surprisingly welcomed back with one of the best series of movies we can remember enjoying. We watched 500 Days of Summer, Cold Souls, Moon, and The Time Traveler’s Wife[1].

We really liked each of them. But Cold Souls was our favorite by a pretty substantial margin. This is how film is done. The film had us repeatedly laughing out loud, working hard to piece together and anticipate the story line[2] and interacting with big ideas. It was well written and exceptionally well acted. So, I will try to give as little away as possible, but I simply recommend seeing it before reading this post.

The basic idea is that the protagonist cannot bear the weight of his soul and in an ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ type plot device, finds a company that can extract his soul and put it in storage. But we slowly learn about an underground Russian black market in replacement souls[3] which takes the story to a darker and more interesting place.

And, with that, here are three things[4] I liked about old Souls:

1. ‘Paul being Paul’

I recently had a lively interaction with a friend about a passage in Acts. His assertion was that the apostle Paul was being a ‘total douche’ in Acts 20. Now, some of you know that I am not the guy Paul would want defending him (seeing as I often find him annoying despite being God’s vessel for a good chunk of His self disclosure) and I conceded that there were portions of this passage that was just ‘Paul being Paul.’ This phrase, comically, came to mind again as we began watching this movie. Cold Souls is an exercise in Paul being Paul.

When I recommend this movie I lead with, “It includes Paul Giamatti playing himself.” That was all it took to sell me on the film. I am a Paul Giamatti fan. I was trolling his IMDB page and found these two things that help articulate why I find him compelling.

In the 1998 remake of Doctor Dolittle (1998), Paul portrayed a human in charge of a talking orangutan, in the 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes (2001), he portrays a talking orangutan in charge of humans.

“I've got to be the geekiest guy in the world in a lot of ways. I'm like a zeta male.” –Paul Giamatti

But, here is the thing; he doesn’t really just play himself. He actually plays three distinct versions of himself.[5] This is one of the great actors of our era and was stuck far too long playing nerd and tool roles because he lack’s Pitt or Bana’s marketability. I’m thrilled that he is finally getting roles worthy of his talent.

2. A Subversive Dualism

I have written a couple times about philosophical dualism[6] in contemporary art in[7] this blog…mostly with respect to Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse and, more recently, Stargate Universe. Cold Souls explicitly claims to have no interest in questions we would classify as ‘Philosophy of Mind.’ Early in the film, as the premise was explained, the film makers essentially punted on all philosophical questions.[8]

“People come here and the all want to know if the soul is immortal and how it functions…and we haven’t a clue. No clue. We only offer the possibility to de-soul the body or de body the soul. You can see it either way.”

But as the film unfolded and people start exchanging souls or simply putting them in storage, the narrative got far less agnostic about the nature of the soul. Here are a few positions they took:

-It is not a person’s intellect, memories, education or personality.
-Its beauty and value is not correlated with its appearance.
-It appears to be without gender.
-It is physical but vanishes (or at least becomes immaterial) at death.[9]
-It both affects and is affected by its physical ‘vessel’.

This last position is the one I find particularly interesting. More like Dollhouse than Stargate, Cold Souls is an exercise in what I will call ‘flexible dualism’. Despite building its whole premise on the soul-body duality, it finds the actual relation of these messier and overlapping. This, as I have mentioned before, puts them surprisingly close to a Christian theology of the soul.[10]

3. So, what is the soul?

While the film makers seem coyly unconcerned about whether it is or is not eternal, they take a surprisingly specific position on what the soul is. It seems that the soul is composed of the formative influences of our life’s most jarringly painful and beautiful events. Who we fundamentally are is the result of our cumulative response to the dialectic of joy and pain that composes our lives.

When Paul first contemplates storing his soul he says “I don’t need to be happy. I just don’t want to suffer.” But it turns out that pain and darkness and heaviness are requisite characteristics of humanness. They work with beauty to make us most fundamentally who we are.

And so the most beautiful souls in the film are those who have allowed pain and joy to do the most thorough work on them. They are the ones who have not wasted either their hurt or their happiness. They have not been sidelined or undone by either. In the film the greatest demand was for the souls of Russian poets…but the actual beauty of the soul was uncorrelated with opportunity or vocation. The most beautiful souls are those who had found a fiercely contented existence in the heaviness of this puzzling tension that is the horrific beauty of life. While this is, by no means, a complete description of the soul (and, I’m sure, was never meant to be) it is an excellent insight into our condition. Who we fundamentally are is deeply affected by what we do with our most devastating hurts and our greatest joys. In light of this, it makes a lot of sense that God would offer us the cross AND the resurrection as our supreme resources in this quest.

This post was prepared while listening to The Creek Drank the Cradle by Iron and Wine

[1] I know this film got panned critically, but I really liked it. Seriously, I’m pretty easy…the bar is pretty low…it’s just that film has ceased to be a story telling genre. I have been putting together a post asserting the (sure to be controversial) thesis that we are currently in the golden age of music. But the opposite is true of film. It has never been so bad. The naught-ies were to film what the late 80’s and early 90’s were to music.
[2] We had to watch the movie twice to piece the story together. This is because, there is a lot of story that is not told, only eluded to.
[3] One of the best gags/plot devices in the film is that Russian women serve as soul ‘mules’ because ‘souls are volatile at elevation.’
[4] The impoverishment of pragmatism and the bankruptcy of functionalism compose a fourth really interesting theme. Here is one exchange that highlights it:
Paul: My God, how did we get here?
Doctor: When you get rid of the soul everything makes more sense. Everything becomes more functional and purposeful.
[5] One of the best scenes depicts a literally souless Giamatti delivering Chekov dialog. I simply cannot express how enjoyable this is. There is an extended version of this in the deleted scenes that breaks the rule that ‘deleted scenes are generally deleted for a reason.’ It is transcendent.
[6] This word means far too many things to be useful. I am talking about the idea that the human self is composed of distinct physical and non-physical components.
[7] Do you write ‘in’ a blog or ‘on’ a blog? I’m not really sure.
[8] To belabor the sports analogy: leading with ‘we have no idea’ then unpacking the idea for the rest of the film is like punting on first down because you have the best chance to score with your defense on the field.
[9] Sort of. It will persist if its original owner dies but the soul is in another person…but it vanishes as soon as it is freed from its carrier.
[10] I have belabored this point in this blog so I will relegate it to a footnote. Christian theology believes that the soul and body are distinct entities. However, a robust Christian theology of the seat of the self is far more complicated than the physicalist straw man (or, perhaps more aptly, straw ghost) would admit. The incarnation and the physical resurrection demonstrate that the Christian picture of ‘who I really am’ is one of an inexorable connection of physical and non-physical realities. The soul is its own thing but only in reference to the biological organism. The shocking (and overlooked) reality of the Christian picture of ‘who I am’ is that it is remarkably biological.