Sunday, October 05, 2014

What I like best about myself

What could be more self-centered?

Why should anyone else in the world care what I like best about myself?

I have no idea. That is for sure. But, hey, what can I say? This is the world we live in (I mean: the artificial environment humans have created, mainly to avoid actually living in and on our amazing world).

It is an age of, ahem, sharing. And, ahem, advertising. Actually, first and foremost, advertising.

Anyway, screw all that. Here's what I like best about myself:

I love to be with kids. And I am, to put it stupidly but perhaps clearly, a kid whisperer.

Given the choice between spending time with an adult or spending time with a child, there is no contest. None at all. It's a bit of a compulsion, I suppose, but....

If there is a child in the room, I pay them all of my attention, I cannot stop myself from doing this. It just happens. Adults, for the most part, disappear. I engage with a child as a peer, another whole human. And usually children respond to me instantly and with great enthusiasm. 

Chances are, if your child is between, say, three months old to five years, we will be fast friends within minutes. Your cranky baby might fall asleep in my arms, as I sing Moonshadow to her or whisper nonsense words in her ear. Your shy three-year old son might find himself talking excitedly about a snake he saw on a trail that day (he hadn't mentioned it to you). Your teenage daughter might be telling me about playing games on her phone and how she doesn't think her dad realizes how much she is doing it.

I have the most amazing discussions with children. And though I bet this will sound strange to you: some of my favorite and memorable conversations have been with five month old babies. How is this possible, you might wonder. They can't even talk. Well, you can find ouit. Just try this at home with your baby:

Hold her about a foot away from your face, cradled in your arms. Look deeply and fully into her eyes. Smile deeply. And then say something along these lines, moving your mouth slowly: "Ooooh. Aaaaah. Maaaaa. Paaaaa." And then she will (sometimes) answer back, eyes never leaving yours....and you have a conversation. Your very first game of verbal Ping Pong. 

I suppose I could try to explain the feeling of pure happiness I experience at moments like this. I don't think, though, that written language is good for stuff like that. It's better for recording knowledge needed to destroy more and more of our planet to make humans comfortable.

And with my granddaughter, oh, don't even get me started. Sometimes I will be talking to her, our heads close together, and realize her face has gone into this kind of open, relaxed state in which she is rapt, almost in a trance, absorbing everything I am saying, the sound of my voice, my mouth moving. Just taking it all in. You'd better believe that I put some thought into what I am saying to this incredibly smart and observant "big girl." (who turns three in three weeks)

Here's another "try this at home" with your three year old (or two or four): talk about shadows. Where do they come from/ How do they relate to your body? Why does their shape change as the day goes on? Loey and I have had fun with shadows several times.

I have always been this way. I have no idea why. I have this funny feeling that it might actually be at least in some small way the result of a genetic mutation. I have a nephew who resembles me in several different, seemingly unconnected ways, including this love of and deep affinity for children.

I don't think that many people understand what I am doing when I spend time with children. I am called a "doting" grandfather. It offends me, though I certainly understand that no offense was intended.

I don't dote on Loey. Instead,I  seek out every opportunity to share my wonder of our world and life with her, help her understand and live in the world as effectively as possible. What this has meant lately is that I talk with her a lot about trees, how much I love them, how amazing they are. 

One day at the park, as we walked past the entrance to the playground, I noticed a very small oak sapling - in essence, a baby oak tree.

When we got inside the park, there was a mature oak towering over our stroller. I asked Loey if she wanted to see a baby tree. She said yes, so I picked her up to get close to the mature oak's leaf. I showed her the shape of the leaf, and the big tree to which it was attached.

Then I took her outside and we looked at the sapling. I showed her how the leaves on this tiny baby tree were the same, shape and size, as those on the big tree. That's how we knew it was a baby of that big tree. And it certainly was interesting that the leaves would be the same size on the tiny sapling. Held her attention throughout. That was deeply satisfying.

Mostly what I do is look children directly in the eyes, give them my full attention, smile with great joy at seeing them. Babies are deeply hard-wired to read faces. They can see in the wrinkles around my widened eyes and the smile that is stretching across my face that I love them, accept them fully. And with that more or less physical connection established, they seem to relax, melt, soften with trust. They know they can trust me, and they are absolutely correct. 

In that moment, I would do anything for them.

This wisdom (that's how I see it) to accept the primacy of our young, my willingness to appear to adults as absolutely foolish, but to a child appear as a bright light, making them glow right back at me:

That is what I like best about me. 

Monday, September 22, 2014

What I felt sad about last night

A few weeks ago, I moved my office into the basement. That was a big change. That room upstairs, with big windows looking out onto Pratt Ave was where I'd spent almost all of my professional career (we moved to the house in 1992, three months before leaving Oracle for a consulting gig), wrote my books (including the first, Oracle PL/SQL Programming, that changed the course of my life), built the software (Xray Vision for SQL Forms 3, QNXO, Qute, PL/Vision, Code Tester for Oracle, Quest CodeGen Utility, etc.), did the webinars, wrote 1000+ quizzes for the PL/SQL Challenge.

But you know what? Bye, bye, no big deal. Change is good (like this change: Veva and I are taking ballroom dancing classes. I will learn what to do with my feet when I dance!).

I like my cave, I mean, office. It's spacious, and I can make as much noise as I want. Which is very important, since I will be churning out lots of really noisy videos about PL/SQL and my latest dance moves. 

I'm getting my artwork up on the walls:


My father did the painting on the bottom left. It has a lot of power and feeling. My dry cleaner created the beautiful painting on top.

I re-established my sand table with beautiful pieces by Terry Hogan, and many other shells and coral from the sea:


And I put some of my awards and other mementos up on shelves that used to hold a small library of science fiction/fantasy books:


So, yes, settling in to my new office. And last night I started nailing up corkboard tiles to the thick wood paneling, so I could pin up photos of my granddaughter, Loey. Oh, I suppose other people, too. But Loey mainly, because she is the light of my life, and oh my she is a bright light.


In any case, as I hammered the tiny nails needed to hold up the corkboard, I became aware that I felt kind of down, as if the day had not gone well. Why would I be feeling that way? It had been a good day. And then I (the conscious part of me) realized that the non-conscious part of me was feeling bad about having broken a branch in the woods earlier in the day.

That sounds kind of weird, right? I mean, seriously, how bad are humans supposed to feel about breaking the branch of a tree? It's not like they'd notice, right?

But it made perfect sense to me, so I decided to share with you why a broken branch would set my brain to brooding, thereby giving you a sense of how I see the world these days.

As to why anyone should care what I think of the world, well, I leave that entirely up to the reader. No readers, then no one cares. :-) 

As soon as the thought (brooding about broken branch) broke into my consciousness, I immediately knew it was true (that happens to you, too, right? You can instantly sense that a thought is correct. Now try thinking about what is going on in your brain for this to happen and how much of your brain is the "I" that is you). 

You see, I had earlier been thinking back over to when I was in the woods this morning cutting down buckthorn. At one point a rather large tree came down hard against a nearby native tree I was working to rescue. 

To my great dismay, one of its branches was caught by the twisty, grabby buckthorn. It snapped and hung loosely. I did that. That was probably two years' new growth, hard work against buckthorn. And I killed it. 

That bummed me out (and still does), but I reminded myself that I have to accept that even when I move carefully and always safely, I cannot always control where a large tree will fall. I will make mistakes and there will be setbacks. But I just have to keep going.

"Going where?" you might ask. I have developed a new, very strong compulsion: to rescue trees. To do what I can with my own hands, with my own time, with, in other words, a solid chunk of my life, to heal some of the damage we humans inflict on our co-inhabitants and the planet itself.

I think about it as direct and positive action, a principle I attempt to follow in all aspects of my life these days.

Here in Chicago, buckthorn - an invasive import from northern Europe - grows aggressively, crowding out the native trees. In particular, they don't allow young trees, the saplings, the next generation of the natives, to survive. And as the buckthorn grows taller,  it also kills off the lower branches of the mature trees. 

Buckthorn is really an impressive, powerful, successful species. I admire it greatly - and I cut down on the order of 200 buckthorn trees a week (many of them quite small, but not all). Contradiction? Not at all. A necessary corrective action to human abuse of our world. We travel about, carrying with us the seeds (and ballast and larvae) of destruction for many ecosystems.

I do not want to lose our native trees (and even the non-invasive imports). I want my children and grandchildren to enjoy forests. I want to respect trees, since we could never have evolved to what we are today without trees. And even today the forests of the world are absolutely critical to the functioning of the global ecosystem(s).

I want to treat trees with respect and do penance for our cutting down 95% of the trees in the continental US. So I go out and rescue trees. It is now my only form of exercise and it keeps me in great shape - especially for picking up, carrying and playing with Loey. She loves for me to hang her upside down by her ankles and swing her like a pendulum. She trusts me implicitly. I love that.

Sorry, you must be wondering: what is the point of all this? 

To give me an opportunity to marvel at the current state of my life, in which I have quite an intimate relationship with trees. I study them, I read them. Really, it's quite amazing. I can go into the woods now, look at how a native tree's branch has withered, identify the buckthorn that is doing the damage, and actually play it out in my mind's eye: years of slow growth, of slow-motion battle, and of losing it to the buckthorn. Everywhere I look, I find the trees telling their stories.

My greatest joy is to uncover a small sapling that was so completely surrounded and covered by buckthorn I didn't even see it there when I started cutting. Then I open it to the sun and the wind. I did this with a lovely 15 foot tall maple sapling last week. I will be visiting it (and hundreds of other trees) each year now, making sure the buckthorn (and grapevine) leaves it alone, allowing it to grow to a big, thick, incredibly strong and life-giving tree.

There, right there, that's what I marvel at: I know that the 10+ hours I spend each week in the woods rescuing trees will mean that 20 years from now there will be trees with a diameter of a foot or more that simply would not be there if it hadn't been for my effort and my attention paid to something other than human stuff.

That makes me feel happy and less guilty about my consumption (and indirect killing of many, many trees). It gives me a purpose in life, besides family and work.

I plan to rescue trees for as long as my body is able to do the work.

Anyone care to join me?





Sunday, September 21, 2014

This is not my kingdom

I don't know most people in Chicago on an individual basis, but of all the people I don't know, my favorite Chicagoans are scavengers. They roam the alleys in beat up pickup trucks, with various kinds of makeshift walls extended above the bed.

They grab anything made of metal and anything with the possibility of value. They reduce the amount of garbage going to landfills and I thank them very much for doing this.

Driving the other day, passed one such truck with a hand-lettered sign nailed to the wooden side wall. It said:

This is not my kingdom.
Just passing through.


Sunday, September 14, 2014

Eli and the Runaway Diaper now available!


In 2013, the big sensation in (my) children's publishing was the release of Vivian Vulture and the Cleanup Culture.

In 2014, the honor goes to Eli and the Runaway Diaper.

It's a book about a diaper that gets tired of the day in day out grind of covering Eli's bottom (the names have been changed to protect the innocent). It decides that it's time to look around for a new and hopefully better (more appreciative) bottom.

Eli is initially dismayed, but happy to join the diaper on its quest, so off they go on a grand adventure!

Illustrated by Robert Melegari, it's a fun, light-hearted journey to self-discovery and self-improvement.

You can order it on Amazon,  Createspace, and so on. But if you order it from me, I will sign it and ship it off to you, all for the list price of $12.99.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Flipping Herman Millers

I was one of those dot.com boom excitables who decided that he must own a Herman Miller Aeron chair in order to be super cool and incredibly productive while I blogged and tweeted (well, I don't think there was Twitter back then) and so forth.

Soon after I got the chair, I realized that I really didn't like it very much at all. It didn't seem to provide support in the right places, didn't make it easy to avoid slouching....it wasn't the desk chair for me.

[My chair of choice, for years now, is the Swopper.]

Tried to get my son interested. Nope.

Tried to get my wife interested. Nope.

Moved it to the garage. 

Finally decided to offer it up on Craigslist nice and cheap to make it go away. Posted the ad for $200 and within minutes had someone lined up. He lived in St. Louis, but his dad lived nearby, and he told me when picking up the chair:

His son has built up a business "flipping" Aeron chairs. Buy them cheap, buy lots of parts, fix 'em up, and spin 'em back out into the market. 

Who knew?

What a remarkable system is capitalism. Sure, it's not nice. It's not fair. It's played a key role in the destruction of our planet as humans suck out the "natural resources" to make all the stuff that consumers want to buy. 

But capitalism is a very organic way of organizing an economy. 

Oh and this same chair-flipping fellow also does a wholesale business in ugly Christmas sweaters.

Finger on the pulse of a nation.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

July 1, 1858: Co-discovery of Evolution by Natural Selection

On this day in 1858, members of the Linnaean Society of London listened to the reading of a composite paper, with two authors, announcing the discovery of evolution by natural selection.

One author you've probably heard of: Charles Darwin

The other? Famous in his time, but in the 20th and 21st centuries largely forgotten: Alfred Russel Wallace.

Darwin was a Big Data scientist, spending 20 years after his trip to the Galapagos gathering data from his own experiments and from botanists around the world, to make his theory unassailable. Wallace was a field naturalist, studying species and variation, up close and very personal.

Both ended up in the same place at roughly the same time, driven by the inescapable conclusion from these three facts:

1. More organisms are born than can survive (for their full "normal" lifespan). 
2. Like father like son: we inherit characteristics from our parents
3. NOT like father like son: each offspring varies in some way from its parents.

So who/what survives to reproduce and pass on its genes? Or rather, who dies and why? You can die purely by accident. You are the biggest, strongest lion. Nothing can beat you. But a tree falls on you. Dead and gone.

Or you can survive because you have an advantage, however slight, that another in your species lacks. Your beak is slightly more narrow and lets you get at all the nuts on the tree. Your legs are slightly longer so you can avoid the tiger. And so on, everything sorting out how to eat, how to survive long enough to reproduce, from bacteria to coral to fish to mammals.

And with each passing generation, the mutations that help you survive get passed along, and so we (humans and everyone, everything) change - sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly. But change we do. 

With this announcement on July 1, 1858, humans now had a way of understanding how the world works without having to fall back on some unknowable god or gods. And we have also been able to build on Wallace's and Darwin's insight to now understand, perhaps too well, how life works on our planet, and how similar we are to so many other species.

Which means - to my way of thinking - that we no longer have any excuses, we humans, for our ongoing devastation and depletion of our world and our co-inhabitants.

In a more rational world, in which humans shared their planet with everything around them, instead of consuming everything in sight, July 1 would be an international day of celebration.

Well, at least I posted a note on my blog! Plus I will go outside later and cut back invasives, to help native trees grow.

How will you celebrate International Evolution Day?

Here are some links to information about evolution, about the way these two men got to the point of announcing their discoveries, and more.

You will read in some of these articles about Wallace being "robbed" of his just fame and recognition; I must tell you that Wallace, in his own words and the way he lived his life, was gracious and generous in spirit. He always saw Darwin as the one who fully elaborated the theory, making its acceptance so instantly widespread across Europe. He did not seem the least bit jealous.

And Wallace was, in many ways, a far more interesting human being than Darwin. I encourage to check out his autobiography, My Life, as a way of being introduced to one of my heroes.

http://www.wired.com/2011/07/0701darwin-wallace-linnaean-society-london/

Monday, June 16, 2014

A terribly oblivious ultra-rich man

Steve Ballmer is a terribly oblivious ultra-rich man.

His offer of $2B for the Los Angeles Clippers is so ridiculously outsized and unjustified, plus it so richly rewards Sterling for, um, for saying something in private.

[Interesting to consider how in the US, land of free speech, this nasty brutish fellow is being punished -well he was being punished before Ballmer rewarded him - for his private thoughts. That's pretty awful when you think about it.]

Anyway back to Ballmer. His offer is so absurd that it becomes patently obvious to everyone that he has so much money it's simply no big deal for him to throw $2B on the table to unambiguously cinch the deal. 

The aristocracy in France did quite well, too, until they forgot that they were supposed to pretend at lesat a little bit that everyone else weren't virtually slaves for them. But when they got too flagrant, they paid, oh how they paid.

And here in the 21st century, in what is supposedly and still formally a democracy, with citizens supposedly being equal under the law, you really don't want to draw attention to your beyond obscene wealth.

Bad move, Ballmer. If I were a fellow billionaire, I'd get in touch and tell him to tone it down. 

The closer you look....

In the last couple of years, I have shifted my attention away from the human condition (wars here and there, cool new gadgets, etc.) to the non-human condition: the natural world of trees, water, creatures large and small, the process of evolution.

Along the way, I have been reminded that what you pay the most attention to is what your brain spends the most time thinking about (at least the parts of my brain that "I" am "conscious" of). So I need to be careful about what I pay attention to (one reason that I have stopped watching television almost completely). 

And spending ten plus hours a week outdoors, in the woods, cutting back invasives and rescuing trees, has reinforced this to me:

With living things, the more I watch and more closely I watch (and smell and taste), the more amazed I am by the wonders of life. And the more alive I feel,

With manufactured things, it is just the opposite.

The more closely I look at something made by humans, the more sterile, dead and energy-sucking it appears. And the more I watch (or smell or taste), the more deadened I feel.

Perhaps this is not such a big surprise, since everything that humans make is dead, and built upon the deaths of many creatures. Sorry if that sounds like such a downer, but I believe it is simply a statement of fact.

Anyway, no need to feel down. Just go outside, into the trees, into a field, away from things we make, take a deep breath, feel the sun on your face....and you will feel much better.