Tag Archives: nature

Monday Musings: The Tyranny of Clocks and Calendars

Many years ago — more than a decade, which boggles my mind just a little — Nancy, Erin, and I went down to Monteverde, Costa Rica, to visit Alex, who was taking the first semester of her junior year in high school at the Cloud Forest School (offering us an early glimpse of the adventuresome nature and wanderlust that would define her too-brief life; she would later spend half of her university sophomore year in Berlin, and all of her junior year in Madrid.)

Our family in Monteverde, Costa Rica, November 2011.
Our family in Monteverde, Costa Rica, November 2011.

Our visit, which coincided with the (U.S.) Thanksgiving holiday, was fun and fascinating, despite near constant rain. We saw a ton of cool birds, ate amazing local foods, went on gorgeous hikes, and, of course, had great family time. We also spent one memorable morning doing a zip line tour of the rain forest. (Yes, I am slowly but surely closing in on today’s topic . . . .) It was a damp, warm day. Rain showers drifted through the area, but the air was still. The zip line course zig-zagged through an extensive, unbroken tract of rain forest.

The longest leg of the zip course was a full kilometer long, and when my turn came to take on that segment of the journey, I’ll admit to being just a little intimidated. That didn’t last long. I climbed into the harness, remembered the lessons we’d been given for slowing and braking, and allowed our guides to launch me.

Costa Rica RainforestWithin moments, I was gliding over lush rain forest, surrounded by a ghostly mist, utterly alone, and, it seemed, in a cocoon of sensation — birds called from the green below me, the air was redolent with the sweet scents of rain and earth and forest decay, mist cooled my face, the green of the damp foliage was so brilliant as to appear unreal. Time fell away. Yes, I was moving. But to this day, I couldn’t tell you how long it took me to float through that segment of the course. It could have been mere seconds. It could have been hours. It didn’t matter. For the purposes of that experience, time meant nothing to me. I had escaped the tyranny of clocks and calendars.

Yes, the tyranny of clocks and calendars.

Human existence has always been governed by the passage of time — the cycle of days, the changing of the seasons, the aging of our bodies. But clocks are relatively new to the human experience and the demand that we live our lives according to timetables, schedules, and deadlines is newer still. Leisure, I would argue, is our attempt to step away from segmented time, whether we are engaging in a favorite hobby, or traveling to some far off land for a vacation. People speak often of “losing track of time.” This can be offered as an excuse, a way to explain a deadline missed or a late arrival to an important meeting. But it can often also be said in a happier context. “I was so absorbed in what I was doing, I totally lost track of the time.” It’s a glorious feeling, one we seek to replicate whenever we can.

Perhaps I am more conscious now of the preciousness of time, the need to enjoy our hours, our days, our years. They are treasures, not to be frittered away carelessly, not to be spent only on things as trivial as work and Zoom calls and chores. Because they can be taken from us without warning. The Beatles had it wrong, I am sorry to say. Money can, in fact, buy us love. But it can’t buy us time.

The four of us used to go to the beach for a week each summer — the North Carolina coast near Wilmington. We would arrive on Saturday afternoon, do a massive grocery shop, claim our rooms in the house (often a fraught process for the girls . . . .), and then go our separate ways until dinner time. I would always head down to the shore and sit watching the surf and birds and the play of golden late-afternoon light on the water. And I would feel the tension draining from my body, being wicked away by the sand. The sweep hand on my watch would lose its power over me, to be replaced by the advance and retreat of the waves. And I would revel in the anticipation of the glorious week to come, during which our days would be measured solely by the ebb and flow of tides and the arc of the sun.

I get this a bit with my daily morning walks. I walk roughly the same track each day, and I know how long it takes me. Even if I stop to look at the occasional hawk or thrush, the duration of the walk doesn’t change very much. And so, I don’t worry about the time. For those few miles, my only task is to walk, and to let my mind go where it will. Some days I think about my daughters, others find me working through plot lines, and still others I spend obsessing over politics or some issue with a friend or family member. And every so often, my mind wanders in ways I can’t anticipate and can barely track.

My point, I suppose, is that we need to escape those temporal tyrants I mentioned earlier. Even if we can’t afford to go on a vacation — because of time constraints or financial ones — and even if we have to measure the breaks we take in minutes or, if we’re fortunate, hours, we can still set aside a small portion of our day to step away from datebooks and timestamps. It’s worth the effort. Just remember to put your Apple watch and cell phone somewhere you can’t see or hear them.

Have a great week, or enjoy a period of time of your own choosing . . . .

Monday Musings: A Walk in the Rain, and a Quest for Solace

This is one of those weeks when I really have no idea what to write. The idea of the Monday Musings posts is that I compose something based on what I’m thinking about. But this week . . . well, let’s just say I’m not prepared to do that.

Sometimes our thoughts are not meant to be shared. Or they’re not ready for public viewing. Sometimes they are too private, too hard, too raw.

Those of us who depend on social media for professional purposes are, of course, all too aware of the many, many problems inherent in the medium itself. We struggle to find ways to reduce our lives and careers to digestible units. We strive to come across as upbeat, to announce our successes with the proper blend of pride and humility, to paper over our disappointments, to reveal enough of our private selves to appear accessible but not so much that our posts come across as creepy or maudlin or inappropriate.

I have actually shared a lot over the years, perhaps more than I should. I have written of professional letdowns, personal loss, mental health issues. At times, I’ve wondered if I’ve crossed some line by being too honest, too open. More often than not, I am come down on the side of candor, believing that perhaps my own struggles, whether private or professional, might be illustrative for others. I’ve thought that by revealing a bit more of myself, I might help someone else.

Earlier this week, I took my usual morning walk along the rails-to-trails path near our home. It was raining. Not a soft drizzle, but a substantial rain. I put on rain gear and I walked anyway. I had the path entirely to myself. I did my usual walk — three and a half miles; nearly an hour — and I didn’t see another soul, which is pretty unusual for this route.

The night before, we’d had a frenzied series of storms, one after another bringing pelting rain, angry winds, and a near continuous dialogue of lightning flashes and grumbling thunder. But by morning, the worst of the storms had passed.

As I walked, rain tapped on the forest canopy, on the brush around me, on the woodland floor. And also on me, on my raincoat. The rhythm was the same, but the tone was different, as if I were a tympani tuned to a different pitch. Most of the birds I usually encounter on my walk were hunkered down and silent, though a male cardinal flew across the path, chipping ecstatically. I have no idea what had him so excited. Streams, newly replenished, chortled among the trees, happy to be running once more.

And through it all, I walked and thought and tried to find peace, solace, strength, inspiration — anything really. I suppose mostly I wanted a path out of the musings that had gripped me for days. The musings I was, and still am, in no state to share. Nothing came.

No, that’s not true. I did feel at peace while I was walking. I did find inspiration for this post in the sounds and sights of the rain. And maybe to ask for more is to ask for too much. There may be magic to be found in a summer morning walk through a warm rain, but I don’t know if there are miracles.

This is another strange post, I know. I have written several in recent weeks and months. Times are hard. Some weeks I can find something to write about, a thought thread that distracts and even entertains me. Other weeks, I can’t be diverted. Life holds sway and I can’t pretend to care about other stuff.

Next week, perhaps, I will write something less strange, less cryptic. The women’s World Cup is winding down, and I have wanted to write about that. Maybe I will. Next week. In the meantime, you have my apologies for the vagueness, the navel-gazing. As I say, life is hard right now. And my walks in the rain can only last so long.

Have a great week.

Monday Musings: Digital Technology, Ansel Adams, and the Joy of Modern Photography

As I mentioned in a post last week, Nancy and I just spent a week and a half out in Colorado, seeing our girls, hiking, and unwinding. It was a good trip, and, as is my wont, I spent a fair amount of time capturing photo images. I shared some photos last week, but those were just the ones taken on my phone. This week, I share some of the images I captured with my big rig, my Canon 5D Mk IV, with a pair of truly excellent lenses — a 24-105mm f4 L and a 16-35mm f4 L. To most of you, the lens and camera info probably won’t mean much. That’s fine. I thought a few of you might be curious.

The Crags Trail, by David B. CoeI spent this past weekend going through my photos, processing the images, and selecting a few to put in a rotation of favorites that show up on my computer desktop and in my screensaver slide show. And as I work through these images, I have been thinking about photography in general and where the technology that is now available to photography hobbyists has taken us.

When I started getting serious about my photography, we were still in the film age. (Kids, ask your parents.) I would load a roll of film into my camera, take photos — usually thirty-six exposures per roll — and, upon reaching the end of the roll, would then rewind the film back into the little metal cylinder and remove it from the camera. At that point, my control over the image would reach its end. I would take the film to a local store, or perhaps send it directly to one of the Kodak or Fujifilm processing centers scattered around the country, and wait to see how my photos came out. The wait was frustrating, the cost pretty outrageous.

Florissant Fossil Beds NM, by David B. CoeSome stores and processing centers were willing to consider special instructions — “please over- (or under-) expose slightly” or some such. But to be honest, I wasn’t good enough at that point to know with confidence that ALL my images would need the same special treatment, and so I just sent my film in and hoped for the best. More often than not, I was disappointed.

Mueller State Park view, by David B. CoeKnowing what I do about the history of photography, I now understand how strange that consumer film process actually was. The old masters of photography — Edward Weston, Alfred Stieglitz, and most notably Ansel Adams did not leave it to Kodak or Fujifilm or any other commercial entity to develop their images. They held fast to every step of the creative process, from image capture to production of the final print. Photography as an art form was not limited to a mechanical blink of creative inspiration. Rather, it relied upon a complex and time-consuming manipulation of that initial capture, to turn the photo into exactly what the artist envisioned. Adams in particular used an approach he called “dodge and burn,” relying on a masterful understanding of darkroom tools and chemicals to darken certain parts of an image and brighten others. He and his contemporaries would never have dreamed of placing themselves at the mercy of film development labs.

The great irony of this lies in the freedom now granted to amateur photographers like me by digital dark room applications on our computers. My photography workflow may rely on digital technology, but in every other respect it is more similar to the experience of the old masters than it ever was in the age of film. Like Ansel Adams, I no longer have to hope that my images were perfectly exposed. I can make adjustments to the original images, balancing light and shadow, compensating for exposure issues in some quadrants of a capture while using the original lighting in others. I can, in other words, do a digital “dodge and burn.” (I used to use Adobe’s Lightroom, but I grew disenchanted with their subscription model of “ownership.” I now use DxO’s PhotoLab, which allows me to do everything Lightroom did, but at a lower cost.)

Florissant meadow, by David B. CoeMore, I no longer have to decide before going out in the field what sort of film to use. I can take an image that I know will work in color and follow it up immediately with one that I know I’ll prefer in black and white. Converting an image from color to grayscale is as simple as clicking a box. I love that freedom.

To be clear, I do all I can to avoid over-processing my photos. We have all seen photographs that look so “perfect” as to be unrealistic: hyper-detailed, garishly colored, lit with unconvincing evenness across shadow and sunlit feature. I have no desire to produce such images. Even with a digital darkroom at my disposal, I still wind up with many images that don’t work. The ones I add to my “favorites” constitute a tiny fraction of the images I take.

But I have control over the work I do. From image capture to production of the final image — either in the form of a print, or a computer image I can enjoy every day — I make the photograph exactly what I want it to be. And the truth is, the very best images I produce are pretty high quality. I would put my finest photos up against those of most professionals. That sounds like bragging, but it’s true.

Most important, I engage in a creative process that I enjoy, that I find challenging and deeply satisfying. My photography scratches a “creative itch” that is very, very different from the one I scratch with my writing. It is one of my great passions.

I hope you enjoy these images, and I wish you a great week.

Monday Musings (On Tuesday): Our Family Trip

As I write this, we are winging our way back home after a week and a half in the mountains of Colorado, west of Colorado Springs. Nancy and I rented a house in a little town called Florissant, just a couple of miles from Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument. Our younger daughter, Erin, who lives in Denver, joined us for the first weekend and then went back home for work. Nancy and I spent several days alone in the house, going on long hikes each morning and chilling on the back patio of the house each afternoon. On Tuesday, our older daughter, Alex, flew from New York to Denver to spend a couple of days with her sister, and then on Thursday the two of them drove back to Florissant to spend a long weekend with us.

We had a marvelous trip. Our visits with the girls were lovely and fun, filled with laughter and good conversations despite the difficulties we face as a family right now. We watched a ton of Women’s World Cup soccer. Nancy and the girls worked on a puzzle that proved nearly impossible, and finished it our last night in the house. (No, I didn’t help. I rarely do puzzles. I’m colorblind, and jigsaw puzzles are a particular brand of hell for those of us with that affliction.) We read. We enjoyed the hot tub that came with the house. We enjoyed a couple of meals out. We enjoyed many a home-cooked meal (learning the hard way that cooking rice at 8,700 feet is VERY different from cooking it at sea level, or 2,000 feet, or even 5,000 feet).

The hikes Nancy and I took during our days alone were gorgeous. We did a couple in the National Monument, walking through mountain meadows and groves of aspen and lodgepole pine. We did one spectacular hike on what’s known as The Crags Trail, in Pike National Forest. The hike started at 9,500 feet altitude and ended at 10,500 feet, atop a rocky dome with a 360 degree view of the Rockies. And we did a couple of beautiful walks in Mueller State Park, part of the terrific Colorado State Parks system. All told, we walked 25-30 miles in four days — nothing extraordinary, but enough to make us feel that we had explored the area thoroughly. Along the way we saw birds and coyotes, a palette of wildflowers and tons of lovely, albeit hard to identify, alpine butterflies.

The weather was great the entire week. Cool clear mornings, warm afternoons that were punctuated each day with dramatic thunderstorms, and cool nights. One evening, we watched a storm roll up the valley straight toward our house, forks of lightning dancing along ridge lines and illuminating the sky. Another day we had a hail-storm that dumped enough pea-sized pieces of ice on the patio to allow me to make a “snowball” or two.

As I say, things continue to be tough in our little world, and we don’t anticipate them getting much better, at least not anytime soon. But we still share a ton of love. We still know how to laugh and enjoy one another. And we can still appreciate the beauty and light of nature, of companionship, of family.

I return home feeling full, renewed, joyful and also bittersweet. Under the circumstances, I could hardly ask for more.

I wish you a wonderful week. Reach out to the people you love. Hold them near. Don’t wait to tell them how you feel about them.Our daughters Nancy atop the Crags View from the Crags Nancy and me Mountain view

Monday Musings: Thunderstorm Memories

As I write this, a storm is moving in. The sky has turned an angry shade of purple-gray, and thunder rumbles frequently, close enough to reach me through windows closed against the oppressive heat, but far enough away that the house doesn’t yet tremble with each clash. The rising wind and first huge raindrops cool the air — welcome relief. Lightning flickers, and I hunger for the sweet, clean scent of ozone and fresh rain. I leave my computer to step outside for a few moments.

As a small child, I was frightened by thunder. I suppose most kids are. My father would come into my room during nighttime storms and sit with me, both of us counting the intervals between lightning flashes and thunder’s response. With his help, I overcame my fear and grew to love thunderstorms as much as he did. A gift. One among so many, more than I could possibly count.

Afternoon storms were a staple of Mid-Atlantic summers, reprieves from the hot and hazies of my native New York. We thought those days brutal, scorching. Little did we know what the future would hold for a climate-altered world. But I remember — as a boy and then a teen — going outside onto our front steps to watch storms roll in, much as I did just now. If my brother Jim was around, he would join me, and we would scan the sky, watching for forks of lightning, savoring the caress of splattered rain.

Years later, he and I would have a different sort of thunderstorm experience, in a cirque above tree line in California’s King’s Canyon National Park. We had planned a hiking trip into the backcountry, biting off far, far more than we could chew. Our first day of hiking was too strenuous for both of us — miles of steady, steep uphill walking, both of us carrying forty-plus pounds of gear on our backs. In the middle of the afternoon, storms rolled in, the Sierra Nevada sky churning. We had no choice but to take shelter, though by that point we were surrounded by low, stunted pines, huge boulders, snowfields, and little else. We got soaked, decided to make camp there so we could dry out. But as night fell, more storms moved in, and one of the cells settled directly over our campsite. Roars of thunder followed right on the heels of brilliant flares of lightning. And we huddled in a tent — one of those old ones, held up by metal poles. Frankly, we were fortunate to survive the night. We woke up to fog, fresh snow, and temperatures way less than half what they’d been when we left our car the previous morning.

Nancy grew up on a dairy just outside of Boise, Idaho, and we still go back to the Boise area to visit her dad, her brothers, and our nieces and nephews. That part of Idaho is essentially sagebrush desert reclaimed through irrigation, and though mountain ranges loom in the distance, much of the landscape between Boise and the Snake River is flat. So when thunderstorms move through the area, there is nothing to mute the sound or block one’s view. Miles from where one stands, daggers of lightning stab the terrain. And thirty or forty seconds might pass before thunder growls in reply, an afterthought, surprisingly clear and loud.

Shortly before Nancy and I left California to move to Tennessee, we paid one last visit to Yosemite National Park, one of our favorite places. It was a gorgeous early summer day, and though we’d made a point of going in the middle of the week, the park was still unbelievably crowded, as it usually is. We spent a little time in Yosemite Valley, but the crowds were worst there, so we passed most of the day in the higher elevations around Tuolumne Meadows, an area of dramatic mountain vistas, deep evergreen forests, and rolling alpine meadows. As is the theme of this post, a series of thunderstorms rampaged through the park that day, bringing high winds, pelting rain, and a fusillade of grape-sized hail that I feared would shatter the windshield of my old Toyota Corolla. I didn’t have much experience with hail at that point in my life, and in the middle of the storm, curious and foolish, I opened the car door (we were parked at a viewpoint) and stuck my hand out. The little buggers hurt, and when I said “Ow!” Nancy looked at me as if I was the dumbest guy on the planet and just said, “Well, yeah.”

There have been lots of other storms of course. When we reached Tennessee, we realized that thunderstorms are different in the Southeast. Some spring and summer nights, the sky flashes continuously for hours at a time, and thunder claps are so frequent they overlap to form an unceasing grumble. I’ve never experienced this anywhere else. It’s one of my favorite things about living here.

The storm that began as I started writing this has continued. Rain still falls, the sky glimmers and thunder echoes across the hollow in which we live. But the hummingbirds are feeding again, so maybe they sense fairer skies heading this way.

I wish you a week of cooling rains, dramatic skies, and fair winds.

Monday Musings: Humans Behaving Stupidly

In real life, it’s not so easy. When actors in life’s drama do dumb things, we can’t revise the narrative to avoid disaster.

We’ve all experienced the frustration. We’re reading a book or watching a movie or television show, and one (or several) of the lead characters in the story does something that’s just plain stupid. Blind to the peril before them, unwilling to heed the advice and warnings of others who know better, they rush headlong into danger, placing themselves and their loved ones at risk. We shout at the screen or curse the pages, knowing that terrible consequences will result from this patent idiocy, but on the characters go, compounding foolishness with carelessness and neglect and hubris until calamity befalls them. Deserved calamity. Chickens coming home to roost. Just desserts.

As a writer, I have to guard against doing this. Because the fact is, often bad choices by our lead characters can feed our narratives. “If only Character X would do this, then Characters Y and Z could do THIS, and wouldn’t THAT be cool!” Good editors — and I’ve worked with several — point out these moments and tell me to make certain Character X has a REALLY good reason for doing that not-so-smart thing. Because if they don’t have a good reason, this action will tick off my readers, putting them through that frustration I mentioned above.

And as an editor, I often have to flag moments in the manuscripts of my writers (or my clients) where they have led their protagonists down a foolish path, making them do things that serve the plot but not their own self-interest. “Make sure this is a reasonable, rational course of action,” I’ll say, “because otherwise this moment feels contrived, like something no clear-thinking person would do.”

Usually, in a fiction manuscript, the fix is fairly easy. We can get the characters to where the narrative needs them to be in a way that doesn’t feel so foolhardy and reckless. We can rewrite until it makes sense AND makes for a good story.

In real life, it’s not so easy. When actors in life’s drama do dumb things, we can’t revise the narrative to avoid disaster.

This past week saw climatologists record the four hottest days in human history. Monday’s record global temperature was measured by the U.S. National Centers for Environmental Prediction at 17.01 degrees Celsius (62.62 degrees Fahrenheit), exceeding the previous record, which was set back in August 2016, by about .09 degrees Celsius, or .16 degrees Fahrenheit. That might not seem like a lot, but for global averages that usually vary in tiny increments, this was a significant jump.

Monday’s record lasted one day. Tuesday was hotter. Wednesday was hotter still, and Thursday was even hotter than Wednesday. Thursday’s global average reached 17.23 degrees Celsius, exceeding Monday’s record by nearly .22 degrees Celsius, or more than twice the margin by which Monday’s global average exceeded the old record.

The records don’t end there. June 2023 was the hottest June on record. 2023 is shaping up to be the hottest year in recorded history. The last eight years have been the hottest eight years ever documented. And of the twenty hottest years measured by climate scientists since the mid-19th century, all of them — ALL OF THEM — have occurred in the first twenty-three years of this millennium. Ocean temperatures are at record highs, sea ice volume is at a record low.

Scientists across the globe used words like “terrifying” and “unprecedented” to describe last week’s temperatures, and several pointed out that while measurements of global temperature only go back to the beginning of the Industrial Age, evidence from other climatological data suggests that global temperatures could now be at levels not seen in more than 100,000 years.

And yet, none of the scientists interviewed by the major news outlets seemed overly surprised by what happened last week. Frustrated, yes. Surprised, not so much. And who can blame them?

When I was a senior in college, I took an environmental science class that was geared toward non-science majors: “Major Issues in Environmental Policy,” or something of the sort. During the course of the semester, our professor returned again and again to the threat to the planet posed by global warming and the unchecked increase in greenhouse gases being pumped into our atmosphere by automobiles, power generation, manufacturing activity, industrial agriculture, and other human endeavors. He warned of rising global temperatures and the resulting consequences, which included more extreme weather, greater risk of flooding, drought, and wildfires, shrinking glaciers, rising sea levels, etc., etc., etc.

Everything he predicted in that class has come to pass. Everything.

I took the class in 1985.

To be clear, last week’s record-setting heat was caused by a combination of factors, some related to human actions, others naturally-occurring. The spike in global temperatures resulted from a confluence of decades of climate change and the warming effect of this year’s powerful El Niño, a cyclical climate fluctuation caused by warmer than average currents in the Pacific. But researchers believe El Niño and its sister phenomenon, the climate cooling La Niña, have been occurring for thousands of years. Human-induced climate change in the X factor here.

And we, I am sorry to say, are the infuriatingly myopic characters I mentioned at the outset of this piece. We have been warned of the danger facing us time and again by people who know better — by climate experts, by NASA, by NOAA, by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, by the World Meteorological Organization, by a scientific community desperate to head off looming cataclysm. For half a century or more we have been told that this day would come, that our planet is hurtling toward a crisis from which it may not be able to recover.

We have delayed and denied. We have made excuses and engaged in the worst sort of incrementalism. We have watched as “once in a century” storms become routine, as horrifying wildfires blacken our landscapes and turn our skies apocalyptic shades of orange and brown. We have ignored all the warnings, and have thus saddled our children and generations to come with the responsibility of cleaning up our mess.

The events of last week merely confirmed what climate scientists have known for some time now. Climate disaster isn’t our future, it’s our present. It is here. At this point, knowing all we do, there is no good reason to ignore the science. Our own self-interest dictates that we must take action now. Because unless we, the characters in this tragedy, act immediately to change the course of humanity, to convince our political leaders that we care about our land, our water, ourselves, our children, our grandchildren, we will destroy the earth. An act of foolishness, of hubris, of neglect and carelessness and ultimate stupidity.

And who will be left to curse the pages of human history?

Monday Musings: Contemplating The Cosmos Again (Or Is It “Still”?)

I am just back from a weekend in Charlotte, where I attended ConCarolinas. This only a few days after my return from Wyoming/Colorado. It’s been a whirlwind couple of weeks, and convention season is far from over.

But my thoughts remain fixed on the wondrous days I spent at the Launch Pad Workshop in Laramie that I wrote about in last week’s post. Launch Pad is intended to educate creators so that when they introduce concepts related to astronomy and space travel to their work, they do so in an informed, accurate way. The workshop does far more that that, however, at least it has for me. It has made me think in different ways about a host of issues and questions. Last week, I focused on the new urgency and moral weight with which it has infused my thinking regarding global climate change.

This week, my thoughts have been trending in a somewhat different direction.

It is a given of astronomical thinking, and also of physical and chemical law, that all the matter found in the universe today was formed at the time of the Big Bang. The vast majority of that matter exists now in the form of hydrogen and helium — the latter is produced, along with energy, by the fusion of hydrogen atoms in stars. Hydrogen, the lightest element, accounts for 73% of all the matter in the universe. Helium accounts for 25%. All the other known elements combined account for the remaining 2%. That’s all. Two percent. Proving once again that stars are big, and there are a lot of them.

This, though, is not the point I am trying to make.

Dying Star
A dying star. Credit: NASA, ESA and the Hubble SM4 ERO Team

When stars are formed, and when stars die, other elements are created by the tremendous pressure and energy produced by extreme gravitational forces. I won’t attempt to go into the physics of this because I am fated to screw it up in some way, inviting ridicule and undermining the larger purpose of this post. You’ll just have to trust me on this, and also on the rest of what I’m going to say. Namely . . . .

There is, in the birth, life, and death of a star, a circularity of consumption and production of elements and resources that mirrors what we see in, say, the death of a tree in a primeval forest. Nothing is lost; everything from the old goes into creating new star “life” — new energy and mass — just as every component of the downed tree infuses the soil with nutrients for new saplings. Probably this is self-evident, but I believe it is worth noting nevertheless. Ecology of this sort, whether on the scale of trees or of stars, is elegant in its efficiency, beautiful in its symmetry.

Combine this with the sheer size of stars and galaxies, and we are confronted once more with the relative insignificance of our own world. Yes, we have polluted and scarred our world. We risk poisoning ourselves — our food, our water, our air — and rendering our world uninhabitable. But the universe will go on. Long, long, long after we as a species are gone, our planet will be consumed by our dying sun and all that we are and all that we leave behind will be reclaimed by the universe and used to create new stars, new planets, perhaps new life.

This past weekend at the convention, though, a conversation among friends turned to the question of what happens to us as individuals when we die. Now, I am not a religious person. I don’t believe in an afterlife. I don’t believe in heaven or hell. I don’t believe in reincarnation. But the universe is filled with the unexplainable, the unfathomable. There are forms of matter and energy that the smartest minds on the planet have yet to figure out fully — dark matter and dark energy, quarks and gluons. We have so much yet to learn.

So, who is to say what happens to our spirit, what some might refer to as our soul? Does it exist? I don’t know. And if it does, I don’t know what form it would take, though I expect it would be more energy than matter. But energy and matter both are subject to laws of conservation. They can’t be lost or gained. They continue, and have since the Big Bang.

And if closed, circular, conserving systems govern what happens to the smallest of creatures and plants, to the great Sequoias of Pacific forests — the largest living things on Earth — to planets and stars and galaxies, mightn’t they also govern what happens to us? Not only our bodies, but our essences? I’m not trying to get all metaphysical here. Really, I’m not. I’m not saying “This is.” But after all the mind-blowing stuff I learned at Launch Pad, I do find myself saying, with ever more frequency, “Couldn’t this be?”

Have a great week.

Monday Musings: Places I Want To Visit

As spring begins and summer looms, I find myself thinking more and more about travel. I already have a couple of trips planned for a bit later in the year — a trip to Denver, Colorado and Laramie, Wyoming in May, and a second visit to Colorado, this one to the mountains with Nancy and our girls, in July. We’ll also be heading to St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in the fall, to make up for the Covid-related cancellation of my birthday trip, and no doubt at some point I’ll head up the East Coast to see family.

More to the point, though, Nancy and I are on the verge of a period in our lives when we will probably be traveling a good deal more than we’re used to — one of the perks of getting older, I guess.

In any case, I thought it might be fun to share a partial list of some of the destinations we’re considering that have already captured my imagination. Before I get to that list, though, a brief word of explanation. As I contemplate travel, I look forward to certain things. Nancy and I love to hike, so we will always look for places that reward us for our walking efforts. I am a dedicated photographer of landscapes, cityscapes, architecture, nature, and pretty much anything else, so I crave the pretty. I’m an avid birder, and so anyplace we go I will have with me my binoculars and the appropriate field guide. When we can, we like to enjoy good food, good wine, and good whisky. And we are sports enthusiasts, so if we can find baseball games or soccer matches, we will attend.

Domestic Destinations — these are dominated by National Parks and other nature areas. Most of the places listed here, I have never visited.

Badlands National Park
Badlands National Park — Joecho-16/Getty Images

1) Badlands National Park in South Dakota. I have wanted to visit the Badlands for years and I am hopeful that this will be one of our first destinations. Gorgeous formations, spring wildflowers, dramatic summer storms. I can’t wait.

2) White Sands National Park in New Mexico. Another place I have wanted to go for as long as I can remember. A strange, stunning, dramatic landscape, and one that is relatively near Albuquerque and Sante Fe, two of our favorite cities.

3) Katmai National Park in Alaska. This one might be a slightly tougher sell when it comes to getting Nancy to go. I’ll tell her the scenery is supposed to be magnificent, the views of Brown Bears amazing, the birds spectacular. All this might not be enough . . . .

4) Acadia National Park in Maine. I want to go in the fall, when the foliage is changing, but really the coastal views here are supposed to be lovely any time of year.

5) Capitol Reef National Park in Utah. I have been to all the other Utah parks; Nancy has been to most of them. But this one we’ve never seen. It is said to be gorgeous, and we love the Utah desert.

6) A baseball stadium tour — multiple states and cities. We have talked about this for years. We would want to hit Wrigley and New Comiskey Parks in Chicago, Busch Stadium in St. Louis, as well as the stadiums (stadia?) in Denver, Kansas City, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Detroit. I have been to Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park, but seeing the Yankees, Red Sox, and Mets would be fun, too. At some point I would love to do a similar trip on the West Coast.

International Destinations — these are more about cultural exploration and good food, as opposed to nature exploration. With one obvious exception . . . .

1) Paris — I have been, but long, long ago. Nancy never has. Any trip to Paris would be coupled with a broader exploration of France that would include Aix-en-Provence, Avignon, the Loire Valley, and other destinations.

2) Scotland — Neither of us has been, and we are so eager to go. Castles, hiking, Scotch whiskey, haggis . . . . Well, okay, but the first three. Really.

3) South Africa — We would enjoy visiting Cape Town and Johannesburg, but most of all we want to do a photo-safari. And yes, Nancy is every bit as enthusiastic about this as I am, perhaps more so.

4) Greece — The isles more than Athens, though obviously we would spend time in the latter. But we are so eager to explore the various islands, to enjoy the cuisine and the beaches and the walking trails.

5) Portugal — Lisbon, Porto, and anyplace else we can reach. We have heard such great things about Portugal, we’ve even wondered if living there might be in our future.

6) Italy — This is another one I’m more excited about than Nancy is. But I would love to visit Florence and Tuscany for the art, architecture, and countryside. And I have a feeling the food and wine would win Nancy over before long . . . .

So, there are our current top choices. Where would you like to go? Let yourself daydream a little.

And have a great week.

Monday Musings: What Matters? Part V — Frivolity and the Importance of Things That Don’t Matter

For all of January, I have been writing about “what matters” and what doesn’t. I’ve written about this in terms of our personal lives and our professional ones. And I fear I have left readers with the impression that, in my opinion, all they do should be geared toward those things we decide do matter, that when it comes to allocating our personal time, our emotional energy, our intellectual focus, “what matters?” should guide all of our choices.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

“What matters?” is, I believe, a useful question to ask ourselves. I remember back when I was in college, sitting on the green of Brown’s campus, talking to a friend, and thinking to myself, “I really have a shit-ton of work to do. Should I be here, or should I be in the library?” And yes, there were times when I realized the conversation I was having didn’t rate in terms of importance. In those moments, I confessed to having a lot to do, and went off to my lonely carrel in the library. At other times, though, I recall answering that silent question differently, certain that the conversation I was having mattered more than work did at the given moment. The work would get done, I knew. My friend needed me. Or I needed them.

And in the same vein, I know beyond doubt that sometimes the things that matter are, in fact, the things of little or no importance. An oxymoron? Maybe. But you know I’m right.

Yes, family and friends matter. Work matters. We should make time for those pursuits that enrich our lives and feed our souls or our bodies: photography, music, gardening, knitting, exercising, hiking, birdwatching, reading, dancing, attending theater or movies or concerts. We all have our interests and passions.

But we can also find value and entertainment and even peace is less lofty activities. Sometimes what we need is an hour or two of mindless television, or a good game (baseball, football, basketball, soccer, hockey, whatever) to watch and cheer. Sometimes spending a half hour absorbed in a ridiculous video game is just the thing to clear our thoughts.

If we spend every minute of every day worrying about what matters and doing the things that are most important, we will burn ourselves out. At no time in the past several weeks, as I have written about the things that matter, have I meant to imply otherwise. As in all endeavors, we must find balance. I work daily. I devote time to my family, marriage, my parenting. I try to do the things I love, to make good use of as much of my time as I can. But I also know that some of that “good use” can be put to silly, meaningless stuff that I enjoy.

I have games on my phone that I play daily. (No, I won’t tell you which ones. That would be embarrassing . . . .) I listen to music, not because it enriches me (though it often does) but because it’s fun. Nancy and I have shows we love to watch, and yes, part of the joy lies in watching together. But part of the joy is also just losing ourselves in storylines that are amusing, or suspenseful, or exciting, or even trashy. (Looking at you, creators of The Crown . . . .) I love watching sports on television. Baseball, soccer, basketball — I can lose myself in a good game even if I don’t care too much about either team. I like watching golf, too, mostly because it takes me back to my youth, when I watched with my dad and he taught me all he knew about the game.

Early on in this series of posts, I wrote about managing our days, and looking for ways to maximize the time we spend on those things we deem important. I don’t mean to contradict that earlier post. I mean merely to counter it with a simple reality: We can’t allocate every moment to weighty endeavors. Life demands that we slow down now and then and give ourselves a break, whatever that might mean.

And so, as I wind down my series of “What matters?” posts, I urge you to ask the question when it seems appropriate, but also to give yourself a break now and again. Being directed is great. And on occasion, so is being frivolous. Because ultimately, what matters is that we’re well and whole.

Wishing you all the best, and a very fine week to come.

Monday Musings: The Two Best Holiday Gifts I’ve Gotten. Ever.

The holidays are upon us, and chances are you — like me, like everyone I know — have

been caught up in the spirit of gift-giving. We want to find those perfect presents for the people we love most. We want to surprise and delight. For Nancy and me, shopping for our daughters, who are grown and very much aware of the things they want and need, has become fairly easy, if unexciting. They give us lists, we do our best to find the things on those lists, and everyone is happy.

A few years ago, we surprised them with special presents we’d spent a good deal of time planning and acquiring, and we still try to do that when we can, but our lives are busy, and these days the holidays really are much more about being together than about stuff. Which is as it should be.

But I wanted to share with you two brief stories about the two most thoughtful, memorable, wonderful gifts I have ever received. Because I think of them often this time of year.

When I was very young — about seven years old — my brother Jim, who is six years older than I am, developed an interest in birding. How that came about is his story to tell, but the important point is that his love of birds soon infected our older brother, Bill, and me. We began to go on bird walks together whenever possible. Jim and I were both living at home still, and during spring migration we would get up early in the morning, even on school days, to check out the warblers, orioles, tanagers, vireos, thrushes, and grosbeaks moving through our neighborhood. Bill, fifteen years my senior, nine years Jim’s senior, joined us whenever he came home to visit, or whenever we went to visit him.

Again, I was seven, Jim was thirteen, Bill was twenty-two. We ought to have had little in common. But birds and birdwatching shaped and cemented our love. Other shared interests and passions contributed as well, but our love of birds, of nature in the broader sense, was formative.

The binder, a bit worse for wear.

As birders, Jim and I started getting serious about keeping track of what we saw and when, and about a year later, on Christmas day 1971, Jim surprised me with what was, to my mind, an amazing gift. [Geek warning: What a young birder thinks is an amazing gift may not match what you think is an amazing gift . . . .] It was a binder with custom made bird checklists for my year lists, my life lists, my lists for our little town. He had typed up the life lists, created a “template” for the year lists (back when that meant using a typewriter and a ruler and a marker) and actually filled out my life list up to that point based on his own memories of our earliest excursions, which were clearer than mine.

My very first year list, started at age 8. My handwriting has improved. Marginally.

The amount of work involved, the effort, the attention to detail, the amazing thoughtfulness of the present, from someone who was fourteen at the time, for his annoying little brother — it all still boggles my mind.

I still have that binder. I don’t use it for much anymore, but I will NEVER throw it away.

The other thing that bound Jim, Bill, and me together was music. They introduced me to so much of the music I still listen to today. Jim was my gateway to jazz. Bill, though, was my gateway to rock, and to blues, and to bluegrass. He was my guru. As I said, he was fifteen years older, and as I entered my teen years, and was diving into music in a serious way, as both a listener and a budding musician, he was the person to whom I looked for guidance. He was an incredible musician in his own right, he was in a very cool band, and he was a student of music, particularly classic rock.

Sometime in my late teens, I can’t remember the exact year, he gave me two gifts for Christmas. The first, I could tell right away, was a record. An LP, because back then that was pretty much all we had. The second gift I couldn’t figure out. It felt and looked like a thin sheaf of papers.

“Open the album first,” he told me.

Exile on Main Street, by the Rolling StonesI did. Exile on Main Street, by the Rolling Stones. A legendary double-album by the rock band of the era. “I think you’re ready for this,” he said.

I could stop this story right there. My older brother, my rock ‘n roll mentor, he of the effortless cool, telling me I was ready for what I knew was his favorite album of all time? That was gift enough. But then he told me to open the other package.

Exile on Main Street didn’t come with a lyric sheet. The Stones couldn’t be bothered with such trifles. And so Bill had transcribed the lyrics to every song on the album. This was before the internet, before personal computers. He listened to the two records over and over again — he later told me he had to replace his copy of the album, because he wore the grooves down so much — trying to decipher the mumblings and rantings of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, men not known for their clarity of speech. And he typed them up for me. I still have the album, of course. I am ashamed to say, I don’t know where those lyric sheets have gone.

Two sparkling, wonderful gifts, from my two brothers. Both shine in my memory to this day. They were born of love and thoughtfulness and a type of generosity that can’t be measured in dollars and cents.

Something to think about as we approach the holidays.

Have a wonderful week.