Saturday, November 13, 2010

Thoughts on seeing Andromeda on the anniversary of my sister's death

How much do I have left of the loyalty to earth,
which humans shame, and dislike of our own lives,
and others' deaths that take part of us with them,
wear out of us, as we go toward that moment
when we find out how we die: clinging and pleading,
or secretly relieved that it is all over,
or despising ourselves, knowing that death
is a punishment we deserve, or like an old dog,
off his feed, who is suddenly ravenous,
and eats the bowl clean, and the next day is a carcass.

Galway Kinnell
from "The Striped Snake and the Goldfinch"

This post is for me, again. November is a tough time.

Mary Beth, my sister and my soul, was killed by an errant Christian missionary a few years ago. Not sure his being Christian matters, but his views that God somehow had something to do with all this soured me on this whole Christian thing. (Something about God's will and my sister's liver being bench pressed by a tow bar left a distaste in my mouth....)

Soon after her death, Toledo Hospitals asked me what I though about her care there. She died, usually a minus, and they got her confused with some other Jane Doe the night she died, so my opinion of her hospital care did not garner the kind of support hospitals yearn for. (Goodness, they even got the date of her death wrong....if the CEO is reading this, and disagrees, chat with me...)

She's still dead, and the hospital still exists, so my answers on their quality assurance questionnaire really made no difference, though it did get me a nifty letter from their CEO.

In one of the saner moves in my life, I shredded both the missionary's and the CEO's letter regarding her death. I care not for the hospital's profit margin, and even less for errant Christian minister's views of entropy.

Life is life, and here we are.


Last night I saw the Andromeda Galaxy. Light that left there about 2 million years ago lit up a rod on the back of my retina.

About 2 million years ago, Homo habilus roamed the African plains, over a million years before H. sapiens developed. A few photons left a star or two from Andromeda, and headed our way.

Last night they lit up my brain.

Mary Beth was a descendant of H. habilus, as are you and me. I would have liked her to remain alive long enough to share photons from Andromeda last night, but that was not to be. God's will, according to the person directly responsible for her death, but I can hardly blame Her for the piss poor driving of one of Her agents.

And so (as Vonnegut said) it goes.

I am getting older.

That I can still see Andromeda naked eye is no small feat.

Those photons traveled a long way to get to me. I was ready for them. I lay on the grass, my back wet from the dew, and I absorbed the photons. I feel a little bit guilty that I did not stay all night. A whole lot of photons traveled a long, long way just to hit the imprint of my back on a lawn that defines entropy.

The more try I to teach, the more I realize that teaching is, well, impossible, unless you're propagandizing.

This is not good.

Professional astronomers made a huge announcement this week, one that went mostly unnoticed.

Huge gamma ray "bubbles" are emanating from the center of the Milky Way, our galaxy. Vast amounts of energy (a term few of us understand, and I certainly don't) are flowing off the galaxy.

This is a big deal.

I like science. I also like theology, even if some scientists believe our beliefs are genetically programmed. (I suspect happiness erupts whenever we pursue our genetics, and I may be the happiest fool on the planet.)

I think we discovered heaven. And I think maybe Mary Beth's presence there bumped up the gamma ray production up a magnitude or two.

I teach a lot of nonsense. Right now I am teaching about functional groups to children who have no grasp of chemistry. This is like teaching color to a blind woman.

I am an agent of the state. Not sure that's a good enough justification for what I do, but the benefits are good.

The darkest 12 weeks of the year start now. That my sister got killed right when the sun fails us is not her fault, but messes me up just the same.

The love of her life grows apples. Apples. And bees.

I love apples, and I love bees. And I love Dave, a man who grows both apples and bees, and who keeps the few solid parts of Mary Beth left on his land.

Enough said.

I saw a few bees today. They're frantic.

How do I know? I watched them.

If you (unfortunately) believe in a mechanistic view of the universe, you would expect bees to be ponderous today, moving slowly, governed by the laws of kinetics and thermal energy.

Turns out the bees in mid-November have more energy than Richard Simmons on Red Bull.

Despite the low temperatures, despite the lack of nectar (or maybe because of the lack) in local flowers, doomed as they are as the sunlight fails, the bees are zinging along like they're mainlining amphetamines.

How do I know.
I watched them.

I could read about it, I suppose, or watch a YouTube, or maybe dive into Wikipedia, but I have the intelligence of at least an ant, and I trust my senses. Do you trust yours?

I am old enough to (finally) realize I am going to die. This is shocking news to me.

If I do nothing else this year, I hope to instill in each of my students that they will die, too, that everything eventually falls apart, that they should pursue things that matter. They are surrounded by voices that pretend humans are immortal.

One voice reminding them otherwise won't hurt, and it might, just might, push a child to pursue a path she would not have, because her father said she should be a nurse, because his father said he should become an

If I do that much, they will not have wasted their time in Room B362.

When they're my age, or even decades younger, knowing that a carboxyl group makes a molecule more acidic will not matter a whit.

I saw Andromeda last night, naked eye.
I saw a 40" striped bass rotting on the beach today.
I saw bees struggle to grab some nectar from cosmos flowers in November.
I am alive when my younger sister, my brilliant sister, my loving sister, is not.
I made a batch of beer today.

All of this is related. I'll name this ale Entropy.

We know nothing.

Gamma rays, death, rotting striped bass carcasses on the beach, it's all the same.
Something happened 15 billion years ago. I hope it happens again.

In the meantime I'll brew, sing, bake, rake, and dance.

I don't get it, but I'm glad I'm part of it. How about you?

The brightest man I know never finished high school. But he can grow apples, raise bees, play slide guitar, and think.
The most loving woman I know got killed by a Christian missionary.
The farthest thing I can see, Andromeda, I can still see.

The Andromeda photo is by Boris Štromar


Kate said...

I'm glad I'm a part of it.
I'm glad YOU are a part of it.

Tomorrow we host friends for a Sunday mandolnes and mandolins brunch - food and music, singing and eating, telling stories and laughing, after baking and talking.
If you lived here in Chicago, I would insist that you be here.

I'm sending you a poem.
Your post made me smile, it made me cry, and it helped me remember that I need to tell the people that I love that I love them.

The Science Goddess said...

There was a memorial this week for one of my former students. She was all of 24 years old.

I remember her as she was at 18: intelligent, pushy, whiny, and with an ever present "whale tail" thong seen above her low rise jeans. She loved science and worked doing cancer research after college. Biology class mattered to her.

I was thinking today that if I had known her fate---to die of blood poisoning in a hospital, her young fiance by her side---that I could not have told her as she sat in my class. It is not my job to remind teens that their time is limited...that death will come for them, too. It is my job to be the keeper of their time as teens. They will forever be 15, 16, and 17 in my mind as they exit school and enter the world. That may be the greatest kindness I can ever do for them.

Anonymous said...

When my daughter's best friend's dad got Parkinson's 3 years ago it changed my life. Now I do what I can without worrying that it is unpopular. I try for more experiences,and less worry about next year. I try to help more and judge less, without wearing away my own defenses.
We are still here and we have an obligation to do, because we can. But we can't fix anything real, and we have to be okay with that, because this is all there is.
Feel the love from we strangers over the electrons of the internet, and be in awe that we can feel your pain and enthusiasm and emotional complexity, and empathize. because it's all we can do.

doyle said...

Dear Kate,

Thank you for the words and the poem. As much fun as Chicago sounds, we are having one of those too beautiful to be real November weekends at the shore here. Bees, wading through the bay, and maybe a hint of sunburn in mid-November--doesn't get better than this in November.

(Don't tell anyone, beautiful and warm as it is, the beaches are almost empty....)

Dear Science Goddess,

Leslie already made a similar point, about a minute after she read this. She's smart, you're smart, so I'm going to roll your words in my head for a bit.

I will say this much, though--I don't focus on how folks die. That would be cruel, and besides the point. Dying (as opposed to death) can be terrifyingly awful, and I am not morose in the classroom, far from it. (Even when I'm feeling less than chipper, I put on my acting shoes, as we all do.)

At any rate, since 15 year old children are lovingly self-absorbed and immortal, I doubt most hear me anyway. I think I do get through to the occasional child living through an overly adult lens. You know the type--the obsessive child pursuing "facts" aggressively so he can ace the tests, become an actuary, and *sniff* live the good life.

If your life is finite (and it is) and you're 15 (as they are), then much of what they do is absolutely irrational (which is OK) and harmful (which is not).

I'm being obtuse. I know I got through someone if they realize that spending a day in May on the beach instead of the classroom is a rational act. I know I got through if they stop working 20 hours a week to support a shiny sneaker and car habit.

I may be cranky at the moment because teaching functional groups to kids who do not have a background in chemistry is just silly.

Dear Anonymous,

You said what I meant, and said it well. Thank you for your words.

I may re-do this whole post; if I do, I may borrow, with attribution, some of your words.

(It's unusual to see "Anonymous" add anything constructive besides pointing out my being a jerk, so this was a nice change of pace.)