October 09, 2020

Memes, The Pandemic, and All of Us


A Covid-Infected Trump Takes Off His Mask Before Entetering the White House 

My partner has a deep affection for the idea of memes. I have always resisted the notion. On more than one occasion I have declared myself “anti-meme.” (For those too young to remember, this is a play on the 1958 movie Auntie-Mame about a free-spirited old aunt—a movie that ironically so enchanted my “never trust anyone under 30 generation.”) 

The notion of memes analogizes the mental and cultural products we usually refer to as ideas to our biological genes. Like the reproducible units that determine our biological characteristics, mental products mutate and evolve as they are passed on to others. Also, like genes, they can sometimes devolve during errors in the copying process–as in the game of telephone. 

I agree that ideas and genes are analogous to some extent, and analogies are often useful. They catch two dissimilar situations in the same mental grid, which helps highlight illuminating similarities. Yes, it is kind of fun, and even a bit interesting, to see ideas and genes as analogous. 

Nonetheless, I object to the notion of ideas being flattened so much. Even the shape of the word meme is flat, with nothing above or below the line. The idea of a meme is a meme itself—as is the notion of never trust anyone over 30. The problem is that there is no concept that isn’t a meme, although certainly some are more successful than others. 

Up to now, I have felt that grouping all mental products under the notion of memes takes away very much more than it offers. It catches ideas—those wonderful non-things that can soar above the material world as we know it—and imprisons them in the cage of materialism. But difficult times challenge all our assumptions, and the corona virus pandemic is certainly one of those times. I have revised my thinking about memes. 

The key question to ask about an analogy is: Does it illuminate anything beyond what is already known? I have come around to the view that there are some deeper levels of correspondence to the analogy that may be illuminating about our situation right now. With the pandemic, the transmissible invisible fragments of DNA that make up viruses are implicitly, if not explicitly, front and center in all our minds. Not every virus is harmful, but those that create pandemics, by definition, are. We work hard not to be infected and to not pass them on to others—or at least many of us do. 

Memes are like viruses because they infect others. (This may have been part of the reason Dawkins, who originally thought up the idea of memes, chose the word). Most memes are benign, and many are useful. But some are dangerous and even potentially deadly. Those that are both dangerous as well as highly infectious can make a huge difference in the quality of life of those it affects, as well as threaten personal and national survival. 

We are facing two dangerous viruses now. The first is the Corona-19 virus. The second—ignoring just for the moment the very real connection between the current administration’s decisions and our failure to curtail the Corona-19 virus and its sequelae—is the Donald Trump virus. The notion of memes has an inherent connection to both of them. 

Like all viruses, the Corona-19 virus has only one message. All it can do is say “me-me.” The Donald Trump virus, which is also deeply infectious and is proving just as deadly, has the same simple script. It too keeps saying "me-me.” The second “me,” transforms the legitimate need to stand up for oneself into rash selfishness that proclaim that the only thing of importance is me, right now, and whatever I want.

Respiratory viruses like Covid-19 infect others especially well when we yell. Likewise, Donald’s rageful venting about his litany of displaced grievances infects those who are vulnerable and causes them to make brazenly destructive personal and cruel political decisions. Emboldened by their role model of narcissism and immaturity, they filter everything through their anger and short-term needs. No surprise the two viruses have recently joined forces. 

Take the notion that having to wear a mask during a deadly pandemic interferes with personal rights. The me-me infected are willing to trade the safety of their family, themselves, as well as everyone else, for their flamboyant and ill-informed view of liberty--as Trump’s Covid infection and continued mask-less behavior makes shockingly clear. What social contract? 

Donald Trump represents an exaggerated version of everything that goes out of balance with the United States and its values. This, our shadow side, has now flipped around and become our full-frontal view. Our standard bearer and his supporters shout “me-me and the hell with the rest of you.” This has put our democracy in danger at so many levels. We are unlikely to survive unless we can defeat Donald Trump and create a stronger union that includes me, and you, and also takes into consideration the wider world. We need a new meme to counter the Trump virus, which alas now also means the Covid virus. Any suggestions? How about Me, and You, and All of us.

February 17, 2019

To Publicize or Not: Is That The Question?

I recently published a book titled Understanding Intuition: A Journey In and Out of Science. It explores some foundational intuitions about intuition I experienced and brings them together with a deep dive into the science of intuition. It took me years to write and find a publisher. All told, it was a 2-decade long endeavor. Early in 2018, Academic Press, an imprint of Elsevier, a scientific publisher, issued the work.

From the experience of my colleagues at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University, I learned that once you publish a book, your job is to publicize it. Before publication, I had assumed I would avail myself of all opportunities to promote the book, and, truth be told, a part of me looked forward to the attention. But I am also distrustful of the part of me that needs attention and recognition.

I did try this or that, but almost nothing happened on the publicity front. Fortunately, I did get two letters from stunningly intelligent readers telling that they were deeply inspired by the book. This has helped keep me from feeling very discouraged. More recently the book has received some endorsements from people whose work I greatly respect.
I am also helped by an experience that occurred during the years I was having trouble finding a publisher. I came to recognize over time that the publishing setback was likely only temporary. Because of the unusualness and importance of the material, I began to feel that it would eventually find its audiencehowever that might happen, and however long it might take.
But the feeling that the book would eventually be published did not eliminate the discomfort I felt. Then one evening while sweeping up the kitchen floor after dinner, I confronted myself with great sincerity about why I still felt so badly about the situation, even as I felt increasingly confident that in time the book would find its audience. Then something extraordinary happened.
As I continued to sweep, I felt the deepest and purist sense of spaciousness and Presence I ever have. My consciousness was completely altered, at least for a while. I realized that this transformed mind, which brought with it a sense of being completely safe and secure in the cosmos, was more important than publishing the book. The jewel was instead more easy access to this wonderful feeling of authenticity and quietude.

Although I am a biologist, I am also a longtime spiritual seeker. I no doubt sublimated early needs that did not get fulfilled into a search for a higher order in which these needs become transformed. I have always been drawn to people to who have a deep sense of Presence. They evoke in me a feeling of safetya world where one does not have to fight for attention or for anything else, a world in which we are all interconnected below awareness and conflicting needs and claims are adjudicated in an enlightened and welcoming way. 

Alas, more permanent access to this quality of experience may prove even more elusive than publishing Understanding Intuition. But at least I got a clear message about what really matters to me. As I emphasize in the last chapter of the book, we each have two sides. One is focused on meeting survival needs, as well as survival-associated needs, like success. The other is focused on authenticity and Presence—on our deepest humanity. The two are not necessarily in conflict, but because of early childhood circumstances and unmet needs, they are often at odds with each other.

This split is also important to understanding intuition.  Both sides have access to intuition, but to different kinds. One kind of intuition may lead to success.  The other, a much more profound kind, leads to the knowledge of deeper truth and often to inner peace.

Destiny, whatever that might mean, has taught me a valuable, albeit, at time challenging, lesson. But now that the book has been out a year, there just might be room for something new.  Perhaps there is a way for meand for others in certain pivotal moments in their lifeto bring the two dissonant parts of ourselves closer together?

Does it have to be either/or? In my case, does it have to be seeking attention to quell what are now likely unfillable childhood needs, or continuing to feel unseen and unacknowledged as an aid to finding a more authentic way of being and the higher side of human nature?  This is an open question. 

This blog piece might just be the beginning of an answer!  Morever, maybe the need to get this timely message out to more people can help forge a bond between these two conflicting attitudes or aspects of self.  In our troubled times, which are so in need of healing, we each must do whatever we can.

July 27, 2008


Sculture by Dan Gerhart http://www.dangerhart.com/

The word "Emergence" has intrinsic appeal. It immediately leads beyond itself---to a space of potentiality. The world is wide open after that final "e"---or at least sort of. For the most part emergence is evoked after the fact. I hope to look a little more at the space beyond the final e, but first things first.

Emergence provides a way to account for the development of higher life forms and even spirituality without requiring a master plan or planner. Emergence oversimplified means that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. A portion of its appeal is it provides an alternative to the reductive perspective, which holds that higher levels can be
completely explained by lower levels. Thus biology can be completely explained by chemistry and chemistry in turn by physics. Emergence in contrast says that novel properties can appear at higher levels that are essential to complete understanding. It implies there is always something new under the sun---or rather the potential for something new is always there.

I work together on a science and spirituality blog with a Brandeis undergraduate that we call
The Bridge: A Science and Spirituality Resource. I took on the task of summarizing an intriguing but challenging article by Terrence Deacon for the blog entitled “Emergence: The Hole at the Wheel's Hub.” At the end of my second time through the 40 page paper I had one of those experiences in which science and spirituality really converged for me. The moment of insight intensified during several subsequent readings. It marked a considerable deepening of my morning meditation and perhaps other aspects of my spiritual life as well.

The primary purpose of Deacon's article was not spiritual, but instead to impart some order to the promiscuous concept of emergence by characterized three different levels. However he brings all three together under the Eastern-seeming concept of absence, a potential shaped by what is not there. He quotes from the
Tao Te Ching

Thirty spokes converged at the wheel’s hub to an empty space that makes it useful. Clay is shaped into a vessel, to take advantage of the emptiness it surrounds. Doors and windows are cut into walls of a room so that it can serve so some function. Though we must work with what is there, use comes from what is not there.

First something about the basic idea behind emergence. Thermodynamics tells us that the universe is running downhill and becoming increasingly random. In a state of randomness a change in one direction is balanced by change in the opposite; everything cancels everything else out. How then is life possible, to say nothing of the purposefulness on which we humans so pride ourselves? After all, we are---including our minds---part of nature.

The answer is that the way things fit together---relational properties---instead of a canceling each other out, may, depending on a confluence of events, build on each other. These relational or configural properties are responsible for the spontaneous production of order, such as the formation of whirlpools and also the origins of life. They explain why our organism can turn over most of the physical material it is made of and nonetheless persist.

Deacon’s three levels of emergence represent three critical transitions in the organization of matter. At the first level, higher order properties can emerge when separate elements become an aggregate. (These phenomena can be explained reductively, but including this level provides a complete sweep of the terrain.) For example, when H2O molecules aggregate, the properties of liquidity emerge. Becoming a liquid gives rise to characteristics such as surface tension and different kinds of flow that depend on the molecules’ relationship to each other. Not only H2O but many different kinds of molecules can become liquids. The characteristic behavior associated with liquidity, its “laws,” then become a higher level description of these systems.

The second level transition describes the emergence or self-organization of form. Here first-order emergence becomes unstable. An example is a Benard cell. When a shallow pan of water or other liquid is heated evenly from the bottom, hexagonal convection cells emerge. All different kinds of convection patterns occur initially but they cancel each other out. Only the hexagonal cells survive because their close packing is most efficient at bringing the heat to the surface.

The emergence of form occurs when random fluctuations at a lower level---here water molecules rising to the surface to remove the heat---give rise to relational regularity at higher levels that are beneficial to the system. These beneficial regularities in turn influence the lower levels to support this arrangement---the two work together so only hexagonal cells form. The kind of causality that occurs in these self-organizing systems is decidedly circular. As Deacon puts it, “interaction dynamics at lower levels becomes strongly affected by regularities emerging at higher levels of organization.”

Another example of a self-organizing system is the spontaneous generation of autocatalytic sets. Heterogeneous molecules form together into a cycle where, for example, A catalyzes the formation of B, B catalyzes the formation of C, and C of A. These cycles are very important in cellular metabolism. All that is needed to keep them going is the availability of raw materials and an energy flow through the system.

Check out this video which shows a very sexy autocatalytic cycle called a Belousov-Zhabotinsky Reaction.

With the third transition, some sort of informational memory is present, for example genetic material. This allows emergent forms to be reproduced over and over again. Think of it like a franchise with loose corporate control. Reproduction can then occur over time and even space. This memory is what makes development and evolution possible and by the same token gives a history to the system. The ability of self-organizing forms to reproduce---so their occurrence is no longer dependent on spontaneous self-organization---is arguably where life begins. These systems have a purpose of sorts---to reproduce and undergo change that enhances the possibility of not being canceled out.

These higher-level emergent systems are shaped by absence in several different ways. They are forged not by design, but by what is not canceled out. The forms that arise and then reproduce depend to a large extent on factors external to them, such as their fit with environmental conditions. Life and the mind to which it has given rise---in part because this passive selection goes on---is ever governed by the 'pull of yet unrealized possibility.'
Notice there is something quite startling to ponder here---should one be so inclined. The very notion of purpose itself implies an absence. Do we have it backwards?

Here is the passage close to the end that showed me how deeply this paper---which at that point I at best barely understood---had gotten to me.

Like something coming out of nothing, the subject of self is, in effect, a constitutive absence for the sake of which new constitutive absence is being incessantly evolved. In this sense, there is some legitimacy to the eliminativist claim that there is 'no thing' that it is. Indeed this must be so. The locus of self is, effectively, a negative mode of existence, that can act as an unmoved mover of sorts: a non-thing that nonetheless is the locus of a form of inertia---a resistance to change--- with respect to which other physical processes can be recruited and organized.

When I read that (the second time through) I had one of those powerful moments of knowing in which I could capture only a little of what was being known. As a student of intuition I suspect these are the best kind. I any case I am happy my unconscious was doing its job.

I felt myself to be a mere input/output tube. There was an intense focus of energy around my mouth, one of the ways into or indeed out of the devise. I enjoyed the minimalism and cleanliness of sensing myself as nothing more than this tube and the energy that served as its gate---of being largely without a self for an instant.

It was an experience of spiritual absence or emptiness, but not the kind of spiritual emptiness that verges on transcending the physical realm. Rather it was an emptiness that was pregnant with the most elementary aspects of human life---of feeding and of speaking, which lent it a hearty, almost animal-like vitality. It was also pregnant with everything I was not worrying about that would take care of itself. Finally it was pregnant with all that would flow through me and I might take in and perhaps transform. I felt very simple and very free. There was just potential space.

June 26, 2008

What is Real? Quantum Physics for Real Dummies

Let's warm up with this one. Do you know how radio works? I can't say I really do but I know this. Signals from a radio broadcast, like any other electromagnetic signals, are waves that travel in the atmosphere. Somehow recording a radio show sets a series of electromagnetic waves in motion that radiate out into space. They can be picked up by radios in the viewing area tuned to waves of that frequency. So all of space is packed full with electromagnetic waves, some from Garrison Keillor, some from Adolph Hitler, and some from the Big Bang.

The first time I really comprehended this I found it freaky. I was reading a book by the physicist Richard Feynman, who was my hero at the time. There I was being bombarded by waves of all kind carrying heavens knows what.

It helped me begin to understand a very strange experience I had a number of years before. One night my stereo tuner, which was turned off, started broadcasting music. It seemed to be coming from the back---from one of the connections. I thought the house was inhabited by ghosts. Why it happened then and only then is beyond me.

So much for the warm-up---which is actually a bit of priming. Here comes the quantum physics. Our physical experience is dominated by objects that have more or less clear boundaries, that are separate from each other. Also causality reigns. If I so choose, with my arm I can knock the folder next to my computer off my desk. This follows the laws of classical physics.

But at the quantum level, the level of subatomic particles, most physicists think that it is all chance and randomness. Probabilities rather than certainty or causality are supposed to rule. It is only when an observation is made that the function that determines these probabilities, the wave function, is said to collapse into a specific state. Before that all possibilities are said to coexist or are superimposed.

I highly recommend this video. It is a very clear presentation of the famous double slit experiment that helped demonstrate the very strange things that happen at the subtle atomic level. It is also very entertaining--- worth watching just to enjoy Dr. Quantum's facial expressions!

Not everyone was happy with the randomness that the usual interpretation of quantum mechanics enshrines at the core of reality. Einstein famously said, "God does not play dice." He was not willing to give up the elegant determinism of classical physics. So he proposed that there must be hidden factors, what he called hidden variables, which really control events at the quantum level.

In the 1930s, along with some colleagues, Einstein devised a thought experiment to show that the usual understanding of quantum mechanics is incomplete. It pointed out a paradox. If particles are governed by chance, then some of the predictions of quantum theory would also indicate that particles far apart from each other do not always behave independently. This would be like twins halfway around the universe instantaneously affecting each other. The notion that particles widely separated in space could communicate instantly is extremely problematic because it violates Einstien's own dictum that the speed of light is the fastest any information can travel. Einstein argued that this indicated that the irreducible randomness or chance quantum mechanics seemed to suggest at the base of everything also had to be wrong.

A younger colleague, David Bohm, in the 1950s became interested in developing a deterministic understanding of quantum mechanics. He did not like that the usual interpretation had no underlying theoretical framework. A strongly intuitive physicist, he favored models he could picture or experience at some level. Like Einstein, he also thought it impossible that information could travel instantaneously between particles--- or faster than the speed of light.

His answer was a model in which a quantum potential guides the behavior of particles in a deterministic but holistic way. (Bohm's work built on an earlier attempt by Louis de Broglie in the 30's to provide an alternate explaination.) For example the quantum potential tells the electron whether one or two slits is open--- see above video---and guides it so the observed results occur. The quantum potential is able to this because it contains what Bohm called “active information” about the entire system. In effect, it allows the particle to “just know” the big picture.

Meanwhile in the 60s another physicist named John Bell , influenced by Bohm, proved theoretically that to extend determinism to subatomic particles would necessarily imply what has come to be called non-locality---that particles far apart from each other would have to be connected or communicate at faster than the speed of light . (This is what Einstein could not accept, but 3 decades later it didn't bother Bell) In the 1980s a French team led by Alain Aspect demonstrated non-locality by performing an experiment proposed by Bohm and Bell (based on Einstein's initial thought experiment). Non-locality is sometimes called quantum entanglement, and it is now well accepted by physicist. In fact efforts are underway to exploit quantum entanglement technologically.

Bohm eventually proposed another whole realm, what he called the implicate order, as the source of the quantum potential. In the implicate realm, the two twins halfway around the universe from each other are actually connected. The implicate realm is unfolded or smeared out throughout our level of reality, what Bohm called the explicate order---like those radio waves that somehow caused my turned-off radio to broadcast music. He often used the idea of a hologram, in which every part contains an image of the whole to capture the relationship between the implciate and the explicate realm. But a hologram is static, whereas he saw the process of unfolding and enfolding between the realms going on continuously. He called it holomovement. To get a better sense of his ideas, check out this interview with Bohm.

This talk of other realms did not endear Bohm’s work to mainstream physics. To add insult to injury, he worked closely with the Indian teacher Krishnamurti for many years. Nonetheless a small number of physicists preferred his causal or ontological model and have worked to refine and extend it. It is now called Bohmian mechanics.

Even though the quantum potential reinstates causality, it leaves us with a universe very different from the commonsense world we experience. ( It is important to point out that none of this affects the laws of physics at the macroscopic level, but rather our picture of the subatomic realm.) In what we generally call objective reality, distant objects only affect each other when a signal of some sort, a communication, travels between them. To rescue locality as well as causality the way we usually think of them, like Bohm, we have to accept another level of reality where distant particles really are close together.

This is quite a trade-off! At the same time there is something that rings true about this situation. I mean this in the sense that things very often do seem to turn into their opposites. In any case, all us dummies can take comfort in something Richard Feynman said, "I think it is safe to say that no one understands Quantum Mechanics."

So far there has been no way to test Bohmian mechanics against the usual interpretation of quantum mechanics that claims that randomness rules. Just recently some preliminary data about the density of the early microwave radiation left over from the big bang seems to support Bohmian mechanics---according to Antony Valentini (also see first reference below and very end of post). If it is confirmed, it will cause quite a stir!

Additional Web Information:

Written in the skies: why quantum mechanics might be wrong, 2008, Nature On-Line (It is limted access, but important so I've reproduced the critical paragraphs below).

Quantum Randomness May Not be Random, 2008, New Scientist

David Bohm and the Implicate Order, by David Pratt

Do Deeper Principles Underlie Quantum Uncertainty and Nonlocality? 2005, Science

Interesting short video about the early history of quantum mechanics


Written in the skies: why quantum mechanics might be wrong
Published online 15 May 2008 Nature doi:10.1038/news.2008.829
Zeeya Merali


Almost all measurements of the cosmic microwave background seem to fit well with the predictions of quantum mechanics, says Valentini. But intriguingly, a distortion that fits one of Valentini’s proposed signatures for a failure of quantum mechanics was recently detected by Amit Yadav and Ben Wandelt at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (see 'Deflating inflation?'). That result has yet to be confirmed by independent analyses, but it is tantalizing, Valentini adds.

“It’s far too early to say that this is definite evidence of a breakdown in quantum mechanics — but it is a possibility,” he says.

Hiranya Peiris, an expert on the cosmic microwave background at the University of Cambridge, UK, is impressed by the new work. “This is a pretty cool new idea,” she says. “Nobody has ever thought of using the cosmic microwave background to look into really fundamental quantum questions — cosmologists just assume that quantum mechanics is correct,” she says.

But Peiris adds that Valentini must now come up with more detailed predictions about the types of distortion that will arise in the cosmic microwave background to convince cosmologists that they are really caused by a breakdown of quantum mechanics. “He has thrown some really exciting ideas out there, but now he needs to do the nitty-gritty calculations,” she says.

May 22, 2008

Salmon, Rice, and Peas--and Swiss Chard too

On weekend evenings when I was a child my family often had no-bother meals. One favorite was salmon, rice, and peas all mixed up together. The other was bagels and lox, which we had most Saturday nights. Bagels and lox are of course an ethnic tradition, but salmon, rice and peas seemed to be particular to my family.

The salmon and the peas were canned and the rice was Minute Rice. I can't say I loved the dish then, not like bagels and lox. But it was comfort food.

Over the years, every month or so I have had a yen for salmon rice and peas. I still use canned salmon but I’ve upgraded to frozen peas and longer cooking rice. At first I missed the special sweet, processed taste as well as squishy texture of the canned peas. But it's actually better with frozen peas.

Other than the above changes, I have been pretty faithful to the original recipe. This is not to say it always taste the same. To the contrary it’s not just one dish but a whole family of dishes---at least to my salmon-rice-and-peas-attuned palate. By adjusting the proportion, the salmon can dominate, the peas can dominate, or anything in between. Each of these endless variations can have tends to have subtly different overtones and undertones.

I just throw it together with minimum thought. However I cannot exclude the possibility that my unconscious mind is tailoring the mix to the needs of my palate (or my psyche) for the evening. Intuition can direct our actions whether or not we listen for that inner voice. Of course the best cooking comes about when we listen (see
Intuition and Brussels Sprouts---what!?).

After a long abstinence, a few weeks ago it was a salmon rice and peas night. I had an idea for an alteration I just couldn't get out of my mind. My latest culinary enthusiasm is chard. I had a few leaves of chard in the refrigerator (with only one or two good days to go). Breaking all my year of salmon, rice, and peas near-purism, I considered cooking them up and throwing them in.

This was not something to be undertaken lightly. It seemed a sacrilege as well as a boundary crossing sure to have consequences other than the simple success or failure of the dish. Moreover why was I thinking of changing a trio that already played endlessly interestingly together into a quartet? Eventually I recognize that in spite of my careful conscious weighting of the pros and cons, the project was going forward. I started cooking the chard.

I usually do not add the juice from the salmon to the concoction. But chard has a strong taste. To balance it I decided I needed to add the juice as well as the whole can of salmon.

The first bite left me astounded. It was delicious; the flavors were bright and exceptionally well-balanced. But even more than that, it evoked my mother's palate—everything that was good about her cooking—perhaps more than anything I have tasted since her death.

I certainly crossed a boundary. But instead of moving further away from tradition it brought me closer to its core. Looking back, I guess I was never so crazy about salmon rice and peas, because it didn't have the brightness of my mother's weekday food (especially with those can canned peas).


My mother wasn't a particularly skilled cook, but her food was tasty and she relished eating. She ate slowly and luxuriated in it perhaps more than anyone else I have ever known. All this was permission-giving to me. Learning to cook from Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking was a prelude to my scientific career.
(see Food and the Spirit: Rededicating My Thesis 27 Years Later)

My mother also became interested in the kind of cooking championed by Julia. She however had a severe handicap. She just could not grasp what it meant to sauté something. She was fascinated by the concept and often asked me to explain it to her. She would seem to get it, but a number of months later she would ask me again. She was an intelligent woman, and I was incredulous at her apparent idiocy about the concept of sautéing.

After my experience re-creating the essence of my mother's food, I decided to look up sauté in the dictionary. It says:

To lightly fry in fat in a shallow, open pan—n. [French, "tossed (in a pan)," from the past participle of sauter, to leap, from Old French, from Latin saltara, frequentative of salare (past participle), to leap....]

Food leaping from the pan is a lovely image for sautéing. But I began to see that it is also somewhat problematic of a concept. Leaping is a relative thing—or rather the time of cooking before leaping. I'm not sure we really want sautéed chicken breasts to leap from the pan until the chicken is cooked. We don't want sautéed mushrooms to leap from the pan until they give back their juices.

These legalities—although I can't say exactly how—helped give me some insight into my mother's problem with the concept of sautéing. She sautéed all the time. She just couldn't figure out how it was different from pan frying or browning. She already had categories and she couldn't fit a new one in, especially one that is, like the others, not so well defined.

At some level I suspect her question was less about sautéing than it was about the essence of French cooking. This new technique she thought she could learn—if she could figure out what it meant— just might help situate her in this celebrated cuisine. And indeed Julia does mention a large number of tips in Mastering Vol I, such as high temperature and drying food with a paper towel (Ug, See
Intuition and Brussels Sprouts---what!!?). But it wasn’t really a new technique, rather just another name for what my mother on occasion already did.

In contrast I first learned to cook in the context of French cooking. I didn’t pan fry food but did that thing called sauté from the start. Also thanks to Julia, I had much of the context that went with it. I would not be surprised if other women of my mother's age felt the same way about sautéing, but were ashamed to admit it and kept their perplexity to themselves.


My mother's difficulty was that a new word was used for a deeply familiar technique. Something similar can occur when familiar words are used in a new context. This happened to me around my first computer, a Mac. I was profoundly intimidated by frequent reference to “a finder” and to “a chooser.” I felt the same way when somewhat later a computer-savvy colleague said of a computer, “This machine has no security. I have to put some on.” I was dumbfounded. It was clearly important, but security meant men in uniforms. How could you put men in uniforms on a computer?

These words were chosen because they were considered intuitive in the sense of user-friendly. But I didn't know enough about computers (or computers with high-level languages) initially and then the internet to have a context for them. Because they were familiar words used in mysterious contexts, they seemed doubly impenetrable to me--- uncrossable barriers between those who were in the know and those who were not.

Our categories—the way we break the world up into kinds—are essential to our ability to construct meaning and hold onto it. After awhile it becomes hard to rename them, give them new context, or add another ingredient. To be sure “it is hard to teach an old dog new tricks.” But perhaps there is a more subtle lesson to be gleaned as well.

The categories that help one person or group make sense of the world can be different or have different contexts from those of another person or group. Sometimes it takes an act of intuition—along with some compassion for the way we all tend to hold on to familiar meanings—to translate in between. Good things tend to happen when we make the leap!

Coincidentally, it turns out that the word Salmon is from the same root as sauté. The Latin name for Salmon is Salmo, hence the jumping or leaping fish!

I'd love to hear about your favorite comfort food---with or without embellishment.

April 21, 2008

ANOTHER SLANT ON CONSCIOUNESS: Vulnerability, Presence, and Power

A while back I did a post on Hillary (Hillary and the Woman Thing) in which I talked about her appeal to me when she allowed herself to feel and show vulnerability. She became a much more three-dimensional figure, and I felt her presence as never before. It was a wonderful complement as well as an antidote to her poised and tough persona, which strikes me as too image-bound. This, among other things, got me thinking about how female power might differ from male power and even more generally about the connection between vulnerability, presence, and power. I will flirt with the first question here but end up focusing on the second.

I knew I had to write about this, yet it is a challenging topic. On the face of it, vulnerability isn't power, its weakness. It's a bit like claiming that up is down. I had only a sketchy, nonverbal sense about why I felt so strongly that this conventional wisdom is wrong.

Then I attended a seminar at the Women's Studies Research Center, where I work, by my colleague Hilde Hein, a philosopher who studies museums. During her talk she presented a double analogy she had used years ago in a talk on aesthetics. She showed on one side of the screen a picture of a proud aggressive looking nail and on the other a more humble sewing needle just entering some fabric. Below is her eloquent description of these different implements, taken from her early paper. She writes that both are employed, “…to bind together diverse substances, both [are] progenitors of socially significant structures." You will have no difficulty knowing him from her.”

He is strong, rigid, and straight, with a point at one end, the better to penetrate resistance substances, and a strong head at the other. A few sharp and well directed strokes fix him firmly in place....He remains there, stalwart and unyielding until the material that he punctures softens and rots away and he himself becomes brittle and rusted. She, by contrast, is pliant, sleek and tapered, her purpose integrated continuously throughout her form, which is, however distinctively marked by a hole at one end. A thread, introduced through that orifice, is carried distributed and left behind to hold together and shape a unity out of separate fabrics, which, once joined,live out their collective identity long after she has passed to be of service elsewhere.

This fable of gender difference intrigued me---the commanding authoritarian male who actively maintains structures with iron force as opposed to the more generative female whose nurturing guidance leaves only an inter-psyche thread. I found myself thinking about it when I woke up the next morning and sensed that this was a way into what I wanted to say. Among other things, its truth/ non-truth quality---its aptness along with its limitations as a caricature---captures the ambivalence I feel about framing this issue through a gender lens.

In her paper Hilde focuses initially on the different kinds of artifacts and then art each produces. I will focus only (and only briefly) on the different kinds of sheltering each provides for us. The strong proud nail is essential to the outer boundary layer that separate us from the environment--- our building and houses. The more humble and well traveled needle is essential to creating a boundary layer closer in--- our clothing.

Yet we humans, both male and female, are made of the softer penetrable stuff on the outside at least. The boundary of our body with the external world, our skin and flesh, is soft and permeable like cloth. Because of this we can experience the kiss of a young spring breeze on our face and the joyful effervescence of bubble bath. Of course it also means we wound and tear. To keep out infection and to heal, we have to be sown together, with needles---and nowadays disappearing thread.

We are no crustaceans separated from the world by a hardened shell. Instead the tougher stuff, the more rigid part of our body, our bones, are hidden inside. When they break or fracture, nails---or even mental plates---may be required to keep them in place and maintain the integrity of our skeletal structure.

We are made to be permeable to the external world and to each other. (In fact what are called mirror neurons in our brain make us mirror the feelings of others even when we are unaware of doing so.) To the extent that we experience and reveal our inherent vulnerability, we paradoxically reveal the stronger stuff inside. When Hillary's face revealed her vulnerability when her opponent came over to her podium in a debate during her first Senate campaign demanding she sign a statement, she seemed not only more likable, but stronger and more resilient. We saw the bones of her Being. This moment of being seems to have been the turning point in the race.

When we defend against external forces we don't like and the feelings they bring up---something alas we all do---we pretend we can maintain ourselves inviolate. Like George Bush we hold the line and become the decider of what we will let in and what we will keep out. Instead of feeling our vulnerability to the vicissitudes of life and fate, we turn it around and preemptively---and/or indiscriminately---kick ass. (The more openly vulnerable the target, the better to deflect our own banished feelings.) Instead of strength, we show meanness or bravado. Instead of letting life reveal the bones of being human, we try to stage manage it so it becomes an endless photo op.

The truth is we can't keep out difficult feelings, and perhaps especially painful vulnerability. It is inherent in the curse and gift of consciousness. Even if we try to deflect them by projecting them outward and making sure others feel them instead, they still leave their mark on us---in our muscles and maybe even our bones. In some real sense we store the unpleasant feelings we wish to keep out inside our bodies. (Remember the old saying that you become what you resist.)

My chiropractor tells me that like muscles, bones can hold tension. I'm not completely sure how this works; it could be that bones can store blocked Ch'i, or life force. In any case, the muscles that hold the bones in place have to maintain tension to do their job. I suppose as a result they can hold a certain amount of unnecessary tension as well. Difficult feelings we refuse to feel also can be stored in the patterns of reaction of muscles, including presumably the muscles that hold the bones. Whatever the mechanism, unfelt feelings tend to make our bodies function in a rigid and stiff or otherwise maladaptive way---the very opposite of the resilience and flexibility we all desire.

Experiencing vulnerability is not the same as feeling victimized. Nor does it mean taking to heart what another is saying or doing. Being vulnerable in the sense I am using it means fully feeling whatever is happening and letting it reverberate through the bones of one’s being. What I found so magnificent about Hillary in the debate in her first Senate race I described above was that she was completely present to that difficult moment.

This is a more difficult task with a backlog of stored trauma, as many of us have, or just stuff. But it is not impossible, just more of a challenge. The trick, it would seem, is to be completely permeable. This means feeling whatever is happening, remaining present as it reverberates through both our bodies and our being as long as it needs to, and then letting it pass out through the other side.

This ability to be fully present in the moment---and the next moment and the next moment--- feeling one's vulnerability to the external world and whatever it brings and brings up, links vulnerability not only to presence, but to real power. In difficult situations, correct action---actions which will serve others as well as the self---can only come from being present to what is happening as it echoes through our being before it goes out the other side. This is true whether it calls for the forceful structuring of the nail, the more gentle guidance of the needle, or something in between. No doubt we will often get it wrong, but with the effort to stay conscious, perhaps we can get it right much more of the time.