Listening to bees

Our world is always full of unexpected lacunae, gaps and hollows that we don’t know are there until we step into one. We twist our ankle, and sit down and examine ourselves for injury… and instead find a gift.

One such gift was a book I received this Christmas, “What The Bee Knows: Reflections on Myth, Symbol and Story” by P L Travers. Yes, THAT P L Travers. Mary Poppins’s literary mother.

I have to admit that I never read the original literary edition of Mary Poppins. My entire acquaintance with that august nanny came from the Disney movie, and for me she will always wear the rosy-cheeked face of the young Julie Andrews. I never knew that Travers, Poppins’s creator, was not at all happy at the idea of Disney’s adapting her work, and was certainly less than happy with Disney’s interpretation of the story. I was a child when the movie first came out. I remember going to see it with my mother, in an ancient and venerable movie house in the Old Town across the river in the city where I was born. I distinctly remember the cinema, with its red plush seats and fading scarlet curtains on either side of the screen, and most emphatically the movie itself, and its songs, and its marvelous nanny, and the story… and it all stuck with me, labelled “Disney” instead of “Travers”.

It was only relatively recently, with the release of the movie which purported to deal with the relationship between Travers and Disney, which apparently (I never did get to see it) portrayed that relationship as frankly iffy and Travers herself as a bit of a pompous and cold selfish so-and-so who was all but willing to scuttle that great and glorious movie of my own childhood because of her own disapproval of Disney’s vision of it, that I really knew that there was anything here that came before the Poppins movie.

I knew nothing of P L Travers herself before I tripped over this recent movie interpretation of her, but somehow… somehow… I don’t know. I took a step back and thought, ‘Really? That was the way it was?’ And it was about this time that it came to my attention that there was a book out there called “What the Bee Knows”, and the things that it contained. And I desired it. And heaven and earth were moved so that it might be obtained for me.

And oh, the treasure I received.

I kept on reading passages and nodding violently, or feeling my eyes tear up, or simply stopping reading and staring out through a window while my thoughts rearranged themselves into a new and different and yet ever so recognizable pattern.

In one of the essays, ‘The Interviewer’, first published in a New York journal called ‘Parabola’ on the theme of The Creative Response, as recently as 1988 (that jolted me; I saw the Poppins movie back when I was seven or eight years old, which meant in 1970 or so – 1988 seemed WAY too modern a dateline to belong to the woman who wrote the book!) Travers speaks about a reviewer who corners her and says to her, ‘[These books] are not invented, that is why they are so interesting!’ – and she responds, delighted at the journalist’s apparent epiphany, ‘How could they be? You invent motorcycles and atom bombs.’ And then he disappoints her by saying, yes, but so where did you get your ideas…? And he WILL have his answer, and if he does not get it then he will make it up because of course an idea cannot come from nothing or nowhere or everywhere at once – because for men like him, with tidy minds, things must go into labelled boxes, and there HAS to be a specific concrete discrete SOMETHING in the box labelled ‘Ideas, Beginnings’.

But Travers knows better. And has recognized the truth, in other writers, in those that came before her. In an earlier essay, published back in 1967 in the Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress, she says, ‘These men [AE, Yeats, James Stephens, and the rest] had aristocratic minds. For them, the world was not fragmented. An idea did not suddenly grow, like Topsy, all alone and separate. For them, all things had antecedents and long family trees. They saw nothing shameful or silly in myths and fairy stories, nor did they shovel them out of sight in some cupboard marked Only for Children. They were always willing to concede that there were more things in heaven and earth than philosophy dreamed of. They allowed for the unknown.’

The Idea is the World. The World is the Idea. How gloriously simple an answer to the perennial question that has dogged the heels of writers and other creators over years, decades, centuries. How simple, how elegant, how wonderful.

But Travers doesn’t stop at Beginnings. She tackles Endings too – like, in the same essay about that hapless interviewer, this: ‘…nothing in life is ever really finished. A book for instance is no book at all, unless, when we come to the last page, it goes on and on within us.’ And oh, amen to that too.

She speaks of the process, too, in that same wonderful essay – of the middles, if you will – and how the story is irretrievably tangled with its teller: ‘CS Lewis, in a letter to a friend, says, “There is only one Creator and we merely mix the elements He gives us” – a statement less simple than it seems. For that ‘mere mixing’, while making it impossible for us to say “I myself am the maker” also shows us our essential place in the process. Elements among elements, we are there to shape, order, define, and in doing this we, reciprocally, are defined and shaped and ordered. The potter, moulding the receptive clay, is himself being moulded.’

And yes, this, too. No story I have ever written – no good, true, valuable story – has left me, its writer, unchanged, unshaken. If it does leave me that way then it is not a good or true or valuable story. Again, a simple truth but one which waited for a Travers to put it under the magnifying glass of her insight for its truth to leap at me. Yes, my stories have written me every bit as much as I have written them. How else could a world be?

And then – wonderfully – she picks up on a theme that I myself have written on, before I met her in these pages. The story, as river.

Here’s what she says, in another essay published far later (in 1981) than I had chronologically placed her, in that same journal called ‘Parabola’ from New York, which seems to be a treasure house of these Travers pieces:

‘For, true to its multisidedness, what myth takes with one hand it will give with the others. Anyone able to sit and listen to the bees will constantly find himself reminded of the turbulent groundswell of ancient lore; of what, as St Augustine said, ‘Was, is and will ever be. Ever, yes, and everywhere. The rivers of the world, the planet’s bloodstream, commune with other underground for, in fact, they are all one river – Ganges, that flows out of Shiva’s hair, Shenandoah and the wide Missouri, the trickle of liquid history with London on its banks – all have the same story to tell.’

As a comparison, here’s what I had to say about it, in my introduction to the anthology called “River” which I edited a couple of years back – part of an earlier essay, entitled “There Is Only One River”, which I wrote for the e-zine ‘St Petersburg Gazette’ on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Mark Twain’s death. This is what I wrote:

 

“I was born on the banks of the Danube – when it is already an old river, muddy, treacherous, full of shifting sandbanks and sucking mud and terrifying whirlpools. This was the river that held my own imagination.

I was told stories about it when I was barely a toddler, of the years when the winters were so diamond-hard that the ice on the river was thick enough to bear sleighs and horses and they had sleigh races, complete with thundering hooves of iron-shod horses, up and down the frozen river. The river which ate life during the war, when the invaders took the local residents out onto the ice and pushed them under, sometimes still alive, for the crime of being who and what they were. The river which threw out bright glints when the summer sun hit the water lapping at the muddy banks, or the deep green depths where sometimes the clear water lingered; the river whose bottom was trawled by great bewhiskered catfish whose smaller representatives you could see moving sluggishly in a large tank at the marketplace and you could walk up to it, point to the fish you wanted, and it would be expertly extracted and brained and decapitated and wrapped up for you while you waited – but I, even as a child, knew that there had to be bigger and wiser catfish in the river who had lived there for a century or more and were far too canny to get trapped into that death-tank.

I was told that when my grandfather was a child the river was still clean enough to drink from. When my mother was a child it was still clean enough to swim in (and you probably wouldn’t catch anything too bad if you swallowed a mouthful or two). By the time my time came, you’d probably catch seven different kinds of dysentery from the thing, and it smelled of diesel, closer to the main quay where the boats tied up, and, further down the embankment, of soft squelching ripe river mud, the kind that would suck the shoes off your feet if you wandered too deep into it. The mud hid things that were known as bikovi, a kind of seed pod which was distinguished by sharp spikes – three of whom at any given time served as a steady tripod on which the thing rested and the fourth pointed straight up, sharp and solid and sturdy enough to drive through the sole of a shoe. One didn’t walk barefoot on the shore – at least not where there wasn’t open sand – without paying close attention to where one stepped.

I loved my river with a great love. The Danube which was not blue, not here, and never was. It does not matter. I worshipped the great brown water flowing swiftly by. I loved the ramshackle fishing boats pulled up on the sandbanks out where the river was not constrained by concrete or great levees. I loved the forests of cats’ tails and other water reeds that crowded its shallows, wading out into the stream. I even loved the sharp seedpods which I took such care to avoid. I loved the way it looked, the way it smelled, the way it flowed through my own veins, like blood and memory.

I was, still am, in a sort of superstitious awe of the thing. When I returned to the city of my birth in the aftermath of the NATO bombing campaign in 1999, the one that had taken out ALL the bridges that bound together the parts of the city on the river’s two banks, the only way across was by crowded ferries which often had standing room only and were stuffed with as much humanity as they could carry… or by cockleshell boats plied by private enterprise, which would take you across for coin, like the ferryman across the Styx. We did that, my mother and my aunt and I, one time, and sat in the little wooden boat as it was flung across the river by the good offices of a tiny outboard motor. I remember sitting on the wooden seat in the boat, next to the edge, with the boat low enough in the water that I could, if I wanted to, reach out a hand and trail it in the water as we crossed the river.

And I tried.

I put out a hand and spread out fingers that trembled… and I could not make myself touch that holy water. Holy, to me, for so long. I had been warned against its whirlpools as a child and now there they were, swirling brown and oddly innocuous right next to my boat… and I could not touch them. Because the legends I carried in my heart and in my spirit told me that there really WAS a river god living here, and that he was drowsing, and that my touch might wake him, and I would pay the price.

The great river. The old river. The river of dreams, and of power, and of eternity, flowing like time.

[Mark Twain’s] gift to me was to realise eventually that there was a way to make something into an archetype that transcended the mere quotidian. My Danube would have been a stranger to a Twain riverboat, or a black slave running away to freedom; the Mississippi would have equally been a stranger to sleigh races on ice, or to the specific kind of water reeds that grew on its banks. But I like to think that the catfish of both rivers would have found a common tongue between them as they slipped past the archetypical waters of all rivers and of all time. And I like to think that some day, if I find myself with my toes curled into the mud of the banks of the old downstream Mississippi of the Twain stories, I will instinctively be watching out for sharp seed pods which could not possibly be there.”

 

I can’t help thinking – hoping, perhaps – that P L Travers might have picked up a copy of my own essay and found something to recognize in there, just as I found hers to be treasures of the familiar made strange and the strange made familiar.

As I said, I have never read the actual story of Mary Poppins, in print, in P L Travers’s own words. Perhaps I really owe it to her, after all these years, to go back to those words, and hope that they carry the same kind of richness that her essays have given to me over the last couple of weeks that I’ve been dipping into this collection.

Nothing, as she said herself, is ever finished. And now that I’ve closed the cover of this book… it only means that I am urged to go on, go further, and find other books that speak to me, books by this literate, insightful, amusing, poignant, wise sister in words whom I found between these particular covers.

I am learning to listen to bees.

 

 

 

 

 

 

FORENSICS 177: MYSTERIOUS MURDERESS

This essay might be of special interest to writers of detective and mystery novels who would like to enrich their stories by providing their readers with a gift of extra details. It might also be of general interest to many other readers, especially those who are CSI and NCIS fans.

******
It was a warm April day in 2007. Smoke drifted lazily from open windows of a parked patrol car as Michele, a 22-year-old policewoman, sat enjoying her favorite cigarette, a Gauloise. Apparently on a lunch break, she had driven to a park in Heilbronn, Germany and parked under a shade tree. Sitting beside her was her partner, Martin. It was the first time he had joined Michele on patrol. It was also his last. While parked, both officers were shot in the head. Martin barely survived. Michele did not.

Police found little evidence to help with their investigation of the shooting, only bits of DNA lifted from the car. The only information it provided was that the DNA had been deposited by a woman. It was ultimately discovered, however, that the DNA matched that found at the scenes of a number of previous crimes. The crimes included the strangling in May 1993 of a 62-year-old woman with wire used to hold a bunch of flowers. Matching DNA was found on the rim of a teacup. Matching DNA was found in March 2001 at a house belonging to a 61-year-old antiques dealer. He had been strangled with garden twine. In October 2001, matching DNA was found on the remains of a cookie in a trailer that had been broken into. During the same month, matching DNA was discovered on a syringe found by a 7-year-old boy in a wooded area. This led the authorities to think the woman they sought might have been a homicidal drug addict.

Within the period between finding the DNA of interest on the syringe and finding its match in 2007 at the scene of the shooting of the two police officers, it was discovered at the scenes of a series of crimes including bank robberies, home invasions, vehicle theft, a bombing or two and burglaries in France and Austria as well as Germany. Interestingly, Bavaria, which comprises a fifth of the area of Germany, reported no crimes believed to be related to the unknown woman.

In February 2008, the bodies of three Georgian car dealers were pulled from a river near Heppenheim, Germany. DNA matching the DNA of interest was found in a car used to transport the three bodies and driven by a suspect involved in their deaths.

Meanwhile, the unknown woman suspected of being the source of the DNA of interest had become known in the media as The Phantom of Heilbronn and The Woman Without a Face.

Altogether, the DNA of interest was found at some 40 sites. A hundred or so police officers had become involved in the woman hunt. By January 2009, a reward offered for information leading to her arrest had risen to 300,000 euros. One optimistic police chief even announced in April 2008 that they were “closing in on her.”

Efforts to find the Phantom of Heilbronn suffered a jolt when the French discovered a charred body believed to be that of a man who had sought asylum and then disappeared back in 2002. His fingerprints had been taken when he had applied for asylum. In an attempt to identify the body, a DNA sample was taken. Surprisingly, it was found to match that of the DNA of interest. A second test was performed using fresh testing implements, and no matching DNA could be found.

That, and especially the fact that the charred body was that of a male, finally led authorities to conclude that the female Phantom of Heilbronn was just that: a phantom. They determined that a woman in a factory that made the swabs used to take DNA samples had apparently touched them, leaving her DNA upon them. Reportedly, the cotton swabs used to collect DNA samples during the hunt for the Phantom of Heilbronn had been sterilized, and that removes bacteria, fungi and viruses. Unfortunately, it does not destroy DNA. With one big poof, that left some 40 investigations dangling in midair.

******

A case semisimilar to the foregoing case involved the murders of two women that also had investigators scratching their heads.

Autopsies of bodies of persons whose deaths are caused by foul play or unknown means are naturally more rigorous than those performed on bodies of persons that died from natural causes. They include scraping and clipping fingernails and analyzing material found beneath them. Such an autopsy of a woman brutally murdered in London yielded biological material that might have been clawed from the murderess by her victim.

DNA from the material was found to match that of DNA archived in the National DNA Database. Given the information provided by a DNA comparison, it seemed apparent that the woman whose DNA was in the archive had most likely murdered the “victim” under whose fingernails the biological material had been found. What made investigators just a bit suspicious was the fact that the woman whose DNA had been archived had herself been murdered some three weeks before the victim she was suspected of murdering had been murdered.

The victim’s nails had been painted in a unique, leopard-skin pattern and her nail clippings and those of her suspected murderess had never been taken out of laboratory storage at the same time. Furthermore, the nail analyses had been done several weeks apart and by different analysts, so there was little chance of the clippings having been intermixed.

Although the autopsies of the two women had been performed at the same mortuary, they had arrived weeks apart. The body of the suspected murderess had been kept in a freezer for a few weeks while detectives completed an initial investigation. It was then removed from the freezer so that a pathologist could take additional nail clippings. The nail clippers used had been cleaned and then used again to clip the nails of the victim the following day. They were eventually found to have DNA traces of three different persons.

A lesson having been learned, the recommended nail clipping procedure is now to clip nails with disposable clippers and to place them in an evidence bag with their associated clippings to ensure they are used only once.

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION:

The service weapon and handcuffs of the murdered policewoman, Michele, were ultimately found in a camper van used by two supposed neo-Nazi terror cell members to flee following a bank robbery. They reportedly committed suicide as police approached and were subsequently held responsible for shooting Michele and her partner, Martin.

In early January 2009, one euro was reported to have been worth 1.3946 dollars. 300,000 euros would thus have been worth 418,380 US dollars.

Reportedly, more than 99 percent of DNA in a human is identical to that in other humans. It is the remaining DNA that provides us with our individuality. The probability of identical DNA being found in two unrelated persons has been estimated to be less than one in a billion.

For readers who enjoy large numbers, average humans have an estimated three billion DNA bases in their genomes.

Thomas Sullivan: IF ONLY…

“Most people are afraid to win.”

You couldn’t have come up with a statement I disagreed with more. It was a time in my life when I could taste world records and Olympic gold in swimming and water polo, and I certainly wasn’t afraid to win. But here was Doc Counsilman, friend and Olympic swimming coach, a man whose empirical judgment I admired profoundly, stating it unequivocally based on his research.

I chewed it up and down and came out with the interpretation that winning means you now have to protect what you’ve won, which puts you on the defensive. Instead of having a goal in front of you, you have a laurel in the rearview mirror to maintain. Big difference in motivation. You’ve gone from a desire for winning to fear of losing. Hence, the fear in the first place that Doc was citing, a sort of fatalistic preview of being “the fastest gun in the West” wherein you can no longer win anything but only try to hang onto your victory, defend your conquest, or just stay alive against all comers.

My analysis back then barely scratched the surface, I believe now. Sure being King of the Mountain is tough, but fear of failure is much more subtle and nuanced than that. It happens at every level of endeavor however small. We indulge that fear in order to defend ourselves against surprise, shock, disappointment. It happens in the minutia of life or on a grand scale that robs us of happiness, careers and relationships. It happens to butchers, bakers and candlestick makers, to husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, lovers and friends, children, doctors, sales people…it happens to writers. Fear of failure.

I remember when I was pitching Little League baseball, we had a first baseman who would never move in front of a ground ball, never position himself for easy fielding. Instead, he would wait for the ball to reach almost alongside him, then make a spectacular dive for it. He rarely caught anything and sustained a lot of scrapes and bruises, but no one could say he actually failed. He was avoiding a circumstance where he should win – should catch the ball. Instead, he created a circumstance where if he did catch a ball, it was against the odds and therefore a triumph without risk of at-fault failure.

I don’t know if he actually fooled anyone else, but he fooled himself. Probably no one who saw through him wanted to copy that strategy. I know I didn’t. My mind was made up not to be phony in competition or reaching for a goal, not to fear trying. I don’t think this was some sort of philosophical revelation, but it was a key awareness that guided me somewhat randomly into a lot of pluses in my life. Discoveries and adventures followed, avoiding conformity that would lead to mediocrity, not being intimidated out of my dreams, daring to romanticize – all things that disposed me to be a writer and (more importantly) a thinking, creative person. Creative traps like “writer’s block” have never psyched me and my unintimidated imagination seems to be on steroids. But it wasn’t until Doc Counsilman’s research that I extended the “Eureka!” moment of Little League baseball to realize I was the biggest coward in the biggest area of life there is. Because if fear of failure happens to butchers, bakers and candlestick makers, it also happens to romantic idealists.

Trusting love was never on my radar. I’ve written about this before, so I’m not going to go into it again, but there is nothing more vulnerable than a cynic, and the Gods of Irony saw me for what I was and licked their chops. The thing of it is, most people are more sophisticated by the time they play that game. Most people hedge their bets, call up their defenses proactively, put sandbags around their high ground – protect themselves. I was too dumb for that, and so I was failure tested in the extreme – and rewarded in the extreme. And that was the final piece of confirmation I needed to get past fear of failure forever. Because most people are so afraid deep inside that they will fail or that they are unworthy or that they will be hurt, that they effectively block the highest levels of fulfillment, truth and peace within their reach.

There is no downside to failure unless it is the failure to act.

But the failure to act is exactly where most of us go when our dreams are at risk of not coming true. Not by design – no, hardly that. We get to first base, so to speak, and put on the glove, and dive too late to catch the ball. We tell ourselves that the obstacle is outside ourselves, because it is too painful to admit that it is inside ourselves. So it becomes just another hurt we can blame on things beyond our control, another painful experience assaulting our tender hopes in a disappointing world.

We feel we have no control when in fact we do. We revert to instincts that tell us to hunker down and wait until the horrible stress of actually having control becomes moot. While our minds tell us we live secure and free in a modern world, we trust reflexes of caution that are a million years old in evolution to freeze us in place until fate settles it. Unfortunately, there is no expiration date on cautions that once had survival value but are now useless. Worse than useless, they become impediments. If you want to move forward, you have to sort through them and throw them out yourself. Sometimes choice is a choice.

The most common self-destructive obstacle to success I know is something I call the IF ONLY accomplice to fear of failure. If only this hadn’t happened or that, then I would’ve done this or done that. Have you ever known someone who only commits to boldness when it’s too late? Like my first baseman who waited until the ball was about to pass on by, they wait until some effective blockade is in place before they pay lip service to what they would have done IF ONLY? Avoidance, denial, procrastination, rationalization, practicing extinction – these are incestuous kin to IF ONLY. This is guaranteed failure based on the illusion that you cannot lose if you never take life’s chances. Au contraire to that. Failure by omission is failure in the extreme, because it’s the failure that never has to be.

Doc Counsilman had it right. Thanks, Doc, because it’s now a cardinal perspective on people for me, a great truism I accept in principle. I consider fear of failure to be useless, a sure way to become a no-show for your own life, a thing to be conquered. As a writer and a creative person, I’ve learned to turn IF ONLY into WHAT IF. I’m still dumb in a lot of ways, cowardly, but I’m also confident that I can find a workaround to almost any problem, and I know that the way forward will inevitably be IN me – the way I choose to think.

So, did I conquer my own demon? Yes, for a while. And I guess I’d do it again, if only to come to where I am now. Because truth and knowledge are the sole proof I can have that I took the journey. I have won by creatively reaching for the stars. I have avoided losing. My ticket is punched and I am onboard for all points ahead!

Being creative means learning how to seize the initiative. You are, after all, inventing, breaking the mold, filling a void where nothing existed but your vision or dream. Before you can move into the positive territory of actually creating something in life, whether it’s a book or a relationship, you have to eliminate the negative – the fears. But as in everyday living, the human propensity to make gestures of effort without solid commitment is always there, going hand-in-hand with IF ONLY.

A few months ago I posted this quote on Facebook: “Do, or Do Not. There is no Try.” – Yoda

How does that comport with my sentiment above that the only failure is the failure to try? It’s a critical distinction that some won’t get, because to “try” is often just a back door to escape, if your heart’s not in it. The absolutes in life are black and white. Try can be tentative, not a commitment but rather a contingency. Decisiveness is what wins the day and makes the play. But its decisiveness to TRY with full honesty and expectation of success, not a gesture of effort to avoid being tested. Ask my first baseman.

Thomas “Sully” Sullivan

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“I want my life to be extraordinary”

__________________________________________________________

Just yesterday, flapping around the Web as you do, I tripped across this article

It’a about “anomie”, and they define the term like this:

Anomie, which literally means “without law” in German and French, was defined by Durkheim to be a state of “normlessness.” ….in times of social change and upheaval, clear societal standards and expectations for individuals vanish. Without “clear rules, norms, or standards of value” people feel anxious, rootless, confused, and even suicidal. Life in an age of anomie can often feel empty and meaningless.

Hm.

A little further down, we get this:

I have a friend who is endlessly lamenting that he wants his life “to be extraordinary.” But when I ask him what that means, he shakes his head, and says, “I don’t even know-it’s just this feeling that haunts me all the time.”

Life is a search for meaning. Sometimes, all too often in fact, we don’t even consciously realise that this is what we are doing – but we pursue things, and accomplish things, and aim for things, and want things, that will *add meaning to our lives*. We search out mates we believe will complete us in some deeply esoteric way that we never fully understand (and therefore many of us fail to succeed at this, long-term; the contemporary solution is divorce and a going of separate ways but not THAT long ago divorce was a social stigma one could not easily admit into one’s life and manner of existence and lots of our forebears stuck it out in failed relationships which lasted DECADES…) We choose careers we believe will fulfill us – but for many of us the major choices come at a time when we are still too young to know our own minds, and some of us will wind up going to college, getting multiple degrees in a discipline, and then chafe for years at working under the constraints of that discipline until we either drop in the traces or else find the courage to change horses midstream, as it were, and begin to pursue an existence more congenial to what our adult and fully formed selves find fulfilling as opposed to the callow young things we were at 16 or 18 or even our early twenties.

I don’t completely agree with everything that the article which started me thinking about this actually says. For one thing, it’s from a site which is blatantly called “The Art of Manliness” – and the female experience begins to diverge from that “art” almost immediately. If our grandmothers and great-grandmothers fought for votes, and our sixties-mothers (or ourselves) fought for freedom, those of us walking the Earth today are far from able to bury the weapons and declare the fight over. Far too many of us are still stuck on the “lesser human being” level. Far too many of us are dismissed or denied, our achievements buried, our prospects far less stellar than those of our male counterparts no matter HOW good we are in a discipline shared by both minds.

Take science. How many pre-21st century female scientists of high achievement can you name, off the cuff, just like that, RIGHT NOW? (No, OTHER than Marie Curie…)

Here’s a short list. There have been other worthy candidates added in comments, if you scroll down. How many of those names did you know? How many did you, as your eye slid over them, actually recognise – an “Oh, YEAH” moment – but would not have thought of yourself if you had been asked to give a list of ten names without looking at at encyclopedia or, well, a website?

How about space exploration? How many people know who the Mercury 13 were, and what their aspirations were, and how they ended up? How many female astronauts can you name, even today…?

Take literature. There was ONE Jane Austen. Before they became famous in their own right, the Brontes wrote under male names (Currer Bell, anybody…?)Male names were used to make sure that publishers took their works “seriously” and that the reading public accepted them as being written by the kind of human being who was thought, at the time, to have an actual MIND. Having one of those was frowned on, for a little while at least and in the right circles of society, if you were a girl. Some other 19th century examples of this were Mary Ann Evans (whom you might know better as George Eliot) and a lady who rejoiced in the mouthful of a name that is Amandine Aurore Lucile Dupin, Baronne Dudevant (better known as George Sand). Isak Dinesen, who wrote the sublime “Out of Africa”, was actually Karen Blixen. And if you think that we’re past this in the 20th century and even the 21st, we’ve just changed the nature of the beast a little. The Harry Potter stories may or may not have sold like the hot cakes they did if the author’s name on the cover was JOANNE Rowling rather than J.K. – and there are lots and lots of examples of those “ungendered” author names out there (D.C. Fontana, S.E. Hinton, J.A. Jance… I’m sure you can add to this list without too much trouble…)

All of these women wanted their lives to be… well… extraordinary. And all of them were to a greater or lesser degree tramelled by the “normalcy” of their times.

It is far more acceptable today than it has ever been before in herstory (the female version of HIStory) that a woman has a vocation which she can turn into a career – that a woman can work at a job because she wishes to do so and not because it’s a minimum wage sloggery thing that she is forced to do because her children are starving – but even so there are invisible strings attached, and the glass ceiling has a nice hard crack on it, perhaps even large enough for a few to crawl through, but it is very much still there for the rest. And a woman really DOES have to be twice as good and work twice as hard to be considered half as good as a man, in many disciplines. I’m lucky enough, myself, to be born into a time where the idea of a woman writing a book is not as actively foreign as it used to be – if I had been born in the times of an Emily Bronte I too might have put my hair up under a cloth cap and found a boy’s name and soldiered on incognito. My life might have been extraordinary, in those terms, but it would have been a life that would not, in a certain sense, have been my own. It would have been borrowed, it would have been stolen, it would have been faked.

But it doesn’t have to translate into a stellar accomplishment of any sort at all, really. If I say I want my life to be extraordinary… well… I just mean that I want it to touch other lives, in some meaningful way. In my own case, I may do this through the books I write, and my life is filled with extraordinary moments – every time I get someone walking up to me at a con, or writing me an email, and telling me that they loved something I wrote and that it had changed them in whatever small way it was able to do this, that’s a luminous and extraordinary moment for me, and I string them down my days and my years like pearls and wear them proudly. But some people are gifted enough for their mere presence, for the brushing past of another’s existence in whatever minute manner that might be, to be extraordinary – for them to be remembered, for them to be loved. I could not go to my grandmother’s funeral – it was in another country from the one where I was living at the time that she died, on another continent. But I saw the pictures from it. Her casket was surrounded by people, by people who mourned her loss, the fact that she was no longer amongst them. Everyone came, everyone whose lives she had been even the tiniest part of. People whose only link to her might have been a conversation. But she was that kind of woman. She existed, and her mere existence made her life extraordinary.

I would do well to accomplish half that much.

I want my life to be extraordinary. I’ve filled it with love, and with rich experience, and with books and with a sense of wonder; it now remains to translate that, to transmute it, to leave it behind in some tangible or intangible form – a book, or a memory – and to enrich someone else’s life with a sliver of it, a kernel, a piece of grit, something around which they can build their own pearl.

I want my life to be extraordinary.

I guess I will never know if I fully succeeded in achieving that. Nobody is given to do that – the verdict on a life well lived often comes way too late for the one who did the living of it to know. But some day, somewhere, I want somebody… to remember my name with love. THAT would make for an extraordinary life. That alone. Right there.

FORENSICS 176: 0 ELECTRON, ELECTRON, WHERE ART THOU ELECTRON?

In my previous piece (FORENSICS 175: MASS SPECTROMETERS), I mentioned that, if enough readers wished to tread on the probabilistic terrain where dwell atomic electrons, that I might consider exploring their actions from a perspective of quantum theory. I saw no hands go up until shortly after I had published the piece. Our very own Thomas (Sully) Sullivan then waved his hand.
For those who might not have read my previous piece, I have included the following three paragraphs from it.

Fans of the forensic investigation dramas on television have probably noticed various instruments used in crime laboratories to analyze evidence. One has likely been used to identify constituents of various substances and is known as a mass spectrometer. Such instruments appear to be quite complicated, but their ability to perform their duty basically hinges on the simple fact that electrically charged particles moving through a magnetic field are forced into a curved path. Measuring the radius of the curvature provides information used to identify the constituents, and that is basically what the instrument does to earn its cost.

Readers who have had the good fortune to have had classes in physical sciences might recall that molecules are formed of two or more atoms. Classical physics describes most atoms as comprising nuclei containing positively charged protons and neutral neutrons. Negatively charged electrons dwell outside the nucleus. According to classical physics, electrons live in orbits and revolve around the nucleus much like planets circling a star. Quantum theory paints a different picture of electron actions that is more complex. If enough readers wish to tread on the probabilistic terrain of quantum theory, I might consider exploring it. (I don’t see any hands going up, so I will put that subject aside.)

Readers might also recall that, in addition to electrically charged particles, there are such things as electric and magnetic fields. An electric field may be thought of as being a force created per unit of electric charge. A magnetic field may be thought of in terms of a mathematical description of the magnetic influence of electric currents and magnetic materials. The fields might also be thought of as the source of action at a distance.

Be prepared to open your mind, because we will be dipping a toe tip into the atomic and subatomic world of quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics has been defined as being a branch of physics that deals with the structure and behavior of molecules, atoms, subatomic particles and their interactions with light. It is a world where, for example, two particles that once interacted can remain linked even when moved light years apart. This “entanglement” is what Einstein referred to as spooky action at a distance. Additional, apparently impossible actions include particles appearing and disappearing and tunneling through matter. Particles can also behave like particles and also like waves. A common laboratory experiment has an electron pass through two parallel slits simultaneously, thus displaying its wave property.

Nobel-Prize-winning, theoretical physicist Richard P. Feynman, held to be one of the top ten physicists of all time, reportedly stated that nobody completely understood quantum theory. In spite of this, quantum theory provides extremely accurate predictions of subatomic-scale phenomena.

The word “quantum gained popularity not too long ago and has been used in many ways. In the world of physics, the word “quantum” usually refers to the smallest, discrete amount of a physical property, for example, matter or energy.

As a brief review, an atom comprises a nucleus containing one or more positively charged protons and zero or more uncharged neutrons. A standard-model atom includes one or more electrons circling the nucleus in orbits that are specific distances from the nucleus. Neutrally charged atoms are those whose positive and negative electric charges are equal. Those that are not equal are known as positive or negative ions. Forms of elements that differ from those having the same number of protons, but a different number of neutrons, are known as isotopes.

As mentioned in the second, italicized paragraph, quantum theory does not describe electrons revolving about an atom’s nucleus in specific orbits. This would allow certain pairs of physical properties, known as complementary variables, such as position and momentum, to be known at the same time. Knowing the two variables simultaneously would also allow future positions to be determined. Such knowledge is prohibited according to what is known as the uncertainty principle. As the accuracy of knowing the location of a particle, such as an electron, increases, the accuracy of knowing its momentum decreases and vice versa. As mentioned in the second italicized paragraph, the terrain of quantum theory is probabilistic. For example, one can know, at the same time, only the probability of an electron being in a certain place and having a certain momentum.

Due to the wave nature of quantum objects as presently interpreted, it follows that the uncertainty principle is a fundamental property of quantum systems.

In a quantum world, closely disposed around each atom’s nucleus, rather than specific orbits, are volumes of space within which are points each of which bears a probability of being the location of an electron. The volumes represent the probabilistic terrain mentioned in the second italicized paragraph. The volumes are often referred to as electron clouds. They are more formally known as orbitals.

That particles can also behave like waves is known as wave-particle duality. Its significance resides in the fact that the behavior of light and matter can be described using a differential equation representing a wave function. Differential equations are means of expressing the laws of nature mathematically. A wave function is a variable quantity that mathematically describes the characteristics of a particle. The mathematical square of the wave function can be used to calculate the probability of finding an electron of an atom at a specific point and time in any specific, localized region.

Although most atomic electrons live fairly close to their nucleuses, if you want to be 100 percent certain that an electron is in an orbital, be aware that the orbital must be the size of the Universe.

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION:

An electron is a subatomic particle having a negative electric charge. Since electrons have no known substructure, they and their electric charges are considered to be elementary. Protons are small, only about 1.6 to 1.7 x 10^-15 (1.6 to 1.7 times 10 to the minus 15th power) meters in diameter. They have a mass of only 1.6726 x 10^- 27 kilograms, but that is some1836 times the mass of an electron. Neutrons are just a bit more massive than protons. They have a mass of 1.6749 x 10^-27 kilograms.

Quantum mechanics is not merely an academic exercise. It has practical applications that are familiar to nonscientists. Among these are the electron microscope, the laser, the transistor (including diodes) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Quantum tunneling is used to erase memory cells of flash memory chips.

This piece addresses quantum electron orbitals, but Quantum theory also relates to the following subjects and more:

Quantum chemistry
Quantum chromodynamics
Quantum computing
Quantum electrodynamics
Quantum electroweak interaction
Quantum field theory (within which a number of the other subjects reside)
Quantum gravity
Quantum optics

By the way, the title of this piece is but a play on a few of Shakespeare’s famous words. Some who have read or seen a production of the play, Romeo and Juliet, think that, by asking the famous question, “O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” Shakespeare’s character, Juliet, is asking where Romeo is. Actually. she is more accurately asking why he must have a last name (Montague) that is the name of a family feuding with her family, which has a different last name (Capulet). Juliet later states that “Tis but thy name that is my enemy” and “O be some other name.” and “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet.” The title of this piece, of course, asks where an electron might be.

Thomas Sullivan: ZIGZAG

My skinny skis just won’t behave when spring crust skiing arrives, and so when they whiz and wheel across the glorious glides of 7 states, I find very few moments for the keyboard.  But I’ve been meaning to post a Sullygram (my monthly newsletter) as a column for some time now and just never got around to it.  The Sullygrams began some years ago in response to fans and friends and sort of evolved into inspirational/motivational raves about nature in particular and life in general that are now seen by thousands of readers around the world.  They usually include a dozen photos.  A sample is below, minus the photos (this blog has maxed out its space limit for photos), but if you would like to see them, feel free to write me at mn333mn@earthlink.net and ask to be added to the monthly mailing list.  Sullygrams W/photos are also archived at this link:  http://www.thomassullivanauthor.com/sullygrams.htm  But give me a day or so to get the newest photos up after you read the following:

Snow is the Mother Church for my Gospel of freedom and energy – which is why I chased it across 7 states last month.  It was literally a journey of fire and ice the first couple days, as I passed a burning farmhouse in Wyoming and survived an ice storm in the mountains of Utah.  But then I was back in Hailey, Heidi-ho (Idaho), drinking blackberry malts at the Snow Bunny, nestled among familiar places with cool names like The Wicked Spud.

Not so familiar the next day.  “You can’t get lost,” my dear friend and host Bruce Norvell assures me when we hit the mountains on skinny skis.  Oh, can’t I?  With hundreds of miles of enchanting Nordic ski trails, getting lost is kind of the point.  You can leave your car at the base of a mountain, hitchhike up 20K or more, then ski back down to where you parked.  So maybe we overdid it a little by parking UP a mountain, skiing down from the 14K marker to the end of our run and then turning back up the mountain.  Bruce tells me to take off at that point for a solo run, which I do.  But somehow I blow past the 14K between Prairie Creek and Cathedral Pines.  When the trail peters out, I keep climbing and wind up on snowmobile tracks.  Finally, realizing I missed the car, I take off my skis and try to shortcut back through deep drifts.  Soaked, exhausted, cold, dehydrated, thoroughly lost in falling snow and carrying skis and poles, I slog along a line I hope is dead reckoning.

Only it isn’t.

My buddy and his dog never come in sight.  So now I’m thinking something happened to him.  Never mind that it’s me who’s gotten himself in trouble, the conviction grows in my paper thin skull that Bruce, who skis this stuff alone practically every day, is lying with a broken leg in some snowbank.  I’m like Don Quixote, and every story I’ve ever read or written about dying of exposure in the Yukon or on Mount Everest is coming back to me.  An adrenaline surge spikes my blood because this is really happening!  And how am I going to rescue my lifelong buddy when I’m shaking with fatigue and so out of calories I can’t find the road, let alone the trail?  I try calling, but my voice is just a frozen warble in my throat.  Hoping to pick up tracks, I begin zigzagging across the tundra.  Zigzag.  Bruce’s dog is Ziggy, and maybe it is that similarity between name and description which finally brings Zig the Wonder Dog and then Bruce hisself in sight, totally unscathed.  Too easy to get lost, too easy to get in trouble, too easy to imagine the worst, and I did all three.  But all’s well that ends well.  And it really ended well an hour or so later when I got another Snow Bunny blackberry malt through an IV.  Or maybe it was through a straw.

The great adventures from ensuing days defy capturing.  And how do you describe après adventure stuff like scintillating conversations about everything under the sun, or Bruce lighting a stove fire with a blowtorch as we kick back at his horse ranch for a Roku documentary on the fabulous Goran Kropp’s odyssey or the flick “Blue Jasmine,” or Sully cooking pecan chicken with clementines, or dinner at Dashi’s followed by dancing at the Duchin room in the lodge at Sun Valley where Bruce and friend Janice lit up the dance floor with world-class sashays, spins, dips and patented moves worthy of primetime, or the hikes and drives?  You had to be there.

Hopefully the few pictures at the end of this email will sharpen the focus: #1 just another mundane miracle of nature; #2 Bruce at Galena Lodge; #3 bulletproof rugged scarps like this surround you in the mountains; #4 not so bulletproof are these “natural” reminders that avalanches can start whenever you get near vertical snow; #5 me at the start of Gladiator Loop; #6 another dynamic thrust of mountains you won’t see me trying to ski; #7 starting a snowball fight with Bruce to work up an appetite for breakfast; #8 Walt Disneyesque scenery like this is my favorite part of winter; #9 a slightly more friendly snow slope; #10 Bruce and Janice dancing at the Duchin room in Sun Valley Lodge (had a great conversation with Joe Fos, a consummate pianist who studied at Juilliard and whose trio entertained us all night); #11 moi just as the snow starts to fly on a trail called Psycho Adventure; #12 another establishing shot for the day’s perspective in either the Sawtooth or Pioneer Mountains (don’t bother me with names – I just skinny ski ‘em).

And if you’d like to feel what it’s like more vividly, here’s a short stormskiing vid I posted on YouTube.  Watch this magnificent setting on a big screen with the volume up full.  You can hear the ice pellets pinging on the camera lens, and you will almost ski into a creek – hard to tell but the tail of one ski is over unsupported snow!  Wish I’d gotten the whole run, which was quite long, on video.  In fact, I was singing another great buddy’s hit – soul bro Glenn Frey’s “The Long Run” – to myself on the way down.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K729kS02TNI&feature=youtu.be

Nature kick-starts those pathetically scarce elements in my soul that have the power to redeem me.  And sometimes that’s all you need.  As I wrote in Facebook recently, hope already achieves its ends just by being hope.  And if you can get that far, you are only a little courage and a little imagination away from making dreams into realities.  Hope your dreams are becoming your reality.  My mailbox overflows with laments from people who feel life is passing them by, but virtually all of them are complicit with their own imprisonment.  Keeping faith with life’s contradictions, façades and disappointments shouldn’t keep you from finding yourself in inner sanctums, private sanctuaries and daily moments where magic still lives and you can be true to yourself.  As in my recent adventure recounted above, sometimes you have to zigzag through the storm in order to survive and find what you seek.

[Again, if you’d like to receive Sullygrams W/photos, feel free to write me at mn333mn@earthlink.net and ask to be added to the monthly mailing list.]

Thomas “Sully” Sullivan

You can see all my books in any format here on my webpage or follow me on Facebook:

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Then and now

I belonged to the Carl Sagan F1 generation. I saw the original “Cosmos” series, when first aired, at first sitting.

I was never quite the same again.

Decades later the theme music from the show still makes me come up in goose bumps. I own the book of the show, all the dreams and facts and pretty pictures, all the wonder of the universe. I see an image of Carl Sagan’s smile – that smile that somehow said, hey, kid, we’re all in this together – or I hear some snippet of an old interview, and I am young again, and the sense of wonder rises about me like a fabulous landscape which still belongs to me and I can lift my eyes to the Milky Way galaxy splashed across the night sky.

I saw the Milky Way in its glory back when I was at University, roughly at the same vintage as the original series aired, out in the trackless wastes of the Karoo, in South Africa’s Cape Province. It’s endless semi-desert, arid scrubland where you could drive for hours on an empty road and not see another soul, and where night comes hard and heavy and black and the stars are close enough to cut your hand on if you reach up to touch the sky. I have never forgotten that glimpse of eternity, it haunts me to this day.

Many decades later, when I had the opportunity of attending the Launch Pad astronomy workshop for writers in Laramie, Wyoming, and seeing the Milky Way rise again across an empty dark sky undimmed by bright city lights, I broke down and cried. For the joy, for the wonder, for the stars.

I came to that original “Cosmos” with the heart of a child, a huge sense of awe and of utter blind wonder that struck me as I learned all the amazing things that the universe was scattering before me. That Sagan “Cosmos” left me included, warm, whole, tucked into bed with the planets and the moons and the stars, their equal, their child, their friend.

I waited for the reincarnation of “Cosmos” with mixed feelings; there are some things that might not lend themselves to re-creation. But then again, how much MORE wondrous could things be now, with all the technical CGI widgets which could e used to make the universe come to life, with all the data that has flowed down from things like Hubble or the Mars Rovers in the intervening years. An entirely new generation  could have a chance to dream like I had dreamed once upon a time and to wish upon a star, or upon thousands of them. To own that glorious night sky. To believe, like I once believed, that we are all one, the Sun and I and Alpha Centauri and all those worlds we haven’t even discovered yet.

Maybe the weight was too much. I find myself detached from this version of “Cosmos”. Neil Degrasse Tyson never quite manages to ignite that sense of wonder that Sagan did so effortlessly.

I honestly couldn’t tell you any more if the original series indulged in animation or not, but if it did I have (perhaps thankfully) forgotten it. But the animations in the current version diminish it, bring it down to the level of those Disney True Adventures episodes from the fifties and sixties that treated viewers as children incapable of really understanding the wonders being shown them.

With Sagan, I was flying at his side, an acolyte to be sure but one whose childlike wonder could be shaped and forged into something else, something different, something greater. With Tyson, I feel like an undergrad shifting uncomfortably on a hard seat in an old-fashioned University lecture hall while a  very personable, intelligent and engaging lecturer  pats me paternalistically on the head and  tells me to pay attention because there will be a pop quiz at the end of the lecture.

So – maybe you just can’t go home again. And maybe this new generation will just have to deal with acquiring its own sense of wonder, wherever it can find it.

I’m awfully glad I got to grow up with the first “Cosmos”, the one which relied on the wondrous nature of its subject matter, and an uncanny ability of one man to make  me feel such an indivisible part of everything that ever was or will be, to make my heart beat faster and to make me strain my ears for the distant music of the stars.

And to today’s young minds, the ones who might one day get to swim in the deeper waters of that cosmic ocean which we are just learning to paddle in right now – I hope you do find the sense of wonder. I hope that on some dark night you will lift your eyes to where your galaxy beckons with its spill of stars, and, just like me once upon a time, that the sight of it will make you cry. There is no greater gift that I can imagine giving you than those tears.

 

FORENSICS SU 175: MASS SPECTROMETERS

This essay might be of special interest to writers of detective and mystery novels who would like to enrich their stories by providing their readers with a gift of extra details. It might also be of general interest to many other readers, especially those who are CSI and NCIS fans.

******

Fans of the forensic investigation dramas on television have probably noticed various instruments used in crime laboratories to analyze evidence. One has likely been used to identify constituents of various substances and is known as a mass spectrometer. Such instruments appear to be quite complicated, but their ability to perform their duty basically hinges on the simple fact that electrically charged particles moving through a magnetic field are forced into a curved path. Measuring the radius of the curvature provides information used to identify the constituents, and that is basically what the instrument does to earn its cost.

Readers who have had the good fortune to have had classes in physical sciences might recall that molecules are formed of two or more atoms. Classical physics describes most atoms as comprising nuclei containing positively charged protons and neutral neutrons. Negatively charged electrons dwell outside the nucleus. According to classical physics, electrons live in orbits and revolve around the nucleus much like planets circling a star. Quantum theory paints a different picture of electron actions that is more complex. If enough readers wish to tread on the probabilistic terrain of quantum theory, I might consider exploring it. (I don’t see any hands going up, so I will put that subject aside.)

Readers might also recall that, in addition to electrically charged particles, there are such things as electric and magnetic fields. An electric field may be thought of as being the force created per unit of electric charge. A magnetic field may be thought of in terms of a mathematical description of the magnetic influence of electric currents and magnetic materials. The fields might also be thought of as the source of action at a distance.

A first step of a basic procedure followed when using a mass spectrometer to identify a substance is to vaporize a sample of it. The vaporized sample is then typically ionized by removing electrons from atoms and/or fragmenting molecules, leaving particles that are positively or negatively charged. A stream of ions are then accelerated by passing the stream through an electric field. The ions are accelerated by the field to a speed where the kinetic energies of all ions are equal. The stream of ions is then directed through a magnetic field, which causes the path of each ion to curve. The ions end their curved journeys when they strike various points on a detector. Where each ion strikes is a function of its mass and energy.

The position of each strike reveals the radius of curvature of each associated ions’ paths. From these values, the energies and masses of the ions can be calculated. A graphic plot of these values would typically display their characteristics as vertical blips of different heights. The patterns of these plots can be compared with previously recorded patterns in a database to identify substances and their constituents.

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION:

For those readers long out of school: molecules are formed of two or more atoms. Classical physics describes most atoms as comprising nuclei containing positively charged protons and neutral neutrons. Negatively charged electrons dwell outside the nucleus. According to classical physics, electrons live in orbits and revolve around the nucleus much like planets circling a star. Quantum theory paints a different picture that is more complex. If enough readers wish to tread on that probabilistic terrain, I might consider exploring it. (I don’t see any hands going up, so I will put that subject aside.)
Ions are atoms or molecules having more or less electrons than protons, which make them negatively or positively charged, respectively.

An isotope is a form of an element that differs from a form of the same element having the same number of protons, but a different number of neutrons. Although they have different atomic masses, isotopes of the same elements share the same chemical properties.

The hydrogen isotope, deuterium (also known as heavy hydrogen) has a neutron in its nucleus and tritium has two. Deuterium and oxygen combine to form heavy water, which is used in nuclear power reactors.

Thomas Sullivan: CABIN FEVER QUESTIONS

The Q&A’s used here borrow a lot from Sullygram correspondence – my monthly newsletter.  Sullygrams are basically an inspirational/philosophical email W/photos that you can get free just by request at mn333mn@earthlink.net .  Read by thousands of people around the world, interesting threads develop into a backlog of questions, some of which I include here.  Feel free to email me on any topic you like.  Writing and creativity can go in any direction, and they have over the years from the technical to the personal.  I think cabin fever added to the total this month – at least from the northern hemisphere.

Q [Sioux Falls, SD]: Who is your favorite female author?

A: Lots of excellent ones out there, but I’ve never read anything by Annie E. Proulx that didn’t impress me.

Q: [Beaverton, OR] Since you spend so much time exercising outdoors I’m wondering what you thought of the Winter Olympics?

A: Not sure what specifically you might be asking, so I’ll go for the most general thing that attracts me.  I deeply respect people who reach uncompromisingly for human perfection.  It really doesn’t matter to me how good they are or what they actually achieve.  It’s the attitude in the effort that matters – the spirit, the honesty, the pure courage to dream and hope and risk, because what is the great gift of life without that?  Olympic caliber athletes are people who already know that the only mistake or failure in life is to cower in conformity or fear of failure.  They trust their hearts, pursue their passions to the max, and their judgments are their own.  Nothing trumps their will to live, and there is no separation between what they think and what they do.  This is sheer reverence to whatever they believe created them.  So, I guess you could say that watching the Winter Olympics was a religious experience for me.

Q [Bethany, OK]: You wrote that you usually try to catch 3 TV shows.  Which ones?

A: “Nashville,” “Elementary” and “The Good Wife.”  Great character arcs in all three.  When my lad, The Boy, comes over for a home-cooked meal, he brings DVDs along.  I always try to entice him into an outdoor activity, but – alas – with no better success than I had when he was growing up and he and the rest of the family were anchored in front of the television.  Thus, we have also seen two seasons of “Game of Thrones” on DVD and are into the PBS Sherlock Holmes.

Q [Middleton, WI]: I finally got up the nerve to write you my own painful history after what you said about sanctuaries and I’d like to know how you think that settles anything?  For mostly practical reasons I stayed in a long-term loveless relationship at the same time I loved someone else.  I still don’t know whether it was the right decision but feeling constantly divided took its toll. 

A: If you still don’t know, then you made the right decision.  Wouldn’t periodic regrets have become certainties by now if you chose wrong?  And if your heart was in it enough to make it work, would a decision have been necessary in the first place?  Sounds like you were in a dead heat (no pun intended).  And if one man has your mind and another has the rest of you, alas, anatomical connections dictate that the heart stays with the corpus delecti (even if imprisoned behind the bars of a rib cage).  I think sanctuaries only work for people who are trapped in appearances and truly have no way out; not for people who have split feelings.  Love is usually self-proving.  But there are circumstances where a sanctuary is the only way to escape a life of quiet desperation or to be who you really are.

Q [Aarhus, dk]: Do you think I should work on improving my English in order to write novels?  Here in Denmark the market is so small.

A: It was a revelation to me the first time I received a question like yours.  English-only writers take so much for granted about the marketplace.  On the other hand, because there is intense competition and such a glut in the English speaking market, I almost think that in your case it would be easier to make your reputation first in smaller markets with an eye toward translations.  There are cultural niche opportunities in English-speaking countries like the US.  Multiculturalism and political correctness have created both an appetite and a need for translations.  And, who knows, with the current push for de-unifying the single official language in the US, a mono-lingual America may be a thing of the past relatively soon.  For the record – if you’ll permit my digression – that seems little short of insanity to me.  A unifying language has been a cardinal advantage in countless ways to this country.  It is beyond me why we would want to Balkanize ourselves out of political correctness when clearly multiple languages are the bane of many nations who suffer ethnic strife, polarization, and bloody language riots.  Call it the Tower of Babel syndrome.  In fact, I once wrote a satirical piece titled “Money Talks” that purported to overcome the world’s language barriers by only paying workers in the currency of the language they spoke but with the same numerical quantity.  E.g. 100 pesos = 100 dollars = 100 rubles = 100 drachmas etc. for purposes of paydays (I think Euros were only paid to polyglot workers).  The point of my little parody was just a fun way of motivating partisan separatists to share a single beneficial language.  So much for fiction.  The trend is the other way, however, so maybe building your legacy in your most fluid language is the way to go.  That said, only you can measure the trade-offs between your multilingual skills, your target audience, and where you want to market.  I would add that a bestseller reputation in a smaller country can certainly attract attention in foreign markets.

Q [?, VT]: You are very cagey sometimes, Mr. Sully, and I’m not interested in you (I’m happily married) but I’m still curious about your relationship status.

A:  My relationship commitments are a zero sum game.  Outgoing commitments exactly equal incoming commitments.  But those are practical considerations apart from romantic ideals.  :-)

Q: [Dayton, OH] I was just wondering what you thought of the movie version of Winter’s Tale after what you wrote on Facebook.

A: Actually, I wrote a short review about it on FB after the preview I posted.  Here ‘tis:  Have to say, about 70% of Winter’s Tale never made it to the screen. And of the 30% that did, about 50% of that was changed. That said, taken on its own terms, the movie had its magic moments, beautiful and arresting. Part of that enchantment is the fact that neither the book nor the movie made much sense and it didn’t matter. As the person I went with noted, you just go with the powerful moments.

Thomas “Sully” Sullivan

You can see all my books in any format here on my webpage or follow me on Facebook:

http://www.thomassullivanauthor.com

http://www.facebook.com/#!/profile.php?id=1219261326

THOSE WHO KNOW, BUT DON’T KNOW THEY KNOW

This essay might be of special interest to writers of detective and mystery novels who would like to enrich their stories by providing their readers with a gift of extra details. It might also be of general interest to many other readers, especially those who are CSI and NCIS fans.

******

Scene 1
I first noticed an odd phenomenon after having played a guitar for several years during my teens. My folks had given me an acoustic guitar for my birthday, and I bought a pickup for it. I didn’t have an amplifier, but made do by installing a jack in a small radio to receive a cable connected to the pickup. During summer vacations, I would spend hours playing along with country-western music on the radio.

Scene 2
My playing ended when my guitar was stolen, and my time was spent on other activities. A decade or so later, I was at a friend’s house. There was a piano and a guitar in the living room. One evening, my friend played the piano. I picked up the guitar, but was disappointed to discover that I couldn’t remember how to play anything. I held the guitar anyway and was amazed to watch my fingers actually playing pieces I could not remember. It was like watching someone else play, and it gave me rather an eery feeling.

Scene 3

In a sparsely furnished, basement room, great attention was being paid to a man’s fingernails. The room was referred to as the “nail salon.” but the services performed there did not improve the appearance of anyone’s nails—nor were they intended to do so. The man voiced his displeasure with the service, but his protestations were ignored. Each was followed by a similar question that had something to do with a code the “manicurist” was quite interested in obtaining. The man eventually realized that the only way to end his increasingly unbearable pain was to reveal the code, and he did so.

There is a relationship between the foregoing bit of personal history, the description of the fingernail torment and the subject of this essay. The following reveal it.

The ability to play a musical instrument, to use a typewriter, to ride a bicycle and even to apply an algorithm while operating a Rubik’s Cube are examples of the results of what is known as motor learning or, simply, muscle memory. As the names imply, it involves melding certain movements into one’s memory so that the movements can be performed without requiring conscious attention. Such movements are commonly learned by practicing them. Surprisingly, however, they can be learned by merely observing them. Come to think of it, I unconsciously learned quite a bit about riding horses by, as a child, watching characters riding in cowboy movies.

Getting important and secret information from one location to another without it ending up in prying hands has been a problem faced by many, especially those dealing with military secrets. Specific motion patterns learned by a courier without his or her conscious knowledge of the learned pattern can be used to pass secret information such as the key to a code without fear of the key being extracted by enemy manicurists. Also, restricted areas can be made relatively quickly accessible to cleared persons who have unconsciously learned a pattern of motion representing a key allowing access.

To visualize a system using the features of muscle memory, imagine a two-dimensional illustration of a polygon such as a regular hexagon imprinted on a touch-sensitive panel. In addition to six corners, and six straight lines defining its perimeter, imagine that the illustration also has a straight line extending internally from each corner to each of the other five corners, amounting to a total of 30 lines. If anyone would like to make a quick sketch of the enhanced polygon, we can pause here for a moment….

To continue, let each corner represent a number, letter, word, phrase or the like, and let each straight line represent the motion of a finger being moved along the touch-sensitive panel, the finger being moved by a person desiring access to the restricted area. A specific sequence of motions—each made only once—and an exclusion of repeating numbers, letters, etc. can be required to establish the identity of the person seeking access. The required motions can be buried within a number of additional motions to increase the security of a significant pattern.

Reportedly, to secure a message, some have gone to extremes such as marking messages and formulas on the shaved heads of couriers. Such secrets were to be hidden by regrown hair and revealed by a subsequent shave. Anyone actually using this method must not have been in any hurry at all to communicate.

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION:

Whether or not human brains are genetically prewired has been a subject long debated. Some evidence has been found that indicates we have at least some motor memory genetically prewired. Examples include facial expressions, thought to have been learned, but observed in blind children.

United States security clearance classifications include three basic levels that dictate who has access to certain information. In order of the importance of confidentiality, these are: CONFIDENTIAL, SECRET and TOP SECRET. Subclassifications abound.