Mind-smacking


If you grow up with a certain religious belief, you might be taught that miracles were amazing acts of God that happened only in another time long ago. Some believe, for example, that there were times when water could be turned instantly into wine, or men — certain men anyway — could live three days in the belly of a whale, survive a fiery furnace or walk on water. Those things, some people will tell you, don’t happen anymore today, for whatever reason.

Others still believe that miracles do still happen today, but you sometimes have to wonder whether these are miracles that matter. Maybe God really does feel the need to remind us of his existence by putting the image of his face in a slice of bread or on a rusty metal chimney, but that seems like a pretty silly use of effort for an omnipotent, omniscient being. Other miracles might simply be things we haven’t discovered the scientific explanations for yet, like the incredible, sudden and full recoveries experienced by a rare few people who thought they had just days to live based on our understanding of conventional medicine. Maybe they are miracles. Maybe they’re just tomorrow’s unforeseen medical breakthrough.

But then there are other miracles. Miracles that all around us in the natural world. It is, indeed, a miracle that we live in a time when we can watch a full eclipse of the moon without fear, knowing that the gradual darkening of our planet’s satellite is caused not by some evil super-being but  by the Earth casting its shadow in the path of sunlight. Or that we live in a time where we can understand that it’s not angry demons, but sudden shifts of tectonic plates, that causes the ground in some places to shake violently and with sometimes deadly consequences.

Everywhere you look, there are real miracles to be seen.

Consider the ant, for example, There’s no such thing as an “ordinary” ant we should squash just because we can. What is “ordinary” about a creature that has been around for more than 100 million years — far longer than we humans — and, despite its tiny size, accounts for about 20 percent of the total animal biomass in any region? Every ant you see is likely part of a much larger society whose inhabitants can communicate with chemicals, might cultivate crops or livestock (fungus or aphids, for example) for food, and might have helped to spread the seeds of, in total, nearly 10 percent of the world’s plants. The more you learn about them, the more you realize how miraculous a creature ants are.

But it’s not just ants. Wherever you live, whatever you look at, you’re likely witnessing a miracle of some kind. A handful of dirt? An ounce or two will hold fragments of rock millions of years old, as well as a vast community of microscopic life forms. There is no “average” color, composition or consistency for soil on Earth. Dirt gives life by letting plants grow … and could even save life by providing a way to keep climate-changing carbon dioxide safely out of the atmosphere. Dirt filters water, absorbs the Sun’s heat, can give up secrets about long-gone cultures, and can provide shelter for everything from microbes to humans. Plain ol’ dirt? No such thing.

And that’s the miracle of life today: that we know and understand that nothing is as simple or “ordinary” as what meets the eye. The deeper we look, the more questions we ask, the further we investigate, the more miracles — not the fewer — we discover. Remembering that, we can live each day with a continual sense of wonder and appreciation … and that’s something none of us should ever surrender.

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When my son was about five or six and we were out at  a restaurant with an inadequate supply of toys to keep him occupied, he spontaneously began playing “crayon baseball,” turning each color in his crayon box into a batter, pitcher, first baseman, etc. and embarking upon a miniature ballgame right there on the table.

Well, that’s pretty much what Terry Border does, only with a wider variety of common objects and a bit of wire to make them even more anthropomorphic. You’ll never look at a peanut, hot dog or egg the same way again.

“People are very open-minded about new things. As long as they are exactly like the old ones.” – Charles Franklin Kettering, inventor, engineer and GM’s head of research from 1920 to 1947

Years ago, some comedian had a bit about middle-aged closed-mindedness that I can’t remember much about now … except that he illustrated his point with a very dramatic, vivid “thud” noise when describing how most people stop considering new ideas at “a certain age.” “Thud!” (or something like that), he said. “Down comes the wall.”

It’s such a crying shame when you think about how curious we all are as children. “Why?” was the question guaranteed to follow almost everything we heard. If you have a child of a different “certain age,” you know what I mean. Two-year-olds, for instance, seem to want to know the “why” about almost everything. Eight-year-olds, on the other hand, tend to question the “whys” of social norms: “Why do I have to be nice to kids I don’t like?” “Why do I have to go to school?” “Why can’t I (have Facebook/go to Disneyland/stay up till 11 pm) like So-and-So does?” For parents, annoying? Yes.

But put yourself in their shoes just for a minute. “Why?” really isn’t a bad question to ask quite a bit. There are plenty of aspects about life today that deserve a “Why?” So try to channel your inner 8-year-old the next time you find yourself accepting something because “that’s just the way it is,” and ask … “Why?” If the answers come, they might surprise you. If they don’t, expect to be surprised, challenged and even unnerved (in a good way) even more.

If your vision is unimpaired, be grateful. But also be aware that people with impaired vision have powerful ways of perceiving the world around them without sight … something Oliver Sachs (Awakenings) explores in his 2010 book, The Mind’s Eye. One blind person he profiles in the book, John Hull, describes how rain can create a vivid picture of the outdoor landscape through sound alone:

Rain has a way of bringing out the contours of everything; it throws a coloured blanket over previously invisible things; instead of an intermittent and thus fragmented world, the steadily falling rain creates continuity of acoustic experience … presents the fullness of an entire situation all at once … gives a sense of perspective and of the actual relationship of one part of the world to another.

The next time it rains where you are, close your eyes and try to picture the world with Hull’s approach.

Don’t try this one, though: Sachs also recounts the story of Federico, a 15th-century duke “who had lost one eye in a tournament. Fearing the ever-present threat of assassination and wanting to preserve his prowess on the battlefield, he had his surgeons amputate the bridge of his nose to allow a wider field for the remaining eye.”

Update (05/13/11): With significant rain falling for the first time in weeks (months?) today, I tried a little rain visioning, and it was an intriguing exercise to listen to the different sounds the falling drops made and try to picture what they were falling on. I would have tried it longer, but my dog decided he couldn’t stand getting any wetter and tugged me toward the door.

Talk about a new perspective on fashion: what would you wear if you could grow your shirts, pants and dresses? Not the cotton or linen they’re made from, but the actual clothes themselves?

British fashion designer/researcher Suzanne Lee is asking just that through the BioCouture project. She and her team have grown material similar to vegetable leather from a “sugary green tea solution (mixed with) bacterial cellulose, yeasts and other microorganisms … We can then either use it wet to mold onto a 3D form, like a dress shape, or dry it flat and then cut and sew it into a garment.”

Here’s a fresh way of looking at the world — imagine if our cities were built with Legos.