Archive for the ‘catagorization’ Category

Lulu Miller has written a new book called Why Fish Don’t Exist. It was featured recently in a podcast from Radiolab

Miller’s book is about David Starr Jordan, a man who grew up loving stars, flowers and fish and devoted his life to the “hidden and insignificant.”

Jordan eventually became the founding president of Stanford University. And he grew into a fanatic ichthyologist. His “Genera of Fishes,” massed 7,800 fishes names. He claimed 1,200 had been provided by him or his students.

But his life was eventually filled with chaos, difficulty and tragedy. His wife died, his two daughters died. The San Francisco earthquake of 1906 turned to chaos 30 years of his work as an ichthyologist.

How did he go on? He was an incorrigible optimist. And he tirelessly pursued knowledge. Ordering the world gave him purpose.

But, Jordan’s is a cautionary tale. Jordan turned to eugenics and came to believe that we would do well to selectively breed the best humans and sterilize those who were inferior. Jordan’s obsession with the survival of Nordic whites was fueled by his deep-seated racism. Yikes! How horrible! He got stuck in a horrific false belief. But how similar to today. What an interesting commentary on our time as people continue in our country to espouse that one race is better than another.

But there are some other lessons Miller finds in Jordan’s life. He was complicated. We all are. He suffered chaos. We all do. He had losses. We all do. He was unreasonably optimistic. That is sometimes smart. He developed and clung to a horrible belief. Sound familiar? Haven’t we all?

Miller is not a person of religious faith, just the opposite, and some of her thinking will surely be deemed heretical to the categorically minded and the faithful, but she has something to teach, even those of us who have faith in God or in science or in a particular view of one of those or in a long-held view of types of humans.

The thought: Re-examine your categories.

Yes, there are categories we all use everyday that make sense out of the world. And some things are horrible and harmful, like David Starr Jordan’s eugenics or the Nazis’s racial views, but what if we ourselves worked on getting unstuck from ridged thinking and tried to think with nuance, especially about each other.

This really seems necessary these days, when in the U.S. we divide the world into rich or poor, educated or not, conservative or liberal, scientific or non-scientific, coastal or mid America, Republican or Democrat, protesters or not protesters, this religion or that, this racial group or that — especially when there is no clear scientific evidence for the concept of race.

Our categories often interfere with our relationships. We develop very narrow classifications. An “us” versus “them” thinking gets us stuck without mutually beneficial solutions. As I read more history and science I am seeing that life is so much messier than I ever thought.

Categories, sure they’ve done a lot of good in science and medicine, in discussions about law and morality, in understanding animals and groups of living things, really in so many areas of life. But they also can hinder us so much in finding new connections and new solutions.

Take fish says Miller. Yes, we can say “fish,” and that makes a categorical kind of sense, but did you know that “the lung fish is more closely related to a cow than a fish.”

Our familiar categories need new thinking.

Perhaps “we are all fish.” Perhaps we are all much more alike than we have previously thought.

Several nights ago,  I drove from San Diego, out Interstate 8 East and into the mountains. I cleared the foggy marine layer at about 1,000 feet and saw the magic belt sitting white and hot on the horizon. At about 1,500 feet a fireball fell through my windshield. 

I stopped above Alpine and got out. Alpha Tauri, or Aldebaran in Arabic, meaning “the follower,” was burning an orange hole in the face of the bull. It was 4:00 am.

I lay down on my back in front of my car on a folding lounge chair. It wasn’t that weird; other people where gathered there at the viewpoint for the same reason, on cots, blankets, sitting on the roof of cars. I could feel the heat from the Lexus on one side of my face, radiating from the hood. My horse was near me, Pegasus run long and hard uphill and now grazing quietly by me, her master. A night breeze blew over my toes carrying a sweet fragrance up from the canyon below me. The coastal sage scrub chaparral had her perfume on.

In the tradition of Adam and Linnaeus and all the great name makers, I looked up naked eyed, my binoculars on my chest and my coffee cup on the sidewalk beside me, and I named the ancient names of the named: Perseus, Cephus, Andromeda, Cygnus and Orion.

And down through the ancient celestial places fell the Perseids — fast, hot and beautiful, looking like dollops of lava or flaming jelly fish streaming to earth. Wow, did I feel good. I was glad I had woken up at 3 am out of a dead sleep and decided on the pre-conscious, sleep-drunk spot to drive up into the mountains in the dead of the night.  It made me glad that I knew that August 12 and August 13 were the days for the Perseids and that I knew the names of the constellations that the tiny pieces of comet dust were falling through.

I stayed under the stars until the sun came up, a light glow over the Cuyamacas in the east, gently erasing Castor and Pollux, the twins of Gemini.  I drove home full of streaks and points, clusters and a blazing image of Jupiter in my mind. I fell back into bed at 7 am and got up at 9 am feeling like I had some mutant version of the Perseid flu for the rest of the day.

That night I told my wife, “If I get up in the middle of the night tonight and wander around the house like I’m getting ready to leave, hit me in the head with a stick. If I get back up and start walking again, hit me until I stop.”

Sleep matters, as well as marital bliss, but so does seeing stuff and so do their names. To name is to know. To name is to differentiate, to similarize and sometimes to name is to see at all. Do you really see the Willets and Black Stilts and American Avocets in the salt mash if the only net you have to catch the lot of them is, “Look, birds!” Yes, you do see something but you do not see as much as when you know and love their names and their distinguishing features. I love learning the names of things, saying them out loud, pointing them out to the uninitiated, to my students, to my disciples, to whatever peripatetic followers will gather ‘round.

I religiously read Smithsonian magazine. Their writers name stuff. A recent article exposed the truth; jelly fish are taking over the world. It sounds more like something you might read in the National Inquirer. But no; it’s science; jellies around the planet are multiplying and asphyxiating fish, clogging nuclear power plants, disabling aircraft carriers and sinking fishing trawlers. There are too many jellies now.

But it was the names of the jelly fish, not the mayhem, that stuck with me from the article – “blue blubbers, bushy bottoms, fire jellies, jimbles. Cannonballs, sea walnuts. Pink meanies, a.ka. stinging cauliflowers. Hair jellies, a.k.a. snotties. Purple people eaters.”  I love them (although not in the water when I’m snorkeling or boogy boarding), and I love their names, the snotties and the bushy bottoms. There are 1,500 jellyfish species. There are the true jellies, and the comb jellies the other gelatinous animals like the Portuguese man-of-war, a colony of stinging Cnidarians in the category siphonophores. Yes, yes, yes – it’s a knock in the head, the multiplicity of jelly, the variety of jelly, the weird expressions of jelly, the names that the jellies draw to themselves by the fabulous wardrobes they sport.

I love the siphonophore; that’s what I am; that is what we all are as we suck in the bits and pieces of life that swim near us in our seas, and toss a net of taxonomy and nomenclature over them. Then we can fish them out with their names when they pass our way again. In this way I wish to think of myself as Aristotelian. Aristotle made direct observation of nature and detailed categorization of his observations. He spent time categorizing things, dividing the world up into elements (earth, air, fire, water and aether) or types of creatures such as egg bearing or life bearing.

I want to follow Aristotle; it’s been argued that those who do succeed. I want to observe the things resident in the particular cusp of creation I inhabit and revel studiously in the names of local bits of reality and draw general conclusions from their unique identities — the California Buckwheat in all its rusted glory, thriving along Interstate 8 and throughout San Diego county, the Blue Knobby Starfish luxuriating in the tide pools off Point Loma, the California Alligator Lizard running on the white stucco wall in my backyard in Eastlake. I wish I could run on walls.

Two springs ago I trekked out to the Azza Borrego Desert with some friends. We were in search of a Native California fan palm grove and some water, a little oasis tucked back up in the quiet desert hills. The sky was a perfect Southern California cornflower blue. The desert was smoking hot and rocky and dusty. We started through some creosote flats and then went up though some ocotillo ridges.The trail was steep at points and full of large rocks to scramble and hobble over.

My teen friend Daniel was having a rough go of it, so I took his hand and we hiked together, me easing him along the trail. He had trouble judging the terrain, the height of rocks I think. His Down Syndrome didn’t help him process the desert. Now there is a  name the parents of a new born baby don’t want to hear, “Downs.” I’ve been there, I know. I was there when my friend Peter Anthony was born and “Down Syndrome” was said in a private room and his parents heard the name and held it in their minds, like a diver holding his breath underwater and then they came back up to the surface and cried and went home and made a life out of making a good life for Peter. They’ve done really well, as has Peter Anthony.

Daniel and Peter have been in the same class, as well as my daughter Rosalind, a class that we parents didn’t imagine we would ever place our babies in. I know what it is like to get the diagnosis you don’t want to get and the label you don’t want your child to have, but which they have to have to get what we call “services, and how it feels to put them in the special needs class and to live there everyday with disability and a different classification than you ever expected to have live within. But we got it, the category, the label, the classification; it’s life, the categories and names and places that fall to us. And so now our kids are in the same classes together, at school and church, and the truth is that now I like it and so do our children – much of the time. We have a place, with the disabled community, a pain family that shares life.

But you have to watch out for Peter Anthony. At church, he escapes to the front to whack on the drums on the stage. I think it is because he can barely hear, and he that likes the vibrations from the drum heads. He also likes to sneak away to the bathroom and get toilet paper and put it in his hat for safe keeping until a time when his mom isn’t around and he can pull it out and wave it. It’s good to wave things, our hands, a mobile phone at a concert, it’s soothing, in the air, back and forth for a moment.

One morning, Peter was seated in church, in the front row, waving a small streamer of torn toilet paper. I saw his mom, toward the back, watching. I said to my wife. “Take a good look at Peter Anthony, because you’ll never see him again.” But we did because his mom loves him, but you know he caught it for the public waving of things not made to be waved in public, whether stuck on the bottom of a shoe and waving unwittingly behind or held high in the front of the church for everyone to see. I once saw a trailer with an outhouse on it being towed down the street and a long streamer of toilet paper had snuck out of the outhouse door and was unspooled in the wind and waving in a wildly free undulating motion for twenty feet or so down the street behind the trailer, practically reaching all the way to my windshield. It was a hoot, unexpected, a party in the bathroom on the street. But for the most part, some things should be kept to the bathroom, on the roll – “Really now!”

But on the day in the desert, hiking out to the Palm grove, Daniel and I labored together up and down the rocks, making a trek together, not staying in the place we were assigned to, leaving behind whatever classification we usually carried with us and streaming out into the middle of nowhere like toilet paper blowing in the wind from a traveling outhouse. The final stretch down to the native fan palms was steep but worth it. There water ran from pools in the palmy shade and our feathered friends came for it all, the shade and the water and the replenishing ambience. I spotted a Phainopepla with its striking black crest. I love this feathered friend and its name. It sounds noble and Greek and exotic me, Phainopepla. And then we saw the Lazuli Bunting, with bright blue head and back, just a little lighter in shade than Christy’s Red Hot pipe glue, and  his white wingbars, as white as PVC pipe newly laid and his rusty breast and white underside. “Wow “ again and again.

What at day! We hiked to the oasis and saw it and named it and carried a memory of it back home. Like seeing a weird jelly in the ocean, we saw a weirdly named and colored bird in the desert and claimed it as our own. In my Audubon Field Guide To Western birds I checked it off the Lazuli Bunting as I did the brilliant yellow Hooded Oriole, another bit of feathered color and another name that I have stored in my mind to encourage me in my journey over the rocks and steep descents.

But of course not everything we name is a “Wow”; certain thing are not. When my daughter Laurel was little, she fell in love with Melissa and Julie her Sunday morning preschool teachers. But she didn’t feel the same about Dan, Julie’s husband. One day she told us, “I like Julie, but Dan is yucky.” Life is a process of growing up and figuring out what is yucky and what is not.

When I was little I too ended up thinking a couple of people at church were yucky – the one of the guys who sung in the choir and worked his jowls in a comical way and also the pastor. The pastor was probably a fine man; but I didn’t identify with him at all. He wore a dark suit, talked too long, and gave long invitations at the ends of services, pleading for someone to come forward as he called for just “one more verse of ‘Just As I Am.’” I was tempted to go forward and accept Christ on many occasions, although I had already done that earlier in life, just so we could all go home. It seemed like a humane and righteous thing to do, for the pastoral staff and the rest of the congregation.

The deal was that the pastor seemed to me to be in a classification of his own, a “Pastor,” or “Priest” or “Reverend.”He seemed to me to be a kind of spiritual impresario, a resident stage actor, not really authentic, not human the way the rest of us were. This may have been a classification I imposed on him, but the way I saw it became a problem for me and made me not want to be a Christian if to be a Christian was about scaring people into heaven and talking them out of being human. Something about too much talk and not enough story didn’t work for me. Something about talking without being funny or crude or descending  into the dust and sweat of the particular, the earthy and the loamy — it didn’t work for me. To me, he was “yucky.” He seemed to fly too high; his talks were like planes with no landing gear, soaring up into the theological sky and never coming down to what I was thinking  about – about girls, fast cars and Saturday nights out with my friends, about the big bass I caught with a top water lure in the lake near the house, about the ground hog I shot with my 22 and then felt bad about, about Zane Grey, about the homerun I hit over third base and about Roy Coons. Roy was the\  boy I shamed and humiliated on the playground by chasing him and calling him names. 

And so church didn’t go so well for me, most of the time. I remember one time in particular. It was a Sunday evening service. My older brother Steve and I were sitting in the back, and it came to pass that he released a pestilential vapor, a noxious effluvium of a very particular variety, the one that cause the Black Death of the 14th Century in Europe, a thing so earthy, disgusting and dangerours that it was never given a name. After he did this, I began to shake and he did too. Whether it was from nerve damage or because the whole thing was so funny, it was hard to tell, but we sat together in a repulsive ambience, jerking convulsively, shaking the pew, and all the while silently praying that we wouldn’t lose it and howl with unholy laughter and bring unwanted attention to his sin. It was so wrong in so many ways to do what he did in church and therefore so interesting and so very delectable that we could barely fathom it, but the fun ended when my dad came to the back. He then commanded us  to the front, with everybody watching with quick glances, to sit with my him and my mom between us, because we couldn’t be trusted to have class when we were alone. We simply could not be trusted to carry off a disciplined life, to live within the rarified sphere of ecclesiastical rectitude.  

I have spent much of my life trying to recover from church, to both stand in the front and laugh in the back, to negotiate the space between the profane and the scared. And I am still trying to get past those names, “pastor,” and “Christian,” without getting past them at all.  I am a Christian, to the core, and I have now been a pastor for twenty-two years, but I am still trying to define those terms, to live with those labels, to understand those classifications in ways that fit the reality of life and the unique essence of what it means to be human.

Aristotle divided life into creatures with blood and creatures without blood.  I want to be in the class of creatures with blood, a pastor with blood in him, a Christian who knows he has blood in him and must have blood on him, who is connected to God and yet still connected to what it means to be fully human. I want to deeply understand what it means to be a man with a rich range of emotions and a fabulously diverse range of thoughts. I want to understand the divine as it smacks up hard against the human, as it did in the life of Jeremiah and Isaiah and the other great prophets, and I want to learn something of the interface between God and man. I have always thought that what was interesting to study was the overlap between distinctions, the land where classifications merge, the places where things that we differentiate and name have something in common, those places that conjure up brilliant metaphors and fascinating similes and profoundly unique connections.

I have a several microscopes in my office at the church and a globe of the earth and a rock collection and a chambered nautilus and picture that I took in South Africa of a white rhino herding her baby across the road. I am and always will be a man of the earth, of rocks, of the sea and of sea creatures, of photography and art and the image and the particular that represents the universal, in other words a Christian after the heart of Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

Praise Him.

This is the way I see it;  praise to the one who made things to name, to classify and to order, and all the things also that run counter to those names and are different and in between and fickle and in some odd and intriguing manner spotted or dappled or stippled.

I believe that this is all very deep in me, and in many of us. In grade school my friends and I copied the names of birds and flower from the Encyclopedia for fun. Now when I go to the desert or mountains or the beach or travel anywhere I drag along bird and flower books and sometimes my sky charts.

I love Aristotle. I love the modern nested hierarchies of internationally-accepted classifications and categories. I love information systems, intellectual disciplines and thinking about how to sort and store knowledge.

I love and honor the power of naming. Rumpelstiltskin, the gold-spinning dwarf, was not vanquished until the queen could say his name. He sang:

“To-day do I bake, to-morrow I brew,

The day after that the queen’s child comes in;

And oh! I am glad that nobody knew

That the name I am called is Rumpelstiltskin!”

But the queen overheard the song and said his name and then Rumpel was done and his power was broken, and that happened when she said his name, Rumpelstiltskin, and then he left without her child, and he never came back.

With the queen, I want to say the name of the dwarf and the names of God too. I want to say the names and call to our attention what is good and pure and right and noble, and I want to say the names and banish what needs to be sent away forever, things like the addictions and the humiliations.

I want to live after the manner of Hipparchus and Tycho Brahe and Linnaeus and Adam all the other namers of names. 

I want to and I will learn the names and celebrate the names of the stippled and dappled things of creation. I want to say and to see.

Amerian Avocet, a long-legged shorebird with long, thin, upcurved bill, distinctive black-and-white back and sides, and a bright rust-brown head and neck during the summer.

Alberio, a gold and blue binary star in Cygnus.

Heliotrope, a sun loving pink and purple flower that climbs up through other plants and smells like cherry pie.

Bushy Bottom, a jelly, from the sea, with a bushy derriere.

Halophile, an extremophile that loves a highly salty environment.

pastor, a human being who is searching for God just like the rest of us, but who takes the time to get to know the rest of us and help us.

God, himself.

Nomenclature, good!