I’d swear it wasn’t there the day before yesterday. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever noticed the hedge itself, which seems infinitely forgettable. Then, out of nowhere, this stunning bloom. Where did it come from? Where is it going? How did Nature come up with such an unlikely means of reproduction? And how did I not see it walking this same sidewalk a year ago? Did it blossom overnight? Was I just thinking of something else? How much have I missed?

There’s a certain sculptural quality to these tufts of color draped over a wall at St. Timothy’s Catholic Church. As if each tuft is making a statement. No two are alike. There’s a profusion of red that becomes more granular as one moves closer, until the granules take on shape and almost speak. I walked back and forth for a long time wondering how to capture this. The farther back I stood the more it was simply red. But the closer I got, it slowly turned into hundreds of possible photographs. All of them different. All of them the same. This is a bougainvillea. I remember them as beautiful to watch growing, and nothing but dreary, thankless work to remove. My father would never have planted one in his or any other garden. They reach a point where they almost own the house. They grow over walls and roofs, and choke doors and windows, and look absolutely stunning until fear sets in. St. Timothy’s is at that early wonderful stage. Pax vobiscum.

No flowers here. The textured bark of a tree opening, almost rupturing, framed in new growth. It speaks in a time we tend not to notice, because we can’t think that slowly. How old is the splitting bark. How young the tree? How seemingly perpetual the leaves. How beautiful the texture.

The week before last I posted Ready, something about a book that reappeared after twenty-two years of hiding. I said that I was anxious to read the book. I was also anxious to read it when I purchased it, but near the back of the book, facing a photograph of Einstein and Schoenberg in tuxedos, I found a receipt. I did not buy the book at Barnes & Noble, as I falsely remembered, but at Irvine Sci-Tech Books where my girlfriend worked until we moved north to San Luis Obispo. She began working almost immediately at Barnes & Noble, which accounts for the overlapping of memories, while she attended CalPoly. The book in question was purchased on 9/10/95 at 20% off, because that was her employee discount. All of this, of course, won’t matter even a little to anyone but myself. It just strikes me as unreasonable that the book seems so fresh and yet so old.

Anyway, I have now finished it. It was a very slow and somewhat difficult read. I was definitely not ready to read it twenty-some years ago. It’s as if my reading program for those years was designed to help me understand this book, the one completely forgotten and then suddenly found. I hesitate to say that life often works that way. I sometimes have an idea how I would like things to turn out, but the way things actually turn out is more often the way things should turn out. Better in the long run. Who, for example, would buy a beautiful and appealing book, place it carefully on the shelf, make a note on the calendar to read the book twenty years in the future, and then read a list of two hundred other books in order to be ready? Such plans are so unreasonable that they end up being made for us without our knowing it. We reach in a box looking for something and then find that twenty-some years have gone by and it’s time to find something else.

Last Friday at the Ophthalmologist’s office I took the book out to read while my eyes were dilating. I didn’t think about having trouble focusing. I held the book up to my face and did the best I could. Later a woman walked into the examination room to ask what book I was reading so intently. I have no idea what her job was. I couldn’t reach the book at that moment to show her, so I gave her a two or three sentence version of it, up to the halfway point, and then told her about finding it in a box after packing it to move north all those years ago. She smiled and said, “That sounds like a book I’d like to read.”

I could feel the wheel turning. I had her write her name on the flyleaf and said I would drop the book off for her as soon as I finished it. I can’t believe that she will read it through and have comments on it. Though of course that’s possible. Just too much to hope for. But what I can believe is that twenty-some years from now, after I have become nothing but a dim memory, and the book is more worn around the edges, the things she may have learned could be incredible.

I mentioned this corner in another post. The owners’ lot was completely overrun by nasturtiums about six months ago. After they pulled them up, you could see dirt, and a few days later, after a light rain, a million tiny nasturtiums peeping through. Well, they have stopped peeping. After another nice rain they are now peering. Or is that gloating I see in their full round leaves and erect stature? I love nasturtiums, but in the end, I suppose, you really can’t have them owning houses.

This flower looks much larger here than it is. It’s the size of a leaf, and the leaves are rather small. It seems aggressive in its design, almost orchid like. Some hedges seem to flower in sheets, so many flowers one hardly notices the leaves beneath. This flower, by contrast, seems so powerful that only are few are necessary. I’ve walked past several times without noticing it. Were I an insect, I might have flown or crawled with purpose toward its pollinated tips and delicate petals. When someone is the flower of their family, it means the rest are but leaves and stems. This, I think, is the flower of its family.

I told a story at dinner tonight that I had completely forgotten until I heard myself telling it. There was a girl where I lived years ago who was fifteen or sixteen and had frizzy red/blond hair. She was so pretty that I had trouble talking to her. I think my mouth wanted to hang open. It was embarrassing. It sounds like I’m exaggerating, and the fact is that I was way too old for her, but the strength ran out of all my muscles when she stood before me. She was not just pretty.

I ran a country market some distance from town. Everyone pretty much knew everyone else. She had recently come to live with her mother, who told me I would find it difficult to discuss anything with her. She said God gave her lots and lots of the same thing, but when He was done, He had nothing left. It sounded cryptic to me, so I smiled and let it pass.

A few weeks later she came to the store looking for walnuts. The owner of the store liked to run things down to nothing before reordering. We did not have walnuts. So I gathered my strength and asked why she needed them. She made a face and said, “For cookies.” “Well, I never liked walnuts in cookies,” I said. “But you know what’s really good? Pecans.” I handed her a small package of chopped pecans.

She looked at the package for a moment and said, “What?” I said, “Pecans taste a lot better than walnuts.” “Ah,” she said, cautiously, still staring at the package. “You mean pecans.” She said pēˌkanz, what I consider to be a southern pronunciation, while I said pəˈkänz. “Hnnn,” she said, finally. “You have to be careful with pecans.” “Why is that?” I asked. “Because there are two kinds of pecans," she said, "the kind you pee in, and the kind you use when you ain't got no walnuts.”

After that I had a lot less trouble talking to her.

I still can’t decide if these are seed pods and I simply missed the flowers or if something else is happening. They look like they might be tropical fruit, but they are much too small. They are attached to an ordinary bush. A bush that gives no indication of greatness or interest, except this elaborate race to reproduce. It is possible that the flowers, if indeed there were flowers, were so ordinary as to go completely unnoticed. My daily walks must go on for years and years in order to figure out such things. Unless it is amazement more than knowledge that I seek.

I remember, among other things, a large globe in the school library that had the stars and the Milky Way marked on it, with a band for the equator… and so forth. No one knew anything about it. It was just the stars and things. It was dusted periodically, but unused. It was not part of the curriculum.

I wondered if we were meant to see the stars, if we stepped back from the globe, as they appeared in the sky, and if that wouldn’t present an optical problem, or if we were expected to imagine ourselves inside the globe looking out. A different problem. I passed the globe several times each day, but didn’t spend much time working out the answer, and to this day have no idea what the answer is or was, though I suspect it was the latter.

I didn’t know enough about the stars and constellations then, and still feel inadequate in that area, though I know much more now than I did then. I’ve been reading the Bible recently (for the past few years), not consistently, but off and on with consistency, to dig out references and stories based on stars and planets. There’s a surprisingly large amount of that in the New Testament. But when I tried to share some of what I’d found with the people I have coffee with, or the people at the Monday dinner, not only did they say absurd things like, “God wouldn’t write that,” but when pressed, they were not actually aware of the existence of constellations or the motions of the planets. Explaining Venus was utterly futile. I thought they were just being argumentative or stupid, as I’m inclined to say, until I realized that Morro Bay is shrouded in clouds a good deal of the year.

Orion comes and goes and is hardly noticed. Even Polaris and the Big Dipper are foreign concepts to the people who have lived here long enough. Astronomy wasn’t part of their high school curriculum, nor was it part of mine, but even those who grew up in places that had stars at night had just that — stars at night. If noticed, they were soon forgotten. Every so often I’ll meet someone who took a trip to the desert, or passed through the desert on the way here, and saw the Milky Way. It was something they found really neat, or really amazing, but otherwise meaningless.

So explaining that Jesus lectured on the edge of the Milky Way is something that I keep to myself. First, it goes against religion or God, or something of that sort, and second, even if I drew a picture, which I’ve tried, no one here would understand. So when I said above that no one knew anything about the globe with the stars on it in my high school library, I think today I might just say no one cared. I tell myself, the end will come when everything ceases to exist.

The manufacturer overnighted the defective part and Larry Lucas of Drain Doctors Plumbing drove right out to install it. The water is now lukewarm, but in thirty minutes I will at last be taking my first hot shower since Sunday. Hot Water without putting a pot on the stove. Hard to believe.

I bought these unopened because they were the last bunch available without waiting several more days. I could tell they weren’t going to be white or yellow or anything I’d come home with before. The stems were thinner than usual and the buds closed absolutely tight. They didn’t open for two days, but when they did, what a surprise it was. The colors are reddish and pink and yellow, or maybe peach instead of pink, and the leaves are almost frail compared to the other alstroemeria I’ve purchased. This is the desk where I type these messages to no one. Without the flowers it would be absolutely drab. But with the flowers it’s a world entirely of its own.

According to Wikipedia, “Alyssum is a genus of about 100–170 species of flowering plants in the family Brassicaceae, native to Europe, Asia, and northern Africa, with the highest species diversity in the Mediterranean region.” So, it’s not a native plant, but it certainly does well here. Photos on Google show a dizzying variety of alyssum, each more beautiful than the next. Without my knowing it, we planted purple Alyssum in the patio between other plants that gave up when winter hit. The alyssum has grown somewhat, but seems to be waiting for warmer weather. When I found out it was alyssum the deep purple was a complete surprise. I found myself hoping it would outgrow everything else. But here, as I have said elsewhere, perhaps several times, alyssum is a weed. A beautiful weed, but a weed nonetheless. You’ll find it nestled among clumps of bright orange pansies that start as little dots of bright green. The picture above shows it growing in the vacant lot next-door. It forms large clumps that start as dots of white, and then expand until, I suppose, the heat of summer kills them off. But I haven’t paid attention long enough to know that for certain. I do know, however, that they come and go. And since I was walking through the vacant lot while the plumber worked on the water heater, enough to order parts — I’m looking forward to my first shower in days tonight — I also found flowers, beautiful flowers, growing as weeds.

There are several clumps of these brightly competing with the other weeds. I’ve photographed this flower, at least this variety of flower, at least twice before in carefully maintained gardens, including Absolutely Stunning just a few days ago. This one, and its friends, must have blown in on a gust of wind. They look very healthy, proving that good gardening sometimes benefits the gardener more than the plant, and I’ll be very angry if anyone knocks them down with a weed eater. Maybe Paradise does its best to grab a foothold, but we just won’t let it.

I remember asparagus as a vegetable that came from a can and tasted terrible. I’d try to cover it with pieces of other things in the hope that my mother wouldn’t notice. When confronted, I’d force myself to think of other, more pleasant things, as I swallowed. Why on God’s green earth was asparagus invented?

When I was married, my mother-in-law in France served an enormous platter of asparagus stacked like logs in a storage yard. She saw the look on my face and saw me fumbling for silverware. I was hoping to eat whatever else was for dinner and cover up the asparagus surreptitiously. But there was nothing else for dinner. It was the first day asparagus went on sale at the market. Not a market like the one I walk to every day, but an outdoor market. What we call a Farmer’s Market. And their tradition was, on the first day of asparagus, asparagus was for dinner. It was served with clarified butter, salt and pepper, sometimes with homemade mayonnaise. A very simple tradition. So simple there was no silverware on the table. Fresh asparagus was finger food.

You bite down on the stem lightly, moving your teeth until the stem becomes woody and tough. And then back off a bit. The rest goes on your plate. I can remember nothing that ever tasted so good as fresh steamed asparagus with clarified butter, salt and pepper. It was almost as if the canned product was a different species, one that was mostly inedible, and this was the crowning achievement of stem science. I also learned to eat fast, because the supply was limited.

I suspect that these asparagus would be just as good if prepared properly. But another part of me says they would taste a bit like canned asparagus. They would have to airlift French asparagus, to be on the safe side, and a French woman to carefully steam and serve them. I know I’m being ridiculous, but am I? Is it really a matter of grow your own and cook them in your own pot? Is place and atmosphere nothing?

I cringe to think that my now ex-wife was sitting next to me, and that the woman whose magic brought that platter to the table was my very peculiar mother-in-law, but in my mind’s eye, when I dip that long stem into clarified butter, I remember strangely nothing but peace and happiness.

There are times when nothing seems to go right. Sunday afternoon the water in the shower was less than hot. I’ve never paid much attention to the water heater because I’ve never even run low on hot water. At my request, when I moved in, a water restrictor was installed on the shower head. So I seem to have infinite supplies of hot water. I can warm and stretch my back for as long as I like. But Sunday, as I said, the water was less than hot. By the time I got out of the shower it was freezing cold.

I called the gas company. They offered a thirteen hour window (7 AM to 8 PM) on Thursday to relight the pilot. I asked if they realized how unreasonable that was, and a bit later a supervisor said someone would be there the next morning. Morning turned out to be 2:30 in the afternoon. The repairman said the little white box on the side of the tank was “fried.” The landlord said to call a particular plumbing business in San Luis Obispo. They had a man out at 10:30 this morning who, after 45 minutes, determined that the little white box on the side of the tank was “fried.” He made a lengthy call and determined that they could have one shipped from the manufacturer, and it should be here by next week. “Then replace the water heater,” I said rather sternly.

He had another long conversation, waited for a callback, and said, “They’re going to overnight it.” I just received a followup call to say that he’ll be back between 2 and 4 tomorrow afternoon. So I should have hot water tomorrow night, provided the little white box was indeed the problem, and provided he has no problem installing it. Which moves us up to Wednesday night. He’ll get the work done… if he has time.

This is a picture of Carol Lopez at the Morro Bay Farmers Market. She does all sorts of things, but mostly beanies, and most of those are either fancy or cute. So, I passed her by a few times when I first moved here. Everything I buy for myself is plain or generic. If there’s no visible brand, my children won’t wear it. I can only say, they did not get that from me.

I had a hunting cap with ears that folded down. It was light gray in soft wool. When it got cold I just folded down the ears. I absolutely loved that cap. Until someone I knew showed me the label on the back. “Do you know what that is?” he demanded. “A label?” I said. “That is the label of a gay clothing company!” I was surprised. For one thing, it fit. There isn’t an article of gay clothing I’ve ever seen in my size. It didn’t seem gay in any way. It was warm and comfortable. And besides, who cares if it’s gay. I’m not gay. No one would mistake me for being gay. I find gay men somewhat overbearing, though I certainly don’t dismiss them. But sure enough, I looked it up. It was a company that specialized in clothing for gay men.

So, one of the gay men I knew took me aside to explain the cap. It was something of a joke, he said. “No gay man would be caught dead in this cap. They were meant to chuckle at it in the store. I don’t think they ever expected to sell it, and when you walked out with it on your head, they were probably disappointed.” “But I love this cap,” I said. “And you just keep wearing it,” he replied. “No one will think for a moment that you’re gay.”

I would be wearing that cap now if I could find it.

Last winter I thought that living so close to the ocean would mean not having to worry about my ears. But we went through a cold spell like the one we’ve just gone through, and I found myself one Saturday afternoon looking seriously at the beanies. I explained the problem about fanciness to Carol, not that I knew her name then. She rummaged around and came up with one in light and dark gray in a sort of neutral pattern, as close to generic as they come.

I wore it for two weeks, but no matter how hard I pulled, it would not cover my ears. Sure, the top of my head was warm and I didn’t look silly, but my ears were ready to fall off. She hemmed and hawed, and then she measured, and finally said come back next week. She knit the same beanie a bit bigger around and four inches longer — and refused payment for it. It was an act of unexpected kindness and absolutely heaven to wear. I gave the one that didn’t quite fit to the postman (or post lady?) who says it goes with her uniform, and who wears it when the temperature drops.

You never know when kindness will strike or good people will appear. I wouldn’t have expected it to happen at the Farmers Market. If you’re in Morro Bay, she’s right across from the Kettle Corn business that I wrote about two days ago. Handcrafted Accents, Proudly Knitted and Crocheted in the USA for Your Family, Friends and Home. The little beanies for kids, by the way, are absolutely the cutest things you’ve ever seen.

I find this picture to be absolutely stunning. In fact, I’ve kept it on the desktop just to admire it every so often, and drug my feet when it came to posting it. The flowers were on the side of a driveway. I saw the color but did not suspect how beautiful they would be. I sort of tiptoed down the driveway before causally snapping the picture. It’s what I’ve called an arm’s length photo. I had to reach out and point the camera down, so I wasn’t at all certain what I would get. And then, quickly, I tiptoed back to the sidewalk. When I do things like that I seem to erase the memory of it. I wonder if that’s a side effect of trespassing. Anyway, the flowers are somewhere between here and the market, next to a driveway, close to a house, their pollen slowly giving way to the wind. Unexpectedly beautiful.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that all kettle corn is probably the same. This is the last stall at the Farmers Market, 2:30–5:30 Saturdays in Morro Bay. My idea is that someone dreamed up kettle corn and everyone since that day has merely copied it. I’d go so far as to say that you could probably buy products from a supplier that guarantee your made-on-the-street kettle corn is the best in the world. Which would mean that all kettle corn, or almost all, is the best there is.

My mother was a very fastidious cook. Her recipes were thought through and measured with exactness. Her bake goods were to die for. She made the best banana cream pie in the entire world, bar none. It got to be an embarrassment. In the 50s it was common to have pot luck dinners. Today you’d have to assign women to McDonald’s or Burger King, or maybe a local pizza parlor. When my mother brought banana cream pie it became obvious that women were flocking to the desert end of the table before slowly moving back for the entree. Her lemon meringue pie had much the same effect. She taught school all day, so she didn’t spend her waking hours in the kitchen. But when she made something special, alchemy was involved.

I remember a turning point in the family life. There must have been others that I was too young to realize. My father came home one night with a store-bought apple pie and a half-gallon of vanilla ice cream. After the first bite he said, “This is the best apple pie I have ever had.” After that, baking anything my father was likely to eat was off the agenda. What she didn’t understand, or care to understand, was that every bite of apple pie, no matter where it came from, was the best my father ever had. There was nothing in the world as good as apple pie and ice cream, and nothing more insensitive than his remarks.

So, it’s possible that the kettle corn I’m eating as I type this is just kettle corn, and I gave you a reason why that might be true, but it’s also possible that it really is as good as I think it is. It's a very long week between Farmers Markets, and no matter what I do, I never have enough kettle corn to get me all the way through Saturday, no matter how I dole it out. The world of food works in mysterious ways.

Last week in Rugged and Somewhat Dangerous I began with, “This is the only true cactus on my walk.” And, in fact, it was the only one visible. But since the gardeners cleared out the street side corner of the church property, it seems that there were cactuses I walked past day in and day out without ever noticing. In the background you can see more of the sort I already posted, but in the foreground is something I’ve never seen before. You’d have to be very careful pulling this one up. It seems to “trail” along the ground and shoot up stems about one foot long, and has very healthy needles. It’s not the sort of plant you would jump over, but one you would walk carefully around. It seems very happy where it is. And I’ll bet that with more light and less competition it will be much larger next year.

The weather is such a stupid thing to write about, unless it’s some abstract take on climate or clouds or annual rainfall figures. Even then. But the gas company sent someone two or three weeks ago to make sure everything was working. Easier to stretch that job out than to have ten thousand emergencies the same afternoon. I have a hot water tank out back and, for the life of me, I have no idea which is mine. I take hot showers every day, so I use gas. The hot water never runs out, which means I probably share a large tank with someone else. But I’ve also had a wall heater for the last year and a half and never once turned it on. In fact, I wasn’t sure how to turn it on. So I asked the gas man if he could just turn it off. He wasn’t sure what I meant by that. “It is off,” he said. “Off. Disconnected. Defunct. Make it so it can’t be turned on. And make it so no gas leaks into the room.” “Ah,” he said, knowingly. You could see in his eyes that I was one of those crazies afraid of gas. So after a few minutes with a wrench he announced, “It’s, um, disconnected.”

I’ve probably been afraid of gas all my life. I have visions of dead people sleeping in gas filled rooms. The water heater is far enough away that it's safe. But the wall heater… Well, it was right next to me. Now the danger has been removed.

But now it’s creeping into the 30s at night. I read with a t-shirt, a long sleeved shirt, a hooded sweatshirt, and a nylon shell, over flannel pajamas with a sock hat for good measure. I tell myself that the cold doesn’t last very long. And it doesn’t. In a few weeks it will start to get warm again. In the mean time my fingers shake as I turn the pages. I close the book and think how stupid it was to disconnect the heater. He was right there. All I had to say was, “How do you turn this damn thing on?”

I thought this was a solitary, misshapen geranium popping up in a bed of succulents. I thought bravo, good for you, snapped the picture and was on my way. But now that I take time to look more carefully I’m not so sure. Maybe I was responding to the color, though it’s rather bright for a geranium. Maybe it was a succulent in bloom. I’m confused now, but still surprised by it’s suddenness, it’s isolation. Where was I when I took this picture? That’s another question. It looks so familiar, and yet… I'm in my thoughts one moment and the next I'm staring at a flower.

I reached into a box of books this week looking for something specific. I was hoping it would be close to the top layer or I would never find it. Instead, I found a very interesting book, The Music of the Spheres: Music, Science and the Natural Order of the Universe which I am now reading. I no long remember what I was looking for, but I do remember grabbing this book and saying, “I want to read this.” But I remembered doing exactly that at Barnes & Noble. I remember bringing it home and opening it up, and… That’s the last I remember. There’s a bookmark a few pages from the beginning from a restaurant that is now closed. Or rather, closed for many years. It must have gotten mixed up with some other books. Maybe we moved around that time and my girlfriend simply packed it in a box. The box I just opened. Anything could have happened. How long had it been, I wonder? It’s the first printing of a paperback from 1995. I’ve had the book for twenty-two years, and yet it seems as fresh in my mind as the day I brought it home. It’s by Jamie Oliver, music critic for the London Times — at least he was, I should check on that. I have long believed that the time to read a book is when you’re ready for it. There are many books that I’ve tried to read through the years. Every few years I read a bit more until one year I start from the beginning, sometimes with complete success. Time moves at its own pace. With or without us. I think I'm ready now.

I had to stretch my arm out to take this picture blind. Any closer and my shadow ruined it. So I gave it a quick snap and continued on my way. It was only this evening that I noticed how beat up it seems. How fragile, and yet how alive. Its purpose, of course, is to attract insects, not me. But flowers seem to operate on different planes. This one tells me that you don’t have to be perfect. You have to shine brightly and be yourself. At least that’s what it seems to say. Body’s old, hair’s thinning, memory is no longer perfect. And yet… I have no idea what all the activity around it is or means. But as a flower, an imperfect flower, it seems absolutely perfect.

Something odd happened today. I stopped at Louisa's Cafe because I had an hour before my doctor’s appointment. Near the entrance where I normally sit were two waitresses, one that I’d known for years, and one that I didn’t recognize. Until I moved to Morro Bay I used to go there a lot. I sometimes took the bus downtown just for breakfast. So, all in all, I remember the one waitress for a period of three-and-a-half or four years.

The newer waitress was very pretty and decidedly on the ball. Before I had completely arranged my backpack and things, coffee was in my cup, and my order was taken before I sat down. It was like the old days — I first ate there twenty years ago — you could fly in, have breakfast and fly out on a very short leash. Cafe style, we called that.

I ordered scrambled eggs with a biscuit and coffee. In the old days, that would have been scrambled eggs, bacon, home fried potatoes, and a separate plate with a biscuit. Today it was scrambled eggs and a biscuit on the same plate. So, if she made a mistake, she ended up bringing me exactly what I had given up asking for. I asked her about that and she said, rather defensively, “That’s what you ordered.” “Yes,” I said, “and that’s exactly what I wanted.” She froze for a moment and then went back to work.

The waitress I’d known for years refilled my coffee. I asked how long the other waitress had worked there. She made a face and said, “I don’t know. Forever.” When she came by again, I asked, “So, how long have you worked here?” She stopped. Used her fingers. “Three weeks.” “Did you leave and come back?” “No.” “You mean all you’ve ever worked here is thee weeks?” She raised her shoulders and also went back to work.

I asked the cook, who I’ve known for more than a decade. He said she just started. I asked if she looked like anyone who used to work there. He said, not that he knew of. She wore the same un-ironed blouse that was put through the drier and then smoothed out. She was exactly the same size, behaved in exactly the same way. Had the same cheerful smile. But she had just begun to exist.

Yes, I know there are a hundred possible explanations of how I made this memory up, or how I’m mistaken. But I don’t have a memory, I have a hundred memories. And she’s not like the person I remember, she is in every way possible the same exact person, except that no one else remembers. And except that she didn’t exist until three weeks ago. Last week after my blood work was done we had a pleasant conversation, because we’ve known each other for so many years. This week… Well, I think that qualifies as something odd happened today.

Almost like frost on the ground. This beautiful plant has small, puffy leaves (?) that catch the light and produce a wonderful spectacle. Yes, I have just looked it up. They are leaves. But in the corner of the garden outside my door is the same plant about seven feet tall. It’s hard to tell, but it could be somewhere between forty or fifty years old. This is not a recent building. It’s not like eucalyptus trees that you just cut back severely and then wait for a year or so watching them return. This plant looks at you with death in its eyes. You find yourself stepping back and working around it. It’s just as pretty at seven feet as it is here creeping along the ground, but significantly more imposing. I’m sure it has a name or names. If I got to the nursery more often I suppose I could just ask. In fact, if you’ll remind me next time, I’ll do that.

Leonard Mlodinow’s interest in the subliminal began with the installation of an fMRI lab at Caltech, a machine capable of noninvasive analysis of blood flow in the brain. If you can figure out which parts of the brain are using oxygen during certain brain functions, you can learn something about how the brain works. Of course, this is a bit like scanning the temperature of a tube radio and attempting to explain telecommunications from the resulting data. Something happens here and there, but what exactly? Still, it’s a major step forward.

Mlodinow read a pile of books and some eight hundred research papers in the process of becoming an fMRI groupie. You should be so lucky as to have someone of his caliber volunteering his time, energy and insight. And then he wrote the national bestseller Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior. I wrote the last five numbered posts in response to that book, or vaguely in response. The cover of the book plays with the concept of subliminal, but I’ll let you discover that for yourself. I was in the middle of chapter 2 when I closed the book and it caught the light differently. Of course, subconscious and subliminal aren’t quite the same thing. While Subliminal is the title, the book is really about the subconscious. I suspect that was not his doing.

How things work, rather than how things can be used to persuade is what interests him. The classic book on persuasion was published when I was twelve, is The Hidden Persuaders by Vance Packard (1957). I was almost in junior high school when it first came out. I remember discussions of it at the dinner table and with teachers who weren’t afraid to have opinions about difficult things. Sex was a very difficult matter back then. I had friends also who read the book. After the Army I read Subliminal Seduction, which is now out of print, by Bryan Key (1972). I have a copy of it in a box somewhere. But by then, no one I knew had any interest in such things. Of course, it sold lots of copies, but I never ran into anyone who actually read it. There are many others, among which is The Secret Sales Pitch: An Overview of Subliminal Advertising by August Bullock (2004). I should probably read this one too. And various websites, such as Questia with a long list of books and articles on the subject that, were I much younger, I might pursue.

The subconscious and subliminal persuasion are, of course, related. I stopped for coffee on the way home from Barnes & Noble after buying Subliminal and three different people I knew asked me what I was reading. The first waved it off completely. “I don’t have a subconscious,” he said. “I have a brain. I saw you sitting there and I decided I would stop and ask what you were reading. Nothing persuaded me to do that. I decided to do that on my own.” End of conversation. So, we talked about him for several minutes and he was gone. The second explained to me that the subconscious was just one of those things they try to make you believe. “Because if you do, then they control you.” We talked about his day for a while before he left. The third, rather mysteriously, said that he used to have a subconscious, but he has grown way past that. I’ll leave it to you to figure out what kind of people I know, but it’s clear that they are all afraid of having something going on inside them that they don’t control. Of course, they control very little in their lives, so there might be a connection there.

I said earlier that you should read this book, i.e. the one by Leonard Mlodinow. But you should also read the ones about hidden persuasion. Once you do, you will never be able to look at a nationally distributed magazine without cringing. And you will begin to see just how much control your subconscious has over you and your behavior. It’s a fascinating, though also possibly a depressing subject, that I strongly recommend.

This is the only true cactus on my walk. It’s next to the dumpster, but on a neighboring property, as if the owner of that property wanted to effect a Mexican transition. The spider webs are a nice touch. I’m sure it looks very different earlier in the day. Next to it is a long collection of colorful, but uninteresting, plants bordering the sidewalk. It’s on the side I normally avoid. I’d much rather linger and decode or translate the garden attached to the Yoga Center, which seems different, perhaps enlightened from day to day. But for variety’s sake I forced myself to the other side, to the grimy, the pointed, the dangerous. And one thing led to another. I dreamed my way to the top of the hill, focusing on imaginary things, unreal things. Amusing myself. Telling myself stories. Remembering things that never took place. Breathing deeply. And feeling somehow happy. Happiness is a completely wonderful protective force.

I have certain prejudices about these things that I suspect are about to come bubbling up. I’m not going to pick any examples from the book for this piece, I’m going to deal exclusively with generic and invented ones. This has two advantages. The first is that it makes it easier for you to reject what I say, which is perfectly fine with me. The second is that it makes it easier, I think, for you to apply this thinking to a whole barrel of studies. Either is fine, but I think I’m right, and would prefer the latter.

If we were making an advertisement for the latest Chevy and came up with something like I looked at the cheapest Chevy on the lot and thought I was looking at a Cadillac, it might not be the best ad, but it would be infinitely better than I always buy the cheapest Chevy because I lose less on the resale. While the second is probably more true than the first, the first is more surprising, more motivating. So an academic psychologist with a study to sell does not want to present it as a run of the mill, completely expected study, but as something at least mildly extraordinary. The best way to do this is to present the results as completely contrary to expectations.

A study that produces a 60/40 split isn’t a particularly earth shattering study, especially if 60/40 was the expected result. I don’t think Psychology journals expect to publish material that merely says, “Gee wiz, we were right.” They want something with spunk. They would rather have something where the psychologists thought the results would be 10/90, but they turned out to be 60/40. Now we have something.

And when the study is properly written, it focuses on the surprising 60, and generally has little to say about the 40. I’m not sure how much we learn from this, but from the studies we learn a great deal. Publish or perish has produced mountains of studies. But have the studies produced mountains of results?

I like to point out that a great many of these studies use college students. I also like to point out the politically incorrect notion that 50% of all people are stupid. Though when we ask people how smart they are, or how smart other people are, the number is always very much smaller. But for the moment, let’s say 50%. That could mean that 50 of the 60 represent people who are merely stupid. The other 10 could be people who misunderstood the question. That would mean that 80% of the smart people showed up in the 40% group. If that were true, it would obviously change our view of the results.

Let’s consider something else. What percentage of smart people, that is people who are intelligent and have things together, are going to waste their time volunteering to participate in meaningless Psychology studies? The higher the percentage of nonparticipants, the lower the overall potential for the test group. It could be that the 60 of the 60/40 represent 100% of the available stupid people. So the results would turn out not to be that 60 of 100 people prefer A, but rather that, generally speaking, stupid people prefer A to B, which is very different from saying that people prefer A to B.

And now the 40 become rather important. Though they probably tend to avoid participation in Psychology studies, those that took the test greatly preferred B. So the results could be that intelligent people greatly prefer B, and that’s a very different result from the one that would be published as 60/40. Caltech students — remember, Mlodinow is a Professor at Caltech — tend to be very smart, but Caltech is not exactly a hotbed for Psychological studies, and students, as plentiful as they are, may not be our best choice for test subjects in the first place.

I’ve been somewhat ridiculous in this, but the question is, have I been completely wrong? If academic psychologists are trying to sell us interesting results, what are the results they are not trying to sell us, and what would the results be if they did things differently? The study in Trout Fishing in America was without any value at all. Yet, Mlodinow picked it from a 1954 journal as something of importance. Something that teaches us (or doesn’t teach us) about the game of life. Maybe if a study presented us with a 90/10 result, the 10 would contain an important message.

On the way to the Vets Hall, an ornamental cabbage. I’ve always wondered if they are edible and ornamental, or if they are only distant cousins of the cabbage my grandmother used to boil. The answer turns out to be yes and no. Yes, they are edible, but no, you do not want to eat them. They were bred for looks, not taste. Be content to look and admire the beautiful color and the distinctive shape. They would make a wonderful, but not very tasty slaugh. I’m considering these for the patio garden in the next month or so. I think they would be very interesting with a backdrop of sweet peas. Something to hide the dirt and warm the heart.

The conclusion to the penultimate chapter “Feeling”, save for an anecdote about a Persian rug purchased in San Francisco.
Evolution designed the human brain not to accurately understand itself but to help us survive. We observe ourselves and the world and make enough sense of things to get along. Some of us, interested in knowing ourselves more deeply—seek to get past our intuitive ideas of us. We can. We can use our conscious minds to study to identify and to pierce our cognitive illusions. By broadening our perspective to take into account how our minds operate, we can achieve a more enlightened view of who we are. But even as we grow to better understand ourselves, we should maintain our appreciation of the fact that if our mind’s natural view of the world is skewed it is skewed for a reason.
Evolution is mentioned numerous times in the course of the book, always in a sort of lighthearted, nontechnical way. As Mlodinow approaches the end of the book, however, he lets his guard down, I think, and allows certain unmistakable notions to creep into the text. One such notion is that evolution is in some way an entity capable of thought and design. Whereas evolution is a process. From the Life Science website:
The theory of evolution by natural selection, first formulated in Darwin's book "On the Origin of Species" in 1859, is the process by which organisms change over time as a result of changes in heritable physical or behavioral traits. Changes that allow an organism to better adapt to its environment will help it survive and have more offspring.
Evolution did not design the human brain. But in terms compatible with evolution, over an extended period of time tiny changes accrued that were passed on to offspring that ultimately resulted in the human brain. Nor did evolution design anything that helped in survival. Survival itself is what perpetuated the brain and all other evolutionary characteristics.

The word “design” is important here because a movement exists called Intelligent Design that seeks to build on the notion that certain systems are too complex to have evolved on their own. The eye is one such system. But remember, no criticism of science is so powerful that it cannot be rejected with a knowing look and a chuckle. There are probably ten articles or videos maintaining with straight faces that the eye is not very extraordinary for every one maintaining that the eye is too complex to have been formed by shaking a box with a hundred billion billiard balls inside. The problem is that the eye consists of numerous subsystems whose sole function is to be part of an eye. Highly complex subsystems. There is no reason for them to exist beyond servicing an eye. So in order to evolve an eye, you need to evolve all sorts of things that seemingly have no purpose until suddenly an eye exists. Only then does it all make sense. If you lack any one of the ingredients, or have one too many, you have no eye.

Of course, Mlodinow’s subject is the brain, not the eye, though he has a great deal to say about the eye and the brain working together in unexpected ways. I would be tempted to say that the human brain is not merely a question of a bit more tissue in the frontal lobe, something that could easily be produced by evolution, but something vastly more complex even than eyes. The fact that we function simultaneously on conscious and subconscious levels should tell us, the moment we come to terms with it, that more is at work in the universe than mere rationality.

So, saying that evolution “designed the human brain” and concluding that “our mind’s natural view of the world is skewed” for a reason is to fall off the Science train and succumb to a kind of religion of evolution. In another era he might have said God designed the human brain and gave us certain propensities of thought to help us survive. And I don’t think anyone would have thought twice about it. But God has not designed, Science has not designed, evolution has designed. And why? To help us survive. Thank God for evolution.

We associate the sudden spurt of green with springtime, at least I always have. But winter is in full bloom. It rained about two weeks ago and again last night, or the night before I took this picture. Things are brown until they get wet, and things get wet in winter, not in spring, unless you’re talking about watering the garden. The hills around here have a light hint of green about them. It will last until the water is used up and the brown returns. And it will be brown for so long that we forget the green, or only vaguely remember. Broken weeds and dirt will return… and stay. This is not green country. Beautiful, but not green.

Had the subject matter been subatomic particles, rather than football, I’m sure Mlodinow would have paid closer attention. As it it, I think he embarrassed himself on this one, though no one seems to have noticed. “Biased interpretations of ambiguous events are at the heart of some of our most heated arguments,” he says on p. 204. Nothing to argue with there. But he goes on at length to say:
In the 1950s a pair of psychology professors, one from Princeton, the other from Dartmouth decided to see if even a year after the event Princeton and Dartmouth students would be capable of objectivity about an important football game. The game in question was a brutal match in which Dartmouth played especially rough but Princeton came out on top. The scientists showed showed a group of students from each school a film of the match and asked them to take note of every infraction they spotted specifying which were “flagrant” or “mild.” Princeton students saw the Dartmouth team commit more than twice as many infractions as their own team, while Dartmouth students contend about an equal number on both sides. Princeton viewers rated most of the Dartmouth fouls as flagrant but few of their own as such, whereas the Dartmouth viewers rated only a few of their own infractions as flagrant but half of Princeton’s. And when asked if Dartmouth was playing intentionally rough or dirty, the vast majority of the Princeton fans said “yes” while the vast majority of the Dartmouth fans who had a definite opinion said “no.” The researchers wrote, “The same sensory experiences emanating from the football field transmitted through the visual mechanism to the brain … gave rise to different experiences in different people … There is no such ‘thing’ as a game existing ‘out there’ in its own right which people merely ‘observe.’”
He then adds, “I like that last quote because although it was written about football, it seems to be true about the game of life in general.” “The same sensory experiences emanating from the football field transmitted through the visual mechanism to the brain…” This is pseudoscientific bullshit for they watched a replay of the game. Had they watched the game without eyes or brains the results would have been very different. Fortunately, they had both. But the conclusion is the thing. “There is no such ‘thing’ as a game existing ‘out there’ in its own right which people merely ‘observe.’” But there was never an effort on the part of the testers to find a neutral place or a neutral group to evaluate the game. They chose students from the opposing schools, young people with vested interests in the results. And they did this only one season after the infamous game. The Freshmen were now Sophomores. How much more maturity and impartiality should they expect? Not only were they students at the opposing schools, but as the paragraph goes on to say, they were Princeton and Dartmouth fans. They were anything but neutral.

And life is indeed a lot like that. People with vested interests tend to support those interests. When a jury is selected the attorneys asks the potential jurors if they know the defendant, if they have heard about him in the newspapers or other media, if they have formed an opinion about innocence or guilt. This is a normal attempt to eliminate jurors with vested interests. If that becomes a problem, the attorneys may ask for a change of venue. In other words, they can request that the trial be moved to a place where neutral jurors are more likely to be found.

If you want a valid evaluation of a game, whether the game is football or life, you need people removed from the actualities of the game, the school, the fans, to make that evaluation. Laplanders taught the rules of American Football could have done that. But that wasn’t what they wanted. They wanted to show that students of a particular school would support their school, and they wanted to suggest that that had something to do with their brains malfunctioning. They also wanted to dress it up in bullshit and publish it in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, which they did in issue 49 (1954), because that’s what academic psychologists do.

Mlodinov, a physicist, took it hook, line and sinker.

Geranium leaves toward the bottom and dirt toward the top. On the way to town this morning just after a light rain. A single bloom with another on the way and a drop here and there of last night’s rain. Things one does not expect. A precarious beauty. Observed because I was avoiding the wind on the wrong side of the street. The wrong side. Left and right. Right and wrong. And then… this.

I remember a beautiful young blond I went to school with who insisted on having the last word on everything from Genghis Kahn to Lenin, on the grounds that she was, after all, a History major. Later that year she discovered that History majors had to read piles of books, not to learn more about Genghis Kahn, but to figure out how historians used the material at their disposal to create History. She filled out a form and changed her major to English, after which she became an authority on grammar, syntax and all things literary. She was still taking Civics 101, a class now considered politically incorrect, and had yet to take even one class on grammar, syntax or anything literary. She was, after all, a Freshman.

I remember meeting the grandmother of my girlfriend in a beautiful apartment in Copenhagen around that time. We had tea and very slow conversation because her grandmother and I lacked a common language. She asked what I intended to study at University. I said, “English.” There was a moment of silence, followed by a long and rather subdued discussion between the grandmother and granddaughter. Finally, my girlfriend, with a smile on her face, said, “She thought you already spoke English.”

The names we give things can sometimes be confusing. There is a big difference, for example, between being a student of History and being a student who studies History. Just as there is a difference between wanting to study English and wanting to learn English. Having the word “English” stamped on a folder in the Registrars Office does not confer even the slightest amount of knowledge or language ability. It’s merely the title of the area one intends to study.

What came of the beautiful young blond I have no idea. It was the 60s, so maybe she got arrested for possession of marijuana, got pregnant and dropped out of school, found yet another major, or pushed through and became a professor of something. My personal hope is that when she writes her biography she will thank that nameless young man — Will she remember him as handsome? — who first explained to her that in order to be a student of something you first have to study it.

This is just a tree on the side of a house I normally walk past on the way to the store. It’s interesting to me that it seems almost invisible as I approach the soccer field. I should say trees rather than tree. It seems to be a collection of them, though I suspect they have a common root structure. It was almost sunset as I passed this time, the light shining directly on the trunk. It became something more than just a tree. It became monstrously large and anything but invisible. It’s a eucalyptus, and some eucalyptus trees have a way of growing absolutely for ever unless a stop is put to them. As a boy I remember climbing in a friend’s eucalyptus tree — I was not half so brave as my friend who climbed almost out of sight — but I also remember when the city came by with large trucks and cut it down to almost nothing. It was considered dangerous, or dangerously large. But I also remember it growing back. And remember it growing stubbornly back again and again. A few years ago I drove past that same tree and it seemed almost as large as it seemed when they first cut it back. I remember thinking that its roots must go all the way to China. Nothing could hold it back for long. But had they done nothing, it may well have turned into this magnificent and ominous tree on the side of a house lending shade to the soccer field and frightening no one.

I’m going to post a series of things prompted by the reading of a book, both interesting and somewhat upsetting. They fit together in a poetic way, which is the best I can come up with. They are not a review of the book. It’s in its 23rd paperback printing — not a record, but still impressive — so chances are that if you were going to read it you already have. The book in question is Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior by Leonard Mlodinow, pronounced (p. 27) “Ma-lah-DI-nov”. I found the first three quarters of it completely engrossing but the last quarter, or maybe only the last fifth rather irksome. I’ll squeeze most of that into what follows over the next week or so.

Mlodinow is a professor of Physics at CalTech, which means the chances of him being right in the things I accuse him of being wrong in are enormous. He’s also a very likable person, or so it seems, with a fine sense of humor. So I place myself clearly in the inferior position as I express my views. I should also say, as Michael Shermer of Scientific American says on the cover, “I urge you you read the book.” It’s filled almost to the brim with interesting facts and ideas. You should then think it over and complain as I am about to do.

I started to lose interest after the two hundredth psychological test was reviewed. Clearly an exaggeration. Academic psychologists tend to test students. I think that’s a very true statement. So a lot of what teaches us about life comes from people who are just starting to learn about it themselves. But, if you work on a college campus, you work with students. Also, one of the amazing things about the studies reported is that they seem to be significant largely because they contradict the assumptions of the testers. Or, that the tested said one thing but seemed to believe another. I have some politically incorrect interpretations of this which I hope to share.

They will be posted between flower posts and will not have pictures. Like that, you can easily skip them, if you like.

This flower was in a ramshackle garden off the beaten path. Plants growing up in a pile of junk and and one solitary flower. But what a flower. To the right, on a leaf, you’ll see an interesting bug. We don’t have many bugs here, except the ants that perpetually wander around my kitchen. When it rains they pursue the kitchen, when the sun’s out I never see them. As for all the other bugs, maybe it’s the weather. Maybe bugs like a bit more heat and sunshine. I’m grasping at straws here, but the truth is, we have very few bugs. I think this is the only one I’ve caught in a photograph. But the flower. It seems to go with the pointy leaves, which I associate with geraniums, and a good botanist, I suppose, would be able to identify it off the top of his head. But no bother. This garden is one flower and one bug away from total obscurity.

On my way to the Vets Hall for Monday night dinner, where if past experience holds true, I will talk to a dozen or more different people, say and hear nothing of any value, and then walk slowly home again. But it’s nice to be with people. It’s nice to have a hot meal I did not prepare myself or eat by myself in front of the computer. It’s always nice not knowing what’s for dinner. So, it’s as close to a mixed blessing as I can come up with. When I don’t go I miss it. When I do go I wonder if, perhaps, I should have stayed home. But tonight I’m on my way to dinner.

Ornamental cabbages getting their start in life, with some random nasturtiums having a different idea. The nasturtiums in this case are weeds and will soon be removed. There was a corner lot on my daily walk that had one plant growing in the front and side yard. One infinitely replicating, but nonetheless beautiful, nasturtium. Today it is entirely dirt, but with tiny nasturtiums peeping through. They don’t give up just because you pull them from the ground. They have landlines to other gardens. They are extremely tenacious. And yet rounded and… I let them grow until the moment I really must pull them up.