Yes, Teacher

•October 19, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Though I’m the farthest thing from a stereotypical history buff, I’m fascinated by ancient civilizations, especially the variety that purportedly vanished under a cloak of intrigue. Anasazi, Olmec, Minoan, Nabateans, Moche. As you read more about them, their disappearances seem more legitimate and evolutionary than conspiracy theorists care to admit. But without a time machine, we can’t really say for sure what happened thousands of years ago.

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And this line of inquiry piques my curiosity about the ultimate fate of our own fragile species on earth. Drought, meteors, earthquakes, or will it be something more home-grown and insidious, like an organism? Maybe something too microscopic for our eyes to detect, though wielding an unspeakable power over our physiology, immunity, and strength.

Like a virus.

Ebola

What is the root cause of the mishandling of the Ebola epidemic in West Africa so far? Is it an internal, organizational breakdown, a lack of education to the local population about the threat, or a perilous political funding dilemma? Can we continue to blame escalating death toll on operational logistics like containment, or is it always about money? The GOP and Tea Party will no doubt continue to oppose broad funding for institutions like the WHO and CDC. So I wonder, then, what Ebola is now revealing about how our political divisions are hindering progress and preventing us from fighting back on the same team. Look at Ebola 2014’s track record so far…how much more time do we really have to waste?

Look at things like the Black Death which, in the 1300s, claimed up to 200 million lives. The cause? A pathogen (yersenia pestis) carried by rat fleas and spread by contact with exposed animals. In 1300, we didn’t know that washing your hands with soap and water could protect our health. And cigarette smoking in the early to mid 1900’s – no one knew it was harmful back then. Now we know. And in 2014 in the absence of budgetary allocation, education and awareness are the strongest tools we have.

Black Death (Yersinia pestis)

Black Death (Yersinia pestis)

HIV

HIV

H1N1 (swine flu)

H1N1 (swine flu)

Mimivirus, the largest and possibly the oldest virus on earth

Mimivirus, the largest and possibly the oldest virus on earth

The reality: viruses such as Ebola are smart, more than smart. They learn. They can adapt, and change. A virus mutates for the same reasons any other organism mutates – to survive. Host organisms are not passive observers of this process either. The host, a human body in the case of Ebola, will constantly deploy strategies to prevent viral infection. So the next time the virus comes in contact with a host cell, it may have issues attaching itself to the cell’s surface membrane. To compensate for this temporary setback, the virus could change its surface proteins to essentially trick the host into allowing it to attach. Scary. Sort of like Star Trek shield modulations to prevent a sensor lock by an enemy species.

What this means is that Ebola could, at some point, mutate into something more easily transmittable, and with that comes unthinkable possibilities. So until we discover a cure, Ebola comes to gives us another chance to pay attention, to hear her wisdom, to learn to listen to each other, and to change.

BrainTrain

•October 5, 2014 • 1 Comment

How much brain anatomy do you remember from high school? Forebrain, midbrain, hindbrain, what do they all do again?

300px-Brain_Lobes

Lobes:

  • Frontal – Planning, organizing, problem solving, memory, impulse control, decision making
  • Parietal – Sensory information (hot, cold, pain), orientation (up, down), balance
  • Temporal – Sound, speech, language, memory, fear
  • Occipital – Shape and color perception, seeing, reading
  • Cerebellum – Balance, movement, coordination
  • Brain stem – Breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, swallowing

Peeling back a layer, we get to the center of our emotional life – the limbic system.

limbic system

  • Thalamus – The brain’s relay station, channeling impulses from most of the senses. Important in sorting the importance and significance of some information over others.  The “waiting room” where sensory information is sent before going to the cerebral cortex for processing.
  • Hypothalamus – Moods and motivation, sexual maturation, temperature regulation, hormones, hunger, thirst, using both electrical and chemical messages
  • Amygdala – Center of emotions and motivation
  • Hippocampus – Long term memory, best explained as your computer harddrive, involved in the storage of huge amounts of data
  • Basal ganglia – Cognition, movement coordination, voluntary movement, procedural learning, habits, decisions about how to act in a given situation

Up until twenty or thirty years ago, we thought the brain’s composition was fixed at birth. And now, we’re discovering that it’s more like a lump of clay that can be molded and changed – not just by what we learn and experience, but by how we want it to change. As an infant brain begins to grow, so do neurons, growing in length and numbers, and extending and making critical connections as we view, understand, and reciprocate our world.

Neuroplasticity, the notion that the brain is trainable at any age and can adapt, has become a ubiquitous household term. The concept is that you’re never too old (or young) to learn new things, deepen your connections, evolve beyond baggage,  develop new skills, and heal. And all this magic happens in the neurons.

brain

Neurons make up the communication highway in our brains, through which we process, understand, and build our world and reality. Neurons are cells within the nervous system that send information to other nerve cells, muscles, or gland cells. They have a cell body, axon, and dendrites covered with synapses, which are contact points where one neuron touches another. Mammals generally have between one million and one billion (!!!) neurons.

neurons

Check out these neurons under a microscope:

neurons under scope

As homo sapiens, we’re capable of not only higher consciousness but of growing/training/evolving our brains, and that process requires care. Think stress management. Stress adversely affects almost everything in the body and mind.  Aside from our cardiovascular health, the release of cortisosteroids (hormones) inhibits brain growth, affecting our ability to learn and retain information.  Try to incorporate a few of these each week as a recipe for Brain Health:

  • Yoga – Reduces anxiety and stress and improves cognitive performance. It lifts your mood, helps regulate blood pressure and hypertension, calms your nervous system.
  • Aerobics - The release of BDNF (a protein) enhances the growth of neural connections. Weight training increases our ability to focus and make decisions, flooding the brain with mental mojo. Think SWEAT!
  • Nutrition and supplements – Try antioxidants like E and C, B-Complex for combatting stress (B6, B12, Folic acid),  Gingko, Magnesium, CoQ10.
  • Meditation as a regular practice (even just a few minutes a day) calms the mind and body, quiets the amygdala (emotions) and activates the hippocampus.
  • Sleep – Do you get enough, and roughly the same amount each night? Sleep regulates the nervous system, boosts concentration and coordination, keeps memory sharp and gives you the agility to adapt to different stresses.
  • Rest and downtime - Different from sleep but of equal importance. Try reserving 5 minutes a day for mental resting without any kind of stimulus. No reading, no TV, no iPhone, iPad, no music. Just resting quietly, breathing, with your eyes open, alert, and calm. Can’t do 5 minutes? How about 1?
  • Caffeine management - Could you take 2 days off a month to optimize its benefits?  Caffeine and in particular coffee, now comes with a short list of advantages, including the ability to store long-term memories.
  • Brain Stretch - Push the limits of your comfort zone and try new things to keep your brain active and healthy. Drive an alternate route to work. Wear your hair a different way. Write with your non-master hand. Or take a class to develop a skill you never thought you’d be able to learn. Piano lessons? Absolutely!

piano

Explore MOROCCO: Chicken Tagine

•September 7, 2014 • 2 Comments

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What do you think of when you see the word Morocco? Desert, perhaps? For me, it’s tile.

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I can’t get enough of the eye candy color combos, intricate patterns and textile interweaving of lines and shapes. So, I thought, how about a foray into the historical realm of Moroccan cuisine? And what better way than trying my hand at Chicken Tagine? If you’ve never made this dish before, I recommend starting with a spice mix, allowing the professionals to blend them in just the right amounts and ratio. The result – you can put this dish together in about 40 minutes start to finish. Here’s the one I used: Urban Accents Moroccan Tagine, containing a sensory overload of coriander, cinnamon, cardamom, garlic, red pepper, black pepper, basil, cumin, you get the picture.

Colours-of-morocco

 

 

Start with boneless, skinless chicken breasts and cut them into cubes. Brown them in a skillet with olive oil and chopped onions. Next, add the spice mix, chicken broth, and dried apricots and simmer for 30 minutes. The spice mix contains a recipe and ingredients list for reference. Serve the dish over a bed of cous cous and sprinkle with slivered almonds and fresh mint leaves. OMG!! So good.

So the word ‘tagine’ not only refers to a Moroccan tagine stew (which can be made with chicken or lamb) but also a piece of cookware historically used to slow-cook the stew.

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The terracotta earthenware tagines are made for slow cooking tagine stew over an open fire. And then some are decorative serving pieces. I cooked my dish in a stainless steel skillet and served it out of a beautiful cobalt tagine.

Tajine%20pots

 

 

 

Like Tony Bourdain, I like to study and reflect on the social and cultural elements that influence the food I love – in this case, Berber culture.

morocco_ait-ouaritane_camel_berber_4

 

 

There’s so much more I’m hungry to learn. But for now, I’m happy with tonight’s small mastery. Bon Apetite!

chicken-tagine-w-spoon-on-angle

 

Crazy About Pi

•September 2, 2014 • 3 Comments

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Curious about pi and jealous of your geeky math-adept friends who have the first forty decimals memorized? This is an awesome video I discovered that provides just enough detail to be interesting:

The Infinite Life of Pi by Reynaldo Lopes

But my deepest Pi passion belongs to Darren Aronofsky in his legendary 1998 masterpiece “Pi” starring Sean Gullette as the tortured, genius mathematician Max Cohen.

pibdcap1_original

From Pi the movie: “Personal note, When I was a little kid, my mother told me not to stare at the sun. So once, when I was six, I did. The doctors didn’t know if my eyes would ever heal. I was terrified, alone in that darkness. Slowly, daylight crept in through the bandages and I could see. But something else had changed inside me.”

Max is a solitary number theorist frantically searching for a numerical key that he believes will unlock all of the universe’s mysteries. This 216-digit number key, spit out by his computer just before it crashed, could just as easily decode stock market patterns as it could be the name of God. 

SS_Wall_St_Movies_pi

Chased by paranoia, hallucinations, and social anxiety disorder, Max unravels further when he is pursued by Wall Street agents showing a more than casual interest in his work.   

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Meanwhile, Max meets Lenny Meyer at a coffee shop, a Hassidic Jew who also studies number theory in the context of the Torah. He shows Max the relationship between the Hebrew alphabet and numbers, and his theory that these numbers are messages sent to the Jewish people by God.

pimovie1

pi02

Max finally realizes that he doesn’t need to search for the elusive number. He knows it, he feels it, it lives in his head. And it’s killing him.

pibdcap6_original

Aronofsky shot the film on high contrast black and white reversal film for a stark, edgy feel that leaves you asking more questions than you had to start with. For the intellectually-curious, that’s a good thing.

“One: Mathematics is the language of nature. Two: Everything around us can be represented and understood through numbers. Three: If you graph the numbers of any system, patterns emerge. Therefore, there are patterns everywhere in nature.”

If you love math, number theory, and you frequently ponder the nature of the universe, you will love this film.

Watch the trailer here

 

 

Untitled poem by Lee Towles

•June 22, 2014 • Leave a Comment

I’m posting this poem written by my husband this morning, because he has that rare poetic gift of not writing but more like channeling completely finished poems from his internal reservoir of art.

 

Untitled

It was so much better back then
When there were no fences or defenses
When the light of the stars was young
And the songs of all creatures were sung

It’s so much better now
That we can live our lives through devices
And have a pill for every crisis
With every mystery solved
And every sin absolved

It was so much better back then
When late night stories were told
And we let the magic unfold
When our ancestors would smile
At the birth of every child

It’s so much better now
That there’s a solution to every threat
The entire agenda is set
Where convenience is on parade
Because our lives are readymade

It will be so much better when
We rediscover the enchantment within
When we listen to the infinite songs
That have been playing all along
When the light of the stars now old
Tells the story that can finally be told

rosette_lula_1700

Death vs. Sabotage

•May 12, 2014 • 1 Comment

Every few days, I pull weeds that grow under the branches of my buddleja davidii or Butterfly Bush. I want the lush, purple flower clusters to grow and thrive because they attract butterflies, hummingbirds, and bees and are a beautiful reminder that our world is made of more than just steel and concrete.

butterfly bush

Some of the fiercest of nature’s organisms are weeds. Unlike the comfortable trappings of our glossy, climate-controlled industrial world, nature is brutal. For animals and plants, you somehow find enough food, water and warmth or you die. There are no savings accounts, pantries, or root cellars to store canned peaches during a brutal winter. In the game of Darwinian survivalism, you’re either fit, strong and cunning, or somebody else’s lunch.

In my ongoing efforts to slow my pace and pay attention to things that matter, I noticed today the raw brutality with which I approached the weeds in my yard. Before now, I never really stopped to observe my disdain and unchecked violence against these quiet strangers growing in the earth, wanting nothing more than to exist like everything else on our planet. Some of them are spiny, nasty vandals that stick on my face, in my hair and on my skin when I yank their roots out of the dry soil. But that’s no excuse and I’m ashamed that I’m only just now aware of this inequality. With all my online activism about Nigerian girls, gay marriage and treatment to animals, I am Attila the Hun to the California weed population.

attila

Many have commented on the usefulness of hard labor to calming the emotional mind. And today I see a strong parallel to my gardening practice and the conscious landscape. If weeds are thoughts, maybe it’s perfectly okay to pull things out of the ground that I don’t select for growth and cultivation. After all, does every thought in my head turn into a usable idea? More like 20%, maybe less.

One particular weed in my yard has smooth enough stalks to pull up without gloves, delicate round leaves and the roots lift easily from the ground. I was shocked to discover, today, an eight or nine inch specimen which, when I began pulling, revealed a tap root the girth of my forearm and was easily eight feet long. I held these massive roots in my hands and studied them, squeezed them, measured them and observed their details, wondering about the thoughts and ideas in my head that I ignore, don’t water, inadvertently step on or purposely destroy.

And I realize that this, too, is a form of survivalism. In a world that now moves at such velocity, pruning the thoughts in my head, through meditation or yoga, keeps me sane. Meditation is not intended to remove thoughts – more like helping you make friends with them. And yoga quiets thoughts by aligning movement with the breath. They’re all forms of weeding, and though in some cases might be viewed as sabotage, this practice creates more space for our juiciest ideas to flourish into fruition.

medit

Driveway Reflections

•February 11, 2014 • 1 Comment

Who does the laundry in your house? And is it the same person who takes out the garbage? Just curious.

Two people live in my house and the chores are, by and large, assigned according to whoever has more time to do them. Tonight I chose the chore of taking out the garbage and dragging the bins out to the curb.

As a practicing Buddhist, you would think mindfulness would be almost second nature to everything I spend my time on. Let’s just say I’m a work in progress. But tonight I had a different experience performing a chore I’ve done thoughtlessly 100x before. What changed? I paid attention. For some reason, I gave importance to details that had been, in the past, meaningless.

After five days of blissful rain, I drew in the pungent scent of damp earth. Pulling my hands off the garbage cans, I closed my eyes and sucked it deep into my lungs. And I stayed there, in this odd spot on the edge of my backyard, sniffing the air. Minty wet eucalyptus leaves, wood burning from a neighbor’s fireplace, pine needles, grass. I must have looked like a displaced mental patient.

As I began to wrestle the heavy plastic bins across the driveway, I noticed the deep cracks and crevices in the concrete. Not from looking at them, or even from walking over them, but from the sound the rubber wheels made as they lumbered over the clunky surface. The thick webbing of clouds was beginning to disperse and I could see a thin stripe of night sky dotted with stars. But the sky’s a no-brainer. Who wouldn’t want to pay attention to that? The real training in mindfulness, I surmised, was in my driveway.

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I live in a house built in 1933. It survived Loma Prieta and probably hundreds, if not thousands, of lesser quakes since then. We’ve patched cracks in the walls, ceilings, last summer we painted the exterior, replaced the forty year old windows. It looks solid and cared for, considering its age. But the raw truth of what this house has seen in 81 years is visible in the patchy swag of broken concrete we drive over twice a day. What else has that driveway seen? What human dramas have passed across its surface, what emotion has seeped into its skin? “I see you,” I said to my driveway tonight. “And I notice your scars.” This gives me hope, makes me wonder what I’ll notice tomorrow…

Some driveway-themed songs for further contemplation:

 
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