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Astronomy and astrology are often confused by much of the public. While it is true that both involve the study of stars and planets, the two fields are worlds apart in their views of reality. Astronomy is the one that constantly reminds us we’re nothing but specks of dust in a vast and lonely universe, whereas astrology insists that this very same universe not only revolves around these specks but also will influence in some strange way what happens to them next Friday.
Astronomers as a group are apt to be far more annoyed by the confusion than astrologers. I’m not sure why. Perhaps astrologers make more money.
At one time, however, most if not all astronomers were also astrologers, or at least occasionally dabbled in the field. This was certainly true of the great Alexandrian astronomer and geographer Ptolemy, for whom an early earth-centered model of the solar system was named. (The fact that his system was later proved wrong should in no way detract from whatever success he might have had as an astrologer.) Such giants of science as Johannes Kepler and Galileo were also not above writing an occasional horoscope to help pay the bills. Galileo, though, was much better at aiming his telescopes than at aiming his horoscopes. He drew up a forecast for his patron, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, which promised him a “good and prosperous life.” The Duke died a few weeks later.
Though astronomers and astrologers both make predictions, their methods are celestial worlds apart. Astrologers, for instance, make a great deal out of a person’s zodiac sign. This is one of twelve constellations, each with their own 30 degree block of space, through which the sun appears to travel across the sky. The block of space the sun happens to occupy at the moment of your birth determines your sign. Thus, for anyone born as I was between January 20 and February 18, the sign is Aquarius. According to one description, Aquarians are supposed to be creative and idealistic, which does sound about right. They are also ordinary, tactless, fanatical, and inefficient. As you can see, astrology is still an imprecise discipline.
Having nothing better to do one day, I conducted a random sampling of newspaper horoscopes. Out of ten papers, only one—The New York Times—did not carry a daily horoscope. (I’m not sure what this says about the Times. Perhaps they still haven’t found the right astrologer.) For the most part, the nine sets of predictions showed a complete lack of agreement. As I read each one, it seemed as if the astrologers were talking about a different person. A couple of them did lead me to expect “exciting times” ahead, and that my social life would improve “dramatically”—it didn’t, though this is probably no fault of the astrologers. One of them, however, did make the uncanny prediction that a Cancer, Aquarius, or Capricorn would play a role in my life that very day. My wife is a Cancer.
Considering the amazing popularity of such horoscopes, perhaps astronomers could employ a similar format for their own predictions. Who knows, it might even help them make a little more money. Thus, reading our astronomical horoscope for Friday—five or six billion years from now—we can see that the sun is due to become a red giant and then collapse into a white dwarf. It is quite likely that this may carry over a bit into Saturday but, in any event, expect your solar cycle to be a little low that day and employment prospects dim.
Scanning down further, we come to the section marked “trillions of years from now” (they might pin this down some more). In the unlikely event the earth is still here, we can look forward to being swallowed up by a huge black hole near the center of our galaxy. Expect an emotional vacuum in your personal relationships, with some dark times ahead. Within that same time frame, however, we can see everything in the universe eventually coming to a complete stop, as predicted by the Second Law of Thermodynamics, resulting in truly massive traffic tie-ups. Reading such a column on the way to work each morning might help us all better cope with the day’s less awesome disappointments.
I think most people, at heart, are like old Ptolemy. We would prefer to think of the universe as earth-centered, thus human-centered, despite all evidence to the contrary. A soap opera universe that shares with us hidden details of our lives is certainly more comforting than the thought of being swallowed up before breakfast by an uncaring black hole.
©Gene Twaronite 2013
Originally published in 5enses, December 2013 http://www.5ensesmag.com/
The incidents described here occurred in New Hampshire, where I once owned a home with a front lawn. Now mowing a lawn is not the best inspiration for writing an essay. Not while the mind is being ground into senseless pulp by the relentless noise and fumes. But the active mind forever seeks meaning out of the most mundane tasks.
Now that the stage is set, I shall introduce the cast of characters. All but one have the same name—Bufo americanus, otherwise known as the American toad. Pretty much any lawn in eastern North America will have its fair share of them during the warmer months. The large, lush lawn around the old schoolhouse where we lived was toad heaven.
Appearing with the toads is a rather pathetic character who plays out the same farce every few minutes, as he pushes his existential lawnmower back and forth across this accursed lawn. For the toads the farce might well turn into a tragedy were it not for the fact that our comic actor dutifully stops his grim reaper, bends over and picks up the hapless amphibians on the verge of their doom, and much to his bemusement transforms himself into a superhero—the toad thrower.
For this lonely image of the toad thrower, I have the late writer, scientist, and anthropologist Loren Eisley to blame. His “lawn” was actually an isolated beach in Costabel. As he recounts in his essay, it was there that the author encountered another bit player in the drama of existence—a man who desperately threw starfishes back into a heartless sea which had tossed them upon the beach to die. He tells Eisley: “The stars throw well. One can help them” (The Star Thrower by Loren Eisley).
As for me, I’m more of a toad tosser than a thrower. Unlike starfish, toads do not “throw well.”
Whether I actually helped them is another matter. It is true that in the course of the six summers that we lived there I must have saved hundreds of toads from certain death. But for how long, and to what purpose?
Beyond the narrow, ordered realm of my former lawn extends a wider sea of life. It will kill toads in random, untidy fashion without the slightest remorse—kill them with predators, diseases, parasites, floods, tornadoes, fires, and starvation. But that same sea of life, like the ocean confronting the star thrower, continues to throw up countless new toads—something on the order of 4,000 to 12,000 eggs laid by each breeding female summer after summer, for as long as there are toads on this earth. Though most of them will never live past the egg stage, the process will go on well after this toad thrower is gone.
The toads I saved on one day would have eventually gone the way of all toads and of all organisms—gone so that other life might persist. Perhaps, in some infinitesimal way, I helped to boost the overall toad population by allowing more of them to survive and multiply. I might have also helped boost the local garter snake population by giving them more toads to eat. On the other hand, I might have helped to decrease insect or worm populations preyed upon by the hungry toads. But I doubt if my impact really mattered in the overall “scheme” of things, if such a word can be used to accurately describe what goes on out there.
And, while I cannot control this heartless sea that throws up its life indiscriminately, I could at least control the depredations of my mower. I am not helping nature by doing so. It’s just that I’m not introducing another destructive element into the equation. A nature that can so ruthlessly terminate the existence of dinosaurs and so many other now extinct life forms, and which has gotten along just fine without us for most of geologic time does not need my help. It is only my self-image that I am trying to help. In describing the desperate fight for survival of our ice age hunter ancestors, Eisley concluded in his essay that, while many of them lost their way, some kept alive “the memory of the perfect circle of compassion from life to death and back again to life—the completion of the rainbow of existence.” The only thing I do know is that the image of the toad thrower matters to me, for as long as the toads and I travel the same road together. ©Gene Twaronite 2013
Originally published in 5enses, November 2013 http://www.5ensesmag.com/the-toad-thrower/
Read the latest interview about my new book Dragon Daily News in 5enses Magazine. Thanks, Robert. http://www.5ensesmag.com/chasing-dragons-snickers/
I am now offering a free PDF version of my new Teacher’s Guide for Dragon Daily News. This 27-page teaching guide has been written to accompany the stories in my book Dragon Daily News: Stories of Imagination for Children of All Ages. Its chief aim is to provide background on the genesis of each story while stimulating ideas and discussion for the creation of students’ own stories. Each chapter applies elements of the Common Core Writing Standards, and includes a brief Author’s Notes, a Literary Nuts & Bolts discussion of how the story is put together, and Suggested Ideas for Stories to fire the imagination. Parents will also find this a useful enrichment tool as they share these stories with their children.
If you know any teachers or parents who might be interested in this, please share this post. Download your free PDF here: Teacher’s Guide for Dragon Daily News
The need for a national corpse deposit has never been greater. Corpses are everywhere, filling up graveyards and self-storage units across the land. And instead of utilizing these abundant resources, we are wasting them.
Humans have never been comfortable dealing with corpses. Usually we stick them in the ground, or burn them in crematories or funeral pyres. It is estimated that, in just chemical elements alone, an average-sized human corpse has a street value ranging from $5 to $160. But that is only the beginning. Factoring in the growing global markets for bone marrow, DNA, antibodies, egg cells, and replacement organs, a corpse could easily have a net worth in the millions. Yet each year, billions of dollars’ worth of corpses are rotting or going up in smoke.
While it might sound insensitive to think of recently deceased Uncle Fred as a source of ready cash, hard economic times require tough decisions. These days almost anything can be recycled: batteries, roof shingles, BBQ grills, cellphones, bottle caps, pizza boxes, packing peanuts, bread twist ties, shower curtains, water filters, wine corks, used appliances, screen doors, VHS tapes, and even flip flops. If we can recycle flip flops, surely we can find ways to recycle a few bodies. But as in any economic endeavor, there need to be creative incentives to make it more attractive to the consumer. Otherwise, Uncle Fred will just end up in a hole.
But isn’t burial a kind of recycling—ashes to ashes and all that? While it is true that human remains do decompose with time and return their chemical building blocks to the earth, the manner in which this accomplished is highly wasteful. Unlike our early ancestors, who reverentially planted their deceased into shallow graves in direct contact with the living earth, we moderns erect all kinds of barriers to this natural process. We inject the bodies of our loved ones with preservatives. We adorn them in fancy clothes fit for the theatre, surround them with soft cushions, then enclose them in an expensive thick casket, and all for what? To delay the inevitable, which is simply to rot in the ground. Not only is this a waste of materials, it is a waste of space. Think of the millions of acres of graveyards—filled with bodies in delayed states of decomposition—land that could be put to more productive use as malls, golf courses, or amusement parks. Though some see cremation as a solution (while ignoring the new problem of what to do with that urn of ashes), there is still the issue of air pollution, not to mention the burning of fossil fuels just to create a smaller package of human remains.
This is why a national corpse deposit makes sense today as never before. It offers a cradle to grave solution to one of our most vexing problems: what to do with ourselves when we’re dead. The beauty is that we could still go on venerating our beloved ancestors while benefiting from the resources they leave behind.
A corpse deposit could be modeled after one of the so-called bottle bills (or container deposit laws) currently in effect in ten states. These have proven to be an effective, sustainable method of capturing and recycling beverage bottles and cans for recycling. The basic idea behind these laws is to provide a monetary incentive in the form of a refund (usually between five and ten cents per bottle or can) when the container is returned. Of course, considering the greater value of our human containers, a much higher refund value would have to be set on corpses in order to encourage higher rates of participation.
Though some might argue for individual state corpse deposits, I think this is an issue best handled at the national level; otherwise we risk unseemly corpse trafficking across state lines to the highest bidder. Perhaps someday we’ll have vast recycling centers where we can conveniently drop off the corpse and collect the deposit. They could be set up like department stores so that you could pick up a few items on your way out. In addition to the deposit, maybe they could throw in a free toaster or other small appliance. Young people just starting out and looking to buy a new home or car might apply for a small loan based on the collateral of their own future deposits. Think of all that money being put to good use by needy families across the land while stimulating the economy. I think Uncle Fred would be pleased. ©Gene Twaronite 2013
Originally published in 5enses, October 2013 http://www.5ensesmag.com/every-bodys-part/
Long before science, humans sat around the campfire and spun colorful tales about how various plants and animals came into being. While our evidence-based knowledge has largely supplanted these stories, that doesn’t mean we can’t still enjoy them.
Take sassafras, for example. According to scientists, it’s a deciduous tree in the laurel family native to eastern North America and central China. It can be easily identified by the fact that some of its leaves are lobed, like mittens or fingers. Now I’m sure there’s some perfectly logical scientific explanation for why its leaves are shaped that way. But first, sit back and let me tell you a tale.
Sassafras loved his rock. It was the joy of his life—his thing—the fulfillment of his very existence. There was nothing he would rather do than sit atop its mossy throne and sip his morning coffee.
But one morning, the gods decided to play a trick on him, as gods so often do. They plucked his beloved rock from the edge of the ferny woods and, just like that, set it on top of Mount Futilius. Then they peered over the edge of their cloud and watched.
When Sassafras arrived at the woods that morning, his rock was gone! There was only the deep impression where it had rested. Frantically, he searched every corner of the woods and fields, and each street in the village. Where could it have gone? So far as knew, his rock had never moved anywhere, even during the Ice Ages. Then he happened to look up at the summit of Mount Futilius and saw a small bump on top that he had never noticed before. It had the same shape as his rock. Curious and confused, he set off for the foot of the mountain. As he did so, he heard a giggle from somewhere up above.
Mount Futilius soared many thousands of feet above the valley. So it was hours before Sassafras reached the summit. And there was his rock, perched on the edge of a precipice. Relieved, though puzzled, to see it there, he flopped down on its thick mossy carpet and was just about to take a nap when he noticed how cold it was. This won’t do at all, he thought. His rock needed to be back at the edge of the woods where it belonged. There was only one thing to do. If only he could get it to move. The rock was awfully big, but Sassafras had the strength of an ox. He pushed and he pushed, with all his might. After what seemed like an eternity, the rock began to budge, until finally it tipped over the edge and rolled down the mountainside. Descending as fast as he could, Sassafras prayed his rock was all right.
Upon reaching the valley, he noticed a wide swath of crushed shrubs and grass. Anxiously he followed the path, until at last he found his rock. He couldn’t believe his eyes. For there was not a scratch on it, and all its mossy carpet was intact as if nothing had happened. It was in the exact same spot where it had always been, nestled against the ferny woods. He plopped down upon its great granite bosom and fell instantly asleep, lulled by the gentle rustle of wind through the trees. The sun was already low in the sky when he awoke. He trudged on home, secure in the knowledge his rock was back where it should be.
Next morning, humming softly while sipping his coffee, he came to the woods and was just about to sit down when he noticed something. Again his rock was gone. And from up above he heard that same giggle, though this time it was louder. No way, he muttered. Things like this don’t happen in a normal universe. Then he gazed at the summit, and knew in the pit of his stomach what he would find there. Shaking his head, he set off for the foot of the mountain.
When he arrived at the summit, sure enough, there was his rock, perched in the exact same place it had been before. Again he pushed and pushed, until it rolled down the mountainside. This time, he descended more slowly, for he knew exactly where his rock would be.
Annoyed yet tired, Sassafras plopped down on his rock and fell asleep. The sun was just setting when at last he awoke. He was about to go home when a dark thought popped into his head. What if it happens again? No way, he muttered. It was midsummer and a warm gentle breeze blew through the woods. And he was still drowsy and tired from all his mountain climbing. So he curled up and went back to sleep, with his rock safely beneath him.
Next morning, Sassafras rolled awake and found himself lying on the wet ground where his rock once sat. Not again! he yelled, to no one in particular. And from up above he heard a peal of raucous laughter. Sighing, he gathered his wits and set off for the foot of the mountain.
When Sassafras reached the summit, there was his rock, as he knew it would be. Troubled as he was, there was still a comforting certainty to this and what he needed to do. Dutifully, he turned his face toward the huge rock and strained mightily against its stony inertia, until finally it rolled down the mountainside. As he sauntered back to the valley, deep in thought, he reflected on his condition. How strange it seemed that life could change so fast, but stranger still is how fast he could adjust to a new reality.
Hunched on his rock, he sat thinking all afternoon about what he should do. Suddenly he had an idea. He rushed to the local hardware store, and came back with two lengths of heavy iron chain, four long iron stakes, and a sledge hammer. Then he staked his rock firmly to the ground. It was not a pretty sight, he admitted, but at least his rock would be safe. Then grasping the two chains, he curled up and fell fast asleep.
Next morning, he awoke on the damp ground and let out such a shriek as to wake the dead. For his rock was gone, and so were the chains and stakes, which had cost him a lot. He shook his fist at the heavens. Why?!? he cried. But all he could hear from above were snorts, guffaws, and horselaughs. Then he heard a stern, sarcastic voice. Because! And you’ll do it as long as we say you will!
Sassafras couldn’t imagine what he had done to deserve this. How have I displeased you?” he asked. But there was only deafening silence.
Sassafras could not bear the thought of being apart from his rock. So, bowing to the gods’ will, he set off for the foot of the mountain and began his perpetual journey, repeating the same motions day after day, year by year, until time itself had no meaning.
Then, one day, Sassafras awoke on the damp ground and slowly rose to his feet. His joints ached, and he shivered in the winter cold. Raising his fist, he shouted defiantly to the sky. I am too told for this! You gods can all go to Hades!
At that very moment his rock suddenly appeared next to him. Before he could even smile, Sassafras turned into a large handsome tree, whose great roots extended outward in a final embrace of its beloved rock. And in one last stroke of divine retribution, the gods shaped some of the tree’s leaves into lobes, to remind it of the fingers it once possessed. ©Gene Twaronite 2013
Originally published in 5enses Magazine, September 2013 http://www.5ensesmag.com/the-myth-of-sassafras/
Local author Stephanie Jefferson and I had a wonderful time sharing our books and writing styles with a warm, receptive audience. Thanks to the great staff at Peregrine and to all who came! https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=501303986630617&set=a.501303929963956.1073741848.305325316228486&type=3&theater
To mark the publication of a new Amazon edition of my novel The Family That Wasn’t, I am offering a free Kindle version this Saturday and Sunday (8/17 & 8/18) only. http://www.amazon.com/The-Family-That-Wasnt-ebook/dp/B00EG0D5QQ/ref=pd_rhf_se_p_d_2
Print copies of this and my other two books (Dragon Daily News and My Vacation in Hell) will also be available at the ‘Tween Authors Event at Peregrine Book Company in Prescott, AZ, on Saturday, Aug. 24, at noon.
From a warrior queen of ancient Nubia to goofy dragons & crazy families, this program has it all.