Sunday, April 04, 2010

About Rabbits

What is it About Rabbits?

It's March and those cottontails have already been at it for a month. I'd always wondered if all those sayings about rabbits' reproductive lives were the rural equivalent of an urban myth, but no, there is some truth to many of those expressions. Assuming no mortality, two rabbits could produce 5 million offspring in just five years. It makes sense then that the rabbit was chosen as one of the symbols for Easter. Although it's a Christian holiday celebrating the resurrection of Jesus, many Easter customs are based on earlier pagan traditions related to the celebration of the spring equinox, a time of fertility and new life. But then there is also the story of Eostre, from German folklore, who discovered a bird with frozen wings that she saved by turning it into a hare which laid colored eggs. So, the Easter bunny is really a hare. Not much of a difference, except that the rabbit is born hairless and completely dependent, while the hare is born with fur and can move around right after birth.

Years ago, as an exercise in a nature writing class, I was given a photograph of two rabbits taken during mating season. The photographer was obviously aware that rabbits frolic, flirt, and cavort with animated jumping leading up to the act. What was captured is pure delight: desire on the part of one animal, fear and excitement in another. Droplets of dew that frame the couple add to the sense of motion and the thought that something biological is occurring.

We had rabbits that lived in our yard in Ghent. I never saw them mating but one day I found a nest of babies in my garden. The fur-lined nest, dug in the ground of my garden, had five or six hairless babies in it. The mother must have pulled her own fur out to line the nest and then covered it with more fur. When I first saw it, it looked like a fluffy brown cotton ball lying in the garden. But then I poked it with a twig and heard the babies squeaking. They squirmed around each other, eraser pink with wrinkles around their thick necks and legs. I had an automatic maternal reaction to save them, to bring them in, to nurse them. But my partner at the time talked sense into me, and I left them alone.

When spring arrives in the Northeast, there's a tendency for some people, especially those that have seasonal affective disorder, to feel a little manic. Isn't that what the rabbits are feeling too? Mania has as one of its symptoms sexual promiscuity. Perhaps the rabbits are just acting out on what many humans have inhibited for various reasons—a spring fling.

Imagine waking up as a male rabbit in mating season.

The sun is shining on the warm dew, as I run toward her my feet get wet.

She smells like spring, damp and warm.

I nuzzle her cheek with my nose.

She wakes blinking her eyes and then runs off.

All day I chase her, as the grass dries off it gets hot.

I feel hot.

Couldn't she stop running and leaping?

I grab her with my front paws and look at her face.

She's terrorized.

I don't feel bad. She's making me tired.

I have to chase her until she's too tired to run anymore.

It has to be today.

A famous mathematical puzzle called the rabbit problem, solved in the 12th century, asks if you were to put two rabbits in a room, how many pairs of rabbits can be produced from that pair in a year, if you allow that every month each pair produces a new pair, which from the second month on becomes productive? The answer, known as the Fibonacci sequence, is 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, ... This sequence, in which each number is the sum of the two preceding numbers, plays an important role in describing designs throughout nature, and has been used extensively in Greek art and architecture. For example, the Golden Ratio, or Phi and the Golden Rectangle are derived from the Fibonacci sequence. The Golden Ratio is an irrational number, like Pi, that is, it goes on forever without repeating, and is equal to 1.6180... It can also be described as one plus the square root of five divided by two. A Golden Rectangle is a rectangle in which the ratio of the length to the width is the Golden Ratio. Interestingly, if you have a Golden Rectangle and you cut a square off of it, what you are left with is another Golden Rectangle. Greek architecture like the Parthenon is based on the Golden Ratio too, as are many famous paintings (Mona Lisa’s face).

The spiral of a nautilus shell connects through angles that are a Fibonacci sequence as it moves outward. The number of petals of a pine cone as it spirals outward are Fibonacci numbers. This is true for pineapples and sunflowers too. Why do seeds, petals and leaves all turn at an angle equal to the Golden Ratio? It turns out that this irrational number allows for the most efficient packing of seeds, and for leaves, the least obstruction of leaves below. Any rational number would in the end have leaves lining up on top of one another. It takes an irrational number, one of the least likely to converge, to make some of the best fits in nature.

When it comes to irrationality, mathematics does not have a monopoly. I think her name was Addie, I'm not sure, but when I was in high school I cared for a woman in a nursing home. She was one of many patients whom I was responsible for as an untrained nurse's aide. Addie was certainly one of my favorites, because she could carry on a conversation and could do a lot for herself. But she had one issue that was particularly challenging and at the same time endearing. When Addie received her meals, she would insist on feeding her stuffed bunny first. This bunny was about the size of a real rabbit, and it had a pink satin ribbon tied around its neck, Her habit resulted in dried crusted food sticking to the fake fur, all around its face and neck. Since Addie was so determined to feed the bunny first, she herself was suffering from malnutrition. The story on the floor was that Addie thought the bunny was her infant son. Everyone played along with this conceit, but also tried to get Addie to eat too. One day, without Addie’s knowledge, a new nurse decided that the stuffed rabbit was disgusting and sent it down to the laundry to be cleaned. I saw Addie that afternoon at the nurses' station using the phone. When I walked by, she told me that she was talking to her lawyer, because they had taken her baby away from her. Then Addie disappeared. She left the building to get on a bus to go to her lawyer's office. When the staff finally found her and brought her back, she had to be sedated and was therefore asleep when her stuffed rabbit came back from the laundry--fluffy and sweet smelling.

To Addie, a stuffed rabbit symbolized a much-loved child, an innocent remnant of a past she desperately clung to because her present had unraveled. To many others, rabbits symbolize fertility, spring, and an abundance of nature. When my son was seven he loved rabbit fur. He bought pieces when he saw them at the county fair and then kept the hide in his pocket to rub for comfort. A woman at the annual Sheep and Wool festival in Rhinebeck spins angora yarn from a rabbit that she keeps on her lap. My friend keeps rabbits as pets and travels over a hundred miles to Cornell to get good veterinary care. They are a part of our lives, these adorable, furry, and frisky animals. So it's hard to think of them as sexual creatures. Even harder to think that young females can conceive after only five months, so that two generations can actually be born within one breeding season. Perhaps the fear in the eyes of the female rabbit that I saw in the photograph, represents the fear that we all have when trying to reconcile the dichotomy inherent in nature: the ubiquitous violence even among the seemingly most gentle creatures and the childhood book illustrations of backyard pets.

On Easter, undoubtedly my mind will wander briefly to the Easter Bunny, and the thought of him will bring up an image of a man-sized, costumed, mall-ready mascot posing with small children for their Easter portraits. This evocation of the Easter Bunny is far more terrifying than any Santa Claus, as Jake Gyllenhaal illustrated so well in Donnie Darko. Size in this case is the single variable leading us from adorable to grotesque.

Fecundity in all its beauty and horror is the true theme of Spring and really as interesting a problem to wrestle with this season as the idea of resurrection. As Annie Dillard asks in her wonderful piece title “Fecundity” in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, “I don’t know what it is about fecundity that so appalls. I suppose it is the teeming evidence that birth and growth, which we value, are ubiquitous and blind, that life itself is so astonishingly cheap, that nature is as careless as it is bountiful, and that with extravagance goes a crushing waste that will one day include our own cheap lives.”

We eat eggs on Easter and we play with stuffed rabbits—both symbols of fecundity. All around us outside plants are pushing through the warmed soil. Life is organized, defying entropy, and worthy of a nod for its resilience and forcefulness. It is the sustenance of the season, and the meat amid all the candy.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Your Brain on Music

David Byrne and Daniel Levitin discuss how music differs from language. How it brings us closer to each other through emotions and movement. How it's good for us (see my older article Rock on Baby for more on that) and how it was used to develop community (but so much for that nowadays with iPods, hunh).

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Losing Things

A lover, a breast, a dog, a roommate, your hair, your teeth, your figure, a connection with your children, a season, a species, your wit, the name of that actor, a pen, a sandal, your luggage, your mother, your marriage, your mind.

I’m losing it certainly. Losing my family as I know it. Losing the innocence of my children as the consequences of the divorce begin to affect them, and as they act out on it. Losing the security of financial dependence. Losing my identity as I think about how to create a new one.

Julie, my yoga instructor, (one of the special people in the world) focused this past March on a metaphor, of life being like sailing. She explained that you need to have a destination or a goal of something larger than yourself, and you sail toward that. Anchors can hold you back and you need to understand what they are and lose them. Lose them. That’s right. Let these things go. I thought about this and for the first time in my life thought about how it could be a good thing to lose something. That if I did, I would be OK. I might sail faster toward my goal. I really believe this. I believe that I’ll be OK. I can let go.

This past March, I was riding a pony called Marcus. He has a bit called a kimberwick and it is by its nature a severe bit, meaning that it hurts like hell when you pull back and the bit hits the roof of his mouth. He needs this type of bit because he can be wild sometimes. He’ll buck and kick out. So, I was trying to learn how to jump him over a cross-rail. Nothing that I haven’t done hundreds of times before on other horses, just not with Marcus. And, I had to learn something new. I had to let go of the reins. Seriously, I had to loosen the reins just as I was about to go up in the air on this pony’s back, with my butt out of the saddle and only the balls of my feet to balance on. If I held onto the reins, which I did the first few times to try to keep my balance, he resisted and bucked in the air as we jumped. When I later let go of the reins, I had another problem, I couldn’t steer. After we cleared the jump, we started to head into the jump in front of us.

Letting go.

My instructor Susie (another one of the special people in the world), told me I had to release the reins, not something intuitive, not something I wanted to do, something I was in fact, terrified to do, but it was the only way to progress. The only way that Marcus and I could jump together. She seemed to know that this task was something I had to do, that this was also a metaphor for what was going on in my life and that if I faced this fear, here with her in the ring that I would be expanding the comfort zone in all areas of my life. That maybe I could learn to stop clinging and make some progress in other ways too.

I went rock climbing for the first time in March. All of these things came together this March, which is why I felt compelled to write about this. I was in Joshua Tree, camping with a dozen women I’d never met and we all had to introduce ourselves and say why we were there and what we hoped to get out of our visit. I said that I had only decided at the last minute to come. That I had some momentous changes going on in my life and camping with a bunch of strangers in the desert seemed like just the thing to do.

Later that night, our climbing guide, Kathy Cosley (another one of the special people in this world) sat down next to me and said so you’re going through a big change? And I said yes, that my husband had filed for divorce at the end of February and that I was just beginning to understand what that meant. I assured her that I was OK though and then I repeated what I’d learned from Julie about sailing and the anchors. That it was OK to lose things. She liked that. I liked it too. I liked that I was OK and could convince people of that. Kathy asked me if I knew the Elizabeth Bishop poem on losing things. I said I wasn’t familiar with it. She tried to recite it, but couldn’t remember more than a few lines.

On our last day of climbing, Kathy led me and two other women on a three-pitch climb. Meaning, that we went up the height of three ropes, resetting our anchors as we went. Each rope is 50 feet, so we climbed to a height of 150 feet that afternoon. I was the first person to climb each pitch after Kathy, and when I made it to the anchor, where she was waiting for me, I would go to the spot she told me to wait, out of the way of the others. Kathy was belaying us from above, and yet somehow managed to find in her mind the rest of the poem to recite to me, as I sat on the ledge and waited for Sarah to join us. The title I discovered when I returned home and found the poem on the Internet, is One Art. It’s a villanelle and one of the most famous examples of that form. Bishop builds up the seriousness of loss with each stanza, until she loses someone of obvious importance.

Loss can be about images. Losing things can be like shedding layers of clothes on a hot day. So much of what we feel can be imparted by how we think about it. But, sometimes we have no resilience. I’ve been criticized for saying that I can’t believe how strong I feel and how well I’m doing. Some have said that’s the case, because you weren’t in love anymore anyway. Maybe that’s true. Maybe my sailing images and lessons from Marcus about letting go are simple frames that aren’t containing anything sensitive anyway. Or maybe not. I’m sure it’s somewhere in-between. I think it’s unfair for anyone to think that I’m not going to be troubled about my family being on vacation in Vermont without me. And that when I call my kids from my cell phone on the one day when we go into town and have reception, and they don’t want to talk to me that I’m not going to be in a funk the rest of the afternoon. But, there may also be some truth in the idea that I’m gliding and not crashing because I’m not heartbroken on top of everything else.

Letting go is not always that easy, I know. An image of a sailboat losing anchors, when those anchors are things like your spouse, or kids, or house is not a simple hammock daydream. Not the kind of thing you stay in bed on a Saturday morning to continue to muse about. But, I do believe in the power of thought, and the possibility that images--like anchors, or bits, and letting go--can help someone through an unbelievably tough time, is not so hard for me to accept. Sometimes the littlest thing can be something to hold onto. I learned this in climbing too. A rough spot, barely an eighth of an inch can be enough to grab onto with the tips of your fingernails and from there, you can push yourself the rest of the way. Images and poems and yoga are like that too. You never know what little thing will rescue you when you’re suffering a loss. Is it an art? Losing things? Can we get better at it? Should we? And will we really sail faster? I wonder about this. I know what my goal is: writing. Finishing my projects, and then writing some more. Will my divorce help me do that? Maybe it will. Maybe because as a married woman, I’ve become complacent and dependent. I’ve lost the hunger for success, gotten flabby and lazy. Maybe soon, I’ll be desperate and work harder. Too bad that’s what it takes. Too bad there’s so much pain with this. Is this a strange way of looking at it? Too self-centered? What’s the benefit for everyone else? I’m not the only one who matters here.

Is it possible that we only lose things that hold us back? Is everything we lose an anchor? Should we think of it that way? Is letting go always the right thing to do? Or is there some way to discern the correctness of loss? Maybe because it’s the right time, or because working through the loss is the next part of our journey. It’s all about attachments really. The anchors, the loss, letting go. If life is a journey and we are all sailing toward the end—our death--losing things is simply a preparation for that. Part of the course.

I do know that I wouldn't have anything to write about and little to hold on to if it weren't for these amazing women: Julie, Susie, and Kathy, who through the focus of what they know and do best, offer insights that transcend the sport to life. From the specific to the representative. From their mind to mine. So when something like this comes together, in a sort of cosmic ordering, I feel obliged to do something with it. I can only repay them by writing about it and offering it now to you. Namaste.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Even When You Wilt

The Chronogram published a poem of mine this month. Scroll down, it's not the first one. First poem I've ever had published. It has inspired me to write even more poetry, some of which I'll be sharing here.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Omega-3s, Boys and Some Sanity

My son Conor and I both regularly take fish oil, rich with omega-3s. Conor had behavioral and mood issues when he was younger, that had me very concerned. He was often defiant, refusing to do his work, and aggressive. He spent quite a bit of time in the principle's office when he was in kindergarden and pre-first.

A local psychiatrist suggested that I try Conor on fish oil. I had success with it myself, and if he had an inherited mood disorder, perhaps the fish oil would work for him too.

Administering fish oil to children can be a challenge. The capsules are large and one needs to take somewhere between 500-1000 mg of EPA a day for success. This can mean multiple, large capsules. Dr. Yonker suggested we try Coromega, an emulsified form of omega-3s, which comes in foil packages and can be either orange or lime flavored. Conor likes his fish oil. He takes two packages a day, which is 700 mg of EPA.

For children, who don't like the way Coromega tastes, there's another option (if they can swallow smaller capsules). Omega-Brite is a highly concentrated form of omega-3s. This brand was developed by Dr. Andrew Stoll, the researcher at Harvard Medical School, who did a lot of the initial research into the use of omega-3s for mood disorders.

Within the last couple of weeks I've had two friends ask me about fish oil for their boys' behavioral and mood issues. Both have found immediate benefits. I've never been big on anecdotal evidence, but this is encouraging. Here's a report from a study done in the UK at a school for boys with special needs:

Results from a UK study

These results support the use of omega-3s for boys who may be having difficulty in school.

I have a lot more to write about fish oil. This is just the beginning. I just had to share this information, because I know how troubled I was with Conor's issues, and I've seen how relieved my friends are with their sons' behavior now that they're taking fish oil.

We most certainly evolved with a diet that was much richer in omega-3s, than the one most of us have now. I believe that supplementing one's diet with fish oil, is simply a way to achieve a more natural biochemical state. There are no side effects and many other beneficial effects of fish oil. It's good for your heart, skin and immune system. I'll be writing next about omega-3 supplements for adults.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

All That's Natural and Smells Nice

Today, I read about a report in the New England Journal of Medicine that showed that Lavender and Tea Tree Oil when used in shampoos and the like, can cause breast growth in adolescent boys. This suggests that these essential oils have estrogenic compounds in them. Although the article does not sound an alarm, I would not want my son using a product containing these oils. More importantly, I would caution all women who have estrogen-dependent tumors to avoid these oils just as they would soy.

Lavender and tea tree oils found in some shampoos, soaps and lotions can temporarily leave boys with enlarged breasts in rare cases, apparently by disrupting their hormonal balance, a preliminary study suggests.

While advising parents to consider the possible risk, several hormone experts emphasized that the problem appears to happen infrequently and clears up when the oils are no longer used. None of those interviewed called for a ban on sales.

The study reported on the condition, gynecomastia, in three boys ages 4, 7 and 10. They all went back to normal when they stopped using skin lotions, hair gel, shampoo or soap with the natural oils.


Tuesday, January 30, 2007

For Inspiration

I've been meaning to write about the amazing accomplishments of three of my friends for a while. Sorry about the delay, but I had to get my graduate school application out by February 1st. That's done now and I hope to be here more regularly.

First of all, Lisa Erdman, who was a good friend and colleague of mine at Harte Hanks has found her own way of gaining good karma after working for big Pharma. Lisa is a multimedia artist, whose poetry and graphic work never failed to impress me. She has now done something beyond what I could have imagined, a large-scale exhibit with print and TV ads mocking pharmaceutical companies. Here's a link: Annual Checkup: Pharmaceuticals for the 21st Century

As Lisa describes it:

It consists of a series of fictitious, satirical pharmaceutical ads that serve as a political and social commentary. Any feedback/comments are welcome!

The project has traveled across the country over the past year, including the Corcoran Gallery in D.C., Houston International Film Festival, and SIGGRAPH International Computer Graphics Conference in Boston.
I hope to see it in person.

Melanie Hall, a friend from my writing group is also a talented artist. She has been an illustrator for many years and recently published a book called "Winter's Song." It's a poem by Shakespeare at the end of his play "Love's Labor Lost." Melanie's illustrations in this book are beautiful. She was surprised and honored that the New York Times gave her book a favorable review.

Look for a compelling essay by my friend and writing group member Kathy Rebeillot in the Spring issue of the Threepenny Review. This is Kathy's first creative publication and she hit the jackpot with this journal.

All of these accomplishments by friends inspires me to keep working, because I've learned from these women that inspiration, great ideas, and hard work are what lead to success. There is hope for all of us.