Time, as a symptom.

(Pair this post, if you dare, with a listen to my absolute queen Joanna Newsom’s album Divers, which is all a meditation on time and what it means to love another person in the face of the temporary span of a life. It’s a ton of fun. Here’s a sample:)

And what lies under now the city is gone. Look, and despair.

“Sapokanikan,” Joanna Newsom

I recently spent a week with my parents in some of the National Parks of the Southwest. We went to the Grand Canyon (very grand indeed), Zion, and Bryce Canyon. These are all fantastic places to spend time, and I would highly recommend them. The views, man.

Of my parents and me, two of us arrived in a new decade in the last year. We thought, in not quite so many words, that a trip to the parks would be a good opportunity to mark the passage of time. Our trip also happened to coincide with All Saints’ Day (or All Hallows’,) and All Souls’ Day, when quite a lot of people are considering all those who have come before us.

So that’s fun.

But you don’t have to be in landscapes like these long to understand that the kind of time you can count in birthdays, or even in entire human civilizations, is nothing in comparison with the kind of time that is cleaved open and on display in a canyon.

You learn at the Grand Canyon that, even though you’re looking a mile down into a few billion years of rock history, which the river has carved through in the last five million years (give or take!), there are a casual 270 million years of rock history that eroded clean away before the river had a chance to cut into them. Just—270 million missing years, and what you’re looking at is the rest.

You see these amazing landforms that basically defy logic. It’s rock behaving as rock has no business behaving. You know better (because you watched the video in the rangers’ station and you read the plaques) but it looks like rocks are growing like trees. It looks like rocks are flowing like molasses. It looks like rocks are flopping like pancakes, one on top of the other.

The whole thing is just time and mutation. Volcanoes beget flatlands. Marshes give way to oceans, which give way to deserts, which rise thousands of feet to become mountains, and then rivers file them down into chasms, revealing the history from within. This happens not at all silently, but wordlessly.

And even though it all took a few million or billion years, depending on how you count, it’s also changing every year. The spooky hoodoos of Bryce Canyon are inherently temporary. Every winter, ice pushes them apart more, and every summer their rocks fall. I saw it happen: a dozen or so rocks the size of my fist tumbled quite mundanely off a cliff as I hiked below. This, day after day, is how plateaus become walls, walls become windowed, windowed walls become towers, and towers crumble into hillocks, then into flatness. The high land will erode, 1-4 feet every century, who knows how far back? Until the infrastructure of the park, which sits atop the plateau looking down over the canyon, will be eaten away and gone.

We happen to be able to see it now, but it’s anything but permanent.

It’s enough to make you wonder what “conservation” is all about. We wouldn’t be wise to attempt to conserve a hoodoo. We’d do more damage to the park by trying to freeze it in time than by letting it be. What it is is something that exists for a time, maybe a few decades, and then collapses. It wouldn’t be conservation to turn it into something else entirely—something that lasts forever. That would be transformation. (Appropriate for Halloween, perhaps, when zombies and monsters of all kinds roam, but not for All Saints’ Day, when we peacefully remember those who have come and gone before us.)

Maybe conservation is, instead, giving all the entities that make up the Earth a chance to make their own story, in rock or tree or fur or desert.

So it would seem to be true:

when cruel birth debases, we forget.

When cruel death debases,

we believe it erases all the rest

that precedes.

But stand brave, life-liver,

bleeding out your days

in the river of time.

Stand brave:

time moves both ways,

“Time, As a Symptom,” Joanna Newsom

On long walks out there, I started to think about sandstone. You’re surrounded by it in that environment. Sand is everything: it’s the desert, and it’s the ocean floor, and now it’s the canyon. But it’s just sand. Walking along the canyon bottom you feel it underneath your boots, just as slow and yielding as a beach. What’s beneath your feet used to be the canyon walls above you. It’s the bits that have disintegrated lately.

If you touch the walls as you pass, you might rub off some sand. It comes easily, when it’s ready. But underneath the loosened part, there’s hard sandstone. It’s not ready, not yet. But give it a year or a thousand and it will blow away too.

That’s stone, and we’re people. We live on different time frames, by a factor of many zeroes. But like rock we always change, even until we die. That’s the wonderful thing about being alive. The change doesn’t all happen at once, and it doesn’t happen in an orderly way. We’ll find that there are places that are a little looser, a little more ready to give. We can be grateful for those. The rest might be a little tougher. That’s okay. Give it time. Because the loosening of what’s easy, the letting go of the stone that’s ready to be sand already, makes room for more change. And the loosening of that loose sand is what slowly, imperceptibly, loosens the hard stuff.

And Time, in our camp, is moving

as you’d anticipate it to.

But what is this sample proving?

Anecdotes cannot say what Time may do.

“Anecdotes,” Joanna Newsom

Swamp lessons.

Something else I’m always talking about in meatspace (perhaps “complaining about” is more apt) which is especially relevant in August in DC:

The dew point.

Bear with me.

Most of us are accustomed to talking about the humidity percentage. But as I laze here indoors on this mid-August mid-Atlantic free sample of purgatory with a lingering migraine, it’s 93 degrees out and just 50% humidity. So why does it “feel like” 100 degrees? Why, when one steps outside, does the sweet release of death suddenly seem so appealing, whereas 93 degrees in my arid hometown would be patio weather for the semi-hardy? 50% humidity doesn’t sound terrible.

And how can Olympia, Washington be one of the most humid cities in the country, and no one there sweats profusely while cursing existence?

As this article from the Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang explains, humidity percentage is an expression of relative humidity—how much water vapor is in the air relative to the air temperature. You could have 90% humidity at 32 degrees, or 90% humidity at 90 degrees, and there is a very different amount of water vapor in those two air situations. Hot air can hold far more water vapor than cold air, so higher relative humidity in warmer air is bad news for people who don’t like their air drinkable.

The relative humidity percentage, then, doesn’t tell you what you want to know, which is how miserable you’ll feel if you dare to venture out. Weather nerds prefer using the dew point, which is the temperature at which water vapor will form dew. Think of a cold drink brought outside on a hot day: how long will it take for water droplets to form on the outside of the bottle? A higher dew point means that the droplets will form quickly, because the air touching the bottle won’t have to cool very far to form dew. The higher dew point means there is more water vapor in the air generally, as the air becomes closer to saturated with water. And more water in the air means more discomfort.

For those new to dew points, the number will mean almost nothing to you at first. But if you memorize a quick set of reference points about the dew point (perhaps from this handy chart) you can quickly get a sense of the system. For example: during my walk earlier today, the dew point was 74, which is abominable. At the time, the temperature was 81 or so, which gives us a relative humidity of about 80%. I was…not thriving. And I knew it, because the dew point was 74, and I looked like this:

Now, the dew point is supposed to tell us how our delicate human bodies will feel when we are exposed to a certain amount of water vapor. The Capital Weather Gang helped us out with this handy graphic:

But, it seems, even though no one ever says they get used to this humidity, we are somewhat accustomed to it. I mean, look at how much more delicate people are in Idaho:

“West is best,” I scream into the swamp as I melt into a puddle of sweat and tears and the whisper of a dream of autumn.

Brain molds.

When I was young, my parents occasionally threw what they called an “Ugly Food Party.” The concept (patently my father’s brain child) was a potluck, to which each guest should bring a dish that was both delicious and ugly. The more delicious, and the uglier, the better. At the end of the evening, a first, second, and third-place winner would be announced. Memorable dishes ranged from the cartoonish (bean dip served in a diaper) to merely unusual-in-my-neighborhood (a whole sheep’s head). One was an opaque greyish jello served in a brain mold. 

It was the jello brain mold that got me here, because this is how my actual brain works: I came here to write about neuroplasticity, which is to say, brain molding, hence brain mold, hence ugly food party. My brain did this little hopscotch in about four seconds. This is, perhaps, why I am almost constantly distracted. 

Copyright 2019

Speaking of habits of the mind, neuroplasticity has been on my mind lately because I just finished reading The Brain That Changes Itself, which I would highly recommend. Dr. Norman Doidge writes accessibly about how the brain works, and the history of our growing understanding that the brain is constantly changing and adapting. Our thoughts and behaviors quite literally physically change the brain, because the brain adapts the tasks we put it to frequently. Thoughts we often think together become physically linked, until we make a conscious effort to disentangle them. 

The book is full of fascinating examples of people who have been through tremendous physical or emotional trauma, and whose brains have adapted incredibly to overcome it, often with the help of therapy. The final chapter is about a woman who was born with literally only half of her brain (the other half never developed, after some unknown trauma in utero), and yet she was able to read, speak, and socialize, and was excellent at some kinds of math. Her half-brain had adapted to work as a whole one, finding space for all of her needs. 

To summarize the conclusion of the book: you get better at what you practice. This is not what you might call groundbreaking. But to understand that it is true on a physical, neurological level is pretty amazing. Like a muscle, the brain becomes competent at, and then efficient at, doing what is repeated–whether these habits are harmful or helpful.

The book came out over a decade ago, and straddles the market between popular science and self-help. It offers very little in the latter category, but it is popular in those circles no doubt because it provides such a clear illustration of what needs to be done to improve oneself. Self-improvement on the order of increasing positivity, decreasing anxiety, or improving at an artistic task, begins to look like a physical reality, like straightening one’s posture or practicing piano scales. The prescription may remain the same as before (do more of the thing you want to do; do less of its opposite), but the explanation for why this helps makes it feel a little more tangible.

Even as I’m writing this now, I’m imagining my brain getting just that much better at associating the motor skills and verbal skills together that are needed to type while I think. And on a larger scale, I think back to a few weeks ago when I first decided to start this blog. At first, I had one or two ideas. Then, as soon as I articulated the thought to myself, “I will have a blog,” before I knew it I had quite literally dozens of ideas listed in a document. The neuroplastic explanation for that might be that even in imagining writing in this format, my brain strengthened the pathways between thoughts. I’m drawing connections between things, and drawing connections between those things and the ideas and actions of writing them down, more quickly and efficiently. It’s just practice. It’s picking what you like, and seeing how it grows, on a neurological level. It’s pretty neat. 

Yesterday, I listened to a recent episode of the “Typology” podcast, which is about the Enneagram. The guest was Dr. Richard Lindroth, a 5 who was willing to come on the show. (Type 5 is the “observer” or the investigator.” They are typically introverted and analytical, both of which traits might explain why it would be the rare 5 who would want to come talk about him- or herself on a podcast about something rather woo-woo like the Enneagram). Dr. Lindroth quoted the famous statistician George Box: “All models are wrong, but some are useful,” and that is precisely how I think about the Enneagram. I decided I quite liked him. 

He also struck me by mentioning neuroplasticity in connection with the Enneagram (about ten minutes into the interview). As a 5, one of his struggles is in allowing himself to feel his emotions. His inclination is to tamp them down and think them, rather than to feel them. Since learning about the Enneagram, he says:

“One of my practices for the last couple of years has been to reduce that distance [between myself and my emotions]…When I am experiencing an emotion [I] take the time and really experience it in the moment, hold it in my head and really experience it for 20 seconds. That’s my neuroplasticity rule…If I can engage with this thought or engage with this emotion for 20 seconds, it’s going to help rewire my brain to accommodate emotions probably in a more healthy way.”

The imperfect model of the Enneagram can hold up a mirror, showing us aspects of ourselves that we had no idea were unusual. Learning that we do these things (and not everyone does, and we needn’t keep doing them), can point out some areas where we can constructively change and grow. Thinking about this in the context of neuroplasticity, one might say that the brain of someone deep in their Enneagram type has grown and adapted and developed efficient patterns of that type: Dr. Lindroth has learned to distance himself from his emotions, and I have learned to associate conflict with danger, and to shut down at the first sign of it.

But by noticing that our brains have that habit, and by imagining doing things differently, and by engaging for 20 seconds with an emotion or by staying mentally present when interpersonal things get rough, we can start to weaken the associations our brain has made, and to strengthen new ones.