For Merry

Clayton Anderson via Getty Images

In place of the gift
I had forgotten to bring you:

A blue hemisphere,
the empty half of a robin’s egg.

I found it,
residue of creation,
in the grass beside the sidewalk.

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Haiku on Faith

Certain in your faith?
Certainty’s a dream. The fruit 
of faith is courage.

Image by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay

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How Many Minds?

Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

Wallace Stevens once wrote:

I was of three minds,   
Like a tree   
In which there are three blackbirds.  

Three minds?

Why so few?

I once read that our minds
(pardon the geek-speak):
“Emerge from interactions among countless, 
Specialized, independent, interconnected,
Largely unconscious mental processes.” 

Whew.

Little minds, minds all the way down,
Workers in a vast mind factory,
Combining to create fleeting structures of experience, 
Flying up into consciousness 
Like blackbirds startled from the branches,
Only to disappear into the forest
When the next thought appears. 

Blackbirds? More like bees.

When I listen to music, the hearing bees
Work with the music recognizing bees,
And the I-still-remember-the-first-time-I-heard-Coltrane bees,
And a whole hive of knowledge and emotion bees 
To fill my mind with memories of Jazz, 
Dark nightclubs, beautiful hipster girls 
In black tights and turtleneck sweaters,
And the wondrous, dangerous, summer nights of youth.

Or when I’m writing,
Word, phrase, and grammar bees,
And snippets-I-recall-from-Shakespeare bees,
Hook up to write about blackbirds 
And Jazz.
From time to time, they recruit a swarm of hearing bees
(Moonlighting from their work with the ears),
So I can hear the syllables, feet, and lines,
The rhythms, textures, and rhymes,
Silently in my mind.

The trick is (there’s always a trick)
It feels like it’s all just me, 
A single mind,
Thinking.

The mind-bees create the trick, too,
Collecting memories, stories,
Into a single self, I call “me,”
A single, seemingly immutable self,
Accumulating possessions, mortgages, 
Ex-girlfriends, sins, legal papers, parking tickets,
ballpoint pens, and other crap.

It’s just a fiction.
Constructed by mind bees so I remember who I am,
And where I’ve been,
And all the friends and souvenirs
I’ve picked up along the way.
A delicious, solipsistic fiction of a self,
As comforting as tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches.
I think I think, therefore I think I am.

Sorry Descartes.

We construct countless selves throughout our lives,
Each transient band of bees or blackbirds,
A newly invented self, popping into existence,
As needed.

Child and adolescent selves, partly formed,
Still smoldering with the fires of creation;
Young explorer-selves cruising the country in an old truck;
Musician-selves lost in the labyrinths of harmony;
Scholar-selves searching the past in books;
Career-selves dancing to music we never wrote.
Storekeeper, beatnik, scientist, teacher,
Lover, Christian, husband, Buddhist,
author, musician, Atheist, old man.
Each a unique, fully formed self, each still burning,
Each giving way to another as life demands.

Movements so fluid, continuous
I feel as if it has always been
Just the same, single me.

And like the blackbirds in Stevens’ tree,
The swarming selves never go away.
They hang out in the shadows,
An unruly, inconvenient mob of
Selves, proto-selves, and forgotten selves,
Appearing briefly in dreams 
Like grainy pictures of Bigfoot,
Until they join a new
Bunch of bees or blackbirds
To construct yet another self.

Like Walt Whitman said
“I am large, I contain multitudes.”

Maybe that’s why we get old and die.
We fill up with so many selves
That they just won’t fit anymore,
And one day, they all burst free and fly away
Like spores from a giant puffball, 
Or fuzzy seeds from a cottonwood,
Floating on the thick warm air,
Or a swarm of bees, 
Or a flock of blackbirds,
All exploding onto the wind,
Leaving only an empty husk behind.

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Haiku on Aging

My name forgotten
At last I have come to know
Who I truly am.

Photo by Jess Langer

Also published on https://medium.com

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Beer and Burgers in the Time of The Plague

Image by Daniel Borker from Pixabay

After nearly two months in lockdown from the Coronavirus pandemic, I chose to welcome the economy’s gradual reopening with a celebration of normalcy: beer and a burger with a friend. I checked the local pub to confirm it was open, then called my friend Ed. He accepted the invitation with an enthusiasm equal to my own.

We arrived at the pub at 11:30 and found it nearly empty. Although this was probably because we were early, I briefly wondered if it didn’t reflect some lingering concern over the pandemic. Our waitress escorted us to a socially-distanced table where we ordered two drafts of ale and, being socially-conscious, two veggie burgers. We lowered our masks as she returned with two pints, glazed with condensation, and we drank deeply. I’m not sure if it was the freshness of draft ale or the intoxication of escaping my confinement, but I seemed to taste the familiar brand for the first time. It was contraband from an undiscovered country, rich with danger, promise, and mystery. I relaxed and watched the lunch crowd flow into the pub. 

I saw an elderly couple enter the bar, wearing masks, the man leaning on a cane. They walked slowly to an unoccupied table at the far end of the room, away from other people. A couple in their twenties came in close behind them. She wore a mask; he did not. Groups of two, three, and four followed, most of them wearing masks, most of them taking tables outside on the patio. Like Ed and me, they seemed to relax gradually, guardedly into lunch and conversation.

Perhaps weeks of non-stop news about the pandemic still saturated my mind, but I found myself contemplating the odds that my fellow diners might carry or contract the virus. There is a joke I’ve often repeated: “90% of all statistics are made up—including this one.” But, the probabilities that followed these people into the bar are different. They are not the decontextualized numbers the cable news outlets feed us—abstract, lost among the concrete realities of chores, family, money, work, and home. These numbers come from doctors, nurses, and other professionals who risked everything to gather them. They are distilled from the tragedies that have touched so many. For a moment, the statistics that had filled my mind for the last few months seemed to follow people through the bar, hovering above them like shadowy annotations in an augmented reality only I could see.

Our waitress brought our food, and I gave myself over to the sensations of warm burger, bread, and fried onion rings washed down with cold beer. Ed and I settled into one of the bright conversations about house projects, movies, politics, and all the other comforting, ordinary topics that fill our lunches. I took a swallow of beer, glanced at our waitress, and smiled. Although she was still masked, I imagined she smiled back at me from beneath the cloth. 

I returned to my beer and burger, to our conversation. Like fog on a sunny morning, the shadows of risk and uncertainty briefly seemed to clear.

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Sonnet: On Meeting You for a Weekend on Martha’s Vineyard

Image by Susan O’Leary via Pixabay

Once more you’re left alone; I’m on a plane.
My work takes me to Boston several days,
Or more each month.  And while you don’t complain,
I know you hate the time I spend away.
Still, this goodbye was easier than most:
You’re meeting me to share some time alone
Together on the Massachusetts coast.
Our inn was once a whaling captain’s home;
How fitting we should meet within these walls
That saw those lovers share their sad goodbyes.
I wonder, did his lady’s teardrops fall?
Or hide, like yours, sequestered in her eyes?
These scenes repeat, partings without end,
And I am bound to you, like the sailor to his friend.

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The Day I Met Thelonious and Nica in Heaven

Thelonious and Nica

I was sitting in my music room the morning after the biggest snowstorm of the winter, alternately practicing my guitar and looking out at the snow piled heavy on the trees. My wife walked in with a late morning cup of coffee.

“I hate winter,” she said.

Not wanting to disappoint her, I gave my standard answer. 

“I love it. It’s pretty. Besides, we get to spend the morning drinking coffee and looking at the snow.”

“Some of us have to go out and run errands,” she said, sipping her coffee. “What are you working on?”

“A Thelonious Monk tune: Pannonica,” I said handing her the sheet music. “I can’t seem to get it right.”

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Thoughts on Science and Literature

When I was very young, in my last few months of mental clarity before the storms of adolescence overwhelmed me, my career ambitions shifted from being a fireman, jet pilot, explorer, or police detective to becoming a scientist or writer. I was never quite able to choose between them, and these twin callings have defined my life and work in fundamental ways. Although our culture tends to treat science and literature (or any creative art) as irreconcilable ways of thinking, I had always felt they shared a deeper unity.

In the course of developing this web site, I had originally planned on addressing the tension between these two spheres of my intellectual life in its “About” section. Although I decided these thoughts did not really fit there, I was pleased to have finally articulated this long-held intuition and have decided to share it as posting:

  • Science is our most reliable way of understanding the structure and behavior of the natural world.
  • Literature and the arts are essential, enduring explorations of our inner lives and what it means to be human.
  • Both are the source of unending wonders found in: 
    • science’s discoveries, from black holes to quanta to the neural and psychological foundations of our experience; 
    • the understanding of our humanity articulated by artists from Homer to Shakespeare, Bach to Ellington, neolithic cave painters to Matisse, and continuing in the creations of contemporary artists.
  • Turning away from any of these wonders diminishes us as human beings.

Although Science and the Arts have their own rules and practices that must be respected, in a personal sense they are simply different perspectives on an intellectual journey I have taken throughout my life—and continue to pursue. This website, including my resumetechnical papersliterary writings, and the entries in this blog, represents a series of reports on those explorations. 

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Thank You, Mr. Brubeck

This posting was first made a few days after Dave Brubeck passed away on December 5, 2012. I am republishing it with selected postings from a prior version of this blog that was damaged in a malware attack.


Dave Brubeck died last Wednesday. Although the last few years have seen the loss of so many jazz greats of the 1950s and 60s, I found this to be especially sad because of the unique influence Mr. Brubeck and his quartet had on my musical growth, and—I say this without hyperbole—on the larger course of my life. You see, when I was 11 or 12—I forget the exact age —I heard Take Five on the radio, and it was like nothing I had ever experienced: strange, wonderful, haunting—it seemed to penetrate deeply into my adolescent being, and awaken feelings that were completely new for me. As soon as I could, I saved up my allowance and purchased his album, Time Out, playing it over and over again on my Magnavox portable stereo, a nondescript beige suitcase that unfolded into a miraculous machine that would soon teleport me into worlds I had never dreamed existed.

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Blossom’s Dance, Cognitive Science, and Being in the World

Blossom is a little cockatiel who flew down and landed on the roof of the car on night when my wife and I were going out to dinner. Even for a home where animals are not only part of the family, but also tend to flock to the yard in large numbers, this was unusual. What was stranger is that when I put out my finger, the little fellow stepped onto it quite nonchalantly, and has been living happily with us while we’ve been searching for her owners.

I have not had a bird since I was a child, so living with Blossom (we had called her Buddy until a bit of web research suggested the name might not fit) has been something of an adventure. Perhaps what has been most interesting to me is learning that Blossom not only likes music, but also likes to dance to it. I first noticed this when she started bouncing her head to a Mozart piano sonata on the stereo one afternoon. I soon learned that she also enjoys standing on my knee and dancing when I’m practicing the guitar.

Blossom’s Dance

Over the course of these few weeks, I’ve noticed that she sometimes bobs her head to recorded music, frequently does so when there is live music, and never bobs when music is absent, so I have become convinced that the two are connected. Blossom, it would seem, likes to dance.

So, what does this have to do with Cognitive Science? 

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