Friday, July 27, 2012

What Does It Mean to be Alive?

I attended a Creativity in Nature session at the Cancer Support Center.  The leader handed out rocks to each of the participants.  One rock was rounded and blobby, yet had the texture of sedimentary stone.  “Is this coral?” asked the woman who was holding it.  She paused. “Is coral a rock?”

This is a group of modern women.  One got out her smart phone and did a quick web search.

According to NOAA, “The branch or mound that we often call “a coral” is actually made up of thousands of tiny animals called polyps. A coral polyp is an invertebrate that can be no bigger than a pinhead to up to a foot in diameter. Each polyp has a saclike body and a mouth that is encircled by stinging tentacles. The polyp uses calcium carbonate (limestone) from seawater to build a hard, cup-shaped skeleton. This skeleton protects the soft, delicate body of the polyp.”

Normally, a sedimentary rock is laid down over time and formed by pressure, all by physical means.  Coral is a name given to both the animal and the house it builds for itself from dissolved limestone.  In short, the coral animal takes the limestone out of sea water solution, builds itself a house that outlasts its lifespan.  This woman was holding a piece of empty limestone house.

From here, the conversation veered into “what is life?” Not a philosophical question, but rather a practical YES/NO question.  Is soil alive?  One woman insisted – yes, it’s full of bacteria.  Another woman mentioned that she bought sterile soil at the hardware store.
The leader asked, “Can anything grow in sterile soil?”  I volunteered that I start my seedlings in sterile soil every spring.  The leader asked how life could grow in something that has no life.

I felt as if I had walked back into the 1700's.  Scientists used to believe in a theory called Vitalism, which meant that chemicals found in organisms could never be made in the lab. It was well known that the chemical called urea was found in urine, and was therefore organic.  In 1773, Wohler accidentally synthesized urea crystals in his lab.  He recognized them instantly, and was not happy about it.  He wrote a friend that his discovery was, “The great tragedy of science, the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.”

These women seemed perplexed by the fact that living organisms can make coral, or kidney stones, or pearls.  That farmers add rocks to their soil to feed their plants. 

It is life that can metabolize rocks, and life that can form inert substances that have the same chemical formulae as rocks.

And it is living beings who ask these questions and design experiments to find answers. It is living beings who can teach each other these concepts and discoveries, so that each generation does not have to figure it out anew.

In my view – to be alive is not only to metabolize, but also to share knowledge and wisdom. These are women who need more than YES/NO answers because cancer is a disease of living cells and cancer can kill.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Picking My Arguments

I try to pick which arguments are worth my time.  Yesterday I got into an argument about which arguments are worthwhile.  Talk about circular arguing?

A friend had read an article in which the author claimed that the Supreme Court decision that prayer cannot be required in public school had resulted in a drop in SAT scores for 1963.

I looked up the SAT scores between 1952 and 2011:

Simple fact – the average 1963 SAT scores were higher than any previous year.  Not by much, but definitely higher. I’d have thought the argument was over. 

I was wrong.  Suddenly I was embroiled in an argument about how I had to do something about this man who was blaming a non-existent problem on a Supreme Court decision.  I went to his website. I posted the link to the SAT scores.  Anybody who reads his nonsense will see my link.

But my opponent – who was on my side regarding the angry man – was not satisfied.  She wanted me to “call him out” for his wrong headedness in criticizing the Supreme Court. She thought he was immoral. Evil.  She read me the riot act that all it takes for evil to happen is that good people do nothing.  Yet she did not bother to post her thoughts on this man’s website.

This man has no power. He wrote a book with a faulty premise. I think he’s best ignored.  Why give him any more time, any more space on the web or in our lives?  Note: I’m not giving his name or a link to his site here. I’m not really discussing him.  I’m discussing a tendency to argue about nothing.

If this man were running for office, I’d support his opponent. 

If he was teaching a prayer class to increase SAT scores, I’d leave him alone.

As it is, he’s just saying untrue things and calling these statements facts. There have always been people who tell lies in attemt to convince people to do what they want.

What’s new is having an argument about how seriously to take such liars. How to deal with them. This seems to be arguing for the sake of being heard.

Has argument become a form of entertainment?  If so, this is also something that concerns me.
Argument can be intellectually stimulating if the disagreement is fundamental.  

But argument, just to get attention is no different than crying wolf.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Entering Screenplay Contests

When you take screenwriting classes, the teachers claim that it’s easy to tell a good screenplay from a poor one, and to recognize an outstanding screenplay on the rare occasion when you see one.

My friend Jean and I have co-written several screenplays.  One in particular has received high praise from friends and family.  We thought it was time to get professional opinions that might help us bring this script to market.  

We sent it to professional evaluators.  Again, we got high praise and that coveted Recommend rating.  But our evaluators didn’t have contacts with producers who could get our screenplay made into a movie.

So, we decided to send it to contests that advertise the names of professional movie making companies that will look at the winners.  We tried Scriptapalooza.  The reviewer said many complimentary things about our screenplay, but then noticed the page count was under 100 (which is typical for family films), and gave us a Poor rating.  This rating came with a cover letter telling us that if we wanted to we could do a rewrite and submit again (for more money) and possibly get a higher rating.  

They have to be kidding. That letter made the whole contest look like it can only be won by people who pay multiple entry fees.  

We decided to enter Worldfest, which has a family film category.  Worldfest is one of the oldest screenplay festivals in the US. It is where Spielberg won his first contest.  The woman I spoke with on the phone (this contest has real humans you can talk to) said that the family category was one of the most popular this year.  Our screenplay won the Gold Remi for Family Film Scripts. 
A far cry from the Poor rating.

But we still don’t have a producer.  Several people we met at Worldfest said they knew producers who worked with Hallmark. We have emailed these people to ask about introductions.  So far no responses.

My conclusion from all this is that there is not a clear general perception of what constitutes a good or outstanding screenplay.  And even once you’ve written one, getting it in front of people who can produce it is possibly even more difficult than writing it.  

Monday, July 16, 2012

Getting Out the Vote 1964

I considered myself to be a teenaged rebel. I questioned everything adults told me to do, except when it came to homework and politics.

I always did more homework than was assigned and I did whatever the adults at the American Friends Service Committee suggested.  Without question, without doubt, without fear, without any sense of self-preservation.  Okay, I told my parents, but they were so relieved that I wasn’t interested in drugs or boys that they didn’t question my political activities.

It was Tuesday, November 3, 1964.  Even though it was a Tuesday and I had homework, I drove my shabby old car to the AFSC office and picked up a list of registered Democrats in a neighborhood that usually had a poor vote turnout.  

I didn’t ask why this neighborhood had a poor turnout.  I didn’t ask about the crime rate. The polls closed at 7 PM and I had to get there quickly to get out as many voters as possible.  

My instructions: do what it takes to get them to vote.  Drive them to the polls. Babysit their children. 

I am white. I am small. I am middle class. I was a teenager in high school with a new driver’s license, and an unreliable car, that I was supporting on my after school job as a crafts teacher at the Girls’ Club.

I was sent to a low income black neighborhood.  It never occurred to me that this wasn’t someplace I should go alone. An adult I trusted without question had sent me.

I knocked on doors.  I offered to drive women to the polls.  They did NOT want a pimply teenager driving them.  But free babysitting!  By a crafts teacher! By a high school student who could help their children with homework.  The first woman  promised she’d vote and be back quickly, so I could help somebody else.  She let me into her home.  She left me in charge of her children.

The children didn’t want crafts. Or help with their homework. They were busy with their games and snacks.  One of them told me his big brother could teach me something.  It sounded like a threat, but there was no big brother in sight.

I wasn’t worried.  Their mother would be back soon. I was doing something good. I was getting out the vote. I sat on the couch. I watched the children – easiest baby sitting job I’d ever had, except I wasn’t being paid and I didn’t know when Mom was coming back.

This was in the days before cell phones.  Mom was gone over 40 minutes.  I started wondering if she was really a Republican, just keeping me here so I couldn’t help real Democrats get to the polls.

Finally Mom returned, arms loaded with grocery sacks.  As long as I was babysitting her children, she just ran a few errands.  The folks at AFSC hadn’t warned me about this possibility. I was supposed to visit as many homes as possible and help as many people as possible get to the polls.

The next few homes were uneventful. Women politely thanked me for reminding them to vote and closed the door.

The next woman asked me to get dinner started while she was gone.  I’d never made instant mashed potatoes before, or since.  But I read the instructions on the box. The children helped me select a pan, and find a measuring cup. I figure out the stove by myself.  While the mess boiled, I chopped veggies.  This woman returned about the time the potatoes were done.  She was angry that I’d chopped the veggies. She wasn’t planning to eat them today.

I’d allocated 3 hours between 4 PM and 7PM for getting out the vote.  It was now nearly 6PM and I’d helped 2 people.  I kept telling myself – one vote can make a difference.

For the next half hour, I knocked on doors, and the people who answered told me they had voted, or promised they would vote, anything to make me go away.  It reminded me of the time I tried to sell canned peanuts for the Camp Fire Girls. People don’t want things that get sold door-to-door. Especially from somebody from a different cultural group.

At 6:30, another woman wanted babysitting for her children.  She promised to be back quickly.  I reminded her that the polls close at 7 PM.  She left.

I made peanut butter sandwiches for her children. I read to them. 7 o’clock came and went.  Mom had not returned.  I reminded myself - there might be a line at the polls. The polls do stay open later if there is a line, and after she votes, she still has to come home.  There was no reason to expect her at 7 PM.  Then again, she might have abandoned her children on my watch.  I wanted to call the AFSC for advice.  The home had no phone.  

My mind went through a list of possibilities.  Should I go next door and see if they have a phone? Who should I call first – AFSC or the Police. Or maybe my mom?  I was becoming a dither-head..  I didn’t dare start my own homework for fear of what these children might do if I took my eyes off them for an instant. I wasn’t even sure how I would get them to accompany me if I decided to go next door.

About 7:30, the mother returned home.  She’d gone out drinking with friends.  Yes, she assured me she had voted.  She walked me to my car, which was still there and had air in all its tires.

As I drove home, I thought – maybe 3 votes will make a difference.

In retrospect, I was incredibly lucky. I survived going alone into strangers’ homes in an unsafe neighborhood, and using knives and fire around children I didn’t know. And yet, when I look back on this experience, I was right to trust the world – everything came out fine.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Modern Fossils

When I took a geology class in college, one of our field trips was to a place where we could see fossils. The Teaching Assistant who lead our group asked if we had any questions. I asked why fossils form sometimes but not all the time.  The poor TA tried to gobbledygook me with polysyllabic words.
The fact is that sometimes sediment falls on a dead animal, or even a live one (killing it) in such a way that the skeleton is preserved.  And most of the time, the animal’s carcass simply falls to the bottom of the ocean or lake, where the flesh is eaten by animals and bacteria and the bones disintegrate over time.
Most of the time footprints are washed away, but sometimes they get preserved.  It’s random. We’re lucky to have any fossils at all.

I recalled this I saw fossils when I was walking to the gym. Not preserved in stone, like the ones we saw on that field trip.  Rather, they were preserved in cement.  Quick drying sidewalk cement.

An archeologist would learn a lot by looking at these sidewalks.  Birds, dogs and shoe-wearing humans have left their marks.  I’m sure there were signs and barriers in place, trying to prevent these fossils from occurring.  But the birds and dogs can’t read and the humans ignored them.  So, again, why do fossils happen some times, but not all the time?  It’s random.