Sunday, May 9, 2010


Mom, I know we disagree- a lot. I can’t count the number of debates we’ve had, both on the phone and across the dinner table. Some of them are heated; most of them are mostly fun. It amazes me that no matter how smart I feel on any given day, you always manage to run circles around me. You’re always one step ahead.

I suspect that after the less pleasant conversations, neither of us feel very good. I want you to know, though, that I’m grateful for every word that’s passed between us. (Excepting, perhaps, some uttered in those angst-ridden teenage years). It means so very much to me to have a mother with the capacity to see truth, and the integrity to speak up when she identifies deviation from the straight and narrow. I may not always agree, but I am always thankful (and though I never say it, I do often come around to your viewpoint).

As for the other countless words- the debates over all things great and small- that constant flow of ideas has made my 30 years on this planet a time of joy, humor, and learning. I can’t imagine any other sort of life.

It strikes me, the force that words have on one’s life- shaping personality and spirit, much as rivers carve out and divide our landscape over time. Ever more striking is the weight of action and example. Many years now I’ve held you and dad up as a standard of proper living, in a wide variety of respects. Sadly, altogether too often, I fall short of that standard- but even then, your love, acceptance, and (sometimes not so gentle) nudging help me find my way back to the right. As I grow, I find more courage to live the life that I know is right, and yet even then I find that the courage was always there- instilled somewhere deep in my past. The example of your life has touched me deeply, and I trust that it will continue so for the rest of my days.

Whatever good there is in my life- in my circumstances, in my disposition, even in my actions- so much of that is due to you and your sustained influence in my life.

Thank you, mom.


Friday, January 9, 2009

Nighttime Snowfall

As I write this, a crystalline blanket of snow is filling the landscape outside. I love nighttime snowfall. The soft stillness of cold, the close embrace of the low-hanging clouds, and the steady stream of sparkling white from above, sing to me of Greater Things.

I've been struggling to find the right music for the moment. Charlotte Martin was too raw. Mozart too grand. I'm trying Chopin, but the recording I have here, I fear, is too complex.

I may settle for silence.

Snowy nights speak to me of forgiveness. The white carpet mutes all the jagged imperfections of the earth, and yet, the large-scale terrain isn't ever completely washed out. I can still distinguish rocks from trees from bushes. Though everything retains its basic nature, all is covered in and softened with white.

At this point, the carpet covers all, but the heavens haven't stopped pouring. Perhaps the world tonight is in need of extra grace.

Tomorrow, or the next day, the sun will shine out and melt everything. Snow will give way to water, which will then seep into the ground and provide sustenance for the verdent bloom that accompanies spring.

Do you think it works that way with forgiveness? Sanctifying white streams down from above, covering everything with softness and stillness. When the process is finished, the material given from the sky promotes growth and new life in the hearts of men.

If so, what of the low-hanging clouds? Does The Source feel drawn to this special occasion, or is it a response to a need from the land to feel close to the sky?

What do you think of when it snows?

Monday, December 15, 2008

lessons from a bag of tea

fair warning: this one is a little geeky...

a couple of days a ago, i performed my usual ritual- stumble into work around 10 am, fill my Nalgene with water, and toss in a Constant Comment tea bag. this tea bag stays in my bottle for the rest of the day, and provides a stimulating reason to keep drinking water.

i entered our lab, plopped down in front of a computer, set my bottle on the desk in front of me, and started to work. a couple of minutes later, i glanced over and witnessed one of the most beautiful things i've ever seen- two wispy trails of dark colored water starting at each of the lowest corners of the bag, and gently making their way down to the bottom of the bottle.

at the bottom, of course, was the darkest liquid. moving upward, the bottle grew exponentially lighter over the course of 2 or 3 inches, the top of which marked the intersection of the trail of newly diffused tea water and the reservoir at the bottom.

i saw in those trails, a physical manifestation of so many things that had given my mind troubles over the years- Feynman Propagators, Green's functions, transfer functions- things that I'd since reconciled, but always using mental pictures as a guide. here in front of me, i could watch a drop of tea water propagate through space and time, slowly and so obviously diffusing into the greater mass, as it fell softly to the bottom.

i thought also about the approximations scientists sometimes make- particularly, the seemingly audacious assumptions of steady state. if the particle exists, it must always have existed, or, my favorite- it's a periodic function, extending to infinity through time and space. to heck with finite energy. to heck with common sense. it makes things easier. i concede that of course it does, though that does little to help me sleep at night. that sort of reasoning never sat well. i observed the trail about halfway up the bottle, considering whether that little section knew that the birth of this entire system, its universe, occurred mere minutes ago. likewise, did its behaviors indicate that its starting and ending points were only a foot apart? though an expert in tea bag diffusion may have seen things differently, to me the little section seemed oblivious. it was amazing- the only indication of anything finite (in this case, path length) was the fact that the tea hadn't completely diffused into the plane normal to its downward movement. i'd now seen firsthand how accurate these sorts of assumptions can be, and smiled as i knew i'd be sleeping well that night.

in addition to the analytic utility, the scene exhibited a fragile, graceful sort of beauty similar to that of a calla lily, or perhaps cirrus clouds. i watched transfixed as a tiny stream of particles meandered through the mixture, slowly dancing and twirling their way into the abyss. i picked up and held the bottle in one hand as i watched my tiny vibrations disturb the tea bag into oscillations. jagged lines now rapidly blurred as they descended. putting the bottle back down, i was amazed at how quickly the jagged line once again became a thin whisp- it took only a minute or two.

when i was finished watching the display, i took the bottle, shook it up, and drank it. interesting how beauty so often fuels a desire to consume or possess. or maybe i was just thirsty...

Thursday, November 27, 2008

My First Solo Dive

Last Saturday (11/22/08) I found myself without a single dive buddy. Amazing. The excuses ran the gamut from sickness to a recent robbery (he was robbed, not the robber). I've been toying with the idea of soloing since I stepped into doubles, so I decided this was the perfect opportunity to give it a shot.

Before I discuss any further, I feel compelled to say something. Yes, I know solo diving is controversial. If the idea of people going it alone on scuba offends you, now is a good time to stop reading this, or any other future post detailing such experiences. I'm not going to waste this space justifying my decision, just know that I won't hesitate to remove any negative commenting.

Ok, enough with the negativity. Moving on... I decided that Breakwater (BW) Cove in Monterey would be an appropriate place for a first dive. It's a fairly popular place, which inspired confidence that if something dire happened, chances were high that I'd be discovered sooner or later. I've done a fair share of diving there, and was familiar with the site. Finally, it's a fairly shallow dive, making a quick, safe ascent possible should I encounter any insurmountable problems.

Navigation here is easy- the shore makes a sort of "L" shape. A gently sloping underwater rock wall runs along one length of the shore, and the other length is where divers enter/exit. You kick out with the wall on your right, and kick back with the wall on your left- pretty hard to mess up.

High level details-
Equipment: double steel 100s, EAN32, drysuit, hog setup
Max Depth: 55ft
Time: 75 minutes (I had plenty of gas and NDL at the end, but was running late for an event that night)
Vizibility: around 15 feet

In short, the experience was bliss. Being alone that day was exactly what I needed. Additionally, I was free to go where I wanted, when I wanted, at whatever pace suited me. I had a depth/time/gas plan, but no constraints apart from that. Sometimes I need to not have a mission.

I slept in, and then made a pre-dive emergency run to Any Water Sports. When they filled my tanks the night before, I forgot to grab some cats, and I was out. No way I'm doing a long dry dive without the "requisite equipment." So, leisurely start and no guilt over holding anyone else up. So far so good.

I made my way down to BW, geared up, and headed in. I was shocked. Not a single person felt compelled to tell me how I was about to kill myself- even when I asked strangers for help zipping and unzipping my drysuit. This is inconsistent with other stories I've heard about the site.

I dropped into about 10 ft of water, and decided to try some valve drills (tank valves, not relief valve- that came later). It had been a while and I was slower than I'd like, but I felt comfortable enough to proceed.

I kicked out along the wall, and spent some time looking at a few large rocks. When diving reefs out here, I'm always overcome with the abundance of life everywhere that life is possible. And life down here is brilliant. The rocks explode in color with strawberry anemones, tube worms, shrimp, coral, and (my favorite) iridescent seaweed (Iridea Cordata). Not an inch is left uncovered.

I continued, exploring a couple of snail tracks (a fascination of mine), until I came across a school of 15-20 rockfish hovering around the wall, at about 40 ft. I decided to join them. They lazily made room for me somewhere in the middle, and we bonded. It's an enormous privilege, one that I never take for granted, to spend time hovering among a group of fish. Most species out here don't seem very bothered by human presence. I doubt they'd let me touch them, but we have an agreement- I don't try, and they don't leave.

After about a minute, I decided it was time to press forward. It was painful to tear myself away, but I had evening plans constraining my dive time and still wanted to do some exploring.

I decided to move away from the wall for a spell, and spend some time on the ocean floor with the tube anemones. For some reason, I'm most at peace hovering above that sandy floor, littered with tube anemones and starfish. It's a relaxation unparalelled. I think it has something to do with the quiet I experience in this environment. The dizzying array of color on the reef is replaced by a surreal, hazy sort of brown and white, and I find myself among creatures truly foreign to me- no matter how much time I spend in their presence. Solitude permeates the experience.

I spent a moment there to take it all in, and then pressed onward. I kicked along the bottom, looking for rainbow nudis and perhaps an octopus, but had no luck. That was a little odd, actually. I did, however, find a rather large sea anemone I'd not before encountered. I checked my computer, and saw that I was approaching my turn time. It was time to pursue my one goal for the dive: spend some time kicking away from the wall, and discover what's out there off the beaten path.

I'd never dove out there, and I was curious how things change as one moves away from shore. I'd estimate that I kicked about 100 ft through the tube anemone fields, into a bare, sandy expanse. It was wonderful. I kept moving away from shore, until I was surrounded by featureless terrain. I was hoping to find a bat ray or other pelagic, but instead found deeper solitude. No complaints here. At this point, I decided to practice another valve drill (not the tank valve, this time). P-valve hardware is still kind of new to me, so I was grateful to be on my own. I could stop, relax, and not worry about my buddies giving me funny looks.

I kicked around for a while longer, checked my computer again, and saw that it was time to head back to shore. Interesting proposition, navigating in this barren landscape. (Murray, did we pass this brown blob earlier? I think we did, Murray. Why don't you stop and ask for directions?) Fortunately, one of the lessons impressed on me very early out here is that compasses are useful. Knowing how to use them, even more so. I took an approximate bearing for the shore and followed it.

Ironically, it was on a solo dive that my fin strap broke. I use tough steel spring straps that aren't supposed to break, but apparently they didn't get the memo. Somehow, the bracket holding one of the ends in place decided to give up. And I thought navigating the barren expanse would be interesting... By this time, I was in about 20 feet of water and had come to the rock wall paralleling the shore. I figured, hey- I've got air, I'm already running late. Why don't I forego the ascent and see how hard it is to kick into shore underwater with one fin?

It's hard.

Especially when you're also trying to vent a drysuit.

I eventually made it into about 6 ft waters, and surfaced. I swam back to shore, removed my gear, and hit the road- exhilarated, calm, and very happy.

So, I'm not about to abandon my buddies. I've made some great friends out here: people that I love spending time with both above and under the water. Another set of eyes means even more interesting things spotted, assistance in resolving problems underwater, and of course I concede that as END (equivalent narcotic depth) increases, extra brains become a signifcant boon. (Of course, this begs the response that that number should always be kept to a manageable level).

That said, I view this dive as the first step in a longer journey. I intend to continue diving this way when I feel the need, and I suspect it will become a somewhat regular discipline for me. Few experiences inspire a greater peace and satisfaction than quiet isolation under the waves. I expect that exploring the kelp forests on my own will only enhance those feelings. I hope to keep writing about my experiences- both as a journal for my own reference, and so that some of you might benefit from the reading.

If you've made it this far, kudos and thank you. I (half-heartedly) apologize for the length. Truth be told, there was so much more detail I wanted to share- the captivating blue/purple shimmer of the seaweed and the majesty of the few remaining kelp stalks, to name a couple. We all have limited resources though, and I've taken enough of yours.

Have a great day, and visit the beach soon!

- Ben

Zen and the Art of Diving... in Krill

I recently ran across a YouTube video created by one of our local divers- Doctor Wong. It captures the sprit of diving out here- at least how I perceive it. If you're interested and have a couple of minutes, check it out. I don't think you'll be disappointed.


Sunday, September 28, 2008

Diving Lobos

[Old post from MySpace, moved here for inclusion...]

A friend (Neil) and I went diving on Sunday in a park called Point Lobos. It's reputed to be one of the best dive sites in Northern California. The state caps diver traffic, so you actually need to book reservations a couple months in advance just to get in on weekends. Neil happened to have a reservation and a need for a buddy, so he invited me along.

Neither of us had a really good idea of where we should be diving, so I don't think we got to any of the popular areas. The scenery, however, didn't disappoint. Fascinating structure, and lots of kelp...

As I'm gearing up for a dive, people commonly ask me what life I hope to see. Fish, eels, and crabs seem to be the common interest. When I first started diving, I too was driven by that fascination. In the past couple of years though, my interest has shifted. Now I dive to be underwater. To escape the noise of conversation, cars, stereos, even the birds. I dive to be weightless, to see the rocks covered with coral, and to hover while I stare at a sandy bottom littered with starfish and tube anemones.

But most of all, I dive for the kelp. One experiences a beauty indescribable when the sun filters through the canopy, casting over everything a golden glow. Piercing the golden atmosphere are beams of light that have discovered holes in the canopy, playing shimmering bright lights on the rocks and sand below. Fish hang here- effortlessly weightless, many of them staring upward. I've not yet discovered why. They don't seem to be bothered by us; most don't even seem to notice as we swim by. Some others swim leisurely around- sometimes right in front of my mask, and others yet dart from place to place. But most of them just hang, looking up along a giant stalk to the shimmering membrane that marks the edge of their world. I don't blame them- it's a nice view.

Then you swim a little further, and find yourself in deeper waters. The golden hue and daggers of light don't make it this far; the mass of water above filters most everything that isn't blue or green. Here, the experience takes an eerie turn. I begin to feel as though I'm passing through a forest at dusk. It's not scary, instead I feel a bit like a visitor- the kind who's presence is always welcome yet never celebrated. This place feels ancient, and the kelp appear as spirits reaching silently for the warmth of the sun. There's a tension here, and I feel as though I'm party to it. Despite the odd feeling, though, there pervades a solemn quiet that draws me in. Though I eagerly anticipate the golden warmth that awaits, it's always a little difficult to leave this place on my return to the shallows.

Ironically, the very life that makes this world seem ancient, exists for only a few months. Starting every fall, storms begin to work their way through. The seas come alive and the kelp are torn from their strongholds. By winter, reportedly, it's all gone. Come spring, kelp spores anchor once again and grow at an alarming rate towards the sun. This yearly cycle of life, culminating in a ghostly quiet tinged with a sense of the eternal, suggests that there's a mystery here that I'm unable to understand. Perhaps in a decade I'll return to this place wiser and more experienced, and perceive dimensions of which I'm currently unaware. I just hope I never lose the wonder.

Neil and I compared air, checked the dive time, and decided it would be best to head back to the shore. The story doesn't end here, but my writing does. Though the journey to the shore itself was an adventure, it's an adventure that occurred in a different world- one of bustle and activity. I'd rather end these thoughts in the ocean realm. Though I live on the surface, the quiet mystery of the deep is what sustains me from dive to dive.

Inaugural Post

Sigh- already I've had to go to an online dictionary. And yes, I did spell "inaugural" correctly on the first try.

A year or so ago I gave in to my friends, and finally created a MySpace account. Once again, I find myself caving to peer pressure in the creation of this blog.

At least, that's my cover story.

As with all things, of course, reality runs deeper. The truth is, everyday I'm bombarded by thoughts and experiences that (chalk it up so some odd manifestation of voyeurism?) I want to share with the world.

Back to After "voyeurism," looks like I'm 2 for 2. It's a good night.

Maybe it's the engineer in me, but it seems I should be laying out a charter here. I've felt around for some time, in hopes that I'd lay hold of some sort of intention for this blog. But I keep coming up with only one word: catharsis. I hope that at least someone out there gets out of this as much as I do.

Thanks for reading.