The Miracle

Pretty much every time I’m writing this, the teenage kid next door decides to practise his music skills. He plays a variety of instruments, including the piano, sax, guitar, and some of the traditional Portuguese instruments, such as the ‘cavaquinho’.

Inho in Portuguese is a diminutive, like ito in Spanish, and the cavaquinho is a type of ukulele. Popular in Brazil, where (surprisingly enough) it found its way into Samba, and played as far afield as Hawaii, it features prominently in Taj Mahal’s Hula Blues album.

Taj Mahal, aka Henry Fredericks, took his stage name back in the 1960’s, when hallucinations were considered a good thing. In the broader context of centuries of history, they were only acceptable if there was a religious context, and both vision and visionary were vetted.

There is a common thread in the music that wafts from next door―it is consistently atrocious across every instrument. Luckily the prevailing winds on the Portuguese coast are from the north, so since I am to windward of the sound it becomes somewhat diluted. Nevertheless, hounds occasionally howl in protest.

The tradition of communal living in southern Europe is brought on as much by economic hardship as by the nature of society. It’s shifting, with the proliferation of old people’s homes, a concept which I find absolutely abhorrent, but many families still provide a roof to Avô or Avó. The house next door contains both, and the granddad is stone deaf, which I consider an example of inverse evolution; a trait developed so the poor chap can live out his years in tranquility, and still love his grandson.

Apparently in a symptom of economic contraction, older people are being brought out of homes to live with family, because the fees charged have become unaffordable. China has a far more benevolent, and indeed respectful attitude to age, and I cherish that. I think it does kids good to grow up in proximity to an extended family, and grandparents are an important source of wisdom. As distinguished from knowledge; my favorite definition on that comes from the captain of the Irish rugby team:

Knowledge is knowing tomato is a fruit, wisdom is knowing you don’t put it in fruit salad.

Kids also tend to get on pretty well with grandparents―Aesop tells us it is because they share a common enemy. Last year a German taxi driver explained to me that when his children received toys from the grandparents, in particular noisy ones, the toys remained with the grandparents. “In any case,” he explained to me, “my father is well behaved on zis things.” He looked at me with a gleam in his eye. “He knows I vill select his old people’s home.”

My grandmother lived with us when I was small, and although she only had four years of schooling, the basic three R’s, it was she who taught me to read when I was three years old. Although everyone always complains about how bad life is, it is so much better now. During the 1920’s she lost her father, husband, and young son in the same year, all to different diseases. By the time she lived with us, she had a retirement pension of five dollars a month. She used to frown upon me playing electric guitar, no doubt because I sounded like the kid next door. Come to think of it, she did go partly deaf.

Much later, I realized her problem was that she thought electric guitars played by themselves, so I was just being lazy. All her life of hardship, anything electric was always a labor saver, whether a washing machine or a vacuum cleaner. Logical.

My maternal grandmother. On her right is my aunt, who died of TB in her early twenties.

My grandmother died while I was living in England. When I was at school there I did social service work on Wednesday afternoons, and one of the people I visited was an old lady my grandmother’s age, or so it seemed to me then. She lived in a third floor apartment, and all her male family members had been policemen. At sixteen I had a natural aversion to authority, which I am happy to say endures to this day, and I used to be rather unnerved when entering her lounge, with photos of cops on display everywhere.

She was the most lonesome woman I’d ever met.

Everytime I left, I thought about my grandmother’s six hundred escudo pension. She was old, ill, and poor. But never lonely.

Life is a collection of small miracles, and I thought that by sharing a few of mine, it would make you smile about yours. Everybody has stories like these, and together they make up one big miracle.

And another reason to share a little of me is to say thanks. This month, for the first time, this blog will have over one thousand views. That’s one hundred more than it had in all 2009.

Almost one hundred years ago, Alfred Redfield discovered that in the oceans elements exist in constant proportions. That’s true not only for substances such as sodium and magnesium that give the sea its salty taste, but also for the things that are there in very small concentrations. The building blocks of life, compounds of carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus, used to make protein, fats, and other lifestuffs.

When you track those thorugh the food chain, you find their ratios are also constant, so that a seaweed or a fish will have a chemical composition that reflects the nature of the water it lives in. Paraphrasing the human expression, they are what they eat.

Those chemical compounds then lead to cellular structures with complicated names like cytoplasm, mitochondria, and ribosomes. And to deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA. And the cells go on to make tissues, then organs, then organisms. Like a disciplined army of ants, they serve a common purpose. They know when to grow and when to stop.

When you age, some of the instructions get messed up. And you start getting spots and blotches in wierd places, and growing hair out your ears. And your nose. Not your head. And sometimes through illness or mutation, the cells become mavericks, like the twisted Frenchman who terrorized the city of Toulouse this week. They lash out indiscriminately at their peers, lose all capacity to stay within the limits of life, and form twisted and aberrant growths. It’s called cancer.

But mostly, the cells come together in a harmony that is worlds apart from machines, eons better than any IPad5, 6, or 77. And out of the basic, identical, building blocks comes this burst of diversity. This marvel that makes us all different, even identical twins. Which is another miracle.

Two miracles in a day ain’t bad.

The India Road QR links for smartphones: point your camera and click.

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2 Responses to “The Miracle”

  1. redfield ratio Says:

    pretty catchy writing, leaves pleasant aftertaste. Some scientific inaccuracies though. Less than 80 years ago, in 1934, Harvard scientist Alfred Redfield wrote about the remarkable constancy of carbon:nitrogen:phosphorus=106:16:1. And the ratios are constant but not in the entire ocean – in the deep ocean only, like where the director of blockbuster movie Avatar, Cameron recently ventured alone.
    Also not all species have the same ratio as the Redfield ratio. The life in the upper ocean shows wide range of ratios, but what is really miraculous is that despite all this wild variation, the average is still the same 106:16:1 as found by Redfield. Almost eight decades have passed since Redfield’s discovery but scientist still do not know why exactly these numbers: 106:16:1

  2. Peter Wibaux Says:

    Thank-you very much for the comment. Please note this is a general blog, not detailed oceanography, which is why the variability of Redfield ratios would not be discussed – wrong forum. But it isn’t necessary to go to the deep ocean to find that (approximate) constancy, plenty of surface waters show it too, and it is easily observed in many areas of the coastal ocean. I believe the numbers (45:7:1) in mass, i.e. the numbers you correctly state in atoms (lest we confuse things, since most people don’t think in atoms) are essentially a consequence of the balance of proteins, lipis, carbohydrates, etc in living organisms. I don’t see a huge possibility for further explanation, given the balance of plant and animal structure is a function of evolution. And in any case, as you said in the early part of your comment, the numbers are not exactly those, i.e. they’re not constant. A fat person will have less nitrogen than a body builder. But then again maybe not, with all those steroids… 🙂

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