A thought for Father’s Day: Thanks Papa!

My father has jealously guarded the title of “Papa” ever since my first days on this Earth. He disdains “Pop”, “Pa”, “Dad”, “Daddy”, and any of the other multitudes of variations on this common honorific. The only deviation he ever embraced was “Chief”, and this was reserved not for himself, but for his own father, a man who molded countless young boys into men as a basketball coach in Indiana.

Now that I’ve had the chance to be a papa myself now for a couple years, I have a much better appreciation of the challenges that my father overcame to take care of his two rambunctious boys. I’ve just got one bundle of joy, and he’s more than enough to keep my hands full, and make me want to tear what little hair I have left clean off of my head. I can’t imagine the patience he needed to put up with our antics. It humbles me to think that there are fathers out there who head large clans of children. The depth of character needed to set a positive path for their offspring is unimaginable. Certainly, there is something that happens when we transition from young man to young father. Mine said there was something that turned on inside of him when I was born. A “papa gene”, he called it. This effect does certainly help, but there is more to it than simple biology.

My father invested heavily into his two kids. We were never wealthy, so it was not money he invested, but time. He strove to give us experiences that enriched our lives, gave us perspective, and made us worldly. He was a professor so we had long summers together to explore the world. We spent long weeks driving around Canada and the US, visiting wondrous places, hiking through mountains, searching the wilderness and discovering the majesty of wild animals.

He created memories. I still yearn for our walks around Banff and Jasper, I smile at the thought of eating fresh caught fish on bannock near the Custer National Park, I wonder at having hiked in Yosimite, and fondly remember summers haying on our grandparent’s farm in Wisconsin. I still remember the sense of loss at leaving Papua New Guinea, knowing that I would never have known paradise had he not taken the time to haul my brother and I out as young kids to tag along on his research expeditions. His science allowed us visit Rome, Bankok, Hong Kong. We spent many a day wandering the hallowed halls of McGill University’s Redpath Museum and his tower office in the Strathcona building where we met brilliant minds, explored medical displays and scanning electron microscopes, and threw paper airplanes into vast open spaces. There are so many experiences I cannot begin to list them all here.

Then there is the sense of wonderment he instilled. He took the time to teach us how to use a microscope to examine pond water, built snow dinosaurs in the yard, waged snowball wars and let himself get caught in a deep snow pit my brother and I had dug to capture him. He allowed us to let our imaginations roam wild by sharing his own barely constrained mind. He had us believing for years that a painting by Frank Frazetta was a depiction of him as a pirate. In our defense, the barbarian’s appearance is strikingly similar to my father’s.

A little known fact is that Frazetta was actually painting my father at work.

He had the courage to let us find our wings, participating in sports and activities that developed our physical and moral fortitude despite the inevitable concern that must have nagged at him that we could be injured in the course of playing football or learning martial arts. He taught us to climb (and maybe even rappel down the inside of a certain dizzying tower in the Strathcona building on a weekend — don’t tell anyone!) and to shoot an ancient .22 rifle. He taught us the Saturday Night Special, a trick he had used growing up in the rough streets of Hammond and Chicago.

You’ve taught us to look forward, think outside of the box, and seek facts to think critically. You’ve lived adventures, being seated on a train full of soviet soldiers during the Cold War, almost gunned down at a checkpoint in Africa, made friends with the discovers of Lucy, searched archives in exotic locations, setting up in Russian, Ethiopian, and Kenyan museums. Made insightful discoveries about human genetics in Denmark, were decades ahead of your time in discoveries relating to Leprosy and the origin of humanity. You’ve inculcated us with a love for nature and a deep concern for the planet’s welfare. You put others before yourself, despite living an ascetic life in the wilderness, trying to pass on your passion and your concerns for the health of the planet by writing a book about it. You’ve made friends with wolves and even dabbled in politics. You’ve set such a rich, diverse, and adventuresome example for us to follow that when I try to describe you to others, I say that you’re sort of the Indiana Jones of Human genetics.

As I look at the life I have been able to live, I can only say: Thanks Papa. It wouldn’t have been possible without you. You’ve set the bar incredibly high. I hope I can do the same for my boy.

Happy Father’s Day!

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Rummaging through old memories – how The Genius Crucible’s cover was born

Nissigoboro and Nala

Nissigoboro and Nala

Many years ago, my parents lived in Papua New Guinea (PNG). I will not go into detail the reasons for which they were there, but suffice to say that my head was filled at a young age with stories of exotic jungles, villages of rugged tribesmen, and exhausting scientific expeditions through some of the world’s most rugged terrain.

My parents took a few memorable pictures. Back in the 70’s, film was expensive and hard to store adequately in the humid jungle. Since they could only carry so much, only a few pictures remain of their treks. My father had turned some into slides that he used during classroom presentations to his students. Thankfully, a few years ago he made the effort to scan those slides. I now have a selection of the images stored for posterity. They are beautiful and open a window of insight on a world that had remained largely untouched by the progress of history. I will share some of these images here from time to time.

The first to make its appearance is a photo of Nissigoboro and his son, Nala. Nala served as my father’s interpreter in the Karimui, a remote district in PNG. They worked together for several years over many expeditions, developing a close friendship. My brother and I were fortunate enough to meet Nala back in the ’80s when we accompanied our father on his last expedition to the island’s jungles.

It was therefore fitting for the pair to figure prominently on the cover of The Genius Crucible, since they are inspirations for some of the book’s major characters. Thanks to the magic of digitization and a little help from photoshop, a forty year old picture became a central component for a science fiction book dealing with many cutting edge artificial intelligence and environmental issues. Does it work? I’ll let you be the judge.

The Genius Crucible (available at Amazon.com)

Follow @GeniusCrucible if you are interested in science, the environment, artificial intelligence, and the disappearance of genius.

The Genius Crucible

available at Amazon.com

The Genius Crucible (available at Amazon.com)

A year ago, I was exposed to my first real experience editing a novel. I lovingly and patiently wrangled words and wrestled phrases into a greater level of cohesion for my father on his first outing,  The Genius Crucible. I discovered that this was in fact an enjoyable experience. Although I have been dealing with mountains of paperwork in my day job, there is certainly something special and delightful about using words to bring imagination to life rather than simply fuel the fires of bureaucracy. Here is a short excerpt for your reading pleasure:

CHAPTER ONE: 2015 Karimui, Papua New Guinea (PNG)

Snakes; God I hate snakes. Even a garden hose can scare me. I hold a strong contradiction when it comes to snakes. I inherently fear them. I startle when my subconscious mistakes an unnoticed stick along a trail. A primitive part of my mind thinks it’s a snake, but I also feel they are beautiful critters. I can only marvel at how they locomote, all so alien and exotic. It’s as if my conscious mind can admire snakes, but my subconscious mind is scared the hell of them.

My consciousness seems to identify a gnarled stick on the trail as a piece of art, an image of interest and wonder. My subconscious, though, notices it first, not as a stick, but as a Papuan death adder ready to expunge my existence. Such thoughts are inevitable when one marches through the jungle in the dark.

When the moon escaped from the clouds, I can see massive cumulous clouds rapidly building from the Papuan Gulf as they advance toward the Highlands like an army of huge siege towers electrified by Tesla1 himself. I hope the damn moon will stay out since the trail is covered with kunai and kangaroo grass. Although not tall, the slender and sharp leaves made a nice knee-high tunnel along the trail, perfectly suited to hiding snakes; big and dangerous ones, like Papuan pythons and taipans.

Why can’t they just have garter snakes in PNG? Aren’t they scary enough on a rainy night, in the middle of nowhere, with a dying headlamp?

I had never hiked on a New Guinea trail at night alone. The batteries of my headlamp are failing again and thoughts of snakes are exploding in my mind. This isn’t merely some kind of joke my brain is playing on me; snakes in New Guinea are a real threat. I wish my subconscious mind wouldn’t continually remind me of the string of possibilities lying below my next step because I wish to think about the big event. I met Nara today.

Stubborn fool; the people of Dibe village insisted that I stay the night since all sort of demons are out on rainy nights. Wawi, my translator, afraid of demons, refused to do this hike with me tonight. Negabo village is a long way off, but luckily, there are no big rivers to cross. Damn mossy logs for bridges.

Right now, everything is scary. Hell, this morning Wawi found a small but deadly black scorpion in my boot. How did he know to look in my boot? I have a doctoral degree, yet I’m an ignorant blockhead when it comes to this environment. The jungle is so beautiful, so ominous and aloof, and for the naive, so dangerous. The rainforest is like its snakes, its miraculous birds and in fact, its people. The jungle is mysterious and foreboding.

As I trudge on with all my senses set to high gain, I think: What the hell am I going to do when all my spare batteries are used up and my headlamp dies?

About a mile earlier, before the clouds started building, I shuffled under a casuarina tree, awakening a roosting mob of large fruit bats which, in unison, abruptly lifted en masse, reminiscent of a hat being removed from the head of the tree. The sudden burst of powerful wing beats from this swarm of great bats startled me. It was as if the giant Grendel had jumped out of the jungle. It appeared that they felt safe roosting as a horde.

Safe from what? I wonder. Is there something else I should be worried about this night besides snakes and falling into a ravine? A cassowary maybe?

I make no claim to be knowledgeable about tropical rainforests, but I do know enough that it wouldn’t be good for me to blunder off the trail and into the jungle itself. To the uneducated, the jungle is like the gaping black abyss at the outer edge of a coral reef or a dark alley in Bagdad. One wants to return quickly to the safety of the known.

Even at noon, if I wandered in more than six or eight feet, the fractal geometry of the vines, the massive buttressed trees and profuse understory would give me no clue as to a heading, a bearing. I would rapidly become disoriented by its great abundance. It’s all diffused light in there, no obvious sun, as a piss ant in a thick hairbrush. Even if I could climb into one of those giant trees, I could never get to the top to see anything anyway.

In the Karimui there’s nothing except dense tropical rainforest and a few highly scattered villages. My only hope would be to chance upon a randomly running trail, and that could take many days. My tropical quest is rapidly losing its appeal, and my mind keeps bringing up scary scenarios. But then again, I met Nara today. I met Nara.

Hearing the menacing roar of an approaching tropical downpour, a traveling waterfall, my eyelids tightened. Oh man, here comes the rain! This evening’s drenching. Great! To top it all, I’ll next be attacked by Indians.