“So what does it mean to be alive?” Zach smiled at Emily on meeting her that first day of biology class. She’d attended the class; he had not. He’d noticed her book on the table, the one in the sun outside the food court. His favorite table.
He’d been attending classes at the university for years, for free. He never actually paid tuition and wasn’t seeking a degree. He just liked learning stuff. He did it by becoming friends with the paying customers and studying with them. If the professors seemed good, he’d attend classes sometimes. Biology seemed interesting.
“Well, let’s see what I can remember without looking at my notes.” She took a draw on her smoothie and stared off into the distance, somewhere above and to the left of nowhere. “Cells, for sure. DNA.” She paused, started rummaging through her backpack.
“Sex?” He liked getting a feel for his new friends quickly. He grinned at her when he said it.
“No, thanks.” She gave him a deadpan Mona Lisa in response. “Although I think reproduction might be there, passing along of the genetic information. It ain’t all about sex.”
“Response to stimuli?” He smiled again. He actually remembered quite a bit from his high school biology class, it had been fun, his teacher a good one.
That one got her. She smiled back. “Ah yes. And that’s part of maintenance of a relatively stable internal environment; homeostasis. Cell membranes are good for that.”
“But that requires a lot of energy, doesn’t it?” He liked this girl, a lot. She was pretty in kind of an off kilter way, and smart, and kind of droll. He was sure they’d be friends.
“Ah yes, metabolism. Energy. It’s necessary to maintain all that complex cellular structure, and to grow, and develop.” She was enjoying it as much as he was.
“And evolve?” He gave her a few eyebrow lifts, trying to look smart.
“Individuals don’t really evolve, we acclimate.” She sighed. “Populations do though. Gene pools and species change over time. But individuals do show adaptations that are the result of evolution. Or at least we used to. We seem to have mucked things up a little by changing the environment so quickly.”
Emily had grown rather dismayed by humanity. She was just starting out life as an adult, had just turned eighteen and was in her first semester at the local state university. She’d kind of hoped she could see some human evolution during her lifetime. What she’d learned so far didn’t make it look all that promising.
“Oh, don’t be so cynical. Human beings are pretty cool in all kinds of ways. And one of the things you’ll learn along the way is that words have lots of different meanings, words like evolution, and there’s lots of different ways to look at things and to know stuff.”
Zach really was a philosopher. He’d been homeless for years and lived on campus, crashing here and there in relative comfort. It was really easy, there were always students sleeping on campus, lots of extra food around, and pretty much any time he showed up in a classroom and showed interest, the professors loved him. He met so many pretty women it was incredible, and made lots of great friends. He was a minor legend on campus.
“What’s your major?” Emily decided she liked him. He was one of the first guys she’d met so far that she had found really attractive, and she wasn’t quite sure why. Maybe the smile. Or the attitude. He had a lot of charm, but it was totally authentic.
“Life.” He smiled at her. “But not Biology, like you.” The textbook was one of those monstrosities that probably cost more money than Zach had seen in years all in one place. It looked like the kind that pre-med students could afford, although he wasn’t sure he’d peg this one as a pre-med. She looked more like the world saving tree hugger type.
“Life, huh. Well, I guess that’s a pretty good thing to learn about. What kinds of courses have you taken?” Em figured she might as well find a good study buddy. This guy looked like he’d been around for a while, maybe he could help with some of the stuff she wasn’t that great with. She liked talking about stuff she learned in school, always had. To her, that was kind of the point.
“Oh, all kinds of stuff. Philosophy and political science and history and anthropology and sociology, that kind of stuff. Mostly fun stuff. I’m ready for something more challenging. Want to help me learn biology?” The smile.
“Sure. What kind of political science and who’d you have?” The course in comparative political systems that was the elective that fit with her schedule that semester promised to be slow and painful torture to her, based on the syllabus and what she’d seen so far.
“Comparative Systems, with Dillbeck. He’s actually pretty cool if you get him off on a rant. I can help with that.” Again, the grin.
“Perfect.” She grinned back. Dillbeck was the guy, and she couldn’t possibly imagine him ranting, he was five two and looked like Yoda. If Zach could teach her what she needed to know to make that class more interesting, she definitely wanted to get to know him better. “Want to go learn about the scientific method?”
Studying with Emily was going to be fun.
“What did you think of that list the professor gave you? About what it means to be alive?” They were walking across campus toward the university district, going for a cup of coffee and free internet access for Zach.
“Oh, it’s pretty limiting, but it’s like anything else. It’s helpful to draw distinctions I guess, understand why you’re more like a fungus than a rock.” She smiled at him., knowing she was poking him a bit with the fungus remark. And the rock remark. She had seen him around campus before, usually reclining, sometimes sitting meditation.
“But we’re all just starstuff. You and me and the rocks and the fungus. We’re all made out of the same stuff that originated with whatever it is that it originated with. At least that’s what Carl Sagan said.” Zach had spent a lot of time with PBS growing up.
“Ah, but you and I and the fungus are all made mostly out of carbon and hydrogen and oxygen, and the rock issued mostly out of……well, that looks like it’s probably quartz and feldspar, granite,” she pointed at the stone of the wall near the walkway. So structurally it’s got silicon and oxygen and calcium and aluminum and all kinds of metals “And we’ve got all kinds of cool biochemical stuff going on in our bodies that Mr. Stoner in the wall over there doesn’t have going on. Maybe he or she has some stuff going on, but it’s a bit different.”
Zach let her go on, she was getting into it, and it was fun to watch her. The fact that she’d anthropomorphized the stone in the wall amused him.
“That’s metabolism, all that cool biochemical stuff. It’s releasing the energy from the food we eat so our cells can do stuff. And lots of our cells are bacterial cells, more than our own, in fact. Trillions and trillions and trillions of them.” She pulled off a pretty good Carl Sagan impression and grinned at him.
It totally turned him on; so much so that a little hitch in his pace was required to accommodate his growing interest in this young upstart. He laughed to hide his discomfort, but also because he was so tickled.
“The reason I ask is because of that thing about evolution that I was talking about, language. I like language a lot and pay attention to it. So even defining things like what it means to be alive seems pretty arbitrary sometimes. I mean, look at a virus. From what I remember from high school, a virus is technically a chemical parasite, not a living thing. Right?” He knew the answer, but since she was helping him learn biology, he’d be doing most of the questioning. Or at least that’s what he assumed, it’s how it usually went. Of course it was often he who had the answers, or at least some fair semblance of what the system wanted returned in terms of answers. He found he usually ended up with more questions.
“Personally, Dude, when I look at a SEM of a bacteriophage and think about the various ideas about how life might have come to be on this planet, I don’t imagine something parasitizing life, I imagine something building it.” She stopped walking and turned to face him, halting him. “Wow. Is that what you mean about the language thing?”
He beamed at her. “Oh yeah.” He hadn’t really meant to say that, especially not that way, but he continued to have difficulties with the blood supply to his brain. He regrouped quickly.
“Where did you go to high school? I don’t recognize you from around here.” They were in the land of the Ivy League, the land of the intellectual elite, the upper crust of credentialing for life among the thinkers and shapers of the future.
“Online, mostly. Members of my commune taught me a lot early on, but mostly they just let me feed my curiosity in whatever ways that turned me on. It’s called radical unschooling.” She’d suddenly gotten a little defensive. She’d found that when she told others among her new classmates about her background, she got the look. Well, her appearance usually got her the look, her background just solidified preconceptions.
“Your commune?” Now he was intrigued.
“My aunties and uncles. My mother died in an auto accident when I was quite young and my father was totally ill equipped to deal with a toddler. My parents were hippie anthropologists who’d helped form a group living situation in Maine based on the ideas of Rudolph Steiner, but when mama died, daddy just kind of lost it. He got deeply involved in research and shallowly involved with lots of young female students and was away at this exotic site or that one most of the time while I was growing up. My education was totally organic.” She looked back up at him, a little shyly. “How about you?”
Now it was his turn to be embarrassed.
“I went to the best of the best private schools. Mother is an academician. Women’s studies, Smith.” He reply was curt, and oddly, his passions had waned a bit.
“So was your education broad, or narrow, or what? I really am curious, I feel like such an outsider here. You should fit right in.” She looked at him a little skeptically. He sure didn’t look very typical, but it was hard to say what typical might be. Grunge was pretty hip in some circles.
“Pretty broad I guess; broader than most. That’s because the society I grew up in was so a strong matriarchy. Lots of diversity in feminism, everything from misandrous thugs to witches and fairies. Intellectualism is cool, and in general, I love women.”
“What about your dad?” Em was pretty straightforward; she figured if he didn’t want to answer personal questions, he didn’t have to.
“He’s okay. It’s funny, in many ways, Mom made him exactly what he is. He’s a dollar chasing pussy hound who makes no apologies for being wildly successful at what he does, whether it’s selling a prime piece of real estate or fucking a pair of twenty year old twin blondes.” Zach was smiling a different kind of smile, shaking his head. “When I was born she squeezed him for every penny he earned for years, and every time he got a little bit ahead, she decided I needed to have my teeth adjusted or a new laptop.”
“Huh.” It was Em’s turn to let him go on. He seemed to be letting go of something.
“Thing is, he’s a really loving guy. He’s always been a super Dad to me, never tried to buy my love or anything. And I get his wicked ways, and totally see why he and my Mom could never be together. Their relationship was a disaster from the beginning and her pregnancy a total accident and she even told me that he had to beg her not to get an abortion. He really wanted me. Of course once I was born, she really wanted me, too.” He smiled his happy smile. It was nice.
Emily was surprised to find a tear in her eye. While her aunties and uncles all loved her dearly and she them, she found herself envious of Zach and the two parents who both wanted him. Arrival at the coffee shop allowed them to switch gears.
They ordered to regulars and found a table outside in the sun. Zach booted up his Mac and Em pulled her digital recorder from her backpack. She switched it on.
“Let me tell you about the scientific method. It is flat out one of the best tools ever invented by humanity as a way to gain knowledge and use our collective imagination. It’s right on up there with math, another tool, a system that we invented to describe nature quantitatively. Science depends on math in lots of ways, or at least our evaluation of data and the conclusions we reach depend on math. The stuff that we call science, this bunch of knowledge, is based on the statistical degree of probably that we can attach to the “truth” of our statements.”
The professor had a southern accent. Nothing too deep south, not Mobile or Valdosta, but a little bit of a twang. So far, Zach liked what she had to say. Emily turned off the device.
“It was kind of funny. The whole time she was talking, she was pacing back and forth and she had this pencil, and she kept dropping it.” She paused, smiled, went on. “So she’d like, have to stop her pacing and pick up the pencil, but she kept pacing, and kept dropping it and picking it up and dropping it until one guy just kind of lost it. She turned the recorder back on.
“What the fuck are you doing?” the guy shouted.
“Oh, this?” A pencil could be heard dropping onto a wooden podium. “A couple of things. First, can anyone tell me what empirical evidence is?”
“Kind of like you have to see it to believe it.” It was Em’s voice on the recorder.
“Kind of, yeah. Basically what I was doing with the pencil was to drive home the idea of my absolute certainty that the pencil was bloody well going to drop every time I let go of it. It’s not that I "believe" in gravity, it’s about experiential knowledge. Every time I’ve let go of anything ever, with the exception of a helium balloon, it has dropped to the ground. I don’t have to believe in the theory of gravity, because it’s just so certain based on my own senses and experience that I know it’s true. Newton figured out how to calculate gravitational relationships based on mass and distance.” The voice paused. “Gravitational relationships. I like that.” It paused for quite some time before going on. The room remained oddly quiet.
“At the same time, I didn’t need to do the math and understand the mechanisms involved to believe the truth of it. Now, on the other hand, the idea that a guy named Jonah was once ingested by a whale and survived for 3 days therein before being regurgitated back on the shore, that I have really, really significant doubts about. No empirical evidence I’ve ever seen or even read about tells me that such a thing is possible. In science, we like empirical evidence.”
“The other point I want to get across is the idea of a theory. In science these ideas that we’re so sure of we attach the word theory to them, even they’re not absolutely certain, but I’d bet my great left toe on that pencil dropping next time I let go of it. There’s an issue of language here, because in every day usage, people mix up the idea of theory and hypothesis. Since so many of us scientists are pretty anal retentive and OCD and AHDD and all kinds of awesome acronyms, the textbooks can get pretty snippy about it. Theories are pretty certain, it’s the hypotheses that aren’t certain at all.”
Zach reached over and hit the pause button. “Ah ha, language. You see?” He did the eyebrows thing again. “I think I like your professor. What’s she like? OCD? Anal retentive? Any take on her? She sounds like a redneck” he was grinning, starting to feel the caffeine buzz.
“More like LSD. She’s an old hippie, reminds me a bit of my auntie Bea.” Em liked the professor; she was down to earth, a plant person, like she was, even if she did babble a little. It was funny, it sounded a little like babble on the recorder, but she’d been right there with her in the classroom. She turned the recorder back on.
“Thing is, no matter how certain we are that the pencil is going to drop, about that gravitational relationship, our certainly about the specifics of gravitational theory aren't quite so immutable. That's the beauty of simple empiricism and it's simplistic strength over mathematically derived theory. I know the pencil is going to drop. The quantitative and theoretical mechanism of it is not as certain. But I digress.” Yes, there was indeed a bit of a meander to it, but it did flow.
“Any questions so far?”
A voice from the back of the room spoke up.
“Will you write the steps down on the board?”
A sigh so heavy it seemed to drag down the digitizing of rest of the snappily spit out spell that ensued.
“Here's my take on it.
Step 1: Science is always question driven, or at least that’s the ideal.” Marker on white board provided background noise, along with the sound of Em’s pencil on paper. “Curiosity rocks. Newton was one smart and curious fellow and he had all sorts of questions. Newton used math to describe the phenomenon of attraction between bodies of unequal mass based on the distance between them. If we flew out far enough into space together, that pencil would be more attracted to me than to the Earth. He invented calculus to help answer some of his questions, those which involved infinity. His gifts to our understanding of the natural world are, well, incalculable. Of course he got a few things “wrong”. Perhaps it would be better to say that humanity hadn’t learned as much in the instant of Newton. He did some pretty cool stuff with what he had to work with.
Bottom line here is: be curious, have questions. Some of your answers will be wrong, and that's just fine.” More marker noise, albeit brief.
“Step 2: There is a lot of pretty sound knowledge out there, seek it out.” The words review what is already known appeared in Em’s notes. “It’s the stuff that’s stood the test of time. The pencil is going to drop here on earth. The mechanism that drives the drop might still be questionable. Einstein came along equipped with better tools, standing on those giant shoulders of Newton, and readjusted our thinking quite a bit, a quantum leap of sorts. Thing is, these days in the world of physics, all bets are pretty much off in terms of certainty of the actual mechanisms and character of things we have so taken for granted, things like gravitational force, matter, electromagnetism, and on and on and on. Science just rocks that way, that’s what it’s all about. But beware, some sources of knowledge might be hidden from you. In my day, we never learned about Tesla.
Bottom line here is: explore the ideas of the giants who have come before you. Explore far and wide and deeply.
Step 3: Formulate an educated guess about what the answer to the question you came up with in step 1 might be. That’s what a hypothesis is, your guess about what the answer is based on the knowledge (that educated part of the guess) you’ve gained in step 2. It’s not your theory. Words do matter, at least in science. Evolutionary theory is sound, and ever changing, just like gravitational theory is sound, but dynamic. Do your homework.
Bottom line here is: The way that knowledge really grows is to ask the right questions, to collaborate with the cosmos and what it already knows. Let your imagination soar.
Step 4: Try like hell to prove yourself wrong. Collect data, even if those data are only observations in nature, even if they’re mathematical models or simple drawings. Look everywhere you can possibly look to give lie to what you’ve come up with. Make your study a thorough, multifaceted gem of a quest to find the truth. Do not limit your search to your own narrow field or discipline. Do not embrace your idea too firmly, let it develop and blossom and grow.
Bottom Line: Seek the truth, not your answer, using the best methods at your disposal.
Step 5: Data analysis is an effort to prove yourself wrong, to falsify your hypothesis. In order to use the mathematical models of statistics to analyze data, many simplifying assumptions are made. Some data fit into those models very well, some very poorly. Controlled experiments conducted in labs often have statistical strength but practical weaknesses. Uncontrolled studies of in situ phenomena are incredibly difficult to attach real quantitative significance to in the spirit of the scientific ideal, interactive and unforeseen effects are everywhere. Newton invented calculus to help support his conclusions. The number and variety of statistical tests out there these days is mind boggling, new ones are invented often. They have value, and they can be used as very effective tools in wonderful ways in the quest for truth. Even so, they’re limited. And of course the problem is that these days, they’re quite often manipulated to prove oneself right, and not wrong. Things got twisted somewhere along the way.” The professor was darned near panting at this point. Zach imagined that the pacing Em had described was a non-stop part of the show.
“Bottom Line: There is never a statistically certain truth in science, only some degree of probably of truth based on the data used in the analysis. There's so much in this statement alone it could form the basis of a graduate thesis.
Step 6: Draw some conclusions based on the data you collected and what the statistical tests told you. However, be sure to remind yourself of every simplifying assumption, every weakness in your data set, every unanswered question that remains. Those are often the most important ones. Be confident of the truths you accept. If you’ve not yet found an answer to your question, keep looking. There might not be one, and that's okay. It's about the journey.
Bottom Line: Science is a tool used to seek knowledge, it’s a quest for the curious, a way of evaluating ideas quantitatively.” She paused again, and again, to dead silence.
“Of course science is only a tool, one human construct we use to learn. It was an invention born long ago due to the necessity wrought by empiricism, the disconnect between what we knew from experience and what we’d been told by authority. It is one way of examining the cosmos. There are questions science cannot answer, things it cannot do, truths it cannot tell us because science is a tool and a system and not a real thing. It’s as lacking in heart and soul as the mathematical models it uses, the industries that use it. It requires those things of us, our hearts and souls, to help it reach its full potential, as do all human constructs. That’s the ideal anyway, good luck finding it. Science rocks. How I wish it could be taken back from the machine. It’s time to get out of here, I’m going home. Have a great day.”
“I think I’m going to like this class.” Zach was gazing at Em in a way that made her a little uncomfortable.
“Yeah, well, tomorrow we start in on chemistry. I don’t know how much fun that’s going to be, it never turned me on all that much in what I did online. Of course I never got in very deep, just enough to ace the entrance exams.”
“Oh, I think it can be lots of fun. I want to test the hypothesis that during the semester some really great chemistry and gravitational attraction will develop between you and me.” He actually batted his eyelashes at her.
“Not testable by any reasonable means.” She moved right into rationalist mode on him. “Besides, the gravitational thing is just silly.” Mona Lisa smiled.
“Oh, I could think of some really great gravity experiments.” Zach the horned toad got all reptilian.
She gave him a look that he’d learn well. Non verbal communication would become a hot topic for them over the coming weeks.
“Okay, how about this?” He changed tactics. “I want to test the hypothesis that I can figure out how to really turn you on.” But just a little. It worked.
“You’ll have to define what that means. What sorts of data will you collect? Tell me about your dependent and independent variables.” The smile she gave him was luminous, it shone from her eyes.
“There’s a dependent variable, we need a way to measure that.” His was just like it.
“Ah, that. You’ll have to be a bit more specific. Data sheets. Statistical analysis. This ain’t no freakin’ science fair project.” Em was practicing school ma’am; it was her ultimate career goal, teacher at the permaculture commune. She was also having a wonderful time playing mind games with this man, he was quite different from those who’d been more like family back at the farm.
“Physical responses. We’ll agree on some scale for smile magnitude. And laughter. Would you agree that those things constitute turn ons? Things that make you smile or laugh?” He touched her hand, but only just touched it, as he reached for his laptop.
“They’re definitely a good start.” She blushed.
“Oh, there’s another one. Blushes and shivers and moans, oh my. Sweet little whimpers, the howls of a beast……” he was getting into it.
“Put a cork in it, Romeo.” She laughed out loud. That turned out to be pretty high on the turn on scale, at least by the time it was all said and done.
Studying with Emily had just begun.
Chapter 3: Why is the sky blue?
“Let’s do an example to make sure we’re clear here.” They were walking back toward the dorms. Em’s scholarship provided her with free housing and a meal plan at the food court. She mostly lived off of smoothies and juices on campus, there was only one place there that was all organic. “Suppose I want to know why the sky is blue or why grass is green.”
“Ah, but already, the question why isn’t exactly right! You want to know by what mechanism those things are true, the how of it, am I right?” Zach really was into language.
“Well, it all depends, and believe it or not, comes back to evolution. That’s the part of biology that most interests me, and it’s not even just the biology of it, it’s the cosmology and anthropology, the genes and the memes and the noosphere.” Emily was winding down her first real day of college. She’d been on campus for a couple of weeks, but the onslaught of hipster humanity and a new academic year had just begun. A new leg of life for her.
Zach suddenly had a new leg of his own. What had just come from the mouth of this woman child had once again made him light headed. He was dumbstruck as she continued.
“The mechanism by which the grass is green is the question that the scientific method would ask. So the next step in those steps that kid wanted would be to look it up. We’d find out that there’s this pigment called chlorophyll that absorbs certain wavelengths of light energy and reflects others, so as the photons or waves or whatever are bouncing around and interacting with our eyes, what our brain says to us is green. The sky is blue because of the way those photons scatter around among the molecules up there, the water and nitrogen and oxygen and such and the way our eyes and brains interpret that.
The why of it is so plants can do photosynthesis. Or maybe even so the sky will be magnificent to behold, I mean, really, what’s more awesome than a great sunrise, all that light bending and photon scattering and big clouds of water molecules getting together to paint a picture with it all.” She’d gotten suddenly wistful. It was really nice.
“Why did the photon turn left instead of right?” he asked no one in particular. It elicited one of those smiles from Emily.
“So, my questions about grass and sky color can both exit the realms of what science can tell us, at least right now, and probably ever. We already understand the mechanisms of grass color and sky color. In terms of the evolutionary question, for me, did chlorophyll come to be on purpose or was it just an accident, like Richard Dawkins says it was.” She was incredibly serious, as only and eighteen year old can be, in her ardent quest for the truth of it.
“You’ve read Dawkins?” Zach had been forced to as part of his AP Biology course years before. His professor had been a hard core science zealot, as had been most of the teachers in those disciplines he’d encountered. Most of the culture he’d been immersed in as a child was firmly embedded in the liberal and fine arts, often wary of science and its strange practitioners.
“Oh yeah. He’s really quite an arrogant prick, at least in my arrogant opinion.” She smiled again. “But I totally love the concept of the meme, I think he’s got something there.”
“Something important. That noosphere.” Zach was pretty sure he’d found his intellectual soulmate. And it wasn’t just the intellect and knowledge base, her audacity rather thrilled him as well. Perhaps as their relationship grew, he could help her shape that into something really powerful. He suddenly remembered himself at that age and smiled. Women were so different from men in so many ways. It was sublime.
“But the thing is, I can’t be so arrogant as to assume that the sky is magnificent for humanity to behold. The flower sees it quite differently. Rather, I’d go on the assumption that it is the sky which has shaped humanity, and therefore we behold it with awe.” She grinned.
He beheld her with awe.
“And further, that the flower is beautiful to the bee because they have this incredible relationship that allows the bee to build its home and feed its young and for the plant to engage in long distance sex, and often it’s really beautifully erotic sex, but maybe it’s only beautiful and erotic to me because it makes me love it all so much.”
“Long distance sex. Wow.” Zach’s mind, while wide open and fractal divergent, rarely strayed far from some trains of thought.
She gave him the look.
“Anyway, so I know why the grass is green already, or the mechanism. But if I want to know why that tree has olive green leaves and why that one has kind of blue green leaves, I might ask a question about different kinds of chlorophyll and form a hypothesis about relative amounts. If there was no information out there about those particular species, I could do an experiment to try to prove myself wrong.”
“And how would you proved yourself wrong?”
“Well, the leaves of those trees could have the same amounts of the different kinds of chlorophyll. That would mean that my guess was wrong.”
“Exactly the same amounts?”
“That’s where the statistics come in, I think. It’s never going to be exactly the same amount, or sometimes it might be, but not usually. There would be some average amount, and some variation. It’s like how many zucchinis each plant produces in the garden. Some produce a few, some a lot. I haven’t done all that much math.” While she found it useful, it often rather bored her. She loved the day Uncle Bob taught her to use trigonometry to estimate the size of things, got a little dizzy thinking too much about infinity when she explored calculus. She figured she’d do better with someone to explain those things to her a bit.
“Yeah, it’s something like that. I’ve taken quite a few stats classes, thought about being an economics major once upon a time when I got into TM.” Zach had considered lots of majors before running off to South America at Emily’s age and expanding his thinking in all sorts of wonderful ways. He’d been intermittently homeless for almost the entire decade since, and unemployed, and perfectly happy with it all.
“Cool. It sounds like you get that stuff. I’m pretty beat, need to get on upstairs and check in online and organize my stuff for another first day in classes tomorrow. See you around?” She wasn’t inviting him up, or even into her personal space.
“Can I get your number?” Zach hadn’t thought about his phone in hours.
“I don’t have a phone. See ya.” She went in the building and trotted up the stairs.
Maybe it was electromagnetism. He was sure they’d get there. Zach was totally into studying with Emily.
Chapter 4: Bonding
“Basic atomic structure, periodic table, chemical bonding, electronegativity and polarity, water, and pH.” She was reading from the syllabus. “All in one day. Un-fucking believable. It took me years to learn this stuff.”
“Well, yeah, this is kind of how it’s presented. It’s how it was presented from middle school on, or at least that’s how I remember it, kind of an insane dash through all of biology in a semester or two.” He paused. “No, actually first we probably did all of science in a semester, and then all of some sub-discipline after that if we wanted to, maybe one or two classes.”
“And there’s nothing much in this book about the importance of scale and complexity and systems and emergent properties and interactive effects of, well, everything on everything at every level of complexity, at least not that I can see yet. I sure am glad Dr. P. talked about that stuff, at least a little bit. Of course it made it all the more a mad dash through far too much stuff. I’m glad it’s not all new to me.” Emily sighed. She’d been amazed by the deer in headlights looks all around her as the basics of biochemistry were spewed out by the pacing banshee at the front of the room for exactly 100 minutes.
“Yup. That’s kind of the way of it. Quite a few of the people in that room have not a clue what she’s talking about and don’t really care. Of course this is a pretty good school, so most of them can probably do a binge and purge for exams and pass the class, depending on what kinds of exams she gives. No doubt she gives exams, right?”
“Oh yeah, it’s pretty much required. All these syllabi have so many consistent lines in them and such consistent criteria, that I imagine the myth of academic freedom is mostly just that. They’re legal contracts. This is a business.” Emily was quite worldly for a farm girl. Over the years, lots of different folks had come and gone, only the core extended family had remained intact. Lots of academicians had passed through.
“So tell me about atoms. Or sub-atomic particles. Or whatever turns you on.” He was starting in early that evening. They were having a beer, technically contributing to Em’s delinquency, but since it was her Uncle Ren’s home brew, that was kind of a sticky technicality.
“Oh, she didn’t get quarky or anything, just down to the nucleus and electrons, enough to make sense of electronegativity and energy shells and atomic decay and radiometric dating, enough to make sense of electron arrangement and the periodic table and ions and bonding.” She sighed. It was a habit she was picking up from her newly favorite professor. The women she’d looked up to at the commune growing up, her aunties, had generally seemed to be more contented with life on the farm than Dr. P. was; it was a little sad.
“We’ll have to talk about up quarks and down quarks and karma and decision making and fundamental forces some day. I’ve given those things some thought. But right now I’m thinking we should stick with biochemistry, maybe focus on bonding.” He did the eyebrows and smiled.
She tried hard not to; failed.
“Elements. Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen, Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Sulfur………a few more, but really, these are the biggies for life. Even on a cosmic level, it’s rare to find an atom of a chemical element all by itself, unattached to anything else for any great period of time. Bonding just wants to happen, it almost seems to me that it’s the very nature of matter to want to come together, that’s what the fundamental forces are all about.”
“Whoa. This is what your professor said?” Zach was flabbergasted. Not only was this line of thinking really appealing to him, it was almost more erotic than his stupid little pun had been.
“Well, maybe not in so many words, but kind of.” Em smiled at the memory. She could tell that Dr. P really did love teaching the stuff, even if most of the class seemed far more interested in their cell phones. “She covered the basics, you know, proton number, charge, electrons and the valence shells of atoms of different elements and why….if I may say why….chemical bonds form, and bond angles and how they affect the shapes of molecules and how strong or weak bonds might be and about energy storage and polarity. All in like, fifteen minutes at most.”
“Kind of crazy, you’re right. I read the book, it’s pretty boring and doesn’t really bring it into context for me much. Of course I’ve never really had to think about any of this stuff, I only ever really barfed it back out on test day. But I think I basically get it.”
“My Auntie Kay taught me the basics of soil chemistry years ago. We had some pH issues with our compost, so we started learning about that. Hydrogen is pretty basic to the whole show, and it caught my attention early on. Water is even more cool, and Dr. P. did a great bit on emergent properties when she talked about water.” Em really had learned science organically.
“Water is sacred.” Zach suddenly took on an odd solemnity that Em had not seen before. It was compelling to her in a slightly uncomfortable way. His experiences down south had been perspective altering, and he had a certain vibe to him, something a little different. It was not unattractive.
“Okay, well, the cool thing was how she talked about hydrogen, and how cool it is, you know, in the sun and everything, even in terms of cosmic evolution, then about oxygen, and how cool it is, with it’s pull on electrons, then about what happened when they came together to make water, polarity, the emergent properties of water and how freaking awesome it is. And of course all three of those things, water and hydrogen and oxygen, interact in ways, do all these dances and moving of electrons and bonding and building and breaking down and……”
“And it’s sacred! Do you like to dance? Can I have another beer? This is really good beer.” He belched.
“Yes, it’s really good beer, and I’ll have one more, too, thank you, and yes, I like to dance, but only when the music wants to dance me.” She liked Zach more all the time. She could hardly wait for him to start his personal exploration of winning her affections. Or for him to step up his pace a little bit at least, get past the one liners and get serious. Perhaps her own sense of humor and his joy at making her smile was slowing him down a little. The joy in the smiling was awfully good though, she had to admit that. Awesome foreplay. He was cute and smart and lots of fun, and really into learning. She liked that, it’s what she was there for. Mostly. It was what he was there for too. At least a little bit. She supposed the same could be said of life.
He plopped down in front of her on the floor at the base of her recliner and handed her a frosty mug of beer, having found her glass stash in the freezer when he served up the first round. He turned and leaned against the folded up footrest, pulling her legs down over his shoulders to rest on his chest, so as not to disturb the laptop she was working on. He took a long pull on his beer and belched again before setting it down. He rubbed some of the olive oil he’d brought in from the kitchenette into his palms and went to work on Emily’s left foot, starting at the ankle.
“Tell me about water.”
He smoothed oil first down onto her foot from the ankle, spreading the slippery stuff around quickly with a few quick motions. Then he moved upward, slowly, sinuously, tracing the line of her calf, first up, and then down. He moved back to her foot and got down to business with her toes, giving each its own full body massage.
“Water.” She croaked it out. She took a sip of her beer. Foreplay indeed. She took a deep breath, and focused on the sensation in her foot, then just let the sensation be in the background. She took another breath, and went on.
“Because of oxygen’s big pull on electrons, little old hydrogen protons are hanging on one end of water, sticking their positive proton asses out into the cosmos, just hoping for some energetic electron negativity to come on by and hook up, even if only loosely. Hydrogen bonds. Since the big old electronegative oxygen end of water is hogging all the electrons, they go looking for positive proton asses sticking out to hook up with. When a whole bunch of water molecules get together, it’s like a freaking orgy. When things get hot and individual water molecules start moving around like maniacs, some of them jump off into space and make vapor. When it’s really cold, they get like all totally rigid, and set in tight bonds because nobody is moving around, and it makes totally crystalline ice. Of course between 0 and 100 C, it’s liquid, molecules are moving around and bonding and unbonding, and things are, well, fluid.”
“What’s that got to do with biology?” Zach was actually just prompting her. Maybe; he was definitely learning a lot himself.
“Well, water also hooks up with anything that’s polar like that, and most organic molecules tend to be, at least to some degree. That’s why water is so important in metabolism, it reacts with darned near everything. And even it’s not reactivity with some things, like lipids, is super important.” She paused. “That’s totally huge in all of biochemistry.”
“Okay, that makes sense.”
“But that scale thing is super important, too, and even those state changes, you know, from liquid to solid to gas. It takes a really long time for water to heat up or cool down relative to air. That’s because heating up and cooling down are all about molecular motion, and hydrogen bonding affects molecular motion. It takes more energy to jiggle water than to jiggle air.” She smiled, he laughed. He kind of wished she’d jiggle, but no such luck. She continued. So at the landscape scale, how close you are to a big body of water makes a big difference in terms of the climate you’ll experience. And sweating. It takes a lot of energy for water to evaporate, and that’s what’s happening when you sweat, and the energy is coming from you. It cools you off.”
“Same idea with climate effects. It’s not only how much of a buffer water is in terms of temperature changes, it can also cool the air a whole lot on a pretty big scale.” Zach’s dad had gained an interest in green development long ago, and use of plants and water in urban spaces to help reduce heating was a big part of that.
A long silence followed that.
“What’s wrong?” He turned to face her. She was staring down at him.
“Aren’t you going to do the other leg?” She was giving him a new look, one that he’d have to ponder for a while. He turned back around and repeated the beer, belch, and brain adjustment needed to get back to the task at hand. Somehow, he’d managed to get distracted by their conversation and had lost his focus, even if it was apparent by it’s shine and healthy flush that he’d not been remiss in what he’d been doing without much thought. How, he wondered, had this woman’s words managed to distract him from that lovely calf? He turned his attention right, and started again.
Each toe enjoyed its tender tug and tussle. Her arch was so high it had few rivals. Her heel, well, it was something that had spent some time barefoot in the grass, for sure. He’d like to get it into the bathtub with a pumice stone, he’d have to add that to the list of independent variables he was working on.
“What else?” He’d see if he could maintain focus as he moved up this time. The calf was definitely a lot nicer than the foot in lots of ways. Of course he liked the foot, too, funky heel and all.
“Well, you know how water is, it’s sticky”. She leaned forward and touched her cold beer mug to the side of his face. “The water sticks to the glass on the side, it doesn’t run straight off. And it sticks to itself, each droplet is millions of molecules all stuck together.”
With perfect fluidity, his hand moved from leg to mug and back to leg, bringing some of the cold water from its surface along to bead on the oil he’d already rubbed in.
“Yes, I see.” He was still focused on the leg, and focused on the water, too. Both were turning him on, big time. She leaned down and whispered in his ear.
“And when I put a straw in my mouth, when I wrap my lips around it and apply some negative pressure with my cheeks and tongue, some gentle sucking, and start in motion a pressure gradient that pulls on the uppermost little water molecules, drawing them into my mouth, all of the other little water molecules that are sticking with their friends and sticking to the inside of that long tubular space inside the straw come rushing out with their friends, pulling those still downing the depths of the glass along behind them, and they empty and empty and empty until my sucking stops or they are spent.” She blew in his ear and retrieved her leg from his very limp grasp and stood up,leaving him facing her at thigh level. Her denim cut offs concealed far more than he care for.
“It’s the same way with trees. There’s water coming out of the top of a fifty meter tree, no energy expenditure required. The atmosphere is literally sucking water out of the earth, right through the trees. Unless the trees shut down to it that is, and lots of times, they have to. Water’s really, really important.” She stepped away, gathering the empty beer mugs as she went.
Zach was a bit dumbfounded as she tidied up the space and made the motions that indicated day was done. She’d just blown him away, mind fucked him, and he wasn’t even sure she’d really liked the toe job. And he’d really given her a great toe job. She’d done some nice responsive flexing, but since he wasn’t facing her and she’d been talking, he’d not been able to pick up a lot of stuff that might have been apparent otherwise. So much for his data collection efforts.
Studying with Emily was going to be challenging sometimes.
Chapter 5: Totally Organic
“That was quite a lesson the other night.” Zach showed up at Em’s dorm room in his freshly laundered best no brand jeans and Red Sox hoodie over a no message t-shirt. He had on his dancin’ shoes, a pair of ancient black high top Keds. They were headed out to a club to listen to a band.
“It was fun. Really, what I told you about the straw, it wasn’t all that far off from what I wrote in my notes, what the P said in class.I spiced it up a little bit, and of course the decreased distance between us and change in resonance frequency of my voice probably did a lot to elicit the apparent hormonal and physiological responses that it did. That and my oily leg in your hands.” She grinned at him.
“Fun? Jesus, you go from fun and spice to science and rationality so cold it could kill any kind of fire and confidence a guy might have building up and them go right back to an image of the water on your leg in like, half a second.” She rather kerflutzed him, and he’d not been kerflutzed by a woman in a very long time.
“The leg and foot massage was really nice. I liked it. A lot. It rather turned me on, that’s why I decided to tell about water in that fun little way. Your independent variable elicited a response.” She grinned at him. “Did you like it?”
He laughed, shaking his head.
“It was pretty fucking hot. I’m not even quite sure what you did, some kind of voodoo thing or something. You never even touched me, not really.” He was still basically standing in the doorway, and she was several meters away at the kitchenette counter.
“And I can tell by the attention you pay to things like my feet that you’re probably a very nice and careful lover.” She’d switched quickly to that less playful mode. “But it’s important to look at all of the responses that your independent variable bring about. Some might have confounding effects on your interpretation of the data. Human subjects are touchy.” She smiled again, the Mona smile.
He’d have to start thinking about those response variables, how to categorize them. They seemed to perhaps be continuous and not discrete variables. And undoubtedly there were a gazillion interactive effects to consider. He loved and hated mathematics. And so far his efforts in playing scientific method with Em left him confounded, clueless, at least to some degree. As he understood it from some of the grad students, that was often the case.
“Shall we go?” Em came out from behind the counter wearing a pair of old 501s and a pretty wool sweater, her hair down around her shoulders. Her dancing shoes were a pair of scuffed up old suede black boots, her cool weather dress up shoes.
“You sure you’re going to be able to get into a bar?” Zach was looking her over appreciatively. She looked great, but also young, and this was a college town. The bouncers were pretty tough.
“Sure. I’ve got Aunt Jeannie’s driver’s license. She never drives. And she’s really my aunt, daddy’s little sister, only five years older than me. We look enough alike and I never flinch with it.” She pulled out the license. Sure enough, it was pretty good. He’d let it slide for sure, especially if she stared him down. She had a pretty good way with non verbal communication.
The walk was a fairly long one, but the night was cool and clear and the harvest moon was blazing as they made their way across the old New England town.
“Proffo P. started right on in talking about language this morning.” Em started in, taking a second to synchronize her walking and talking pace. “The term organic. To the chemist it’s about CH bonds, to the grower about bureaucratic regulations and the USDA, to the folks back home on the farm it’s about systems ecology and biodynamics, and to two people talking about education, it can be me describing mine to you in a way that has nothing to do with any of the other definitions, not really.”
“That’s how language is sometimes. When I think of organic though, I do think ‘alive’.” Zach was good with using imagery in language. “That’s pretty consistent, right?”
“Not at all! Nylon and PVC are organic compounds, at least in terms of their chemistry. So are most of those things that Monsanto makes. Plastic is totally organic. That’s why language is so important. Gotta be careful when the lawyers get ahold of it.” She really was quite cynical for one so young.
“You know a tomato is a fruit, right?” He asked, just in case.
“Well duh. I grew up on a farm.” She was, indeed, a little offended.
“Well legally, it’s a vegetable. Did you know that?” He offered it up as a bit of a challenge.
“You’re kidding, right?” She hadn’t known.
“Well duh, I guess you did grow up on a farm. Hey, you didn’t grow up in a barn, did you? My grandma used to ask me that all that time!” She was no longer smiling, so he thought he’d change course.
“Well, as a matter of fact, I did.” Lips at flatline, first time he’d seen that one. Not good.
“Oh. How was it?” He smiled at her, that really irresistible little boy smile.
“Not to bad. Quite nice, really. Uncle Bob is super handy, and he apprentices lots of the young guys. It’s place full of love. There are several old barns converted to living space there. They have all the amenities, nice wood stoves and big tubs and great hearths and kitchen spaces.”
“Sounds great. No, tomatoes were really legally declared vegetables once upon a time for trade purposes with growers south of the border. We have a much harder time producing tropical fruits here, so we’re more open in our trading with fruits. We like to tax vegetables differently, because we can produce them more easily up here. So the law says screw the botany of it, a tomato is a vegetable.”
“And the USDA comes up with a set of rules that mean something is organic. For the most part, it’s a good thing, at least it deals with things like pesticides and herbicides and GMOS and hormones, and it certainly has grown up during my lifetime.” Food production had been huge at the commune; learning how to do it in harmony with the land was not easy, and required as much sound knowledge as hard work. Emily knew her stuff. “But even that’s not enough, not over the long term. The way we produce and distribute food has to change pretty drastically.”
“Did you learn all this in class today?” He was teasing her a little, getting her back on topic. They’d agreed that the best way for her to learn her stuff was to talk about it after class. They both liked it. A lot.
“No, silly, I learned all that the hard way. I did my homework.” She took a breath as they rounded the corner into town. “Today we basically learned about how big, complex organic molecules like carbohydrates and proteins are built from smaller, simpler subunits. We learned about carbon backbones and the functional groups that give different kinds of organic molecules their structural and reactive characteristics. We learned about polymerization and hydrolysis reactions. We learned about monomers and isomers and sugars and polysaccharides and storage carbohydrates and structural carbohydrates. We learned about lipids and hydrophobic and hydrophilic regions of molecules, and fatty acids and bent tails and straight tails and glycerol and oils and fats and waxes. We learned about cell membranes. We learned about steroids. Or at least she told us about all of those things pretty hastily. I’m glad I read those chapters first.”
“What, you mean all three of those chapters in one class?” Zach had done the reading; he like reading. He found he was getting it, to, kind of like the structural aspects of chemistry. The functional parts he wasn’t quite as sure about yet, even that giving up and accepting of protons or hydrogen ions or whatever it was that pH was all about wasn’t quite clear to him.
“Yup. She said she likes to spend more time on proteins and nucleic acids, because of enzymes and ATP and DNA and all that fun stuff. She seems to really be into the proteins, although she does keep emphasizing that it’s all one big system.”
“What is?” She’d lost him on that one.
“Life. Whether you’re talking about a cell or a body or a community in a town or the biosphere, it’s all one big system, all a bunch of nested subsystems, from molecule to planet.”
“Wow. I like that. And what do you know, we’re here. Is our lesson over for today?” He offered his arm as they headed for the door. She took it.
“Well, gee Z. I thought maybe you’d teach me how to dance.” She smiled up at him. “I’ve got to warn you, I’m pretty bad at it. I’ve never been much of a follower.”
“There’s a few easy rules to dancing. Number one is, you gotta kind of like the music, it’ll call to you. Number two is, you look for a beat, usually it’s pretty easy to find, and try to move to it. Number three, and most important, have fun. If you can’t find a beat, that’s okay, as long as you’re having fun.Even if you don’t like the music, it can still be fun. If you’re not having fun, well, you probably shouldn’t be dancing. I find even if I’m not always having fun right away, eventually the dance itself grabs me and fills me up.” He actually bowed as he offered the chair he’d pulled out for her. The table wobbled a bit and the floor was a little sticky, but the place had atmosphere. And a funky rock jazz blues band that made music they more than kinda liked and a beat real easy to find.
They had fun.
Studying with Emily was becoming a totally organic education. He got what that meant now, he was learning.
Chapter 6: Conjugation of the Memes
“I was thinking about sex last night.” It was Saturday morning and they were sharing coffee and weed, sitting on the floor with their laptops in front of the couch he’d slept on. Her bed was in a loft overhead.
“Dude, it seems to me you’re pretty much always thinking about sex. Or at least you think about it quite a bit.” She touched his left foot with her right, gave it a little nudge.
“That’s not fair. I’d forgotten all about sex for a couple of minutes when we were talking about water the other day, until I suddenly realized it’s all the same thing.” He tone was very serious, and he was focused on the laptop, stayed there for a few beats before shutting it down.
“What do you mean it’s all the same thing?” She shut hers down as well. The world hadn’t ended yet based on her morning email and Facebook check-ins, and she spent as little time as possible in cyber space. She liked the real world a whole lot more.
“Water and sex. Polarity and gender. Atoms coming together to make molecules and people coming together to make babies.” He paused. “Gender questions have always been huge in my world, and biology and women’s studies definitely have some language issues going on when it comes to gender and sex.”
“So do you think all things are gendered and all relationships sexual?” She was grinning at him, apparently liked this line of discussion. “When Oxygen pulls those two Hydrogens in to make water, is it like your dad with his twin blondes?” She nudged his foot again with that one.
“When a mass of tiny electrons are orbiting a bunch of big old positive protons, do those opposite charges correspond to gender? And then what’s the role of the neutrons?” Zach’s night had been completely dream filled, chemical, biological, sexual, primally human dances with sperm and egg on a dance floor filled with swirling stars and classical music, re-arranged with a funky backbeat.
“Biology would say that gender, and that’s the term used to describe the chromosomal status of sexually reproducing organisms, is not a characteristic that we can attribute to things like atoms or planets or other heavenly bodies. Gaia is not a female.” Em was pretty comfortable with that stance.
“But the sun is kind of a gendered entity, it provides the energy so the earth can bring forth life using air and water and soil. Earth as mother, it bears the life, sun as…….” he hesitated.
“The patriarch?” She gave him that look. “Oh, no, I don’t think so, no.”
“But the sun is the real power to the whole show………” he really screwed himself there.
The stare got pretty intense.
“But of course nothing could happen in terms of life without the earth and her….um, its nurturing womb and…….” he was fumbling. With fucking words, he was fumbling. He was a master of words.
“And would the poor little female earth just hurl herself into the fire of the sun because of the magnificence of his gravitational attraction?” She turned to face him full on.
“What, you think Sol is the girl?” He was tempted to grab his phone and start googling the crap out of anthropological sites he knew. It suddenly occurred to him that he’d just implied that he wanted to hurl himself into her magnificence, he was going to have to be careful.
“Prokaryotic organisms aren’t gendered. That passing on of genetic information to the next generation does not require a partner, not even passing along of unique genetic information. Even plants can do that. Hell, it’s getting pretty apparent that even our genes change during our lifetimes, Lamarck was a whole lot more correct than the textbook gives him credit for.” Gender and sex were so integral to evolution, that Em had indeed studied both, at least a little, from the perspective of biology.
“How do you know all this? And surely you haven’t read the whole textbook yet!” He was not accustomed to not being on top of the material in his study groups. He liked being on top.
“Like I said, I’m unschooled. And lots of academicians passed through over the years. And last year’s copy of the three hundred dollar textbook can be had for two bucks at the thrift store, or online, or for free if you know people.” College was, indeed, turning out to be less than she’d expected in lots of ways, more than she’d expected in others. She loved the diversity of people she’d met, especially among the professors. The system itself, not so much. The classes were kind of a joke, at least a lot of them were.
“But even bacteria hook-up, right? Conjugation tubes? I seem to remember thinking about conjugation tubes and transfer of DNA and Sarah Sandusky’s butt crack while we were watching a video during lab one day when our teacher was hung over and couldn’t do class.” The faculty at Zach’s exclusive prep school had been a brilliant yet mostly broken lot.
“Horizontal gene transfer. Hell, bacteria pick up DNA from dead stuff lying around. Transformational Learning at its finest. They seem to know what they’re looking for. And they don’t seem to care a whole lot about anything to do with gender when they share what they know.” She gave him the eyebrows.
“Wow. Just like memes. In the noosphere, gender doesn’t matter at all. We can ramp up evolution without worrying about such silly shit.” He was, once again, beside himself as he sat there beside little Emily. That was it. He’d gotten so caught up in their intellectual interaction and exchange of ideas and information, that for a little while, he’d forgotten about her gender. “You know, I almost forgot how much I wanted to juice my lemon all over your legs, which was was the talk about pH had gotten me thinking about when you started talking about polarity and water and my mind kind of wandered back to that boring old textbook and the ideas I’d had while reading it. Definitely a different perspective.” He nudged her back with his left foot. WTF, the call and response thing had been good the previous night.
“Thing is, Z, you and I are gendered. You’re totally masculine in most ways, but I can tell that you spent most of your life around women. While I’m definitely female and definitely heterosexual, I’m not very feminine at all. I’ve always like playing with the boys.” She nudged him back, a little more aggressively.
He totally shocked her with a move of his own, a quick shift and straddle. He was facing her, supporting himself on his lower legs so that she was trapped, but comfortably.
“You do like playing with the boys, don’t you?” She could tell that his mind had definitely made it’s way back to lemon juice and oily legs by the weight and warmth of the mass on her belly. He was wearing a pair of her sweatpants.
“Only when they play fair.” She gave him yet another new look, another mystery to ponder.
He took a deep breath and stood up, giving her a perspective not unlike she’d given him the night before, before moving away to take their coffee cups to the kitchenette. She sighed, having just had the same response he’d had the night before, thinking about nakedness, both mental and physical.
“Remember what you said about water being sacred?” She called out to him as he rinsed their dishes, finding this easier while he was farther away and occupied.
“Yeah. Why, should I turn it off?” He quickly did, having had more than his share of wounds from well meaning eco-warriors. That made her laugh, and foiled her plans for making this less intimate than it was probably going to be. She had her intimacy issues, it was part of being an orphan of sorts.
“No. But I feel that way about sex. I mean real, get down, get naked, and do that thing that makes babies.” She found herself back in the trapped position and he came back and sat right in front of her. She’d shifted to half lotus and was no longer pinned down.
“Oh. Okay. Are you a virgin?” He’d asked that question way more than once.
“No. That’s probably why I do take it so seriously. Sex changes everything, or at least it always has. Boys are funny that way.” She really was just a kid, and her sexual experiences were few. That didn’t make her ignorant, she’d grown up in a commune. She’d seen what sexual relationships could do to love.
“Guess what? Girls can be pretty funny that way, too.” Zach had fathered one abortion, and it bothered him. A lot. Mostly because he knew that his mother would have done the same with him had his father not been so insistent. She’d lied to him, told him she was on the pill when she wasn’t. When he told her he’d support the child but not marry her, she aborted it.
“Of course we can, sex is serious. So are love and commitment. Hearts get broken. STD’s can have really nasty consequences. I’d almost think it’s better to have sex with a stranger if all you want is release, or masturbate. Making love is something different. And the two get all mixed up sometimes.” She wasn’t coming across with her usual self assurance. That’s because she was feeling totally confused about the whole thing.
“There are condoms.” Of course there were, he had a six-pack in his back pocket. He’d even considered a vasectomy; the world was kind of a messy place to bring kids into these days and he wasn’t the least bit fond of latex and the other distractions of birth control. But he knew that STD’s were a reality, so like a good boy scout, he came prepared.
“I’m not the least bit fond of latex. But it’s more than that. I’m quite fond of you. I was quite fond of the other boys I had sex with, too, I wouldn’t have had sex with them if I hadn’t been. But afterwards, our relationships changed. We’d been friends before. We’d all been friends. Now none of us are. Nathan even left the commune as soon as he got old enough, and lots of the older generation have had problems because of sex.” She sighed. “But you do turn me on, too. I’m confused. I probably shouldn’t juice your lemon that way.”
“But you said it was fun.” His lemon was getting its protons up.
“It was fun.” She could see it.
“And you said you liked the foot rub.” It did a little twitch in the sweatpants.
“I loved the foot rub.” She was blushing.
“I like when you juice my lemon.” He gave her that smile.
“Can you trim my hair?” Her sudden change of topic threw him for a minute.
“Huh? Well, yeah, probably, it looks like it’s basically a straight line. I passed scissors and crayons years ago.” He train of non-thought was kind of derailing again.
“You’ll need to wash it first.” She did the eyebrows.
“A shower would be good, we did get pretty sweaty dancing last night, didn’t we.” He did his, too. The lemon was growing into a lemon tree, very pretty. He was pretty sure the lemon flower would be sweet, hoped like hell the fruit would not be impossible to eat. Time for some homework.
Studying with Emily had just reached a new level of educational.
Chapter 7 Seek Truth, Not Your Answer
“You give really good head.” Em was admiring the great job Zach had done on her hair, looking at him directly in the eyes via the bathroom mirror they were standing in front of.
“I shampoo’d dogs for about six months when I was dating a groomer a few years ago. I found I really got into it, and the dogs did, too. I’m pretty good with full body massage, too.” He was still playing with her hair, tickled at the infinity effect produced by the door mirror behind them. His ass looked okay. “Of course I haven’t really shown you yet what I can do in terms of giving head.”
“The haircut totally turned me on Zach. The shampoo was fabulous, it had to be an eight of ten, and I really dug watching you wash yourself. That was totally hot. You did a nice job between the wrinkles.” She winked at him, an incredibly lecherous grin on her face in the mirror.
“You’re not mad that I juiced my lemon on your back like that? You kept arching it when I was washing your hair.” His lemon, was, in fact, making its presence felt again against her left glute, albeit through the cotton of towel and panties. “And you were just a tiny touch provocative there…..do you always contemplate your nipples that way when you wash, give them that much lazy attention? They’re such a pretty shade of pink.” His breathing was getting heavy.
He suddenly stopped talking and started nibbling her neck, doing his own exploration of nipples through her t-shirt as he embraced her from behind. Pinkness immediately perked up, and she put her hands over his to stop him.
“But I want to flip your switch! I want to find the top turn on, the ten of ten!” He was looking at her in the mirror intently, almost whining.
“What makes you so sure that flipping my switch is ten of ten?” She had intent down pretty good herself.
“That’s my top turn on!” his response was so knee-jerk it shook him. Was it really?
“Is it really?” Em genuinely was curious. In terms of gender issues, the masculine and feminine, Mars and Venus. It wasn’t just Zach or Daddy or an awful lot of human culture. It was about the evolution of humanity.
“I don’t know.” He got very quiet. “No, I don’t think so. No. There are plenty of women I have no interest in fucking. I can flip my own switch damned near any time I want to. Sometimes it’s downright boring. Porn is so dull I never both with that crap any more. It’s not real.”
“What is it about sex then?” She was turning it back into an intellectual discussion. It was a good place to go with Zach. “I can flip my switch really easily as well. In fact, I could do it all day, probably, if I didn’t get bored with it. When I first figured out how, it was pretty fascinating. It takes a really good fantasy to make it a really good switch flipping, though. At least sometimes.”
That was probably a nine of ten for him right there. So much for intellectualism.
“I want you to want me. I want to be with a woman who is healthy and happy and beautiful and strong and sexual, to pump my seed into her as well and as often as I possibly can.” He knew it was so. Growing up in the midst of ultra feminist culture had led him to admit that to himself long ago. “When I see an attractive woman, I want to fuck her brains out.”
“You want to fuck my brains out?” She smiled at him. She knew her brains were pretty hot, way hotter than her rather skinny body.
“No way, Sunshine. I like your brains, bunches. I want to fuck your socks off.” He looked down at her little woolen lamb socks one of her aunties had knitted for her, and at his big boner, once again invading her personal space. “I can be a good fantasy. I can be real life, really flip your switch.”
She smiled up at him in the mirror. “Ah, so you admit that Sol is a chick.” She did a little bootie rub against his bulge and headed off to get dressed.
“You’re driving me insane, Sunshine.” He called after her.
“Flipping my switch is not what your research efforts are about. They are about turning me on. You’ve made one of those mistakes that Dr. P warned about in her lecture, you’re looking for the answer you want and not the truth.” She called back in the tone of the school mistress.
“So you’re telling me that flipping your switch does not turn you on?” His voice was somewhat resigned, his magnificent member of manhood shrinking back down into clean wrinkles.
“Oh, not at all. Flipping my switch totally turns me on. But first I have to fall in love with you, that’s the challenge. You think just anybody can flip my switch?” She had an interesting tone to her voice, one he’d not heard before. Using all of his senses fully had become part his life experience since the one in South America.
“So, what?” He was completely befuddled.
She walked back into the room, looking fresh as a daisy in t-shirt and cut offs, a big floppy hat hanging from a string around her neck. They were going to work in at the CSA outside of town in exchange for some fresh, organic, eggs and bacon.
“Here’s my take on it. Very early on in our relationship, you started making your masculine play to have sex with me, correct?” She started slowly, she really had been working it out for herself for some time. “You didn’t know me at all, just saw a girl and starting hitting on her.”
“Well, yeah. First it was your look, then the book, then talking to you. You’re smart and pretty and fun and I’d like to fuck you.” He was straightforward, always. It drove his mother crazy, made his father proud.
“And you’re smart and cute and fun and I like you a lot. You’re physically attractive and you turn me on, you’re really good with your hands.” She smiled at him. He smiled back. He’d heard that before, plenty of times. “But I barely know you, really.”
“So, what, I have to be like a childhood friend before you’ll let me flip your switch for you?” He figured he’d get his mind off of actual conjugal sex for the time being. He wanted to make Emily shudder, the way she had him, just by arching her back that way.
“Not at all. What I’m saying is that you won’t be able to flip my switch for me until I’m ready for you to be. Neither of the other boys could, and they tried. I even tried to show them how, it was a mess.” What the hell, he’d seen her naked, he’d definitely exposed some of his own vulnerabilities pretty plainly. She might as well bare it all to him.
“I think it might go something like this. I’m not sure of you yet. For most animal species, and especially mammals and primates like us, it’s pretty important for females to be choosy about their mates. Males are way more open to spreading their seed far and wide, females want a guy who’s got something to contribute. Making babies is hard for women, it’s fucking easy for men, literally. Even though we know, intellectually, that we don’t have to worry about pregnancy and genes and child support, there’s something instinctual involved.”
“I can do it, let me show you. According to the anthropologists, being a really good fuck is a great trait for a man!” He started walking toward her; she help up her hand like a crossing guard.
“You’re not listening to me at all. I can do it, too, easily. Half a dozen times, in no time flat. Speaking of which, we’re due at the farm in half an hour. Unless you want me to drop you off somewhere.” That was another little problem she’d had with her other lovers. Once they got a taste of it, they never wanted to go away, they clung like vines, hovered like guard dogs, wept like babies taken from the breast when she wanted some space. Emily was a woman who needed her space.
The look he gave her was one of such crushing despair that she walked over and kissed him, gently, on the lips. She almost had to tiptoe to do so.
“I’m such a fucking dumb-ass.” His voice was fifty shades of puke green.
“What do you mean?” She was feeling horrible, which she always did when she hurt a boy’s feelings.
“I’ve never really properly kissed you yet.” His chin actually quivered, and a couple tears rolled down his cheeks. “I spooged all over your back and I’ve never even kissed you. My mother would fucking kill me.” He blubbered for a few minutes, like a child. She held him and back patted, let him compose himself and wipe his snot unobtrusively.
“Well, I don’t recall having invited you to kiss me properly before now. I did pretty much invite you to spooge on my back though.” She smiled up at him. He kissed her, properly.
Studying with Emily was awesome.
Chapter 8: Macromolecular
“Macromolecules. It’s kind of an oxymoron, isn’t it?” Zach had opened up the textbook as he settled into the shotgun seat of Aunt Jeannie’s old VW bug. Em had brought it down east with her along with the driver’s license. It mostly sat in the parking lot, the exception being for out of town trips like this one to nearby farming community.
“Scale. Everything is a matter of scale. They’re called macromolecules because they’re big and often pretty complex, and they’re made up of component pieces. Of course all the component pieces are made of of their own parts, probably infinitum, so you’re right, it’s another one of those silly language things. Since the component pieces offer a particular scale of interest to biologists, and the bigger organic molecules they’re built into usually have really obvious functions, I guess they become macros. Who knows? Once you get much past the scale of these big molecules, you’ve got a cell, right?”
“I guess. Those levels of organizational hierarchy that were introduced in the first chapter seem pretty organic. I mean, cells are made of molecules and molecules are made of atoms. When you’ve got a bunch of cells that are all the same doing something, you’ve got a tissue. And a bunch of tissues make an organ, and then you’ve got organ systems, like the digestive system, and organisms, whole living things. Those things aren’t exactly arbitrary.” Zach was pretty masculine; he liked structure, a lot.
“Yeah; I guess.” She shifted gears. “I’ll have to think about that. I mean, once you get past organism then you have populations and communities and ecosystems, and those demarcations are really, really arbitrary. I mean, I can call all the white pines on campus a population or all the white pines in New England a population, or all of the white pines in the world a population. Communities are even more random. One cubic meter of soil right here might have a totally different microbial community from one over there, but it would all be one community if we decided to look at a ten cubic meters. Same kind of things with patches of forest.”
‘But we were talking about macromolecules.” He went back to the book. “Or at least I think that’s where we are. Explain this functional group thing to me.”
“Well, all organic molecules have carbon hydrogen bonds, so a carbon skeleton.” She pointed at the picture in the book. “It’s these different functional groups that give them their unique characteristics. So, like, this OH group is really polar, so it’s going to make a molecule more water soluble. This amino group acts like a base, so it hooks up with protons, this carboxyl group like an acid, so it tends to give them up. Phosphate groups tend to form high energy bonds, and methyl groups tend to be pretty non-reactive and hydrophobic. This double CO bond thingie kind of varies depending on where it is, but it tends to make that particular part of the molecule a good place for bonding. When you look at the difference between the straight chain sugar and the ring form, and can see what I mean.” She found she like practicing explaining it, it really helped her understand it herself.
“Ah, I see. And so these different kinds of monomers, the little subunits, are made up carbon chains with different functional groups on them, so they tend to have different kinds of functions.” He got it.
“Yes. And so monosaccharides, simple sugars, have this basic structure, with the carbons and the carbonyl and hydroxyl groups. Just Carbon, Hydrogen, and Oxygen. And the simple sugars are what cells like to use as an energy source.” Em also knew a bit about nutrition, another big issue at the farm. “And sucrose, which is made up of two monosaccharides, is that stuff that you like to put in your coffee. It’s really not the best form of carbs to be putting into your body.”
“I don’t get it. If simple sugars are what my cells want, why shouldn’t I just eat them?” He did like his cookies, and yes, lots of sugar in his coffee.
She smiled, a really deep smile, so deep it picked his head up from the book, caused it to turn and look at her.
“What?” he asked her.
“Think of metabolism as a grand dance of life, an erotic quest, something like trying to elucidate what turns a woman on.” She smiled again, loved making up fun little analogies as she went along. “Evolution might have produced a way that we might just put on biomass more efficiently, or extract energy from our food directly, or even just absorbing the sun’s radiation. But no. Instead, we have the grand dance.
“A potato is made up of starch. That’s basically just really long strings of glucose, one of the most common monosaccharides, all strung together by those polymerization reactions. Those reactions remove water, they take a H off of one glucose and an OH off the other, and they get bonded together. See the picture?” She was a very attentive driver, and he was a very attentive student, so they did well together.
“And starch is how plants store energy short term. Cool. And this other molecule, glycogen, is how animals store it. They’re really similar molecules. Cool.”
“Yeah. And trees also store starch in their roots. When spring rolls around, they start breaking it down, via those hydrolysis reactions, back into simple sugars. That’s why we can collect maple syrup up where I live.” She smiled, thinking about the pancakes and bacon she’d make for breakfast the next day. “And when we eat the starch from the potato, first our body breaks down the starch into simple sugars, and it uses some for energy, and it uses some to make glycogen. Or fat.”
“And so a hydrolysis reaction is basically just the opposite of the polymerization reaction, it just puts water back in where it was taken out before. And the same thing happens in the human liver when we need sugars, we break down glycogen. Cool. So how does it all work?” It was getting more interesting all the time.
“Enzymes. We have quite a ways to go before we get to enzymes. They’re proteins.” She made a turn. “So those storage carbs, starch and glycogen, they’re pretty simple. They’re easy to break down, mostly used for short term storage. The structural carbs, like cellulose and chitin, they’re a lot tougher. We can’t digest cellulose. There’s lots of cellulose in turds.” She smiled at him, loved talking dirty.
“Cellulose is the stuff in fiber, right?” His mother always nagged him about eating fiber.
“”Fiber’s got even tougher stuff in it along with the cellulose, lignin. But all plant cells have cellulose cell walls, so all plant foods have lots of cellulose in them, unless they’ve been processed to death.” Another turn. “And chitin, it’s tough too. Fungi have chitin in their cell walls. And lobster shells have it, too.” If you look at the pictures, though, you can see, that there’s extra hydrogen bonding that occurs because of the arrangement of the monomers, so you get a structure that’s more of a matrix that a string, for both of these.”
“Yup, that’s really pretty simple, once you look at it. That would be a lot harder to break down.” Zach like good imagery along with good text, particularly with this kind of material. The pictures in lots of books just tended to add mass, probably to justify their weighty price tags.
“What’s this one, peptidoglycan? God, the words you biologists use are pretty awful.” He was glad he wouldn’t have to test on this stuff, not being enrolled in the class. He’d hate to try to have to remember all this vocabulary. Science had a language all its own.
“Bacterial cell walls; the monomers are more complex. I imagine there’s all sorts of variation, especially among the ancient ones.” She was getting restless, ready to be out in the sun working.
“So we probably don’t eat a lot of that.” He was, too.
“We probably contain a lot of that already. Remember those trillions and trillions and trillions of bacterial cells we have in bodies?” They’d arrived.
“Oh yeah. Man, I’m ready for some bacon.” The CSA had a cafe associated with it to help offset costs of producing food organically. “Let’s talk about fat.”
“Lipids. They’re kind of interesting, don’t really have any monomer subunits. They’re also pretty diverse. The only thing they all have in common is hydrophobic regions that don’t react with water.” They were heading toward the barn, where they’d pick up some tools and find out what needed to be done. Em hoped they’d be pulling weeds or harvesting; she’d mucked out a pig pen last month and hauled it the slop to the compost pile.
“But there are still those dehydration and hydrolysis reactions, right? I seem to remember that bit about triglycerides being made of glycerol and fatty acids and whether the fatty acid tails were bent or straight and so why some lipids, like that wonderful olive oil, are liquid at room temperature, while others, like that lovely bacon fat, are solids.” He had paid attention to the stuff he could relate to in school, which wasn’t much of it. Food, he cared about, quite a lot.
“Yes, but they aren’t broken down as readily as the carbs. That’s why they’re good for long term energy storage. All those CH bonds represent really dense stored energy.” They headed into the barn.
“I still don’t really get that.”
“We’ll get there.”
They shoveled manure together.
“It’s the hydrophobic regions that are the thing.” Em was shoveling right, Zach left. Every few minutes they’d switch sides, practicing the balanced yoga of shit slinging. “So while oils and fats are great for energy storage, they’re also really good for water proofing. Same with waxes. That outermost layer on a leaf is waxy, kind of waterproof. Same with the oils in our skin.”
“I thought the cell membrane thing was the coolest, that phosphate head and fatty acid tail thing and the phospholipids in the water? I mean, I can imagine evolution happening, a cell being born just like that in the middle of the primordial soup!” He accidentally slug a piece of pig poop right onto Em’s cheek as he turned to switch places before finishing his toss.
She gave him the look.
“Does this look like some kind of skin conditioning oil to you?” She was actually smiling as she pointed to the stinky poo that graced her visage.
“Probably lots of cellulose in there, right?” He was working hard not to laugh, trying to decide if she was going to swing her shovel at him. “And billions and billions of bacteria, too.” He couldn’t resist a little Carl Sagan, it might be his only hope.
She laughed out loud.
“Let’s go eat, the wheelbarrow is full and so are the pigs, this is a never ending job and we’ve put plenty of time in.” She was pulling her gloves off, stretching her back in that way that now totally turned him on.
“You should probably wash your face first.” He’d try to keep his mind clean.
He had plenty of time to study with Emily.
Chapter 9 Steroids
Zach was quiet all through brunch, brooding over their conversation about the different routes to the hearts of male and female. That was fine with Emily, she was shoveling down free bacon and eggs and home fries, a side of fresh organic sourdough with butter and local honey, all of it washed down with local apple cider. Heaven.
Zach refreshed his own energy reserves, but much more deliberately than usual. His was working his food mechanically, grinding away at each mouthful absentmindedly, staring into space, almost the way he’d been oiling Emily’s leg. He’d spent so many years around so many people who insisted that gender identity was a cultural myth, that he was wrestling with it. But not for the win so much. The idea that Emily thought wanting to fuck everything was perfectly fine and natural was pretty appealing. Finally he spoke.
“So when you asked me if I wanted to only fuck your socks off or every attractive woman’s, doest that mean you want to go steady? Statements of fidelity? Commitment?” He was still really just thinking about independent variables, not engagement rings.
Emily damned near choked on her cider. She did blow a little bit out her nose when he asked that, it surprised her so much.
“Dude, I’ve known you a week. No, I don’t want to go steady. You kind of missed the point of the part where I said I barely knew you and you needed to win my heart. Jesus, I’d never get partnered to a guy I hadn’t even had sex with yet. I was asking out of curiosity, to see what you’d say. I think lots of guys feel the way you do, they just won’t admit it.” Her view of relationships had formed in a commune.There were quite a few very open relationships there. Her father was in a couple himself.
“Do you believe in monogamy?” Both of Zach’s parents had been through quite a few relationships. Both had married, twice, and divorced, twice. His father, at fifty something, still chased women, had lots of women friends he both fucked and hung out with, and one ex wife and a couple of old girlfriends who would probably castrate him on sight, given the chance. He’d fathered three children after Zach. Mostly the women loved him, he was super loving and fun and didn’t try to bullshit them at all, not since the murderous ex-wife. It was the same way with Zach, except for the marriage and fatherhood part. He kind of took those things more seriously, at least in theory. Or maybe it was his hypothesis. That would be a pretty scary one to test.
“Do I believe in it?” She laughed. “Language, Z, language. I know it exists, I’ve seen it. I’ve seen some really healthy monogamous relationships, but neither partner was virginal when they got into them. I don’t think it’s natural.”
“Why not?” As much as Zach loved lots of variety in women, he also kind of liked the idea of finding the one who would be the one who would change all that.
“Well, remember what the P said about why sex is good? Because of genetic diversity? I could have four kids with one guy, or I could have four kids with four guys. Which would be better?” She phrased her question exactly that way on purpose.
“Whoa, wait a minute. It’s the male who has all those great sperm. I could father a thousand children or four, which should I do?” He threw the challenge out there.
“Before you can father those thousand children, you’re going to have to find a thousand women, or at least a few hundred, willing to first fuck you and then bear and raise your children. And if you want for those children to survive, you’re going to have to be bringing home an awful lot of bacon, so much that you’re never going to find the time to get those women to fuck you. Besides, you think we don’t talk to each other? That we’re going to let you get by with putting the cake in the oven and not sticking around to wash the dirty dishes? And wouldn’t it be nice if I had four guys to clean out my gutters and shovel the pig shit?”
“Unless I’m a violent pig of a rapist and don’t really give a shit about women or children or probably even myself.” He suddenly felt a little nauseated. “Because they wouldn’t really have to be willing and if the kids didn’t survive I probably wouldn’t even see them starve to death because I’d be off looking for the next woman to rape.” Zach had never, since age twelve when he’d bust his first nut, felt so totally turned off by the thought of sex.
“Well, not to rub it in, you’d also probably have to do battle with an awful lot of other horny guys who all wanted to father a thousand children, too, or at least fuck all the women.” She smiled at him. “You watch the nature shows. Sometimes, while the big bad alphas are fighting it out, the more clever, less violent males are taking care of the business of baby making. You think we don’t talk about their cleverness?” She winked.
He sighed, and noted to himself how quickly humans tended to pick up each others’ little habits.
“So monogamy isn’t natural and every woman should have four men to father her genetically diverse children and clean her gutters.” He sighed again. “Sounds like one of my mother’s ex girlfriends.”
Emily laughed, and threw her cloth napkin at him as she stood and picked up the car keys. She held the door for him as they headed out to the car. She didn’t respond to him until she’d hit fourth gear.
“Monogamy in a sexual sense probably isn’t natural for anything. It’s really rare in nature. But for species like us, whose offspring require lots of care, it’s important for men and women to work together to ensure our kids will make it. In terms of sex and genetic diversity, we’ve got a pretty strong instinctive drive to seek out variety in sex partners.” She was back in road focus mode.
“Tribal culture takes care of that in a lot of ways. It takes a village to raise a child.” He knew all the good quotes from all the various movements over the years, he’d learned to read walking the halls of the women’s studies department at Smith. That and he’d lived with a tribe for a while.
“Let’s talk about testosterone.” Emily shifted gears.
“Sure, whatever.” Zach was tired. In fact, he was emotionally exhausted, wrung out. And he was going to have to figure out where he was going to sleep that night; he’d kind of killed what he had going with Amy over Em. He was ready for Em to tell him all about what a horrible beast his testosterone made him; he’d heard it all before.
“It’s a steroid hormone, a sterol, like cholesterol, a lipid.” She looked over at him. No more open book, he was leaning his head back, eyes closed.
“Um hm, back to lipids.” Low.
“It’s really one of the very few things that does make you different from me, in terms of genes and gender and all that stuff.” She paused. “You’ve got a whole lot more of it than I’ve got.”
“That and a dick. That thing that I think with, that tube to my heart.” Defensive.
“Well, I have my little joy stick, too! That switch you so much want to flip!” Offensive.
“It’s not the same thing!” Dismissive.
“It’s EXACTLY the same thing!” Aggressive. She popped the clutch and almost stalled.
“What do you mean?” He’d picked up his head and was looking at her.
“You and I started out exactly the same. We were eggs in our mothers’ bodies. Along came our fathers’ sperm and those eggs got fertilized, Dad’s DNA got let in.” She paused. “The gender thing comes about because your father’s sperm was carrying a Y chromosome, and my father’s sperm was carrying an X chromosome.”
“And both eggs had X’s. Yeah, I kind of remember that from high school.” He was waking up. He really liked talking with Emily about biology. “So you’re an XX and I’m an XY.”
“Yeah, but the point is that Y chromosome. Early on in development, you and I were pretty much the same. But then, since you had a Y chromosome, your little embryo started producing male hormones like testosterone, and that made you develop differently. Your little clitoris decided to develop into the head of Mr. Happy, instead.” She grinned at him.
“No way!” He looked down at his lap.
“Way.” She looked there, too.
“Yeah. And your balls are like my ovaries dropped way, way down. We’ve both got nads, just slightly different kinds, all based on our hormones. We’ve kind of got mostly the same equipment it lots of ways. Of course we women have got the womb which is kind of the base state. When you look at most kinds of sexual organism, with the exception of fungi, you’ve got these wonking big female eggs that are going to eventually develop into the new offspring, and itty bitty sperm that are only there really to transfer genetic information.”
“It’s an important job!” Suddenly Zach found himself thinking about conjugation tubes again; he’d realized he’d been a little off with the bacteria in his reading. Then he started thinking about Sarah Sandusky’s butt crack again, and how great transfer of genetic information could be.
“Of course it is! It’s a fucking marvel of evolution!” She really did dig Zach.
“And if I remember correctly from Sex at Dawn, human males have pretty spectacular dicks, as dicks go!” His was getting all spectacular. ‘And being a good fuck is a great trait!”
She was getting turned on. She downshifted as she took a turn.
“So, let’s talk about testosterone.” She smiled the subtle one. “Besides sex, what else turns you on?”
“You mean when I’m in a generally well laid state?” He turned on the charm. Testosterone was pumping, he was oozing pheromones. “I like exploring in nature, really long hikes, sitting on the side of a mountain with a fire crackling nearby, looking out at the world with a cold beer and a fresh caught fish dinner in my belly and a beautiful woman….oh, wait. Okay, you can stay home.”
Emily giggled. She could sense the pheromones, even if she was unaware of them.
“I’ve done lots of long distance back country by myself. It turns me on. Reading turns me on, fiction and non-fiction, I like stories and ideas and poetry. Some music gives me a fucking woody. Does that count as sex?” He grinned at her.
“I guess it depends on how much the music makes you think about sex in terms of the response.” All serious, but really turned on herself.
“A good bass line can do it. When the Bruins really start going at it sometimes I get kind of hard, too. It bothers me a bit. Depends on the play. If they’re just being assholes, I hate it. If they’re in the right, well…” he paused, starting to fear he might be exposing himself a little too much. Jerking off in front of a woman was one thing, telling her these kinds of truths quite another. He did his own gear shifting, into self help mode. He’d spent some time with a therapist or two, part of the program growing up in his world.
“Planning and finishing a project is a real turn on. I do some stuff with my dad sometimes, or have in the past at least. I‘m great with my hands, and not in the way you’re thinking, I know how to build things. Even being here at the university is kind of all about my own grand ideas about life. I’m really into deep social change, believe that being well educated is a good foundation for being an effective agent of change, but I so hate the machine I’m not willing to go the typical route. I like being my own man while also being a contributing member of society. And I like eating good food and hanging out with good friends and meeting pretty women and getting well laid.” He grinned at her.
“Back to sex. Testosterone.” She smiled back at him. He really was hot. “Most of those characteristics really are great characteristics. They all are, really. When it comes down to it, that surge of testosterone that you get when the Bruins are whacking away at their opponents could come in handy. Even the sex thing.” Her smile was mischievous.
“What do you mean?” His was kind of lecherous.
“Well, some day you could find yourself in a situation where you lived in a tribal culture with really open attitudes about sex and maybe twenty or thirty women would expect you to be servicing their teenie weenies of delight and fathering their children and bringing home the bacon. Heck, the might not even care about the bacon and the kids, what if you just had to service the sexual needs of a dozen or so women who wanted their switches flipped two or three times a couple of times a week? Or just two or three? Think you’re going to get to fishing with the boys? Your pecker that perky?” A new look, one he’d never forget.
“Don’t worry, I’m not suggesting you should be monogamous. Maybe some day I’ll take you up to the farm; it’s kind of a mixed culture. But there’s a core group, most of my aunties and uncles, who’ve been with each other in most ways possible of the years. Most are in fairly stable pairs, and they’ve paid attention to the genetics of my cousins. They also have sex with people who come and go, and really, my dad fits into that category. Sometimes they have sex with people who are new, so I guess you could say strangers. It works, for the most part. For some people, it doesn’t. And there’s definitely been some pain and suffering involved. But that’s part of life.”
“Dad keeps his relationships pretty casual, ever since the divorce from the woman with the machete. So he kind of mostly hooks up now and then. Most of his dating these days isn’t about sex at all, he’s been friends with most of the women he sees for years. Of course he’s getting old.
“His twenty year old twin Barbie dolls are old friends?” Em hadn’t formed a clear image of Zach’s father yet. She’d been resisting the urge to think of him as kind of slimy.
It was his turn to give her a look. A brutal one, it kind of startled her.
“What makes you think Peaces and Cream are Barbie dolls?” He really sounded offended.
“Peaces and Cream? What are they, strippers?” Tactless.
“Actually, they’re up front of an incredible band out of Vegas, Chocolate Fudge with Peaches and Cream. They’re big girls, blues babies, bastard twins of some mix of albino European and African American. Daddy picked them up one night after their show, her likes all kinds of women, not in to any particular kind of look. It was pretty short lived. Oh.”
“Oh what?” She felt pretty bad, again, for having made false assumptions.
“That was kind of the problem. The twins weren’t in to each other at all, the siblings thing, but didn’t mind sharing. Of course you know how guys are, and well, they kind of starting getting into it with each other over him, and then he met this other woman……….Oh.”
Studying with Emily was teaching Zach so many things.
Chapter 10 The Shape of Things
“Can you drop me at the train station?” HIs sudden change of pace took her by surprise. They were just getting ready to make the turn toward campus, away from downtown. “I need to go home for a few days.”
“You need to catch a train to go home? Where do you live?” She hadn’t really thought to ask, she assumed he lived in one of the cheap rentals in town that catered to grad students, probably with two or three roommates. He was a little old to be living in the dorms.
“Nowhere, really. There’s a girl I’ve been crashing with, and sometimes I just sleep at the library or with friends. I kind of couch surf. When the weather’s nice, I mostly sleep outside.” He gave her that little boy grin.
“And I don’t suppose you worry too much about missing any classes or exams or anything.” Emily was a very serious student. This was her first experience in a regular school, and she wanted to do it right.
“Technically, I’m not enrolled here.” Another grin.
“Technically?” As she said it, he decided that maybe he had that look categorized; it seemed to go with a certain skeptical tone of voice.
“Okay, not at all. I have been a few times, but I ran into a few issues here and there and so just decided to do it this way instead. I go to classes I want to go to and scavenge books and study with students, learn what I want to learn and not what I don’t.” He shrugged his shoulders, did a palms up motion, a “what can I say” kind of motion.
“Ah, I see. And you need to go straight home to……”
“First, Northampton. I need to pick up some clothes at my mother’s house.” He was putting a few things in his backpack, including Emily’s biology book.
“Because your clothes are?” She’d figured out how to get to the train station after getting past his distractions.
“At the girl’s house, or at least they were. She might have dropped them off at the thrift store by now.” He gave her one of those puppies who’d been playing in the trash looks.
“And from Northampton?” She really did just want to learn a little more about him. He was interesting. Nah, who was she kidding? She totally liked him, like, totally.
“Why, the upper west side, of course. My father owns a building there, he’s got a little apartment in it. I can crash on his couch, unless he’s entertaining a lady friend. Then he can usually find somebody to put me up while I’m in town. I’ve got some other friends there, too.” It was another one of those things he was almost embarrassed about.
“You’re totally a rich kid, aren’t you?” She’d never really known one before.
“Technically, I’m twenty seven years old and unemployed and homeless. I’ve got about two hundred bucks to my name, mostly because I do things like tend bar part time, or write term papers.” He was giving her a very serious look.
“Technically, that doesn’t mean anything when you can crash down the street from Yoko Ono and Woody Allen.” Emily was kind of wary of rich people. At the same time, she was really in to art and culture and really wanted to go to the theater some time; she’d never been to the big city, and suddenly found him even more interesting. Damn it.
“Woody and my dad are pretty good friends.” He thought he’d name drop, wondered if that was a testosterone thing.
“La de dah.” He categorized another look. “On the turn on scale, that’s about a minus two.”
He smiled at her. “Thanks. I kind of wondered, as soon as I said it.”
She pulled on the hand brake as she stopped in front of the station.
“You’ve got my book.” She said to him, starting to think about class the next day, sad that he wouldn’t be around to talk about it with.
“You’ll get the lecture. And you said she always has the pictures from the book on the screen.” Tentatively, he reached over and took her hand. “And I want to do the reading. You said that the professor was totally into proteins, and that’s what comes next. I totally want to be prepared to do proteins with you when I get back.”
“You’re such a fucking Dweeb Zachary.” She leaned over and kissed him. He kissed her back. “I want to do proteins with you, too.”
“It’s all about the shape of things.” He was giving her a new look of his own.
“What?” He had her confused.
“The molecules. It’s the shape, the configuration The direction of the monosaccharides determines whether or not the hydrogen bonding will occur to make cellulose instead of starches. That matrix isn’t two dimensional, it’s three dimensional, it’s all three dimensional at every level of scale, always. Some regions are going to be really reactive, some not so much.” He’d suddenly kind of zoned off somewhere, wasn’t even really talking to her.
“What are you talking about?” She’d not really thought about it that way all that much, but of course it was true. She was more into the relationships between the component parts, what brought them together. Zach apparently was into the fit, the shape of things.
“I got to thinking about it while we were kissing. I like the way you kiss, a lot.” He glanced down at his lap again. So did she.
She laughed out loud. “Well, I can see how that got you thinking about the shape of things. But you’re the one who’s the good kisser. Wow. Where’d you learn how to kiss like that?” It did kind of knock her socks off, both times now. She smiled, kissed her socks off, that man did.
“You taught me.” He grinned at her.
“Huh?” Kissing guys thus far had not been all that great an experience for Em. Nathan had been a real tongue lunger, damned near choked her to death. She’d sure never let him get his tallywhacker anywhere near her mouth after that. Josh had been kind of a dead fish. The few others she’d really made out with at all were so hot to get in her pants she just kind of gave up on kissing altogether. Mostly they weren’t very exciting. Zach was different.
“Well, maybe my dad taught me.” Zach hadn’t seen his dad in months; he have to give him a call as soon as he got on the train. It suddenly occurred to him what he’d just said when he saw the horrified look on Em’s face. Her first practice kiss had been with Melissa Klein, when they were both ten.
“The first time I really wanted to kiss a girl, and I mean really kiss a girl, was when I was fourteen. Her name was Heather, and she was just like her name, this perfect vision of flowery femininity, all soft roundness and sweet scents and everything that represented women and sex to me.” Zach was a great story teller. “So I asked my dad how to kiss a girl. I’d seen his lady friends, I saw how they acted with him. I figured he knew what he was doing.”
“And?” she was intrigued.
“He told me to let the girl lead. Just kind of see where she wanted to go and go there with her. Maybe lead her a little bit every once in a while, but only really, really gently. I didn’t try that, Heather was older. Anyway, he said that making love to a woman was all about discovering where she wanted to go, where she wanted to take you. He said it started with the first touch, and then the first kiss; you always wait for an invitation, and then you just keep waiting for them and pretty soon you’ll get let into some really nice places.” He smiled at her. “That’s why I need to go home for a few days. It sounds so much like what you said before it’s crazy. I’d kind of forgotten about it somehow. Too many women around here who don’t really know what they want I guess, they’ve been letting me tell them.”
A train pulled into the station, and Zach looked at his phone.
“I’ve got to go, or I’m going to miss the last train west.” He grinned at her. “See you in a few days?”
“What happened with Heather?” She was going to miss him.
“She fucked my socks off.” He blew her a kiss as he turned and swung the passenger door shut behind him and trotted off into the station.
It was far past time for Zach to start reviewing what was known about the topic of his research interest. Dad wouldn’t know about Em, but he thought maybe he’d know something about women in general. That was good old fashioned deductive reasoning. Start with some broad generalizations, and then see if they applied to the specific question at hand.
The weight of the biology book in his backpack felt like a connection to her. It made him happy to know that in a few days, once again, he’d be studying with Emily.
Chapter 11 Kali
Zach emailed Em on Tuesday morning.
Z: Dad wants me to hit Cali with him for a few days, so we might have to play catch-up with organic molecules when I get back at the end of the week. Maybe we can do some more research on testosterone. He found an appropriate emoticon; cute, but not too girly or naughty.
E: WHO THE FUCK IS KALI, ONE OF YOUR FATHER’S BIMBOS? AND OF COURSE YOU WANT TO EXPLORE TESTOSTERONE, YOU’RE A FUCKING MAN! I’LL JUST BE HERE RUNNING FROM ONE CLASS TO THE NEXT, WRITING LIKE A MANIAC, STUDYING MY ASS OFF, DOING THE FUCKING DISHES IN THE BIOLOGY LAB, SIX THOUSAND FUCKING DIRTY BEAKERS AND FLASKS, TEN FUCKING PAGES OF NOTES ON PROTEINS AND NUCLEIC ACIDS AND EXAMS COMING UP NEXT WEEK AND YOU’LL BE OFF WITH YOUR FATHER FUCKING KALI! FINE. WHATEVER! She went with skull and crossbones.
Z: California? The state? Cali? He’s thinking about moving there, leaving the city, wanted to get my opinion, of the area and maybe my next step-mother. He’s met a woman from Marin. How you doing? Just a smiley face this time.
E: HOW AM I DOING? JUST FOR THE PRIVILEGE OF HAVING MY GONADS UP INSIDE MY BODY AND THIS FUCKING PIT FOR INCUBATION OF BABIES THAT YOU AND YOUR KIND ALL WANT TO POKE AT SO YOU CAN DELIVER YOUR IMPORTANT FUCKING DNA CARRYING SPERM, I’VE GOT TO WALK AROUND WHILE THE INSIDES OF THAT PIT RIP THEMSELVES APART AND COME OOZING OUT THAT TUNNEL OF LOVE YOU SO WANT TO EXPLORE! AND IT HURTS! IT’S LIKE THE WORSE SHIT CRAMP YOU’VE EVER HAD IN YOUR LIFE FOR TWO OR THREE FUCKING DAYS, ALONG WITH ANYTHING FROM A DELUGE TO DRIBBLE OF BLOOD, SOMETIMES BIG CLOTTED MASSES OF IT, FUCKING TISSUE LEVEL SHIT! THAT’S HOW I’M DOING. She decided on the rage face instead of the tears.
Z: Ah, your moon time.
E: MOON TIME?! MOON TIME?! WHAT KIND OF FUCKING RIDICULOUS PSEUDO SCIENTIFIC FEMINIST CLAPTRAP IS THAT? DO YOU WANT TO PUT FORTH THE HYPOTHESIS THAT THE HORMONAL CYCLES OF THE HUMAN FEMALE ARE TIED TO A FUCKING HUNK OF DEAD ROCK STUCK IN THE EARTH’S ORBIT? SURE, WE SYNCHRONIZE, WHAT THE FUCK HAS THAT GOT TO DO WITH THE MOON?
Z: There really could be some sound basis for a connection between gravitational pull in a given area and physiological responses. The woman of the tribe I stayed with for a little while in Amazonia seemed to think so. And if you get on the pill, it’s not so bad. Or at least that’s what the girls tell me. A winkie.
E: THE PILL? THE FUCKING PILL? SO I DELUDE MY BODY INTO THINKING ITS PREGNANT AND PUT MY PRECIOUS PUSSY AND THE PIT AND MY DISPOSITION INTO SOME STATE MORE SUITABLE TO YOUR FUCKING NEEDS? WHAT ABOUT MY NEEDS? I’D NO MORE POISON MY BODY WITH THAT SHIT THAT I’D POISON IT WITH FUCKING ORTHOPHOSPHATES! WERE THE FUCKING AMAZONS YOU WERE FUCKING ALL ON THE FUCKING PILL?????
Z: Orthophosphates? WTF, it was pretty clear there was no point in trying to communicate right then, and he sure wasn’t going to get into a discussion of her needs. He couldn’t imagine that figuring out what turned her on was as simple as asking, even if that had been her approach with him.
E: THEY’RE FUCKING PESTICIDES! DON’T YOU KNOW ANYTHING???? WTF, she went with the weepy emoticon, she was sobbing by that point.
Z: Probably not very much. Is there anything I can do to make you feel better? Frowney face.
E: Probably not. But thanks for asking. I have to go to class now. Bye. XO.
Zach got out the Biology book. He wanted to be ready for study with Emily when he got back from Cali.
Chapter 12 Genes and Bloody Proteins
Em emailed Zach on Wednesday.
E: Just read back through our conversation yesterday. Oops, sorry, I was feeling a little off. A tongue sticking out and rolled eyes, an oopsey emoticon. That was the first time I’ve ever had to go through that all by myself, or at least with only you there for a little while during the pre part of it to get my hormones all messed up. The during part is the real drag, worse than the pre usually. Back at the commune we were all in sync and we could sit around together and bitch about it.
Z: The sacred red tent? And it’s okay, I’ve experienced worse. You’ve got nothing on my Mom, you should have seen her during menopause.That’s when I took off for South America for a while, she was pretty fucking dangerous.
E: Red tent? Not hardly. Those indigenous women have it good, we have stuff to do. Of course the barn is red, and we can generally work it so we’re not doing anything too difficult for part of the month. It’s not like the men aren’t capable of most of the stuff we do. We all do everything, or at least whatever we can do. It varies, that’s the magic of it.
Z: So do the men, have it good in those indigenous cultures I mean. Remind me to tell you about it some day. How was the proteins lecture? I really got into reading the chapter on the flight out west. I see why your professor says they’re so important! And the shape thing, do you see what I meant about the shape thing? The dimensionality of the molecules and their structure and reactivity? It’s like your tongue in my mouth. What’s really funny is that when I got to the part about enzymes and lock in key vs. induced fit, I totally got to thinking about my dad and his new friend Joan. He’d told me that there’s no such thing as the perfect fit between a man and a woman, there’s always a little change involved, give and take on the part of both. But the thing is, like, the enzyme doesn’t really change at its core at all, it just kind of shape shifts a bit to make the reaction happen. And something new is made. Enzymes can be like love. And it’s even kind of a yin and yang; sometimes subunits are brought together to build something big and complex, and sometimes big, complex things are broken down. And sometimes things are just kind of temporary, sometimes way more permanent.
E: Yup.And even more cool, everything is recycled, all the stuff, and every single interaction involves energy transfer. And it’s true in a cell and its true of the earth, because the amount of stuff on earth never really changes, not all that much. It just moves around. Same thing in a body really, except when you’re growing up and putting on mass. The difference between you and the earth is that you’ve got to put stuff in and get rid of stuff to keep that body running, because that’s what your cells have to do and you’re a cellular thing. All the earth really needs is sunlight. Unless we kill it, or kill the alive part. I’m sorry, my mind is wandering away from proteins. The bloody proteins of my body and news of the day are making me cranky. Frowney face.
Z: Sorry. Frowney. But what really blew me away was the connection between proteins and genes. DNA always seemed like such a badass molecule, with all the attention it gets. All it is is fucking code! The proteins, the enzymes, they’re what seem to be writing the code, or at least modifying it and using it do all the work! The only thing that DNA does is carry instructions for how to build proteins, it just sits there. In my world, that makes proteins way more important than DNA!
E: I beg to differ. This is what you miss when you don’t go to class. She found a sticking out of the tongue and wiggly fingers, thumbs in ears emoticon. The P says never to forget the concept of systems, that everything is interconnected, always, at every scale. When I asked a question about which came first in evolution, the protein or the code for it, she says she figures that one day an RNA virus met up with some proteins and they decided to hook up and make replicates together. They set up housekeeping in a nice phospholipid shelter and the rest is history, you and me and the bacteria inhabiting the zit on my forehead. I have a giant fucking zit on my forehead. Frowney face.
Z: That sounds cool, but it just sounds like a story she made up. I can see all that happening spontaneously. Besides, where did the RNA virus come from? Didn’t we already agree that the bit about it not being alive was already kind of just a language thing? And enzymes are pretty big and complex, even if there were amino acids that were around in the ooze, it sure seems like the code for the enzymes would have to exist already for them to be built. And if they’re used to build all the stuff in cells, where did all the stuff to build the cells come from to make the first cell? It’s a little bit of a mind fuck.
E: There have been a few hypotheses put forth about the early earth and what it’s atmosphere was like and how things like methane and ammonia and other gnarly gases could have gone through reactions with water in the oceans and built lots of cool molecules spontaneously. It’s probably in about the middle of the book. Even god is a hypothesis, just not a testable one. Of course the P also mentioned that amino acids have been found on meteorites and that Francis Crick thinks DNA was seeded here from outer space, kind of like Star Trek says.
Z: Wow. Are you into Star Trek? I figured you probably didn’t even have a TV. I’m totally into Star Trek. Ever since I was like, ten, I wanted to be Picard when I grew up.
E: My Uncle Chuck is totally a Bruins fan, he has a TV. You and him will get along. But it seems to me that Picard never gets laid. Winkey.
Z: He does sometimes. Did you see that archeologist? And he could get laid whenever he wanted to, he’s just too cool. He’s got it all under control.
E. Control? A shocked emoticon
Z: He’s awesome.
E: You’ve got a man crush on him. A super hero Bromance. I like Data.
Z: Data? He’s a fucking machine!
E: And? He’s totally functional. And programmable. Winkey winkey winkey.
Z: Does that turn you on??? His turn for shocked face. He was getting into the emoticons, started thinking about them like gaming avatars.
E: Nah, I like Picard, too. I was yanking your chain. Smiley.
Z: Well I like Beverly and Troi and Vash and Ohura gave me my first boner and that really ditzy chick in engineering who was always messing up had really nice boobs. I would have done Troi’s mother, for sure. And the Scottish guy’s wife. Winkey.
E:Troi’s mother was like a hundred and three! Shocked.
Z: She was pretty hot. Grin with tongue out.
E: Testosterone. A lipid. Just like my estrogen. We’re supposed to be on proteins, not sex and lipids.
Z: I’m still thinking about my research question. Sex and lipids, that gives me a woody. Does it turn you on?
E: Oh, you’ve hit ten of ten a couple of times now since we’ve met, but not with thinking about lubrication. You just haven’t been paying attention.
Z: And I don’t suppose you’re going to tell me. Did I hit a ten today? I can’t pay attention very well from here. I’ve got a data sheet that has a whole bunch of facial expressions along with my impression of your turn on status on a scale of one to ten, and what led to those expressions. And stuff you told me, like the 8 for the shampoo. Do you Skype?
E: No.The eighty five year old matriarch at the commune forbids it. She has phone sex with her eighty year old boyfriend and says that if we ever get Skype he’ll figure out that she’s knitting socks and has him on speakerphone so her hands are free. I can’t get even think about interacting online beyond email without an image of that coming to mind. It’s one of the many reasons I don’t have a phone. I like in person. And yes, you hit a ten today. You have a transcript, that should be helpful for your data collection.
Z: I like in person, too. Why did you invite me into the shower when I’d been such a dick in terms of trying to win your heart? Why do you get sexual with me if you don’t want to have sex with me, if you don’t even know me?
E: Technically Z, I’ve never really touched you, other than taking your arm or giving you a kiss the other day. You’re the one that really gets all sexual about it. When I did that thing with whispering in your ear about the straw, I was just showing you that two could play at the flirtation game you’d been playing all along. When I invited you into the shower, I had two things in mind. First, I really needed a haircut, and I did’t want to spend twenty bucks on it. Second, I wanted to see you naked. Does it never cross your mind that girls might like to look at naked boys just as much as boys like to look at naked girls? There’s not much out there on the web for women. It all caters to gay men.Testosterone.
Z: You touched yourself, or at least your nipple. That was hot. I’m touching myself right now.
E: LOL. Have a good time. I’m off to class. See ya.
Zach put the book down on the desk, thought about a quick hop in the shower. Then he changed his mind and picked it back up. He could hardly wait for Friday, when he could get back to studying with Emily in person.
Chapter 13: Dreams
Zach’s IM on his phone dinged, indicating that he had gmail. Mr. Happy dinged in response. Everybody he knew, everybody with the exception of Em, texted. Even his parents texted. It was one o’clock in the morning and he had just gotten into bed after dinner and drinks with Dad and Joan. They’d played Scrabble and talked after dinner and she’d kicked his ass. She was good with words, he’d always beat his father pretty easily, and he’d been humbled. He liked her, and liked how Dad was with her. Enzymes and induced fit; loved had worked wonders on him, and probably her, too. She was a happy lady.
E: I just woke up from a dream and you were with Lwaxana Troi, she had on this kind of black wonder woman suit with the swirly silver boob armor and ink and piercings all over and spike heeled boots and a cat toy with feathers on the end, and she was tickling you with it and you couldn’t stop laughing and you were laughing so hard Mr. Happy wouldn’t stand up for her so she kept tickling you more and more and then me and the big tall guy who carries her suitcase starting getting together, and you went all nuts, asking me if I had no taste at all to be straddling that big goon and I said he had a nice smile and was really strong and cooked really well and always washed the dishes and best of all he didn’t say much but I was only yanking your chain but you didn’t know it and so then Mr. Happy got all worked up and then Lwaxana got all worked up and she threw you down and started straddling you and that kind of pissed me off since you hadn’t really invited her to throw you down and straddle you like that so I told the big guy what was his name? I told him to go pull her off of you and he did and so she turned around and threw him down and started fucking his brains out. You’re right, she’s a beast. I’m going back to sleep now. ‘night. XO
He didn’t even get a chance to respond, and Mr. Happy was all worked up. He sighed, rolled over, and fell fast asleep. They’d enjoyed quite a bit of good California red wine, and Mr. Happy’s heart wasn’t all that into it right then. Em was asleep.
Mr. Happy’s heart was beating. He was standing half mast at the loins of Zachary Richard, his childhood heroic self image. He’d heard the Zydeco guy one time down in New Orleans and made the connection with his middle name, Richard. Dick. He hated the name Dick, Zachary Richard was cool. When he was a kid, he imagined that he’d be a squeeze box player on his Enterprise, instead of the flute. He’d just made up a really good limerick to fool the Ferengi traders into taking Lwaxana in exchange for their cargo hold full of Zinfandel. They could be heard howling in submissive joy as she made each one her sex slave, both genders, it didn’t matter to her. The big guy kept pouring drinks and ringing his bell, every time Lwaxana got her bell rung by one of the Ferengi.
The Kardashians were attacking, Kim and Courtney’s faces were all done up like war-like reptilian enemies of the Federation, and they had on snake-skin thongs. Their butts had scales all over them, and little bitty prehensile tails were wiggling around, pointing at their butt cracks. Mr. Happy almost fainted, it was so creepy, but then Em showed up, and she had on Ohura’s little red dress and she was getting all sassy with Sulu over in the corner, and he on a little red dress, too, only he was an old gay man, and Spock and Data were working out, Spock looking all buff and hairy and badass with those pointy ears and that Pon Farr attitude and Data was lifting weights with his dick and whistling pop goes the weasel and Mr. Happy’s heart really got pumping and he looked over at Em who was kicking Sulu’s ass in an all out bitch fight and he starting yelling number one number one and he suddenly realized he really needed to pee and woke up.
He decided to step outside; it was so much easier than trying to hit the toilet with the angle he had to work with. Marin county was really nice and Woodacre a cool little town. He wondered how his dad would do with it after so many years in the city. Or if he would. Or if Joan would move. Of it they’d try to do long distance or part time here and part time there or what. There was definitely good chemistry between them, and something had brought them together. In cells, all those molecules bouncing around, they’d all end up coming together eventually he supposed. Enzymes just made it happen a whole lot faster, they fit with the substrates, brought them together. Sometimes took things apart. But with that recycling, it was all just part of a grand dance of interaction and energy transfer and change.
After what seemed like forever, he finished with returning nitrogen to the earth, that stuff that the plants had taken up so they could grow, and then provide food for something else, maybe even something kind of like Zach.
It’s all a great big system, he thought. Even as I’m pissing into the wind the molecules of piss which is just water and nitrogenous wastes are flying through molecules of air and there’s already water there and carbon dioxide and nitrogen gas and oxygen and maybe its reacting with something and really when you think about that water like the surface of a lake at some scale it’s probably impossible to tell where the water ends and the atmosphere begins because there’s water evaporating off the surface all the time.
He climbed back into bed, Mr. Happy curled up and ready to go to sleep. H dreamed of studying with Emily.
Chapter 14: Communication
Zach emailed Emily in the morning, giving her a recap of his dream in reply to hers before shutting down, packing up, and heading out to the car. He and his dad and Joan were going up the coast and inland a ways to look at some land that was for sale. The two of them were sinking their life savings into something called the Transition Movement, throwing in with a group to set a up a community of tiny houses around a commons for food production, social gatherings, creative cooperatives, and community decision making forums. It wasn’t a retirement thing, it was going to be open to people of all ages. The homeless and those on low fixed incomes would have first priority to build their own tiny homes. Since the investors were sinking everything they had into it, they all qualified. He had to admit, he was proud of the old man.
Thing was, his father wanted him to relocate to California to help him, at least with the initial stages of the project. Deep down, he was pretty sure the old man was hoping he’d fall in love with the left coast and maybe set up his own family there some day. Dad was a family man through and through, doting on his two daughters shamelessly. Zach barely knew his step sisters, but he knew they’d never leave New York. To them, there was no other place to be.
He’d grown tired of what he’d seen of the northeast and it’s elitism long ago, once he’d gone south. But Zach was a dreamer, and he dreamed of a better world, one where the Amazon was not under threat and where all people knew justice and had access to good food and clean water and a chance at happiness. Hell, nobody had those things really, not in this culture, not unless they paid to filter their water and buy organic foods and had the right color skin and gender identity and birth place and belief system. And of course he had all those things. It pissed him off. Testosterone.
After years of all out rebellion against both his parents’ worlds, his mother’s upper crust intellectual feminist extremism and his father’s competitive capitalist’s blindness to how much damage all that phony lucre does in the world, Zach found himself really softening to both of them. In many ways, that’s because they were softening themselves, softening to him and his radical worldview. Or maybe their relationships were changing. It was pretty clear he was no longer a child, he’d traveled solo to a foreign land and had been living on his own for years. He’d not accepted any help from either of his parents in a long time, beyond an occasional place to stay. He was a man. Testosterone, a sterol, a kind of lipid.
He flexed his biceps in the mirror. Proteins. I am an animal made of proteins, proteins that move, proteins that walk along other proteins inside of cells, proteins that bring all those organic macromolecules together, those catalysts of biochemical reactions, those disruptors of bonds, those facilitators of interaction, those totally cool molecules of structure and function and life. And all from just twenty different amino acids, in every kind of living thing on earth, twenty different amino acids get rearranged based on DNA code to make proteins. And the rest is the story of life.
Pretty cool. He headed out. He left his phone turned off; he knew he’d be unable to resist it and he wanted to give Dad and Joan and this project proposal his full attention. There were half a dozen or so others meeting them at the site.
When he got back to Joan’s place, he tossed his notebook down on the desk. He’d been using it to jot down ideas at the meeting. He was really excited about what he’d seen and heard, eager to share it with Em. He booted up and check his mail. She was there, just like he’d hoped she’d be. Almost.
E: Me and my first boyfriend Nathan and my second boyfriend Josh were all best friends from the time we were like three. Me and Nathan promised to get married when we were six, and Josh was going to be our best man, and the three of us were going to build a treehouse in the back yard and live there together, start the next phase of the commune. We didn’t really know anything about boy girl relationships other than the real obvious stuff that we saw, the physical differences and some differences in demeanor, and interesting interactions, especially among the grown ups.
It was always cool with the three of us. Me and Nathan had started making out and stuff, fooling around a little. I think we were thirteen or something. Then one day Nathan and Josh went fishing together and Josh caught a really nice salmon. Nathan really wanted to be the one to give it to Julie, a new woman there who had hooked up with his dad, wanted to show her what hot stuff he was. He thought he was pretty hot stuff, and she was pretty hot stuff. You know how it goes. Testosterone.
Josh had his own testosterone thing on going and told Nathan he’d trade him the fish for me. For my hand in marriage, or my other parts for hooking up. Me and Nathan had already talked about how silly that was, that vow at age six, but Josh didn’t know that and hadn’t forgotten about it. He’d apparently been thinking about it quite a bit. Nathan totally traded me for a fucking fish. I mean, he already knew we weren’t going to get married, and he really wasn’t all that interested in hooking up at that point, he wasn’t quite as mature as Josh. But that wasn’t the point. I didn’t find out until a few years later, and it hurt, it hurt me and Josh and him, all the betrayal, all three of us, just so he could show off for a woman. And then I hooked up with Josh just because I was so hurt and then him and Josh got into it and it was a mess.
How could you trade Lwaxana to the Ferengi? For wine? Dude? Frowney face X 3.
Class was really good today, we started talking about solutions and membranes and proteins and structure and function and movement and energy. It’s so cool, it all ties together. Communication is totally one of the big time functions of proteins, and really that’s all hormones like testosterone and estrogen and all of the protein based hormones are, they’re communications systems. And of course the cell membrane is all a big system, everything working together. We have our first exam next week, I totally need to review all this stuff this weekend. Maybe you can help me see how it all ties together, my brain is all messed up with memorizing the names of different kinds of columns for humanities and I have to go wash more dishes. You might be smart doing it the way you’re doing it, I don’t give a shit about what old architects called their columns.
Of course you’re not very smart if you trade women for wine, I don’t know if you can help me understand life or not. So when do you get back?
The XO at the end was conspicuously absent. She was clearly ticked off at him over a dream.
He sighed. And then thought about it. He would never have dared to tell his mother that dream, she’d have given him a feminist flogging of fury he’d never forget.
But she didn’t understand; Lwaxana had wanted to go, he couldn’t satisfy her because he was too busy laughing from Em’s dream and the feathers. He’d realized that his dad had probably run into some problems with the twins and started thinking about how nice it would be to have three other guys to clean out the gutters. Of course he still wasn’t sure how he felt about the rest of all that, he was still thinking about it. He’d tell her that. As if a woman like Lwaxana Troi couldn’t make decisions for herself about fucking the Ferengi. She was totally getting her bell rung, that’s what she’d wanted. She was in on the whole limerick thing, had helped him write it, her and Mr. Hahn both. That was the guy’s name. Zachary Richard didn’t want to ring Lwaxana’s bell, he wanted to go rescue Em from Sulu and take her away to the Holodeck for a nice mountainside fish dinner with beer. He started composing his reply. Fish dinner. Christ, he couldn’t wait ’til Friday when he could do some in person studying with Emily.
So, not only is it all the same thing, man, it’s also all the same day, man, which is from whence I got the thing version, lifting it from Janis and what she said on the train about midnight and whether or not it was tomorrow yet. Of course here on earth we have that rotation thing, but gosh, day in my world is night in someone else’s, so really, all that’s happening in terms of day is that the earth is still turning.
The Big Twang, not of strings, but of rubber bands, or maybe not even something elastic, but not linear, like string, but methinks elasticity is where its at, or plasticity, better yet, but all of them entangled with each other, these waves of what we call electromagnetism.
Or maybe they’re entwangled.
So the time thing, all the same day. If the cosmos is an infinite “mass” of non-linear vibrational energy, and matter simply the interaction of energy in a particular pattern, the one familiar to us, which is pretty much what science understands it to be, I’m pretty sure, well, THEN and NOW (which of course is gone NOW) is just the particular arrangement of vibrational energy of the waves based on the interactions that occurred THEN, just before NOW (but there is no now, just flow- Al. J.) so there you go.
But maybe that’s still too linear.
So, no, I didn’t do the in depth study of channeling (physics), because my mind wandered off just based on the little bit of reading I did do, and while it was out there in the trees enjoying the rain, it started thinking about quanta and light as wave and particle and my sense that the particulate bit is fallacy and all about measurement and interaction, but then I was thinking about quanta bouncing around in crystals in an organized fashion, and about them bouncing around in less structured media less predictably, and then of course as I thought of crystals I thought of prisms, and light, and rainbows, and the EM spectrum, and wavelength, and thought, huh.
So while photons aren’t the only kind of quanta, but really they are (I'm pretty sure), they’re the kind I learnt the most about back in the day, even had an honest to goodness photobiology class, like, forever ago, but one of the things about photons and the EM spectrum, that, um, phenomenon, I won’t call a thing, it’s got its is-ness and all, but that phenomenon that drives most of the other ones on earth of any importance to humanity, at the earthly scale anyway, well, just like everything else, it’s all about interaction, and the waves, and kinetics, and density of “matter”, and there’s really nothing particulate about it.
Not particular, particulate.
And the “it’s all the same thing, man”, that’s relevant, too, because it’s all wavy, some of it really high frequency wavy, some really low, like way low kinetic energy, not absolute zero, no, that would stop the show, but infinitely close to zero, like, calculus close, and not, well, infinitely high frequency, either, because somewhere in that spectrum, those regions that we cannot measure, the non-ends of those waves come together.
Unity is achieved.
The Big Twang.
Reductionist science is useful, but limited. That’s not how we typically state that fact; most often, we take exactly the same idea and apply it to models, those which we build based on reductionism in attempts to make predictions about complex systems. Sometimes those predictions are spot on, really accurate. Sometimes, they’re not.
The difficulty lies in complex systems themselves. We won’t get into scale and degree of complexity, not any more than we have to, because infinity throws a slight monkey wrench into the idea of complexity, at least to my thinking. But one of the characteristics of any complex system is that they all have emergent properties, unpredictable characteristics that are the result interactive effects of the component parts of the system.
Science understands how greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane trap the sun’s energy, warming the atmosphere.
Science understands how the tilt of the earth and its rotation on its axis and revolution around the sun influences energy balance at the surface. It knows about how other atmospheric and geophysical factors affect radiational loading.
Science understands energy balance, that the sun’s energy interacts with surfaces on the earth (and in the atmosphere, too, it’s interacting with greenhouse gases), and how that sets up large scale, like, global, patterns of atmospheric circulation. Atmosphere includes water; water is a vital component of energy balance.
Science understands the differences in energy balance of various surfaces, the sea, a forest, an asphalt parking lot, and how those differences influence smaller scale patterns of energy transfer.
Science understands oceanic currents, the drivers of those currents, the interactions occurring, the spin of the earth, temperature, salinity, the landforms present.
Science makes predictions about climate change based on all of this knowledge, and other knowledge, all of these little understandings about a very big and very complex system, planet earth.
Science mostly understands just how limited those predictions are.
Science knows that it hasn’t accounted for that specific, massive parking lot that replaced swampland there at Disney World. It knows that taking down forest in the tropics has a different effect than taking down forest in the Taiga, but that both influence climate in a way reduced to X in the models. Science knows that water in the atmosphere is a big deal, and that the way water moves into the atmosphere is influenced by climate, and landforms, and lifeforms. Science knows that all of those models telling us what the future will look like are best guesses, guesses based on limited data.
At least good science knows that.
Some science even recognizes the earth, or Gaia, as a living system in and of itself, one that responds to changes in ways unpredictable. Gaia knows the effect of that parking lot, it lives it, just as surely as you live the sting of the bee, and in some way, respond.
I don’t know what your response will be. I could make some predictions based on past experience, or what I know of bee stings, or perhaps of your personality, but the bottom line is, I just don’t know. Maybe you’ll be in an exceptionally good mood at the moment and smile; maybe you’ll have an anaphylactic response and die. I just don’t know.
It’s kind of the same with climate change.That it is changing is pretty clear.That greenhouse gases are likely drivers of that change is pretty clear. What it means for the year 2050, or 2100, or 2525, nobody knows. Nobody.
Reductionist science is useful, but limited.
It’s one of those ideas deeply embedded in evolutionary theory, or at least some versions of it, that random genetic change that happens to work in a given environment is what underlies the whole show, from the first coming together of organic molecules in the primordial soup to the elaborately beautiful bodies (beautiful because we randomly have evolved to find them beautiful, except for the ugly ones) of well camouflaged insects.
It is incredibly difficult to not suggest intent in evolution when teaching it. I’ve yet to ever watch any natural history program or even materials produced for education that don’t suggest it, over and over again, the reasoning for why a given species has a given trait, what it promotes, or what it defends against, the elegance of interaction between organism and environment, the near perfect fit between organism and ecological niche.
Evolution is not perfect. Perfection is a human construct.
This morning in discussion with a guy about, well, sentience, I suggested that all living organisms possess it, and yes, even plants and bacteria and fungi, all are aware, and self aware, and aware of environment, and all respond to environment, it’s a fundamental characteristic of life. They do it all biochemically, at least inside the body, much of the sensation of stimuli is of different electromagnetic character, but that maintenance of relatively stable conditions that all living things must use energy to do, that’s how we define life, it varies not all that much from organism to organism.
Certainly if we compare how you and I do it to how a pig does it, we will see much more similarity than if we compare ourselves to how a bacterium does it, but when it comes down to it, it’s not all that different. And if we compare how the human brain works to the communications networks present in soils, it’s not very different, not biochemically, not functionally, at all.
It’s all about sensing the environment and responding to it. Bacteria have been doing it for close to 4 billion years; they’re really good at it. Plants have been doing it for hundreds of millions. We’re just learning, relatively speaking.
But being the incredibly arrogant organisms we tend to be, we have decided that only we can make conscious decisions, only we can drive our own evolution (lots of folks hold that to be true, have invested lots of themselves in the idea), that all of life that came before us, all several billion years worth, were the hapless victims of chance.
That carnivorous plants such as the Venus Flytrap developed 1) highly modified leaves with 2) sensitive trichomes that detect insect presence so that 3) hormonal responses could trigger rapid movement of water that would 4) bring those modified leaves together and 5)trap the insects in 6) enzymes that would break down their bodies 7) and provide nutrients like N which are lacking in those 8) waterlogged and swampy soils is all a matter of random chance seems to me just so over the top ridiculous, well, perhaps I just don’t get statistics, or I haven't seen all of those transitional forms in between, and all of the enzymes, which mostly we just imagine must have existed based on the underlying assumptions we've made.
I suppose it could happen, I suppose someone has done the math, so perhaps the underlying assumption of complete random chance is true. It doesn’t change the sentience of the plant, at all, nor the reality of the biochemical workings of the soil, a living entity in itself. It does not change the fact of the Earth, or Gaia, as a living entity in itself.
As for the world of science, such a young world it is, one that fought tooth and nail against a religious establishment through much of its infancy, the degree to which it refuses to even consider ideas outside its own dogmatic way of viewing the world is sad, that it almost never questions some underlying assumptions, is tragic.
Mainstream science, like mainstream education, in our world today, is quite broken.
So one of my life goals, something I never much set before, but have, as a senior, what the heck, it’s really the most practical of times to set life goals, the time when there’s not all that much of it left, is to get some of my former colleagues in the world of science to look at some of the ideas that are out there, in the world, but not in there, in their world, that world of science.
And I’ve been successful a time or two, mostly through recommending books, those that were recommended to me, books that made me rethink a lot of biology, and evolution, and science, and spirituality, and all sorts of “paranormal” phenomena that I’d experienced but written off to, well, whatever it is we write things off to when we can’t explain them.
Stephen Buhner’s work, or at least that of his which I’ve read, is one bit that blew my mind, completely, and assuming I can trust the review I got from one friend who read it, it blew his, too. When I first read a question presented by someone who’d read it, specifically why botanists don’t recognize the neural networks that plants have, my typical response of “oh pulease” came to mind, and probably fingertips, not lips, it was online, but I likely said something to to effect that it’s because plants don’t have nerves, nor have they been engineered the way man made “neural networks” have, and even if one wanted to consider mycorrhizal networks, which I knew were used in communication, still, they weren’t nerves.
Not very bright, that response, particularly not after reading Buhner.
Truth be told, once I finished my mycorrhizal research, like, almost twenty years ago now, I never read another paper on mycorrhizae. I was busy learning about plant water use efficiency and environmental stress physiology, learning climatology, how to program high tech equipment to do what I wanted it to do, learning about urban ecosystems. Once I finished my dissertation work, I won’t say I never read another paper on those things, but I only read what I had to read to help students with what they might be doing.
Once I started teaching general biology and botany and ecology full time, I learned those things to a depth I’d never learned them before. It was what I needed to know at the time. I read countless papers, but they were papers picked by students, papers associated with reading and writing assignments I’d given students. I learned a lot about diverse topics, mostly animal biology and ecology, some medical, although those papers are often such a chore to read, the students rejected them quite quickly.
So I like to get feedback from other biologists about Buhner’s work. Ren, my friend who taught human physiology and microbiology to nursing students for years, loved it. Of course he did is master’s degree in theology, so his mind is open to much more than just biology. Those who’ve earned terminal degrees in the sciences often “learn” to close their minds to anything not “hard science”.
Thing is, the response I got from another friend, a Ph.D. biologist who teaches comparative mammalian physiology, and human physiology, before she even read Buhner, totally thrilled me. We were “discussing” that idea of below ground “neural networks”, not in plants, no, but in forests, in plant communities, and really, to call them plant communities is silly, because they are communities of plants, and fungi, and bacteria, and yes, even animals adding input, to a system of communication and feedback just as complex and integrated an functional as an animal brain.
What she said is that she’d read some of the work, and that “it makes perfect mechanistic sense”.
In science, really, there is no other kind of sense to make. And indeed, Buhner’s work makes perfect mechanistic sense. What it disturbs is not the mechanistic sensibilities of science, no. I think what it disturbs is science’s dogmatic, almost religious beliefs. My friend told me she’s not quite sure what to make of Buhner.
I wish all biologists would read his stuff.
Evolutionary Arms Races
It’s one of the standard topics in an ecology class, or an evolution class, or really, these days, even general biology. It’s an idea there on your favorite natural history program on TV, the idea that over the course of evolutionary history, predators and prey (which includes herbivores and plants) have developed characteristics to help them eat and/or not be eaten.
I recall the first time I saw something online that was expressing incredible shock at the idea that plants knew when they were being eaten, and I thought, well of course they do, how else would they know they need to produce those inducible defense mechanisms? Some plants only produce their defense mechanisms when an herbivore is present, and feeding, and to do that, they must sense that they are being eaten.
It’s not exactly the same type of sensation that we have, but then we often use human analogies to try and understand the way non-human species function, and really, it’s not unreasonable to do so. Comparative anatomy and physiology, particularly within the framework of physical adaptations to diverse environments, is foundational to understanding evolutionary biology.
Arms race is very much a human way of thinking, but again, it is useful.
What occurred to me the other day is that inserting a bacterial gene into a plant so that it can kill its potential herbivores, which we do with plants genetically modified to produce the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) toxin, disrupts that evolutionary arms race in ways unpredictable.
Giving corn and cotton the ability to kill caterpillars (and ergo butterflies), beetles and various other flying insects, nematodes, etc. is about like supplying the latest and greatest in military technology to one group, let’s say the Rohingya in Myanmar, and with it they can wipe out the Buddhists who are trying to wipe them out, and then all the rest of the Buddhists in the world, too, just because they can.
They’re armed for it.
The problem with that analogy, of course, is that I’m talking about the same species, humans, and we can wipe each other out all day and it won’t impact the earth’s ecosystems in a terribly bad way, at all, unless we kill lots of other stuff along with us. If, on the other hand, those Bt toxin producing plants are killing caterpillars, and beetles, and various flies and nematodes, so many target species, and non-target species, too, it might very well throw entire ecosystems into a cascade of local species extinctions, starting with the vertebrate species that feed on those target species.
Perhaps I'm being an optimist, but I think that the Rohingya likely would not kill all Buddhists, they are, after all, human beings, and they can make the choice not to. The corn and cotton armed with Bt toxin cannot decide they’ll spare their herbivores, they’re going to kill the vast majority of them, because they can.
Those they don’t kill will be those which are resistant to the toxin. New super pests, not directly genetically engineered by humans, but just as surely the result of our interference with nature as are antibiotic resistant bacteria, another lesson we’ve not yet learned.
So let’s plant Bt corn and Bt cotton (snark), thousands and thousand of hectares of them, let’s arm those poor plants against those pesky herbivorous insects, wipe them all out. Let’s wipe us all out.
That’s what arms races are most useful for.
Back when I was doing controlled experiments with plants, both in the greenhouse and that way big plot outside, but we’ll stick with the greenhouse, at least for now, my fellow researchers who worked with species not plants often expressed envy of the fact that I could use clones, genetically identical plants, for my research. The underlying assumption (then more than now, imagine that) was that some error might always be introduced in one’s data due to genetic differences in experimental units.