Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 12
13 September 1999

K A L E I D O S C O P E:
Fisheye Lens

Vaclav Pinkava

Water makes me meditate.

Like the fact that Evolutionists say we evolved from fish. Creationists don't like Evolutionists. Christians like to eat fish, and as a symbol of fellowship drive cars with a fish symbol on them. So Christians worship their ancestors enough to eat them, in a roundabout way.

Water is a funny thing. Unlike practically all substances, when it freezes it gets less dense, so the ice forms on the top of the pond, and keeps the rest from freezing. Water is densest at 4 degrees Celsius, which is the temperature at the bottom of a deep-enough pond in winter, so fish can survive. Thanks to water, there is life on this planet. Thanks to fish, there are humans.

Some people argue that only those creatures that can't compete successfully in an environment move out. We are the descendants of those who failed to be good fish, who went dry and lived. Fish keep silent, don't they, so we'll never know. For raucous opinions, visit the jungle.

If you want to meditate on your life, find a near-empty swimming pool, such as in a management training centre early in the morning. Now dive in. A shock. Like being born. Now swim, keep swimming, and keep count of the lengths.

With each length of the pool think about that number year of your life. You'll have to re-construct the first few, then recall the next X, then extrapolate and imagine the remainder. Don't stop until you must. Take it steady, don't rush. As you get tired, you'll start to sympathise with the tiredness of old age. You'll feel like getting out of the pool, eventually, or, the time will simply come to meet your other responsibilities of the day. When you get out, remember the number you got up to. You may just have predicted your lifespan. The first time I tried it I got to 84, before tiredness and boredom got the better of me.

Just recently I tried it again, and didn't even want to keep swimming to make it to my present age. I'll be 41 by Christmas.

An elephant's heart beats 30 times a minute. An elephant lives to 65 years. (Incidentally, an elephant is a good swimmer.) That's 1 billion heartbeats. The number of heartbeats in a lifespan is pretty constant in all mammals - except Man, where 1 billion heartbeats equals about 27 years of age. Other fundamental ratios work well too. For example an elephant's gestation period is 22 months, ours is nine. 65 is to 27 as 22 is to 9. On balance you could say we are "constructed" to scale, and if it were not for medical science, would expect to live to 27 - that's twenty-seven lengths of the pool. Try it, it's tiring enough.

Curiously most of us get our first grey hair after 27 years of age. Why do we go grey? In a gorilla population, the dominant male is called a silverback. That's just a romantic way of saying he's gone grey. Grey hair is what you get when you've been around, obviously. It's a sign of seniority, like antlers. Neither are good camouflage, they're handicaps, to show your strength and skill outpaces all the inconvenience. Pure white hair is unnatural in the sense that when you've been around that long, it makes it easier for predators to see you and mop you up.

My granddad had completely white hair, and then, toward the end, it started to grow pigmented again, here and there. He lived to be 94. He was born in 1900, and his life-experience matched this century. He'd seen it all from chasing after the first motorbike through his village, to Man on the Moon. He lived to see not only manpowered and solarpowered flight, but also the other kinds of human flight, like refugees, through two world wars, the rise and fall of communism, etc.

Toward the end of his life, he felt he'd seen it all before, people were not learning anything, just repeating the same mistakes. For him, life was a set of repeat episodes in a soap opera. Science was just the current sum of human ignorance. "This waking up in the morning ought not to be compulsory," he used to say.

In terms of a total philosophy, he felt that good and evil existed for the kind of reason that the poles of a magnet do. They are the motor, opposite charges find each other and annihilate each other, they are the energy source of the universe. One day, all positive and negative forces will have met, equalled out, faded away together, and then God will repolarise the magnets, wind up the springs, separate darkness from light, water from land, good from evil. And watch.

A great-aunt of my wife's turned 100 years old just a few days ago. That is an achievement, certainly. As we get closer to understanding the Human genome, this achievement may become more commonplace. There are tens of thousands of centenarians in the world, 80,000 in the USA. What we have now in terms of extra lifespan is the result of natural ageing, in the absence of disease, famine, accident. Even the way we start greying after our "natural" lifespan is the result of evolution, reproductive selection of more long lived specimens. Do you want to help the human race live longer? Try to have children as late as you can. If you leave it too late and your body can't manage it, your shortlived genes will make room for more longlived ones in the human genepool. That's why we go grey so late, on average. We've been selectively breeding for longevity.

The next step to longevity is to use medical science, to consider the process of ageing itself a disease and "cure" it. How much of the life we live is worth extending, and which part. A longer youth, certainly. A longer old age? No thanks. But is even eternal youthfulness really so desirable?

Having forever to do things is not much of an incentive to actually do them.

Cryogenics, freezing yourself, is no solution. Unless immortality gets invented by the time they unfreeze you, you'll only get thawed to age and die in a later era, instead of finishing your life in this one. It might be worse to become an immortal permanent exhibit in a zoo or museum of the future, don't you think?

By immortality I mean a halt to the natural death process - of course there would always be accidents, and assassination attempts. If immortality is ever invented, it will be on sale to the highest bidder. And the highest bidder will be the greatest criminal boss.

Stop trying to invent immortality, you crazy scientists out there. Death through old age or disease is a very good thing, when it comes to keeping down the bad guys, like Stalin.

Scientists are working on a workaround, cloning. I was quite amused when I read Dolly the clone sheep's cells are the same age as her twin sister/mother, and are 1/3 older than Dolly's chronological age.

This "worn-before-you're-born" feature of clone animals is a new twist, a poke in the eye from God, who still has a few tricks up His sleeve.

This brings me back full circle to my diving into my philosophical swimming pool and swimming my first length despite being really aged forty.

For me, the last ten real years is represented by lengths 30 to 40 through the swimming pool, and I have spent them largely back in the old country, Czecho.

Andrew Stroehlein recently wrote that the Czech situation is defined by the three Vaclavs - Klaus, Havel and the 10th century patron saint Vaclav, a Christian, which brings us back to fish.

The recent Senate by-elections have added another significant Vaclav. Vaclav Fischer, who though an independent and self-financed candidate won by a landslide, and seems, for now at least, to have turned the tide on backstabbing partisan politics. Water, and fish, and fishermen.

Water makes me meditate. A stream of thought in a swimming pool, looking up through a fisheye lens.

The time to get out of the pool is before your ideas are all dried up.

Vaclav Pinkava, 13 September 1999




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