An Ordinary Man

Or, Men 101

Month: January, 2014

Mr. Ikebana?

Liz pushed the vase away and studied the arrangement. Not too long ago, he would have said something smart like that she had put two blue ones next to each other and she would have flicked water at him.
He looked at the arrangement as well. “Um, you have two blue ones next to each other.”
“Since when did you become Mr. Ikebana?” she retorted.
“I’ll have you know I was once a Grand Master of ikebana.”
“I think you’re thinking of chess.”
“That, too.”

wikimedia commons

wikimedia commons

Ikebana (生け花?, “living flowers”) is actually pretty cool as well as fun to say. I can’t pretend to know anything about it. But Liz was almost certainly misusing the term because it has to do with far more than the color arrangement. Richard knew that, having been to an ikebana exhibit at the local museum but was happy to be teased, so he kept his mouth shut.

A Different View

“Richard was hard at work an hour later when his phone rang. He had decided to revisit the definition of species. Even Darwin hadn’t been certain if species were just “well-marked variations” and the definition of the word had always appeared to Richard as more assumed than understood. Traditionally, the establishment of a new species was represented as a branching of the tree of life; a relatively clean, and essentially irreversible, event. The branches were never depicted as reconverging, much less merging with a different branch. But why not? As long as there was reproductive compatibility, it should be theoretically possible.

In his mind, a species was sort of like how rain water backed up along the curb when it ran into an obstacle; rather than a separate tributary diverging from the main stream, it might send out a new stream on a new course, or it might just widen and backup against the obstacle before eventually breaking through it and continuing on its original path. The new stream might become a new species, but it might also peter out or even rejoin the original stream further down the hill, and the widening pool would just be increased variation in what the particular animal looked like for a period of time.”

from The Origin of Species, 1859

Charles Darwin included a single illustration (above) in his 1859 treatise, a rather simple diagram illustrating his principle that life diverges as it perseveres in the face of changing conditions, leading to the formation of new species over time. Darwin saw life as growing upwards and dividing like a tree while Richard saw it more as flowing downhill, like water. He wondered if the “tree of life” might not be more complicated, especially when looking at the formation of species within a genus. He was thinking in terms of this:

original to author - 2014

original to author – 2014

[N.B. the author sketched a version of this back in the early ’80s, while still a graduate student in biology in Woods Hole, MA. He had never seen anything similar to what he had in mind at the time.]


“He raised himself onto his elbow to look at her.  All the hills and valleys, textures and scents, cool dryness and warm wetness lay before him like an exotic landscape. The thin gold chain of the necklace she was wearing traced over the muscles and bones like the dotted path of a caravan on an old map of Saharan dunes but the rest remained uncharted and he sort of had to gather his courage like Speke must have as he left to find the headwaters of the Nile.  Such countryside never becomes second-nature.”

John Hanning Speke is credited by some with having discovered that the source of the Nile River was Lake Victoria in 1856.  The history is complicated because he was partnered with Richard Francis Burton, who became too sick with tropical fevers to make the last leg and thought Speke had reneged upon an agreement when Speke announced the discovery to the Royal Geographical Society in 1859, before Burton was able to return to England.  There was also controversy as to whether Speke had followed the river’s entire course, or just took an educated guess.  1859 was quite the year in England, as that was the same year Darwin published On the Origin of Species.  Poor Mr. Speke died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound while hunting in 1864; it was officially determined to have been accidental, but could, of course, have been intentional.

Kind Words

An Ordinary Man was written with the intention of helping women understand men, using the format of a novel to do so.  Elsewhere I have commented that its working title was Men 101.  Thus it comes as something of a surprise to me to have touched a chord with the guys:

“… it was very good and  a little closer to home in certain respects than I would have liked.  Your writing style is your best asset. You wrote about love, science, philosophy, law, conflict, sex, sentiment, morals and drama without ever changing your voice to become preachy, sappy, nerdy or whatever. So what stood is a unique story with memorable characters. … Since you have given the subject of marriage extensive thought, I wonder if we could compare notes a bit. As I alluded to above, Richard and I have some things in common, and a PhD is not one of them.”

“It’s a long time since I’ve enjoyed a book that much. It’s funny, catchy, touching, instructive, lively and thrilling up to the last word. The subject is controversial, as is the plot. It reminds us that there are two kinds of people that despite some apparent similarities act, feel and think in a complete different way. It should be mandatory reading for new adults and a guide for those who are stuck in a unsatifying relation.”

“You have poisoned my mind. 😉 I’m walking around today and the narrative in my head when I see a woman is that of Richard. Very unsettling.”

These reviews were sent directly to me and I invite anyone with questions or comments to hit me up at

B-Movies & Pulp Fiction

“The morning session went quickly with two speakers covering recent advances in sexual selection; one focusing on the behavior of deep jungle birds in New Guinea and the other reviewing the literature published over the last year. The exploits of intrepid naturalists in an increasingly hostile and suspicious world always made for some amusing tales and literature reviews helped immeasurably in determining if one had read and understood the right papers.”

New Guinea is the world’s second largest island and lies just south of the equator, north of Australia.  To this day it remains largely unspoiled and home to the wonderous Birds of Paradise.  It is, or was, also one of the last refuges of human cannibalism, one of the sources for those hoary old cartoons of explorers or missionaries in a cooking pot over a fire.  Its noteriety only increased when the wealthy, Harvard-educated grandson of John Rockefeller went missing there on an adventure in 1961, possibly having been eaten.  The man Charles Darwin shares credit with for the theory of evolution, Alfred Russel Wallace, spent years in that part of the world in the mid-19th century and wrote extensively of his amazing adventures.  Wallace is to evolutionary biology what Indiana Jones is to archeology, except Wallace was real.  The island is the perfect setting for B-movies and pulp fiction.

An Inspiration

    “What did I do?”

    “You brought in a child’s sand pail – yellow, if I remember right – full of sea shells, poured them out across your desk in the lecture hall, and started to talk about how different mollusks met the cost of building a shell. I had never thought of it that way; that any organism has to make a living just like a person; that they had spending constraints just like so many of us do, that if they do not earn a living, they die. It was the single most fascinating lecture I ever heard and it inspired me to seek a Ph.D. in ecological biology.”

Geerat J. Vermeij

Geerat J. Vermeij

Geerat Vermeij is a Dutch malacologist (shell biologist) who wrote A Natural History of Shells, a beautifully made and illustrated book that talks about the cost to the critter of building a structure to protect him, her, it.  He has collected and studied shells from all over the world and has learned to decipher clues as to its owner’s life history – when it was attacked by a crab, for example, and if it survived.  He is a MacArthur Foundation Fellow (“genius”) and writes in a very accessible manner.  This is one of my most treasured books.  And, although it doesn’t seem to have made a bit of difference, it should be mentioned that he’s been blind since a young age.

Spice Up Your Book Club!

Is Richard too interested in sex?

Is not having sex within a marriage as bad as having sex outside the marriage?

What about “mateness points” – how many points do you think you have versus how many does your guy think you have, and vice-versa?

Have you reached the Tipping Point one way or the other?

How do the love scenes stack up against Fifty Shades?

How sexy is money compared to love and desire?

An Ordinary Man, a veritable Men 101 guidebook, offers a lot to talk about.

And independent authors depend on word of mouth to sell books.

Plus the book is on sale until January 10, 2014 for just $4.99 at

Thank you!

Look Familiar, Soccer Moms?

“‘I suppose you’re right. He’s a good man. I guess I have to show him more gratitude for working late so often.’  At that moment, Katie came running off the field, crying. The Brownian movement of untrained eight-year olds pretending to be a soccer team resulted in the inevitable smashing together of knees. Mrs. Simmons gathered the injured child onto her lap, smoothed her hair back from tear-streaked cheeks and gave her a consoling kiss, all without hardly interrupting their conversation.  ‘I just wish he knew how hard I work as well.'”

“a random movement of microscopic particles suspended in liquids or gases resulting from the impact of molecules of the surrounding medium —called also Brownian movement”

– Merriam-Webster (

Robert Brown (1773 – 1858) was a Scottish botanist who noticed this phenomena, which eventually helped confirm that matter is made of atoms and molecules and has applications in the real world I know nothing about.  Still, I watched it once under a microscope and thought it was cool.  And it does look something like kids playing soccer.

“There is grandeur in this view of life ….”

“There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.”


the author's first copy of Darwin's Origin

the author’s first copy of Darwin’s Origin

Not my quote, but I wish it was.  This is the concluding paragraph of The Origin of Species and I have long considered it one of the finest paragraphs written anywhere.  It is a grand view; that life on Earth has persevered for eons as the planet makes innumerable trips around the sun and travels unimaginable distances in space, always refining itself to the present condition and creating endless varieties of beautiful and wonderful forms, but in any event, always persisting.  It is also a view not inherently at odds with that of a Creator, as Darwin himself, the right-wing’s would-be anti-Christ, acknowledges.

I bought my first copy of his great work almost a year after graduating with a bachelor’s in science, a cheap paperback version I underlined heavily, and it has guided my thought since then.  I wrote “April 1977” on the last page because it’s more important when you finish a book than when you start it.

Happy New Year