Signs from the Afterlife

What happens when we die? Do our loved ones communicate with us in the moments after death? Scientific evidence is growing that our brains and even our cells remain active after our hearts stop beating. Research recently published in The Canadian Journal of Neurological Sciences reported that delta wave bursts, the same kind of brain waves observed during sleep, were detected as long as 10 minutes after life support was turned off in a study of four terminally ill patients. Other scientific studies in 2016 showed over 1,000 human genes were active and their activity increased in days-old human cadavers.

My eighty-one-year-old mother passed away on March 20th at 4:30 a.m. I was asleep in her hospital room when the overhead lights flipped on and six nurses gathered around her bed. Her heart and lungs were failing and she was vomiting. The nurses rushed to clear her airway, but she was already gone. With a DNR order in place, there would be no resuscitation. I was mentally prepared for her death because she had been gravely ill for the past two weeks, but the timing still caught me off guard. Her health had been improving each day in the hospital. I had fed her a meal of broth and jello earlier that day. She had sat up on the side of her bed with the help of a physical therapist. She smiled at my dad and spoke a few words to both of us. I called my brother using Facetime and held up my phone so he could see Mom and say hello.

The first moments after her death overwhelmed me. I felt disorientated as I watched the nurses clean her body and disconnect the bi-pap machine that had been helping her breathe. After the nurses left the room, my mind raced. Should I hold her hand, should I pray, should I call my dad and my brother? I was in shock. I studied her face for a few minutes. She looked peaceful, but I felt like an intruder in a sacred space where her spirit was no doubt ascending into heaven. I walked out of her room to make the dreaded phone call to my dad and was met in the hallway by the attending physician on duty. He shook my hand and introduced himself as Dr. Mark Thompson. I was stunned. God is hilarious, I thought to myself. Thompson was my mother’s maiden name and my first cousin Mark Thompson lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I explained my surprised reaction and shared our family’s personal connection to his name. He chuckled and said he had met my mom a week earlier when she returned from a brief stay at a rehab center. He said they had joked about the Thompson name that night. Dr. Thompson sat with me on a bench at the end of the hallway while I called my dad, but there was no answer. The hospital called the police who woke up my nearly deaf father from his sleep a few minutes later. When my dad called back, I shared the bad news. He agreed that there was nothing to be gained by him driving to the hospital at 4:30 a.m. I visited with the doctor about the next steps and he wished me well as he walked away. I decided to post my mom’s passing on Facebook. I had been using social media to communicate about her health with family. I figured most people would see my post sometime later that morning when they checked their phones.

A nurse helped me gather my belongings from my mom’s hospital room. I stumbled to my car and drove to my parent’s house in a daze. I felt numb. My dad met me at the front door in a tearful embrace. My heart broke even more for his deep sorrow, and we held each other in grief. We sat down at the kitchen table and cried and talked for a while, and we both agreed that we were up for the day. At six a.m., I decided to run out for coffee and my phone rang. It was my brother Chris. I was surprised because I had not called him yet about my mom’s death. He said he had woken up from deep sleep around 4:30 a.m. and couldn’t fall back asleep. He walked out to his kitchen to make coffee, but the electricity to the island was not working. He felt compelled to look at his phone and saw my Facebook post. I listened to his eerie story in frozen silence. Had my mom reached out to my brother from the afterlife? I thought about a mother and child’s relationship, the physical connection of the umbilical cord for nine months, their shared DNA and blood. It seemed perfectly plausible that my brother would feel the severing of such an intimate connection.

The graveside service for my mom was held at the Mountain View Cemetery later that week. God provided a perfect spring day. The clear blues skies, singing birds and lush green wheat fields felt like a glimpse of heaven on earth. My mother’s sister Sandra had passed away in December of the previous year and her grave in the Thompson family plot was covered in rocky Oklahoma soil without a single sprout of grass. Her husband Gail spoke and said, “It’s interesting, Sandra passed away on the 20th at 4:30 a.m., too.” Another sign, another family connection. In a moment of levity, I turned to my mom’s younger brother, John Ed and said, “I hope you don’t have plans next month on the 20th.” We laughed and the joke lifted the sadness for a moment as we began telling stories about my mom’s life and what she had meant to us. Losing a parent is hard, but it gives me great peace to know that God and love connect us, even in the last minutes of life and death.

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Modern Miracles and Faith Renewal

“The Ten Commandments” is the sixth-highest-grossing film of all time in Canada and the U.S. with over 131,000,000 tickets sold. Charlton Heston was cast as Moses and some of the most memorable supernatural events in the Bible, including the plagues of Egypt, the burning bush and the parting of the Red Sea were portrayed in the film. Dr. Norman L. Geisler of Vertical Living Ministries has complied a chart of the nearly 300 individual supernatural events recorded in the Bible. Even people with limited Bible knowledge can describe these iconic events. Jesus turning water to wine, a white dove appearing at the end of the great flood, angels appearing to the shepherds. As a child, these were the bible stories that captured my imagination. If you believe that God is intentional, then these supernatural events were intentional and they are still meaningful for us today.

I attended a Christmas service a few years ago where the pastor began a sermon about the virgin birth by saying, “I don’t know if this story is real, but I believe that it is true.” Why are Christians so afraid to admit that we don’t know and we don’t understand God? Belief in God without full understanding is the foundation of faith. Why do we expect something as complex as God and the universe to be understood in our lifetime or ever? Our own arrogance is the greatest threat to our faith in the modern world. The earliest writings of the Bible were recorded over 3500 years ago. A common argument by nonbelievers is that these ancient writings have no meaning in the modern world. Scientists believe DNA first appeared over 4 billion years ago, but Watson and Crick did not discover it until 1953. The technology that has sprung from our understanding of DNA has changed our world. It has helped us understand and cure inherited diseases, allowed us to trace our ancestry, challenged racial prejudice, solved crimes, proved paternity and the list goes on and on. We cannot afford to abandon our pursuit of science any more than we can afford to abandon our desire to know God.

One of my own supernatural spiritual experiences centered on my long journey to have a healthy baby. Multiple miscarriages, including one that ended in a life-threatening hemorrhage, left me feeling terrified rather than joyful about each new pregnancy. In October of 2004, I had carried a baby for 40 weeks, but I could not longer feel him moving in my stomach and I felt incredible anxiety as my due date approached. I lifted up a prayer and asked God for a sign that this baby would be healthy. The next day, an unusual blue parakeet landed on our birdfeeder. I saw this as direct communication from God and felt at peace. The parakeet visited our feeder a few more times after the baby’s birth. My husband David and I introduced our beautiful blue-eyed newborn baby Alex to his guardian angel. Supernatural events are powerful because they are unexpected and visual signs from God. They require us to renew our belief in miracles and embrace God’s power working in our lives in real time. We don’t understand, but we believe and our lives are transformed by God’s love.

The Physics of the Fender Stratocaster

The Washington Post reported in June that annual electric guitar sales are down from 1.5 million to less than 1 million. Fender and Gibson, two of the largest manufacturers, are in debt. These numbers surprised me because I see the electric guitar as the cornerstone of rock music. Most fans could name a song with an iconic guitar riff in five or fewer notes (game show idea.) Some of my favorite songs with unforgettable riffs include Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way,” The White Stripes “Seven Nation Army,” Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love,” and Guns ‘n Roses “Sweet Child of Mine.” Guitar riffs are part of our musical memory, dopamine-inducing electrical signals stored in the auditory cortex of our brains.

If you live in Austin Texas and want to buy an electric guitar, you drive to the Guitar Center on Anderson Lane. I decided to buy a used electric guitar, but the selection overwhelmed me. Then I saw it, the black and white Fender Stratocaster. Is it a coincidence that four guys designed a guitar that looks like a woman’s body? The curves, the cutaway top and the black white yin yang symbolism spoke to me. My Fender Stratocaster is a Squier model mass-produced in a factory in Indonesia. The first time I held it, I was surprised by its weight compared to my acoustic guitar. The guitar body is solid and laminated with a thick lacquer finish. After a few months of lessons, the scientist in me wondered, how does it work? Two words: electromagnetic induction. Does the name Faraday ring a bell? Unless you are a scientist or studied physics at some point in your life, maybe not. Michael Faraday conducted an experiment in 1831 that linked electricity and magnetism. He noticed when he moved a magnet in and out of a coil of wire, it induced a voltage and a current was produced. Without Michael Faraday’s discovery, there would be no electric guitar. Maybe it’s time for a Faraday Fender Stratocaster.

So how does electromagnetic induction work in the electric guitar? When a guitarist picks the string, the vibration is sensed by the electric guitar pickup. A pickup consists of a magnet wrapped with several thousand turns of copper wire. The pickup converts the string’s vibration into an electric signal that flows into the amp and through a speaker to produce sound. Unfortunately, a single coil pickup can also amplify nuisance electrical signals that result in an annoying hum. Enter the humbucker pickup. Some words are their own definition. In 1934, Electro-Voice, a South Bend Indiana audio company discovered that if you place two pickup coils next to each other, wound in reverse, the nuisance electric signals are cancelled out which “bucks the hum.” Many Fender Stratocasters are outfitted with three single coil pickups, but my Squire Stratocaster has two single coil pickups and a hot bridge humbucker. What does it mean when a pickup is hot? Get your mind out of the gutter. The answer is more science. The stronger the signal that is sent to the amp, the higher the output of the pickup, which means the sound will be easier to distort and thus “hotter.”

I recently discovered that Fender sells a Tex Mex Stratocaster pickup. Makes perfect sense to me, eat a chicken Del Pueblo taco at Changos on Guadalupe and work on some sizzling guitar riffs. Fender also sells a Jimmie Vaughan Tex-Mex Stratocaster. I’ve been a good girl this year, Santa.

The Story Behind Paul McCartney’s Song: “Let It Be.”

Love this song and loved it even more when I heard the story behind it.

MattAndJojang's Blog

let-it-be

I was going through a really difficult time around the autumn of 1968. It was late in the Beatles’ career and we had begun making a new album, a follow-up to the “White Album.” As a group we were starting to have problems. I think I was sensing the Beatles were breaking up, so I was staying up late at night, drinking, doing drugs, clubbing, the way a lot of people were at the time. I was really living and playing hard.

The other guys were all living out in the country with their partners, but I was still a bachelor in London with my own house in St. John’s Wood. And that was kind of at the back of my mind also, that maybe it was about time I found someone, because it was before I got together with Linda.

So, I was exhausted! Some nights I’d go to…

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Can You Judge A Book By Its Cover?

I first heard the idiom “You Can’t Judge a Book by its Cover” as a second grade student at Southview Elementary School in Bartlesville Oklahoma. It was an important lesson in tolerance and kindness from one of my favorite teachers. The origin of the phrase dates back to 1944, where the phrase “You Can’t Judge a Book by its Binding” appeared in the African journal “American Speech.” The phrase became even more widespread after it appeared in the 1946 murder mystery, “Murder in the Glass Room.”

In the fall of 1988, I entered the University of Tulsa to begin my college education. I moved into the honors dorm and received an invite to a freshman social event. Except for my roommate Jill, I knew no one on campus and I was excited to make new friends. I stood in my closet and contemplated what to wear. Another famous idiom ran through my mind. You never get a second chance to make a first impression. I selected my favorite red dress and a pair of silver sparkly earrings. The freshman mixer was held in the student center lounge across from the cafeteria. I felt nervous but excited as I entered the room of strangers and settled into one of the oversized plush chairs scattered around the student lounge. A charming petite blonde named Amanda stood up and welcomed everyone. She handed out slips of paper and asked us to write down our names. The rules of the icebreaker game were simple. Draw a name and based on your first impression of the person, guess their college major. Amanda passed around a Tulsa baseball cap to collect the paper slips and then drew the first name. A tall muscular guy in the corner raised his hand and Amanda’s eyes lit up. “You better be on our football team,” she said with a smile. “Physical education?” she asked. Bingo. Freshman linebacker for the Tulsa Golden Hurricanes. After a few rounds of the game, a young man sitting on the floor at the edge of the room called out my name. I shyly raised my hand and briefly made eye contact with him. He was handsome with dark hair that almost covered his eyes. He studied me and seemed stumped. At least four seconds passed and then he blurted out “Las Vegas show girl.” A titter of awkward laughter rolled through the room and I felt my face turn bright red. Showgirl? You don’t need a college degree to work in Vegas. My mind raced. Half of my brain prepared an indignant reply and the other half braced for more embarrassment. I answered him in a quiet voice. “No, that’s not right,” I said. Duh. Another awkward pause followed and then he tried to justify his guess. “Well, you do have really long legs,” he added. Now he was blushing and everyone in the room laughed. Too mortified to even speak, I studied the floor intently. Amanda rescued me and tried to sound supportive. “What is your major?” she asked sweetly. “Chemistry,” I said. The room erupted in more boisterous laughter followed by a series of complaints and rants about chemistry from several people in the room. “Oh God, I hated chemistry, that class was so hard, it was the worst. Why would anyone major in chemistry?” I returned to my dorm room that night and prayed I would never see that cute boy again. I blamed the red dress. It turned his brain to mush, but in hindsight I was too hard on him. I do love fashion and I love to dance, so his first impression of me was not completely wrong. My friend Alan borrowed the infamous red dress a few years later to wear on Halloween and he made a fabulous drag queen. Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover but if you look inside, you are sure to find even more to love.

Undiscovered Grammy Gold

The 2017 Grammy Awards show was an affirmation of the healing power of music in spite of our current dark political climate. Dazzling performances by Beyonce, Adele, and Lady Gaga reminded us that female artists continue to energize and revolutionize the music world. A funky tribute to Prince by a purple robed Bruno Mars brought the celebrity crowd to their feet. The show was an inspiring celebration of the cultural diversity in music, but I knew there were many talented musicians who would not be recognized this year and may never be awarded Grammy gold.

I am lucky enough to live to Austin Texas where on any given night there are a hundred different bands playing in local clubs and bars. The annual Austin City Limits (ACL) Music Festival held in Zilker Park brings together over 100 musical groups. In 2012, I was thrilled to learn that the English Indie rock band Gomez would be part of the ACL lineup. Their 2006 album “How We Operate” was in regular rotation on my playlist. Gomez performed on a smaller stage at ACL and I was on my feet singing along with every song, but most people in the crowd were hearing their music for the first time. I love Gomez’s blues tinged rock and quirky lyrics, but the band has struggled to find radio stations that will play their unusual songs. How many musicians find their unique voice, only to be told that their music is not “radio friendly” and cannot be marketed to the masses?

Even highly successful musicians who explore a new musical path can find themselves on shaky ground with their record label. I recall an interview with John Mayer where he talked about the resistance he faced from record executives when he previewed the bluesy, soulful songs from his third album “Continuum.” They didn’t hear a hit. Of course the album sold over 300,000 copies in its first week and eventually won him a Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Album. If he had not been an established artist, could we have missed the song “Waiting on the World to Change?”

I discovered the alternative rock band Blue October’s music last year. When I listened to their brilliant seventh album “Sway,” I thought they must have won a Grammy, maybe two. Nope. This band has been creating groundbreaking music for over twenty years, but their songs are so diverse, they defy categorization in just one genre. How about a new Grammy category for diverse voices or previously unrecognized outstanding albums?

Digital music services like Spotify and Pandora are helping artists find a larger audience, but established musicians are probably the most powerful voice for new or alternative artists. If you are a musician with a blog or website, share the love for an unusual voice or a new band that might go unrecognized without your support. Music is for everyone and we need diverse voices. If you follow my blog, share your favorite album that should have won a Grammy on social media. We need quirky, inspiring, soulful music more than an ever while we’re waiting on the world to change.

Writing My First Book- A Long and Winding Road

On February 12, 2000, I curled up on my green leather couch with my morning Joe. Strong Starbucks House Blend, milk and sugar. I turned on the TV and my black lab Lexie, greeted me with a wet nose nuzzle, her silent request for petting. A sensational road rage case in California was the lead story on the Today Show. Sara McBurnett had rear-ended another motorist, Andrew Burnett, on the highway near the San Jose International Airport and he confronted her in a violent rage. He grabbed her 10-year-old bichon fries, Leo, out of her lap through the open window of her car and threw the dog into oncoming traffic, killing him. Burnett then fled the scene. It took police over a year to track him down and charge him with animal cruelty. I wondered what would cause someone to commit such a horrible act of violence against a harmless animal? How would the police catch the killer? A story about a rookie female CSI who would investigate a road-rage crime took shape in my mind. I imagined a killer with a secret obsession driving his rage.

I sat down at my computer and wrote the first scene of “Cadaverine.” I shared the chapter with a writer friend who politely told me that the violence should take place off the page and that I needed to start the scene with some action. I already felt lost in the writing process and I had only written six pages! I love forensic science and I knew my female protagonist was a crime scientist, so I began to research some of the forensic science techniques that would appear in my story: DNA analysis, latent prints, blood-pattern analysis. I wrote a few of the forensic science scenes, but I was busy raising two boys and writing was just a hobby and creative outlet for me. Years passed without writing another page, but the book kept calling to me. I wanted to write this story because I love reading mysteries and thrillers. I also like strong female characters and stories with a touch of humor and romance.

Three years ago, I committed more seriously to writing and my book began to take shape. My experiences working as a scientist in the pharmaceutical industry became another source of inspiration. What if my killer worked for a drug company and had access to a powerful anesthesia? My imagination bloomed and by the end of 2015, a lean first draft emerged and I shared it with beta readers. I used their feedback to improve my book, but I still needed more help. I decided to attend the Writer’s Digest annual conference in August of 2016 and participate in the pitch fest. I returned with so many great ideas on how to improve my writing, my head was spinning. Even pitching a book that wasn’t quite ready for publication was worthwhile. How do you summarize your story in one sentence? How long should an agent pitch be? How do you tell a total stranger about your book without sounding desperate or crazy? This topic is covered in my next nonfiction book, “Writing and Publishing Your First Book Without Losing Your Mind or Sense of Humor.” How do you write an effective query letter? Since attending writing the conference, I have written almost 7,000 more words, deleted entire scenes (painful) and continued to improve my book and query agents. I have read books about the writing craft, attended a local writing class on editing and joined a writing group. I set up a website and started a blog.

At the end of 2016, I learned that publication of a book is a different long and winding road. Querying feels like a never-ending job search where you send out countless resumes and wait. And wait. And wait and hope and pray for someone to fall in love with your story. The process is arduous, but as a published scientific writer, it makes sense to me. Peer review and editing of your work is lengthy and painful, but the end result is always better.

The man who threw Leo to his death in the California road rage story was charged with felony animal cruelty and sentenced to three years in prison. You will have to read “Cadaverine” to find out the ending of my story. I hope I will be able to share it with you soon.