I spent the summer of 1982 wearing long johns and seeing my breath. During the break between school years at the University of Arizona, I decided to join the migration of itinerant hopefuls headed for summer jobs in Alaska. It was a long and circuitous pilgrimage. The first leg was a plane flight from Tucson to Seattle, where I rendezvoused with my traveling companion, Mary. There we boarded an Alaska Marine Highway ferry, the M/V Malaspina for the glorious three-day voyage up the Inside Passage, winding amongst coastal islands off British Columbia to Haines, AK. The landward mountains along the Passage shoot up nearly vertically from the sea. Between sightings of bald eagles, whales, and the ever-shifting weather, there was never a dull moment.
Aboard the ferry we befriended a man who was transporting a new SUV for a friend, and hitched a ride with him from the Haines terminal across Canada to Anchorage (camping out in snow along the way -- in late May). After a two-week hiatus in Anchorage (where the weather forecast goes something like "If you can't see the Chugach Mountains to the east, it's raining. If you can see them, its going to rain."), we returned to hitchhiking down the Kenai Peninsula to Homer, home of the Red Dog Saloon, thence once more by AMH ferry to Kodiak Island and the small seafaring town of Kodiak (shown below).
It seemed that a small army of other travelers had the same idea. Competition was fierce for jobs at the local canneries, as well as for jobs on the fishing boats and processing ships based at Kodiak. After two weeks of living in a tent at a nearby state park, drying out at the public library, and falling in love with that fiercely wild and beautiful land and seascape, I took matters into my own hands. Courtesy of a letter of introduction I'd obtained from a niece of one of the officials at All Alaskan Seafoods (and after a three-day trial period of working for the woman who was the company's radio dispatcher), two friends and I were selected to fill vacancies aboard the M/V All Alaskan. The dispatcher described us as "three skookum kinda guys," a high compliment in native vernacular.
A quick dash to Kodiak Airport, a quick flight by small plane to a rough airstrip at Chignik on the Alaska Peninsula (from whose tip extend the Aleutian Islands), then a wait for the ship's skiff to come pick us up from the gravel beach. The deckhand who piloted the skiff greeted us with "Welcome to the Blue Zoo." More fitting words were never spoken. Our summer's voyage had begun.
The All Alaskan was a processing ship, 300 feet in length, with three decks in the aft superstructure and three decks below, not counting the bilges.. Smaller fishing boats would offload whatever the season's catch might be, from king crab to herring to salmon, onto the ship. The ship's crew was divided into gangs with various specialties -- rapid gutting and beheading, packaging, flash freezing, and storage in the ship's massive freezer hold. Cases weighing 80 to 120 lb. were stacked according to species and the method of preparation, and distributed by weight to prevent the ship from listing to starboard or port, and eventually off-loaded into the holds of Japanese or Korean freighters. It was a high-speed, coordinated, and often extremely dangerous operation -- speed held sway over safety concerns. Crew members carried razor-sharp processing knives, negotiated narrow passageways or tilting decks made slippery by cold water and fish slime, and had to avoid contact with automated conveyor belts whose moving metal parts would grip loose clothing and guarantee injury. The metal stairways between decks, as on most ships, were steep and treacherous. Out on the main deck, in the wind and cold and (often) rain, one had to be careful to avoid falling overboard. Those northern waters were described not on a temperature scale, but a time scale. "Five minute water" meant that if you were in it, you would last five minutes before hypothermia and exhaustion would lead to drowning. I witnessed half a dozen serious injuries, two of which required helicopter or boat medevac to the mainland.
Work days were twelve hours on, twelve hours off, seven days a week. The grueling conditions often led to fatigue, loss of focus, frayed tempers. Fighting was strictly prohibited, with an automatic loss of job as the penalty. Most workers tried to maintain an even emotional keel and get along, but as with any cross-section of society, there were a few individuals who took a perverse pleasure in goading others, out of simple meanness. And a few others who were liked by all. And a few who performed acts of heroism to save someone else's life, at risk of their own.
We worked hard, and we slept hard. Because we burned so many calories, and built up muscle mass so quickly, it was standard to eat four large meals a day, just to keep going. Diversions were few -- a TV in the galley where one could watch the same taped movie ten times, reading, writing letters home, playing cards, standing out on the bow or the fantail watching seabirds, dolphins and the ever-changing ocean and sky. Alcohol and marijuana were easily obtained. Though both men and women served on the crew, shipboard romances were few, simply because there was zero privacy. So the levels of stress, fatigue, and hormones were all off the charts.
As a change of pace, one could volunteer for overtime (!!) by going aboard one of the Asian freighters to help with the transfer of cases of fish into their cargo hold. The language barrier meant that hand signs, facial expressions and tone of voice were all we had to go on, but generally it worked out. Those freighters were invariably cleaner, more freshly painted, and more professionally run than the All Alaskan. One could ascribe part of that difference to the messy work we did. But it was also a reflection of the corporate mindset, in my opinion, as well as a reflection of the personality of the skipper. Our ship's captain was an old salt with a gift for colorful hyperbole and a fondness for the bottle. Our initial training was spotty, and safety drills were non-existent during my stay on board. It was the crew foremen and the more experienced crew members who really kept the ship running.
During the two months I worked on the All Alaskan, we worked the waters all the way from Chignik, southwest through Umiak Pass, then back northeast to Bristol Bay. Thankfully, in addition to taking several rolls of photos (now in storage), I kept a journal. When I read a key word or phrase and it all comes flooding back -- the friendships, the wild working conditions, the songs that ran through my head, how often I was reduced to tears over missing my young son. Not to mention larger-scale incidents, like the time the ship was listing at a 30 degree angle from vertical and in danger of sinking, after the bow cable which was securing us to a freighter severed, while the stern cable remained attached. Both ships scissored away from each other, then crashed together again several times, impelled by the fast tide at the mouth of Kvichak Bay near Dillingham. Once both captains revved their engines, the ships stabilized, and repairs were made. Everyone's eyes were as big as dinnerplates -- except for the half-sauced captain, who said, "Hell, this ain't nothing, this is Hollywood stuff, nothing like being out in 100 foot waves," or some such tall tale.
At the end of salmon season, as the ship was about to head west for the Bering Sea, I was fortunate to meet a young Frenchman who was giving away his return airline ticket to .... Tucson. I could have stayed with half a dozen of my mates who were going to tour up to Mount Denali, but I decided that getting home was where my heart needed to be. On the flight from Kodiak to Anchorage, I looked down at the clouds below and saw my first and only glory -- a double full-circle rainbow with the plane's shadow precisely at its center. Homecoming to my sweetheart, and to my son, was bliss.
The urban myth in those years was that people spent a summer in Alaska and got rich. Not so, I'm afraid. I only cleared a few thousand dollars. But the experience .... priceless.
Note: this blog post was prodded into reality by coming across an online conversation thread about the mysterious fate of the M/V All Alaskan. It turns out that after my experience on board, the ship ran aground on St. Paul Island in 1987, and subsequently was destroyed by fire in 1994. She lived just shy of fifty years, and in spite of the travails of work on her decks, she'll always occupy a special place in my memory. When I served on board, she had none of the ugly rust streaks seen in the photo below. She was the Blue Zoo.
30 August 2010
In yesterday's post, I referred to the radical right's smear campaign against President Obama. Today, two of my favorite NYTimes columnists take up the theme, from different angles. Economist Paul Krugman takes on the emotionally-charged content of the conservative witch-hunt season, noting that moderate Republicans, who have the most to lost in the polarization of the electorate, are blindingly absent from the debate. No leaders, not even George W. Bush who urged Americans to a more tolerant attitude toward Muslims, has stepped forward to calm the stormy waters. What are they afraid of? The rapier wit of Sarah Palin?
Essayist Frank Rich examines the money trail behind the Tea Party movement. It is a fact that many Tea Party members are on the high side of affluence, with the vast majority being white, male and Republican. Rich reports that, behind the scenes, there are three billionaires bankrolling the Tea Party -- Rupert Murdoch, and brothers David and Charles Koch. How ironic that the rank and file among the Tea Party don't even realize that they are pawns in the broader financial and political power plays of three modern fat cats, whose goals are often at odds with the unsuspecting TPers being financed. Rich's article provides the gory (and richly ironic) details.
ZOOTIES. This is just too delightful not to share. I stumbled across motivational speaker Amanda Gore's video How to Let People Know You Love Them, and despite my initial cynicism, was enchanted. No mystical voodoo, no con job, just simple common-sense advice on lowering one's stress level, and improving relations with those we love. I dare you to try it out.
29 August 2010
IN DENIAL. Timothy Egan's NYTimes article Building a Nation of Know-Nothings expresses clearly, and with examples, the fatal flaws inherent in right-wing rhetoric, particularly the racist rhetoric directed at President Obama. Conservatives undermine their own credibility when, with ignorance bordering on stupidity, they continue to disingenuously (and hypocritically) claim that Obama is a Muslim, that he is a terrorist, that he may not even be a citizen. Do we not have enough real, critical issues with which to deal, without having to refute such baseless slander? Perpetuating ignorance by telling a lie repeatedly is nothing new -- Mussolini had it down, and proudly. For the record, here is documentation of the President's birth certificate.
THE X PRIZE. Like many, I was familiar with the X Prize as it relates to suborbital space flight, and to robotic land vehicles. I was surprised and pleased to discover that the foundation behind the prize supports technological development in many fields, with the stipulation that the development benefit humankind. Case in point -- the PBS News Hour recently devoted a segment to the R&D of an ultra light car which will travel 100 miles per gallon of fuel. The builders are still refining the vehicle, but they say that combining existing energy technology with aerodynamic design and the crash protection found in race cars can produce an affordable and safe revolutionary alternative which surpasses even the most fuel-efficient hybrid vehicles of today. Check out Judy Woodruff's interview with Oliver Kuttner to see what this vehcile looks like, and how it performs.
Lastly, a heart-stopping video showing a dog in Chile rescuing another dog which had been struck by freeway traffic. It would be anthropomorphic to call this act heroism -- but it would surely be interesting to know if the two dogs were related or lived in the same home, to understand this death-defying act of apparent altruism.
28 August 2010
On this day in 1955, a 15-year-old African-American boy named Emmett Till was murdered in Mississippi for flirting with a white woman.
On this day in 1963, I was about to start my junior year in high school.
Also on this day in 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, calling for racial equality and an end to discrimination. His eloquent and moving words were heard by a quarter million civil rights supporters who had participated in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom -- and by countless millions of others in the years since.
No description can do justice to Dr. King's integrity and passion. Here is a link to the full text of his address -- you can watch and listen to the full speech at the same link.
A footnote. What a shame that predatory provocateurs Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin are attempting on this day to co-opt the legacy of Dr. King, with a divisive, fear-mongering gathering of their own today at the same location where Dr. King inspired the minds and souls of so many. As Bob Herbert notes, the hatred and bigotry which the right wing foments are a hollow sham, a mockery of our nation's founding principles and a slap in the face of the peaceful good will which Dr. King sought to instill in all of us. Chris Matthews comments that if Dr. King were around for today's rally, his sentiments might well be "I Have a Nightmare."
27 August 2010
PLEASURE. At Rogue Neuron, Andrea Kuszewski's science blog, Part III in her series "The Science of Pleasure" is entitled The Neurological Orgasm. Kuszewski, a behavioral therapist, discusses the physiology and psychology of sexual pleasure, lending credence to the maxim that the brain is the body's most important sexual organ.
I recently had the pleasure of discovering another science blog, The Science Babe, this one written by phsyicist Debbie Berebichez. Never, never let it be said that looks and brains don't mix. Both of these women are highly articulate and informed in their fields.
All of which ties in with a book I've just started to read, How Pleasure Works -- The New Science of Why We Like What We Like, by psychologist Paul Bloom. Quoting from the book jacket -- "The thought of sex with a virgin is intensely arousing for many men. The average American spends more than four hours a day watching television. Abstract art can sell for millions of dollars. People slow their cars to look at gory accidents, and go to movies that make them cry ... Refuting the longstanding explanation of pleasure as a simple sensory response, Bloom shows us that pleasure is grounded in our beliefs about the deeper nature or essence of a given thing ... (He) draws upon child development, philosophy, neuroscience and behavioral economics in order to address pleasures noble and seamy, highbrow and lowbrow." And quoting from the author's preface -- "In the first chapter, I introduce the theory of essentialism and argue that it can help explain the mysterious pleasures of everyday life. The next six chapters explore different domains ... food and sex ... our attachments to certain everyday objects ... art and other performances ... the pleasures of the imagination ... [finally] some broader implications, and some speculations about the appeal of science and religion."
I'll add my own impressions after I've read the book in its entirety -- something I shall also do with the book Sex At Dawn -- The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality.
STATE OF THE ART. Today's NYTimes online featured two interesting tech articles. One, "Google shakes it up again," describes how the web-searching and web-based email innovator has introduced a new, free service to those who already have a Gmail account -- free phone calls to anyone in the US or Canada, from your computer. Check out the article for details, and for the possible consequences to over-priced cell phone companies.
The second article announces the latest version of Kindle, the popular e-book reader. I've read in separate critiques that Kindle is superior to its chief competitors, Nook and the iPad, in terms of readability, function and selection of books offered. Apparently the newest iteration of Kindle is even smaller, lighter and less expensive. I confess to prefering books to electronic readers -- reflected light off a page is easier on my eyes than projected light from a screen. Plus I just like the weight and feel of a hardcover book. But should my needs evolve to include an e-book reader, at this point Kindle would be my first choice.
Lastly, getting back to pleasure for a moment, take a peek at this charming video of a Labrador dog swimming with its regular playmate -- a dolphin. Cheers.
26 August 2010
HATE CRIME. Imagine the following dialogue in a New York City taxi:
~ Passenger -- "Are you a Muslim?"
~ Driver -- "Yes."
~ Passenger stabs driver in the throat, right and left forearm, right thumb and upper lip.
This is exactly what happened two days ago. The assailant has been charged with attempted murder as a hate crime, assault with a weapon as a hate crime, aggravated harrassment because of race or religion, and criminal possession of a weapon. The perp's excuse? He was drunk. So if he'd been sober, it would never have occurred to him to hate Muslims?
Hate crimes are nothing new, in this country or any other. They can be motivated by race, gender, religion, disability, gender orientation, age, class, ethnicity, nationality or political affiliation. What sets them apart is that the victim is perceived as belonging to a particular social group, and attacked on that basis alone. It is a despicable, mindless act.
So the question becomes, what if you came upon a small group of individuals savagely attacking another? Assume for the moment that you had no cell phone with which to call 911. What would you do?
WORKING AT HOME. I came across this hilarious collection of drawings called Why Working at Home Is Both Awesome and Horrible. It is one of a series of such themed collections at the website The Oatmeal. Take a few moments to lighten your day, eh?
BONUS. Gary Arndt has web-published a collection of slides and observations titled 20 Things I've Learned from Traveling Around the World for Three Years. Since 2007 Arndt has visited 70 countries before returning to the US, carrying nothing more than a backpack, his laptop and a camera. His visual images and observations are thoughtful, and make me want to set out on my own global journey. Enjoy.
25 August 2010
If conductor, composer, author, music lecturer and pianist Leonard Bernstein were still alive, today would be his 92nd birthday. It is impossible to believe that he passed from our midst twenty years ago. This vibrant, passionate virtuoso was a force of nature.
He became first conducted the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 1943, during a national radio broadcast, at the ripe young age of twenty-five, and went on to become the orchestra's music director, succeeding Bruno Walter. The 1950s marked his entry into television, in the Omnibus and Young People's Concerts on CBS. The latter program was my first systematic exposure to classical music, and I loved it. Bernstein had a gift for making complex ideas easily accessible to his listeners -- ideas which were illustrated by a live orchestra or by Bernstein himself at the piano. On PBS In the early 1970s, he hosted a historic six-part series on music history and theory as part of the Norton Lectures at Harvard University. The series was titled "The Unanswered Question", after the composition by Charles Ives. Bernstein took an interdisciplinary approach, drawing upon the work of Noam Chomsky to demonstrate the structural parallels between human language and human music (written symbology, vocabulary, grammar, syntax, conceptual content). I treasure my VHS copy of the lectures, and aspire to a DVD copy as well.
Interspersed with these endeavors were innumerable symphonic concerts, at home and abroad, as well as composing everything from West Side Story to Mass to Candide to On The Town. Bernstein was a musical omnivore, unafraid to incorporate elements of jazz into his orchestral writing, or elements of classical music into his compositions for Broadway musicals. His legacy is global and multi-generational.
So here's to a joyous, prodigious musical talent. Happy Birthday, Lenny.
24 August 2010
GENDER ROLE REVERSAL. What started out as an appreciation of good guys at the blog The Angry Black Woman, morphed into a lively discussion of gender, dress and the demeaning treatment of women by men, especially on the street. It is well worth checking out.
One device for shedding light on the assumptions of both sides whan talking about something controversial, is to switch roles and see what happens. With regard to men's treatment of women, that is precisely what Laurie Penney does in her essay What if the World Were Different for a Day? She turns all our gender assumptions on their heads by applying to men the social and behavioral expectations which many women endure. Her description is graphic, layered, and quite exceptional.
PLANETS. It was two years ago today that the International Astronomical Union formally announced a revised definition of the term "planet." For a celestial body to qualify, it must:
~ Be in orbit around a star (in our case, the Sun).
~ Have sufficient mass to assume hydrostatic equilibrium (a nearly round shape).
~ Have cleared the neighborhood around its orbit.
To the surprise of some, the new definition meant that Pluto (or any other body which met only two of the three criteria) was reduced from planetary status to being a dwarf planet. Yes, boys and girls, we all grew up being told that our solar system has nine planets -- but it only has eight. Can you name them, in order from the Sun outward? Can you place the asteroid belt, the Kuiper Belt, the Oort Cloud? Do you know the distance from the Earth to the Sun? The Earth to our moon? Do you know what an Astronomical Unit is? A light year? It's a fascinating and sometimes dangerous place, our universe. The more you know, the more you want to know. How delicious. (Click on any image to enlarge.)
23 August 2010
A MAN OF HONOR. The reference is actually to two men -- Anderson Cooper, who publicly apologized on behalf of the media during an interview with the father of Pat Tillman (photo below); and to Tillman himself, a pro football player who left his career to enlist in the Army Rangers after the 9/11 attacks -- and who, in Afghanistan, was killed at close range by friendly fire. His enlistment had been shamelessly hyped by the military and by the Bush administration, and the circumstances of his death were just as shamelessly covered up, lied about, and romanticized by the military and by the Bush administration.
Tillman's life, the events surrounding and following his death, and the history of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, are all scrupulously documented in Jon Krakauer's book Where Men Win Glory (click on the link, then scroll down for book reviews). Bottom line, Tillman's death was the culmination of a series of stupid, amateurish military decisions, and may indeed have been premeditated murder, given Tillman's increasing opposition to the Afghanistan War. Only the determined persistence of Tillman's family, over the course of several years, brought out the truth of military and governmental complicity and cover-up, reaching to the highest levels of command. Yet (as was the case with the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam), after numerous token internal investigations, only one person was made the scapegoat for the entire chain of command -- mid-level commander Lt. General Philip Kensinger, Jr., was found guilty of lying under oath and falsifying documents. Everyone else, including unit and field commanders, General Stanley McChrystal (recently disgraced and relieved of command over other issues), former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and former President George W. Bush has gotten off scot-free.
Why dredge up old news now, you ask? Because there is no statute of limitations on justice, or on truth. It is incumbent upon us all to inform ourselves, and to hold accountable those who are culpable in unnecessary, immoral or illegal acts. Pat Tillman wasn't some spoiled golden boy. He was intelligent, well-read, and possessed a strict moral code which opposed the glamorization of an unjust war. His death was at best the result of tragic incompetence, at worst the result of assassination.
Jon Krakauer and Anderson Cooper (photo below) understand that. Integrity still lives. See the "interview" link above to learn more.
RACISM. No specific rant today, just a link to a list of provocative and informative resources on issues of race and class, courtesy of The Angry Black Woman blog (which hosts some of the most impassioned and intelligent conversation threads I've ever seen).
CLOCK. I collect inventive cursors and clocks online. Here is one that a Tucson friend sent -- a monumentally informative global clock which provides information on population, death, illness, the environment, energy, US crimes, good, and much more. You can adjust the clock to your local time, and you can also adjust the statistics to reflect annual, monthly, weekly, or daily calculations. A primo resource.
22 August 2010
In more ways than one. Regarding the ongoing hysteria over Park51 (formerly Cordoba House, and referred to perjoratively as the Ground Zero Mosque), NYTimes columnist Maureen Dowd takes a step back to look at the behavior of people Going Mad in Herds -- all because certain right wing opportunists have found a way to provoke fear for their own profit. On the same topic, Anne Barnard describes the emotional journey of Feisal Abdul Rauf, the peaceful Muslim Imam who first envisioned the community center in lower Manhattan. Food for thought.
On a very different note, check out this link to a user-friendly population graph. If you uncheck the "U.S." box, then check the state of your choice, you'll be shown the change in population in that state over the past thirty years, as well as the current number of residents. If you go further and check another state (or two, or ten), you can compare population trends between those states (lines are color-coded). The graph will adjust the visual scale to accomodate states with large and small populations. Perhaps because I've lived in or visited every state but four, this is a fun exercise.
Lastly, here's a brief video showing kids playing with giant bubbles on a sunny day at the beach -- kids of all ages, I might add. (Click on any image to enlarge.)
21 August 2010
EXTREMISM. Continuing the fractured, sometimes demented, and occasionally inspired discussion of the so-called Ground Zero Mosque (see "There is no Ground Zero mosque" commentary by Keith Olbermann) -- comedian Jon Stewart introduces a number of glaring inconsistencies in the reasoning of the Muslim center's opponents, including a brilliant counter-argument modeled after statements by Charlton Heston, who used adherence to the US Constitution as his rationale for passionately inisisting on holding the NRA's national convention in Denver, near the site of the Columbine massacre. Sauce for the goose, sauce for the gander.
I find it disturbing that savage anti-Muslim rhetoric is spreading across the country -- rhetoric which distorts Islam beyond recognition. I question not only the motives but also the intelligence of Anyone who insists that "all (insert name of group) are (insert derogatory descriptor)." Sweeping generalizations like "all Muslims are terrorists," or "all Mexicans are lazy," or "all blacks are shiftless," or "all Jews are greedy," or "all women are bitches," or "all men are pigs," only reflect the lazy, irresponsible and bigoted thinking of the speaker.
The rising tide of Muslim-bashing in this country reminds me of the anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany, the genocidal thinking among Croats and Serbs in the former Yugoslavia, or the simple-minded racism directed against Asians in this country during World War II. It is a discredit to our humanity, and a betrayal of the founding principles of this democratic republic, to indulge in such ugliness. I'm thankful that a few well-known individuals like Olbermann and Stewart are not afraid to take a stand against paranoia and ignorance. With a little less mindless venom, and a little more compassionate tolerance, the world's real problems would be much more easily solved.
TAPE ART. You might want to place a hand beneath your jaw, so that it doesn't hit the floor when you scroll through these creative and original depictions of famous people using an unusual medium. You'll see what I mean. Enjoy.
META-SCIENCE. Well, more like meta-websites which direct the user to an array of blogs and news websites devoted to science. Here are two -- Science Blogging Aggregate and Alltop. Browsing through either is like being a kid in a candy store. Again, enjoy.
20 August 2010
VOYAGER. On this day in 1977, Voyager 2 (shown above), an unmanned interplanetary space probe, was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida. It is the first and only spacecraft to complete the Planetary Grand Tour, and 33 years later after leaving the solar system on a path to the stars, is still operational.
The Voyager program and the antecedant Pioneer program have been successful beyond the designers' wildest dreams, sending back floods of data on the solar system's planets, moons, and smaller orbital bodies. This space enthusiast hopes the time will return when we once more make manned space missions a national priority.
MASLOW. Most survivors of Psych 101 will recall the Hierarchy of Needs posited by Abraham Maslow (see schema above, click to enlarge). He proposed that humans seek to have the lower levels of needs met before proceeding to higher levels, which is intuitively sound. A new study suggests that Maslow's hierarchy should be revised to feature mating and producing offspring at the top of the pyramid (see schema below). I have serious reservations about this. I think Maslow had it right. Any person of average intellect and ambition can mate and breed, and probably feel content. That doesn't even approach the higher self-development found in Maslow's model. But here is the revision proposal with readers' comments, see what you think.
LSD. Got your attention? Two recent studies "reveal that hallucinogens are good for your mental health" by "boosting signaling between neurons in the brain," and facilitating the growth of synaptic growth. Back in the 1970s, when recreational hallucinogens were inexpensive and pure, I experimented with a number of substances, including marijuana, hashish, LSD, psilocybin, peyote, jimson root, and speed. My experiences were overwhelmingly positive. I learned to sense and interpret the world -- visually, aurally and cognitively -- in details and nuances which had been unavailable to me before. I've never experienced acid flashbacks (an urban myth, for the most part), and I ingested in moderation -- infrequently and always in a safe and comforting setting.
I suspect that moderation is key, as is the case with any mind-altering substance (alcohol, caffeine, pain relievers). It is likely that someone who drops acid frequently would fry their brain, just as surely as someone who drinks alcohol frequently pickles their liver and brain. Just as a glass of red wine is good for your heart, apparently a hit of acid can actually be good for your brain. However, I no longer trust the quality of hallucinogens -- too many sellers lace their product with strychnine, baby powder or other contaminants. Probably the safest alternative is medical marijuana, which is bred and grown under controlled conditions by knowledgable horticulturalists.
19 August 2010
TRANSCENDENT SPEECH. It isn't often that a speech or commentary is so direct, so succinct, so eloquent that it deserves to be preserved for posterity. Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, John F. Kennedy's Inaugural Address, Martin Luther King, Jr's I Have A Dream speech, all spring to mind. Yesterday I discovered a potential addition to the pantheon of great American rhetoric -- televised remarks by MSNBC's Keith Olbermann in response to growing verbal attacks on the proposed Muslim community center in south Manhattan, several blocks from Ground Zero (attacks which are spreading virulently to other cities).
I have commented several times on the fundamental issues underlying this discussion -- tolerance for diversity and freedom of religion. Mr. Olbermann does so much more eloquently and persuasively. I invite you to watch and listen to his remarks, entitled There Is No Ground Zero Mosque. If you are as struck as I was by the force of his thoughts, you can access an online transcript here (scroll down and click on the "transcript" tab). As blogger "The Angry Black Woman" notes, "Bottom line, this community center everyone is trying to get you up in arms about is: A) not a mosque, and B) not at ground zero."
Further, Cordoba House (the proposed Muslim community center) is so far from the former World Trade Center site, with so many buildings in between, that neither location is visible from the other location. Here is how a "viciously anti-Muslim blogger, the New York Post and the right-wing media machine" turned a non-event into sensationalized xenophobia -- not unlike the rabid and sweeping bigotry aimed at American citizens of Asian and German descent during World War II.
Anyone who buys into such hate-mongering should be ashamed of him/herself. Think about it -- we send troops overseas to fight unjustifiable wars under the disingenuous banner of "spreading freedom", while simultaneously seeking to deny that same freedom to our own citizens? That's not only irrational, it is criminal.
SEX AND STRESS. Oh, but it's a good kind of stress. I'm gradually discovering more blog and website resources online that are grounded in science, rather than in speculation. One such website is Wired Science, and a recent post both made me both laugh and think. Check out "Sex is stressful, but good for you" and you'll see what I mean. A similarly fascinating and scientifically rigorous blog is Andrea Kuszewski's The Rogue Neuron. Kuszewski is a behavioral therapist, and recently posted a series on The Science of Pleasure, Part One: The Allure of Asymmetry and Part Two: Your Brain on Sexual Imagery. Highly recommended reading.
18 August 2010
On this day in 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment to the US Constitution was enacted, prohibiting federal and state governments from denying any citizen the right to vote based on that person's gender. It remains amazing to me that for 144 years of our nation's history, women were denied that fundamental right. Only for the past 90 years, and only after decades of protests and public education by the women's sufferage movement (the first wave of feminism), were women allowed into the polling booth.
I became involved in women's issues (as I did in environmental and civil rights issues) long before it was fashionable to do so. I recall buying the first issue of Ms. magazine in January 1972 -- it featured a woman in military uniform on the cover. Under the informed and visionary guidance of Gloria Steinem, Ms. provided a national forum for the second wave of the feminist movement, helping to legitimize women's issues across the populace. Although labels tend to be constricting and sometimes misleading, I still consider myself to be a feminist/humanist.
My views were given dimension, substance and focus during my university years -- for a time I minored in Womens Studies at the University of Arizona. It was an enlightening time on two levels. First, I was exposed to the thoughts and writings of women in literature, in history, in philosophy and in politics, providing a new window onto the world. Second, as a male among mostly female students in WS classes (the ratio was rarely greater than one man per ten women students), I experienced firsthand what it is like to be a social minority. My presence was variously welcomed, tolerated, or resented by my peers, but welcomed without exception by my instructors. Talk about walking a mile in the other person's mocassins.
Today, feminism is in a surreal state -- the movement seems to have become unfocused, and is even regarded with suspicion by otherwise savvy and insightful women and men. For those under the age of 30, feminism appears to be irrelevant to their lives, an anachronism -- never mind that the determination, creativity and courage of those in both waves of feminism laid the foundations for the rights which so many women now take for granted. That's a pity, because women's status remains far from equal to that of men. On average women still earn between 60 and 70 percent of what men earn for the same work. Huge double standards still exist regarding behavior, dress, and choice of career between the two genders. For example, where a man might be regarded as assertive, a women is seen as pushy or aggressive. Women remain a tiny minority among members of the US Senate and House of Representatives, among top CEOs, and among the higher levels of the military officer corps. We've come a long way, and we have so very far to go.
With all that in mind, I pause to say Thank You to all the women (and men) who carry on the struggle for equality. For another perspective, here is a conversation between NYTimes columnist Gail Collins and writer Stacy Schiff, aptly titled "Of Mama Grizzly Born?".
Note: in international law, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly, and is described as an international bill of rights for women. It carries the force of law in those nations which ratify it. The map below (click to enlarge) shows ratifying nations (green), signatory but not ratifying nations (yellow), and non-signatory nations (red). Isn't it remarkable that, as with international environmental accords, human rights accords, and nearly every other form of cooperation between countries, the US stands out as stubbornly isolationist (along with a few repressive dictatorships)? I'm just saying.
17 August 2010
Due to ongoing flooding from monsoon rains, one-fifth of the nation of Pakistan is under water. For perspective, that's an area approximately the size of Florida. With thousands of people dead (and more yet to be reported), hundreds of thousands of homes destroyed, and twenty million Pakistanis suffering or displaced, the refugee crisis exceeds that of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, and the 2010 Haiti earthquake combined.
The humanitarian catastrophe cannot be overstated. With so much land under water, and with intermittent stormy weather preventing aircraft from flying, global relief agencies can reach only a tiny fraction of those most in need of food, water, shelter, and medicine. Already virulent diseases are spreading, the result of malnutrition and tainted drinking water.
Further, Pakistan is politically, militarily and economically the most unstable country on earth. It is sandwiched between two enemy nations. To the east lies India, with whom Pakistan has been at war for decades. Considering that both nations possess nuclear weapons, this is a cultural and military flashpoint with no predictably safe outcome. To the west lies Afghanistan, an ally of India, and of course a nation occupied by the US military in its futile pursuit of terrorist forces under the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. US pressure has forced Taliban and Al-Qaeda leaders and fighters to seek sanctuary across the border in -- you guessed it -- Pakistan. The government is so corrupt that the Pakistan Intelligence Service not only assures safe haven and supplies to terrorists, but also provides them with valuable information on the disposition of US military units, while simultaneously receiving US economic and military assistance.
The religious, cultural and ethnic tapestry of the entire region is ancient, complex and frayed. Individual, tribal and regional grudges dating back centuries are never forgotten. With this as background, it is doubly significant that during the current flood crisis, the groups who have been most successful at providing relief to refugees have been Taliban insurgents. Relief from the West, in particular from the US, is viewed with suspicion by Pakistanis. We are seen as infidels and as opportunistic invaders. We may not like it, but that's the reality.
To learn more about the complex, unvarnished history of the region, and about the US presence there, I highly recommend the following books:
Where Men Win Glory by Jon Krakauer
Horse Soldiers by Doug Stanton
This natural disaster may do more to direct the course of regional politics and the Afghanistan War than any treaty or any military engagement. If the world isn't holding its breath, it should be. (Note: on the map above, areas in red, orange and yellow are those being flooded. Click image to enlarge.)
16 August 2010
WALL STREET LIBERALS. That is the term applied to moderate and conservative Democrats by Miles Mogulescu in his provocative article in the Huffington Post. His perception dovetails with my own, regarding the kid-glove approach taken by Congressional Democrats in general, and the Obama Administration in particular, when it comes to political, social and economic reform -- not to mention environmental activisim. Here is how Mogulescu lays out the evolution of the term "liberal" over the past half century --
"'Liberalism' is usually used to describe a progressive movement of the less privileged in society -- working and middle class people, minorities, etc. -- to use the power of government to create greater social and economic equality, provide a social safety net, and regulate the vagaries of the 'free' market which otherwise leads to cycles of boom and bust and the increasing concentration of economic and political power in a handful of 'too big to fail' corporations and their billionaire managers.
"But beginning in the 1960s some commentators began to identify a different strain of liberalism which they termed 'Corporate Liberalism.' It was (and remains) an effort by the most powerful corporate and financial interests in America to use the power of the state to rationalize the corporate economic system for its own benefit. Since then, this brand of corporate liberalism has overwhelmed progressive liberalism to become the dominant strain in the Washington-based Democratic Party, including Bill and Hillary Clinton, Robert Rubin, Larry Summers, Tim Geithner, Rahm Emanuel, Max Baucus, Chris Dodd, most of the Congressional Democratic leadership, and it increasingly appears Barack Obama himself. These are the people who will be responsible if the Democrats lose big in November."
The article goes on to explain why "Corporate Liberalism, or Wall Street Liberalism, despite claims of pragmatism, leads to both bad policy and bad political strategy." As an early Obama supporter, I remain hopeful that experience will encourage him to reclaim his populist roots. But it is a hope tempered by the hard reality that those who advise the President have so far failed to grasp the importance of deep and meaningful reform with sufficient force. The result has been a well-intentioned and principled President who has been too willing to over-compromise with the intransigent conservative obstructionists in the House and Senate. It is long past time to draw a line in the sand, to return to those progressive liberal ideals which guided him successfully to the White House in 2008. The President, along with Congress and the Supreme Court, work for us, not for Wall Street.
Speaking of fence-straddling, in the realm of foreign policy I recently watched Charlie Rose conduct a concise and illuminating interview with former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who took the President to task for being too opaque in his policy goals, particularly with regard to the failing war in Afghanistan and the ongoing Arab-Israeli crisis, as well as for being too reliant on input from his military advisors (a mistake common to Presidents in recent history). You can read a transcript of the interview with Armitage here (click on the transcript tab). Or if you wish to watch and listen to the interview, scroll to the top of the page and, opposite "What's on Charlie Rose", click on "8/09 Richard Armitage".
COAL. Yesterday on the CBS show 60 Minutes, Leslie Stahl appeared in a segment on a new form of toxic waste (not yet defined as such by the Federal government) -- coal ash. The US relies heavily on the combustion of coal for energy production, and it turns out that the by-products of coal usage can be as deadly and hard to dispose of as nuclear waste -- including concentrations of mercury, arsenic, lead and other toxic metals. Unlike the nuclear power industry, the coal industry is not nearly as regulated when it comes to waste disposal. Coal ash is compacted into landfills where the toxins seep into groundwater. It is also recycled as an ingredient in assorted consumer products. Check out the interview -- this affects all of us.
A NYTimes article offers a ray of hope -- in West Virginia, deep in the heart of coal mine country (click on the image above to enlarge), alternative energy supporters are pushing wind turbines as a clean and renewable alternative. Wind farms are sprouting up all over the wide-open American West. Along with other green energy sources like geothermal and solar power, wind power could supplement (and hopefully one day eliminate) our addiction to dirty, non-renewable and increasingly expensive energy sources like oil, coal, and nuclear power. Here's hoping.
Ending on a lighter note, Amy Alkon describes an ATM scam in France, which takes a salacious twist. Male readers, what would YOU do?