creative non fiction
I have diabetes and use a long acting repository insulin that slowly is released over about 24 hours. At night, if my blood sugar is very low I sweat and awake.* That can happen if I forget to eat at all after mid day because of mild gastroparesis; my slovenly slouch stomach just sits there silently doing-nothing. I don’t get hungry. see https://nwalmanac.wordpress.com/2016/07/28/a-90-hour-fast/
For the same reason, lazy stomach, I don’t like to eat much before lying down to sleep; a meal will stagnate acidly while waiting for attention like a supplicant at The Department of Motor Vehicles.
By contrast, mildly low levels during sleep can spin off splendiferous dreams. At night when my bed is toasty warm the little lake of repository insulin warms up too, and that heat causes a faster release of insulin. Last night I had such a dream based on the following real life situations:
My daughter, a well known free lance writer, has been waiting during several years for an eminent national U S newspaper to be granted a visa to send her to Cuba for an interview with their most popular TV personality; he has, in effect, become too big to fail; he gently but sharply lampoons the average Cuban’s encounters with the dictatorship.
Yet it is unlikely a visa will be granted for an interview in the near future because of the politics and economic circumstances of the two countries. The Cuban government fears calling more attention the embarrassingly popular TV show magnate. Our government– while grandly announcing an historic breakthrough in diplomatic relations, tourism and commerce– fears voters. Long after the hoopla, no average citizen can visit freely, independently, economically, and legally.
The two governments have quietly collaborated on restrictions which give each what they want, but pitifully little to the average would be visitor who hopes to travel freely and communicate freely with average Cubanos. The restrictions and process remain obscure, but effectively make it impossible to visit except under conditions imposed by cooperating tour agencies and privileged Cuban groups that can profit nicely from the great interest in Cuba travel. It is as usual: profit and politics rule.
But last night was different. In a low sugar moment, L’s visa was approved. After a long and involved series of preparations too detailed to recall or understand, she left. Shortly afterward, a mysterious person called to ask me to remind her to look up Wheed Machey in Havana. At that point I awoke, recalling that I had not eaten much supper. Blood sugar 73; half a banana and a quarter of an apple took care of that nicely.
But what to do about Mr. Machey? Afraid to forget details as in most dreams, I wrote down his name and slept on it. Today I called L, but she didn’t know how to reach him, so I am posting, emailing and Face-booking this open letter, hoping it will be shared, and ultimately reach Wheed Machey H:
Muy estimado Sr. Machey,
Le saludo cordialmente. Lamento la nececidad de intentar conectarme con Ud. de esta manera tan extraordinaria. Creo que posiblemente somos parientes. Mis tatarabuelos vivian en Matanzas , pero no se nada de ellos. Por la situacion internacional creo que no voy nunca poder viajar a Matanzas antes que me muera. Con la esperanza que me pueda responder lo mas luego posible,
Juan Heriberto Huachuca Machey
*Long ago I used both insulin and two oral medications for diabetes; after 45 minutes sweating in a very hot sauna, which always delights me, I felt weak; thanks to the combination of oral medications and long acting insulin my blood sugar was 10! But since stopping all medication except insulin I have never had a similar problem.
My Kindle was lost somehow. Not thinking it stolen, but simply misplaced, I searched for a week. But found only that I was lost myself without it, and bought a Kindle Fire 7. It is a much superior edition than the old one, and with a wireless connection offers email, browsers, movies, on line series and much more. It has a decent battery and offers Amazon Prime movies and series. It uploaded all my old books, and I added a complete set of Harvard Classics as well as a complete set of Britannica Great Books…for $2.99 for each set. While I have both these 50 volume series in hard back, the kindle versions are portable and searchable. Instead of marking up the margins , flagging or dog-earing pages, I can highlight or save quotes.
The Harvard sets begin with John Woolman’s Journal. He was a Quaker who, after visiting Barbados (1671) became most known for his active opposition to slavery among his fellow Quakers. Woolman begins his journal with a short account of his youth, including an episode that is my own.
“I saw… a robin sitting on her nest, and as I came near she went off; but having young ones, she flew about…. I stood and threw stones at her, and one striking , her she fell down dead. …I ( became) seized with horror, at having in a sportive way, killed an innocent creature while she was careful for her young….. I climbed up the tree, took all the young birds, and killed them, supposing that better than to leave them to pine away an die so miserably.”
Why my own? In the way that itinerant children must adapt and integrate to survive, I always did so, as my father moved us each year to different mining towns. I had to focus on those little worlds, completely unaware of the rest. In Santo Domingo, Chihuahua, Mexico, when I was about ten, my friends and I used slingshots meticulously fashioned from a proper stick, an inner tube strip of rubber and a leather pouch. We shot at lizards with rare success, but always killed imagined enemy planes. It was during WWII, but so fresh was the painful loss of the northern third of Mexico to the USA, that; they were always Gringo planes. We shot at most anything alive, and at lifeless windows in an abandoned buildings. We rolled rocks into canyons, heedless of whatever was below. We shot at bats in limestone caves by the light of carbide miner’s lamps.
One morning walking to school I shot at a sparrow perched on a wire. It fell. A strawberry sized hemorrhage developed immediately aside it’s head . I can still see it quivering on the dry ground.
Yet I have never had a second thought about rational killing. When my grandmother asked me to ‘wring a hen” or take the .22 and shoot a dying old Tom cat I did so without qualm. The headless hen flapped around for a little, and soon became dinner. Old Tommie stopped suffering. Like the faithful border collies, cats were only farm instruments to help control varmints. They had names, but never were ‘family’, never in the farmhouse, ever. There was no wealthy Small Animal Vet, waiting in the wings, no Veterinary Small Animal Medical Drug and Devise cabal.
A couple of days ago I went to a friend’s cattle ranch, to watch their annual roundup of calves for branding, tagging, immunizing, worming, and dosing with antibiotics. The veterinary medical aspects of the roundup process are fascinating and most procedures familiar to physicians, including the thoughtless and dangerous industry driven excess use of drugs and antibiotics.
The procedures themselves are brutal to the innocent eye and ear: Frantic crying and bawling of frightened calves, roped, tied down. Burning hair and skin of the brand. Blood from ear markings and castration, the injection of vaccines. Adjacent, one hears the baleful angry calling of the calves’ mothers observing from a pen nearby. Frankly the castration reminds me of the way we once circumcised infant boys: restrain and proceed. But the mothers were not there.
Even so, a Round up is pageantry, and there is beautiful co dependent relationship between people, horses, and dogs. It seems surprising that small scale cattle ranching is so nearby, so extensive, so common, and so invisible. Many local horse /human skilled pairs at my friends small ranch roundup compete nationally; one is a current national champion, several are ranked or former champions in various aspects of their work and art. The cowboys, and girls, dressed up in their fine and fancy gear, working seamlessly with highly skilled horses, makes the word ‘awesome’ appropriate.
During the Fall or Spring, local ranchers go from one small ranch to another, in a spirit of camaraderie and community. Yet there is a subtle, subdued sense that they belong to a culture with no future; at least here where people seem to love to eat meat, but hate to see how it is made. California cattle ranchers seem to suspect that their way of life will be exported to some less chicken-hearted area; or be off shored. They fear of global warming may make us all heartless vegetarians, in a recent version, dating from at least as far back as 1962 when Rachael Carson , published her seminal work, Silent Spring. They expect there will be a CA ballot initiative soon called the Cattle Cruelty Act.
Even so, I regret the coming loss of cattle culture, despite the feeling it is rational and in many respects politically inevitable. Surely dressage, horse racing, polo and such will survive; but these are reserved for the wealthy and privileged, unlike the rough and raw culture of cattle ranching. How easily we are blinded by belief, by dogma. I’m reminded of of time I worked as physician on an expensive scientific expedition to Antarctica. It was on a refurbished icebreaker abandoned when the USSR collapsed. One day all 12 scientists and 20 pampered passengers watched Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth. We seemed to believe it all, while simulataeously burning more fossil fuel on that one trip, producing more global warming gas in that week than 400,000 methane producing cattle could in a year. There is a story about Alaska: A pilot crashed and survived by eating a Bald Eagle. When rescued by the Forrest Service, he was arrested for killing a protected bird. In court he plead no lo contendere, guilty, then was let off, considering the circumstances. But the judge was curious and asked what Bald Eagle tasted like. The accused thought a moment, scratched his chin and said
“Well, judge, somewhere between a California condor and a spotted owl.”
As to Woolman’s lifetime long efforts and essays. or addresses to Friends on slavery, and abolition, they are well worth reading, and re reading. I have a much better understanding and admiration of Quaker thinking, and their situation among Northern colonies. Of course I never will shoot at a sparrow again. The experience was painful, and the bird was dry, tough, and tasteless, without enough meat to keep a bird alive; I doubt Woolman’s robin was any better.
With the Dec 7 1941 attack of Pearl Harbor, my father immediately volunteered with the Naval Sea Bees hoping to build airfields, and bases. Yet he was a geologist and mining engineer at a large remote Cascade range copper mine in Holden Washington. Since copper was essential to the war effort he was rejected by the Navy, and quickly transferred to the Santo Domingo copper mine in the Municipality of Aquiles Serdán, Chihuahua, Mexico, to help develop it and other nearby copper mines. He was 33 and I was 9. We lived in those particular parallel worlds of father and son. I understood nothing of the Great War or mining, but everything a boy can know about the demanding and transient childhood culture of boys in remote little mining towns. He understood blasting hard rock a mile or more underground, and analyzing diamond drill cores to make 3D maps of mineral deposits. I understood one had to carry a stick to make it to school unscathed until he could transform himself into a local peer.
In that March and April of 1942 of the log, we lived about three hundred miles to the West, of where John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts, were in their own parallel world with a crew of three, aboard a boat on the Sea of Cortez. They were collecting littoral sea shore specimens at each low tide, and afterward sorting and preserving the specimens, and collaborating on a journal while joyfully consuming 2500 bottles of Corona beer. They knew not of the crush of day to day events of WWII, nor did their close Monterrey friends know of their days and nights on The Sea of Cortez… sea cucumbers, limpets, rays, swordfish, Gulf of California life forms including the local human inhabitants.
While my former Holden childhood friends shot down imagined Zeros, my new friends and I shot down Gringo warplanes. In the Cascades of Washington, WWII raged. In Chihuahua wounds from loss of the northern 1/3 of Mexico’s territory still wept. Each world was unaware of the other. That has generally been the way of humanity, at least until recent decades when people are progressively more heavily bombarded with the sounds and sights of suffering people in other contemporaneous worlds, thanks to technology. It remains to be seen if that assault of ugly information will lead to more mutual understanding, or will dull our sense of common humanity. So far the outcome is in great doubt, as if we are the generations of chaos suggested by Moisés Naím in The End of Power, another book review on this blog.
But The Log from the Sea of Cortez. ISBN978-0-14-019744-1 is the subject of this review. The cover names only John Steinbeck, and yet the content, and interplay of writing styles, clearly supports the two old friends claim that they both wrote it. They make that claim in a brief introduction as well as in the text; there is a rough map of the route; there is a Glossary of Terms- mostly devoted to taxonomy and ecology. But on first opening the book The Appendix drew my attention. It is a long eulogy to Ricketts written in Steinbeck’s, sharp, often moving and often humorous, unhurried rich prose on the life and death of his friend and co-author.
That long eulogy is in contrast to the many sections of the log with taxonomic names and descriptions, and pithy commentary about ecology, the nature of collecting specimens, the importance of life’s diverse forms; and life’s natural purpose – or better said- non purposeful, non teleological nature. There are many dense little essays on the ecology, the one-ness, of living and non living matter, and the interrelation of individual animals to the collection of all those individuals that make up and entirely different animal; there are crisp philosophical discussions on the nature and fate of life. The log is clearly a joint effort by two great writers who became one, in separate but contemporaneous world of the 1941 Sea of Cortez.
A brief introduction sets forth the authors’ vision: “We take a tiny colony of soft corals from a rock in a little water world… Fifty miles away the Japanese shrimp boats are dredging with overlapping scoops …destroying the ecological balance of the whole region. … Thousands of miles away the great bombs are falling and the stars are not moved thereby. None of it is important or all of it is.” But the following 221 pages of log entries make clear the authors believe that both are true: none and all.
The pages are encrusted with zoological terms, sticking like limpets to the pages. There is a glossary of terms —from Aboral ( upper surface of a starfish brittle star, sea urchin.), Amphipod, (paired legs of beach hoppers, sand fleas, shrimp-like crustaceans..), Atokous ( sexually immature forms of certain polychaet worms) … to zooid (individual members of a colony or compound organism having a more or less independent life of its own.
The Log is chronological. It begins by detailing the process of finding a suitable boat, The Western Flyer–a 70-some foot long well maintained and well built trawler; finding and getting aboard scientific equipment and supplies, six weeks food stores, and introducing the reader to the characters crew, including an outboard engine that has its own troublesome personality. It becomes immediately evident these writer/explorers are not simply adventurers, but a team of zoologist ecologist and gifted writer.
By March 11, at page 25, after a days-long raucous celebration and farewell, they cast off. The log speaks of writers classically educated in history and literature and science, in the mold of lovers of knowledge: Philosophers. The Captain, Tony, is a solid sailor, a careful hard bitten technician. Tex is the engine man whose very bones are parts of a diesel engine; Tiny and Sparky are old friends, ‘bad boys’ become bad men, rough sailors, whose perceptions and salacious comments are–to everyone’s delight– in sharp contrast with those of the toney writers. Page 18 begins a seven point/paragraph introduction to the remaining crew member, an outboard engine called The Sea Cow, who always promises to propel their skiff, but always refuses, or quits when it causes the greatest problem. They row. Except for the captain and Sea Cow they all share a great affiliation with 2500 bottles of Corona beer.
This log is informative, entertaining, and thought provoking. The fame of the authors makes it especially notable and relevant to those familiar with the Monterrey area and history. It is doubly enjoyable to me because in the same days and nights described in the log, I lived nearby in my own very different parallel world, one that is in another sense the same world. Goodreads offers many quotes and have note-booked many of Steinbeck’s beautiful portraits of people, seascapes, places, children, towns, officials, and natives; and many pithy Ricketts short essays on the nature of nature, of ecology, of relationships among living beings. But if one doesn’t read both Steinbeck and Ricketts in their log habitat, they seem to me lifeless as a diaphanous pellucid sea creature in a specimen jar, where color and motion and even structure are lost. To enjoy that one must simply… Jump into the Log!
A friend, who tends to be overweight, went on a Forty Day Fast recently saying that his dad had done that several times, and he himself had fasted for forty days once before. He explained that he continued all of his ordinary activities as an interpreter during his fast, without any difficulty whatsoever.
Maybe he felt so well, I thought, because normal activity makes more sense for the average mortal person than fasting alone in the wilderness like Jesus, which might awaken dreams and Devils. I had supervised students during a several week anti-Vietnam war fruit juice fast– like those of Caesar Chavez. Yet these were child’s play compared to my friend’s forty day fast.
Being in that magical age when one can be freely irresponsible, I was tempted to submit myself– as subject– in an uncontrolled experiment. But it needed a little thought. I decided on 90 hours because I wasn’t entirely convinced my friend was telling the whole story; and I don’t have enough fat to last long without feeding on my frightened proteins; or worse— a fatty little brain that might still be useful afterward.
I’m generally healthy, given the overburden of foolish years; my numbers and chemistries are ideal. (Whatever that means! Time suggests that today’s sacred truths are often tomorrow’s gross errors.) Yet I have type II diabetes, using only the medication that seems to me most rational and effective – lantus with a regular insulin pen for carb flings. My Hemoglobin A1c- , a reflection of average blood sugar during the prior 90 days, is usually between 5 and 6, not normal, but very satisfactory. I never have a very low blood sugar since I stopped all the oral diabetes treatment pills I had used earlier.
Looking over some of the literature on fasting quite superficially, it appeared to me there was some evidence intermittent fasting may be beneficial for humans. But well constructed human studies on longer fasts seem small, and over controlled to the point of –absurdity. Apparently they are not profitable, and worse, troublesome and costly.
Not so in mice i , where “prolonged periods of fasting – repeated cycles of 2-4 days with no food – over the course of 6 months, seemed to kill off older and damaged immune cells and generate new ones.” Longo and colleagues suggest that such “metabolic changes … as a result of prolonged fasting… for 3 days or longer–drinking only water …reset some components of (the) immune system... the drop in white cell levels trigger(s) a stem-cell based regeneration of new immune cells.” Interesting, especially if you are a mouse. Yet, if my friend could do long fasts why not I?
Day one began at noon on Monday and ended the next noon. I had cut the lantus (insulin) in half that morning and had a light lunch. The rest of the day was inconsequential.
Day two began at noon Tuesday: I had slept well, and had waked comfortably that morning, skipping insulin altogether, making breakfast of black coffee to avoid caffeine withdrawal headaches. I was building a fence and had to dig post holes that in the afternoon making sure to drink plenty of water. It was a hot day but the work felt easy, and I felt no hunger at all. The rest of the day I read and wrote, which is my usual thing. I ingested some TV and Netflix.
Day three began at noon Wednesday: Much the same. I stayed with my thrice weekly regimen: light upper body work, about 8500 ft-lb*, and 110 Calories on an elliptical trainer; enough to sweat and get the heart and lungs going. I was not hungry. Not at all. Back to my books to dig up an old copy of Don Quixote, which offered new meaning for me; the aged Don Q set off on his quest after reading too much, and causing his relatives to fret.
*80 lb x 11 per exercise x 6 exercises x 6 sets = 8640 ft lb; that sounds like a lot, but it only takes a boring half hour or so.
Day four began at noon Thursday: I cemented and set five fence posts, being animated and comfortable despite triple digit heat. My GI tract relaxed after it had produced faithfully til day 4. Where did that come from? I read a book just published by Milton, a Peruvian friend. By 10 PM on day three, my fast had already lasted 82 hours; the last 8 hours would be spent asleep. I am an easy sleeper, and that night, like the rest, slept well.
At the 90th hour: I wake. My only memory of the night is being instructed, a bit tersely, to turn over and stop snoring. Did I dream? I did, but don’t recall; if ever I do a long fast again I will make a note about dreams when I wake. I am still not hungry but restart the lantus dutifully; two hours later I breakfast on granola with milk and fruit. I wonder: Doesn’t that make my fast 92 hours? Maybe, but there doesn’t seem to be any difference between the old and new me, except the old one lost 9 lb. During the next 10 days, 7 lb returns. We took no insulin during the entire fast; our blood sugars were constantly between 80 and 100.
Comment: Is there any benefit to a several fast besides transient weight loss? I don’t see much. I don’t recommend it though my little adventure did get me back to Don Quixote for some new and different insights consistent with my age and condition. Frankly, my fast reminds me of what a much admired old friend, Skeet, said years ago when he reached an advanced stage of emphysema and stopped smoking; on the second day of withdrawal he was asked,
“Do you think you’ll live longer now?”
“( Cough, Cough Cough, Gasp) I don’t know. (Cough, cough) But I sure as hell hope not!”
I “Turn him to any cause of policy,
The Gordian Knot of it he will unloose,
She goes most any where she used to go,
with help and planning, going slow,
and can do most things she used to do
but very little that’s really new.
She blindly watches TV ‘breaking news‘,
where talking heads spew tired words and views;
yet walks with help at ninety three,
as lone and lonely as old age can be
who loses loved ones almost every day,
whose loyal foes have even gone away
to that mausoleum in the mind,
invisible, unknown and undefined.
The history she lived- redacted- gone,
her universal truths now considered wrong,
she’s wantonly outlived her life;
and none else recalls its joys or strife.
She searches neuronal tangled time
for some meaning in the paradigm
that she lives on here, on and on
after shared memory is long gone.
She vainly queries her past to find
Why loved ones leave, but leave her behind;
Asks aloud a question no one hears:
“Why do I live so far beyond my years?”
But her old cat curls and purrs, and then
that oral history student comes again
about an Occam’s Razor essay;
Or the Gordian Knot? – she cannot say.
The visit fills her shadowed room with light
like sunrise in the middle of the night;
The young know light’s speed’s so fast
it untangles the future from the past.
*The title refers to tangled neurofibrils sometimes seen in the brain in very advanced age. The poem is about a very old woman in a nursing or rest home affected, perhaps, by such tangles. Occam’s razor refers to a problem-solving principle attributed to William of Ockham (c. 1287–1347), It can be stated as Among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected. The Gordian Knot is a legend of Phrygian King Gordium . It is often used as a metaphor for solving an intractable problem (disentangling an “impossible” knot) by “cutting the Gordian knot”):
“Turn him to any cause of policy,
The Gordian Knot of it he will unloose,
She goes almost any where she used to go,
with help and careful planning, going slow.
And can do many things she used to do
but very little that is really new.
She always watches TV ‘breaking news‘,
where talking heads spew hired words and views.
Still astute and alert at one hundred three,
but lone and lonely as old age might be
that loses loved ones almost every day,
whose cherished enemies too, have gone away,
to a place imagined by the human mind,
invisible, that none can see or find.
The history she lived – redacted, gone;
her universal truths – now considered wrong.
She wantonly outlived her long gone life;
no one else remembers its joy or strife.
She searches through neuronal tangled time,
for some clear meaning in the paradyme
that requires she must live on – on and on
after the life she loved and lived is gone,
vainly unraveling tangles to find
Why they all go but leave her here behind
Why do we cling to life on earth, my dears?
Why must I live so far beyond my years?
But a cat curls and purrs at her side and then
that pesky 10thth grader comes in again
about the same Occam’s Razor* essay;
Or the Gordian Knot** – She cannot say;
Again he fills her shadowed room with light
like sunrise in the middle of the night;
he shares new aps and asks about her past,
and claims her newborn breath’s within her last.
* a problem-solving principle attributed to William of Ockham, (c. 1287–1347). The principle that can be interpreted as Among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions is most correct.
** Referring to Phrygian King Gordiam, often used as a metaphor for disentangling a knot by simply cutting it.