Essays on América xenophilia

ACROSPEAK

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I have long treasured an original issue of The Mother Tongue by Lancelot Hogben. Lancelot, a Brit? Curiously, the author’s name is metaphoric for miscegenation, as is Bernardo O’Higgens, the revolutionary founder of Chile. In rather didactic fashion, Hogben makes the case for English as the most universally useful world language today.

 

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You know what that Acrospeak is; you too have suffered from it. Acrospeak is used by experts to inform those desiring to become informed;in Powerpoint slides and lectures to symposia attendees. Incredibly, Acrospeak, which is usually familiar to those already schooled in a subject,  confounds the uninformed who are hoping to learn. Is that stupid? Or What! While seekers of new knowledge puzzle over strings of CAPS which could represent– anything– the meaning is nowhere defined in hand-outs or powerpoint slides. As would be learners consider possibilities of obscure letters, the lecturer’s string of meaning becomes tangled.

Acrospeak could very easily be called acrodynia, acrolalia, acrothymia, acrodystrophy ; or any number of such invented but fairly understandable terms; terms we immediately recognize because they contain clues that come to us on the Indo-European language stream that flows through Sanscrit, Greek, Arabic, and Latinized European or Cyrilic languages. They are clues we don’t need to study, because they are embedded in our common languages, and especially in scientific language.

English, in particular, is a beautifully polyglot language. It is not only the most used language of science and business today, but one with roots in many other languages. Those of the Celts, Romans, Saxons, and Norman French conquerors were grafted onto English as it evolved over centuries. The result is modern English. On the one hand English spelling seems bizzare because it reflects the languages of all those who ruled the islands for centuries at a time; and the language of the conquerors themselves,  whose language also had been inseminated by other conquerors. Therefore anyone who learns to read and spell English well has completed an introductory course to an array of Indo-Europan languages; most prominntly are those of Europe, but also those of the Mideast, and West Asia. What, for example does Hamas suggest? Never, as in Spanish jamas, planted there over centuries by Arabic Moors. Cognates for the word mother are recognizable from Sanskrit on, and similar language strings are common.

I once was ship physician on a research vessel to the Antarctic Peninsula. It was an abandoned former USSR icebreaker refitted  in Finland. There were 17 scientists, not one from the same country, many from different continents. We all had to communicate in English

So here is my question to knowledgable and earnest people standing in front of colleagues who come to listen and learn: Why abandon centuries of language, and revert to CCP? Well, then, Clueless Cap Puzzles. And my plea: Do not abandon millenia of shared meaning that we all are at least  vaguely  familiar with. Do not tear out the common threads of language in favor of CCP. It may save space on slides, or breath for the lecturer. But that’s a poor tradeoff if the intent is to inform. And if you do abandon those clues of language, and revert to CCP, at least provide something on every slide to clarify, the acronyms,  or a ledger that can do so.

I made a careless comment long ago to my brother-in-law, a proper Massachusetts elitist, by declaring it is a waste of time to study dead languages like Latin; or, ( more offensive,) French. It was an attempt to wake him up for a moment; it did but he was as Outraged as if I spit on his mother. Now, considering the power of language that comes to us down to us through the millenia I realize he had a valid point. He is long gone from this life; but perhaps he can hear this somewhere above or below. “In the face of CCP, I apologize for that crude remark.”

Some acronyms are so common they are almost universally understood: like ASAP or USA;  or those a first grader learns on the street or from media– like this one which can also serve as a comment on Acrospeak: WTF! What’s That For? Well, No.

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From a Troubled Knee

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To a Surgicenter and KP:

          For listening

For hearing,

For lovingkindness

 And skillful doing:

         From the first step

off the gurney,

to the very last,

I’ll remember you,

        The skillful people,

whose attention

was gently lavished

on a troubled knee,

        That slept on attic floors

of Alta Peruvian Lodge

doing light work,

to ski free that Spring of ’53;

         Was injured in a fall

leather strapped to 7 foot boards

with strips of metal

screwed to the edges;

         And since those days

went many mountain miles,

but often effused complaints,

until it could  no more.

       How is it, Dr David,

that so many people become

a selfless, seamless whole

at a  Surgicenter,

       To give a stranger’s knee,

A second chance to ski,

lead pack llamas up trails,

bike, or walk the city,

         When the mother country

burns with uncivil strife,

enraged by opinions

not our very own?

        This old knee

doesn’t give away

it’s private opinions,

except only to say:

       From the first step

off the gurney,

to the last off the earth,

… Thank You.

A Return to Panamà and Pànama after Fifty Two Years:

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Panamà…  as we pronounce it would be Pànama… is a metaphoric  inversion expressed by  the different accents.  I first went there as an  intern in 1954-55,  not yet age 22, interested- vaguely- in tropical medicine but more concretely in adventure. Among my 8  colleagues,  half  were preparing for missionary work,  one for public health, one for psychiatry.   Before 1903, Panama was an  isolated part of Colombia, an oligarchy run by four or five families.  It was inaccessible  by land across the Darien.  The  current sometimes road, actually highway 5,  or the Pan American Highway,  is still  often  impassable.

A canal had long been considered to facilitate travel between the Atlantic and Pacific, which required a long sea voyage around Cape Horn or difficult overland  Balboa took across the isthmus of Panama.  A French venture acquired permission to build the canal under the direction of  Ferdinand deLesseps  ( Suez Canal,  desert, flat,  no locks). He wanted to cut a similar sea level swatch across Panama. 40,000 French (and French colonials)  died there due to that  miscalculation,  graft, malaria, yellow fever, poor nutrition and dysentery; it was abandoned.  But in 1903  the US  felt it could big crazy things. Teddy Roosevelt tried to arrange a canal treaty with Colombia and failed. But because of the isolation of the isthmus from Colombia the locals felt like colonists, and resented their voiceless circumstances and  distant and neglectful rulers, like the rebellious British Colonies  in North America.  They  found common cause with Teddy Roosevelt who wanted a canal, and revolted, assisted by U S  gunboat diplomacy.

 

The US Canal Zone  was about 10 miles across and some 50 miles long. Panama is Water, and water is the Power that could  operate the locks of a  canal.  A dam was required to store that water, and also control the swampland created by the ever flooding Chagas River; and thereby  to control mosquito borne diseases.  Incredibly the huge project was completed by 1914!  The original locks still operate unaltered, today.

 Overall, The US Army Corps of Engineers and Black Caribbean laborers really did the heavy lifting: John F. Wallace conceived the engineering of the canal but became a victim of the terrain, disease, and the political bureaucracy; he survived there for less than one year. John Stevens, a famous civil engineer,  took seriously the yellow fever/malaria problem. The largest earthen dam ever built controlled the Chagas River, and drained the swamps; which controlled the mosquitoes, malaria and Yellow Fever, and provided the gravity flow water power to operate the canal locks. Col. George Washington Goethels was finally  given unrestrained authority, and was able to complete the job over the next 7 years. William C Gorgas, a U S Army physician who understood the relation of malaria to mosquitoes, convinced the Army to drain the swamps, making it possible from a medical standpoint to build the canal. A second canal was started  but abandoned because of WWII;  now it has been completed, arguably  by China, who also had studied the  sea level alternative as across Nicaragua but abandoned it.

In 1954 the canal was still operated by the US civil Service.   There was segregation of several  sorts.  First, upper level administrators and U S military had the option to  live on base, with typical military housing and   commissary privileges with access to US goods and food.  Most privileged long term US citizen employees of the Canal Company lived in bungalows.  Second,  short term US citizen employees like MD  interns, lived in curious multi family wooden apartment buildings, each apartment located upstairs from a parking area below.    The apartment buildings were oriented with long sides facing the sea breezes.  They were two story wooden structures with space for parking underneath, and 12 ft high ceilings. There were no internal doors;  the  kitchen, dining and bedroom were in one  line so that that the sea breeze, could flow through open screens placed above 8 ft.  Each apartment had a bathroom off center and a  heat closet to keep clothing dry.  Construction was so light that people learned to speak quietly, even quarrel in harsh whispers. Sexual revelry was often audible, though as invisible as  the morning alarm clock,  flushing of toilets. Notice the 6 ft eves,  a traditional style there. In the city they offer much needed shelter for passersby on sidewalks but shoot waterfalls out onto cars in heavy rain.

When I was there in 1975 the buildings were scheduled to be torn down. But the location was ideal, and all the infrastructure already in place. They were acquired somehow and have been gentrified, rebuilt so nicely that the  old structures can hardly be seen. In the photo above, some of the screened breezeways persist. The open lower floor also is still there, but made into a living area, like a covered outdoor garden or patio.

The third level of segregation was provided to ‘local raters’ whose situation devolved from the building of the canal.   The US Army had recruited English speaking workers among blacks of the Caribbean.   Communication was more practical in English, and the work performance was superior to indigenous workers. ( Only the Spanish had managed to induce los indios  to work through a brutal choice made clear in a statue at a Mission in Baja CA: a priest holds a bible in one hand and a skull in the other. Believe or die. Work now to live, and die for the glory of God and the Catholic Queen. But the Caribbean blacks were different, perhaps in part because, though paid less than US citizens, and they had significant inducements:  Local raters’ were provided decent livable wages,  living quarters, medical care, and allowed to buy US imported  goods at a reduced rate from a local rate commissary.  In the long run, however local raters felt abandoned after September 7, 1977, when  President Jimmy Carter gave the Canal to Panama; a long standing local resentment of blacks with special privilege boiled over. Soon many ex local raters had nether  job, nor any apparent citizenship.    Yet there was, and is, a  Black American Atlantic Coast and black Carribean island archipelago; it may be largely invisible to most of us in the USA, though it consists of many black communities which are the source for much unique American and Brazilian   music, art, dance, custom, and language.  Therefore, the abandoned  black local raters of Panama, did not live in limbo; they have adapted or relocated. It’s instructive to kindle and google the many American Black authors, and the Quaker beginnings of the emancipation movement. The very first American revolution was black: Haiti. * Like most US citizens I  often focus only on the Northern Hemisphere.  We tend to forget that we are  all Americans: one continent, one hemisphere,  with a shared history, indigenous, immigrant past, and present.

We visited Panama City in late 2016. Much has conspired to make it the commercial and banking center of South America, rivaling  Miami. The canal was gradually  and totally transferred to Panama  control by 2000.  Panama has  retained the $US as their currency, which stabilized the economy; despite many problems it became a place where people with means could find refuge from chaos at home, or for various thieves to hide money, including drug money.

The former head of the militarily, Manuel Noriega, a cooperator with the CIA, became de facto dictator and drug lord .The US invasion to depose him in 1989-90 was  complex, while brief was a real war that has left a shambles of Noriega’s base of operations still unpaired.  And the whole episode has became the source of many true lies:  afterward there was an election at the insistence of the US; but the winning candidate was assaulted and Noriega declared the election null and void.   While US invasion was widely supported by the populace, it was  real warfare against a well prepared military,  deadly and destructive. It was hugely condemned, as customary, in Europe and the UN;  The Panamanian military was dissolved.  However, the emergence  of Panama as a commercial and banking center, and a repository for suspect money, continued.


The second canal has been completed, financed largely by the Chinese. Transit fee $100,000,000. A Trump hotel, shaped  like a huge sail, looks like a twin to one in Dubai. A metro was completed last year.

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Upscale barrios and yacht harbors, continued to appear.   Old is being gentrfied, the president lived there near a fast growing tourist area, and expensive restaurants  flourish. As to the currently  strong US dollar, Panama is something of an exception,  comparable to Chile.  Most other countries today are,  by comparison, a bargain. But it is a good place to visit, safe for the average sane foreigner, usually cool at night,  when the ocean breeze is up.   In the 50’s that meant street dancing to Lucho Ascarraga’s wild electric  organ: Cha Cha Chas, with  typical flat foot moves,   keeping the  whole foot including the heel on the floor and moving The Rest… none of that  heel-high stuff.  That, happily, is the same today.

Ancon Hill is the highest spot overlooking the Pacific entrance of the canal, with old gun embankments at the top,  set among tropical forest. Several hundred yards down hill is the site of  Gorgas Hospital where I interned in 1954. My oldest daughter was born there, delivered by a descendant of one of the founding families.

My Grandparents, Leon and Anna founded the Methodist church just at the edge of the Canal Zone. It was built and supported by the North American population of the Zone who operated the canal, and large number of military people who guarded it.  But when the canal was given to Panama that U S  population very quickly disappeared. The old church is imposing, but obviously neglected now. There was no pastor, but we spoke with a woman in the parish and she took us inside the elegant but sad  and  tired building.

 

 

We visited the site of the old Gorgas hospital, of French design. It had a stolid central administration building surrounded by a series of white one story buildings  in colonial French style… a series of medical units, white wooden buildings with 11 foot high ceilings where the top four feet were open screens. The units were interconnected by covered walkways among sculptured tropical gardens to allow for air circulation. How well I recall doing a femoral stick on babies or spinal taps, sweating in the humid night air. At least that is the way it all comes to my mind; it is all gone.  One wing of the admin  center where interns stayed and sometimes slept during 36  on and 12 off shifts looks down darkly past the  surrounding neglected  padlocked wire fence strangely dressed in banners left over from some event.  No one was around to ask if we might go in; and yet that seemed a small loss. I didn’t  much want to view the corpse from the inside.


Otherwise, Panama was no corpse, but alive and well.  

 

Even most of the relics of Old Town were full of color and life, on the way to being restored.  thier roof still extended out 4 feet over the sidewalks and balconies to shelter people from the rain.

 

And the restoration was everywhere evident as well, set among the colorful lives of a small rich country whose future seems bright.

 

 

And we pretended to be rich turistas nortamericanos:








 

 

 

*You may want to kindle and google the many black  authors of the Americas,  the John Woolworth and the Quaker beginnings of the emancipation movement, and the first American revolution, which was black: in Haiti. Like many US citizens I  often focus only on the Northern Hemisphere.  But we are Americans: one continent, one hemisphere,  with a shared history, indigenous, immigrant past, and present.

* * There is a  645 pp third edition of a book Americas by Peter Winn. But frankly, it seems to me  simply a compulsive compilation of the ‘news’ we read in the US. Whenever the author treats places and peoples I know very well, the omissions and commissions of errors really rankle me terribly. My bias is this: The record of a people and a time are found in between the lies, and lines; and in fiction, poetry;  in other words in Literature. Usually what we call News or  History is moribund  fiction without flesh or soul.

 

A Modest Proposal* on Diabetes Detection and Control

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Self Management of Early and Silent Diabetes or Pre-Diabetes

Colonet is an inland town of about 2500 in Baja California. I have gone there four times with my daughter Amy and the Los Gatos Methodist Church to build small houses. They have now built more than 40, generally during Easter vacations so school children can participate. There are two doctors offices and two pharmacies in the tiny  town but it serves a wide local area; ‘universal care’ is available at a government clinic staffed – in a common South American way –by a recent medical school graduate who must pay back year for year of medical school by staffing several remote rural clinics; he is there only a few hours each week, so people line up at 4 AM for one of the few openings. Otherwise they must see a private doctor at about US$35 a visit. For those who have a job, the average daily income is about US $10 per day, but work is not available year round. The nearest hospital is 60 Km distant.

It may seem surprising, but the area is highly agriculturally productive. The largest tomato grower in the world is nearby. The Driscol strawberries we buy here are grown in the region. Why? It sits between the ocean and the Sierra de San Pedro mountain range that reaches up 10000 feet to suck in winter  rain, allowing for irrigation like a tiny San Fernando Valley; water and sun and hard work make it productive. Migrant workers, often speaking no Spanish, invade for harvests. This year it rained a great deal and the area is lush with small blossoming plants and green with bushy growth.

The local Christian Church has been very helpful in building the small homes. They often help people to acquire a tiny  plot of land, which is a required, as well as someone in the family with a job. The pastor’s wife has diabetes as does her mother and their four year old  daughter;  they assisted in preparing for a series of evening diabetes screening clinics during my week there. The disease is so  common that among the first 20 people screened ( excluding the pastor’s family)  9 had diabetes or pre-diabetes.  Below is the translation from Spanish of the written introduction  and information that was given to people who attended the screenings. Of course, the problem is obvious: When you find a person with diabetes, under these circumstances what do you do? I believe self management is the only realistic, timely, and practical option. To make that sort of thing work, it is best for small groups of people with diabetes to work together over time to solve problems like Where to find medications and supplies most reasonably; How to measure and keep track of glucose levels; How to safely adjust medication in view of the results. The pastor  has an internet connection. It is a long and twisted road, but one that otherwise most Colonet people with diabetes travel alone. What follows below is information  provided at the screening clinics, addressing the screening process, the general nature of the disease, glucose self monitoring, and possibilities for  self treatment. It is translated and redacted  from a Spanish blog.

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RAPID SCREENING FOR DIABETES AND PRE-DIABETES

Blood glucose is measured about two hours after a sugar or starch rich meal.

Diabetes Positive Screening test:

  1. Any blood glucose level above 200 mg/dL at any time, including the
  2. Challenge test: Blood glucose above 200 mg/dL 2 hours after a sweet or starchy meal
  3. After 10 hour fast: any blood sugar over 125 mg/dL

PreDiabetes Positive Screening test:

    1. after a  10 hour fast: blood sugar 100-125 mg/dL
    2. 2 hours after sweet or starchy meal blood sugar 140-199 mg/dL

 Conversions between mmol/dL  and mg/ dL  here

Screening tests are highly suggestive but not diagnostic. When positive, reconfirm whenever possible, with a qualified laboratory and physician.

 These screening tests are valid at all ages.

Diabetes has serious complications, all caused by elevated levels of blood Glucose (sugar). In early years the disease is silent. One feels fine while high glucose levels destroy the most delicate but critical circulation in the kidneys, retina of the eyes, feet, and elsewhere.Fortunately we live in a time when prevention of that damage can be  effective, and simple. But only those who have or who discover their  disease can successfully treat it; especially those with the most common kind:  silent diabetes. To do that the disease must be revealed… diabetes diagnosed if present,. , and then controlled by:

      1. Using a personal glucose monitor to keep track of blood glucose levels
      2. Measuring and recording glucose levels
      3. Learning to manage the illness… i contend that is best done as a member of a small group who regularly share their experiences and information.

Some may wonder why it is essential or practical to self control and self manage this particular illness. Although it can best be done with the help of a physician, only the person who has this disease can do so. Physicians cannot hang around 24/7. The time a physician can actually help most is after the disease had done so much damage that a foot has to be cut off, or a kidney replaced: too late for prevention. A competent physician welcomes self management of early or silent disease. All this may seem complicated, but it becomes quite natural quickly when the diabetic can:

  1. measure, blood glucose, record the result, and then
  2. use the results to manage and control the disease
  3. share results and experience with others who have diabetes for: a) interpretation of results; b) finding sources for test strips, medications or professional advice;c) understand medications and ways to manage it. For example, glucose monitoring is crucial, but very expensive. However, an hour drive away is a large international chain store where  costs for glucose monitoring supplies are: ( US$):  Monitor $  9.00; 100 test strips $17.88; one time cost of lancing device $5.84; 100 lancet needles, $1.84 Total $34.24 , adequate for about 6 months monitoring– $0.19/day! By comparison,  costs where test strips alone are $ .50-.75 each, are many times that depending on how many strips are required.

The personal glucometer (glucose measuring device or meter) is inexpensive, accurate and lasts for years. One must learn to use it, use it regularly and record results and circumstances affecting each  test. . At first it is advisable to measure glucose levels often in order to better understand the illness. Yet because test strip use can often gradually be reduced to as little as 5 or six times weekly, plus anytime a concern arises. For example, one might suspect, for whatever reason, a blood glucose is low, and eat “just in case.” That should not be done: measure, don’t guess!  

 

The blood glucose monitoring record: ( for one month…the first of 30 spaces appear) below)

Date mo/day Time 24 hr Level before meal 2 hours later Useful details like: what was eaten, an unusual event like illness, or any other comment

 

How food affects blood glucose:

Carbohydrates fats and proteins can all be converted to glucose…which  is vital to the human body even if too much is harmful. Some carbohydrates convert to glucose very quickly and therefore are a problem for people with diabetes:

Fast: processed or refined bleached grains like white wheat flour, and white rice; processed fruit sugars (fructose) like corn sugar and beet or cane sugar; starchy vegetables like potatoes and some sweet fruits like peaches, apples, bananas, oranges.

Slow: beans, seeds like most  nuts, peas, lentils, meat, fish, chicken, cream is less fast than milk because less lactose, milk sugar.

Take control of your diabetes when  it is silent and serious irreversible complications are most easily prevented.

You are the only person who can control your disease!

Note 1) Insufficient insulin was discovered to be present in diabetes nearly 100 years ago. Insulin is made in the pancreas; in the most common sort, Type 2 diabetes, the pancreas still can make some insulin, but not enough to meet the body needs; so glucose accumulates. The disease  usually gets worse with time– especially if not controlled well. In type 1 diabetes almost no insulin is produced, and that is a different but related illness.

Note 2) Fasting blood sugar— after not eating for about 10 hours– can be deceptive in Type 2 diabetes because the pancreas has been resting (usually overnight) making enough insulin to keep blood glucose levels normal or nearly so.

Note 3) Hemoglobin A1C test: Red blood cells are not alive. They were grown in the bone marrow, and when growth is complete, they are delivered to the blood where they act as tiny carriers of Oxygen. That Oxygen is delivered to the tissues, and the empty red blood cells are sent back for more. They live about 90 days and are then discarded. But when they were being formed they took in the amount of glucose that was in the blood at that time. Therefore, the average glucose level in those red blood cells is a measure of the average blood glucose during the previous 90 days. Problem: both high blood sugars and low blood sugars can be seen in early type 2 diabetes because the pancreas can over react to high blood sugars and therefore over-produce while trying to catch up at night. So an average of high and low glucose can be deceptively normal. Conclusion: a challenge test, similar to the old glucose tolerance test, is superior to looking at averages or fasting blood glucose level. This screening test is significant because it offers a fast, and economical screening that can be done by anyone with a glucose meter.

Note 4) The personal glucose meter was pioneered by Richard K Bernstein, an engineer with severe diabetes working on a glucose monitor for physician offices. His diabetes became so advanced he  began to control his own blood glucose very tightly and began to improve; then he did his own study among students, which suggested a personal glucose monitor was the key to diabetes control.   What happened is classic:The study results were rejected by the academic  medical profession. So he went to medical school and began to practice immediately as a diabetes specialist. His book –The Diabetes Solution- is largely viewable on line

Dr. Bernstein completely recovered on a very low carbohydrate high protein diet and tight glucose control; he suggests an average blood glucose of 81 mg/dL;  he is alive, and lively, over 80 years old. He participates regularly in Teleseminar Webcasts. The March 29 2017 event can be seen  here.

* A Modest Proposal is a 1729 satire by Jonathon Swift: For preventing the Children of Poor People From being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and For making them Beneficial to the Publick’. He outrageously suggests newborns be harvested for food to reduce the numbers of poor and also feed the rest. Perhaps the only bearing of Swift’s satire to this little essay is the focus on the millions of poor we seem willing to sacrifice to diabetes, even though it’s cruel, and irrational. and avoidable.

 By working together outside a system that tends to sacrifice the good to the perfect, and by self managing their own disease, people can at least greatly improve their lives and well being. Yet for our world’s millions of unsuspecting pre-diabetic and diabetic people, only those who discover their disease early and begin to self control it can easily limit its ravages. I believe that worldwide– and even in the USA– there are tens of  millions who could benefit from a similar process  until something more academically perfect comes along.

 Even privileged, idealistic and committed people can  become  insensitive, intolerant, and dismissive, based on disagreement about dogma, about the meaning of ideas and words. Words are, after all, only symbols; like metaphors they represent things or ideas usually unseen. When we hear or  read a word, we rewrite it in our own minds. We interpret and give it our own personal twist. When one half of our nation cannot stand to hear or see the other half, because of ideas or words, it would seem wise to ask ourselves Why do  Words Hurt? Why are we so willing to wound  one another? Or to  put another way, Why so terribly thin skinned? Who ever said ‘sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me’ was from another era; like Swift.

It seems to me more appropriate to think about deeds rather than only  words. So in Colonet this year, I wore a baseball cap with a silent modest proposal written on the face to imply  that :

We are in this together. In this place, this nation, this world. We should try to ‘read’, or value one another for what we DO, not what  we appear to BE: Not color of skin or political affiliation; or religion; or citizenship, or age, sexuality or gender— but rather, our behavior; our acts; and judge ourselves and others as reasonably as our acts allow.

“THNIK”

 

Book Review: The Log from the Sea of Cortez

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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!

The Impossible Naturalist

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‘We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred? ‘                   Richard Dawkins

 

 

 

As soon as he could count it was clear

he was the mathematically impossible winner of a life

in this galaxy, star, earth, in this time,

here at a center of this civilization.

 

So soon as he could read and reason it was clear

he was the impossible winner of other lotteries:

culture, language, technology, and history;

he would demarcate the borders of infinity. 

 

In puberty, at the rising of the numinous,

fearless, fevered and foolish as youth can be,

emboldened by Darwinian science, and Learning, he  planned to steal

candy from the bloody jaws of God.

 

But this miracle child of blind Chance

stole only the shared lone eye of the three blind Fates.

Now, cherishing it like his own newborn child,

he sings joyously, though chained to the walls of Time.

 

Yet then recalls that for science nothing is certain;

to doubt is the only law and commandment.

He chants and sings and looks through his stolen eye,

and only fears to see an Eye look back.

Tangles

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I “Turn him to any cause of policy,

The Gordian Knot of it he will unloose,

Familiar as his garter” (ShakespeareHenry V, Act 1 Scene 1. 45–47)

 

Tangles*

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”):