Wednesday, October 29, 2014

On the Lighter Side: Aging

What’s with all these syndromes? You think maybe the pharmaceutical industry has figured out that if they name things they can prescribe things? Restless Leg Syndrome. Give me a break. Of course you’ve got restless legs. You’ve been sitting on your big butt all day. Your legs are restless, man. You don’t need a syndrome. Next we’ll have Horribly Coated Tongue Syndrome, for the affliction formerly known as “hangover.” There already is something called Gourmand Syndrome. I’m sorry. This is so embarrassing. But I . . . I love good food.
            Understand—I have great respect for true syndromes. I’m talking about the sorts of impairments that steal up on you quietly enough, but that, once rooted in your consciousness, plunge you into a downward spiral of paranoia and despair. Mine, THS, we’ll return to.
            Not all true syndromes are so devastating. Or they are, but boomer culture, as is its wont in the face of physical ruin, has transformed them into coffee-room gags. I’m thinking of CRS here—Can’t Remember Shit. You know what? I honestly cannot remember shit, and it’s about as funny as a two-headed chicken.
            Throw vision loss in with memory loss you’ve got huge laughs.
            Hey, Hon, seen my glasses?
            Well, where’d you put them?
            We wait a beat, then fall down in hysterics.
            That’s how we are, we of a certain age. It’s happening, but let’s not get all bent up about it quite yet. My hearing loss has developed an interesting new twist. (Dede and I have already gotten burnt out on the game of semi-intentional misconstruing: “Did you take a nap?” “Did I eat a slab of what?”) Now I not only don’t know what I heard; I don’t know where the sound came from. I might be in the kitchen and think the ice maker dropped a cube into the tray when actually a throng of guests just barged through the front door.
            But that’s not the one I’m talking about. Here’s the scene: You turn away from the bathroom sink to head into the bedroom when, behind you, the Old Spice topples over on the countertop. Or you’ve finished drying the dishes and begin to put them away when you look back to see one of the wine glasses teetering in a slow spin. Or maybe a dinner knife goes clattering to the floor.
            You didn’t see any of these things as they happened because, of course, you weren’t looking. You didn’t used to have to watch your hands every goddamn second of the day. Now you do, because you have TRAILING HAND SYNDROME.
            I’m the kind of guy who can’t pull a jar of pickles out of the refrigerator without tossing it up into a couple of slow 360s then catching it again just right. Know what I’m saying? I’m talking about my hands, my beautiful, adept, utterly dependable hands. Now they’re just trailing along behind me, knocking shit over. All loose items are at immediate risk.
            Remember the scene in The Twilight Zone when the bookish, bespectacled old guy is in the library catacombs when the Rooskies drop the big one but he’s happy as a clam because all he ever wanted was to be left alone to read books but then he knocks his glasses on the floor and steps on them?
            Not funny.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

35 Thousand Signs of the Times

I missed this story when it broke on October 2. Most big papers covered it, under headlines more or less like Justin Moyer’s: “As sea ice melts amid global warming, 35,000 walruses crowd the shores of Alaska” (“Morning Mix,”
            I got wind of it 16 days late, via the Gail Collins New York Times column that the AJC reprints on Saturdays. Her headline was “Politicians ignore dire signs of climate change,” and while this record-breaking congregation of walruses was her hook, she was really after those politicians: Alaska Republican senate-hopeful Dan Sullivan obfuscating, “There is no concrete scientific consensus on the extent to which humans contribute to climate change”; Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal calling climate change a “Trojan horse,” WeverTF that might mean; Mitch McConnell’s historic pronouncement on behalf of the entire thumb-up-your-ass crowd: “I am not a scientist.”
            It’s a great column, but let’s get back to those walruses. For those of you who, like me, are a little hazy on marine mammals in distant climes, walruses are those comically bewhiskered, grotesquely betusked, pathetically beflippered, and enormously beblubbered animals you see lounging around on ice floes. True, in the frigid waters where they spend two-thirds of their time, whiskers, tusks, flippers, and fat come in handy—whiskers to find those kilos of bivalves on the ocean floor, for instance, and the icepick tusks to “haul out” onto the ice once the 3,000-pound beasts have stuffed themselves. They forage in the shallow waters of the continental shelf, following Arctic ice north as it melts in the summer and back south again as the water refreezes in winter.
            In early summer, the females haul out onto the ice to deliver the 100-plus-pound calves that have been gestating for fifteen months. The young, though they can swim at birth, spend a year on the teat and may choose to tag along with their mothers for several more after that. Young males loaf the first half of their lives away, shirking their duty to the species until they’re 15 or so. Right away they go back to their old ways and have no truck with child-rearing—an arrangement the females seem to have no objection to. What with the “nature red in tooth and claw” business, walruses seem to have it pretty good. Found their niche, you might say, following the weather.
            Which brings us back to the 35,000 that made the headlines. They’re part of the Pacific population of 200,000, by the way, which represents four-fifths of the world’s total. They’ve hauled out on Alaska’s extreme northwest coast, where the Chukchi Sea turns into the Arctic Ocean. Walruses routinely haul out on land, in small groups, mostly males, but the 35,000 are mostly female with their young. It’s hard to imagine that they like it there, with a dwindling food supply and crowded, messy quarters—not to mention the violent stampedes incited by polar bear attack, which cause so many fatalities among the young as to be a serious conservation concern.
Well, why don’t they leave? Because their ice has disappeared, and they’re waiting for cold weather to bring it back.  It’s been happening more and more. Three years ago, an unheard-of crowd of 30,000 walruses hauled out on land for the same reason. I think I can predict with confidence that 2014’s claim on the record will be short-lived. As the U.S. Geological Survey reported plainly, “The walruses are hauling out on land in a spectacle that has become all too common in six of the last eight years as a consequence of climate-induced warming. Summer sea ice is retreating far north of the shallow continental shelf waters of the Chukchi Sea . . .,  a condition that did not occur a decade ago.”
Isn’t shrinking sea ice visible? Isn’t it measurable? Isn’t it infactable? Yes, in fact, it is. National Geographic’s October 2 report on the walruses (“Biggest walrus gathering recorded as sea ice shrinks”) cites the official NASA estimate that Arctic sea ice has retreated by 12 percent per decade since the late 1070s. It also links to the NASA website for confirmation.
“The walruses are telling us what the polar bears have told us and what many indigenous people have told us in the high Arctic,” says Margaret Williams of the World Wildlife Fund’s Arctic program, “and that is that the Arctic environment is changing extremely rapidly and it is time for the rest of the world to take notice.”
Is it time? Say so at the polls in 10 days.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The World in Crisis . . . Again

Ebola. Wow. Now a second nurse in that same Texas hospital has contracted the virus—and she got on a plane! “We’re terrified,” said another nurse at another hospital, prompted, maybe, to say something very much along those lines. On TV news shows, experts are gravely concerned.
                ISIS. Beheadings on video. Jay. Now we’re bombing the crap out of these people. Got to. They’ve showed they stop at nothing, and once they take over Iraq and Syria, then what? So good. Bombs away. All I’m saying is, just don’t forget about the ones pouring into the U.S. across the Mexican border. (And while we’re not forgetting, let’s not forget that the leader of a Mexican drug cartel will behead you as quick as look at you.)
            Europe is teetering on the brink of a post-recession recession, and U.S. markets are suddenly tanking. How’s your retirement, by the way? Not going to be a burden on your children, are you?
            And how about Ferguson? Nobody ever went broke by reminding us that we are a deeply racist society and that our cities could explode at any moment and that your store might be the next one to be looted.
            Do you ever wonder why we’re encouraged to be so afraid?  It’s not a new question. I expect books have been written on our “culture of fear,” and if you’ve read those books you’re way ahead of me.
            I do have a couple of thoughts, though, if you’ll permit a couple of generalizations. It seems to me that fearful people would be inclined to hunker down, hold what they got, and resist change, right? And wouldn’t that work to the advantage of the powerful? Remember “death panels.” Right out of the VIP (vested interests playbook). You might have no insurance to cover your battle against a life-threatening disease, but at least your fate isn’t going to be decided by some faceless, godless OBAMACARE DEATH PANEL!!! Okay, okay. It’s fine. Don’t change it.
            I’m also hazarding the generalization that fearful people make great consumers. Lots of products out there to make us feel safer—from houses in gated communities, to security systems, to private schools, to gazillions of guns. Then there’s the whole other ocean of products that address an even deeper fear—that is, the fear that we’re not sexy enough. Not just the plastic surgery, diet plans, gym memberships, deodorants, shampoos, and white teeth. No. We who fear we’re not sexy enough want everything the sexy people on TV have—the Lamborghinis, the Lear Jets, Caribbean islands all our own. Now we’re talking high-end. Now we’re talking consumption. Point being, consumption has built an opulent palace for the powerful, and they seem to like it there.  
            Important distinction: Fearful people are not desperate people. Desperate people are among the things that fearful people fear most, and in fact (as we see on news TV 24 hours a day) desperate people are used by powerful people to keep fearful people fearful.
            I hate to give the impression that the powerful people have us fearful people by the short hair, but I’m afraid they do.

Friday, October 10, 2014

The Jobs Thing

Tireless, under-appreciated Anita Beaty, executive director of Atlanta’s Task Force for the Homeless, had a spirit-lifting column in the Journal-Constitution yesterday morning. Anonymous donors had come up with the half-million dollars to pay the water bill run up by the Task Force’s shelter at Peachtree and Pine, and the city’s unrelenting effort to close down the facility had been thwarted once again. Celebrating this “miracle,” Beaty invited the folks of Atlanta to come downtown to take a look at the many programs and servie shelter offers—the rooftop garden, the computer lab, GED classes, the art studio and gallery, food service training, along with the basic counseling and recovery programs. She ends with “Please come and see!”
            I’m guessing that one of those who won’t be showing up for a visit is John Albers, the Republican state senator from Roswell, who wrote the rejoinder beneath Beaty’s column, predictably entitled “America should promote hard work, not welfare.” No Reaganesque cliché is too insipid for Albers: “a hand-up, not a hand-out,” “but teach a person a fish,” blah, blah, blah. Believe me, it’s not easy reading. Surprise: Albers and his wife worked seven jobs when they were first married, many of them minimum-wage, and it’s Albers’ opinion that “minimum-wage jobs are critical to provide stepping stones for career growth.”
            Albers does not fail to chant the great Republican mantra: “Some have called for dramatically increasing the minimum wage, but this argument is flawed and will decrease available jobs while increasing costs for working families.” You know what? The minimum-wage earners who, according to Albers’ theory, might lose their jobs if the wage were raised are not out there protesting against the pay hike. Who is? I think it’s reasonable to assume that the people who don’t want to see the minimum wage go up are the business leaders who don’t mind increasing profits by exploiting workers and who—just being frank here—don’t give a rat’s ass if their employees live in poverty. They are certainly the people who could raise wages if they wanted to.
            The “jobs” argument is a blunt tool, but widely popular, and used for much more than defending indefensibly low wages.  The idea is that you’re either a job creator (a heroic American, free and unregulated), or a job killer (a big-government liberal). To be pro-earth, for example, is to be anti-jobs. Consider mountaintop removal mining, which has become the preferred way to mine coal in the Appalachians. Over and beyond permanently disfiguring a majestic landscape, MTR pollutes and defiles the land, water, and air in surrounding communities, to the point that mining ghost towns now dot the West Virginia mountains. But what are you going to do? Gotta have those jobs. (The truth is that MTR, because it requires far fewer miners than underground mining, has killed thousands of jobs in the industry, and the jobs it saves happen to be those of non-union heavy-machinery operators.)
            Or take logging in the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest. Or drilling for oil off the Atlantic Coast (which our “environmental” president recently approved). Or draining the Everglades, or developing fragile coastal lands. Just think of all those jobs. Or take the Keystone XL Pipeline, the fate of which our president will probably decide after the mid-term elections. He might be tempted to kill the pernicious pipe, but, wow, imagine the jobs clamor. (The many reasons President Obama can and should say no to KXL will have to be our topic another day.)
            It would be great if everybody who wanted one had a job that could pay the bills. But let’s not be deceived. The captains of global capitalism want profit, and they pay their peons in high office and low to blather on about jobs.
            When her West Virginia town of Marfork Hollow was rendered uninhabitable by MTR giant Massey Energy in the 1990s, Judy Bonds became an anti-MTR activist and ultimately the executive director of Coal River Mountain Watch, the preeminent environmental organization in the coal mountains of Appalachia. Her family had mined coal for six generations, but Bonds had no truck with the “jobs” shibboleth. As she put it, “If coal is so good for us hillbillies, then why are we so poor?”  

Monday, October 6, 2014

A Thin Slice of Natural History from St. Joe Beach, Late Summer, 2014

The place lies just east of Mexico Beach in the Florida Panhandle town of Port St. Joe. It’s a fine, quiet beach, almost uninhabited at this season-over time of year. At this time of year, too, it’s a willet beach—more willets than gulls, more willets than sanderlings.
            The willet is that long-legged, long-billed, generally drab-gray bird awkwardly and evermore prowling the shoreline in search of a crustacean or two. Once I saw a willet eat a crab by taking one leg in its bill and shaking until the rest of the thing went flying, gulping that morsel, then high-footing over and taking hold of another leg. The legless carapace, presumably delectable in comparison, went last. Seemed like a lot of trouble at the time, but given the limited capacity of the willet gullet, it might be the only way to get the job done.
            Willets are suddenly not dull when they take flight and show off the flashy black and white striping on their wings, which is what the one Pat caught was doing. What Pat was doing was fishing, and the bird flew straight into his just-casted line. It was tangled up in a second and crash-landed in the water, then struggled wildly to get to the shoreline. Man, you’ve never heard such caterwauling. The downed and panicked bird was hollering its high-pitched alarm—HREEE! HREEE! HREEE!—and 50 feet behind us as we ran toward it, its mate was screaming back. When the bird got so tangled it couldn’t go any further, I eased its wings down and picked it up. It quieted, and Pat and I gave it a close look. Not hooked, thank you Jesus. Pat took out the nail clippers he uses to snip his line and snipped away while I held it still. The freed willet wheeled east down the beach, its consort in pursuit.
            All of which was a terrible irony because it was Myrtle, our hard-headed, mule-stubborn, abjectly adored golden retriever, who really, really wanted to catch a willet. Myrtle loves the beach so much she’s depressed for days back at home. Surf, sand, scent, it’s all good. And digging. Wow! Myrtle discovered that by digging for cooler sand in the puny shade of our dollar-store umbrellas, she could make whoever’s chair she was digging behind topple over backwards. FUN! Mostly, though, she chased the willets, chased them until she couldn’t chase anymore, then chased another one. Okay, I bet this one won’t fly away . . . dang!
            One early morning Dede and Myrtle went out for the constitutional and walked right up on a great blue heron. The huge bird flapped away with a grunting croak I could hear back up at the house. The next day, my turn, the bird was over being startled and took to taunting the dog, waiting until Myrtle was at full gallop, closing fast, then rising up with that irresistibly slow take-off. It would settle again no more than 100 yards down the beach.
            Also during our stay a number of non-avian species of winged life demanded our notice. Particularly memorable were (1) the little, biting housefly-looking sons of bitches that literally could annoy you right off the beach; (2) the honeymoon-bugs, or love-bugs, a harmless phenomenon, unless you’re having to pick a pair out of your drink every 10 seconds; and (3) the dragon and damselflies that filled the sky off the porch every late-afternoon to feed on mosquitos.
            Or do they eat mosquitos? This question gave rise, more than once, to the kind of conversation that, with a half dozen Google-search-enabled devices lying around, you really don’t need to have anymore but that, thanks to day-drinking, you’re going to have anyway:
            Hey, you think dragonflies are what we used to call mosquito hawks when we were kids?
            You mean the same thing we called skeeter eaters?
            I don’t think it was dragonflies. I don’t think they had big bodies like that.
            No, I’m thinking of a bug that really looks like a mosquito but is like 40 times bigger.
            I’m pretty sure it was dragonflies we called mosquito hawks . . . down in Mississippi.

            Here are the facts, in the sober light of the i-Pad on my desk at home:
·         Crane flies are the long-legged bugs that look like giant mosquitos—not 40 times bigger but maybe 10. Sometimes called “skeeter eaters,” sometimes “mosquito hawks,” they do not eat mosquitos.
·         Dragon and damselflies are just what you think they are—those big, beautiful, buzzing biplanes of bugworld. They too are sometimes called mosquito hawks, and they do eat mosquitos.
·         Neither mosquito hawks nor skeeter eaters exist as species unto themselves.
And a final observation from today’s guest natural historian: crane flies were not in evidence at St. Joe Beach in late September, 2014. Thanks, presumably, to the dragonflies, there weren’t any mosquitos either.