On My Own

October 16, 2012

This memory never fades: the sound of the cook’s spatula clanging on the spacious griddle, his occasional cry of “Seaboard!” (code for to-go orders), and the smell of sizzling onions. I watched him from a swivel stool at the counter of the Royal Castle burger joint in Maitland, Florida in 1967. I was 16. It was Saturday, 7 a.m. or so, and I was waiting for breakfast: two eggs over easy, grits, bacon, toast, and coffee. The meal cost nearly as much as I would earn in the next several hours working in the yard of my fifth-grade teacher, which I did every Saturday morning until leaving for college. My brothers said I was nuts to stop at the Royal Castle those mornings and spend so much of the $5 she paid me for the hot, dirty work. But the allure wasn’t the food. It was sitting at the counter with plumbers, contractors, and other blue-collar types. Outside, my father’s 1962 MGA, top down, hinted that I wasn’t one of them. It didn’t seem that way. I felt independent, alone but not lonely. I was making my way in the adult world, if only over breakfast with real working men. For for the first time the path ahead looked not so treacherous.

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Inner Child

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October 9, 2012

It’s been a long time since a work of art has lodged in my thoughts as securely as this sculpture carved from a tree born in the time and place of Napoleon. And I’ve only seen photographs of Guiseppe Penone‘s Cedro di Versailles, or Versailles Cedar, a daunting carving that reveals the sapling the tree once was. Owned by a private collector, the sculpture is no longer on public display after a lengthy stay at the Art Gallery of Ontario. So I’m left to imagine the sensory wonder of standing in its presence, feeling its grain, and smelling its essence. Still, the images are enough to evoke a longing to see who I once was, to reacquaint myself with the spindly sapling that other photos claim was me. Penone’s meticulous and loving excavation persuades me that my predecessor hasn’t vanished entirely into time. I just need to look deep for him, through the tangle of roots, past the many rings, and along the gnarled branches of six decades lived. Awaiting is what Penone wants his artwork to reveal: the hidden life within.

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Fruitful News

September 29, 2012

I like to grow things. I like practical solutions. And I like mischief with a purpose. Thus my immediate attraction to two stories about innovative ways to grow fruit. The first: nurseries developing what they call fruit salad trees—trees grafted to bear several different fruits from the same trunk. It’s perfect for our small urban yard. I can already picture my family and me plucking peaches, plums, nectarines, and apricots from a single tree all summer long. And more home-grown fruit could be in our future if a band of rogue orchardists, Guerrilla Grafters, expands its undercover operation beyond the Bay Area to Portland. They secretly graft fruit tree branches to ornamental trees in parking strips. The practice is illegal in San Francisco, where city officials would rather keep the sidewalks clear of fallen fruit than let people gather free, nutritious food. How would plum branches look adjoined to our two linden trees? Mismatched, yes, but I’d gladly trade aesthetics for growing fresh fruit. Maybe it’s time not just to buy a fruit salad tree but to ask Guerrilla Grafters for an instruction manual.

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Spank Me, Teacher

September 26, 2012

Via the Hubble Space Telescope, we now know that some starlight in the night sky has taken 13.2 billion years to reach Earth. That distance to newly discovered galaxies is so vast that the mind can’t visualize it. (In one year alone, light travels nearly 6 trillion miles.) Unfortunately, it’s not hard to visualize another bit of news that I wish emanated from a galaxy far far away. Here, in the year 2012 in our supposedly civilized nation, in Springtown, Texas to be precise, male educators are paddling misbehaving high school girls. Some of the girls’ parents are all for it. Perhaps more advanced beings untold number of light years away are shaking their heads in disgust, giving credence to this well-trod observation:

That intelligent creatures exist in outerspace is proven by the fact that they have not contacted us.

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Unburdened by Hate

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September 18, 2012

The increasingly bitter dispute between China and Japan over islands most Americans have never heard off is hard to understand from our distant shores. Why so much frothing rage, especially on the streets of Chinese cities? Yes, the government is fanning some of it as part of a propaganda war. But step back and consider how we might feel if Japan had invaded the United States and savaged it in a brutal occupation. Seven decades can’t wash away the resentment in China, even though victims who endured  the cruelty of Japanese soldiers have passed into memory or soon will.

One victim, my deceased Chinese father-in-law, never appeared to hold  a grudge against the Japanese. Perhaps he had mellowed by the time I knew him. News of the island dispute reminded me of what he disclosed one evening during an exquisite meal he had cooked. Calm and almost serene, he recalled life as a boy of eight in Hong Kong struggling to care for his mother and siblings during the occupation. Bodies littered the streets. Food was more than scarce. “I ate grass,” he said, his voice dispassionate as if describing someone else. He ate grass to stay alive and stretch the few rations the family found. It’s no wonder he became a chef, and one who spun magic in every dish.

So when I see images of seething faces in Beijing and elsewhere in China, I picture my father-in-law as a child plucking blades of grass for his next meal and as an adult unburdened by hate I surely could have never shed.

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Simple Act of Defiance

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September 17, 2012

In need of inspiration this late summer day? What always works for me is reading about someone’s simple act of defiance. So thanks to Jerry Peterson, a physics professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder. After the state Board of Regents voted to allow people with permits to carry concealed guns at most places on campus, Peterson took a stand. He vowed to cancel class if he sees any student with a firearm. Predictably, gun zealots showered the professor with scorn, claiming that allowing guns would help to prevent the epidemic of fatal shootings at colleges around the country. The university chancellor also warned the faculty against defiance. It won’t be long until some student shows off the heat he’s packing in Peterson’s classroom to test the professor. I think Peterson, an expert on nuclear fusion, will get an “A.” In the meantime, I’m asking myself: what can I defy today?

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Mark My Words

September 13, 2012

Read this list of so-called crutch words and your mind will start monitoring everything you say with all the vigor of spy agencies checking our emails and phone calls. It will also listen for these words in the speech of others, an enlightening—and at times irritating—distraction. My seven-year-old son’s frequent use of actually was endearing until I actually read the list. Mark my words, I would be rich if someone paid me every time I’ve said it is what it is instead of letting silence emphasize a point. Quite frankly, the mind will also essentially begin to edit crutch words from your own utterances. Personally, I now think of my mind as a vigilant editor who definitely deserves a raise. Obviously, to be fair per se, everything I say in the final analysis, well, totally works for me. You know?

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In a Look

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September 11, 2012

Reading someone’s facial expressions is usually a fool’s errand. Mine have been misread many times, often to my detriment. Much has been written about President George W. Bush’s face at the moment he learned of the first 9/11 attack, when terrorists crashed a jetliner into the north tower of the World Trade Center eleven years ago today. Did his look communicate shock, confusion, horror? All seem natural reactions for the leader of a gravely wounded nation. But new information detailing frequent and dire warnings the White House received about Al Qaeda’s plans invites a closer look at Bush’s look. Do we see written on his face a split-second realization that’s horrifying in an altogether different way? I could have prevented this. If so—and there’s no way to know, the former president is surely spending another day in a personal hell where the mirror is the cruelest punishment of all.

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My Mystery Woman

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August 29, 2012

I keep thinking about her. I don’t know her name, and we’ve never met. All I have are two seconds of video showing her working, likely in the 1950s. The attraction is neither lust nor love but nagging curiosity. Maybe it’s because she’s the only woman whose face is visible among a sea of men during the first part of the intro sequence to HBO’s show The Newsroom. This archival footage gives a flavor of the heady black-and-white days of early network television news. My mystery woman appears to be an important part of the crew working with Walter Cronkite during the CBS Evening News. Not many women worked in TV news back then, even behind the camera. Maybe she went on to great things as Linda Mason did. Told in 1970 that “women can’t be producers,” Mason became just that at CBS the next year—a first in the industry. Eventually she became a senior vice president in charge of all of the network’s news producers.

I’ve strained the Internet with queries about my mystery woman. I’ve asked CBS News for help. I’ve posted on The Newsroom message board on HBO’s web site. Nothing. Why  care so much? Is it because I always admired my grandmother, a newspaper reporter for half a century starting in the 1920s? Sounds noble, yes. But I think it’s the sunglasses.

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Ignorance Is Profit

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August 26, 2012

When people learn I grew up in Florida, they invariably ask about hurricanes and alligators. They’re skeptical when I say alligators were scarce in the late 1950s and through most of the 1960s, when I was a kid. We lived on Lake Sybelia in Maitland, now part of the blob-like sprawl of Orlando. I practically inhabited Sybelia’s warm and clear waters as well of those of many other Central Florida lakes and rivers. The few gators I saw were no bigger than my arm.

How is this possible, I’m asked, when today many of the the state’s waterways resemble scenes from Tarzan movies? I’m surprised so few people know about the chemical DDT, ubiquitously used as a pesticide decades ago. It devastated the reproductive cycles of not just gators but osprey, bald eagles, and other wildlife. The EPA banned DDT in 1972, two years after the agency that many Republicans now want to kill was established. The suspected carcinogen likely lurks in my body too. Many times with other kids I ran behind trucks spewing mosquito-killing smoke that contained DDT. We were clueless.

The retro ad above (more of it here) and others help to explain our cluelessness way back then. We were manipulated to bring the chemical industry enormous profits. Now the same forces behind the ads are trying to stop the federal government from routinely publishing a list of known or suspected carcinogens. I guess “what they don’t know won’t hurt them” and “ignorance is bliss” could be planks in the GOP platform.

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Tax Cuts and Baby Bans

August 14, 2012

Paul Ryan proves I’m poorly versed in the dark arts of selecting prospective vice presidents. My simple mind predicted Mitt Romney would never choose a running mate whose chief policy proposal focuses a laser light on the would-be president’s chief liability: questions about how he made a fortune and taxes he paid on the money. The much-debated Ryan budget plan, according to one analysis, “would likely produce the largest redistribution of income from the bottom to the top in modern U.S. history. . .” In other words, the fabulously wealthy Romneys of the world would get more wealthy. More specifically, under the plan Romney would have paid 0.82 percent in federal taxes on the $24 million in income reported in his 2010 returns. Yes, you read that right, less than 1%. That’s quite a savings compared to the embarrassingly low 13.9% he actually paid. We don’t know about other years because Romney refuses to release more tax returns despite calls to do so from prominent Republicans.

More unfathomable is Romney’s choice of a vice-presidential candidate who co-sponsored legislation that would outlaw in vitro fertilization. The procedure, involving developing embryos outside the womb, enables infertile parents to have 60,000 babies a year. Without it Romney would have three or even fewer of his eighteen grandchildren. Imagine the awkwardness when Ryan attends his first Romney family gathering and meets the fruits of what he considers crime.

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Curiosity of Time

August 10, 2012

On Sunday night I watched the live video feed from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab as Curiosity approached the surface of Mars. The tension and then joy that I felt were mere glimmers of what the scientists and engineers experienced, judging from scenes at Mission Control. When their celebration subsided, my first thought was that these men and women who planned and successfully delivered Curiosity to Mars at least deserve gold medals like those awarded earlier in the day at the Olympics. My second thought was about time. Curiosity’s descent and landing were happening “now” for us when in fact the drama had played out fourteen minutes earlier. That’s how long radio signals took to reach Earth 155 million miles away. We’re so accustomed to receiving instant communications that the time shift increased the tension factor. How much? Let’s guess at least six-fold. That’s how much more the Olympics cost to stage than the Curiosity mission, which is a comparative bargain at $2.5 billion. Knowing something has already happened, and knowing it’s either fantastic or tragic but you won’t know which one for fourteen minutes, blends the past, present, and future in a—yes—curious way. The concept leads inevitably to Einstein:

The distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.

We’re not wired to readily grasp this. Venturing farther into space in the future (or the past?) may make it easier. For now, I’m content to install an app on my Mac that shows Curiosity’s location, where on Mars it’s night and day, and the present time at various Red Planet landmarks.


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Denying the Darkness

August 1, 2012

Numbers don’t lie, according to the well-worn truism. Case in point is this scorecard: “Juiced by Climate Change: Extreme Weather on Steroids,” which quantifies the dire changes befalling us. The numbers arrive on a day when Big Oil and King Coal’s puppets-on-a-string Republican senators take part in another Senate hearing to deny the undeniable. It’s easy to imagine the most irrational (criminal?) among them, Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, standing outside my burning house and claiming the flames are a) an illusion, b) God’s plan, c) arson caused by a conspiracy of scientists, or d) all of the above.

No doubt Inhofe scoffs at the scientific conclusion that the worst is yet to come. As the New Yorker‘s Elizabeth Kolbert wrote recently, what the planet is experiencing now is the result of manmade greenhouse gases emitted several decades ago. The vastly increased emissions of today won’t wreak havoc until about the time the 2048 Olympics are held. Or should I say if they’re held. What’s ahead when my grandchildren may still be alive? By the end of the century, Kolbert said, it’s possible “we could, without even really trying, engineer the return of the sort of climate that hasn’t been seen on earth since the Eocene, some fifty million years ago.” That’s when Antarctica had tropical weather.

Too bad Shakespeare’s King Lear can’t talk to Inhofe and his ilk in Washington, if he could be heard over the thunderclaps and downpours of increasingly violent storms:

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Smite flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!
Crack nature’s moulds, an germens spill at once,
That make ingrateful man!

Then again, Inhofe would welcome a thunderstorm today in his home state, where in Okmulgee the temperature reached 115 degrees.

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