Thursday, January 31, 2008

Stalking the collards man

I saw him out of the corner of my eye today, driving a pickup truck piled high with collards. I know his haunts and I followed him until he parked.

So it was that I parted with three dollars and he parted with three luscious pounds of greens, piling them up in a paper sack while his beautiful white dog made friends with me.

It is so much more fun to shop for one's comestibles this way, instead of in some stark and soul less monster market.

Spring and summer will bring many more such opportunities, and one can buy everything from mushrooms to honey.

The pot is bubbling and boiling now, with a tasty pork knuckle tossed in for seasoning.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Eye contact

Now and then, one gets a clear reminder of our more savage human past.

If you look a dog directly in the eye and maintain that contact, you are challenging its status. He who looks away first admits subservience.

Wednesdays are my lunch buddy day with the little guy at his school. I got there a little late today, and found that he had plunked himself down right in the middle of the group of hostile, unpleasant kids who pick on him.

The battle was not long in commencing. They began to try to tell me all the bad things he had supposedly done. Then I felt a shift, an attempt to probe and challenge my authority. Which is awkward, because as a lunch buddy, I'm not supposed to be an authority figure in the first place, just a friend. And these inner city youngsters already get enough harshness and push-back from the adults in their lives.

So it is as if I was thrust back again into the middle of the kid-pack of my own childhood, and yet, of course, it was different. I felt their hard stares, their barely disguised jibes at both him and me -- but what could I possibly do? For I remember being little myself and how mortified I was as a youngster when a well-meaning teacher stepped into a situation to protect me but only made things worse.

Do I ignore it? Do I tattle-tale? Do I try to turn it around, disarm them with wit and warmth rather than attempting pyschological dominance?

I opted to warn them that I would take the matter to their teacher if it kept up, and then to pointedly ignore them and focus on my lunch buddy, even though my words to him sounded awkward, and I felt very vulnerable, as if they knew I was trying to dodge them rather than confront and win. But in a few minutes, somehow we all got talking about airplanes, which was apparently more interesting to the group than meanness.

I was reminded of what I read somewhere: the only people who want to be kids again, are those who have forgotten how hellish childhood really was.

Friday, January 25, 2008


A streak of mica gleams against the salmon-hued granite rock that I hold in my hand – ancient rock, born in boiling lava millions, perhaps billions of years ago, when this continent looked vastly different.

I have been back to nature today and I brought this little bit of it back with me. Certainly, it was only a lunch-break excursion but it was a revelation. Right here not ten minutes drive from my office is an island of wild-ness. I have known about it, vaguely, for years, but have never gone there on my own. Just as, for years, I never thought to wander through the very forest that lies behind my home. It took a visit from my parents, who are prone to wander and explore everywhere that they go, to wake me up and get me out there.

A friend has loaned me a book, Last Child in the Woods, that is absolutely horrible.

What I mean is, that it is as bleak and sad a commentary on our civilization as Jeremiah’s Lamentation for Israel in the Bible.

In only one generation, America has gone from a land where children splashed in streams, built tree-forts or played ball in weedy lots, to a nation where children are more familiar with Pokemon characters than the plants that grow or the animals that live in their neighborhoods.

The consequences are not just children who don’t grow up to be birdwatchers. The consequences are children who grow up completely disconnected from nature, obese, depressed or dosed with Ritalin.

Perhaps I am in the generation in between. I had a nature-touched childhood, played with frogs in my Grampa’s creek – but I had to be pushed a little. I preferred to have my nose in a book most of the time. My mother even locked the door behind me one summer day to force me to stay outside for a while.

As I noted above, I still have to work on myself today, push myself out of the rut, make being in nature a conscious habit.

Today’s children are not only not taught to enjoy nature, in many cases they are actively discouraged from doing so. Parents fear to let them wander alone. Homeowners covenants prevent them from building treehouses or even climbing trees. Even summer camp these days hardly matches the original concept.

In my opinion, a guy who cuts down a thousand trees to build a subdivision and then replants with some saplings from Home Depot, is much more reprehensible than some kid who breaks a branch trying to climb in one of those saplings.

I was proud of myself today. All on my own, I found my way back to the very spot in that wild place where my guide last Saturday showed me trailing arbutus. Here is a picture.

It’s not much to look at right now, but wait until I catch it in bloom!

As I walked back, I saw deer tracks.

Then, at a meadow’s edge, I found a feather, black and white, who knows from what. Later, I caught sight of a small bird balancing on a shrub. He was just far enough from me to be an indistinct blur and I longed for a good set of binoculars to see him better. I have not had such a longing before. Maybe I can make this my nature goal this year; to pay more attention to the birds around me.

And maybe somehow, I can involve a child. I don’t have any kids of my own but I have a niece, as I’ve mentioned. What fun we would have had today, looking at arbutus, pine cones, deer tracks and birds!

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Terror by night

Sweetie has forgiven me. But it took Her a few minutes to do so.

Just as we were falling asleep last night, I saw a horrible banshee creature with a ruined face, standing beside Her, by our bed. My protective instinct was to grab Sweetie and tell Her that I would protect Her from this thing.

Of course, there was nothing actually there. It's a mental phenomenon, documented in normal people around the world, sometimes called "The Old Hag Syndrome." Your brain, just as you are falling asleep, for some unexplained reason, conjures up a vision of some horrible creature of fiendishly evil mien, bent on doing you harm.

Usually when I see this thing -- and it has been many months since it last happened -- it is on my side of the bed and so Sweetie's only involvement is to shake me awake and comfort me.

Being grabbed in the middle of the night, by surprise, is not a pleasant experience. So I lay there with my heart pounding against my ribs, and She resisted the urge to hit me with the alarm clock.

Monday, January 21, 2008


Two of my blog friends have written about their personal history with tobacco this week, so I thought I'd put my two cents in.

A long time ago, when tempers were raging hot about the temperance movement, a politician was asked where he stood on the issue of alcohol, and he said something like this:

"Well, if you're talking about the spirits that warm the soul on a cold winter day, the convivial refreshment that gladdens the hearts of friends, I'm for it.

If you're talking about the demon drink that drives a man to madness, breaks up families and brings a tear to the faces of wives and children, I'm against it."

That is how I would express my feelings on the golden weed.

The aroma of a pipe is sweet and pleasant and it was once good enough for Santa Claus. A good cigar also perfumes the air and conveys a touch of class. And there is a camaraderie among smokers of cigarettes that we non-smokers can't replicate; there is a sultry glamour when a beautiful Woman leans in for a gentleman to give Her a light. And for a certain kind of guy, crimson lipstick on a snow-white filter lights a fire as hot as a cigarette's glowing cherry, creamy smoke rising from soft red lips melts him like butter in a hot pan -- but I've gone on about that before and won't tonight.

That side of tobacco cannot be denied, cannot be ignored, if we would speak truthfully and in totality about it.

But the sight of some down-on-his-luck soul digging through a public ashtray for a smokeable butt; the early aging of a beautiful face; the mounds of discarded butts at every stoplight; the sad stories of people who have lost loved ones prematurely -- this is the dark side of tobacco.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Joy fulfilled

Saturday was perfect from start to finish.

Bundled tight against the cold, I followed an expert botanist through a woodland in the heart of our city. I never expected that here in our Virginia flatlands, She would show me a certain plant that is often talked about, rarely seen.

It is trailing arbutus -- a lovely wildflower that bears a heavenly scent, I am told. Of course, what I saw this time of year was just a handful of leaves but I will return to that spot as spring conquers winter, and experience this legend for myself.

Then, from the quiet of that woodland, it was off to the theater with Sweetie and my little great Niece. Of course, She (great Niece, not Sweetie) wanted to blast Hannah Montana on the car CD player and we indulged Her.

She loved the movie Water Horse, shared a DQ Blizzard with us, and then spent some time playing games in the arcade. She was particularly attracted to that awful grabber-crane thing that gives you about ten seconds to try to grip some cheap little squishy toy. She spent about four of my dollars on the damn thing after which I called a halt to the bloodletting.

Oh, but how can one resist the quivering lip and the sad eyes of a six year old who just wants "one more chance, please?" Sweetie implored me as well and Sweetie generally gets Her way.

As She sank another dollar into the machine, I began to silently but fervently pray -- not so much for the sake of my wallet as for a little Girl to make a happy memory.

Scarce had I completed my earnest request of the Power Above when She (the Great Niece, not the Power Above) began to squeal. She had hooked not one but TWO of those squishy balls.

The day was saved.

I drove Sweetie and Her home through snow that was beginning to fall thick and fast, feeling quiet joy suffuse my soul.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

A great day ahead

If the damn bad weather holds off, I have a blissful day planned.

In a few minutes, I get to explore a vast,old, overgrown natural park in a nearby city, with botanical experts and people who are working to restore it.

After that, Sweetie and I will spend the day with our great-Niece. (Great Niece in law to me, of course). I enjoy nothing in the world more than indulging people I love.

We are taking Her to see the movie Water Horse, then out to eat, then to Barnes and Noble to pick out a book for Her very own.

I solemnly forbid Old Man Winter to interfere.

What do you think?

A certain writer is in a unique position to influence a decision that will forever affect the literary world. Seems that Vladmir Nabokov wrote one last book before he died -- and then ordered that it be burned after his death. The executor of his estate has not yet done so.

Full story:

Friday, January 18, 2008

Life long ago

So I knew, as you probably know, that the floaty rafts of rock we call continents were once one solid block and then broke apart, forming the familar map of today's world.

But I did not know, and maybe you didn't either, that the bump and grind of our planet was much more than a one-time dance. In the history of our planet, continents have come together, ripped apart, come together again, risen beneath the waves, sunk beneath them again and shivered at the poles only to steam at the equator millions of years later. Antarctica, for example, was once a mild and forested land. Mount Everest was once at the bottom of the ocean.

Smaller pieces have drifted around, thousands of miles from their parent continents and wedged themselves into new continents. Thus, Florida for example.

It is fascinating, fascinating stuff. Today I read about an extinct 2,000 pound rodent that once inhabited South America. It is believed that when North and South America collided long ago, North American herbivores ambled south and out-competed this mega-mouse, and it vanished.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

A wish for a Woman's New Year

Every so often, the feelings that I have, the absolute adoration that fills my soul for this astounding Being called Woman, just have to be expressed. I appreciate that I can indulge it here.

If only each one of You – every single one of You born to bear this sacred title – could comprehend fully Your power, Your beauty and Your worth!

You might be 85, bent and gnarled as an oak tree on a windy ridge – and still, You glow with unmistakable Feminine beauty and magic. You might be 16, na├»ve and just stepping out into life and yet You are wise beyond explanation.

Your skin may be mocha or latte, Your hair tight, coal-black curls or glistening gold but in Your diversity, beauty has a home.

Love Yourself. Please, love Yourself – and learn that by giving Your gifts and by being who You are, that that love will come easier. You deserve to feel that love and the love that others have for You. You are worth it. You are the heart-beat of the universe.

Vow in this fresh new year that You will neither speak nor think any foul and false words of self-loathing, that You will banish self-doubt, that You will stride forth to meet Your days with confidence as a Woman indeed, before whom all other creation pales in comparison. Every inch of You, from head to toe, from the curve of Your earlobes to the complexity of Your most intimate parts, every cell, every molecule, every atom of Your Feminine being is of ineffable, unfathomable splendor.

Odd lunchtime subject

I really hope, but of course don't dare promise, to blog about Afghanistan this weekend.

Meanwhile, I found this odd article on my lunch break today, a scholarly essay on the subject of human cannabalism.

"Cannibalism is a difficult topic for an anthropologist to write about, for it pushes the limits of cultural relativism, challenging one to define what is or is not beyond the pale of acceptable human behavior," writes Beth Conklin in her new book, Consuming Grief: Compassionate Cannibalism in an Amazonian Society [University of Texas Press]."

We should realize, a new generation of anthropologists tell us, that historic cannabalism may not always have been as Hollywood portrays it, wild-eyed people with bones in their noses hunting down a tasty trespasser.

In some societies, the dearly departed of a tribe were consumed as a way of showing respect.

And until quite recently, many people in Western Europe, who considered themselves the epitome of civilized, believed in the efficacy of medicines made from their fellow human beings.


Saturday, January 12, 2008

Muslim musings

For some reason today, I had a craving to get down from my shelf the Quran that I bought in college and read a little of it.

Then, while Sweetie and I were out on errands, I stopped in the library and hit a book jackpot. Someone, it seems, had finished up their course-work, pruned their collection or maybe just died, for five delicious books of similar theme were piled amidst the usual romance-novel drivel in the used-book sale section.

The last time that happened, I took home a wonderful selection of out-of-print WWII era books.

This time, it was of a match to my morning activities, namely, books on the Middle East and Islam.

They were: "Covering Islam," by Edward Said;

"Reading Loli*a in Tehran," by Azar Nafisi;

"The Multiple Identities of the Middle East," by Bernard Lewis;

"Iran: Historic and Cultural Persia," by Helen Loveday;

and most delicious-looking of all, "A History of the Arab Peoples," by Albert Hourani.

Sweetie groaned. "Where are you going to put them?" She said. She always says that. She is married to a book junkie who has been known to tear the car apart in search of a nickel or dime to get his "fix."

I paid just $2.50 for the whole collection. Of course I have no room for them. Of course I have no time to read them. Of course, even if I had time, if I stick to my personal reading program, it would be about ten years before I will read them. But I am happy just to have them close to me, snuggled in with all my other books, safe from rain, safe from the caprice of people who don't love books.

The World

From the busy cities and deep woods of Canada, to the balut stands of the Philippines, this world is a diverse and fascinating place.

We humans have created more than 200 countries. Some of them share languages with each other, such as Brazil and Portugal, Germany and Austria, Australia, the US and England. Some of them nurture more than one language within their national boundaries, such as India or the aforementioned Philippines.

Nearly ten years ago, I set myself a project, which I have at times pursued, at other times allowed to lapse. This new year of 2008, I am determinted to pursue it toward its end.

That is, to devote each month of the year to a different country, in alphabetical order for convenience. I will learn a few important words in the country's principal language, make a traditional food, find a blogger from that nation and get to know him or Her, and read at least one book by a native author.

If I get lazy or distracted one month, I will nonetheless move on to a new country the next month. Otherwise, I tend to get stuck on Andorra or redo Afghanistan. I need to keep up the pace to make this into a habit.

Why do this? Why not? Why not learn how to say thank you in Vietnamese or how to cook chicken the way they do in India? Why not derive pleasure from Egyptian poetry and make a friend from Cambodia?

So, once again, I start with Afghanistan. There is beauty and deep history to this land -- a story independent of, and long pre-dating, its modern woes.

On the map of the world, it is wedged between Pakistan and Iran. Alexander the Great campaigned here. Buddhism once flourished, before the coming of Islam. Pashtu, an Aryan language, is the principal tongue.

May 27 is its Independence Day.Khushhal Khan Khatak is considered the national poet of modern Afghanistan. Endemic plants include Mantha longifolia, but the nation's flora and fauna have been heavily damaged by both drought and war.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Coffee, cells and Nighty-night

How coffee (caffeine) actually works on the cellular level to keep you awake:

"Scientists once believed that the peppy chemical caffeine induced its effects by blocking the same sedating mechanisms that tranquilizers like Valium enhanced. But in 1981, researchers found that caffeine's kick stemmed from its relationship to the chemical adenosine.

Normally, adenosine attaches to special receiving areas on cells, or receptors, and sets off distinct actions. Studies of rats revealed, however, that caffeine stonewalls these receptors, blocks adenosine from carrying out its job, and as a result induces alertness. This suggested that adenosine plays a role in sleep. Now increasing evidence is confirming that, indeed, adenosine is an important "fatigue factor.""

Adenosine is a broken-down piece of a bigger molecule abbreviated as ATP. ATP is what gives us energy. Apparently, adenosine accumulates as you are awake and active, attaches to your cells and cues sleepiness.

So it's like the cellular equivalent of dirt accumulating on your car suggesting strongly to you that you ought to run it through the car wash. Or of waste products accumulating in your bladder, signifying with more urgency each minute that you really ought to take a trip to the restroom.

A whole lot is going on inside of you as you go about your daily business -- and as you sip that hot bean juice to try to chase off the Sandman!

I'm of course curious as to what plants use the caffeine alkaloid for, why they evolved it, since of course they don't need to worry about staying awake.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Interesting Site of The Day

It is amazing how, even with just a little lunchtime scrap of freetime, I can hop onto the Internet and find the oddest articles, the most interesting bits of writing.

Such as this blog:

A humorous diary, in the same vein as Kenny from Southpark, of the myriad ways in which its author dies daily but mysteriously is alive and well for the next adventure.

How did I find it? I typed "died of thirst" in a search engine, for no apparent reason.

Good news from China

That's a rare sentence to read. What with lingering Leninist oppression, artificial standards for the yuan, toxic toys and its support for loathsome regimes around the world, I'm not a big fan of the Chinese administration.

But I do applaud its ban, to take effect in June, on free plastic shopping bags.

China joins South Africa, Ireland and Taiwan in such an enlightened measure that will help to curb the epidemic of these turtle-choking, drain-blocking, roadside-blighting, ubitiquous menaces.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Weird fact of the day

From Wikipedia:

The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy notes that persimmons have been identified as causing epidemics of intestinal bezoars, and that up to ninety percent of food boluses that occur from eating too much of the fruit require surgery for removal.

Bezoar = a calciferous stone that forms in the intestines. Anciently reputed to have powers against poisons and therefore much valued.

Poison ivy

The woods near my house are cool and quiet this time of year. All is buried beneath a blanket of leaves, and the weak winter sunlight streams easily through the bare tree branches.

Nowhere to be seen is the scourge of summertime, poison ivy. Its leaves are gone but its living roots sleep beneath the soil, waiting for warmth to spread forth again its deadly bouquet of beauty.

For poison ivy is a lovely plant -- thus does it fool many the neophyte. If not for its nasty itch factor, it would surely be sold in every garden center and happily cultivated around the world.

Your dog can gleefully roll in poison ivy. A goat can eat it. Birds gorge themselves on the berries. But you, poor human, cannot even so much as touch the damn leaves unless you really enjoy scratching your skin to shreds.


We share this sensitivity only with our closest cousins in the primate world.

Apparently, at some point in our common evolution we must have picked up a gene for ivy-misery that lower forms of life do not have. How, I wonder, when the stuff, native to America, predates the arrival of humans to these shores, and no other higher primates even live here (in North America) outside of zoos and maybe Bigfoot.

Evolution, genetics, chemistry ... life is rich with so many questions that no one has answered yet.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Linking Janice

Tonight I deleted two old blog links of people who've never visited here and who I have not visited in a while. Then, I added a new blog. Some of you already know Janice and admire Her gift of painting a vivid image with just a few words. To the rest of you, I say, visit Her blogworld and enjoy!

Pie on my mind

Supposedly, people with lame blogs resort to writing about their dinner. I don't know who thought up that rule, because I like reading about adventures in gastronomy -- and there wouldn't be an entire television channel and a dozen magazines devoted to the subject if others didn't feel as I do.

Today I got a craving to make a pie -- a steamy, savory chicken pie. I thought about it all afternoon -- and then I did it.

I diced up a couple potatoes and a chicken breast, some celery, peas, garlic and onion and then simmered it in chicken stock with pepper and a little dried thyme from the garden. I was afraid that if I just poured the raw ingredients into the pie shell, it would be done long before they were. I thickened the mixture with a little corn starch and water, then spooned it into a pie shell and baked it about 1/2 hour at 400 degrees.

The crust was just browned and the filling not too dry, not too soupy.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

My grandfather

"Your grandpa thinks he is on his way out," my Mother said last night on the phone. "He's had the flu and he's just very down."

It sucks to be old, so old that all one's friends have passed away, so old that one can no longer drive, so old that one can hardly hear and barely see.

My grandfather has always been a sweet-tempered, hard-working, humorous man. And it is hard to watch such a good man suffer so.

He is now the age that his brother was when he died, and he has taken it as an omen.

Friday, January 4, 2008

The Society of Science, modern Olympus

While we mere mortals go about our daily business of tending children, answering phones, or assembling corporate projects and such, a society of Great Minds is at work, all over the world, scarcely noticed until breakthroughs are made.

They are scientists. "Science," literally, means "knowledge." So they are "knowers."

I blogged yesterday about a mysterious ingredient in my potato chips: disodium guanylate.

Today I was reading through a webpage about bacterial toxicity. I'd be a damnable liar if I said I understood half the terms on that page, but still, it fascinated me. How things work fascinates me. How they affect other things fascinates me. For example, we know that poison ivy makes you itch. Well, why, when the leaf of a bean plant does not? And then you get into a whole discussion about the oil urushiol and how humans are allergic to it but birds and other animals are not; and the whole mechanism of allergenic response, and you could talk for hours.

For example, I recently finished reading a book about syphilis, which did not answer one basic question that I had about the disease: what exactly does T. pallidium, the syphilis germ, do to cause the host of problems that it creates in the body?

According to this webpage, if I understood it correctly, some bacteria actually secrete enzymes and such that cause our cells, which are just tiny balloons full of vital goo, to leak and thus die. Maybe t. pallidium does that. And how, specifically, these enzymes bind to cells and then break in -- microbial burglars as it were -- is the provenance of those Very Smart People in the lab coats.

It also noted that e.coli, which has been in the news so much lately, secretes a toxin that not only flushes electrolytes and water from your intestinal tract -- i.e., keeps you on the pot in pain -- but also stimulates guanylate cyclase.

There's that g-word again. The additive in my potato chips. Or rather, some chemical combo that includes it.

G.C. regulates cellular proteins. The plot thickens.

Here's the page, for your reference and mine:

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Blogging woes

How long will this blog last?

I have several webfriends, once fanatic bloggers, who have not posted to their sites in months. I miss them. I wonder if they have tired of the work that is required in keeping a blog going, if they have lost the passion.

Sometimes days, even weeks, go by, when I don't update my blog either.

It's not as if I don't have ideas. I have folders full of clippings and downloads that I find interesting and about which I would like to comment. Things happen everyday that are bloggable.

I suppose I am just lazy.

I have kept a written journal since 1986 -- sometimes writing daily, sometimes slacking off for weeks. I suppose my blog will follow this pattern.

I'm not going to pull the plug. I do enjoy this outlet, very much. And I especially enjoy the responses that you all provide to me, even if I am sometimes negligent or slow in replying.

Odd ingredients

Inscribed on the ingredient list for the bag of chips I munched this morning was this oddity:

Disodium guanylate.

Since guany- sounds disturbingly close to the word for the stinky stuff that bird colonies deposit on tropical nesting grounds, I felt compelled to do some research.

No connection.

DG is the disodium salt of guanosine monophosphate.

Wikipedia informs me that it: Is also known as 5'-guanidylic acid or guanylic acid and abbreviated GMP, is a nucleotide that is found in RNA. It is an ester of phosphoric acid with the nucleoside guanosine.

GMP consists of the phosphate group, the pentose sugar ribose, and the nucleobase guanine. Guanosine monophosphate is produced from dried fish or dried seaweed.[citation needed]

Guanosine monophosphate in the form of its sodium salt disodium guanylate (E627) is a food additive used as a flavor enhancer to provide the umami [savory] taste.

I wonder how "they" discover stuff like this. Do scientists in gleaming labs boil bits of fish and seaweed down to the bare molecules and then taste the distillates?