How Things Are Going…

.

Getting my chest port put back in was like admitting defeat – like I’d completely lost control of the situation.  Okay – so now it’s gonna kill me again and I gotta do something terrifying, frustrating, humiliating, and more than anything – humbling and violating to stop it.   God damned this f***ing disease and everything that its done to bring me to my knees begging for mercy.  It truly has been my nemesis – eating away at me relentlessly for years on end, slowly dissolving any and all of the cherished abilities I once had as a physical being.

Just like the last time this is about to be the best and worst year of my life – all at once.  Back when I was first diagnosed with this rare and deadly cancer it was 4 months after I’d just gotten married to the most understanding, beautiful, and unbelievably tough little woman in the entire world.  She reinforced over and again as she single-handedly drug me through treatment all alone in NY city that year that as long as I was doing okay then she was okay.  Imagine being stuck with someone really sick for a year in a little apartment all alone and thousands of miles from all of your friends and family.  The only lifeline she often had was the telephone.  And yet she really only got upset and cried twice that entire time, and it was only because I was getting my ass kicked so badly by the treatment.  So I did whatever I could during those times to climb back out of the meteoric crater that I’d been cast into in order to struggle back to being “okay.”  I couldn’t stand hurting and seeing her like that.  To me it was the worst thing a person could do to another that they dearly loved right after promising dreams of fulfillment, and a life of companionship and adventure together.

Now I have a baby.  The baby was born on the same day that the doctors told me that the cancer was back – in the same exact location in my back – and that we’d need to do several extremely dangerous emergency surgeries to remove that cursed vertebra and everything around it.  She actually arrived three weeks early.  She was due on October 5th and was born on September 15th – just in time, incidentally, for me to be there for the birth.  Any later and I would have either been in surgery or recovery and therefore unable to do the 36-hour stint of spousal support that it took to bring that beautiful little package into the world.  Seeing my baby born was just the coolest thing… just so damned amazing – especially considering that I was never supposed to be able to conceive of such after what cancer treatment did to sterilized me the first time.  And I would have so terribly regretted not being there.  She and mommy evidently understood this and coordinated a miraculous effort to insure that I would be, and that I even had a sort of protection against the bad news that day.  You know that feeling of relief and euphoria you get when a baby’s born – that high you get after being up for about 2 straight days and finally know that momma and baby are gonna be alright – that’s what I had the day I walked over from her hospital room into to the appointment room where I got the bad news.  I heard what they were saying – knew it was terrible – and yet it didn’t bother me.  A night’s sleep later and everything came crashing down – but that one day was pure peace and calm – from 7:15 am in the morning when she was born, all the way through the time I collapsed on the pillow that night.

What the baby did to help protect me that day can only equate to true love and intent, and it’s something I’ll always cherish and remember. Not surprisingly they say that dads often take a while to warm up to their new babies, and it’s usually as a result of being kind of disconnected from the process.  They’re not carrying and therefore not nearly as in touch as much as the moms.  All said, however – I knew what kind of gift I was getting the day she was born early. It was awe-inspiring.  And I was so grateful to both baby and mom for making such a caring and Herculean effort to do what it took to make it happen.

.

Best and worst years… No one can really comprehend the guilt I feel for putting my wife and now baby through this a second time.  There is a deep sadness that envelopes everything – something that’s been really hard for me to get over.  My wife’s aunt and mother were with us for about 3-weeks.  Before that it was my own mom and dad – taking care of just about everything as I recovered from all of the surgeries and prepared once again for chemo.  This – all while Cris was getting back on her feet after the delivery in order to go back to work right away since we’re gonna need the money for daycare assistance and the thousands in extra co-pays and uninsured prescriptions.  Every time I think about her mom and aunt leaving I get choked up and can’t breathe. It’s not just that I miss them.  It’s that I can’t stand the idea of putting my wife through this again – thousands of miles from family with an invalid for a husband and now a baby to care for as well.  Luckily we didn’t have to move away from home this time.  Our circle of friends are within easy reach and one of her sisters is even living with us long term.  It doesn’t change the guilt I feel however.  It’s as if I’m letting them down again just when they need me the most.

.

Chemo Regiment – Day 3 of 120:  I’m scheduled to be in treatment for a year and am already feeling sick to my stomach after just two cycles.  My breath and skin smell like chemical waste, and every time I go to the bathroom the unnatural odor almost makes me want to vomit.  I’ve got another 118 of these to go… to check in, wait, get weighed, record temp and blood pressure, wait, and then get poked painfully in the chest with a needle to get everything started.  From the time we leave the house to when we finally get back home takes about 3 to 4-hours – a colossal waste of time, energy and money – every day of the week for two weeks, then off for a week, then back on again for another two weeks, on and on into eternity.  At a time when a person’s quality of life should be at its best, it’s at its worst – squandered and wasted in waiting rooms and care centers.  The last time I went through this it was with innocent little babies in the pediatric ward in NY City.  You see a baby go through something like this and all you can think of is – “If that baby can do it then so can I.” This time I’m with a bunch of older folk here in Portland.  It’s been almost six years since the last time and I’m tired.  In all that time, and after all that I’ve tried, I never regained even a modicum of my full athletic ability and am therefore starting now from a far weaker standpoint.  The old folk aren’t helping to raise my fighting spirit – not like the babies did.  Maybe it’s the shear audacity of seeing a child with cancer or because of their innocence or of how babies symbolize “possibility” where older folk somehow do not.  I don’t know, but whatever the case, the older folk aren’t even remotely as motivating as those babies were.

I sit here now waiting for my third treatment to begin and wonder once again why so much pain and suffering has been reserved for a single person and his family. I think about that all the time now.  Why – when there are so many evil, and therefore far more deserving people in the world, does another good one end up with a disease like this?  It’s a frustrating question that I’ll never receive an answer for.  And yet in all of this – all of this tragedy – there is some consolation.  By some stroke of luck or inevitability I’ve experienced more real and substantive miracles than most people will ever have in a lifetime.  I’m not particularly religious or important, or even wise for that matter, and yet here I am – still alive – clearly miracle number one – and with a beautiful, healthy baby girl – easily miracle number two.  Much of this is thanks to the unwavering efforts of yet a third miracle – my loving and beautiful wife.  And there were plenty of others along the way, like for instance the baby’s birth date and how it coincided with my latest diagnosis… one happenstance after another that often defied description, reason, or logic and that I’m far too tired to talk about here in any significant detail.  All those miracles… all for one person and his family… the only substance besides family and good friends that have kept me going.

.

Mentor Traps

To the students among us.  May you use this knowledge to fare better than those that came before you.  Seriously though – an article written both to our next generation’s emerging workforce as well as the mentors that help to guide them.
.
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by…  John Masefield (1878-1967)

.

I’ve often said that you can raise a kid to have great values, ethics, and habits only to watch as they ruin it all by marrying (or partnering with) the wrong person!  Funny, yes.  But there’s also an element of truth to it.  The simple fact is – incompatible companions have just as profound an influence on the thoughts and behaviors of their partners as that of compatible ones.  The difference is that the incompatible ones tend to draw out and/or amplify their partner’s negative rather than positive attributes.  The same could be said of impressionable college-aged graduates and their first working-world mentors.  In my experience, the fastest way to ruin those who may have otherwise become model engineers is to expose them to the wrong mentors.

This isn’t about problem solving.  Real-world engineering involves a great deal more than challenging technical problems.  There are deadlines that can’t be met without short cuts, tenuous relationships among team members and management because of divergent ideas on how or why something should or should not be done, etc. Perspectives and agendas abound.  Some want to do it right the first time regardless of time or resource expenditure.  Others just want to do their 8-5 and go home.  Still others politic and position for we know not what.  And there are even those that go so far as to claim responsibility for the work of others or try to sabotage reputations and advances.  Work long enough and you’ll see just about everything.  Beyond the world of knowledge and skill lay a minefield of egos, reputations and agendas, some of which are powered by mentoring.  It’s not hard to believe then that a graduate’s first mentors can have a profound and lasting influence on his or her perspectives and behaviors – not just because of how impressionable students tend to be as they make their first full-time transition to the professional workforce, but because of the fact that their mentors have a strong vested interest in perpetuating their own mindset, reputation and agendas.  Good or bad, it comes down to this: The more people that follow a certain code, the more those that own the code can justify it, as well as their own actions and behaviors.

.

Right out of grad school (Age: 33) I snagged an electrical engineering position in a hardware design group under a 20-year veteran.  He was renowned not just for his vast breadth of knowledge and experience at the company, but that golden and much sought after ability to “git er dun” during crunch time.  At the point of my arrival he’d already been mentoring two college-aged (20-something) graduates for over a year.  And it was amazing to see how these protégés so obviously mirrored his attitudes, perspectives, and behaviors.  None of it appeared to be bad – just a little weird considering my natural resistance to said influence because of age and experience.  And I really had no problem with “The Three Bobs” (as I liked to call them) until the moment of our inevitable philosophical divergence.  Evidently The Bobs didn’t believe in writing anything “unnecessary” down – not for their own sake or for that of posterity.  I discovered this fact about a month into a project while trying to dig up some test plan information.

Soon enough I found that there were missing files for a lot of things – no functional specs, test plan documentation, historical performance data, nothing – except for maybe a design schematic and some build files that were required to construct production-ready circuit boards during fabrication.  Every single design they’d ever touched – every one was missing the bulk of what would normally be considered standard, useful, and even vital information. And they got away with it because of two reasons.  Mainly, they were always too busy.  Whenever management loaded on new work, The Bobs would neglect to mention anything pertaining to documentation and the need or required hours to complete it.  Beyond that, company culture reinforced the lack of necessity here by putting far more emphasis on activities like design and troubleshooting rather than the systematic pursuit of holistic engineering.  There was always enough time for action, but never enough for the monotonous burden of putting things down on paper so that someone else could deal with it.  They were literally positioning themselves to be indispensable – at least according to their perspective.  And I was reminded of this weekly as they’d laugh it up about job security and the fact that no one else knew what the hell was going on.

.

As an outsider to all of this, you might find yourself wondering and then finally just asking a question like the following:

“How did everything come to this in the first place?”

And the answer is actually fairly simple – people like The Bobs propagating their mindset and agendas to the point where those ideas and agendas became integral to the culture.  That should give you a sense for the profound impact that bad mentoring can have on a system.  And it’s something to consider very seriously as you make that full-time transition into the professional workforce.  We’d all like to believe that we’re resistant to significant influence, and that our values and behaviors are autonomous and inflexible.  But the reality is vastly different.  People in transition tend to be impressionable. And when we’re transitioning into something big and important, we all have a propensity for bending over backwards and aiming to please.  It’s natural and simply reveals a measure of care for what’s being addressed.  But, as previously illustrated, it can be taken too far.  If you value your ideals – if you want to maintain some semblance of an idealistic and sovereign work ethic – these are the kinds of influences you’ll need to be aware of and maintain some vigilance over.

.

On the whole all I can say is that these young engineers were somewhat, if not irreparably damaged.  Nothing you could say or do after that would likely convince them that they were doing anything wrong.  Furthermore, they had the reinforcement of everyone around them to prove it.  So even if the financial impact from this kind of behavior was obvious to people like me, it didn’t matter since no one was keeping track.

Personally I’ve always believed that a great engineer leaves a roadmap of which anyone can follow. And what makes you truly irreplaceable is not what you hide from others, but rather what you are capable of empowering them with. In this way you are quite literally easy to obsolete or replace, because everything you do can be understood and sustained by someone else. But it also makes you highly mobile. Management never has to worry about dragging you back onto your former projects simply because no one else has a clue.  You’re always onto the next thing, always a moving target, always hard to hit. And on top of that, your prior work has your signature all over it. No one can deny that you did it, which can obviously be good or bad depending on how sloppy or shortsighted you are. At any rate – this philosophy goes great distances to assure accountability at the source, which is something I wholeheartedly believe in.  Nuff said.

.

Present-Day Marketing Math

For These Guys,  1 + 1  =  1-Zillion

.

There’s a Dilbert Episode [1] where he ends up being canned for revealing company secrets, only to find himself employed shortly thereafter by Nirvana Company – “The greatest engineering firm on the planet.” Unlike his prior employer, Nirvana wasn’t plagued by absurd or misguided constraints imposed by the whimsy of a marketing department that the former was literally being choked to death by.  And so, after a time, a morbid sense of curiosity prompted Dilbert to ask what happened to Nirvana’s marketing division.  Come to find out they never had one.  But executive management was intrigued by the idea.  You can see the writing on the wall here.  Implementation of said division immediately resulted in chaos which prompted a precipitously disastrous chain of events that ended up leveling the company.

I think that was the episode that sealed it for me.  I was laughing all the way to the point where I realized how unfunny it actually was.  And then I never watched another episode again.  Not unexpectedly I’ve found myself in similarly frustrating circumstances where marketing jack-@sses literally ran projects right off the rails with totally unrealistic demands and deadlines… and it wasn’t funny then either.  The scariest part of the whole thing was how wrong they often were and how little they ended up paying for all of it. We’d go to enormous trouble most of the time to design everything to meet ‘supposed’ customer demands only to find later that the customers could care less, or that it didn’t provide any competitive advantage whatsoever.  Any time there were serious design flaws we paid for it with tireless hours of work and stress.  But when marketing forced us to design entirely the wrong product?   Well.  Heads never seemed to roll then.

“So all that trouble we went to just to defy the laws of physics weren’t even what they actually wanted?  Yeah.  There’s a surprise.”

What is it about marketing guys these days that make them so despicable?  And why is that they’re so easy to hate even from a customer perspective?  Whatever the case, they’re rapidly working their way to the top of ‘the most hated’ list along with sleazy CEO’s, corporate strategists and attorneys.

.

Here’s a perfect example of what I’m talking about.  Credit card companies have made so many underhanded changes to cardholders’ existing agreements, and stolen so much money in fees and sneaky interest, that it’s a wonder financial reform didn’t happen sooner.  Consider these remarks by the President at the recent signing of The Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure Act:

Contracts are drafted not to inform, but to confuse.  Mysterious fees appear on statements.  Payment deadlines shift.  Terms change.  Interest rates rise.  And suddenly, a credit card becomes less of a lifeline and more of an anchor.

That’s what happened to Janet Hard of Freeland, Michigan, who’s here today.   Where’s Janet?  Right here.  Janet is a nurse.  Her husband is a pipefitter.  They’ve got two boys.  Janet and her husband have tried to be responsible; she’s made her payments on time.  But despite this, Janet’s interest rate was increased to 24%.  And that 24% applied not just for new purchases, but retroactively to her entire balance. And so, despite making steady payments totaling $2,400 one year, her debt went down only by $350 that year.

And Janet’s family is not alone.  Over the past decade, credit card debt has increased by 25% in our country.  Nearly half of all Americans carry a balance on their cards.  Those who do, carry an average balance of more than $7,000.  And as our economic situation worsened — and many defaulted on their debt as a result of a lost job, for example — a vicious cycle ensued.  Borrowers couldn’t pay their bills, and so lenders raised rates.  As rates went up, more borrowers couldn’t pay.

Millions of cardholders have seen their interest rates jump in just the past six months.  One in five Americans carry a balance that has been charged interest rates above 20%.  1 in 5.

I also want to emphasize, these are costs that often hit responsible credit card users.  Interest can be charged even if you pay your bill on time.  Rates can be increased on outstanding balances even if you aren’t late with a payment.  And if you sit — if you start to pay down your balance, which is the right thing to do, a company can require you to pay down the debt with the lowest interest rate first — instead of the highest — which makes it much harder to ever get out of the red. [2]

(See the accompanying testimony for all of the glorious details on corporate misbehavior)

Somewhere out there are a group of marketing weasels and strategists that get paid exorbitant salaries and bonuses to exploit and change little pieces of existing card agreements in order to squeeze out every last drop of profit in fees and interest.  And for companies that already pull down about 1-3% on every single transaction [3] for every credit card in use, it’s truly disgraceful. I don’t honestly know how these guys can sleep at night.

.

Just to balance the scales a bit, here’s one for the playbooks of anyone interesting in proper marketing strategy.  The cell phone sector has been so saturated and ultra competitive that you’d think there was no room for another product let alone half the ones that are already out there.  And yet – Apple Inc. not only managed to crack into that market but break it wide open while simultaneously stealing market share from seasoned industry veterans like Nokia.  How could something like this happen?  Easily – and for two simple, but significant reasons.

Design Side: First and foremost the engineers and software developers went nuts creating the ultimate cell phone – something that other companies hadn’t been willing to do for years.  In the grand scheme of things they also limited project scope in order to successfully test what they had without overextending on peripheral features that obviously weren’t ready, and one could argue, weren’t yet necessary – examples being cut-and-paste, search, etc.  And then, only after rigorous testing with its iTunes interface, did they release the product – not before – but after the engineering and software groups were satisfied that it all worked properly together.  And that’s it.  They made a great, new, cutting-edge product suite and then made sure that it actually worked before releasing it.  Novel, isn’t it? And what a way to show competitors the obvious superiority of vast, flexible, touch-sensitive screen real estate!

Marketing Side: Apple’s marketing execs not only pegged what customers would want in a next-gen high-tech device, but allowed the engineering staff to go unmolested and hog wild making it… and then priced and marketed accordingly.   In my mind there hasn’t been a finer example of surgical and appropriate marketing in at least a decade – not on the design or sales side.  And that about covers it for significant reason number one.

The second significant reason that Apple cracked the cell phone market was because of the nicklin-and-dimin that competitors have been doing for years.  One thing that marketing weasels never clue in on with consumers is how much they h-a-t-e when companies try to capitalize on microscopically insignificant upgrades to a product.  Word to the marketing sector – once again – wringing out every last drop of profit from a product before moving on just pisses customers off, so stop doing it. Either sell something significantly advanced for a reasonable price or don’t bother selling it.  All told – if you cell phone marketing hacks are still wondering why it was so easy to wipe out the competition, stop belaboring the issue.  It doesn’t take a genius.  All I can say as both a hardware designer and consumer is that it was great to finally see some marketing masterminds stomp all over an entire industry sector of their weasel cohorts.

.

I want to elaborate on the idea of  “pegging what customers would want”  for a minute.  The auto industry.  Here we have a sector of powerhouses without a clue.  In their defense they’d say that they’ve done rigorous marketing research for years only to discover that customers want big, powerful, safe vehicles and don’t care enough about fuel economy.  Auto marketing idiots – have you ever thought about asking people the right questions, like for instance what they’d really want if gas prices went up?  I’d be willing to bet hands down that the answer would look something like this:

Well – first and foremost – a vehicle with great gas mileage, of course!”

I mean – it’s inevitable right?  So why not assume that it’s gonna happen sooner than later and find out what consumers would want from next generation products.  And then here’s a crazy idea – deliver it rather than running the same old scenarios over and over again and showing the same stale results.  Couldn’t that just as easily be classified as insanity?  Or it is just plain stupidity?  Whatever the case it’s too late to tell American automakers what Toyota et al. already knew and acted upon over a decade ago – that big industry leaders don’t just have the ability and vast resources to look forward and discover what customers would want under changing conditions, but the responsibility to make it happen when the time comes – to help bring us across the divide so to speak – rather than, once again, holding us back and essentially hostage while they squeeze out every last drop of profitability from the same old crap.  Industry leaders – do what the title says and lead!

.

BIG PICTURE NOW:  Change is hard.  We all know that.  And it’s even harder when you’ve invested heavily into something and are trying to get reasonable returns on that investment.  But there’s a difference between the reasonable and the obscene.  And a lot of companies are shooting for the latter these days in an effort to maintain adherence to what I’ve coined as “the ever increasing profit and growth model. For some reason corporate success (most notably with respect to publicly traded companies) is now based on the absurd idea that if you’re not constantly growing then there’s something fundamentally wrong.  And this mentality has got to change because in a world with finite size and resources it’s obviously unsustainable.  Companies are imploding because of this philosophy all the time.  They’re running themselves right into extinction whenever even moderate adversity occurs.  One plus one does not equal 1-zillion people.  It’s not good business or innovative or even progressive to suck the marrow out of every last bone of your customer-base. It’s desperate and despicable.  So get your marketing humps off of our backs, and above all – prescribe to a different success model!  Otherwise you’ll risk angering and losing any loyal following and ultimately that of your entire customer-base.

On that heavy note, I leave you with something a bit lighter and possibly even more entertaining – Time Magazine’s “20 Reasons to Hate the Airlines”:

How much is it worth to you to cut in line at the airport? You can find out this summer, as several airlines have begun charging passengers a fee (between $10 and $30, depending on the airline) for the privilege of being first in line to board, ahead of that family of four with seven carry-ons. It’s just the latest in the airlines’ long campaign to boost their bottom line by quietly upping fees, cutting back on services and finding new ways of charging customers for things they used to get for free. Indeed, ever since the 1978 deregulation of the airline industry, the history of air travel has been one long, painful chronicle of nickel-and-diming the consumer to distraction. Here’s a brief history, in 20 chapters. (Hit this LINK to continue on to the list) [4]

.

.


.

[1] Dilbert Episode 3 – Entirtled “The Competition”.  He actually gets canned for sneaking in to answer his office telephone.

.

.

[2] SOURCE:  White House – Office of the Press Secretary, May 22, 2009.  EVENT:  President at the signing of The Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure Act.  Embedded LINK here.

.

SOURCE:  New York Times, TITLE:  Obama Signs Overhaul of Financial System, DATE:  July 21, 2010,  AUTHOR:  Helene Cooper,  LINK: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/22/business/22regulate.html?bl

.

For the whole story see the following testimony:

Testimony of Adam J. Levitin, Associate Professor of Law, Georgetown University Law Center, Hearing: Credit Card Industry Practices, 3/13/2008, U.S. House Committee on Financial Services, Subcommittee on Financial Institutions and Consumer Credit.

.

Testimony of Adam J. Levitin: Modernizing Consumer Protection in the Financial Regulatory System; Strengthening Credit Card Protections: Hearing Before the S. Comm. On Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, 111th Cong., Feb. 12, 2009.

.

SOURCE:  The Consumerist – Shoppers Bite Back.  TITLE:  Nobody Knows the True Cost of Credit, AUTHOR:  Carey Alexander, DATE:  December 31, 2007 12:15 AM, LINK:  http://consumerist.com/2007/12/nobody-knows-the-true-cost-of-credit.html

.

.

[3] SOURCE:  Website called “The True Cost of Credit.”  LINK:  http://truecostofcredit.com/

More at…  http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/01/28/the-true-cost-of-credit/

More at… http://consumerist.com/2009/01/your-credit-card-costs-consumers-50000000000-per-year.html

.

.

[4] TITLE:  And So It Continues, AUTHORS:  Richard Zoglin, Christine Lim and Deirdre Van Dyk Friday, Jul. 09, 2010.

LINK: http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,2002620_2002604_2002582,00.html

LINK: http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/completelist/0,29569,2002620,00.html

.

Piles of Legislation

This one’s a work in process…

  • From a Bill Moyer’s Journal Interview:  “Unnecessary complexity just creates rich opportunities for systemic corruption”?

.

    They’re Doing This On Purpose

    .

    It’s not really the problems that are incomprehensible these days but the piles of legislation that attempt to address them.  Right now the country’s involved in four daunting legislative challenges:  Healthcare [i], financial [ii], chemical/toxics [iii],[iv] and climate reform [v] – all of which are happening somewhat simultaneously.  And deep down you’ve got to wonder – If everyone knows what’s at stake with something as big as financial reform or climate change, shouldn’t it be easy to craft straightforward legislation?  I mean if there was ever a time…  And yet, regardless of the indisputable evidence to the contrary, we’re still squabbling about the financial sector’s ability to self-regulate and the substance and prospective impact of climate change.  So the answer is likely a big NO-on-all-fronts regarding the enactment of comprehensible, easily enforceable legislation.

    Once again it seems that our ability to suspend disbelief overpowers even immutable evidence – especially when it comes to expansive issues that demand sweeping changes.  But there’s obviously more to it than that.  And as far as I can tell, no one’s summed it up better than Mike Tidwell, head of The Chesapeake Climate Action Network.

    Who?” you might ask…

    Don’t worry – you’ll remember this guy after reading what he had to say in Copenhagen during the 2009 UN Climate Change Conference.  It just goes to show how simply such complicated issues can be encapsulated and explained.

    Frank Sesno:  “Mike let me start by just asking you to put in the most simple terms you possibly can what’s at stake in Copenhagen.”

    Mike Tidwell:  “…It’s like President Mohamed Nashid of the Maldives said yesterday here in Copenhagen during a very passionate and emotional speech to about 1500 people in downtown Copenhagen.  You know, he said we’d like to negotiate – we’d like to compromise in the typical political fashion – but the planet’s basic physics and biology don’t compromise in that way, and that we have to get to this level – 350 ppm carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by 2100 or we’re going to lose the planet upon which human civilization developed.  So I think what’s at stake is the world finally understanding that there’s a number by which we can measure treaty success or failure.  It’s no longer about well – it’s good enough, it’ll get us through, we’ll muddle along. Since the arctic ice melt season of 2007 when James Hanson and others said – We’ve obviously crossed a trigger point in one major ecological system – arctic ice.  And from that, Hanson and others were able to determine – Here’s what we believe is the best safety number for global warming pollution atmosphere – 350 ppm.  Now we’re in Copenhagen trying to negotiate a treaty that gets us toward that number.  And that’s what I think is really at stake – Do we accept as a planet and as all the nations of the planet that we finally have a clear road map and we finally have a way to really judge progress.”

    Sesno:  “What’s your definition of success out of Copenhagen?”

    Tidwell:  “Well, I don’t know what that definition necessarily would be.  But I do know that a bad treaty is worse than no treaty at all.  I think that if we leave Copenhagen without an agreement, then we’re better than leaving with an agreement that locks us in to 700/800 ppm. There’s an MIT team here that’s literally hour by hour taking all the commitments, all the goals being set out by the different nations and plugging them into a formula that spits out what those various commitments from India, China, and the United States would get us in 2100.  And right now the latest is 770-ppm CO2 if we take everything that’s on the table right now.  That’s obviously…  If we get a treaty that locks us into that, we’re much better off with gridlock and disagreement and hope for something better in 2010 than to officially and by international law committing to that suicide pact.”

    And now the enlightening part…

    Sesno: “What do you think is the most difficult issue between where we are and the success you want?  Is it political?  Is it economic?  Is it technical?”

    Tidwell:  “I think that the same problem we have now that we had twelve years ago in Kyoto and all the years in between is basic human denial.  It appears that we’re not really well-wired as a species to deal with this issue.  We’ve never been really well-wired for long-range horizons.  Human beings tend to accept a smaller reward now than the promise of a bigger reward later.  It’s just the way we are and there’s obviously an evolutionary benefit of some kind to that. But you’re starting to see that denial melt away in the same way that you’re seeing the arctic ice disappear.  Al Gore was here at the Copenhagen talks yesterday and unveiled some new science from the National Postgraduate Naval Academy that showed that the arctic could be completely ice-free in the summer by 2014.  That denial is starting to erode, that human denial, but it’s not eroding as fast as the literal ice is, so we’ve got to overcome the denial.  Look – the technological means to solve this problem are clearly with us.  The city of Copenhagen itself emits one-sixth the per-capita carbon emissions as a resident of Washington DC…” [vi]

    “We’ve never been really well-wired for long-range horizons.” From where I’m standing that’s got to be the understatement of the century.  In a world that’s wildly overpopulated and ever more overly consumptive, it would appear as though we’re rather poorly-wired than anything else.  And among other things this shortsightedness, or denial as it were, is something that many a poorly wired industry and government official has striven to ‘proliferate’ – an appropriate word considering how similar the spread of denial is to that of nuclear weapons, since neither could possibly lead to anything good.  As for denial as it relates to government?  The results have either been a lack of properly evolving regulatory measures and control, or that which is driven by massive tomes of incomprehensible legislation. It’s as if there’s no happy medium here at all – because where massive tomes reside so too does misinterpretation, and thus the incapacity, once again, to enact and maintain proper enforcement measures.  Frustration on this front was best expressed recently in an Alternet article, which blasted the country’s latest efforts to produce coherent climate legislation:

    “If that plucky, animated, singing scrap of paper from Schoolhouse Rock! –‘(I’m Just a) Bill’– were around today, he’d be begging us to keep him out of the Senate. That’s where good ideas go to get their teeth knocked out, to get fattened with pork and disfigured with loopholes, coming out the other end as Frankenstein versions of the initiatives they once were. We’re left asking, is this creature something we can live with and improve over time, as was the case with healthcare reform? Or is the result so hopelessly compromised that it ought never see the light of day?

    Unfortunately, when it comes to climate change legislation, all signs are pointing to system failure. Congress urgently needs to pass a comprehensive climate bill, but the current Senate proposal, spearheaded by senators Kerry, Lieberman and Graham, threatens to do more harm than good. It is not only inadequate to the task of curbing climate change; it could curtail the power of the EPA and state governments to regulate greenhouse gases–the best avenues for action in the face of Congress’s failures.

    The cap-and-trade bill that Obama originally proposed was by no means perfect. It did not even try to meet the target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, what the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says is minimally necessary from industrialized nations to avoid a chain-reaction climate catastrophe. But it did include a key mechanism that environmentalists regard as essential for cap and trade to work effectively: it would have auctioned off 100 percent of carbon credits, rather than giving them away, thereby raising funds that could be used to offset the burden of higher energy prices on low- and middle-income families and be invested in renewable energy.

    By the time the 1,427-page Waxman-Markey bill squeaked through the House last June, however, those crucial elements of the Obama proposal had been eviscerated. Waxman-Markey would sell only 15 percent of carbon credits at an initial auction, with the rest doled out to polluters, free. Waxman-Markey also includes other concessions to the fossil fuel industry–most alarming, stripping the EPA of much of its regulatory power over greenhouse gases (see Christian Parenti, “The Case for EPA Action,” in this issue).

    The outlook in the Senate is, if anything, worse. At this writing, its final details have not been released, but from early reports it appears that the Kerry-Lieberman-Graham bill would keep and extend the worst aspects of Waxman-Markey: inadequate emissions-reduction targets (only 3 percent below 1990 levels by 2020), too many free permits and too many allowances for carbon offsets, which are of dubious value in fighting climate change (see Heather Rogers, “Offset Buyers Beware,” in this issue).” [vii], [viii]

    In their defense legislators would likely say that these are complex issues requiring carefully crafted measures, the details of which encompass thousands of pages.  The reality is that the issues aren’t nearly as complex as officials would have them appear.  The science behind problems like climate change or toxics exposure is complicated, yes, but it’s also definitive.  In both cases the science continues to prove significant impact and harm, and therefore the absolute necessity for a response that incites protective action. And although “science” per se may not fully cover issues like health care or financial reform, there’s plenty of factual evidence to prove, once again that a call to serious action is necessary.  Most importantly – proposed action doesn’t need to be complicated.  It just needs to solve the respective problem.  A perfect example of this is Senator Maria Cantwell’s 32-page climate bill, called The Carbon Limits and Energy for America’s Renewal (CLEAR) Act of 2009. According to a recent article:

    “CLEAR limits the quantity of fossil carbon allowed to enter the U.S. economy. In other words, rather than requiring a downstream power plant to reduce its CO2 emissions, the bill requires the upstream coal, natural gas and oil companies that supply the power plant to limit their carbon production.

    By shifting the responsibility upstream to the wellhead or mine or port of entry, the bill slashes administrative costs to a fraction of what they will be under Waxman-Markey. Only a few thousand energy-producing or importing firms would be covered, versus the hundreds of thousands or more entities covered under Waxman-Markey.

    Peter Dorman, at the blog EconoSpeak, noted in May:  The decision to issue permits on an industry-by-industry basis — to cap the uses of carbon fuels rather than their sources [invites] … never-ending bickering over who is allowed to emit how much. Every little tweak of the system — whether to include freight transportation or agriculture [which crops!] — has to be hammered out separately. Reductions are calculated from a baseline, but there are acres of wriggle room about how to measure who emitted how much in the base year, and therefore how much should be reduced tomorrow. Enforcement is complex, expensive and full of loopholes.

    Auctions vs. Allowances: Focusing upstream allows Cantwell to avoid this administrative swamp. It also allows her to do what Waxman-Markey should have done: require carbon polluters to pay for their pollution. CLEAR requires carbon producers to buy 100 percent of the carbon shares they need. None are given away.” [ix]

    The biggest problem with cut-and-dried legislation like this?  It doesn’t pander to all of the blameworthy corporate constituencies that pump elected officials full of financial support, and thus the need for thousands of pages rather than just thirty-two.

    Finally – and you’ll have to forgive what I’m about to say here, but – if all of this seems like “same sh*t different day” or old news that we can do nothing about, consider the perspective of someone who’s been in the business of trying to change the world for a long time now.  Last words on the subject are therefore dedicated to the illustrious Dennis Hayes, President and CEO of The Bullitt Foundation and National Coordinator of the first Earth Day in 1970:

    (Minute 30:03)  “Built by lobbyists… When I was young I thought that the reason that the good guys were gonna be winning was because we worked so damned hard. I was paid $4500 a year and on average I worked 90-hours a week, and I just figured – we’re gonna kick [or "cut" ?] their butts man – we’re smart, we’re driven.

    That’s not gonna do it for us. The lobbyists that are there are really smart. Managing editors from the Harvard Law Review. They’re working 80-hours a week for a little bit more money than we were. And they’re dedicated. And you get that kind of talent – you pay them $500 an hour – and their job for 9-months is to move an apostrophe from one side of the “s” to the other side of the “s”, thus making this thing not targeted at a particular company but a particular industry, hence being worth an enormous amount of money to somebody – and they’ll get it done. It’s that level of stuff that just gets buried in these huge, complex pieces of legislation that come back and bites us in the rear time after time after time.

    We don’t win when we’re dealing in that complex world almost ever. We win when we get the public aroused about something that is comprehensible and they bring enough pressure upon people. No matter how much the Supreme Court gives latitude to corporations to get engaged in political activities, they still haven’t given them the vote and we can vote these guys out of office if they make it a voting issue. Incidentally, is there anybody in the room who agrees with the Supreme Court that the principal problem with American politics is that it didn’t have enough corporate money in it?” [x]

    If he sees this type of legislation as a serious problem, maybe we should sober up, heed his concerns, and then work together to do whatever it takes to end practices like this.

    .

    .


    [i] Healthcare Reform Portal – Whitehouse.gov

    Healthcare Reform Portal – Reality Check Series

    NPR’s Series:  Prescription For Change

    .

    [ii] Go to NPR.org and search using the following key words:  “financial reform”  or “consumer financial protection” or “consumer financial protection agency”.

    .

    [iii] TITLE: Lautenberg bill seeks to overhaul U.S. chemical laws.  AUTHOR: By Lyndsey Layton, Washington Post Staff Writer.  DATE:  April 15, 2010.    See full article attached below…

    .

    [iv] The Environmental Working Group’s:  Health/ToxicsNews

    The Environmental Working Group’s:  Kids-Safe-Chemical’s Act

    Cosmetics Laws and Regulations

    Cosmetics safety virtually unregulated by Federal Law (More)

    EWG News Release: FDA Creates Culture of Ignorance for Personal Care Products

    Campaign for Safe Cosmetics – Newsroom – 2010 News Coverage

    Campaign for Safe Cosmetics – Newsroom – Press Releases

    Campaign for Safe Cosmetics – Newsroom – Reports

    What Toxicology Won’t Measure – And What To Do

    .

    [v] See all of the embedded references in the body of this article for an update on what’s happening on the climate legislative front.

    .

    [vi] TITLE: Planet Forward – Interview with Mike Tidwell, CCAN.  DATE: December 18, 2009 at 3:52pm.

    .

    [vii] TITLE: What to Do When the Current Climate Change Legislation Threatens to Do More Harm Than Good.  SUBTITLE: Unfortunately, when it comes to climate change legislation, all signs are pointing to system failure.  AUTHOR:  DATE: April 15, 2010.

    .

    [viii] Annie Leonard, the host of “The Story of Stuff” just completed a video to educate people in a VERY ENTERTAINING WAY about Cap & Trade, and the possibilities therein. It’s a really fast paced, educational video that I think everyone would really enjoy and learn from… http://storyofstuff.com/ ; (then hit “The Story of Cap & Trade” image)

    If there are too many people watching “The Story of Cap & Trade”, you can catch it here as well.

    An alternative perspective can be found at:

    TITLE:  The Facts of Cap-and-Trade.

    Economist Nat Keohane uncovers the real facts behind clean energy legislation in our short video: “The Facts of Cap-and-Trade.” With some help from a team of animators, Nat explains why a cap on global warming pollution is the best option to create a better future for America.

    EPA’s Cap-and-Trade Portal can be found here

    .

    [ix] TITLE: New Proposed Climate Change Bill in Washington Is Simpler and More Equitable.  SUBTITLE: Happily, a new climate bill drafted by Sen. Maria Cantwell may change both the nature of the debate and its outcome.  AUTHOR:  David Morris.  DATE:  October 2, 2009.  The Bill download itself is located at the following LINK.

    .

    [x] LECTURE TITLE: “Is Prosperity Incompatible With Posterity?” SPEAKER: Denis Hayes, Bullitt Foundation. DATE: 3/4/10.

    .

    .

    TITLE: Lautenberg bill seeks to overhaul U.S. chemical laws.  AUTHOR: By Lyndsey Layton, Washington Post Staff Writer.  DATE:  April 15, 2010.

    After a year of working with environmental groups, government regulators and the chemical industry, a leading advocate for chemical regulation has devised a plan to remake the nation’s chemical laws — a 34-year-old set of regulations that all players agree is outmoded and ineffective.

    The plan, contained in legislation that Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) is set to file Thursday, would require manufacturers to prove the safety of chemicals before they enter the marketplace. That would be a significant departure from current laws, which allow chemicals to be used unless the federal government can prove they cause harm to health or the environment.

    “We’re saying those who make the chemicals — and there are 700 new ones that come to market each year — ought to be responsible for testing them first before they’re released to the public, instead of having the EPA play detective to search and try to find problems,” Lautenberg said.

    The bill would also mandate that manufacturers submit health and safety data to the EPA for 84,000 chemicals in use. The agency would review the information to determine whether the chemicals are safe enough to remain on the market.

    Under current laws, the government has little or no information about the risks of most chemicals in use. The government cannot act unless a chemical poses a health threat, but the EPA cannot force companies to provide data that show risks.

    The hurdles are so high that the government has been unable to ban asbestos, widely acknowledged as a likely carcinogen and barred in more than 30 countries. The bill would make it significantly easier for the EPA to restrict or ban chemicals that are known hazards.

    EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson called the legislation a major “step forward.”

    Lautenberg has tried twice to revamp the chemical laws but this time has support from the White House, environmentalists and, most importantly, the chemical industry.

    “We’re certainly not going to be an obstruction,” said Cal Dooley, president of the American Chemistry Council. “We are committed to being constructively engaged in their efforts to move this legislation forward.”

    Linda Fisher, vice president of safety, health and the environment at DuPont, called the bill “a good starting point.”

    The chemical industry has long insisted that the 1976 federal laws governing toxic chemicals, the Toxic Substances Control Act, has been working well. But growing concerns have sparked legislatures to ban or restrict a number of controversial chemicals, creating a patchwork of restrictions and a regulatory nightmare for companies. The manufacturers want one set of federal standards to establish some predictability and reassure the public that everyday products are safe, Dooley said.

    The chemical industry remains wary about some aspects of the bill yet to be clearly defined, such as how regulators will determine whether a chemical is “safe.”

    “That is going to be one of the most critical issues, in terms of finding consensus between consumers, environmental groups, industry and the policy makers: What is the appropriate risk standard?” Dooley said.

    No Republican senators have signed on to Lautenberg’s bill, but his staff said they did not expect strong GOP opposition. Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) is expected to file companion legislation.

    Out of Sight, Out of Mind

    The Rapid Erosion of What We Once Called Common Sense

    .

    Inspired by the work and articles of trendsetters like Dan Barber, Jamie Oliver, Pavan Sukhdev, and Frank Sesno.  A new way to look at our current situation that sheds light on how we think and ultimately why we do what we’re doing…

    .

    Civilization’s uncanny capacity to consume [i] and hyper-specialize human beings also has an isolating quality that appears to be erasing all of our fundamental human connections. In a macroscopic sense this is old news.  Look no further than the erosion of memory and practiced traditions in native cultures across the planet.  Microscopically, however, the phenomenon has been more subtle – where – even the memory, traditions, and cultural beliefs and practices of and within civilization itself are constantly eroding and being replaced by others.  And with that, people are becoming so far removed from the natural order and environment that they’re beginning to lose their connections with one another and the substance of reality itself.

    Take food knowledge and reform, for example.  It’s suddenly on everyone’s hot plate, from academics to chef-celebrities to the wife of our very president.  If health care reform did anything it opened everyone’s eyes to the emerging health-crisis, its staggering potential costs, and where much of the problem is truly derived. [ii] It’s the food!  No. It’s the food we’ve chosen to eat.  It’s us.  We buy the food therefore we dictate market composition.  But we’re choosing processed garbage over whole foods that would normally provide a balanced, healthy diet.  And we’re choosing not to prepare or truly ‘cook’ much of anything anymore, making it impossible for many of us to know anything about the quality and content of what were eating.

    Now it’s true that manufacturers have capitalized on our evolutionary longings for sugar, fat, salt and calorically dense nutrients.  And it’s also true that fast and processed foods are actually cheaper than whole-foods because of market forces, subsidization, regulations and oversight (or the lack thereof).  And it’s even accurate to say that fast and processed foods require little to no preparation, last infinitely longer in comparison, and get way more advertising time.  But regardless of these considerable influences, there’s something else at work here – something far more profound. We are losing our connection with food wisdom, cooking, and its vital importance to health.  Otherwise none of this would even be happening. The current incarnation of civilization – the culture it’s breeding – is doing everything possible to fill our heads and all of the empty spaces within our lives with other information and activities.  And in the process it has devalued, understated and subsequently ignored venerable food knowledge and practices as being antiquated and largely unnecessary.  Hey – there’s no reason for any of this!  Better living through science and technology! That about sums it up.  Wolf down a microwaved hot pocket, pop some supplements or diet pills (or both) and get onto something that’s actually important for God sakes, because this isn’t.

    .

    About a month ago celebrity chef-activist and current TED prize winner Jamie Oliver discussed his anti-obesity project, and the fundamental need for re-arming children with cooking skills and food knowledge. His arguments went as follows:

    (Minute 7:14) “Home – The biggest problem with the home is that used to be the heart of passing on food, food culture, um – what made our society.  That aint happening anymore. And you know, as we go to work and as life changes, as life always evolves, we kind of have to look at it holistically – step back for a moment and readdress the balance.  It aint happening – hasn’t happened for 30 years…”

    (Minute 8:26) “Lets get on to schools – something that I’m fairly much a specialist in.  Okay.  School.  What is school?  Who invented it?  What’s the purpose of school?  School was always invented to arm us with the tools to make us creative – do wonderful things – make us earn a living, etc. etc. etc.  You know it’s been kind of in this sort of tight box for a long, long time okay.  But we haven’t really evolved it to deal with the health catastrophes of America, okay.  School food is something that most kids – 31 million a day, actually – have twice a day, more than often – breakfast and lunch – 180 days of the year.  So you could say that school food is quite important really, judging the circumstances.  (Laughing from the crowd)…”  [iii]

    Now the fact that fast food dominates school lunchrooms is no surprise to anyone.  However, Oliver’s passion and perspective on the subject helped to paint a clearer picture here regardless.  And at minute 11:14 when he was finally wrapping it up… well… that’s when he delivered the kicker!  He began by saying, “This is a little clip from an elementary school, which is very common, believe me.” It shows him standing before a group of about fifteen elementary students asking whether they recognize various common vegetables.  Many, if not all of the students, appear incapable of doing so. This goes on for tomatoes, cauliflower, beets, eggplant and of all things potatoes!  The clip ends with Oliver appealing once again to his adult audience to fully absorb the gravity of what just happened:

    “Immediately you get a really clear sense of – do the kids know anything about where food comes from?  If the kids don’t know what stuff is then they will never eat it!” [iv]

    A month later on March 17, 2010, prominent chef-scholar and New York Times op-ed columnist Dan Barber engaged in a Q&A session with TED interviewers as well.  And when asked this question…

    “So for the rest of us who aren’t experts – but who want to eat responsibly and healthfully – what are a few things we can do that will actually make a difference?”  [v]

    He stated the following as part of his response,

    “The second thing you could do is grow your own food. It sounds crazy, but it’s not. If you’re across the street here, in New York, you could grow herbs in your windowsill. If you’re in the suburbs, you can plant in your back lawn. It’s not about providing 100% of your food; it’s about doing something that connects you to a natural system, and gets you closer to the food you’re eating.”  [vi]

    Perhaps you’ve seen this type of appeal or observation elsewhere – say – from Dr. Mehmet Oz in his recent appearance on March 10, 2010 with David Letterman while stating the following:

    There is a sacredness to food that we have violated today in America. And I think when we revisit these issues, and I think this is part of what’s happening – you know – In Washington we’re all talking about the healthcare bill. I don’t care which of those bills you pick, they’re all going to go bankrupt if we don’t deal with the underlying cause of loss of health in America. It’s the care of health issue they’re focusing on, not the health care. And that involves how we subsidize certain foods. It involves how we care for the food that we eat in our lives. All of this comes around circle.”  [vii]

    Or maybe on February 10, 2010 in this Guardian article by Pavan Sukhdev, special adviser to the United Nations environment program’s green economy initiative:

    “The living fabric of this planet – its ecosystems and biodiversity – are in rapid decline worldwide. This is visible and palpable and is variously due to commercial over-exploitation, or population pressures, or a raft of unhelpful policies, or some combination. At a very fundamental human level, however, it is due to the lack of awareness that there is a problem with human society being disconnected from nature. [viii]

    Or possibly even on March 24, 2010 during PlanetForward’s interview with Robert Kenner, director and producer of the recent breakout film Food Inc.  When asked whether increasing food safety regulations are helping to increase centralization in food production, he stated the following:

    “I think centralization is perhaps one of the biggest problems in the food system, and perhaps in the entire system in our country of selling not only food but everything we’re dealing with.  We have very few companies that are controlling the food that we eat today, and they have no connection to the community.  They have no connection to the workers.  Ultimately they treat them as disposable parts. And I think that they are more interested in profits than they are in their consumers.” [ix]

    The cries are coming fast and furious now.  And regardless of whether they’re from consumer activists about health and safety, environmentalists about collapsing ecosystems, or scientist about emissions and climate change, they have one terrifying commonality – the realization that our ties with Nature and one another are unraveling.  Our sense of real community – of balance and interrelationships – is simply dissolving.  And with it, so too is our grasp of basic scientific principals like cause and effect. It’s as if civilization’s evolving culture has so successfully isolated, compartmentalized, and even spoon-fed consumerized entire generations that people have abandoned substantive rationality and thus the objective capacity to measure significance or danger.  And they’ve got no idea where anything comes from anymore, and what that translates to in terms of overall health, safety, and cost. Consider the following statement from Denis Hayes, President and CEO of the Bullitt Foundation and National Coordinator of the first Earth Day in 1970.  During his recent lecture at the University of Oregon on ecology and economics he elaborated on how far we’ve gone to alienate and subsequently devalue even that of our own people:

    “(Minute 49:45) Shortly after Jared Diamond published Collapse I had the good fortune to have dinner with him, and I asked him – whether in researching his book or just thinking about it – he’d recognized some common human behavior, that if we could avoid it, would dramatically boost the likelihood of avoiding future collapses. What is it? Is there a magic bullet out there that we aught to be addressing?

    He said that collapses most commonly occur when the rich and powerful – the people who run the society – can shield themselves from the consequences of their decisions. I remembered this exchange when I read that Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz had estimated that the 2008 economic crisis had driven more than 200 million people who’d risen into the middle class back into abject poverty. 200 million more will lead lives characterized by starvation, wretched health, forfeited education, widespread violence, and mounting death rates. And meanwhile the CEOs of investment banks, whose irresponsible actions caused more suffering and death than are caused by most war criminals, cart their 100-billion dollar bonuses to their gated communities with their private security forces and their private jets; utterly untouched by the worst consequences of the crisis that they precipitated. If Diamond is right, and he’s a very smart guy who’s studied all of these things, that’s not the hallmark of a system that is designed to avoid collapse.”  [x]

    I don’t know… Perhaps we’ve always been at odds with Nature.  Exploitation in one form or another has been going on now for thousands of years.  So it’s possible that our relationship here has always been tenuous, even strained at best, and that modern man has never really considered Nature as protector, but rather as just another adversary to be conquered.  If this were so it would go great distances to explain our nearly myopic focus on science and technology, and the frantic struggle to systematically dismantle, control and privatize every aspect of the living world.  More importantly, however, it would explain why people so easily lose their connection with age-old wisdom when they’re separated by even a single layer of abstraction from the natural order of things.  This comes down to a matter of respect and humility.  And if, on the whole, modern humanity has no respect or humility for the natural order or where we fit within it, then it stands to explain a lot about why we’re forgetting fundamental knowledge so effortlessly.

    .

    A layer of abstraction – it’s like the thickness of a sheet of paper – infinitesimal compared to moving a person from, say, the farm to city life. It’s more like giving a picky eater what he wants rather than what’s actually good for him.  Reinforce this enough times – that he doesn’t have to eat the vegetables on the table – and he’ll eventually forget they exist.  That’s how you form a layer of abstraction and how thin it actually is. It’s like being in contact with all of the information necessary to capture and maintain true wisdom, but never actually acquiring it.  Now imagine what happens when this child grows up.  His parents at least provided an opportunity to see vegetables on the table.  He won’t even be shopping on the outer aisles.  And his children?  At two layers of abstraction from healthy cooking and eating, they might as well be light years away from this vital knowledge… which is exactly as captured in the Jamie Oliver video from above – kids without a clue as to what vegetables even were.  A layer of abstraction may appear so thin as to be invisible, but stack one on top of another and suddenly they become substantial, even measurable!  And that’s what’s really scary.

    As strange as it sounds I personally know a couple of families with kids like this.  They grew up on farms of all places, as close to the natural world as possible, but still somehow believed that age-old food and cooking wisdom was antiquated – and that eating highly processed food was altogether better and more attuned to their modern adult lifestyles.  As adults, both live in the city and work as programmers.  And they’re both really smart people!  So how the message got lost between generations inside of farmhouses is absolutely mind-boggling!  What happened?  Were the parents too lenient?  Did they gloss over the importance of the skill-set and perspective here?  Or was it simply that moving from farm to city and living a city-centric lifestyle slowly disconnected the kids from their former reality, and ultimately that of its associated wisdom?  I have a sense that it was a combination of all of it.  The first layer of abstraction probably developed when the parents were too lenient, and the second when the kids moved into the city and started living their modern lives. Reinforcement of the two layers of abstraction probably kicked the erosion process into high gear.  And now, at about ten years into adulthood, both have forgotten almost every aspect of healthy cooking and eating.

    .

    What’s being exposed over and again is something subtle – a fatal, but hidden flaw in human design so to speak. If you separate even the highly intelligent from the substance of reality in any way, it almost invariably eliminates the intimate connection that bonds them with the knowledge and essential truths there. For some reason people need to be in touch quite literally with the essence of the natural world – its heartbeat.  And whether that be via something as simple as cultivating an herb garden and healthy cooking principals, or as complex as organic farming or even full-blown environmental research doesn’t particularly matter.  What matters is that they reestablish the connection and then strengthen it through some sort of intimate educational process – a process that reinforces and binds this knowledge through repetition.  Otherwise they automatically become susceptible to losing it and the wisdom therein.

    Even more concerning, however, is what becomes possible after these ties to reality and their associated wisdom are lost.  People can be conditioned to believe just about anything that defies real and really important physical and natural truths. Forget about food wisdom for a minute.  Think about something as scientifically mundane as hand and body soaps, with all of their myriad and incomprehensible ingredients.  Most people don’t analyze the efficacy and safety of a soap product.  They just accept the advertised claims and assume that it was designed for the purpose intended.  Many popular soaps, however, contain anything from known carcinogens to reproductive toxins.[xi],[xii] That even goes for children’s and baby products! [xiii],[xiv],[xv] First of all – What are known toxins doing in soap products?  And second, why don’t we really know about it?!  Besides the various functions these chemicals perform, toxins are present in cosmetics because they go largely unregulated.  And since soaps are typically classified as cosmetics, their ingredients don’t have any serious limitations and requirements regarding toxicity.[xvi] No one’s conscious of this because they’ve been inoculated against it – against the idea that “soap” could do significant harm.  I mean it’s soap for God sakes!  The same goes for a host of other skin, hair, eye, oral and sun-care products that are classified as cosmetics… and even cosmetics themselves.  To the average consumer, soap is just another harmless designer product that evolves in ways we know not how, but that are supposedly “better” than all previous iterations.  Once again – Better living through science and technology!

    During an FDA public meeting in 2008, the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Vice President for Research, Jane Houlihan issued a statement that included the following.  It reiterates what I’ve stated above even more informatively:

    “EWG’s research shows that nearly 90 percent of ingredients in personal care products have not been assessed for safety and many contain ingredients that are known toxins like mercury and lead that are linked to very serious health problems. Cosmetics do not have to be approved as safe by the FDA before they are sold. As a result, they can contain hazardous ingredients banned in other countries.  This complete absence of accountability to a responsible government agency has not served the American public well. Instead, it has created a culture of ignorance around personal care products, where far too little is known about ingredient safety, while the industry and the FDA steadfastly maintain that all products and their ingredients are safe.”  [xvii],[xviii]

    The most disturbing part here isn’t the harmful ingredients or even the lack of public awareness.  It’s the fact that cosmetics manufacturers are allowed to make money off of experimenting on people until such time as their products are proven harmful! Innocence until proven guilty… with designer chemicals… that don’t normally exist in Nature.  Does that seem right?  Exposing people to all kinds of unnatural chemicals until they’ve been proven harmful?  Shouldn’t it be the other way around?  Well it isn’t. Even more unbelievable is how there’s no accounting for the potential interactions or accumulated effects of a person’s chemical exposure load.  Stated another way – any required testing doesn’t consider how these potential interactions or accumulated effects stand to increase the toxicity of any or all of the chemicals that a person was exposed to.[xix] Strange how this all appears to work in the manufacturer’s favor rather than that of the consumer, isn’t it?  It’s all so conveniently… 1-dimensional.  And we’ve all been conditioned to accept these protocols as being abundantly adequate.  From the cosmetics CEOs to the sales reps and even the consumers, there’s a superficiality that permeates every aspect of this business.  And almost everyone appears to be under its influence or else toxic products wouldn’t exist since, yet again, no one would buy them.  On the whole there are so many implications to all of this that I can’t even begin to count them.  Primarily though, it says a lot about our ability to suspend disbelief, and ultimately that of our concern for the wellbeing of others.  And if we can do this with each other, what does that truly say about our concern for the wellbeing of all that’s not human?

    So there’s the closet of bones on something as simple as soap.  Now here’s the science.  Basic soap “cleans” by binding with oils to remove them from the surface of the skin.  Washing up is a matter of “washing away” oils and any dirt, bacteria and viral matter that are caught up in the slurry.  It’s not about killing anything! [xx],[xxi] It’s a simple process of encapsulation and expulsion more than anything else.  And yet, among other things, we automatically assume now that soap’s purpose is to “sterilize and remove” rather than simply “remove”.  Why?  Because that’s what we’re being fed by the latest commercial overload.  There’s enough reputable research out there to prove that antimicrobial products aren’t any better at “cleaning” than simple soap products. [xxii] There’s even research showing how long-term use could act to enhance microbial resistance.  But all of this is being lost on the public, just as food wisdom was after being subjected to years of misinformation from media and commercial outlets.  And so we continue forth, blindly consuming the latest soap products regardless of the absurdity of their evolving ingredients or claims – be they antibacterial, age defying, or whatever.  Bottom line?  What soap was a hundred years ago is what it should be today – a basic, nontoxic product that “cleans” in the simplest, not the strictest or most convoluted sense of the word.  And everyone – Everyone On Earth – should know this and vote accordingly with their pocketbooks and purchases.  This alone would make great strides towards cleaning up the toxic mess that we call “cosmetics.”

    .

    All told, what we have here is effective conditioning rather than substantive rationality. And it was realized because of a divergence from the natural world’s absolute sense of reality to one that’s been fabricated to drive consumption and sales volumes.  Extrapolate this to just about everything we think we know, and it becomes clear that a lot of our beliefs and behaviors may have just been fashioned to grease the monumental gears of civilization rather than insuring any semblance of global health and sustainability.  The problem is that civilization is so well structured and ridiculously consumptive that it can sustain a variety of realities, however misguided, unhealthy, or unsafe.  It just depends on what you want to believe, are willing to ignore, and ultimately how easy you want it all to be.  Once again, Denis Hayes…

    “(Minute 33:26) This shortsighted, consumption dominated economy is a relatively recent chapter in human history.  I mean can you imagine Franklin Roosevelt or Dwight Eisenhower suffering an attack on the dominant New York office towers and going on television the next day to urge Americans to go shopping? That wasn’t how we used to respond to these things.

    My parents never had a credit card.  They never had a mortgage.  They saved for years until they could finally buy a home for eighteen-thousand cash.  They were of modest means so they didn’t buy much.  But when they bought for example furniture, they bought the finest furniture that they could afford in the hopes of passing it on to me, and my brother and my sister.  They thought that it would be part of our family for a long time – the accumulated treasure of the family.

    Today people buy furniture that’s made out of sawdust and glue and it disintegrates quickly.  So they have to go buy some more.  In fact it’s designed to disintegrate quickly.  Planned obsolescence has become an essential core of the economy.  The faster the rate of throughput, the faster the wood goes from the forest to the dump, the more the economy prospers…

    (Minute 35:56)  The primary engine of global economic growth for the last few decades has been the willingness of Americans to buy junk that they don’t need with money that they don’t have.  I’m going to say that one more time because I think that may be the single most important thing I’m talking about tonight. The primary engine of global economic growth for the last few decades has been the willingness of Americans to buy junk that they don’t need with money that they don’t have. China at times had a savings rate of 18%, 20%, 25%.  America had a savings rate that was occasionally as much as 1% and 2% and occasionally in negative territory.  By pulling equity out of our houses as a nation, we were actually spending more money than we were creating. That can’t go on.  That’s just nuts. [xxiii]

    Where exactly are we going with all of this?  It’s as if we’re in some sort of desperate race to get somewhere, but no one knows where that is or even why.  Keep in mind that “Progress” and “Growth” mean nothing in the absence of meaningful context.  And right now I’m not sure that there is any.

    .

    .


    [i] In terms of their energy, time, focus, etc.  Not to be taken literally… mostly.

    .

    [ii] Big Food vs. Big Insurance, AUTHOR:  Michael Pollan, DATE:  Sept 1, 2009

    Health Reform Should Begin at the USDA, AUTHOR: Nils Bruzelius,  DATE:  Feb 5, 2010.

    .

    [iii] Jamie Oliver’s TED Prize wish: Teach every child about food, POSTED:  February 2010.

    [iv] Jamie Oliver’s TED Prize wish: Teach every child about food, POSTED:  February 2010.

    .

    [v] Q&A with Chef Dan Barber: Can organic farming feed the world?  POSTED:  3/17/10

    [vi] Q&A with Chef Dan Barber: Can organic farming feed the world?  POSTED:  3/17/10

    .

    [vii] Search Google Videos for “Dr. Mehmet Oz on David Letterman on March 10, 2010”.

    The CBS archive for the Letterman Show is impossible to find, let alone search through.

    .

    [viii] Putting a value on nature could set scene for true green economy.

    AUTHOR: Pavan Sukhdev, special adviser to the United Nations environment program’s green economy initiative and leader for The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) study.

    .

    [ix] Webisode 111: Robert Kenner (Director of “Food, Inc.”) Takes Your Questions

    INTERVIEWER:  Frank Sesno, GW University, Planet Forward.

    .

    [x] “Is Prosperity Incompatible With Posterity?”,  DATE:  3/4/10.

    SPEAKER:  Denis Hayes, Bullitt Foundation.

    .

    [xi] General product scores for bar soaps

    Search:  “Dove Bar”

    Search:  “Dove Beauty Bar, White”

    .

    [xii] Pesticide in Soap, Toothpaste and Breast Milk – Is It Kid-Safe?

    .

    [xiii] Getting Contaminants Out of Children’s Bath &  Personal Care Products

    .

    [xiv] General product scores for (skin care baby): baby soap

    Search: Johnson & Johnson – Johnson’s Moisture Care Baby Wash

    .

    [xv] Where you can find Triclosan in your home

    EPA study gaps leave children at risk

    .

    [xvi] Is It a Cosmetic, a Drug, or Both? (Or Is It Soap?)

    Cosmetics Laws and Regulations

    Cosmetics safety virtually unregulated by Federal Law (More)

    .

    [xvii] EWG News Release: FDA Creates Culture of Ignorance for Personal Care Products

    .

    [xviii] Campaign for Safe Cosmetics – Newsroom – 2010 News Coverage

    Campaign for Safe Cosmetics – Newsroom – Press Releases

    Campaign for Safe Cosmetics – Newsroom – Reports

    .

    [xix] What Toxicology Won’t Measure – And What To Do

    .

    [xx] Triclosan no better than plain soap (More) (More)

    .

    [xxi] Body Soap Chemistry (More) (More)

    Does bar soap work better than liquid soap?

    .

    [xxii] Triclosan no better than plain soap (More) (More)

    .

    [xxiii] “Is Prosperity Incompatible With Posterity?”,  DATE:  3/4/10.

    SPEAKER:  Denis Hayes, Bullitt Foundation.

    .

    .

    Alaskan Paperboy

    A year after our fateful moose hunting trip, I met a kid in my class with a torn-up, double-satchel, blue canvas newspaper bag inscribed with the words and logo of the Fairbanks Daily News Miner.

    “What’s that for?” I asked inquisitively.

    “It’s for my paper route.  I deliver newspapers every day after school,” he replied.

    “Where do you deliver?  How many people?” I continued.

    “Over in the Tanana Trailer Village.  I’ve got about seventy customers,” he answered.  “I want to give it up though.  It’s a lot of work and I don’t have time anymore.”

    We kept talking and I asked about the pay and such.  It turned out that a kid could make between $75 to $125 per month!  For a nine year old that was some serious bank.  And conveniently enough I also lived in that same trailer park.  So I told him I was interested and ran home after school to talk to my parents that night.  Shortly thereafter he was teaching me the ropes.  The next thing I knew I was doing it on my own.  I ended up delivering newspapers for four years – from nine to thirteen – six days a week, hell or high water, rain or shine, hot or cold.  And every month I also had to collect fees from my entire customer-base while also prospecting for new subscribers.  Thinking back – that was an amazingly tough job for a little guy… made that much harder by our family’s never-ending house building project that started when I was about twelve.  I spent more time outside in the cold from twelve to thirteen than most people likely spend in their entire lives.   Even so – as with the house building – there were days and experiences there that I will remember and treasure for as long as my heart continues to beat.  And by the end of it my parents had made me save just about every penny – enough to buy my first car when I was almost sixteen.

    .

    Construction on the eight-hundred mile Trans-Alaska pipeline began on March 27th, 1975 and ended on May 31st, 1977. I just happened to turn nine and start delivering papers around September of 1976.  It was the gold-rush in Fairbanks all over again, only the riches were to jet black this time.  I took on the route during the period when the trailer park was roaring with activity.  People were moving in as fast as the money was flowing until the very month the pipeline was finished.  And then just as suddenly, they started to leave and never return.  I went from seventy customers at the peak in late 1976 to about forty-five in 1979 and ’80.  It took constant hunting just to maintain forty-plus customers in those last two years.  Toward the end of my career some trailers were even just abandoned and the entire mood started to change.  The homeowners at the beginning were busy blue-collar types, many of which were from far off places like Texas, Oklahoma, and Missouri.  Then the occupants slowly devolved into what we all know of as ‘local trailer trash.’  And I had the unique opportunity to witness this process intimately while delivering, collecting and prospecting day by day.  By 1980 trucks on blocks, engines in kitchens, angry pit-bulls, and wife-beating drunks were a common site in the trailer park.  It was just one more reason my parents got out of there sooner rather than later, regardless of how uncomfortable the alternative of an unfinished house was.  And yet we were still in a time and place where a kid could walk around independently delivering and collecting day or night without the fear of being abducted.   I learned and did a lot of things alone that otherwise would not have been possible.

    .

    Now logistically speaking, even with two satchels, the paper bag – and my little body for that matter – could not usually carry all forty to seventy papers. So I ended up delivering a batch and then coming back for another, and another.  The average time spent delivering per day was about two hours, regardless of weather conditions.  I’d come home from school every day and there they’d be – two to four bundles of papers stacked up on the porch by our local delivery driver.  On Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, and July 4th, there’d be about the same number of bundles only five times as tall since the papers were five times larger.  Those were the days I remember most.  Sometimes it took up to four hours to deliver them all.  I’d smash as many as I could carry in that bag, which usually ended up being only about twelve to fifteen.  Then I’d climb to my feet, shoulders aching from the strain, and start walking just to get back to a starting point where I left off after the previous fifteen drops.  There was only a couple times my Dad ever came out to help me deliver or collect after I turned eleven, and one of them was on Christmas Day, 1979.  It was so cold and the papers were so heavy that it was taking way longer than expected.  At -45 Fahrenheit the air was barely breathable.  I had to take short, shallow breaths just to keep my throat from freezing even with a scarf wrap.  But the papers were so heavy that my heart was beating like crazy and I needed all the air I could get.  So I had to keep stopping to huddle down and take exhaustion breaks.  I’d crunch down and stick my hands between my thighs in the snowsuit where the two kerosene hand warmers were located.  That went on until I could muster the energy to clamor back to my feet again and keep going.  Evidently my Mom was getting worried that day, because she sent Dad out to find me.  I was so tired and hunched over when he drove up that I didn’t see or even hear the truck until he called out for me.

    “What are you doing?” he asked while rolling down the window.  I looked up from my stoop near the apartment complex I’d parked it at.  I was never more happy to see him.

    “How’d you find me?” I replied bewildered.  “It’s pitch black out here.”

    “I drove your route.  You still got a long ways to go,” he remarked jovially.

    “I’m so tired Dad,” I said.  “I’m taking a break to warm up again!  This is the worst holiday delivery ever.”

    “Hop in – I put the rest of the papers in the truck.  We’ll drive around and finish after you warm up,” he offered.

    “Oh thank you.  My shoulders are killing me.”

    By then I could handle most other days on my own, regardless of how extreme it was.  I’d just light up the hand warmers, pocket them on each inner thigh and start walking.  The colder it got, the more clothes I wore, slower I walked, and shallower I breathed.  It was a matter of self-preservation and efficiency, and the only way to make it through the entire route.  There were times it was so cold that there wasn’t a single living thing out there except for me and possibly some ravens.  At -20 to -50 Fahrenheit, Interior Alaskan snow becomes dry and crisp like fine sand or powder.  You can’t even smash it into a snowball because the crystalline flakes won’t actually stick together properly.  This self same material also makes an odd pitched squeaking sound as it crunches beneath your feet.  Sometimes this was the only sound I ever heard on those frigid days, besides my own breathing.   It was a surreal experience to say the least, like walking on the moon, especially during the winter solstice period (December 21st) each year.  The shortest day of the year would fast approach as we headed toward Christmas, leaving us with a pittance of only three hours of usable daylight in Fairbanks.  From 11:00 AM to 2:00 PM the sun would limp onto the horizon to twilight us with its orangish-pink presence before retiring yet again to sleep.  I spent many a late afternoon during that period going from one porch light to the next in the pitch-black void while mesmerizing on the sounds of my own breathing and crunching snow.  It was the most eccentric form of sensory deprivation I’ve ever experienced, especially at temperatures below minus-forty.  Under these conditions, house exhaust plumes would crystallize while exiting the smoke stacks and just hang there as if transfixed in space.  Then inversion layers – blankets of ice crystals – would slowly form just above trailer height as the plumes struggled ever so slowly toward diffusion.  Within days everything would be covered by a thick powder of these minute particles, and the air saturated to a dense fog.  Halos would encompass and then begin to smother my guiding porch lights, leaving only dim remnants in which to travel by.  The fog was sometimes so thick that visibility dropped to one ghostly lamp, even against the contrast of total darkness.  I’d reach one trailer and just barely be able to see the rays from the next… and it was only fifty-feet away!  These were the days where the imagination would begin to wander until suddenly I’d find myself actually pretending like I was on the moon.

    “Khhhhhhhhk!  Khk!  Houston – can you read?  The beagle has landed.  I repeat, the little brown beagle has landed.”

    “Khhk.  That’s one small step for dogs…  Khhhhk!… And one giant leap – oompf! – Make that ‘hop’ – for dog kind.  Khhhhhk!

    You couldn’t really jump far in snowsuit and loaded paper bag.  No matter – It was still fun.  And nobody would ever witness any of it except for the ravens anyway.   They were such mystical creatures for their endurance.  I could barely put up with two hours of that punishment and they were out there all day and night.  This aspect alone made them extraordinary company.

    Clear sky afternoons and evenings out there were somewhat less introspective.  I’d walk and stare up at the stars, watching as the Big Dipper spun around on its northern axis.  Then count its stars to make sure that they were all still there.  Then count them again.  Then imagine that one might actually be an alien spaceship waiting to scoot away… and then count them again.  I’d arrive home at last with a stiff neck from craning skyward for two straight hours.  The same would happen on days when the northern lights came out to play.  I’d walk like a zombie while watching them dance and dive, sometimes almost within reach.  And then I’d pretend like I was pulling them down like ribbon from a floating spool.  And when they were all finally grounded in a tangled heap I’d take the pile and throw it back up again, watching as they all unwound and drifted away.

    .

    My paper delivery career finally ended in 1980 because of two reasons – the first being that we were supposed to move out to the house Dad was building the following year. It was out in the sticks about ten miles or so from the trailer, making the job impossible.  And the other reason was because I, like my predecessor, grew tired of doing it.  They were moving up to seven days a week and I’d had enough of being tied up with work all the time.  Six days was already too much for a kid!

    Toward the end there I only had one goal as a paperboy – to win the carrier of the year award.  And I focused on that and worked like hell that last year delivering, collecting and prospecting to do it.  Seven kids ended up with the title, me amongst them.  We were all spotlighted in the newspaper and received our own gold colored paper bags to distinguish us from everyone else.  We also got a trophy at a little banquet and awards ceremony – the Inland Daily Press Association Award, aka the IDPA award.  To this day my family absolutely loves giving me crap about winning the IDPA award since it sounds like “putz” or “boob” or some other derogatory four-letter word.  No matter – I got what I wanted and then quit shortly thereafter.  Then I laid that treasured golden paper bag into my favorite footlocker as a memento of the triumph over four years of adversity.  Coincidentally, the days of young kids delivering and collecting for the routes also ended within ten to fifteen years of my own tour.  It became too dangerous for children and therefore too much of a liability for the newspaper company.  In addition, more efficient and cheaper ways to deliver and collect money emerged that simply started making us obsolete.  I’m betting that there’s still a few routes somewhere that kids (likely teenagers) are probably running in the Fairbanks North Star Borough, but most are now exclusively delivered by adult runners or other methods.

    So there we were, out of the trailer and into the house.  And although we all moved on in life, the experiences from miles of thinking and walking that route are woven into the very fabric of my being.  I guess it would be appropriate to say that you could take the kid out of the trailer park but never really take the trailer park out of the kid. This tradition of literally walking my way through tough situations started with our moose-hunting trip, continued with the paper route, and resurfaced even during cancer treatment.  One of the first commitments I made on the way into treatment was to walk in there on my own two feet, walk out in one piece, and keep on walking until I got nice and old. It seemed simple enough, but was actually a tall order considering the spinal tumor and chemo drugs that were threatening to kill me.  All a person can really do is make a commitment to the individual steps – to each literal and figurative step necessary to get through those tough times, regardless of how heavy each may be or how many thousand or ten-thousand might be coming.  I was brought to my knees by treatment and recovery many times.  But like holiday delivery on the paper route, I’d clamor back to my feet with some help and just try to keep going.  And however simple the approach seems, as with the invisible but unrelenting force of gravity, this too is a force to be reckoned with.

    .

    Rubber Boots – An Alaskan Tale

    Interestingly enough, this was the only time I ever went big game hunting… our one and only hunting trip like this together.  There were several reasons for it.  For one – I was almost always in school during moose hunting season.  And my dad really enjoyed going with his buddies a lot more.  The second was because of the lasting impression this trip made on me.  I was never too keen on killing such magnificent giants.  And then in my teens I realized that there were too many people hunting on account of the fact that Fairbanks had such a large military presence.  So I never really pursued it thereafter.  Dad and I hunted rabbits and ptarmigan together, but no big game.  I stand by my concerns today regarding big game hunting… or even just in general for that matter.  There are too many people and not enough animals.

    .

    “Stay here,” he whispered into my ear.  “And do not move. Do you understand me?” he articulated firmly.  I nodded wordlessly.  I was instantly afraid.  It was the first time in memory that I can recall my dad looking deadly serious.  I watched as he pulled the banded scope caps off very carefully only to have the second slip from his fingers and bounce keenly off the gun body.

    “Ahh!” he gritted, instantly shouldering the rifle and pulling the trigger just as the bear reeled up and around to engage the sound.  A split second later he’d fired several more.  And then they both took off – the brown bear exploding downhill into the alders, tree trunks and branches shattering everywhere – and my dad in a focused, patient pursuit.  All I could hear as he moved off was, “Stay here!  Don’t move!” And then more gunshots cackling across the sky… and then finally silence.

    According to Dad’s account, it took seven rounds to bring that bear down.  He pulled the trigger six times, unloading the chamber and an entire clip; and then had to load in an additional bullet manually just to get the job done.  And every single one of those rounds hit the mark in one place or another.  Incredibly enough, that thing never stopped moving until the very last shot.  It was running on pure adrenaline the whole time.  All the way, that is, until the seventh bullet blew through its neck as it stood up from the alders to get its bearings, so to speak.  Four shots through the shoulders, shattering both – two of which went through its heart and the other pair through its lungs.  The remaining three bullets went into its back leg, other ankle, and through the neck as previously described.  And these were 30-caliber rounds from a 300 Weatherby magazine rifle – a high-velocity weapon specifically designed to drop big game within a single round.  Each impact carried about 3000 foot-pounds of punch – the equivalent of getting hit by a car!  So you can imagine my Dad’s belated wonder when he started thinking about what it took just to slow that animal down.  This was one big grizzly bear; it turned out to be eight-and-a-half feet long (from the front to rear paw tip) on diagonal.

    .

    I was eight years old and this was my very first hunting trip. It was rolling into mid-September at the time, and I’d been begging Dad to take me out for weeks.  I was the eldest of three, the only boy in the family, and was itching for a little exclusive guy time.  So he finally acquiesced, picked a spot, and assured my Mom that we’d be close, safe and back by nightfall.  We ended up driving out to Nome Creek Trail early the next morning, about forty-miles north of Fairbanks on the Steese Highway.  I remember clamoring down from my Dad’s red Dodge Power Wagon – the beast that it was – all suited up and ready to go with my winter kid clothes and little black rubber boots.  Everything was amazing out there… not one noise aside from the huff of a cool autumn breeze tickling its way through the hillside aspen, alder and spruce bows.  And the colors – mesmerizing.  Berry bushes and the like all painted in yellow, orange and red, blazing with brilliance.  It was a classic autumn day in Central Alaska, swollen with the ripe twang of high-bush cranberries and the familiar incense of aging leaves.

    “Aren’t there any roads here?” I asked.  “How are we going to get there without a road?  Where are we going?  How far till we – ”

    “We’re going up there,” Dad interrupted, pointing patiently skyward.  “To the top of that hill above tree line to get a better look.  And there aren’t any roads here aside from this mining trail and maybe some moose trails up top,” he affirmed warmly while shouldering the backpack and rifle.  It was thus that we started in on our great adventure up Nome Creek Trail.  And for the first few miles it was nothing if not invigorating.  By the time we’d reached the seventh mile and top of that hill, however, I was pretty well spent.  We’d already climbed about twenty-five hundred feet and the day was barely getting started.  It was to my relief, then, that Dad finally stopped and pointed over to the next valley.  “That’s Opher Creek, down there.  You see it?” he asked, beckoning me forward.  “We’ll take a food break and then head over there to look for moose sign, okay?”

    I nodded in weary agreement, but “…food break…” was all that I could muster coherent thought on until we began eating.  After a full stomach of Mom’s homemade bagels though I was ready for the hunt once again.  So we continued on down into Opher Creek, dropped the pack at a bright yellow outcropping of aspens, and then started climbing up the side of the next hill.  We’d been off trail and into the thick for almost an hour before my Dad stopped and knelt quietly to face me.  “From here on you need to be very quiet.  Do you see that?” he pointed,  “It’s a moose trail.  We’re gonna follow that, but we need to be quiet okay? No talking.”  A foot-wide groove lay directly ahead in the spongy tundra, worn all the way to the shale and clay beneath.  And it was so well traveled, that it I imagined it as more of a Moose Highway than any type of trail!

    My heart began to pound as I nodded excitedly and whispered an affirming “Okaaaay.”  Truth be told I was already tired again and could barely utter a word until that energizing moment.  The nine-miles of squishing along in little rubber boots and asking endless questions had taken its toll.  But then suddenly, somehow, I felt revived.  Evidently the excitement of finally ‘hunting’ something was instantly invigorating, leaving it all temporarily behind.  We proceeded carefully from there.  And it was a really good thing, because it wasn’t but thirty minutes before our encounter with the brown bear.  My Dad put out his hand to stop me.  That hairy monstrosity was no more than fifteen yards ahead of us foraging for food.  And it hadn’t heard us yet, or smelled us, which meant that the wind must have been blowing in our favor that day.  He knelt down once again to face me, and then everything happened as I’ve described.

    “Come on down here,” he called quietly.  “It’s okay, he’s dead.”  I wobbled my way down into the brush, still shaking from excitement.  To an eight-year-from a quiet little town it was the most massive thing I’d ever seen, especially up close.  And even dead, it was scary as hell.  My Dad set to rolling up his sleeves and then gutting it out as I curiously questioned his movements.

    “We have to remove the guts now or the meat’ll go bad.  If we do it now it should at least last until I come back tomorrow.  You can touch it,” he continued, still working feverishly as he watched me inching forward, looking back and forth between guts and girth.  “Go ahead, it’s okay,” he coaxed.  I put my hand out cautiously into the course brown fur until it met the skin below.  It was still hot!  Reflexively, I pulled away as if recoiling from a scalding flame.  “Didn’t expect that, huh?” he laughed.  “It’s okay. He’s not going anywhere.”

    “So are moose bigger than bears?” I asked with unrestrained awe…

    .

    By the time Dad finished gutting the bear it was already mid-afternoon. This certainty was met with a proclamation of the need to eat again and then get moving if we were to make it back to the truck before nightfall.  This was all I needed to hear to summon the strength to keep going as I watched him clean his blood-stained arms with canteen water.  So we headed off on a straight shot down the hill toward Opher Creek and our bright yellow aspen patch.  We hadn’t even reached creek-side, however, before yet another encounter!  I froze in the midst of the alders we’d been threading.  Dad’s index finger was firmly planted across his lips.  And then I watched as he quietly knelt to reload the clip with the remaining three bullets.  Something ahead was concealed and snorting like a bear, and my Dad didn’t want it to find us because he hadn’t the firepower or desire to take on another one.  So we waited in the hopes that it would just pass without noticing.

    “It’s a moose,” he uttered wide-eyed, and then immediately rose up, locked in the clip and aimed.  Deep in the midst of our golden alder patch were two giant antler tips, but that’s all that was visible.  So he guessed as to where the rest was located and fired.  It jumped and ran momentarily, still cloaked by the densely radiant foliage.  He dialed on down from the horn tips and tried again.  And again it ran and stopped, but out into the open this time.  Both shots had apparently missed.  So he beaded onto what he assumed was the backside of its shoulder and fired one last time… and the moose just stood there.   His certainty about the hit began dissolving rapidly.  After emerging, the moose was only out about twenty yards – so close that my Dad couldn’t even hear the impact.  Normally when an animal was far enough off you’d hear two distinct sounds – the bullet exploding from the casing as it exits the barrel while breaking the sound barrier, and the dull thud as it punches into the animal like a splitting maul into wood.  In between are usually the drawn out pitch changes from that initial firing as rocketing lead passes through inversion layers while crossing the distance.  This moose was so close that there was no way to distinguish the difference between those two important sounds, and therefore no way to know if he’d actually hit it.  It would all just sound like one big trigger pull explosion regardless.  And scoping didn’t help much either since the magnification was too high.  All he could see was a blob of course brown fur.  However, the realization that he’d actually missed again became abundantly clear as it started pawing the ground and snorting angrily.  It was absolutely huge and in a killing mood.

    “I don’t have any more bullets,” he voiced quickly, still locked in focus on the gargantuan beast.  “When I tell you, start running.  I’ll push you into the brush.  Stay there and I’ll draw him away.”  And just as he set for motion, the moose went first.  Both of its front hooves came off the ground as if to trounce, and then it reeled over into the trees crashing headlong into the ground.  My Dad just watched in disbelief as the earth rumbled from the impact.  Minutes later he finally broke trance to check it out.

    “It’s just stone dead,” he muttered.  “Huh.  I don’t believe it.”  He beckoned me over and then lifted me excitedly onto the ribcage.  “So are moose bigger than bears?!” he exclaimed, still holding steady as my feet slid around on the loose skin beneath.

    “Yes! Yes!” I yelled.  “Now get me off!!!”  It was way bigger than I could have ever imagined.  And the horns themselves spanned almost two of my body lengths.  I felt absolutely minuscule in comparison.  And I wondered how my Dad could even have challenged such an animal, let alone killed it.  For some reason, this moose was almost scarier than the bear.  It must have been the giant antlers, or maybe the length of those incredible legs, or even the very the idea that it was actually big enough to take on that brown bear he just killed.

    “Huh.  I had another one in my pocket and didn’t even know it,” he remarked, now handling the bullet introspectively.  “We could have really used this about ten minutes ago.  Whew!  Okay – we gotta clean this one too.  And we gotta do it fast because it’s getting dark.  So hold up the back leg for me while I do this.”  He struggled to lift the leg as I walked under with my arms up, and then set it gently onto my hands.

    “You got it?” he asked while beginning to let go.

    “No. No.  It’s too heavy!  It’s gonna smash me!” I exclaimed as it began crushing down like a vice.  “Get it off!”

    “Okay!  Okay.  We’ll try something else,” he assured while jockeying to lift it again so that I could retreat.  Two minutes later he had a fairly large stick in hand and asked me to prop it under the leg as he endeavored to pry it back over.

    .

    The sun began to sag on the horizon. My dad observed its relentless progression, shaking his head as he set to work gutting at top speed.  Entrails began spilling out everywhere.  It was fascinating to watch yet again.  I’d never seen so many giant pieces and parts and colors.  And he worked like a madman to get it all done.  “Come in here and hold this back for me,” he directed.  “Take your jacket off and roll up your sleeves so that you don’t get too bloody, okay.”

    Watching and touching were entirely different experiences.  It was like leaping to a totally different level of exposure – disgusting and overwhelmingly pungent in one sense, but incredibly interesting in another.  It was all I could do to hold back all of that hot, slippery mess with my little hands as it slimed about trying to escape.  And then there was that moment when he actually had to climb completely into the ribcage just to get the stomach out – one blood and guts memory not easily forgotten.  The whole experience was at once invigorating and exhausting, until the end when the clouds and accompanying darkness fell at once, and it began to rain.  Then it all just became totally exhausting.  My Dad threw on the pack and gun and then grabbed me.  “Lets get movin,” he expressed with growing concern.  “The weather’s getting nasty and we gotta get outta here now, okay? We’ll take a straight shot to the top.  Otherwise it’ll take too long.”

    But my little legs were no match at that point for all of the snags and tangles.  And he started outdistancing me almost immediately.  So he dropped back and put me up onto his shoulders above the backpack and kept going.  When I think back now, I can’t even imagine how tired he must have been.  I mean… we never got one solid hour of rest since the day started.  And he was working way harder the entire time.  But that was my Dad – a total machine, totally unstoppable – ever since I can remember.  He kept climbing and it started blowing… and sleeting… and finally just snowing like hell.  And the trail started to disappear into the whitewash and ever-imposing darkness.  We still had miles to go when he reached the top of the hill above Opher Creek and then came to a stop.

    “Great.  I’ve lost the trail.  There’s no way we can keep going like this.  We’re gonna have to stay out here overnight,” he voiced with near disillusionment.  “I can’t see a thing through all of this snow.”  He knelt down and lifted me off of his shoulders to set me back onto the ground.  “Your mom is not gonna be happy about this,” he continued while eyeing and then dusting my snow caked little hood and rosy cheeks.

    We wandered around into the gale looking for adequate cover.  And then he parked us under the largest spruce tree that he could find, broke off a bunch of branches for bedding, and began foraging for firewood.  I was so tired by the time we ate the last of mom’s bagels and started warming up that I almost fell asleep sitting.  And the snow just kept coming.  But that spruce tree kept us high and dry the whole night… as long as you didn’t drift too far out to the edge of cover, that is.  I had no problem with that on account of the fact that I kept trying to roll into the fire all night.  I don’t think my dad got one wink of decent sleep.  He spent the entire evening stoking the fire, dragging me off of it, and stopping our bed from igniting.

    I was freezing my ass off!  Even with the backpack as liner beneath the spruce bows, it didn’t matter.  One side would warm up while the other simultaneously froze.  Flip.  Then the other.  Flip.  Then the other.  All night long, for what seemed like an eternity in a half-dozed stupor.  I don’t even remember what he was doing, but I’m sure it wasn’t nearly as cyclonic.  The next morning I woke to burn marks all over my winter jacket and pants, a frozen little crotch, and six inches of snow outlining our tree cover.  Evidently it had been an eventful evening.  I’d wet the bed as usual and wasn’t even on one this time – definitely a new twist on that exasperating old theme.  I made a minor attempt to hide it from my Dad, but it was fairly obvious.  And God was it uncomfortable!  In hindsight, you’d think that something like this would convince a kid to stop wetting once and for all, but I was so stubborn that it actually took until I was ten to finally quit.  And even then it required the sheer-force of will – relentless practice of popping up and flying to the bathroom night after night for several weeks – just to make it stick.  One evening thereafter I woke to find myself standing next to the bed wondering ‘what the hell?’ And then it struck me that all the dedicated practice and commitment to beating this damned thing had finally paid off, and I flew to the bathroom bouncing with quiet elation.

    .

    “Get up sleepy head.  Time to go,” he urged while rustling my balled up little mass. Grey dawn was emerging but you could barely see a thing.  I started sensing how deep the chill had burrowed in over the evening and curled ever tighter.  “Come on – Let’s get moving,” he continued.  “The faster you get up, the faster you’ll warm up.”

    “Why can’t we have more fire?” I protested, still locked in cocoon, my voice barely discernable beneath the taut cover of winter clothing.

    “We ran out of wood.  Were out of everything, so we need to get going before something else happens, if you know what I mean.  Plus I gotta get you home and then come back out here for the meat before another bear gets into it.  We really made out like bandits with all that snow,” he reflected.  “No worries about it spoiling, or even being easy to smell.  Come over here and help me find the trail Cliff.”

    I unwillingly uncoiled and then looked down to discover the burn marks all over my snowsuit.  “What happened to my jacket?!” I blurted while tugging discretely at my underwear and pants.

    “You kept rolling onto the fire… and I kept rolling you back off,” he chided.

    “I don’t remember that,” I remarked thoughtfully, still jockeying quietly to get the underwear away from my now rapidly freezing nether region.

    “Oh I know, believe me.  You woulda been very happy on the fire last night,” he joked.

    He began spiraling around concentrically in search of trail sign, and paused about twenty feet out from the tree.  “And there it is,” he smiled.  “It was right here next to us the whole night.  That was some storm.”

    I ran excitedly over to see, observing its white blanket on into the distance.

    “Alright, lets get back to the truck and warm you up.  How does that sound?”

    “Yeah,” I chattered.  “I’m f-f-rreezing.”

    The clouded, brooding sky began to ignite and slowly brighten.  Aside from the prior evening’s snowfall everything was calm, with no wind or weather to speak of.   That was a welcome sight considering how much more frozen my crotch would have been otherwise.  And as we started our forced march downhill into forever, my body steadily warmed up as my little feet began simultaneously to solidify.  It was all I could do to keep the blood flowing – a continual toe scrunching effort – while we treaded silently toward that intangibly distant refuge below.  Aside from the nearly unbearable foot pain, this was all that I could focus on.

    It was different back then – freezing I mean. Maybe it was tender nerves, maybe just my size, but freezing as a child was far more painful than as an adult… and I had plenty of opportunities to do both.  There were times during my paper carrying years that I’d be out there in forty or fifty… or even sixty below zero.  The warmest children’s clothes on Earth won’t protect you for long in those temperatures.  Sometimes it got bad enough to warrant knocking on a trusted customer’s door to stand inside their heated entryway for a while.  Sometimes it was so bad in fact – with the newspaper load and all – that Dad would help by driving me around.  And sometimes I just kept walking as long as possible until I found a discrete location to drop down and use the insulating potential of the bag and newspapers to warm back up as I stared quietly into the stars.  Most of the time I’d chop the route up into pieces just to get a few warm-up breaks at home.  It made the job longer but definitely more bearable.  And always, always, I’d carry a kerosene hand warmer in each pocket to at least keep the heat pumping through the main arteries.  Years passed and then I was reacquainted with long spells in the cold while doing fieldwork and surveying for the local power company.  Same town, same weather, more hours – but this time I was about fifty pounds heavier and with what appeared to be a higher pain threshold.  There were some rough days out there where, rather than the freezer burn, I just started slowing way down as my core temperature began dropping – which is bad.  But most days only my extremities were affected in this way.  This may not seem like a big deal until you try snapping your fingers, lighting a match or opening a car door.  We’ve got plenty of Alaskan sourdough tales about the guy who froze like a porcelain statue with an unused book of matches in one hand and a stack of kindling right there in front of him, ready to go.  From first blush the searing pain of cold might look more dangerous than slow, insidious cooling, but it isn’t.  As an adult I was far more concerned about that cooling than I was about the frostbite since it happened way more often.

    “You okay?”  he inquired, aware at some point of my visible pain.

    “My feet are freeeezing,” I whined uncomfortably.

    “Lemme see,” he replied while seating me on the ground and then pulling off a boot.  The sock was balled up to the tip of my toe all encrusted with blood.  “Whoa!  What the heck did you do here?!” He exclaimed.  “Why didn’t you tell me that you were bleeding all over the place?” He gently bent my leg around to assess the damage while rubbing my toes.  “Man Cliff you really did it to yourself this time.  There’s no skin left on your heel at all.  Doesn’t this hurt?”

    “Not as much as freezing toes,” I complained.

    “Why didn’t you pull your socks up?” he pressed.

    “They kept falling down all day and I’m tired… And my feet were hurting and then got better, so I thought it was okay,” I replied innocently.

    “That’s because you were using your own blood as a lubricant,” my Dad remarked calmly, still taking all of it in.  “You need to tell me when something like this happens, okay?  Don’t do that again,” he ordered firmly.  “Its not bad enough that we’re coming home late.  Mom’s gonna wonder what I did to you out here!”

    He removed the second boot more carefully only to reveal the same, and then stuck both naked little appendages between his legs to heat them up.  I’m not really sure why I never mentioned that they were bleeding.  I think I was so uncomfortable from the pee and cold that I just wanted to go home.  So I forced myself to keep moving and ride through it.  Every time he recalls this story my Dad brings it up – the fact that I never complained; never said a word until he asked me.  Sometimes it’s almost more interesting to him than tale itself.  A while later he put the socks back on and adjusted everything to prevent them from falling so easily.  Next thing I knew I was back on my slightly warmer feet.

    “Can you carry me again Daddy?” I urged, arms up and wide while trying to milk it.

    “Later okay?  You gotta keep walking for now?” he replied earnestly.

    “But why?” I protested.

    “Because I can’t carry you the whole way and your feet will freeze faster if you don’t move.  Keep on moving.  We’re almost there.  You can make it part of the way.”

    He extended a hand and beckoned me forth once again.  I grabbed on and we kept going, albeit slower.  The snow continued to crunch incessantly beneath our feet for what was to become monotonous hours.  Sometimes he carried me, sometimes he couldn’t.  A red dot became visible off in the distance and then started growing larger… and larger yet, until it began taking form.  But I didn’t trust it.  When we were on the ridgeline hours earlier and he’d pointed to it, it looked really close.  Miles later, however, I was soberly reminded of just how far off we actually were.  So I suppressed my hopes and instinct to run toward it.  And then just as suddenly it was right there upon us.  I touched the red passenger door panel to make sure that it was indeed real as Dad got in and started her up.  It was the sweetest sound I’d ever heard.  He hopped out and lifted me up and into the cab, and then pulled off my boots again and started rubbing as the heater warmed up.  We were on our way home…

    My Dad returned without me that same day in a Weasel track vehicle with it’s accompanying owner.   And in the process of removing the moose’s diaphragm and lungs to start the butchering, he discovered what actually made that third bullet so lethal.  It entered behind the shoulder as expected, and then on through the heart, exploding it effectively in half.  The moose, like the bear, had died instantly and didn’t even know it until several seconds after blood flow and oxygenation had already ceased.

    .

    In hindsight I could say a lot of things about how we should’ve packed smarter, brought more bullets, and taken some of the meat with us on the way back.  That’s my ‘calculating’ mind talking, not my Dad’s more casual approach to be certain.  It wasn’t as if he didn’t consider the possibilities.  The man had a physics degree for pity’s sake.  It’s just that he wasn’t nearly as committed to contingency planning as I’ve always been – a mannerism likely induced, ironically enough, by what happened on this very trip.  I might also mention that it was typical of my Dad to push me too hard like he did here, and that he had no concept of a child’s limitations compared to those of an adult.  But I was the firstborn, the only son until my brother’s arrival at the age of twelve, and there were no grandparents around for advice or moderation.  And to top it off, my Dad came from a hard-core farming family.  So my eldest sister and I got tempered like steel in situations like this throughout childhood.  From salmon dipping on the silt-blasted shores of the raging Copper River to hiking the treacherous slopes of Darling Creek – we did what most kids couldn’t even begin to dream of… and all of it was instrumental to our development.

    People, I believe, are shaped by experiences of this ‘nature’, and this first hunting trip was absolutely no exception. For weeks afterwards I had nightmares about dying.  I’d wake up crying, sweaty, and afraid night after night.  And on one fateful evening I just woke up angry and tired of being emotionally violated and desperate.  I wondered deeply what it was that made those animals different from us and why?  And I swore to do whatever it took to find out – to know what it truly meant to be human before my own inevitable and possibly untimely demise.  Then I thought about God and wondered why a being like this would allow such beautiful, powerful giants to die so easily… and what that meant for the rest of us.  I needed to know – did God even exist or were we all just wandering alone like these animals appeared to be doing?  And I wanted evidence, and I wanted to see it with my own eyes – because at that point I couldn’t even tell if there was any kind of order or importance to anything.  Most people don’t believe that an eight-year-old could cogitate on anything even half as complex or important as this, but I’ve seen other children do it since.  And if those kids were anything like me, these were the moments that created something extraordinary that likely wouldn’t have existed at all if it weren’t for the event that spawned it in the first place.  This simple hunting expedition – what my dad called a “little scouting mission to wear me out” – changed everything for me.  As a dreamer I found myself searching for and exploring these truths for most of my adult life, looking for absolutes in a world riddled, like cheese, with holes of perspective.  But eventually I got my answers, however hard won they ended up being.  And they were worth ‘hunting’ for…

    Imagine if he’d turned back at the five-mile mark.  None of this would have happened. Now try to imagine how different things might have been if he’d just tried to let the bear pass like he’d been planning with the second monstrosity.  And then realize – we were nine miles out and I was wearing bloodied up rubber boots.  Once the bear got a whiff of that, he might have hunted us all night all the way back to the truck.  Talk about potentially contrasting  outcomes…

    Follow

    Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.