Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Give a Little Whistle

When was the last time you whistled?

When I was a little kid, one of the doctors in my doctor's office was a world class whistler.  I mean, he had grace notes, he had warbles, he had vibrato, and his laser whistle pierced the entire office.  And as much as I hated going to the doctor (I had strep throat about four times a year), I loved hearing the other doctor whistle. 

I once heard my dad quote to Caroline, "A Whistling Girl and a Crowing Hen, Seldom Come to a Very Good End." (What?!)

In youth choir, we sang a Disney medley, which included one of the numbers from Pinnocchio:

When you get in trouble and you don't know right from wrong,
give a little whistle!
Give a little whistle!
When you meet temptation and the urge is very strong,
give a little whistle!
Give a little whistle!

So why do we not whistle?  What is the prohibition against whistling? 

I have posted before about the move towards professionalizing any performance art, and how it is probably the reason why we don't sing as a group.  It is actually something that makes me pretty sad.  But if you think that getting a job as a professional singer is tough, imagine your chances of getting a contract as a professional whistler?

It simply doesn't happen.

Whistling, in our culture, is a happy, frivolous activity.  It is the sound of the carefree.  The kid, fishing rod on shoulder, whistling while headed to the local pond.  The hobo, complete with bindlestiff over the shoulder, whistling, with not a care in the world.   

It is not the image of the serious corporate man.  The intense professional lawyer, whistling on her way to court?  Nah.  In fact, intensity of any kind seems to have zero overlap with whistling.

But why?

There are languages that use whistling to communicate detailed information, like La Gomera. But anthropologists are not even sure whether to include whistling in as a category of music. (My friends Louis Towles, Bruce Baker, David Finley and I tested this theory by trying out as walk-on whistlers for the award-winning Easley Marching Band.  We were summarily dismissed.)

And I have zero idea why it was not permitted for girls to whistle (the incomparable Lauren Bacall line notwithstanding).  That makes no sense to me.

Truth is, I love whistling, and realized how long it had been since the last time I had seriously engaged in a good whistle when I heard a co-worker whistling yesterday AS HE CAME IN TO WORK.  It was a tuneless whistle, but it might as well have been McFerrin's masterpiece, for the effect that it had on me. 

It made me smile.  And within a few minutes, I found myself singing the Pinnocchio tune in my head, whistling the refrain.  Almost immediately, the Andy Griffeth tune replaced it.  With some work, I forced that tune out with the unfortunate Scorpions tune Wind of Change. Then the Bridge on the River Quai tune.

And I smiled the whole time.  After all, who can avoid being happy while whistling?  And if it is true that our facial muscles control our mood, rather than the reverse, maybe - just maybe - we can become more happy by whistling.

I am certainly willing to give it a try. Maybe while sitting on the dock of the bay.  Wasting time.

Monday, June 29, 2015


Within the coming months, the church that I grew up attending will be torn down.  Developers are paying top dollar for high-priced real estate. They are building apartments - nice apartments by the sound of it. And the church is retaining a small lot on the back end of the property to use as a chapel.

I am finding myself feeling very conflicted about it.

The building is old. The ceilings are too high, and heating costs have got to be through the roof. (See what I did there?) There are unending repairs and additional needs and a diminishing population of people to provide the funds for those repairs.   

But in that church, I heard some of the most amazing music in my life, and developed a love of acoustics and pipe organ music and the raw power of a full chorus. 

I worshipped in that church with my family, sitting in the pew where my grandfather had sat for 80 years.  I heard thundering sermons by Elmer Piper (and discovered that I am not near as much of a hell-and-brimstone Baptist as I had thought I might be) and gentle sermons about a loving God delivered by Jack Causey.  I was baptised there, and played basketball in the recreation building.  I was at church for Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday night meetings.  I sang in incredible choirs, taught a three-year-old choir, and even led an evening service during my senior year in high school.

I was also bullied there mercilessly by mean teenagers.  I was condescended to by pinched-faced middle-aged spinsters who disapproved of any evidence of youthful exhuberence.  I was even kicked out of one high school Sunday School class, because I got angry at a teacher for singling me out for a group infraction. (I never went back.  Later that week, I was invited to my granddaddy's SS class, where I stayed for the rest of my time there.)

I fell in love with the old people in the church.  My Sunday school class was co-taught by Harry Lee Thomas and my Granddaddy, Stick Lawton.  And every week, I learned something different about the context and the history of the scriptures from men who lived their faith. I sang with them, I shared times of prayer with them, and attended a number of their funerals.

At PSBC, I met mentors in my faith.  I learned about the Bible.  I developed a relationship with my Creator.  I felt safe and was loved.

And at PSBC, I was betrayed by a pastor, who failed to keep a confidence.

Church will always be a complicated place.  In it, there are people.  Real people. Saints and sinners.  Sweet people and mean.  Some like kids.  Some do not.  Some appreciate the difficulty of fitting in, and will hold a 13-year-old boy's hand while he cries in frustration.  And others ridicule him for not conforming.

So I have a host of mixed emotions and memories about the tearing down of my church building.  The stained glass was nothing intricate, but every time the sermon got long, I would count the number of blue panes, yellow panes, green panes. Those glass panes will be taken down, counted, and sold.  The enormous cathedral ceilings, reverberating sound, will be silenced. The halls through which I ran, the rooms where I crossed arm over arm and said with ten other boys, "As a Royal Ambassador, I will do my best...", those places will be gone. The sanctuary where my sister and I re-created the Pieta for a Good Friday service (getting white grease paint removed from the entire body is tough, in case you were wondering) will be demolished.  The place where I stole kisses from my first girlfriend in dark corners where youth leaders might not have been watching... torn down. The location of my first solo, the place where I attended weddings and funerals and lock-ins and cook-outs and Easter Sunrise services.... Gone.

But the church is not.  Whenever I see an online post of love from Kay Perry or Marty Price,  I see the church, alive and well.  When I read about Kimberly Graham's children or Candace Williamson, or the music that they teach, I know that my church - the one made up of the people who loved and served my Creator - is continuing on.

Nevertheless, I am still sad about losing the building.

Such things happen.  People have moved to other churches, and are doing God's will where they are.  I have been taught all my life that the church (like Soylent Green) is made of people. Even the church history (available on Amazon here) has on the cover "More than a Building - A Family of Faith".  But there is still a location, right there in West Greenville, that holds a sacred place in my memory.  And all those memories - both the highs and the lows - will forever be associated with 'Church' in my mind.
History of PSBC available online here.

I will miss the beautiful building that housed my church during my childhood.


Sunday, June 28, 2015

Granddaddy's Fig Preserves

Thirty seconds ago, I heard the lid pop into place on a jelly jar filled with warm fig preserves. Looking over to the backlit jars, I can just barely make out the thin slices of pale lemon rind, candied through the process, interspersed throughout the jar.  Nostalgia that hits so hard, I can, literally, taste it.

Thirty five years ago I helped my Grandaddy Lawton for a week during the early summer.  I dug up beds for his jonquils and built gravel 'thank-you-ma'am's' along his driveway.  And I helped him with his canning.  Summer canning on Lawton Mountain was a magical thing. Grandaddy took bushels of green beans and made pyramids of quarts of canned beans.  Bushels of sweet corn yielded mason jars filled with corn for all seven families.  Tomatoes became canned tomato juice - the basis of many a Bloody Mary - although that was NEVER their intent.  Baptists, after all, never intend to make their mixers. And they made jelly and preserves.

Grandaddy and Grandmama both had lived through the Depression, and it marked them.  They were frugal, and they used things until they needed fixing, and then they fixed them.  They did not buy extra stuff just because it was available; it was a way of life that didn't dispose of things just because they got old. 

Canning was a big part of their frugality, and their way of life.  The House in the Mountains (that was the only name I ever heard it called - never abbreviated or shortened) was the site of monumental canning efforts that extended from late spring throughout the summer, and the results were labeled and set in OCD-compliant rows in the pantry.

But the two jewels of the canning crown were the muscadine jelly and fig preserves.  Each teaspoon that was ever scooped from one of those jelly jars was liquid gold - and it was rationed out as such by the miserly jelly-bean counters in my household.  Because once it was gone, it was gone forever.  Until next season.

And one year, thirty five years ago, I got to help Grandaddy make the fig preserves.

The cutting of the stems from thee figs.  The slicing of the lemon.  The cooking of huge vats of figs, sugar, lemon and water, until all that was left was the citrus aroma, and the liquid gold of reduced figs.  Ladling the syrup into jars, licking fingers sticky with sap. A little nibble of the lemon rind in between efforts.  Into the pressure cooker, watching carefully to finish the canning process without blowing it all up.

And all throughout the process, the overwhelming smell of fig.

This weekend I took Kathe over to the grounds of my work, where a colleague of mine planted fig trees a decade or so ago.  They are now enormous trees, and in fifteen minutes we had collected a couple of gallons of figs. 

And I found a recipe that seemed very much like what my Granddaddy made (appended below, from this website).  And all afternoon, I got lost in the memory of working side by side with Granddaddy.

There are moments in life that speak to you.  For me, this was one. There is nothing like the flavor of goods canned in the home. Nothing that brings the memories back like leaning over the hot stove, stirring the pot to release the aroma-heavy steam. Even roadside stand canned goods, with all of their Mom&Pop labels and support-your-local-organic-farm caché cannot compare.

All afternoon, I labored over five pots of fig-related items.  Habanero-fig chutney, jalapeno-fig chutney, cardomom-fig jam, and a fig jam that ended up as a filling for fig newtons. (For the record, the newtons could have been submitted as a 'nailed it' pinterest fail, but they were SCRUMPTIOUS.)

And a few jars of the most glorious fig preserves ever.  Just like Granddaddy and I once made.

Bayou Woman's recipe.  See her online description here.


Friday, June 26, 2015

New Year's Resolution

Next Wednesday, the year will be half over.  Are your New Year's Resolutions still intact?  Are you going to the gym daily, reading your daily devotionals, donating a day a week to the soup kitchen, and calling your mom? Eating nothing but salads and drinking nothing but water? Run the marathon?

For the first time in my life, I have made it to the year's halfway point without giving up.  And I have hated every moment of it.  By July 1, I will have pushed my body off of the ground using my arms 24,200 times.  Twenty four thousand pushups.  And as a result, my skinny arms are just as skinny.  My chest has not, contrary to my expectations, filled out to a Charles Atlas-level of magnificence.  And women do not swoon as I go by.
Only $13.99 will get me one of these.

In fact, almost nobody knows about it.

A couple of weeks ago, I read an article about how talking about your goals gives you the same endorphin hit as accomplishing your goals.  So from the perspective of your cranial reward center, there is no additional benefit from doing.  Talking about it is enough.

Isn't it?

A close friend gave up drinking at the New Year.  He did not make a general announcement, although he did not hesitate to say what he was doing.  And he was proud of doing it.  For the first six weeks that he was drinking tea instead of beer, I heard him reinforce his decision. He was losing weight, he was more alert, and felt better in the morning....

He had the fervor of a convert.  Not that he was trying to convert anyone else, but he was convincing himself, as much as me, that the return on investment was good. And then, six weeks in, he stopped talking about it at all.  While continuing to not drink.

I had to explain to my wife why I was turning red in the face for the exertion of pushing Louisiana away from my face just before bedtime (on the days when I waited until the end of the day).  I told my friend who has been good about encouraging me.  I have told one or two others.  But I didn't make a proclamation (until today).  And despite the fact that I have missed a few days - and slowly caught up - I have been pretty steady.

Last week, my buddy and I started talking about it again.  I am still doing my 150 pushups a day (I started at 100, but upped it in March to 150), and he is still not drinking.  But it seems like we could both benefit from adding something else.  The whole purpose of New Year's resolutions is to find a weakness to fix, or a strength to hone, something that makes you better.  So we are considering our options.

Another friend of mine once wrote a blog entitled DO OVER.  In it, Michelle detailed her attempt to let go of past events, and start every day fresh (I miss her blog...). She talked about starting fresh. Clean slate.  New start.  Playground-style 'Do Over'.

So what about it?  What could you do, if you didn't have to commit to a WHOLE YEAR? What would you attempt, with a six-month commitment?   Would you commit to learning an instrument?  Spend an extra hour with the kids?  Start doing 100 sit-ups a day?  Give up cokes? Start saving for retirement? Start a blog?  A novel? Do standup?

What would you do with a Do Over?

Give it a shot.  Join me for a Second-Half resolution day.  July 1, 2015.  Let's finish off the year right.


Thursday, June 25, 2015


Cashew apples.  One of the sweetest fruits on the planet.  Slight alum taste, but the juice would gush down your chin enough to make a SC peach jealous.

And as far as we were concerned, that was the only thing to do with them.  Eat the fruit, throw away the nut.  I mean, we remembered that expensive warped-peanut looking thing in the grocery store, and they were always the first item to go when the jar of mixed nuts were opened, but when we were in Brasil?  Nobody eats them.

But mom and dad asked the question anyway.  I mean, in a place where it grows wild, why are people who are living in poverty not supplementing their diet with easy, free protein? 

Turned out that the nut is poisonous. Muito perigoso.  Very dangerous.

Until it is roasted.

Roasting, as our predecessors on the river explained to us, is a tricky process, too.  Charles and Barbara Lawton (1st cousin, once removed) had tried it a year earlier.  Barbara had roasted them in the oven, and at the end of an hour roasting a pan of cashew nuts at 375 degrees, she opened the oven.

A poisonous steam shot out at her, making her face swell shut. For the next week, she could not open her eyes and her mouth and throat were raw from the superheated toxic steam.

So no oven-roasting for us.  My folks decided that the only way to do it was to make an outdoor fire, and roast them on the open fire.  Much better.

Now, O Best Beloved, in a jungle, keeping a fire going is tough work - 100% humidity is not conducive to campfires.  While I stayed my safe distance, Dad fed the fire, and mom turned the roasting cashews.  Both of them, inhaling smoke the whole time. 

The resulting rashes that they got were minimal, and I assume there was no real long-term effects from the inhalation of toxins.  But I do know that none of us ever thought that cashews were 'easy, free protein' ever again. 

And we always made sure to clean out the cashews from any party mix first off.  We know what kind of effort went into the prep.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

First world problems

First world problems.

I am talking about those things that only people who live in the wealthiest nation that has ever existed (well, except for Magrathea) could conceivably complain about:
  • It is just impossible to get one of those jogging strollers at a decent price. 
  • I had to wait in line to get my new I-phone for THREE HOURS. 
  • My second car broke down, and AAA won't tow it. 
  • I just found out that my preferred bottle water is not sold at my local health food store.
  • We sat on the tarmac for two hours before finally departing through the air to a location HALFWAY AROUND THE GLOBE.

And: My local restaurant does not serve organic food.

The GMO debate strikes me as very much a first-world problem.  My tomatoes are too big, and make it to market looking fresh, but don't taste like the tomatoes of my youth. The corn we grow gets used in making things with empty calories, making us all fat and unhealthy. 

My undergrad sociology professor, Dr Abercrombie, once told us, "The rest of the inhabited world has no idea what an empty calorie is.  It is a meaningless term to people who are on the fringe of society."

I look at my colleagues who are most adamant about the GMO issue, and do not see people who are homeless making the arguments.  Nor do I hear people who have no access to clean drinking water.  For that matter, most of the people making the arguments are not even people who raise their own food.

The majority of the people who fight to ban all GMOs and instill a desire for organic produce are wealthy. Perhaps not 1%-ers in the US. But 1% worldwide? Sure. 

This is a first-world problem.

I have read the stories of small farmers that have been sued for patent infringement because they are planting grain that has been pollinated with bees from a neighboring farm.  As best I can tell from the results of the court cases, the farmer's claim that it was cross-pollinated with GMO was false, and the court sided with the seed company....

...who had an agreement with the farmers that they would buy new seed from them each year - rather than keeping back a portion for next season's planting.  It is an agreement.  Legal.  You buy this seed, and you sell the results.  But no cheating!

Farmers, of course, are accustomed to setting aside part of the harvest.  Who wants to buy all new seeds, when you have some already on hand?  But the agreement said that they had to.  The reason might just be the control over the strain, or it might be an attempt to maintain purity. 

But it doesn't matter. 

What does matter is the places where these innovations can make a difference.  In  a world where population is expected to double again by 2050, secure sources of food will become increasingly critical, especially for the farmers at the fringes.  Salt-resistant strains of grain, insect-resistent strains of vegetables, bacteria resistant strains - all items that can be grown in smaller plots of land.  Is there a problem with making it easier for the small farmer to feed small groups?  And if it is done in a genetics lab, rather than in a Mendellian lab, cross-breeding drosophila or wrinkled peas?  Does that make it scarier?


But is it riskier? 

That is harder to decide.  As Chris said, we are far from knowing all of the long-term effects of genetic modification.  Will the bee population survive?  My instinct is that those bees unable to pollinate GMOs will die out.  The ones that can will be stronger.  Like penicillin-resistant bacteria, right?  Furthermore, no credible study has linked GMO and dietary problems.  Unfortunately, like the 'smoking' gun (see what I did there?), it is hard to establish any direct causal link in a society with so many variables to control.  Did you get sick because of GMO?  Or was it a diet high in saturated fats?  Or the office where you worked?  Or any number of millions of differences.

And the FDA is charged with making sure that it is safe to consume the foods under their jurisdiction.  They have limited resources to do pure science (as a federal employee myself, I know a little about the impacts of dwindling budgets) and determine causality. 

Are they in the pocket of the big agrobusiness?  I don't know.  I suspect that they are an awful lot like the people I work with - frustrated at an arcane bureaucracy, trying to do some good.

Here's the end result.  I try and raise my own food in the tiny space available to me.  I eat as much of it as I can.  I love it when a cucumber ripens.  Or a tomato.  Or habanero peppers.  I love it when my cilantro goes to seed, and volunteers pop up in my yard.

And as a result, I fight the bugs and diseases and snails every day - and it is a losing battle.  I don't use pesticides - the dogs spend too much time trying to chase the cat out of my garden to be ok with that. The result is that I am feeding butterflies much more than my face with beautiful tomatos.  I have not even seen my broccoli that I planted.  And the cucumber got smote by a worm. 

But until organic superfarmers (yeah, organic is big business, too): http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/08/business/organic-food-purists-worry-about-big-companies-influence.html?_r=0

...until the organic superfarmers start charging less for their products, to where the poor among us can afford them, I have no problem defending my consumption of GMOs.  It is no more of an ethical choice to buy organic, non-GMO food than it is an ethical choice to buy IBC root beer (owned by the Kraft/Snapple/Dr Pepper brand) instead of Mirinda (under Pepsi). 

Avoiding big business?  I get it.  My dad owned a company that competed with Lowe's and Home Depot for decades.  I always feel like we should support the little guy, rather than the big box.  But at a certain point, it does not make sense to feed your family one organically grown tomato, when you could afford a lot more otherwise.

And until we get proof that the direst predictions of the anti-GMO crowd are true, the argument sounds a lot like most of the reactions to technological changes:

"What can be more palpably absurd than the prospect held out of locomotives traveling twice as fast as stagecoaches?" - The Quarterly Review, March, 1825.

"American oil supplies will last only another 13 years." - US Department of the Interior, 1939

“The Americans have need of the telephone, but we do not. We have plenty of messenger boys.” — William Preece, British Post Office, 1876

“Fooling around with alternating current (AC) is just a waste of time. Nobody will use it, ever.” — Thomas Edison, 1889

"The horse is here to stay but the automobile is only a novelty – a fad.” — President of the Michigan Savings Bank advising Henry Ford’s lawyer, Horace Rackham, not to invest in the Ford Motor Company, 1903.

I am going to be watching for the unintended consequences (cool website here of positive unintended consequences) of GMOs.  I am going to be reading about the scientific studies that are being done. And I will allow myself to be swayed - I was not a believer in climate change for a long time, either.  But I kept reading and kept asking questions.  So I can be convinced.

But until I am convinced that the science has outstripped our ability to use it well, I am going to eat my tomato sandwich, without worrying that it might be a GMO.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

1876: Pueraria Montana

Today's entry is a guest blog by Dr. Chris de Francisco.  This will be the first in a series of GMO discussions.

The year was 1876.  At the Philadelphia Continental Exhibition, a small ornamental plant from Japan is introduced to this continent.  In its homeland it was used as a material for basketry, as a source of medicine for vertigo and tinnitus, and even as part of the cuisine.  In the New World it was noted that it grew quite rapidly.  A half century later, in the wake of the Dust Bowl amid concerns about the rapid erosion of topsoil, American farmers were paid almost $20 a hectare to plant it on their soil, and during that time three million acres were covered with the plant on purpose using taxpayer money.  Scientists, using nature to solve a problem brought on by insufficient knowledge and foresight… with insufficient knowledge and foresight.  The plant was kudzu.  It kills the plants it covers, and it buries power lines and structures in its path; it is still spreading at a rate of 120,000 acres a year.  It costs power companies about a million and a half dollars a year to keep it clear of their lines, and it costs up to half a billion dollars a year to keep from swallowing up forest and farm.  And it’s all natural.

I’m with my family on a field trip to Brazil (where kudzu is used to cover the destroyed patches of the Amazon) when my old friend Crorey Lawton and I get into a little internet debate about GMOs.  I’m delightfully not worrying about them right now, eating corn that tastes like corn tasted when I was a kid, tomatoes that have real flavor, and beef that’s raised for taste and not maximum industrial capacity.  I’m eating the natural species that have been modified over centuries by farmers to become larger and more fun to eat. The difference in taste is as distinct as the difference between soda made with sugar and soda made with high fructose corn syrup.  Before the mid-1990s, everyone in my homeland of America was doing the same as my Brazilian friends, before our main cereal crops were shifted to the new version...  If you want to call GMO wheat and corn the same plant as corn and wheat – really they are now different species entirely thanks to the genetic modifications introduced to make them more tolerant of the toxic glyphosate chemical weed controller which is made by the same corporation that brought all of the genetically modified seeds used in American industrial scale agriculture.  Farmers use their seeds so they can use their herbicide without killing the plant.  All of this was done with minimal testing and introduced on a grand scale – far more focused in intent than the introduction of kudzu, and using American human beings without their informed consent as a large scale test population.  Insufficient knowledge and foresight brought to bear to ‘solve a problem’ caused by insufficient knowledge and foresight, but this time with huge profits in store for the promulgators.

I’m not actually a person who enjoys argument and debate anymore, but I find myself drawn into them often enough over things that bother me… like gun control.  And like gun control, GMO stirs

Thursday, June 18, 2015

1622 Apis mellifica

The year was 1622.  A ship arrives in the New World.  A small sample of organisms were carried with the cargo, with the specific intention of releasing them on the new continent.  Once introduced, they immediately spread across the continent, only stopping briefly at the Rocky Mountains.  (They eventually crossed over to Utah and California in the mid-1800s.) 

Larson's take on invasive species in North America. Not the species I am talking about.

These invasive species pirated resources that the native species had relied on for millennia.  They fought with the natives and quickly destroyed them. More and more, native population levels plummeted, unable to compete with this invasive species. 

And they are still out there today.  They were almost defeated recently, but not quite. In 2007, their population dropped precipitously; a result of a poorly understood combination of chemicals and unintended consequences.  But even this drop was not enough - the numbers have returned, and they are ever increasing.  This scourge of the New World has now infested every corner of the globe.

Like the Asian carp.  Like the zebra mussel.  Like kudzu. And as is the case with all of those other invasives, we need to enact anything necessary to eliminate the threat from this predator species.

Silly?  Yes.  But it really illustrates the problem of the one-size-fits-all solution.  The call to eliminate all invasive species will result in the removal of the water hyacynth, but also the Assateague horses from Maryland beaches (as well as the beautiful feral horses on the Outer Banks.)  It would result in the removal of wheat, and rice, and most species of grass from our shores.  Cows and goats. Our herds of wild elephants.  (OK, I made that one up.) 

And worst of all: barley and hops?  Gone.

We can't let that happen, obviously.

It all comes down to a question of limiting the scope of what we want to change.  My agency has a mission of ecosystem restoration.  But the question always has to be answered: restored to what?  Are we restoring what was there in the 1920s - the period before the swamps were drained to facilitate agriculture?  To the era before white man arrived with an army of new invasive species? Before humans arrived on the continent?

What is our benchmark?

Recently, I have been involved in some pretty contentious discussions with people that I highly respect.  One of those people - Dr. Chris deFrancisco - gets very hot under the collar about GMO issues.  I get hot back - very quickly countering that there is plenty of baby in that bathwater, and that painting with too broad a brush yields indefensible conclusions (he is in favor of keeping barley and hops, for what it is worth).  He reminds me that science does not always result in ethical decisions, especially when there are huge profits involved.  I counter that without the profit motive, there is limited reason for investing in larger, juicier tomatoes. He points to the dangers of unintended consequences.

We have held most of this discussion offline.  We have kept it civil.  We have locked horns on stuff before, and have remained friends for decades now. We are skeptical of each other's viewpoints, but are both reasonable and can be swayed.  We are scientists.   We use rhetoric, but also are able to see the other side. 

So it is with delight that I throw down the gauntlet.  Chris - how about it?  Let's take turns.  I'll open this weekend with a brief piece talking about one side of the GMO debate.  I'll then publish a response piece. 

Breaking the rhythm

"OK.  That is one pastrami sandwich on an onion bagel.  Would you like tomatoes on that?"
Not one of my sandwiches.  Our bagels were better...
Mustard and mayo?
"Yes, wait.  Um, what?"

I worked at a bagel shop outside of Chicago when I was in graduate school.  The work was very much mindless - very little to stimulate the brain.  And so I would do little things to add spice to my otherwise boring task of taking the order and making a sandwich.  (I did, however, take pride in making a pretty good sandwich.)

But one of the things that I did was that in the middle of the recitation of condiments that we could add was I would insert one item that didn't belong.  Sardines.  Spam.  Dragonfruit.

My little joke took advantage of a tendency of people to get into a rhythm.  Once you are lulled into a rhythm, you are much less likely to notice other items in the background.  You  have all seen the video where the people are passing the basketball back and forth and you are asked to count the number of passes?  If not, stop everything and watch it here.

Once the rhythm has been set, everything else literally fades into the background.  The person taking your order, the food you want to eat.  What is peripheral disappears. 

What I love is breaking that rhythm.  Once that happens, then every part of the subsequent conversation is genuine.

A buddy of mine tells the story of going in to buy a new car.  I am prepared to buy the car today, he said, if you give me your sales pitch without mentioning the duel overhead can. (Yes, I know that is wrong.  But it makes at least as much sense to me as a cam does.... is there photography taking place in there?).

"I know that it has the DOHC.  I am looking at buying it because of the DOHC.  If you mention that, I know that you are just reciting the lines, and not listening to me."

Turns out that the salesman couldn't do it.  He recognized his error as the words were coming out, 7 minutes into his schpiel.  But he couldn't stop them. And he lost the sale.

So it is with so many of our interactions - we do so many things from rote memory that we miss the opportunity to interact. Like the rote memory salesman, we can't seem to help ourselves. When I accept the refill on my coffee in the diner without looking up, I reduce that person to a rote interaction.  When I slice my card to pay for groceries and never once look at the cashier, I have reduced the human in front of me to a function.  

That is not good.  I like live humans (Well, some of them). 

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Bumper Stickers

A car near my house has a bumper sticker that says "babette ate oatmeal." All lower case. 

I like bumper stickers.  I get a kick out of trying to figure out what a person is like by the text on their car:

La Nouvelle Orleans - C'est Chez Nous 
WWOZ (or ZOMM, if they put it on upside down). 
College allegiance. (LSU?  Clemson?  Arkansas?  Alabama?)
NPR or NRA supporter (almost never both).
Proud parent.
Church affiliation. 

Seems like everyone has a desire to choose their "tribe", announcing to all other drivers (and maybe a frightened pedestrian or two who thought they were safe on the sidewalk) what group they belong to.

Then there is the occasional pop-culture reference.  You'll see Trekkers that make a reference to Death Stars, or something.  Brownsuits that make Lightning Bug references.  Bronies that have subtle mentions of Princess Twilight (I had to look that one up - I swear. And now I have that blasted song in my head...)

And those who are in the tribe see the reference and grin.

My personal tendency is towards the unexpected pun or inside joke.  I know.... surprise, surprise.  But the "LEGALIZE ZAMATA" sticker has been on my tailgate for quite a while now.  And I always get a chuckle when I see one that I didn't expect. My current favorite is "WATCH OUT FOR THE IDIOT BEHIND ME". I am not sure how that identifies my tribe, exactly.  But it amuses me nonetheless.  Maybe my tribe comprises people who appreciate goofy humor.

So, after first seeing the neighbor's bumper sticker around the corner, I walked around mouthing the Babette phrase for a while. Not looking it up, of course, because that would be gaining entry into a tribe without going through the initiation ceremony.  Who does that?  Every time I walked the dogs around the block, I'd try again.  To no avail. What does it mean?  Is there an oatmeal pun

Friday, June 12, 2015

Thank you.

Gratitude is tough.

I don't like inequality.  I don't like feeling like I am only on the receiving side of a relationship.  I like giving a dollar's work for a dollar's pay (and vice-versa), and I like things being balanced.  It is a good feeling settling old accounts, getting closure on things that have been on my 'to-do' list for too long. 

But I have also been on the receiving end of unequal relationships quite a bit.  I was a graduate student for a long time - and I do mean a LONG time. Grad school means debt, and lots of it. It means a lot of things that are different from my 9-to-5 existence now.
  • It means working part time jobs, because you have to be available for out-of town research opportunities.
  • It means you have to fund that research with grants (which are very competitive) or on the credit card.
  • It means living tight.
  • It means buying used.
  • It means renting. And usually renting in low-income areas.
  • Biking, walking, Ramen noodles, depletion of meager savings... all part of grad school.
And occasionally, it means being on the receiving end of a handout.  From family, or from friends. To do that graciously is an art.  Because gratitude is tough.

A good friend of mine once told me that the hardest part of becoming wealthy (her small company grew from 15 people to an enormous multi-national corporation in a few years) was that she wanted to share the wealth with people she loved.  And her friends saw the money as some sort of indebtedness, rather than as a gift. And since they couldn't reciprocate, the relationship was unequal. They began to accept her invitations less, and included her in on their activities less.  She lost friends because of money.  Just not for the reasons she thought she might.

Hearing that statement was a turning point for me.  So instead of demurring, and declining her offer of the Sony Walkman (yes, I know.  It was a while ago), I turned to her and said "Thank you."

The delight on her face was amazing.

I did not change overnight into a 'receiver'.  I still love being in a position to help or to provide, and I love being able to find the perfect surcee (for the definintion, see my previous blog entry here) and give it for no reason at all.

But that encounter changed my attitude about receiving gifts.  I am now able to recognize the gift for the expression of affection that it is.  And I can appreciate it as such, rather than assuming that it is creating a debt peonage that I can never repay.

So I find my greatest kinship with those who

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Age is just a number

Her white hair, tied into a messy bun.  Her face, deeply lined, framing the brightest blue eyes you have ever seen.  Her face, permanently creased into a smile, looking like she is responding to a delicious joke you just told.

Skippy is friends with my uncle Harry, and when I came into town last time - for the funeral of my cousin - she offered to put my mother and me up for the night.  We showed up, and got loved on by the most delightful 87-year-old there is.  We talked for hours - about her garden, about her doll collection, about the beautiful land she has overlooking the marsh on Myrtle Island.

She reminds me of Cool MA. My compadre's grandmother lived around the corner from me when I was growing up in Greenville, and she was one of the most amazing, kindest women I have ever met. The stories I hear of her bestow on her the status of a minor deity.

Cool MA reminded me of my Nana, who was a chief cheerleader for everything her grandkids did.  She walked the beach for hours, marveling over evey shell we found, remarking with ineffable happiness how smart, how strong, how fast, how observant we were.

My Nana was very reminiscent of my Aunt Lolo.  Lolo was the brightest, happiest, kindest, most adventurous woman I have ever met.  I always loved going over to her house, even when I was at an age where going over to an older family member's house holds no appeal.  She was just cool, and had fascinating stuff to look through from her many travels.

Beautiful, strong, smart, kind, loving women.  And as they grew older, impossibly, their beauty deepened. In a culture that worships youth and strength and virility and unlined faces.... and in a culture that subsequently discards the young and beautiful when they become neither, I am blown away by these ladies, who seemed to weather the process with such incredible grace.

My cousin Andrew (genetic researcher, runner, musician, and dancer extraordinaire) is running in his second marathon, and blogging about it as he does his prep.  His running of the Chicago marathon is benefitting a charity that provides safe, affordable housing for seniors (if you feel so inclined to do such things, please support his effort).  His writing explores some of the issues about aging, and includes inspirational stories of people who bloom in old age.

As I am solidly (and getting more so every year) middle aged, I find myself fascinated to read what a scientist is thinking about the aging process.  The issues with memory.  The loneliness (so far his best blog entry here, which included a nice bit on juggling.) The life changes. 

And as I read his blog, reflecting on these amazing women in my life, and I find myself trying to figure out what made them special.  How did age develop such a lovely patina on

Family Heirlooms - Cut and Light

Last night Kathe and I sat with family members at the dinner table in my mother's house and 'talked story' about family for hours.  One of the most delightful stories concerned the enormous table that had been the setting for Thanksgiving dinners at my great grandmother's home back when my mom was a little girl. 

There were a hundred people who sat at the table.  It was enormous.  You could walk underneath this magical table, standing upright, and it took forty people on each corner to lift it.

Such is the nature of magical tables at your grandmother's house.

The table now sits in my mother's kitchen in Bluffton, SC.  It is a beautiful table with claw feet and spiral turned legs.  It is roughly four feet by six feet, and there are a couple of additional leaves to extend it. 

It is a fine piece of furniture.  But it is no Arthurian table of legend. 

While we were talking, I looked down and admired the table.  The antiquarian in me always finds it fun to see pieces that have an old connection to me and my family, and this one was cool.  The wood was quarter sawn oak - a beautiful way of cutting red and white oak (well, mostly those two species are used) that shows off an interesting pattern.

I have always been attracted to quarter sawn oak.  I grew up with wood all around me - from the molding manufacturing business to the building supply business - and I love the fact that there is a 'revealed pattern' if the piece is cut a certain way.  The medullary rays and the growth rings combine to show off a fingerprint - unique to each tree. (For those who are curious to see how you make quarter-sawn lumber, there is a neat video here).

Each quarter sawn pattern is unique to the tree, and is only revealed by alternating the cuts the way the video shows.
The color difference increases with age - the light bands stay light, and the dark color deepens, and the beauty of the wood just intensifies over time.  Add to that the patina of old wood, and I can hardly tear my eyes away.

Even if it doesn't seat a hundred people.

After looking up the quarter sawn video, I was talking about the process with my mom, and mentioned a similar lapidary process that I still don't fully understand.  Iris agates are very thinly sliced agates, and when they are lit from behind, display a stunning rainbow.  Not every agate will do it, but some will, when subjected to the hand of a master cutter.

Iris Agate.  http://www.lhconklin.com/Gallery_II/QuartzIris.htm
As with the oak plank, it requires a specific cut and a specific play of light to bring out beauty that is already there. 

Isn't that the way it is with people, too?  If you get the right light, make the right cut, and show people off at their best angle, they shine in a unique way.  I look around and see people who are really spectacular at one thing or another.  The most amazing biologists, engineering wunderkinds, woodworkers, public speakers....

And then ones that impress me the most.  Parents.  These guys are ones who are cutting, and buffing, and adding patina to their kids, and like the master cutters, shine the light on their kids to make them shine. 

I look at friends like Allie Griffeth, and I see the shine.  I look at Sarah and Craig Williams and find myself loving the display of the pattern that was carefully buffed and polished to a striking beauty.  I see Joshua Adams and the light shining through him is just amazing.  All around me are kids who have been loved and lovingly molded by their parents.

To me, that is what a family heirloom really is. It is something that is passed down from one generation to another, deepening with time, and becoming more beautiful with each passing year.