Monday, August 31, 2009

Asleep at the Switch

The Great Lakes
As most kids my age did, I took for granted the fresh, clear waters of our beach on Lake Michigan. Most adults must have too because terrible things started happening not long after the St. Lawrence Seaway opened up the Great Lakes to shipping from around the world in 1959.
We were still enjoying the languorous 1950s. The ends of WWII and the Korean Conflict allowed us to breathe again. Americans were focused on buying a house in the suburbs, owning a car and makin' babies.
We worried more about the Red Tide of Communism than we did about the air we breathed and the water we drank. Building highways and bomb shelters took priority. No one seemed to notice or care about the disappearance of native birds and fish. Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" would not be published for another three years.
Usually hindsight is totally useless. However, if it provides insights to what the future might look like, it's worth considering. Regrettably, I was too young to react in any useful way when dead fish bodies started washing ashore on our beach.
A certain amount of fascination accompanied this revolting, new phenomenon. I had owned three gold fish -- Snap, Krackle and Pop -- for a brief time. I'd won them at a carnival and managed to keep them alive for a couple of weeks. But they were tiny. The ever-present, tickly minnows were nearly invisible, but these fish were bigger and white.
The quantity of dead carcasses in the water made it difficult to swim without smacking into one. Accidentally touching one while doing the backstroke was positively sickening. Boys liked to toss rotting fish at the closest girl hoping for an anguished squeal of disgust.
Turns out the dying fish were only the beginning of the Great Lakes' problems. At the time, all we were told was that Alewives were saltwater fish and somehow had swum [I know it looks goofy, but that's the past tense of swim] down the St. Lawrence Seaway and into the freshwater lakes and died.
Fifty years later the Great Lakes are in far worse shape. Not that long ago, scientists were afraid that Lake Erie would die because of all the manufacturing pollution that had been pumped into it. Now the problems are far more serious and, like the industrial pollution, might have been averted.
When the St. Lawrence Seaway opened, ships from Asia and Europe were able to deliver their products to lucrative markets in the American Midwest. It would appear now that no one foresaw problems with those ships dumping ballast water into the lakes.
All of the Great Lakes now are home to non-native plants and animals that are destroying an ecosystem that kept the lakes healthy and productive for eons. Zebra Mussels from Eurasia are clogging water intakes for drinking water in Chicago and elsewhere. Other non-native species are consuming fresh water fish favored by sport and commercial fishermen alike.
Right here, in the legendary Potomac River, non-native plants are clogging the river causing dead areas where fish cannot get enough oxygen. The Chesapeake Bay has long suffered from infestations arriving with cargo ships or from the rivers that flow into the bay. Remember the Asian Snakehead fish scare? They're not going anywhere because they're quite comfortable in their new digs.
Fifty years later the Great Lakes are no longer so great. There conditions are a national/natural tragedy and the catastrophe is spreading well beyond the Lakes.
Previous generations may have fallen asleep at the switch but they are gone. Now, we must stop selling our country's well-being to those with deep pockets and political clout.
There are islands in the Pacific that have mined and exported minerals and indigenous waters to the point where now there is little left to support life. Is North America headed in the same direction? The writing is on the walls and in the rivers and lakes and oceans . . .

Thursday, August 27, 2009

He Tried

If you've been kind enough to have followed my blog for any amount of time, you know one of my favorite spots in D.C. is Hains Point. "The Awakening" used to grace the point until it was sold and moved to Prince Georges County. I took a series of pictures shortly before it was dug up and moved so that I could look back and enjoy seeing it in it's original, dramatic home.
It always provided outstanding photo ops, particularly when the Potomac got a little too big for its banks and flooded the low lying peninsula. During a particularly big flood years ago, only the upraised hand was visible above the water. When I heard that Ted Kennedy had died, I thought of this picture of the hand, appearing to reach for the moon. Despite so many hardships and lame-brained decisions on his part, Teddy made many good decisions. He knew the political game and played it like a pro to help so many. Now I regret turning down a White House invitation to attend the signing of the Americans With Disabilities Act -- I might have met this extraordinary man.
R.I.P. E.M.K.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Context Matters

Have you ever had this experience? You're grocery shopping and spot a familiar looking face. For the life of you, you can't figure out why he looks familiar, but you return eye contact and smile. Then, thankfully, he starts talking about a project the two of you worked on together. Now if I'd run into him at the project site, I would have recognized him right away. It's a matter of context. In 1972 I took the first of many trips to the Caribbean. While there, I fell in love with steel drum music. As soon as I got home, I bought several LPs and looked forward to reminiscing about fun nights drinking rum punches and dancing to steel drum music. Listening to the same music, sitting on a Persian rug in my city living room just didn't cut it! Reggae and steel drum music sounds better on the beach, in a tiny bar or a hotel pool terrace at night. The humid, salty, tropical night air makes it sound so much better. Of course, the rum punch might have had something to do with that, too. . . This Sunday, August 23rd, would have been my Dad's 85th birthday. I still miss him but the feeling is becoming more nostalgic than painful now. As I type, I'm listening to a CD version of a record he bought years ago in Paraguay. Throughout the 60s Dad travelled alot. He was an architect and the director of design and construction for the American Hospital Association, in Chicago. His expertise in hospital design put him demand for consults in Central and South America and as far away as Malaysia. For a small-town boy from rural Iowa, he influenced hospital design around the world. But that's another story. During a long trip to Paraguay and Uruguay, he discovered Paraguayan harp music. This instrument is smaller than an orchestral harp. It's sound is less mellow and spicier. Accompanied by guitars, piano the occasional flute or harmonica it has a distinctive, joyful sound. Truthfully, it was not that pleasing a sound to those of us who were hearing it for the first time and out of context. This evening I closed my eyes and imagined Dad on a river ferry, throwing orange peelings to voracious piranhas. I pictured him eating in a cantina, listening to a local band. Hearing this music through a different mind filter, I could understand how the syncopation and intricate rhythms of the Paraguayan music appealed to him. Dad had been a champion drummer in high school, winning a state competition. When I still lived at home, on very special occasions we could talk him into pulling out his drum sticks to play an impromptu concert for us. Rather than drums, he would play the piano bench, a brass incense burner, a wooden bowl, a stack of magazines, a glass lamp -- whatever was within reach. Those were good times. R.I.P. R.C.M.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Off The Top of My Head

As the stifling heat in D.C. continues, I'm reluctant to go outdoors so I have too much time to ponder life.
Our house in northern Illinois had no air conditioning. About this time of year, I started sleeping on the floor of my bedroom because it was cooler than lying in bed. Not comfortable, but cooler. When my younger sister, Patty moved in with me, I envied her ability sleep in her bed despite the heat. There were many things about both of my sisters that I envied. For one thing, both were blessed with beautiful, true blonde hair. I was stuck with Dad's dirty dishwater blonde color. Not only did Patty have golden hair, but she got Mom's curls as well. When she was a baby, her hair fell into natural golden ringlets that encircled her cherubic, smiling little kisser. ARGH! On the other hand, Janet was blessed with great facial bones AND truly blonde hair. She also got Mom's petite stature. Being the youngest and so darned cute, she had Dad wrapped around her little finger in no time flat. When she was 4 or 5 he brought her an adorable, embroidered dress with matching apron from Sachs Fifth Avenue -- in NYC no less! [Obviously, I don't shop at Saks!] On the other hand, Mom made most of my little girl dresses. I remember one, particularly glamorous one. It was navy blue organza -- a sheer, stiff fabric. In those days, fashionable little girls' dresses were smocked. [For those too young to know about smocking, it was a hand-sewn design of tiny tucks and decorative stitches on a dress bodice.] Mom was a real pro at smocking. I just wish she had saved some of her creations. Like her maternity clothes, my dresses were passed along to friends to be recycled over and over again. By the time my younger sisters came long, styles had changed, so they didn't have a chance to wear Mom's smocked dresses. Besides, they had already been outgrown by me and friends' daughters and passed along yet again. I sometimes wonder what happened to all my lovely dresses. I hope their subsequent wearers appreciated them as much as I did. The picture is the only one I've found of me wearing one of Mom's creations. That's my very young looking Dad on whose lap I'm perched.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Fear-mongering vs. Reality

A few posts ago, I made my argument in favor of organ/tissue donation and cremation. Some may have viewed it as a bit of an eeeuuuw. When it comes right down to it, every human being starts the dying process the day we're born. It's not something pleasing to think about, so we don't -- until it smacks us in the face. With that in mind, I'm wondering why so many gray-haired-types are enraged about the health care reform proposal to allow Medicare-paid doctors to discuss and make decisions about end of life issues with their patients. Some uninformed or misguided types have ranted about "death panels" and other outlandish ideas. This has been propagated by special interest groups. The health care industry is well organized and funded. The argument is about their suffering bottom lines, not suffering humans. The fact is that if we are lucky enough to live a long life, we may end up with an incurable disease or condition. Choices will need to be made. Does it make more sense to discuss our healthcare options with our physicians or with a drug manufacturer? Who took the Hippocratic Oath? End of life counseling is about giving every American the opportunity to decide, in advance, how they want to be treated in the event that they develop a terminal disease. Living wills are an example of this. A person can decide at which point they want no further medical intervention. She can opt for palliative care to ease pain and anxiety so that she can die with dignity. Conversely, she can decide to continue fighting until the medical arsenal is empty. It's about choice. Long before my dad was in the last weeks of his life, we knew his preferences as to how he would spend them. He was clear-minded enough to decide whether or not to continue taking an experimental drug in hopes of shrinking or curing his cancer. He opted against that because the side-effects were dreadful and there was absolutely no guarantee that it would work. Trust me, absolutely NO ONE was thinking about speeding-up his demise! It was painfully clear to everyone, including Dad, that he had a limited amount of time left with us. He chose in-home hospice care and his comfort became our one and only goal. We spent some memorable days with Dad, feeding him his favorite foods and reminiscing. Saying good-bye this way greatly eased his mind and ours. As painful as it was to watch him take his last breath, he was surrounded by his family and we had each other for support. We were all relieved that his decision, made weeks earlier with his doctors, to die at home and in his own bed was honored.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Lord Byron and Michael Jackson

Just finished reading a short, pithy biography of Lord George Gordon Byron written by Edna O'Brien. To be honest, I'd never paid much attention to Byron's work and didn't know much about his life. We all recognize the beauty of his work through familiar quotes like: "She walks in beauty, like the night Of cloudless climes and starry skies; . . ."
Being a fan of biographies, I was intrigued enough by a review in the Washington Post to buy the book. While reading it, the late, great Michael Jackson came to mind seemingly out of nowhere. They had much in common. Both: - were exceedingly generous with their friends; - loved to shop and accumulate things, often requiring loans from loyal though wary friends; - needed to be surrounded by fawning sycophants who, in the end, drained them dry; - were attracted to women and men; - were passionate about their work and burdened by the fame it brought them; - enjoyed dressing in outlandish, elaborate outfits, often with a military twist; - died premature deaths at the hands of inept medical professionals. I found two big though superficial differences between these two icons of their times. - Lord Byron had a clubfoot that hampered his mobility and caused him angst because of it's ugliness. In every other way, he was quite pleased with his appearance as were his many admirers. - M.J. was, of course, a brilliant dancer and moved with grace, but hated his appearance. He willingly suffered horrible pains trying to change it even though everyone else found him handsome. Two brilliant, extraordinarily talented men, born decades apart. Might they have been friends had they lived during the same era? Maybe. But then again, Byron created his own regiment of soldiers to help the Greeks fight for independence from Turkey. M.J. would never have done anything like that! Thoughts anyone?

Friday, August 7, 2009

The Purpose of Fingernails

I think I know why we were given fingernails, but it wasn't: > to pick one's nose ['tho I can't think of anything else that would work as well] > intended as a surface on which to paint colorful designs or to which to paste gems > to loosen screws > to spoon cocaine [I always eye-ball people who keep their pinky nails longer than the rest] > to see how long one can grow them [it grosses me out to see people with nails so long they start to corkscrew -- eeuuw!] No, I do believe fingernails were intended to save klutzes like me from chopping off the tips of our fingers, or in my case, a thumb. Blithely chopping celery last evening for my world-renowned apple, celery and dried cranberry salad I went beyond the end of a celery stalk and inadvertently tried to add some meat to this fruit salad. As blood trickled onto the cutting board, my first thought was "well, I'm glad I already cut up the apples and chopped enough celery." As I was washing and bandaging my wound, it occured to me that if I'd not had a thumbnail, I might have lost part of that digit. Of course the injury also means that, until it heals, I will continue to jam that thumb as a reminder of my stupidity. P.S. After I cleaned up the disaster area, I added the cranberries and Miracle Whip to complete the salad. Despite it's gruesome history, it was delicious!
Happy Weekend Y'All!!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Just for Fun

This is from a fireworks photo I took last year. I tweaked it a bit and think it's pretty interesting. It's definitely better than the original, shakey shot.