October 24, 2013

Decades Stun

Minutes trudge,
Hours run,
Years fly,
Decades stun

Ten years ago, my mother died following a small stroke. She went peacefully, in her sleep. Her life had been long and filled with events. The last child of a large family, she was born not that long after World War I but just at the right time to experience the Great Depression and World War II. 

The family got through it by sticking together, which perhaps explains the closeness of her family that has persisted through the decades and generations. It may also explain her role as peacemaker in my father's family, who sometimes feuded almost as fiercely as they loved each other.

Like many people from that generation, my mother was always busy doing something. An enduring memory I have is her braiding an enormous rug for the living room. Relatives would deliver paper bags filled with old clothes and neckties. She would cut them to size and weave them through the three metal braiding aids and then lace together the long strands into an oval pattern. Large pots of hot water would be placed on the finished rug to flatten it. 

All this would be accomplished in the scraps of time left over from when she wasn't cooking or refinishing an antique dresser or working in the garden or piecing together information about the latest check my father wrote. She also kept the books for Dad's business -- my mother was a very bright woman; she was good enough with numbers to keep the town school system's books for many years. Tracking down the checks my father would write often required convoluted discussions in small-town code before she could piece together enough information.
Lou, who'd you write that check too? Thing, you know his second cousin works over at the lumber yard. Who? You know ... thing ... he married so-and-so's third cousin twice removed. Oh, Dominic! Why'd you write the check? For the job we did on Main Street, you know the re-roofing because of the storm last winter, the one that knocked down the tree in so-and-so's backyard. Okay, how much was the check? Well, let me think.
For most folks, it was my mother's activities as a gardener that lingers most in the memory. You can still find pictures of it on the American Rhododendron Society of Massachusetts' web page.Her life in the garden was the perfect metaphor for a life of steady work combined with a natural sense of artistry, be it braiding rugs or weaving together displays of her beloved rhododendrons.

The effortless enterprise and hard-work of my mother's generation may be a thing of the past. I count myself lucky enough to have been exposed to it. The legacy we pass on to our children is not the lessons we teach them, but the lessons the children absorb from a life observed. My mother and my father gave us the best lesson a child could learn: the tenacity required to go out and do the needed work -- every day, rain or shine, hot or cold -- and then come home and be there for the family. Hopefully, that is a gift that has kept on giving.

October 21, 2013

Messenger Fish

Oarfish look like eels on steroids, reaching lengths of over 25 feet. They are a likely source of seafarers' tales of sea serpents and certainly look the part, with a long dorsal fin that shimmers as it swims through the water. Japanese folklore calls them messengers from the Sea God’s Palace, sent to warn of impending earthquakes. Scientists disparage such myths as old superstitions,  but well over a dozen oarfish washed up along the shores of Japan in the months before the 2011 Tohoku earthquake.

Rarely seen -- their normal habitat is in ocean waters up to 3,000 feet below the surface -- oarfish have been in the news after two washed up along the southern California coast in the last week. This is the same area of coastline that experienced a major upsurge in sea lion pups found washed ashore earlier this year, five times the normal number.

Scientists have been trying to get to the bottom of this, but so far have no specific answers, although the pups appeared to be starving. There is speculation that anchovies and sardines, a major source of food for sea lions, may have been killed off by cesium 137 from Japan's Fukushima nuclear plant, the one destroyed in the tsunami following the 2011 Tohoku earthqauke.

Does this mean that southern California is in for an earthquake? Or is this yet another man-made problem? Some say that the recent spate of oarfish deaths in southern California may be linked to offshore fracking operations. Fracking uses high pressure to crack rock formations to free up trapped oil. While the evidence is still far from all in, there have been suspicions that fracking can lead to earthquakes. At the very least, it sets up vibrations that may affect oarfish in the way an impending earthquake might.

Granted, this is all highly speculative, but this isn't: Unusual mass deaths of animals always raise a red flag, alerting scientists to previously undetected changes in the environment. And let's face it, man is changing the planet in a variety of known and unknown ways. These changes rattle the ecosystem, often leading to mass deaths of affected species that suddenly find there is no room for them in the biosphere. In fact, scientists warn we are approaching another era of mass extinctions, largely due to human activities, including global warming and habitat destroyed by an ever-expanding human footprint on the planet.

It's not like this hasn't happened before. There have been several mass extinctions in the past, and scientists assert that global warming is consistently associated with planet wide die-offs. Methane released from the oceans is seen as the tipping point, caused by warming ocean temperatures. This in turn leads to a runaway greenhouse effects, where methane heats the atmosphere, which in turn releases more methane. You get that deep into the curve and there is no turning back. Right now, we are only about 3 degrees of separation from that point on no return.

So as the dead sea-life piles up on our shores, think of them as messengers ... messengers bearing bad news ... messengers we are killing. My fear is that when we finally do get the message, it will be far too late.

October 2, 2013


There are currently 433 members of the House of Representatives. Thus, 217 constitutes a simple majority. There are 200 Democrats, which means that it would only take 17 Republicans to switch in order for the current stalemate to end. So what's the problem?

Turns out there is something called the Hastert Rule, named after former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, who took over after Newt Gingrich stepped down in 1998. In 2004, Hastert announced that he would not allow votes on bills unless the majority of the Republican majority supported the measure.

So, unless the majority of Republicans -- which would be 117 members-- support a bill, the Speaker will not allow a vote by the full House, even if there are enough dissident Republicans to combine with Democrats to pass the measure. In this case, it didn't even take a majority of Republicans to get Speaker Boehner to pledge anew to follow the Hastert Rule. A letter signed by 80 of the most conservative Republican House members -- all of them in ultra-safe seats that taken together represent only about 18 percent of the American people -- precipitated the current crisis.

One way out of the mess is a discharge petition, which any House member can sign. If a majority signs it, then the vote must be taken. That means going against your party leadership, usually a very bad thing. Right now, it is the only way forward, but we could be a while getting there. And this is just the beginning. The debt ceiling must be raised in a couple of weeks, and conservatives in the House have vowed to go through this whole "let's get rid of Obamacare" thing again. Only this time, it would be the entire U.S. economy being held hostage.

The irony is that while some of the government is shut down, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is open for business and Americans are overwhelming the phone lines and computer networks trying to get signed up. I think this is what the Republicans are really worried about: once people get to understand what they gain from the ACA, they aren't going to want to give it up. If you are a moderate Republican forced into a suicide pact by a small group of conservatives, then the millions of Americans who are in essence voting for ACA can only be seen as a warning sign that maybe it's time to get off the Titanic.