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For a limited time only, I am offering a free e-version of Requiem for Ahab. E-mail me at gjlau [at] hotmail.com to request a copy in your preferred e-reader format. It's my way of saying thanks for stopping by.

September 11, 2014

Life Lines

Palm reading is an ancient art that seeks to unravel the lines of life and fate, head and heart that run through us. Walking with a friend yesterday, I came across these exquisitely intertwined roots flowing over and through the ground, their paths defined by the obstacles they meet as they stitch themselves tightly into the earth. Like a palm reader, I sought in these roots a metaphor for my life and my fate, my head and my heart, their lines determined by roots seen and unseen, woven through time by myself and others. In the end, we become entangled, each root nurturing the other, feeding something beautiful that in its time will flower and bloom.

August 21, 2014

Food Chain

I was out golfing this evening, trying to get in a few holes before dinner. Walking the last couple of fairways, I was surrounded by clouds of some swarming insect. Could have been lightning bugs, I'm not sure. There were hundreds of them crowding the air space in front of me, and I endured several mid-air collisions. All in all, not a pleasant experience, even for someone relatively inured to insects after living for a year in a tent in the tropics.

Suddenly, a monarch butterfly appeared, swooping and diving into the thick of the swarm. Feeding time. It struck me that as long as those swarming insects commune in the the early evening air by the hundreds and thousands, there will be something to eat them. And so life will go on, bigger eating smaller, all the way up the food chain to the apex predator--man, who is busily devouring himself. And when our twilight comes, the insects will still swarm and the butterflies will hunt.

August 19, 2014

Dagwood's Dog

Crosswords have been a part of my routine since my days at Georgetown, when a group of us would work them at Teehan's over coffee and doughnuts. (And yes, we did them in ink. That's how we nerds roll.) Yesterday's puzzle had a clue: Dagwood's dog. The answer came to me instantly, without thinking about it. It struck me how bizarre that was--the ability to recall a minor detail from a comic strip that I hadn't read in decades, this from the same guy often seen wandering aimlessly around the house in search of whatever it was he had forgotten he was looking for in the first place. Can't tell you what I had for dinner two nights ago, but ask me the name of  Dagwood's dog and I'm all over it.

Memory, like most brain functions, is defined and mapped but not really understood. You can look at all the images of synapses and neural networks you want, but you can't hold a memory in your hand. You can't weigh it on a scale or run it though a mass spectrometer. We understand the physical process of memory formation, but I don't think anyone truly understands how electrical pulses and chemicals are transformed into the sound of a song playing in your head or the smell of the yellow raincoat you wore in kindergarten.

Researchers say there are distinctly different types of memory, although how they define those categories depends upon who you are asking. Most models show three stages. We stick our head out the door and feel that it's a bit chilly. That sensory memory is moved into short-term memory, so we don't forget why we went looking for a sweater. Seasons worth of sticking your head out the door are stored in long-term memory. We remember the seasons differently than we remember the dates of the Civil War or how to change the oil in the car. Not all of it works seamlessly. That's why we forget things.

I have come to understand that forgetting is just as important as remembering. When I came home from Vietnam my brain was filled with memories of the sights and sounds and smells of the war. I could hear the artillery and the mini-guns and the B-52 strikes. I could smell the odors of thousands of years of human sweat. I could taste the fear. Eventually, time washed the memories away, just as the waves on a beach smooth away the sand castles we build. If I wasn't able to forget all that, I would be trapped in the war forever.

My goal became to remember as little as possible. The past and the future were ghosts I rarely summoned up. I yearned to live in the eternal present, the way animals seemed to do. Think about it, can you be happier than a dog? Yes, they have their labors and sorrows--nothing that lives is immune to fear or hunger or is not granted the grace of feeling pleasure, no matter how rudimentary--but for the most part they seem to live in the now. I know that is over-simplifying, but that's what it was all about, getting back to the simple life.

I was told once that pain has three components: remembering the pain you felt, thinking about the pain you were going to feel, and the actual pain. Eliminate the first two and you cut the pain down to manageable size. Works for me.

August 11, 2014

Climate Change Unchanged

Anyone who believes that human activities have changed our climate has to be a bit depressed. Very little has been done to stem greenhouse gas emissions. The latest U.N. report says we will have to cut those emissions by 70 percent in order to avoid an increase in average global temperatures of 2 degrees Celsius, which is equal to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Such an increase would make today's extreme weather events look like the good old days they may well prove to be.

The United States remains highly resistant to the idea of climate change. Polls consistently show that two-thirds of Americans don't think climate change poses a serious threat. Five years ago, I compiled a Top-Ten list of reasons why climate change has met such a chilly reception here. On re-reading the list, which is reprinted below, I have to say that little has changed. Well, things have gotten worse, so yeah, there has been change--just not for the better.


Why Climate Change Is A Tough Sell in America


October 2009 – With apologies to David Letterman, I offer up my top 10 reasons why climate change is a tough sell in America.
Climate change is not breaking news. We Americans have grown addicted to stories that sweep over us like a giant wave. Climate change creeps in with the tide.
Climate change is not easy to understand. Weather is what you see out the window today. Climate change is computer models trying to guess what you will see out the window 30 years from now.
Climate change is not easy to explain.  Weather is Al Roker. Climate change is Al Gore.
There is no single plan to rally supporters around. Pretty much everyone agrees that greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced. But which ones, by how much and how soon, through what methods … these are all topics of intense debate.
The pain is here and now; the gain is off in the distant future. Doing something about climate change will cost billions of dollars right now. The ultimate benefit will be a more livable planet 30, 50, 100 years from now.  That’s asking for a lot to be taken on faith.
The human brain is not wired to think in terms of centuries. We pretty much live in the moment. Somewhere between the here-and-now and 100 years from now, we just stop listening.
Future shock rocks. We are being bounced from one crisis to the next like a ping-pong ball in a room full of mouse-traps. Sooner or later, we just reach the point where we just want to pull back into our shells and stop listening.
Resistance is not always futile. Controlling greenhouse gas emissions will cost big business some big bucks. If they can avoid or mitigate that future expense by financing extensive (dis)information campaigns, why not do it? Spending millions today beats spending billions tomorrow. It’s not like the average politician is looking for a reason to believe.
The political process is exhausted. The battle over health care reform has given the political process a severe case of battle fatigue. It remains to be seen how much fight is left in both parties as they try to confront an issue as complicated and contentious as energy reform.
Nation states suck at solving global problems. The world is a bunch of teenagers who have been sent to their rooms. Each room is a nation-state with a big sign on the door that says, “You are not the boss of me.” Collective action does not come naturally or easily at this stage in our geopolitical development. 

Reprinted from Fifty Years of Global Warming, available without charge at all major e-book outlets.

July 21, 2014

My Little Town

Not too long ago, I made a quick visit back to my hometown of Cohasset, located on the shoreline of Massachusetts Bay, about twenty miles south of Boston. The occasion was my older sister's birthday. I have three sisters, but my older sister and I are half a generation distant from my younger sisters, resulting in a tidal pool of memories unique to those years when it was just the two of us.

We spent our childhood on Stockbridge Street, a winding lane just barely wide enough for two cars to pass, dense-packed with houses perched on the rocky outcrops that define New England. Downtown Cohasset was a short walk from where we lived and the weather was free of the oppressive humidity that usually prevailed in early July, so it was natural that we would spend some time during my visit taking in the sights.

As we walked around our old haunts, it struck me that we weren't much concerned with the shops that lined South Main Street or the current residents of Stockbridge Street. Rather, our eyes were focused a half-century back, looking for the town we knew growing up. The present did not much hold our interest that day, other than as a reminder of what once was. We sought instead to locate the metes and bounds of a town no longer visible to the naked eye, a town that lived on only in memory.

Philosophers and scientists struggle to define reality and the passage of time which marks our progress through it.  Einstein wove time and space together into a single fabric -- all there, all the time ... so to speak. Some argue that reality is only a product of our perception. We see what we think we see. Others say that when we aren't looking, reality isn't there ... that the things we think of as real are only there when we perceive them.

Maybe that's how the past works. It's there when you look at it, waiting to be given form by our perception of it. Faulkner wrote that the past isn't dead; it isn't even past. It certainly felt that way as we walked the streets of Cohasset, clusters of memories assailing our senses like the fragrance from the honeysuckle that grew in the field across the street from the house on Stockbridge Street.

It may be true that time only moves in one direction ... forward. But I feel within me different drummers beating to different times. There are moments when I hear the distant beat of days gone by coming through more clearly than the present. Or maybe it's just that I have learned to listen for it, to linger in the moment when the orchestra conductor in my head taps his baton to get my attention and then begins to play a memory I once knew all the words to, but can now only recall the melody. It is enough.

May 29, 2014

Privacy

Two big stories -- Edward Snowden's release of government secrets and Elliot Rodger's deadly rampage in California -- raise serious questions about privacy. Where do we draw the line between our right as individuals to live free from undue governmental intrusion and the rights of the many -- acting through the agency of the government -- to protect themselves from the acts of an individual (or group) intent on doing harm to others?

Maybe the better question to ask is not how much freedom are we willing to give up to feel safe, but how much risk are we willing to take to feel free. That used to be an easier question when violence was mainly the result of criminal activity or crimes of passion. Most of us can live with that level of risk. It gets harder when you throw in cold-blooded attacks that have no basis other than hate, no purpose other than to inflict maximum casualties.

Edward Snowden came to see the electronic spying carried out by NSA as fundamentally unconstitutional. After his attempts to raise questions through channels proved fruitless, he loaded up a few thumb drives worth of sensitive documents and fled the country, where he began the selective release of information aimed at casting light on the extensive nature of NSA's data-gathering operations. Clearly he broke the law, but equally clearly he disclosed a range of activities that have provoked an intense national debate on just how far the government can and should go to gather information that might prevent another terrorist attack.

An equally intense debate has focused on the events leading up to Elliot Rodger's killing spree that resulted in six people dead and several more wounded. This young man was a walking time bomb, no question about it. His family knew it, as did his therapist. Both tried to warn police. But strict laws prevent the detention of an individual merely because he might do something bad. Prosecutors say their hands are tied by the law, which basically puts the decision to declare oneself a danger to society or oneself in the hands of the person under suspicion.

The need for some level of intelligence gathering, electronic or otherwise, seems obvious. And it would be nice to think that anyone mentally ill to the point of being dangerous would somehow be confined to a treatment facility until the danger passed. I remain conflicted on both issues.

Much as I am reluctant to admit it, Snowden's basic contention has merit. He argues that the NSA spying was and is profoundly unconstitutional and that it was his duty and his right to bring it to light. In this case, I think he was right to blow the whistle. That said, secrecy remains a vital part of intelligence work -- their right to privacy, if you will -- and we can't have people willy-nilly deciding that certain secrets shouldn't be kept.

As for the horrors of public mass shootings that seem to come almost daily now, other than the obvious issue of selling guns pretty much to anyone who walks through the door, I have no answers. The situations are as unique and as complicated as our humanity. I think we can all agree that sending cops to do a "welfare check" is clearly not adequate. Putting people in institutions just because we think they might be a danger to themselves or others is a civil liberties nightmare.  Singling out those who seek therapy doesn't seem the way to go, either. Maybe we just need to listen harder to what families have to say. If your own mother thinks you are a danger, then that should tell you something.

In both cases, drawing the line is proving difficult, maybe impossible. Maybe that is as it should be. These are not easy questions, so it is unreasonable to expect easy answers. That won't stop the politicians and the pundits from looking for the perfect sound bite, especially in an election year.

May 4, 2014

Odd Jobs

I was thinking about some of the jobs I had as a kid. My first job was as a caddie. We would haul one or two bags under the hot sun for four hours, all for the princely sum of $2.50 for a single, $5 for a double. We had a caddy shack where the pro would come to assign us work. I'm sure he dreaded looking in there and seeing me as the only one left. Truth be told, I totally sucked at caddying. I could never see where the balls went. I wasn't really strong enough to carry two bags, not to mention that I had to ride my bike several miles to get to the golf course. This would be when I was maybe 12 or 13 years old.

My first real job was working at the local grocery store when I was 16. It started out as a Tedeschis's but was eventually bought out and became a Stop and Shop, at least that's how I remember it. I was paid something like $1.25 an hour to run a register that was little more than an adding machine with a few extra buttons to indicate the department--grocery, produce, meat, whatever. The prices were stamped on the cans, but a lot of them were missing, plus you had to know all the produce prices. Bar codes were not in common use back then. We cashiers just had to know the prices, and I'll tell you, we moved people through as fast or faster than today. Just saying. (I continued doing this in college, working at the Safeway on Connecticut Avenue, a wealthy part of town filled with eccentric people. Don't get me started.)

The summer after I graduated high school, I worked in Boston for an insurance company. My dad knew the Vice-President of the company -- he could have been the President or the Treasurer, I can't remember -- and he got me a job in the billing department, which consisted of a very big room filled on one end with large tables that held thousands of monthly payments from customers and on the other with huge punched card sorting machines presided over by a guy named Jerry. This was pretty high tech stuff for the day. Punched cards were the transitional technology between completely paper-based operations and today's computer-driven business world. The thinking behind the use of punched paper cards was what created today's modern programs.

By far my weirdest job--if you don't count Vietnam as a job--was between freshman and sophomore year of college when I worked as a night janitor for a hospital in Dorchester. For those of you not familiar with the Boston area, Dorchester is really not the kind of place you want to be wandering around alone at night, particularly if you are a white bread boy from Smallville. I took the subway to and from Quincy, getting to work around 6 o'clock and leaving at 11 o'clock.

Two memories stand out. First, I had to clean the rest rooms. I would go into the Men's Room and things would be pretty much okay, the normal results of a day of usage. Then I would do the Ladies' Room. The first time I opened the door, I had a total OMG moment. The place looked like the aftermath of a tornado, paper and trash everywhere. It was like that each time I cleaned it, a real eye-opener. Second, I had to master the buffer, a cantankerous device with a mind very much it's own, something akin to riding a bull. I would grasp the handles firmly, squeeze on the levers that activated it, and the next thing I knew I was bouncing it off the walls. Eventually, I became kinda sorta okay with it, which helped when I went into the Army. You definitely didn't want to be bouncing that puppy off the walls with a drill sergeant anywhere in the neighborhood.

What got me thinking was the casualness with which my parent's dispatched me on these jobs, especially the one in Dorchester. I mean that was a dangerous place, as you would have quickly grasped had you been with me the night I walked the wrong way and ended up on a very dark and very deserted street. I guess my parents had to do that and much more when they were growing up during the Depression. Maybe they were oblivious to the risk, or maybe they understood that without risk you don't grow as a person. I wonder if today's helicopter parents would make the same choice for their kids. I hope so.