Always ethereal, always eclectic, I write as the mood strikes, when there intrigue reveals itself. Usually that means something controversial or adventure of some sort.

I've tried really hard to be unprovocative, but have as yet been unsuccessful.

Tuesday, 27 March 2007

They're all staring at me. It's very unnerving.

Tonight was another three hours of training. I like what I'm learning, but after three straight days of training, 13 hours total, in addition to the regular work week, I am rather drained.

Most of tonight focused on safety, and how to work with the handicapped. No, not necessarily those with only flippers- though it was neat to see these two harbor seals come out to greet us as we went through the aquarium after hours noting fire extinguisher locations. (Not sealions- no external ear flaps.) As we came by they came up, I think expecting food. After one did a cute rolling trick into the water, I was very sad that I had no raw fish in my pocket.

The instructor did her best to make the safety and disability awareness training interesting. She had us wander around the exhibits with a partner, alternating as blind, deaf, or on crutches. Me and my partner were blind, and it was quite an interesting experience. Not that scary, as it was simply an extended theatre trust exercise, but it was illuminating. I was excited to be able to identify some of the fish sculptures by touch. I also realized I was finding my way around the aquarium using smell and sound- where the artificial Orca sounds are, or the pleasant smell of a North West rocky shore in the nearshore bird environment. My partnAndromedaer had to touch four animals of my choosing while his eyes were covered. I wanted it to be the sea urchins, but it ended up being just seastars, sea cucumbers, sanddollars, and anemones.

What he couldn't reach was one of our more dangerous and intelligent specimens, Andromeda, the female Giant Pacific Octopus. Her mate is sealed off from her through the entire year, with the exception of Valentine's Day. Predators sex is very dangerous in general, and especially for a species that tends to degenerate and die after mating.

Giant Pacific Octopi can reach 20' in length (arm tip to arm tip) and up to 397 pounds. Andromeda is much smaller than the record. The tube she is just a bit too large for me to wrap my entire body around. When I went up to her, she seemed very much to respond to my actions. Scientists disagree on their intelligence level, but most of what I've heard has been somewhere between a house cat and a 2 year old human. I was reminded of the line from Jurassic Park, in reference to the Velociraptors. "When that one looks at you, you can tell she's thinking."

Sunday, 25 March 2007

More Wet Stuff

A very full weekend. I love it- free marine biology instruction, in prep for our volunteering. But so much all at one time, without a traditional weekend break. I'm really feeling not being able to go to Meeting this past Sunday (and now two weeks in a row). But there are certainly moments of pure joy- such as learning on my way to the training session that the Seattle Pigs are back!

Sunday was another five hours of instruction, this time focused on the one's with backbones, fish and mammals. Learned some rather interesting items about both. There is a long term six-gill shark study going on below the Seattle Aquarium pier, suspended at the moment because of issues with the new pilings they put in, but due to restart this July. We got to watch some excellent video of the study, where they are monitoring and shark movements and tagging with audio and visual markers, by putting chum into the water below the pier. Sadly these are only mid-range sharks, of 7-10 feet. The study controllers are fairly confident that this is not habituating shark habits, as the acoustic tags indicate the sharks regularly swim by. But the study may be teaching them that food is available every month at the aquarium pier, when the chum is released, indicating an ability to learn in the sharks. The speaker shared that, even down 45 foot, rapture of the deep sets in, and when a shark can't be reached with a tag, the divers want to go out of the cage to put it on the shark while it's feeding. This is why all decisions of this sort are made on the surface, by someone not at all effected by nitrogen narcosis.

For me the highlight of the day was the first half, focused on the Orca, where we learned about the local population of some 86 individuals. I was shocked at how small our population is in this area, as I thought it was in the thousands. Evidently, until they started monitoring Orca, that was widely thought to be true by most scientists. It was only after some 50 Orca from our local population were taken for SeaLife Parks that they realized an entire generation had been removed, decimating the local population. To be clear- if you go to SeaWorld and most SeaLife Parks in the U.S., we benefit from the near destruction of the local Orca population here.

That is in part because they are consummate K-strategists, with long gestation periods and not reaching sexual maturity until 9-12 years of age. I was completely taken aback to learn how long Orcas can live. One particular Orca male in the local population, Ruffles, known by his wavy fin, is around 45. He follows after the matriarch of his pod, J-Pod. She's Granny, and is 90 years old now.

Orcas, I learned, are not endangered world-wide, but they are in the local population. There are distinct differences between different Orca populations. The Antarctic population has three different variates, as does the local Puget Sound population- and those two groups of three are distinct from each other as well. The local population has the fish-eating Residents, the pinniped eating Transients, and the big-fish eating Offshore group. These groups are so distinct that a seal will not respond at all to a Resident, but if it notices the silent approach of the hunting Transient it hightails it out of there. (See swimming Orca-cam here.) There is such a great degree of difference between the three groups, not having interbred for at least 100,000 years, that there is a move by some to place them in separate subspecies or even species. What we are observing here is a Mammalian speciation event!

What keeps the groups apart, when they are all capable of interbreeding (presumably) and live in the same area? Evidently, culture. While there are some minor differences morphologically, so that if you look close you can tell the difference in dorsal fins between Residents and Transients, their preferred food has profound implication in who they hang out with. Transients don't go after just Pinnipeds, but also sick adult whales and calves. They are the ones with the fearsome nature that earned Orcas the false moniker of "killer whales".

In the Puget Sound area there was actually a near attack by a Transient. We heard about a boy playing in the water, and his grandmother on the beach saw the a gigantic wave and high fin rushing at full speed towards the boy. The grandmother let out a scream just as the whale came up to the boy, realized he wasn't a seal, did an abrupt bypass of the boy, knocking him over, and returned to the sea. Right afterward video was taken of a whole pod of the Orca in deeper water near the beach engaging in percussive behavior, slapping their pects on the water in what what may be a form of communication. I like to think they were saying, "So sorry- thought you were a seal." There has never been a confirmed attack by an Orca, Transient or otherwise, on a human (in the wild).

But there have been plenty of such on other Orca, particularly on the Resident population. One might think that therefore this keeps the two groups from interbreeding, as the Residents avoid the more fearsome Transients. Surprisingly, as the Resident pods are much larger, it is the other way around. And so there has been 100,000 years of no breeding because the Transients, as soon as they see Residents in the water, will turn and run the other way.

Therefore, because there are so many distinct subgroups of Orca, in this area a great amount of their genetic distinctiveness is endangered. Add that in to the significant amount of PCP's in the Orca milk, from so many decades of it's use, and you have a very endangered population indeed.

Saturday, 24 March 2007

Awash in the Seas of Life

Today was my first full day of training at the Seattle Aquarium. It was long, and therefore hard to stay focused all the time- but it was a lot of fun. I'm very looking forward to teaching and sharing and guiding, and I learned a good deal today as well- about specific organisms of the Puget Sound, and about certain general aspects of different organisms.

We first did a zooplankton "drop"- the first I've done in a long time. Actually, I'm used to trawls behind a ship, so this was a bit different, and came up with a much smaller sample, but one still Diatomswith many interesting organisms, including a miniature shrimp. With apologies for the videofeed, there is one swimming about below. There was also a phytoplankton drop, and I got to see my first diatoms in a long time, alive that is. Cute little glass buggers, I think.

Next to the TV-scope where they show the plankton is a "wetlab", with Seapens and California SeapenCalifornia Market Squid eggsMarket Squid eggs. (Yes, that's their actual common name. I'm not sure what they're most commonly used for though.) Seapens are colonial Cniderians, related to anemones and jellies. (Those are what we used to call jellyfish, but we dropped that a bit after we stopped calling seastars starfish. It's a PC thing, but frankly the lawsuits from the respective jellies and seastars weren't worth the hassle.)

Nudibranch & Sedentary PolycheatesAfter the plankton bit we spent the rest of the day on the best of God's creatures, the invertebrates, and I must confess my mind is now awash with too much information to process all at once. The nudibranch and sedentary polychaetes we looked at in the invertebrate survey were particularly interesting. Polychaetes may be worms, but they clearly demonstrate how beautiful a worm can be.
Jellies in the Jelly Donut

On the mainfloor is the "jelly donut", where the moon jellies continually swim in a generated circular current. I learned that there actually are a couple poisonous varieties of jelly in the waters of the Puget Sound- the Fried Egg and Lion's Mane Jellies, reaching up to eight feet in diameter with forty foot tentacles. They say confession is good for the soul, so let me also say I've spent a good half hour repeatedly watching this video in order to better understand their propulsion procedure. Go ahead- it's both fascinating and meditative!

AnemonesAnd for the kids, there's a wetlab, one-finger touch area, with anemone and seastars galore. I loved the clam (death) bed, the sad remains of many seastar lunches.


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Towards the end I took the opportunity to stand before the Pacific Rim display, remembering many old dear friends from Hawaii- clown triggerfish, parrotfish, blue tang (Dory), and a bit of a surprise...



Tuesday, 20 March 2007

So what did you do for your first day of Spring?

I wended my way through the hail to 2nd street, near the Pike Place Market. There I discovered that, not only do we have a Moroccan store in Seattle, but there's also a Finnish store! Yup, Tuuli sells all things Finnish and only items imported from Finland. Mostly clothing and jewelry, with some very pretty knee-length skirts, and about 80% of the merchandise for women. But there are also shirts for men, all striped, horizontally or vertically. And the Kalevala label sells jewelry and really cool handmade Lappi knives- but running at $85 unfortunately. Kalevala is named after the national epic poem and art movement which was instrumental in inspiring Finland to independence from Russia/Sweden, as it helped formulate a national identity when it had been largely unknown before due to the lack of written records. (Much similar, come to think of it, to the Palestinian situation today.) My grandfather was technically Russian, for he immigrated here at the age of 6 from the Grand Duchy of Finland, controlled by the Russian Empire.

Kalevala is also the festival I went to a couple weeks ago, celebrating this artistic tradition. We got to hear a lecture and slide presentation on the artwork of Kalevala, listen to some great Finnish choir, and see some Finnish folk dancing. The latter looked like great fun with lots of stomping and colourful costumes, and they take newbies, so with their inspiration it's my intention to join up after I complete my second round of Salsa classes in a month.

But for now, I'm going to start dinner that I picked up walking through the falling snow. Spring's around the corner- I can feel it in the air. Or something like that.

Monday, 19 March 2007

Writing the Big Mo

This weekend I went to my first ever writing conference, down at the main campground for my Yearly Meeting.

You know, I really love traveling. I don't even really need to be getting somewhere, and I am kind of disappointed when I arrive. I just like the moving. It know that reveals something deep and psychological in me, and probably comes from a rather tweaked upbringing, but I am filled with excitement when I'm on my way to a new thing- as long as it involves movement to a new area.

Unfortunately I learned something rather astonishing happened while I was in Africa. It used to be that Greyhound traveled to every small town in America. If you were poor, and didn't have a car, you had Greyhound to fall back on. Evidently, in 2004 they decided that was too expensive a proposition, and have severely curtailed their service. The result is that Greyhound will take about eight hours to travel a four hour journey to get me within two hours of Twin Rocks- and I have to make my way on my own from there. Suddenly, America is now the hardest country in the world to travel in, without a car. That might be hyperbole, but not by much. Europe has an excellent rail system. The rest of the world, like Morocco, lets you get into crammed taxis, spending the equivalent of $30 to travel four hours (such as from Casablanca to Marraksh). The U.S. has neither of these alternatives- and safety of course is a consideration in the latter. While I feel for the economic straits Greyhound evidently was in, their removal of service to small town America means those of us without our own transportation are up a creek- without a boat.

So I rented a car. Initially I tried Budget, but they didn't seem to know that Kent and Bellevue are not streets but towns, and therefore not anywhere near where my reservation was supposed to be...so that left me with Enterprise, near where I was working for the week in Renton. A good ship, to be sure, but also putting me back some, with gas, to about $180.

A five and a half hour drive through Friday evening traffic put me in Northern Oregon, curving through fog shrouded night on roads too gloomy to see, trying to make it in before midnight by slowing into the curve and accelerating at the right moment to catch the centripetal force. (Later on the return trip, in the day, I got to see the cliffs I'd been speeding past two nights before.)

I've only been to Twin Rocks once before, but it is a beautiful site, and I have to say, much preferable to me than the other Yearly Meeting conference site in Northern Washington. I stayed in a room larger than the place I live in now (I know, not too hard to do), and had some opportunity to wander through the old growth forest that seems to have sprouted in the midst of the retreat center. The dead tree sprouting new shoots at the top of this post was just outside our conference center. Everywhere was the smell of mist and rain and new life; in every direction giant trees and green. There is a bad stench to the word decay, but here the decay was part of that cycle that speaks of newness and hope and rejuvenation. Many of the trees showed some evidence of falling apart and rot, but there was no sadness in this- in this advance decay, they were fulfilling their assigned role to bring forth new life. In me, the forest also rejuvenated my spirit throughout the weekend.

Oh- there was a conference too. And I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was put on by Barkley Press, the publishing company for our Yearly Meeting, for whom I've been writing a daily journal for the last two weeks. I went to be inspired and to be held accountable to work on a book idea I've had for the last decade, but never acted on. Unfortunately, I won't be revealing the book idea- let the reader understand. But I actually got a number of pages begun on it, and very positive feedback on the first few paragraphs. I'm hoping to continue to find time to work on it.

I paid extra to meet with an editor while there- not to begin publishing, but simply to get ideas and guidelines. He told me that, of all the people he was meeting with that day, I was the one to whom he really didn't know what to say. It's not as bad as it sounds- he's mainly a non-fiction editor, and my ideas were only begun. But also my book idea is within the genre of alternative history, and yet in some ways a new genre- and with multiple heresies. So he was encouraging that it would take a lot of work, but if it was put together well, it could do well.

He also mentioned that my proposal to him read like someone who came from a different culture, for which English was not the primary language. Again, not as bad as it sounds- while I do come from a non-American culture, he wasn't referring to the beginnings of the actual text (which he liked) but rather the outline of the proposal, which admittedly was hurriedly done as I found out about these opportunities at the last moment. But it was gratifying to hear a friend say that, had he heard the same thing when he met with the editor, he probably would have cried.

There was plenty of insightful wisdom dispelled about how to go about writing and publishing. I was reminded of my words, and the importance of writing tightly. Writing prompts actually directly helped me figure out how to write the beginnings of the book. At the Open Mike (not a dissection of our host Michael, as interesting as that might have been) I shared my poem on Wine, which I've previously posted here, the inspiration being the dearth of availability of this fine beverage while I lived in Morocco. By far the finest work I heard read was a short humorous story by a guy named Ben about talking broccoli- sort of a Pan's Labyrinth meets VegiTales- with all the macabre imagination that can inspire. Ben spoke through parable of how, though we are God's possessions, we expect Him to bend over backwards for us, giving us everything we don't need.

And I got some good feedback on one of the skits I wrote- on the perspective of the good son in the Parable of the Lost Son. It was rather funny, for a number of comments were to the effect that it was very believable and sounded like I was there. That particular skit was actually one of the easiest I ever wrote, as I simply had to contemplate my own feelings as an eldest child within my family.

It was great being at a writing conference, but specifically at a Christian writing conference. At all times there was the focus back on the Source, that we write not for money or fame, but to influence and to speak of Jesus. Worship at one point was extraordinary, as we sang snippets of Sinead's song Thank You for Hearing Me, which you're currently listening to at the moment. (Unless you hit the stop button when the ad came on.) I hadn't realized that she was now a Priest in a breakaway church from the Roman Catholics, and had had a renewal of faith, but much of her music is now inspirational and focused on God. I found this song in particular gripping at an earthy level.

In the contemplation towards the end of the conference I found another high point of the retreat. Twin Rocks is named after two rocks sticking out of the ocean, which is just across Highway 101 from the campground. But all weekend I hadn't had the opportunity to get out there, till the last moment. I crossed the covered bridge that you need a keycode to get through, and stepped on to a rain-splashed, windy, cold beach. Seattle's Puget Sound has the right taste, but it is a pale imitation of the real thing. Casablanca had waves, but the number of people and trash detracted from a real experience with the ocean- and it was a goodly ways off from where I lived. Coming on to that beach was being embraced by a lover again, one I hadn't seen in too many years. I could hear her calling me to come into her, to be one with her, to drink her in. Truly, there is no place more wonderful than the intersection of land and sea.

I sat and considered our Mother, from whence we come and shall all one day return, communing with all of creation. In front of me was a small stream, struggling to follow the command to return, but resisted by the waves of the same source. Every few minutes, when just the right combination of waves was set up, I saw something I had never seen before outside the lab. The waves would come in, one after the other, into the narrow streambed, building up in height as they were forced through the narrower aperture. The flow of water was towards the sea, yet the waves forced themselves up the river in an unnatural manner. I'm not sure how to describe it, except that it looked as if an invisible hand was making the water flow up the river in waves. The seagulls bobbing on the stream would be upset as the waves came in, and in a flurry of feathers and wings attempted to simultaneously clean themselves and unsuccessfully rid themselves of the water.

I was sad to depart from such a complete place. The end of the journey was filled with the novelty of the mundane. I filled up gas for the second time when back in Seattle, but this time not Full-Serve as it is in Oregon. I realized as I went to the pump that it was the first time I'd pumped gas in over 4 years, and I'd forgotten a little bit about the ritual for sliding your card and flipping the lever.

The car was dropped off tonight, and I felt a great loss. This had nothing to do with God or being one with nature. There is a certain freedom one has with a car. I remember it when I used to own one. You feel like you could drive and drive forever, if you wanted. You'll never do it, of course, but you could. I could take that rental car, and just keep on going, and never return- until the police caught up with me. Perhaps there is a bit of the Babel in all of us that comes out in a car, for for a moment, we are invincible. But all good things...the car was dropped off, and I had to take the long walk, and the long wait, back to the buses.

Wednesday, 14 March 2007

The NBA: An Etic Experience

After posts by Abu Salayman and Adam, I've felt inspired in the same vein. I've been to professional MLB games (too many). I've seen my country take on another country in the Finland-U.S. game in the Winter Olympics. (I'm not saying which one I was rooting for.) I've been to professional football games (the real kind) to see my homies, Casablanca Raja. Last night I went to my first ever professional basketball game.

It was an interesting experience. My brother Kent has season tickets, and gets into it far more than I- but I wanted to see what it was like just once, and get a chance to spend time with him.

The fans were far less rowdy than those in Casablanca. No obligatory riots- although a fair number of drunks and guys putting their feet on the seats. A lot more talking to, and a calmer crowd, which had to get excited by the overhead announcer and the giant TV screen. I must say I really appreciated this announcer, who seemed to give us a bit more of a play by play than you usually get at a baseball game, so it was easier for a Sports Luddite like myself to follow. Not appreciated: the extreme objectification of the women who came out half-dressed as "dancers" that really had nothing to do with the sport.

Much better was the half-time show, with the Sonic Boom Dancers, doing modern breakdancing. At one point they brought out one of their sons, all of five, and he was spinning about on his head. The rest did amazing flips, walking around on one hand, and spinning so fast on their head you got dizzy just watching. And then Squatch came out, the Sonics mascot, doing a bit of the hustle himself. (You might remember him from the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade, when some thought he looked vaguely like a Grinch.)
Also very cool: the minature blimp that floated around the stadium inside, taking pictures of people. And that Kent seemed to be as well known as Norm with the ushers.

Oh, and there was a basketball game. The Sonics rocked, of course. They were playing the Pistons, who seemed to have better game, with more hustle, and fewer mistakes, but that was just a mirage. There were some sweet money shots by the Sonics, especially repeated 1/2-court shots. Neither team was playing their top tier players until the 4th Quarter, when Seattle brought there's in, and the Pistons just copied them. That's when both teams started to really get their game on. Seattle, which had been tied or down most of the night, started making up a lot of points. In this poor man's opinion, it wasn't the players who lost the game as much as their coach, penalized at one point for yelling at the ref. (Hmm. Reminds me of this coach I knew in Morocco...) Then he brought in his first string players a few minutes too late, and they had too much of a deficit to make up.
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(Look at me! I talk sports!)

Not that there wasn't blame to go around. Ray Allen totally rocked as usual, with 5 3-pointers all by his lonesome. But that was part of the problem- he was all by his lonesome. The other players were depending on him too much, and he on himself. A few times there at the end even I could see he needed to pass the ball rather than try for an impossible shot. But Kent tells me that there really aren't any other players at Ray's level on the Seattle roster. But yes, I was actually yelling in exhuberance at some of those 3-pointers.

We left when there were five seconds left on the clock, and the Sonics down by four. In the end some might claim that it was the Pistons who played the better game, and therefore deserved to win. Others might take comfort in knowing, that despite what the scoreboard, newspapers, and radio might think, the Sonics actually totally trounced the Pistons.
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Remember, it's not whether you win or lose. It's how you lay the blame.

Saturday, 10 March 2007

Immersing Myself

Busy day. I started volunteering at the Seattle Aquarium today, a process that will involve a number of weekend days of training before I actually get on the floor teaching. Yes, this will look good on a resume, and it will be fun, but those are really distant motivations to the primary: just enjoying the creation around me, and celebrating God's work in it. And it will be nice to have something more regular as well.

They let us roam around the floor to learn and observe for about an hour. Next time I'll be wise and bring my camera. Some very cool stuff here, including a Giant Pacific Octopus, in the past involved in some very tragic circumstances:

Also harbor seals, fur seals, sea otters, and freshwater otters. Although of course marine species are superior in all respects, the freshwater otters are so cute! They were cuddled together on a ledge right next to the window. The sea otters were hard to observe, as they moved around in the water so often, porpoising. The fur seals engaged in classic sunbathing, floating on top of the water, with only the occasional pectoral flipper waving in the air.

There are a number of touch tanks as well, and one No-Touch tank with actual live seapens- a rarity to observe so close, especially without glass inbetween you and the animal. I saw my first cuttlefish alive in another tank, and particularly enjoyed the Tropical Pacific Tank, with a wide variety of species, mostly recognizable from my days in Hawaii. Just seeing the Humuhumunukunukuapua'a go aswimming by brings a warm feeling to the soul. That tank had some smaller sharks, only about 3 feet long, and the largest Diodon hystrix I've ever seen! The porcupinefish had to be about two and a half feet long, very robust, and I was told they expect it to grow by another foot at least. Initially it had puffed up when it was first brought into the tank and was scared, but it had calmed down since then, and no longer puffed up.

The Seattle Aquarium also has a large Northwest species area for temperate fish, and an ingenious salmon ladder, where salmon fry were once released into the ocean, to return a few years later for eventual supersenescence and breeding. But Fish & Game said that the program wasn't bringing in enough offspring from the previous generation, and shut it down. Besides they had to pump out a huge amount of fresh water to make that work, so it was very costly.

I had only a limited time to simply catch the barest glimpse of all the exhibits. One could just sit for hours and hours, contemplating all the wonder around you there. But I have miles to go before I sleep- and a Barack Obama campaign strategizing session to get to at 1345.

Saturday, 3 March 2007

And now for something really unpleasant.

Fair warning. It truly is.

On my way to visit a Yemeni store that recently had a hate crime against it, with a small drunken group claiming the proprietors were terrorists, I walked towards 5th and Jackson near downtown Seattle. In front of a sign there prohibiting smoking within 25 feet of a bar, next to everyone with cigarettes, there were three gentlemen openly making use of a crack pipe. As they were rather...assertive in their greetings to me, I was eager to walk past- until a few steps later, when a woman dropped her pants 10 feet in front of me, and let forth...certain bodily functions of a liquid nature. While I have observed this on the streets of Morocco, where it is more culturally normative, even occasionally with women- in this case her expression was also quite...extreme, forcing me to walk into the street to avoid her- and the crack dealers behind me.

As I called 911 to report (the former infraction), I reflected that I miss living in the Arab world, where it is so much safer.