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.

Saturday, 31 January 2009

Life Will Find a Way

I've been to peace protests and anti-Iraq War protests, to protests to free the people of Ghaza and stop their slaughter. All solid pro-life issues. But I'd not yet been to a Pro-Life abortion protest.

As I approached the library downtown, there was a small crowd gathered. I was one of the counters at the Million Man March, evidently, so I am the last person to ask on numbers. I figured about 400- four times the amount that showed up to the Ghaza protest a few weeks ago. I'm told it was actually closer to 1,500.

We were protesting the consideration by UW Madison to open up a 2nd-Trimester abortion center at their hospital facilities. They currently do plenty of 1st-Trimester abortions there; they're looking to expand. The crowd was filled with eager participants and signs, some more tasteful and others the typical gory dead child- including giant pictures on a roving truck that went back and forth on the street.

It never ceases to amaze me how those who support the Pro-Life agenda often insist on showing such vivid pictures of death. I avoid computer games, TV shows, and movies that show vivid gore, because I find it disgusting. I feel compassion for those who are
going through it, even if they're fictional. Many people I know have been turned off to the Pro-Life agenda because of the gore and the antagonistic approach- and yet it continues, as they shoot themselves in the foot. When I see those pictures, to my mind the person holding it supports whatever is on their sign. My emotional response is that it would make much more sense for the Pro-Choice protesters to be holding those signs. It would certainly be more honest.

We began with a short intro at the rally, and a couple short speeches. They were supposed to be short, and only a couple. They became much longer, and manifold. I appreciated the introduction, admonishing us to be respectful and loving towards those who disagreed with us.

I found myself in an odd situation. When I protest in favor of Ghaza and at peace marches, I tend to agree with most of the political views of those around me, but only a minority are Christians, of my faith. Here, everyone was a Christian, and I agreed with them on basically only one issue. This too, is something that does not make sense to me. It seems natural to me that we should have a seamless tapestry of belief. Life is good, or else choice. Either abortion and capitol punishment are wrong, war is always not an option, and the environment and poverty need to be alleviated to save lives- or else everyone can make whatever choice they want no matter how much it might kill others. I can respect the logical consistency of the latter belief, much as I might find it morally repugnant. And yet, most in our nation, and in particular our political parties, are divided. One is pro-choice, and tends towards being anti-war and is the only place where you can find anti-capitol punishment politicians; the other supports the death penalty, is much more eager to go to war, and defends the rights of the unborn.

And so I found myself surrounded by those whose views were antithetical to mine, except for the reason we came together. And this in itself is understandable, and a lesson in tolerance. Yet, there were difficulties. The American flag waiving behind the pulpit as we were preached to that this is a Christian nation, or once was. The brief references to Obama being our President being a bold new step for our nation in being willing to elect a person of colour, a justice issue just as is the issue of abortion- gathering a smattering of applause from maybe twenty people out of 1,500. No reference, of course, to Obama's plans to dramatically reduce the abortion rate, despite him being pro-choice. So I was most struck with the continuing of the culture wars here in front of me.

And logically, the way to continue that was to speak only to your side. In the gathering of 1,500 Pro-Life Christians, with the media watching, speech after speech (for about an hour in the windy cold) dwelt on the Christian perspective of why abortion is wrong. Needless to say, it was not an effective protest. It convinced those who needed no convincing. It was not multi-religious, or areligious, for the primary focus was on Christianity, and not the purported issue at hand. Anyone watching the news, or driving by, who was Pro-Choice, or not a Christian, would have seen the stereotype they already have of Pro-Lifers, and would not have been swayed in the slightest. Indeed, I would guess those watching the news this evening would have their suspicions confirmed, and be more adamant in their belief in a woman's right to choose.

There was one significant exception to the speeches today. Not in terms of the Christian focus, which it was filled with, but rather in the attempt to cross the cultural divide. An African-American pastor from Texas gave a rather excellent, moving sermon, if you are predisposed towards the Christian line of thinking, with numerous references to Obama and building on his call for change. It was even a call of love and hope for Obama. Though at times the volume dips considerably, I'd encourage you to listen to it below, divided into two parts for upload purposes. I certainly enjoyed it.

As with the Ghaza protest, this protest lacked a certain solemnity for the occasion. I believe the best protest I've ever witnessed was the historical fiction one in Malcolm X, with the Brothers of the Nation of Islam lined up in black, silently, standing, waiting for a doctor to come out to confirm that their brother was okay. That had impact. Marching silently, single-file, without a word, all in black- that would have impact. But the group, though large, and more organized in street-crossings than those protesting the Ghazan slaugher, was too rambunctious to be fully effective, in my opinion.

By the time we got to the clinic, we stretched all around the block and back again. It was only there that we met up with a small group of socialists, supporting the Pro-Choice position. They were more organized than us, having the call and response of the 60s down. But it was an odd mixing, with jumbled signs and slogans, with the Pro-Choice and Pro-Life merging into one amorphous disunified mass.

In truth, I don't know if any rally or protest changes minds. It lets those in authority know that there is a small group of people committed enough to stand in the cold, and logically this small group represents a larger group. I am pessimistic about the authorities listening to us, even in the Age of Obama. I don't know if any lives were saved today, any more than Ghazan lives were on January 6th. But all of us felt better about ourselves, as if we'd done something to advance the cause and save lives. And in the end, in post-modern America, isn't that what it's all about?

Friday, 30 January 2009

Choosing Life, in All It's Wonder

Many years ago, I read a book by the Great One, Stephen Jay Gould, called Wonderful Life. It was all about the Burgess Shale, a place in Canada with the largest collection of fossils on the planet from the Cambrian Explosion. The Cambrian Explosion is significant because some 530 million years ago, which saw the largest explosion of life in the greatest diversity, ever. There were organisms with life plans like nothing you've ever seen. Some were arthropods that are nothing like arthropods today. Many were whole phyla that have gone extinct. Gould's point was that nearly all life is now extinct, and that the truly weird life plans no longer exist. And my favorite example of this was Hallucigenia, a stick walking on five long tubes, with a double row of spines sticking out on top, and five eyes on a bulbous head. Truly worthy of Owsley.Imagine my joy then, on finding out that there was a collection of the Burgess Shale fossils right here in my city! And today, I finally made the opportunity to visit the UW Madison Geology Museum.

Just outside the museum is an oceanography department, whose most salient feature is a very cool map of the current weather on the planet.

There's also a bunch of rocks and meteorites at the Geology Museum. I was eager to get to the fossils, so I only stopped by the phosphorescent rocks. (And now were back to the acid.)

Then, on to the fossils. The museum actually begins with the oldest of the old, the Stromatolites, the very first fossils: algal mats from 3.5 bya- that's a b for billion, and only a mere billion years after our planet began. This is significant because it shows that life isn't all that difficult to begin. Our planet formed from a ball of gas and dust, cooled down, formed oceans, began life, and then formed life that could Stromatolitesactually fossilize, all in only a billion years, a quarter of the planet's lifespan. The formation of life isn't all that amazing, history would tell us. Rather, it's the formation of multicellular life that took some time.

One of my two favorite phyla is Cnidera, one of the simplest, with only two cell layers. Most Cnideria fossils are coral. It's rare to find jelly fossils, like these below.

Most though not all fossils in the museum come from Wisconsin. Here are some delightful gigantic cephalopods from ancient times.

And then, what I had been eagerly anticipating, the collection from the Burgess Shale.
It began with Pikaia gracilens, found in the Burgess Shale, and may perhaps be the earliest Chordate ever found- what our ancestor looked like.

I was particularly delighted to see some specimens I recognized from the book, including Marella splendens.

When I was teaching biology, every year I would trot out overheads of the Burgess Shale animals for the students to see. One point I wanted them to get was the same that Gould stressed: the process of discovery in science. When the Burgess Shale were first discovered, we found a strange animal that looked like a flat marine jelly.

Another looked like parts of the typical shrimp.
And then, they realized that the jelly was actually a mouth, and the shrimps were the tentacles, all of one organism- Anomolocaris, a veritable fossil Frankenstein. The complete animal is pictured below.

Just beyond the Burgess Shale was the Echioderm display, my other favorite phylum. (Hey, I have a thing for radially symmetric animals with nerve nets.) Most of the fossils were that class that every one forgets about- the Crinoids - the sea lillies. To the right is a fossil bed of them. Below is Crinoid Limestone.

Beyond the invertebrates I came to our phylum. The Xiphinactus predatory fish, a fish fossilized in the act of eating another fish, and an ancient rhino.

Someone at the museum has a bit of a macabre sence of humor. In the same enclosure, facing each other, was a three-toed horse and a young sabertooth cat.

Towards the end, I arrived at some very great delights. I found some of my favorite organisms- ancient giant pigs (above),

and when I glanced up, I was surprised to find a Mosasaur and Pteranodon swimming above. And then, an inventory sign, and a thought I hadn't previously contemplated. Darwin Day is coming up on the 12th, the celebration of the 200th anniversary of the birth of the greatest biologist in history. As of the Darwin Day celebrations on the 7th, I'll be working towards being a volunteer tour guide at the museum, and getting to work with the ancient organisms I love.

Friday, 16 January 2009

I Fix Things

My brother Seth always wanted to be a "workerman"; he knew how to fix things. That's not my gift.

These last couple days have reached -35°C windchill. (Not, unfortunately, that magic -40°, where Celsius and Fahrenheit meet.) I have spent a great deal of time preparing. I moved a blow-up mattress to the side, between the wall and the bed, to protect me from the cold seeping through the wall. I covered in blankets, ran two electric heaters, and sometimes had the gas burners on.

Now, since the water needs to run continuously or it
Yes. That's ice. will freeze, the hot water can't be on all the time. It would burn out the heater, and waste a great deal of money on gas. Since there are separate pipes for the hot and cold water, both faucets must be on. So, when I want to take a shower, I have turn on the hot water heater, which takes about half an hour or more to heat up, to give three minutes of hot shower water, if the water isn't run continuously while you're in the shower. In order to heat up the water, I have to turn the hot water faucets off. So yesterday morning, I turned the hot water faucet off, turned the hot water heater on, and waited.

In about an hour the pipes had frozen up. Cursing my stupidity, for waiting too long, I opened the valves, turned the hot water heater off, unscrewed the wood panel over the pipes leading into the shower, and set up the hairdryer to automatically blow on the hot water pipe, and waited. And waited. There was no change. I've done this before, and after about an hour of blowing it works. But this time, it was too cold.

I was very depressed. I'm fine living in an RV in the middle of bitter cold. It's an adventure. But it's wholly different when I make a stupid mistake. So I sat here hoping and praying for thawed pipes.

Today I thought to open another cabinet beneath the stove, and traced the shower hot water pipe. I placed the hair dryer to automatically blow on it, and about an hour later- the glorious sound of a splurging outpouring of water!

I'm overjoyed, and off to shower.

Friday, 9 January 2009

There is a Season

I came out to Wisconsin to help my dad, and look for work while I was here. But God had other plans- my dad found work. And, simply to confirm the stereotype, the job was in Florida. So today, he left in the middle of a snow storm for Tallahassee, and his job in sales with tax-deductable charity annuities. (I have no idea what that is. I just memorized it.)

And I'm left quoting Greta Garbo in Grand Hotel, but with irony.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

765 and Counting

As of this writing, 765 Ghazans have been killed by the Israeli "Defense" Forces. The vast majority of them have been civilians. Of course, in a territory where 50% of the population is below the age of 15, and 75% is below 25, you'd have to work really hard not to hit a child with a cluster bomb.

Today I participated in a protest of the Israeli invasion of Ghaza. It is always difficult finding my way around the streets of downtown Madison- mainly because I'm still so new to the area. But the one-way streets don't help.

We circled round the capitol building, stopping at the offices of our Senators and Congresswoman. The 150 of us were dressed in black, and were supposed to have a mourntful attitude. Twenty marched single file in front, wearing white masks and the names of the dead.

As we came to Senator Kohl's office, one rambunctious gentleman started going off on how we were the ones in control of the government, and our leaders were there to serve and work for us. We don't ask, we demand- and we should go immediately in and occupy the offices. I'm not sure if he realized that no one had yet denied us the right to see our leaders (nor would they). I'm not sure if he realized that he was taking the focus away from the dead and dying, and putting it all on himself.
But about 100 of us marched up to the offices, and briefly, for a few minutes, occupied the hallway.

I must say, I wasn't expecting the deal with the shoes. Evidently the guy thought it would be a cool visual display, because he'd read about it in recent news, not realizing what a real incredible insult it is in that culture. Or else he actually holds Congresswoman Baldwin in the same contempt as he holds President Bush.

The one exuberant guy in the video is that same one demanding we invade the offices earlier. You can see he is very uncomfortable when anyone else speaks, whether they are for or against the Israeli invasion, because he is so eager to share what he thinks are erudite words. (He later spouted some anti-Semitic diatribe, which thankfully wasn't caught on video, as I'm using Flip Video, whose editing software doesn't work.)

I was impressed with the politeness of the representative, and indeed all of the representatives. It may be that he knew he was being recorded, but he had the look of a man who knows his job- no matter the views of those who come, he takes those views to the people's representative.

(I was unable to get a unobscured picture, as the same guy in both videos kept on feeling it more important to get his shots in front of others who were trying to get video.)

After that session, we made our way out of the building. For some strange reason, I kept on finding myself at the head of groups as we traveled in and out of buildings. In this case, I found the stairwell, as 100 people using the same 4 elevators made for slow going. But the stairwells are not direct, and more like a dimly-lit maze, and I had visions of leading some thirty people into the beginnings of a horror film.

Our last visit was to Senator Feingold- but his office is all the way over in Middleton, an adjoining town. This meant that nearly all the protestors had other obligations, and only four of us made it to the last office. (It was much easier for me, as his office, it turns out, is only five minutes from where I live.)

I have no illusions that our protest, or our requests, will do anything to stop the carnage and bloodshed in the slightest.

Sunday, 4 January 2009

Uncle Ron's Cabin

This has been a whirlwind New Year's holiday. The evening was spent in pleasant company with the Spransys, and then off to Jenny's for sleeping and a pleasant breakfast. I hadn't seen her since this summer; my dad since a summer 25 years ago. But she was her usual incredibly hospitable and creative self. (The creche was hand-built by her and her husband Bob.)

Then it was briefly off to the South, for Lynn Malmberg's New Year's Party, with the Damrows and many others from yesteryear.
And then, the same day, a long, long drive, through numerous wrong turns, till we reached our destination an hour south of Duluth at 2 in the morning: my uncle's cabin next to Lake Minerva.

See hovertext on selected photos.
My First Cousin Once Removed, Kasha
Flicker at bird feeder

Early the first evening, I got a chance to get on my skis again. It was difficult plowing through the snow on classic skis, for the tracks had snow blown in them. But there was a certain thrill, to ski on top of a lake, walking on water as if I were some incarnation. Sure, there was 16" of ice between me and the water, but there were thinner spots to watch out for. And constantly, there was a unique echo of the swish, swish, that you hear only on top of a frozen lake, as my skis beat their sound into the water below.

I toured round the lake, till I found two companions, the larger one with freestyle skis, able to blaze a more ready trail. On our return, with the freezing evening, we hit just the right temperature for a perfect glide.

Later that evening was the bonfire, on ice. But it was too cold, so I stayed out only for a few minutes.
Andrea, wife of my cousin Michael

Fishing VilliageI've long wanted to the experience of ice fishing. I was planning to do this with my dad, but sadly, he's heading off to Florida in a few days, so I jumped at the chance when my cousins, Eric and Michael, were heading out.

When we arrived, we discovered a fishing village already on the ice. Upon seeing the blue and green one, with the TV and woodstove, we developed a severe case of Fish Hut Envy.

This was my first time out, so my cousins generously allowed me to drill the hole. We had only a hand auger, and one of the other fishermen, the one with the super fish hut, came running over to drill with his battery-powered auger. Upon hearing that I was their cousin, he asked incredulously, "You made your cousin drill by hand?!?"

"I know!" I said.

Our home for the next few hours was rather dismal compared to the others on the lake. But it fits two people nicely, and allows for conversation. Cold conversation.

There is a thing called a tip-up. You put it up a few feet away from you, outside the shelter, and it hunts automatically for fish. When a fish is snagged, it tips-up, and you run out and get it.

While Eric was preparing the tip-up, we got to see how bald eagles do ice fishing. He got one more fish than we did. (Though the next day Eric and Michael got 2 fish apiece, each the width of this blog.)

The next day was back on the lake for a morning ski. Eric and Michael had previously created an ice rink, now covered with newly fallen snow.

Cross-Country is immensely more relaxing than downhill. You have the opportunity to sit and admire the beauty of God. Or, follow the path of all men, and be impressed at how you changed the shape of nature behind you.

Ahead, the snow piled like frozen oceanic waves.

I paused, and could go no further. I'd been warned that the ice was thin at the strait, and so turned, for an easier ski in the tracks I'd made.
Jedidiah, Jim, Ron, Michael, Eric, Audrey, and KashaIt was a weekend of getting to know family for the first time, or the first time since I was an infant. A weekend of evenings of long talks on literary criticism with my uncle- a far too rare pleasure. I even got a chance to play my election game, though we all found it went far too long. And finally a weekend of long six-hour drives.