Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Disaster Ennui

Throughout history, people have lived in difficult times.

In biblical times, a great flood, perhaps due to melting following an Ice Age, is thought to have inundated many ancient cities leaving them forever silenced beneath the ocean waters. In 79 AD, the thriving populace of Pompeii suffered sudden and inescapable death from the eruption of the Mt Vesuvius volcano. From 1340 to 1771, the Black Death swept through Europe, killing one third of the population. In 1931, more than a million people perished in a series of floods in central China, the worst natural disaster in recorded history. World War II saw the annihilation of millions of people in what was a horrific time to be alive. During the Cold War of the 1950s and 1960s, people lived in fear of a nuclear holocaust.
Black Death street scene from the 1300s depicted in artwork.

So due to natural disasters, disease, war and the threat of misused technology, human beings have had a lot to keep them awake at night for thousands of years.

Today, nothing has changed. We still have natural disasters. We still have emerging diseases. We still have war. And we continue to misuse technology. It seems the latter, however, is what might offer us the worst insomnia during the 21st Century.

Natural disasters, diseases and wars are terrible—but, forgive me, they tend to be localized and finite. Technology, on the other hand, has a way of invading every corner of the Earth, is often invisible and can have a lasting effect. Three pervasive problems that will affect our health this century, and perhaps beyond, are electromagnetic fields, genetically modified food and nuclear radiation.

If you had told me 20 years ago that society would allow untested, potentially lethal technologies to become commonplace for the sake of profits, I would have considered that prediction a bit histrionic. After all, technology has brought us many advances in medicine, transportation and everyday conveniences. It's not all bad by any means. It's all in how you useor misuseit. Whenever the abuse of something promises premium profits, that's where human nature can trump society's welfare. 

Who would allow the indiscriminate broadcast of electromagnetic fields through cell phone towers, electric blankets, fluorescent lighting and more? These fields have been shown to induce abnormal growths and cognitive problems, particularly in children.

Who would allow genetically modified (GM) produce and livestock into our food supply? Studies have shown serious health risks associated with GM foods, including infertility, immune problems, accelerated aging, insulin regulation, and changes in major organs and the gastrointestinal system.  

Who would allow nuclear radiation to contaminate our world? The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was knowingly built near four major earthquake faults. The US Environmental Protection Agency continues to release new data showing that various milk and water supply samples across the US are testing increasingly high for radioactive elements such as Iodine-131, Cesium-134, and Cesium-137, all of which are being emitted from the ongoing Fukushima Daiichi nuclear fallout. That means in the next 10 years, we will experience a cancer epidemic beyond anything we have ever seen.

Food guessing game: Is it GM or radioactive?
The problem is, it is difficult to get away from these things. Cells phones are everywhere, as are wireless broadcasts. Our government is refusing to label GM foods as is done in Europe, so the only way to try to avoid them is by buying organic. But even organic foods are being contaminated by the carelessly scattered DNA of GM plants, such as GM flax. GM flax was never approved, but its DNA is contaminating crops in 35 countries around the world, according to the Organic and NonGMO Report. Radiation from Japan is raining down on us from weather patterns that have carried it over the Pacific and across North America.

You can’t see, feel, taste or smell any of these assaults to your health, but they are there.

Science fiction has long warned us about technological threats, but such stories were always comfortably relegated to the realm of fantasy. They can no longer be contained there. What adds to the challenge is that our leaders appear more concerned with corporate profits than with the safety of the populace. And the major news media are owned by those same corporations. It makes one wonder, are our leaders purposely trying to thin out our population or are they all just greedy sociopaths?

So what do we do? Do we live in the comfortable denial of reality television and antidepressants? Do we band together to try and fight overwhelming odds? Do we sit in shock and wait for the inevitable? I don’t know.

Throughout history, people have lived in difficult times. Now it’s our turn.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Kamikaze Tire of Doom

Imagine driving down the highway, minding your own business, when suddenly the remnant of a truck tire looms ahead in the road. It appears only after the car in front of you swerves for seemingly no reason. Then BAM! The Kamikaze Tire of Doom attacks, rolling under your car, and making a fateful whacking noise as it makes contact.

The rest of the day is history.

It lies in wait, ready to attack. Photo courtesy Sun Sentinel.
I didn’t realize as I neared the Blairstown exit for Genesis Farms that there was anything wrong with my car. I naively drove the final two miles of my journey unaware that my Saturn was going down fast, streaming a trail of dark red liquid in its wake. When I finally parked next to the farm shed and got out, not only was that crimson line apparent, but fluid was now gushing out from under the front end. It was a terrible sight to see the life draining out of my vehicle like that. Someone at the farm ran and got a container to slip under my car to catch the mess. I knew that I would not be driving home that day.

I went into the shed with my mother and we gathered produce for myself and a friend. Next, I called AAA while Mom sat at a picnic table and calmly ate her lunch. By now, one of the farm hands had shoveled gravel in front of my car to cover and absorb the mess. The man at the other end of the phone promised someone would arrive within 45 minutes to tow my car. That seemed reasonable.

Several men who passed the car offered conflicting opinions on what had gone wrong. One said it was my oil hose, another insisted that oil was not red, so it was probably my transmission fluid. A third suggested a belt must have been knocked loose. Everyone agreed it was probably best not to drive the car anywhere.

Not much, though.
Unfortunately, I was a county away from my mechanic, who I would trust with my life. So the tow was going to be fairly expensive. I have basic AAA, which only pays for the first three miles of a tow. Everyone traversing to and from the barn, who passed my disabled vehicle, told me they had the more-than-basic AAA which allows for a free tow for 200 miles. How sad, they said, that I only had basic AAA. I thanked them for their helpful insights. The man I had spoken to at AAA had told me the tow would probably cost about $105. A hefty fee, but better than towing my car to an unknown and potentially slipshod mechanic.

It was now that my daughter, who lives in Astoria, Queens, called to let me know she was in the area because of a job interview. Would I like to join her for lunch? Why yes—yes, I would. Sadly, I was stranded 35 miles away, so that would not be possible. Too bad, she replied, she would probably be gone by the time I got back. Argh.

"It is a mistake to try to look too far ahead. The chain of destiny can only be grasped one link at a time."—Sir Winston Churchill

The flatbed tow truck had about a three-foot climb into the cab. My mother is 85. I looked at the cab and at her and began to worry. Fortunately, my mother is much taller than I am, and proved to be remarkably agile for her age. I followed her and shut the door behind me. The view from the cab was like a mountain overlook. We were way above the rooftops of cars and enjoying the unique vantage point. I thought about the fresh produce sitting in the car behind us and hoped it would not wilt in transit. While it was unfortunate to have a disabled car, I comforted myself with the fact that I had saved on gas on the way back—well perhaps not, considering the price of the tow.

When we got to my ace mechanic, Scotty, the tow driver informed me that I owed him $132, a bit more than the original quote. However, I am a five-foot-three woman and he was a six-foot-plus man and built like a football player with a weight problem, so I did not dispute the charge.

Scotty looked over the car and informed me that the tire had punctured a plate under the transmission, allowing all the transmission fluid to escape, but no serious damage appeared to have been done. He could get the part the next day and fix it. It would only cost about $319. I shuddered. One unexpected tire ambush had cost me about $450. This was not in my budget for the month.

I removed all the produce from my car and called my friend who was expecting me to drop her share off at her house. When she found out I was at my mechanic, she volunteered her boyfriend to pick us up and take us back to my house. He would be down in five minutes, she promised. Sadly, her timing was off. Instead, he showed up about a half hour later. He apologized, but considering it was a free ride, it was hard to complain.

The Big Three sat at my kitchen tablea truly historic moment.
He dropped us off at my house and I noticed, with glee, that my daughter’s car was still there. She had decided to stay a while so we could spend a little time together. So three generations of women met in my kitchen to discuss life. My daughter worked on her computer, my mom sat back and relaxed, and I stood at the sink washing vegetables so they could be put away. It was one of those historic moments, like the meeting of Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt during the Big War.

"Be sincere; be brief; be seated."—Franklin D. Roosevelt

My daughter kindly agreed to take my mother back to her assisted living facility, since I would not have a car until the next day. Somehow everything worked out well and it turned into a good—albeit impoverishing—day. All due to the Kamikaze Tire of Doom. It was a formidable adversary, and a costly one. I hoped we would never cross paths again.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Importing Danger from China

Four years ago, I learned a cruel lesson in how global problems affect us all. Due to lax safety measures in Chinese food production, melamine ended up in several brands of pet food in the United States. My cat ate the melamine, developed severe and painful kidney failure and had to be put to sleep. From that point on, I realized whenever I watched world news, I had better start paying attention.
My cat, Nala, died from melamine in her petfood.
So when I read that China, a leading exporter of fruits, vegetables, fish and soon chicken (if the US gives them permission) were suppying an ever-increasing portion of the American diet, I became concerned. According to Food & Water Watch, in 2009, 70 percent of the apple juice, 43 percent of the processed mushrooms, 22 percent of the frozen spinach and 78 percent of the tilapia Americans ate came from China.

China is also manufacturing the ingredients for an increasing number of medicines we take.

So what? Well, think about this. Along with those Chinese-derived foods and medicines come the notorious safety problems associated with them.

A report titled Pathway to Global Product Safety and Quality, released by the FDA this week, acknowledges that “the safety of America’s food and medical products remains under serious threat,” according to The New York Times.

Both The New York Times and Food & Water Watch articles listed recent safety breaches that posed scary and/or deadly threats:
  • Melamine-tainted ingredients in products from well-known brands like Mars, Heinz and Cadbury
  • Melamine-tainted milk products that sickened hundreds of thousands of infants in China
  • Melamine contamination believed responsible for thousands of pet deaths in the United States
  • Contaminated heparin in 11 countries with more than 80 deaths in the US
  • Counterfeit glucose monitoring strips yielding inaccurate test readings
“It’s all very nice for people to feel that we have one of the safest food supplies in the world, but we really need to recognize that our food is increasingly coming from this complex supply chain and coming from parts of the world where there are not as robust standards and practice.”—Dr. Margaret Hamburg, commissioner of the FDA

While melamine contamination grabs the most headlines, systemic food safety failures in China are the root cause of unsafe foods making it onto our dinner plates. The Wild West business environment in that country encourages food manufacturers to cut costs and corners. Even Chinese officials have publicly acknowledged their inability to regulate the country’s sprawling food production sector.

And now the FDA is doing the same. How could this happen? Sheer numbers.

A decade ago, the FDA was charged with inspecting 6 million separate shipments coming through 300 different ports. This year, that number is expected to grow to 24 million shipments, the report noted. Nearly two-thirds of all fruits and vegetables and three-quarters of all seafood eaten in the US are now imported.

The FDA inspects less than 2 percent of imported food and barely visits Chinese food manufacturers, according to Food & Water Watch. The FDA conducted only 13 food inspections in China between June 2009 and June 2010.

The situation with drugs and medical devices presents an even greater concern. More than 80 percent of the active ingredients for drugs sold in the US are manufactured overseas—mostly in manufacturing plants in China and India that are rarely inspected by the FDA. Half of all medical devices sold in the US are made abroad. Many kinds of antibiotics, steroids, cancer medicines and even aspirin are no longer produced in the US, or in many cases anywhere in the Western world.

Unfortunately, despite all the publicity, there is no indication that China’s food safety situation is improving. Melamine continues to appear in food inside China despite a flurry of new food safety legislation, says Food & Water Watch. Nonetheless, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is considering allowing US food retailers to import chicken from China.

Government investigators estimated that, based on its inspection rate in 2008, that the FDA would need:
  • 13 years to check every foreign drug manufacturing plant
  • 27 years to check every foreign medical device plant
  • 1,900 years to check every foreign food plant
With imports growing faster than the agency’s inspection force, those numbers can only get more daunting.

"Unsurprisingly, China's slipshod industrial model churns out dangerous food and consumer products. One provincial government survey found that less than half of food and consumer goods met basic hygiene standards, meaning more than half could be dangerous to consumers."A Decade of Dangerous Food Imports from China, Food & Water Watch

In January, President Obama signed into law a bill that granted the FDA new powers to police foreign foods. The law directed the agency to inspect at least 600 foreign food facilities within the next year and then increase that number every year afterward. Unfortunately, the House Republicans undercut the effort by slashing that agency’s budget when it needed to be increased.

F&WW Report: Think this doesn't affect you?
Facing that budgetary reality, Dr. Margaret Hamburg, commissioner of the FDA, has proposed that all countries band together to monitor imports, thus sharing their inspectors worldwide—efficiently using their funds and personnel—and cutting out redundancy in inspections. This will work in some countries, but in others—China is one of them—local authorities are not always willing to cooperate and allow inspections. Also, some countries have locally corrupt inspectors, rendering their seal of approval questionable.

According to The New York Times, “Many in the food industry, angered by contamination scares that have cost hundreds of millions, have volunteered to pay fees directly to the FDA to underwrite more inspections. Consumer groups have cheered this suggestion. But Republicans in the Senate have so far refused to consider such fees, calling them an unacceptable tax. Polls have shown overwhelming and bipartisan support among voters for strengthened federal oversight of the food system.” That's right, Washington, we don't want to eat poisoned food. Nor do we want to feed it to our pets.

So what can we do to ensure our safety in the absence of our government doing so?
  • Buy foods from local farms, or at least from the US
  • Reduce or eliminate processed foods from your diet (most of them contain genetically engineered ingredients anyway)
  • Buy organic—as mentioned in previous articles, the cheapest way to do this is to join a community supported garden in your area. Click here to find one near you.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Never Overfeed the Fire God

Among my fondest childhood memories is roasting marshmallows over a campfire until they were black on the outside and liquid on the inside—pure ambrosia to a child. That was my introduction to the lure of fire. Not only did it yield something yummy to eat, but staring into the undulating flames was mesmerizing and the smell of burning wood created a wonderful, earthy incense.

Fire has been around a long time, so I’m not the only one who has ever been drawn to it. Every ancient culture celebrated it in myth. Here are some of them, thanks to the online Myths Encyclopedia:
  • In Hindu mythology, the god of fire was Agni. As a messenger between the gods and man, he was also in charge of accepting sacrifices to all deities. His flames would claim the sacrifices and carry them to the other world. Agni had a fierce appearance that today's heavy metal bands would admire. He had seven tongues of fire. Occasionally he sprang extra arms and/or legs. Fiery horses pulled Agni's chariot, and he carried a flaming spear. He created the sun and the stars, could bestow worshipers with eternal life and could purify the souls of the dead from sin. One ancient myth about Agni says that he consumed so many offerings from worshipers that he became very tired. To regain his strength, he had to burn an entire forest with all its inhabitants. Moral: Never overfeed the fire god
  • In Chinese mythology, the fire god (and magician) was Hui Lu. He kept 100 firebirds in a gourd. When he released them, he could start a fire across the lands. Just to keep things orderly, there was a hierarchy of gods in charge of fire. Leading them was Lo Hsüan, whose cloak, hair and beard were appropriately red. He had three eyes, and if that wasn’t awesome enough, flames spurted from his horse's nostrils and darted out from its hooves. Despite all the impressive theatrics, he had his vulnerabilities. Once when he attacked a city with swords of fire, a princess appeared in the sky (as sometimes happens) and quenched his flames with her cloak of mist and dew. Ha! Girl power! Take that!
  • Now let’s talk about the Greeks. You may recall from your early Greek myths that Prometheus, the god of forethought and crafty counsel, stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans. There was a reason for this. He had originally fashioned humans out of clay and felt a sense of ownership for making their lives more comfortable. Zeus, the ruler of all the gods, however, did not share this sentiment and so was a bit ticked off about Prometheus bringing fire to mortals. Zeus expressed his displeasure by doing two things. First, he created Pandora, the first woman, to unleash misfortune on the house of man (here we go again, blaming everything on women). Next, he bound the rebellious god to a stake on Mount Kaukasos and arranged for a large eagle to eat his liver every day. It would grow back daily, only to be noshed on again. There's a happy ending, though. Generations later, the great hero Herakles came along and released Prometheus from his torture
  • According to the Navajo Indians, long ago three evil Fire Beings lived on a mountain and hoarded fire so people could not benefit from it. (I understand that the top 1% of our country’s wealthy descended from those beings.) Coyote felt sorry that babies and old people died from the cold in winter, so he volunteered to steal fire from the three monsters. He sneaked up to their campfire, lit a bundle of sticks tied to his tail and ran down the mountain to deliver the fire to people with the help of several other animals. The Fire Beings angrily chased them. At the bottom of the mountain, the fire was thrown to Wood who swallowed it. The Fire Beings gathered round Wood, but they did not know how to get the fire back from him, so they gave up and returned home. But Coyote knew how. He went to the village of men and showed them the trick of rubbing two dry sticks together, and the trick of spinning a sharpened stick in a hole made in another piece of wood. So from then on, man was warm and safe through the killing cold of winter
  • The main god of the Bushmen or San tribe of South Africa was the praying mantis. But Mantis was also a trickster. In Bushman myths, Mantis, seeing fire for the first time, realized its advantages and schemed to steal some from Ostrich who was jealously hiding it beneath his wings. Mantis tricked Ostrich into spreading his wings and made off with the fire. The fire destroyed Mantis, but from the ashes came two new Mantises. I’m not clear on how humans inherited fire at that point, but obviously they did
Source: Jessica Diamond
  • South American Indians of the Amazon River basin in Brazil say that a jaguar rescued a boy and took him to its cave after the young lad was abandoned by a man of his tribe. There the boy watched the jaguar cooking food over a fire. The boy stole a hot coal from the fire and took it to his people, who then learned to cook. I hope that boy also stole an insulated potholder
  • According to the legends of the Caroline Islands in the Pacific, fire came from a rebellious boy named Olofat. Olofat was a mythical trickster-hero who was the son of the sky god and a mortal woman. As a youth, Olofat forced his way into heaven to see his father. Not appreciating all his father had done for him, Olofat gave fire to human beings by allowing a bird to fly down to earth with fire in its beak. Kids
So there you have it. Originally, humans were not supposed to have the gift of pyromania, but thanks to some rule-breakers, today we can enjoy its crackling goodness in fireplaces, campfires and atop our birthday cakes. So the next time fire makes you feel cozy, inspires you to sing off-key campfire songs or offers you the opportunity to make a wish for the coming year, remember to give thanks to the gods and monsters around the world from which it came.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Less Than Entirely Evil

Sometimes the past can be recaptured—or at least briefly revisited—thanks to Facebook.

Back in the early 1970s, I was a freshman in college, living away from home for the first time. I wanted to see another part of the country and understand how people outside the New York City area thought, so I chose the University of South Carolina.

Goal: accomplished.

The Coliseum:The School of Journalism was in the basement.
People in the South had their own distinctive culture. I had never seen a firearm before in my life. Everyone I met owned rifles, and a pistol or two for good measure.

Religion was very central to the Southern psyche. People were constantly trying to save my heathen soul, from Campus Crusaders to Moonies to Hari Krishnas to a group that was aspiring to be taken up into space by an alien race. A middle-aged man with a placard that read: “Repent!!! You’re going to HELL!” walked back and forth in front of the student union building every day with a megaphone.

Streaking (running sans clothes) had taken the university scene by storm and naked herds of laughing students flashed by now and then wherever one walked. Panty raids on women's dorms were also common. Because the drinking age was 18, beer keg parties erupted regularly and were always Open House.

Our mascot was, and still is, an (illegal) Gamecock named Cocky.
So there was a strange mixture of guns, religion, sex and alcohol permeating the campus.

My parents had overprotected me for 18 years, then sent me 700 miles away to one of Playboy’s Top Four Party Schools in the country (that year) for an education. They had never gone to college, so I guess they had naively lofty ideas of what the experience was all about. Amid all this enticing chaos, I was attending classes and trying to learn something.

My first class in my first semester in college was a required speech class. My teacher, J. Russell Weatherford, was a theater arts graduate student who had recently left the Air Force American Forces Radio and Television Service to return to college. A tall, lanky man with wavy, black hair, he told us stories about the Aleutian Islands off of Alaska where he had been stationed.

Professor Lumpkin shared his similar halberd collection with us.
I also had a wonderful teacher, Professor Hope Henry Lumpkin, a retired military officer who taught the History of Warfare, which I took as an elective. An ardent pacifist, I felt I needed to understand the other way of thinking. It was an ROTC class and I was the first and only girl who had ever taken it. I remember his well-over-six-foot, perfectly erect frame striding back and forth across the auditorium stage, menacing halberd in hands, intoning in his booming voice, “Cran and élan, men! Cran and élan! Guts and spirit!” He earned me the permanent resentment of my classmates when he informed them that as the father of three daughters, with a woman in the class, he would not be sharing his salty stories with us that semester. I, also, was disappointed. I understand that he taught up until his death in the 1980s.

The USC horseshoe, site of many an infamous keg party.
Most of my college professors have probably passed on to eternity at this point. All, that is, except that young graduate student who had taught my speech class. So recently, I decided to look him up on Facebook and see what he was doing. I was surprised to find that he was living in New York City—a short bus ride away. So I wrote to him and asked if we could meet. Of course, students remember teachers, but teachers are less likely to recall students. He had no idea who I was, but he kindly agreed to meet me, anyway.

What struck me most about our meeting was that we had first crossed paths when we were young and everything in our lives lay ahead of us. Now we were meeting almost 40 years later, after we had lived out much of our lives, and had done—or not—whatever we had intended to do. I'd spent that time as a professional writer in a variety of fields. He'd pursued the entertainment field, working as an actor, writer, producer and much more on projects that took him from New York City to Texas to California and back. We both had stable home lives and were fairly content with how our careers had evolved.

And, we were complete strangers. Yet—there was still that tenuous link from the past. So we agreed to keep in touch.

For all the negative press that Facebook receives—and much of it well deserved—it still offers exquisite opportunities that simply wouldn’t exist otherwise. I like to think of them as the Un-Evil Moments of Facebook. So, Mr. Zuckerberg, for this magical portal to reconnecting with old friends and teachers, as well as keeping in touch with my on-the-fly adult daughters, I thank you. It would seem that you are not entirely evil, after all!

Postscript: Since publishing this, I have learned that Professor Henry Lumpkin was a military historian with the United States European Command and Naval Academy. He was Professor Emeritus of History at the University of South Carolina. He was also author and narrator of two television programs, And Then There Were Thirteen and Saints and Legions, broadcast by SCETV Network.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Baked Alaskan

I grew up in the Sixties, when women were not taken seriously in the workplace, and Lucy and Donna Reed served as role models on television. Toward the end of that decade, women rebelled because they felt they had something to offer outside of the kitchen and bedroom.

Several decades of intelligent, hard-working women persevered to open up a world of educational opportunities and career paths for women. Today, no one would question a woman’s ability to function outside of the home.

Sarah Palin: woman of vision?
Having grown up amid that revolution, I find the phenomenon of Sarah Palin extremely puzzling. Certainly, I can understand men finding her attractive, and appearances in politics, as in any public-facing endeavor, is a factor. However, nice marketing package aside, shouldn’t substance also follow? Don’t’ get me wrong, she seems like a nice enough lady, but when you compare her to the likes of Madeleine K. Albright, Margaret Mead, Eleanor Roosevelt, Ursula K. LeGuin, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, Joyce Carol Oates—well….

This country must surely be filled with intelligent Republican women—why Sarah Palin?

This July, AMC Theatres is unveiling a documentary about Sarah Palin titled, “The Undefeated.” Sounds like a Clint Eastwood film, except this one is set in Alaska with a rifle-toting woman. The film has been described by as a “flattering new documentary.” I saw a brief clip of it on the Internet, which showed a lot of talking heads discussing how land in Alaska leased by Exxon had been left undrilled and people were upset about it. I can only assume that Governor Sarah “drill-baby-drill” Palin eventually came to the rescue.

Palin may have her sites on the White House.
“The Undefeated” will be flickering in theaters in Dallas, Denver, Oklahoma City, Orlando, Atlanta, Orange County (not sure which state), Phoenix, Houston, Indianapolis and Kansas City, according to the news release from the production company, Victory Film Group. Gee, not debuting in New York City or Los Angeles? Wonder why?

Also, as a publicity stunt, the filmmakers plan to take “The Undefeated” to the early-voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina for one-night premieres. Writer-director, Steve Bannon, insists the film’s goal is to make money, not get Palin elected or anything. Hahahahahaha.

So Sara Palin may be running for president of the United States of America—one of the most powerful economic forces on the globe and possessor of the world’s largest nuclear arsenal—in 2012. Important decisions facing us in the 21st Century will lay trembling on the desk of our new president—job issues, energy policy, climate change, food shortages. And, if she runs, that new president could potentially be Sarah Palin. That’s right, Lucy in the White House. I can only conclude that perhaps the outlandish rumors I have been hearing of late must be true. Perhaps in 2012, the world, as we know it, will truly be coming to an end.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Gone to Seed

The Buddhists advise that we should suspend our expectations and just accept things as they are to avoid suffering. Sometimes that works; sometimes it doesn’t.

We have had the same man cutting our lawn for about six years. He’s in his fifties, a former air force pilot, who lives about five blocks away. He shows up sporadically, which works well with our budget. Unfortunately, this year, he didn’t show up at all. So we called. He apologized and promised he would be at our place the next day. But the next day came and he was nowhere to be seen. So we called, again, and he promised, again. This dance of futility took place for three weeks.

"A flower falls, even though we love it; and a weed grows, even though we do not love it."—Dogen Zenji  (Japanese Buddhist monk and philosopher 1200-1253)

Finally, we decided to opt for another contractor who hopefully wouldn’t stand us up. Our lawn was up to our knees and we now understood what it meant for something to go to seed. Our neighbors were eyeing us disdainfully like the Untouchables of the block. Their lawns were pristine and perfectly groomed. Ours was mostly weeds—and tall ones at that. Unacceptable in a suburban New Jersey neighborhood. Normally, when our weeds are cut, they pass for lawn. But uncut, Nature’s charade is unmasked….

I called another lawn service and they promised they would come by the same day to cut our unruly lawn. Like an optimistic puppy, I waited with the expectation that they would add us to the end of their work day. Toward 7:30 p.m., the day’s light began to soften and dim. Our lawn still looked wild and free, its long, flowing tresses blowing in the wind.

"Weeds are the bane of fields, delusion is the bane of mankind."—Buddha

And so, I called. A cheerful woman answered, wishing me a good morning, even though it was clearly evening here. Perhaps she had recorded her message in a different time zone? By my calculations, if she felt it was appropriate to wish me good morning at 7:30 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time, then she must be in Tokyo, where it was about 8:30 a.m. the next day. Nevertheless, I left a message in English asking when my lawn would be cut. Since it was Friday, I did not know if they worked on weekends or if I would have to wait until Monday to have my lawn mythically cut.

Perhaps... our yard had a magical Weed Nymph passionately protecting it from lawnmowers, and thus, due to her otherworldly powers, it would never be cut. One never knows.

"Weeds choke the field. Passion poisons the nature of man."—Buddha

Finally, on Saturday, the new contractor's staff showed up and gave our yard a crew cut, thus confirming my theory about the Tokyo time zone. After all, when he promised they would show up the same day, Friday, it was already Saturday in Japan. So, in a strange way, by mowing our grass midday Saturday, the lawn service manager had conscientiously kept his word. Ha! Well... Take that, Weed Nymph!

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Waiter, There's a Fish in My Tomato!

Produce is organic if labeled with a number that starts with 9.
The other day I was in the health food store picking up a few things when a woman asked me my opinion on something she was buying for her child. I looked at the ingredients and noticed non-organic corn on the list. "That corn is probably GMO," I said. "I wouldn’t buy it."

Then, to my surprise, she asked me what GMOs were. If someone perusing a health food store doesn’t know what GMOs are, then who does? Unlike Europe, where all foods are labeled by law to show if they contain GMOs, that is not required in the U.S. So most people in this country are eating them without knowing it, and have been for years.

So if you don’t understand what genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are, here’s a brief primer on what it’s all about.

What are GMOs?

A genetically modified organism (GMO, also called "genetically engineered") is a plant, animal or microorganism (eg, bacteria) that is created by means that overcome natural boundaries. Genetic engineering involves crossing species that could not cross in nature. For example, genes from a fish have been inserted into strawberries and tomatoes. While the Food and Drug Administration insists that foods produced by genetic engineering are the same as foods from traditional breeding, their own scientists reported that, "the processes of genetic engineering and traditional breeding are different and... they lead to different risks." (Source: Discovery documents from the lawsuit against the FDA, Alliance for Bio-Integrity et al v. Shalala, May 1998. Center for Food Safety, 666 Pennsylvania Ave SE, Washington, DC 202-547-9359.)

How does genetic engineering differ from traditional grafting or breeding?

In traditional breeding, it is possible to mate a pig with another pig to get a new variety, but it is not possible to mate a pig with a potato or a mouse, according to the Institute for Responsible Technology. Even when species that may seem to be closely related do succeed in breeding, the offspring are usually infertile—a horse, for example, can mate with a donkey, but the offspring (a mule) is sterile.

With genetic engineering, scientists can breach species barriers set up by nature. For example, they have spliced fish genes into tomatoes. The results are plants (or animals) with traits that would be virtually impossible to obtain with natural processes, such as crossbreeding or grafting.

What combinations have been tried?

It is now possible for plants to be engineered with genes taken from bacteria, viruses, insects, animals or even humans. The Institute for Responsible Technology reports that scientists have been busy throwing together some creepy combinations. Here are some of the ones they list on their website:
  • Spider genes were inserted into goat DNA, in hopes that the goat milk would contain spider web protein for use in bulletproof vests
  • Cow genes turned pigskins into cowhides
  • Jellyfish genes lit up pigs' noses in the dark (a truly useful application)
  • Arctic fish genes gave tomatoes and strawberries tolerance to frost
  • Potatoes were developed that glowed in the dark when they needed watering
  • Human genes were inserted into corn to produce spermicide (yuck)
Current field trials include:
  • Corn engineered with human genes (Dow)
  • Sugarcane engineered with human genes (Hawaii Agriculture Research Center)
  • Corn engineered with jellyfish genes (Stanford University)
  • Tobacco engineered with lettuce genes (University of Hawaii)
  • Rice engineered with human genes (Applied Phytologics)
  • Corn engineered with hepatitis virus genes (Prodigene)
Just think, some of your descendants could be vegetables! Wait. Will that make us cannibals?

How do scientists interbreed these species?

Nature gave living organisms barriers to protect themselves against the introduction of DNA from a different species, so genetic engineers have to find ways to "force" the DNA from one organism into another. (Think of it as interspecies rape.) These methods include:
  • Using viruses or bacteria to "infect" animal or plant cells with the new DNA
  • Coating DNA onto tiny metal pellets, and firing it with a special gun into the cells
  • Injecting the new DNA into fertilized eggs with a very fine needle
  • Using electric shocks to create holes in the membrane covering sperm, and then forcing the new DNA into the sperm through these holes 

Why are companies spending billions on GMOs?

Because they want to own patents on genes that no one else owns so that they can make billions of dollars from them. Isn’t that the American way?

Who is worried about GMOs? 

Well, the Physicians and Scientists for Responsible Application of 
Science and Technology (PSRAST) is one group. Here’s what they say: “Considering that GE organisms are unsafe to eat and that they expose the environment to unpredictable and irreversible risks, they should be banned. It is not justified to take any risk at all in using them as there is no need for them to feed the world and because they perpetuate unsustainable agriculture that is harmful to health and to the environment.”

Okay, so one group of jittery physicians and scientists are whining. Does anyone else in the scientific community have problems with GMOs? Well, yes.

The American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) has called on "Physicians to educate their patients, the medical community, and the public to avoid GM (genetically modified) foods when possible and provide educational materials concerning GM foods and health risks.” 

An AAEM position paper stated, "Several animal studies indicate serious health risks associated with GM food," including infertility, immune problems, accelerated aging, insulin regulation, and changes in major organs and the gastrointestinal system. They conclude, "There is more than a casual association between GM foods and adverse health effects. There is causation," as defined by recognized scientific criteria. "The strength of association and consistency between GM foods and disease is confirmed in several animal studies."  

After reviewing more than 600 scientific journals, world-renowned biologist Pushpa M. Bhargava concluded that GMOs are a major contributor to the sharply deteriorating health of Americans. 

 Biologist David Schubert of the Salk Institute warns that "children are the most likely to be adversely affected by toxins and other dietary problems" related to GMO foods. He says without adequate studies, children become "the experimental animals."  

The AAEM adds, "GM foods have not been properly tested" and "pose a serious health risk." Not a single human clinical trial on GMOs has been published. A 2007 review of published scientific literature on the "potential toxic effects/health risks of GM plants" revealed "that experimental data are very scarce." The author concludes his review by asking, "Where is the scientific evidence showing that GM plants/food are toxicologically safe, as assumed by the biotechnology companies?"  

Famed Canadian geneticist David Suzuki says, "The experiments simply haven't been done and we now have become the guinea pigs." He adds, "Anyone that says, 'Oh, we know that this is perfectly safe,' I say is either unbelievably stupid or deliberately lying." 

AAEM has called for a moratorium on GM foods, long-term independent studies, and labeling. 

What is everyone so upset about?  

Genetically engineered foods often present unintended side effects. GMO plants create toxins, react to weather differently, contain too much or too little nutrients, become diseased or malfunction and die. When foreign genes are inserted, dormant genes may be activated or the functioning of genes altered, creating new or unknown proteins, or increasing or decreasing the output of existing proteins inside the plant. The effects of consuming these new combinations of proteins are unknown. Here are some of the results, according to PSRAST:
  • Some crops have been engineered to create their own pesticides that can harm animals who ingest them. At least 1,820 sheep were reported dead after grazing on post-harvest Bt cotton crops in India; the symptoms and post-mortem findings strongly suggest they died from severe toxicity
  • Hazardous genes from GMO foods can become inserted into your own genes. Genes (DNA) from the cells of chickens who had eaten only genetically engineered Bt corn contained pieces of DNA from the GMO food. This DNA contained virus genes that are suspected to be carcinogenic or otherwise pathogenic. This means that if you eat GMO foods, virus genes that may be harmful, can end up in your cells
  • An unexpected poison appeared in a GMO food supplement. The poison was not discovered because a careful search for unexpected harmful substances was not made. After eating a food supplement produced by genetically engineered bacteria, 37 persons were killed and 1,500 people were permanently disabled in the U.S. in a disease called eosonophil myalgia syndrome (EMS). It was caused by one or more extremely poisonous substances that unexpectedly appeared in this food supplement. A PSRAST analysis, against the background of the new evidence, concluded that it is extremely unlikely that anything other than genetic engineering caused the appearance of the poison
  • Unexpected dangerous substances may be present in GMO foods. This is because the procedure for assessing the safety of GMO foods is not designed to detect them. Most of soy and corn products in the U.S. and Canada are GMO and labeling is not required there. Organic products for corn are no longer reliably GMO-free because of GMO pollen traveling on the wind
  • Toxins in GMO food crops are reaching the bloodstreams of women and unborn babies. A recent study carried out by independent doctors at the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, at the University of Sherbrooke Hospital Centre in Quebec, Canada, found 93 percent of blood samples taken from pregnant women and 80 percent from umbilical cords tested positive for traces of GMO chemicals. There is speculation these chemicals might lead to allergies, miscarriage, abnormalities or cancer, but no one really knows 
  • Top researchers confirm that the results of genetic engineering are unpredictable. This is why unexpected harmful substances may appear in GMO food. Gene technology is based on the belief that genes are carriers of single traits. So it was believed that you can transfer traits by transferring single genes. But in June 2007 a worldwide consensus was reached among leading scientists that this is definitely wrong. The effects of every gene is determined by the total situation in the cell. When genes are transferred to a foreign environment, their effects are therefore inevitably unpredictable. Unexpected substances may appear, which may be harmful
  • Scientists are being harassed if they tell the truth about GMO hazards. Research on GMO hazards is being suppressed and negative research reports have been destroyed. Scientists who say GMO-foods are safe are often lying out of fear of becoming unemployed and unable to get any new research job. Read about what happened to the people who cared about our health. 
This is just a small sampling of what is out there. To read more, click here. 

How can you avoid GMO foods?

If you live in Europe, just read the food labels. If you live in the U.S., you may want to write to your Senators and Representatives in Congress to demand food labeling here. Some articles I've read say that up to 70 percent of our food contains one or more components of genetically modified organisms.

Organic foods are less likely to contain GMOs.
The fact is that most processed foods use GMO ingredients and most livestock are fed GMO feed. The only way you can reduce your chances of eating GMO food is to eat organic meat and produce. The cheapest source for that is a Community Supported Garden. To find one in your area, click here. To download a non-GMO shopper's guide, click here.

    In a world where millions of people are starving and hundreds of millions more are undernourished, it is disturbing that Monsanto, Dow and DuPont are intent on patenting food for profit.* It is equally as troubling that corporations would experiment with the existing food supply in their pursuit of greed. The only thing more distressing is the fact that our government agencies—charged with the job of protecting us—have allowed them to get away with it.  

    *Learn more from watching  The World According to Monsanto, a film by French filmmaker Marie-Monique Robin.
    To find out more, consider visiting these sites: 

    Wednesday, June 1, 2011

    Weather with a Twist

    Storm-cellar time. Courtesy:
    Many years ago, when I was living in South Carolina, a tornado ripped through the capitol city of Columbia one night. I lived about six blocks away from where it had done its damage. Wanting to see what happened, I grabbed my press card and rushed down to the business district where the spout had touched down. The electrical lines were strewn on the ground in a tangled mess and the fire department was cordoning off the area. There were only a few blocks affected, but it looked like a bomb had exploded. The store windows were blown out and debris was everywhere. Fortunately, no one lived in the business district, so there were no injuries or deaths. As we have seen recently, people who live in areas hit by tornadoes are not always that lucky.

    Americans generally feel like they’ve cornered the market on tornadoes, but the fact is that they happen almost everywhere.
    • Tornadoes have been reported on every continent except Antarctica, which does not have the needed contrast between warm and cold air together with the humid air needed for thunderstorms to form, according to the Tornado and Storm Research Organisation (TORRO) in the United Kingdom
    • Europe has 300 or more tornadoes a year, according to a study by Nikolai Dotzek, a scientist with the Institute of Atmospheric Physics in Wessling, Germany
    • The United Kingdom has the most tornadoes of any European country, about 33 per year, according to TORRO. That number jumps to 50 when unreported tornadoes are added, making the United Kingdom the world’s leader in tornadoes based on number of twisters per area of land
    • Germany has about 10 observed tornadoes a year: a category F-5 tornado, with wind speeds of 261 to 308 mph, happens every 150 years; an F-3 tornado, with wind speeds of 158 to 206 mph, happens every 40 to 50 years
    • Large tornadoes have ravaged Europe in recent years. One smashed its way through Bognor Regis in southern England on Oct. 28, 2000, causing $7 million in damage and injuring four people. Europe’s most destructive tornado tore through the German town of Pforzheim in July 1968, causing $25 million in damage and killing two people
    • There is a practical reason for the limited damage caused by European twisters. European houses are built of brick and stone, which can resist tornadoes better than the wood frame houses or trailer homes found in the U.S.
    • In Asia, tornadoes have been reported in India, China, Vietnam and the Philippines. Even in Japan, the tatsu maki has been reported
    • In Australia, the “cockeyed bob” is reported about 20 times every year. That figure may be much higher because many storms occur in uninhabited areas. Strong tornadoes are very rare but do happen
    • In South America, they have been reported in Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Argentina
    • The United States is the world leader when it comes to number of tornadoes with roughly 1,400 per year. The majority of tornadoes occur in "Tornado Alley,"which includes Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas, and Illinois. They typically happen from April through June, but May is the busiest month. In 2003, a flurry of funnels in May set a record, with about 400 recorded in seven days
    • In both Europe and the United States, about 75 percent of the tornadoes are weak, about 22 percent are strong, and 3 percent are violent. But with fewer tornadoes in Europe, it takes longer for a violent tornado to appear and cause the type of damage seen so often in Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas
    • Variation in tornado frequency between the United States and Europe can be attributed to Europe's higher latitude. Boston is on roughly the same latitude as Madrid, Spain. Oklahoma City is almost directly west of the Strait of Gibraltar. The sharp angle of the sun’s rays striking Europe inhibits their ability to heat air to the degree needed to create prime tornado conditions. Plus, the landscape of Europe changes quickly from mile to mile — from hills to river valleys and back to hills, which weakens storms. This is unlike America’s midsection, where the terrain is flat and featureless for hundreds of miles 
    Not a sight you want to see out your kitchen window. Courtesy:

    • Flatlands like those in the Netherlands have twice as many tornadoes as the much larger countries of France and Germany. The level Dutch landscape is more similar to that in America’s breadbasket 
    Tornadoes are so deeply ingrained in the American psyche that we have made movies about them ranging from fantasies about a girl name Dorothy in Kansas to modern-day storm chasers. Technology can do remarkable things, but it is impotent against a mile-wide spout suctioning through a swathe of land. The power of the Earth and its swirling atmosphere places how small we truly are in its proper perspective.