Toad in the Hole December 2005 Archives

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December 31, 2005

Scientific Secrets

I could have lived all my life quite content not to have learned this one: When an ant walks onto your eyeball, it hurts like merry hell. When you put your finger onto the painful mote in your eye, it breaks the ant somewhere and hurts like merry hell squared -- burning and stabbing most alarmingly and just generally making it urgent to yell at your best beloved to get out of the bathroom so you can get to the eyedrops. However, there is some process going on in some part of your brain that, though it has been reviewing all sorts of possibilities like stroke, sudden-onset glaucoma, and wierd unanticipated effects of hypertension, assorted drugs, and/or their combination with the last of that lovely mead you just polished off, is actually unsurprised enough to let you say aloud, "Aha. Yes, that of course," when the pitiful crumpled drowned corpse washes out and fetches up on your lower lashes.

Oh yes -- and something about the whole experience will give you nightmares all night.

Posted at 05:05 PM | Comments (0)

December 27, 2005

Cultural Secrets

Little-known fact about the Oakland Museum, with current relevance for you-know-who-you-are: If you wear sandals or clogs, no socks, and you lean casually against the railing around the koi pond and slip one foot out of its shoe and dabble your big toe in the water, one of the koi will probably come up and suck on it, and it's a seriously blissful feeling.

Posted at 06:35 AM | Comments (4)

December 23, 2005

The Point of Light

I first wrote this for the SF Examiner a mere five years ago.

One way or another, most of us are celebrating a feast of light, a traditional midwinter occasion at least in the Northern Hemisphere. It's the darkest time of the year, and we all need to keep our spirits up, to remember that the Earth does turn askew on its axis again and long days of sun will return. Some of us grit our teeth and endure another month of what's lately called Seasonal Affective Disorder. Some of us have ritual family fights and nod off in front of the TV after ingesting all those turkey tryptophans. (Maybe turkeys arenít as stupid as they're supposed to be. Maybe they're just perpetually nodding off under the soporific influence of their own contents.) Some of us make overtime pay. Most of us light candles, string bulbs, hang sparkly reflective gewgaws here and there, set the Yule log aflame. Anything for light.

Is it a sort of cheerleading, or do we appreciate light most when it's a rarity, a contrast? We humans love contrast. It probably lends as much as nostalgia does to odd horticultural habits: fake snow on California indoor trees and fake rocks made of concrete -- or real rocks imported from the mountains -- in flatland gardens, where the largest native mineral formation is a clay clod. We import all sorts of odd creatures and then struggle to keep them thriving where they look misplaced. We plant spiky red phormium cultivars and gaudy 'Joseph's Coat' roses, just to have something else in a green garden. We wear diamonds, if we can, the strongest contrast to soft flesh and fur, seeming to carry its own light ó light in a stone, of all things. We cherish our light when it's set off by darkness. We bask in the sun but we gaze at the stars.

The love of light is something we share with countless other Earthdwellers. As seals recolonized the ocean, leaving their landbound ancestors behind, a species here and there has recolonized the night. Bats and owls and night-blooming cereus mount expeditions into that less-crowded niche, and we look over our shoulders and invent myths about such odd behavior. But they are in many ways as dependent on light as we are. Even moles, who fled into subterranean darkness almost permanently, need food, and that ultimately means plants. Somewhere in the evolutionary depths of time, some being learned to make sugars and proteins, the bases of all our lives, out of whatever was handy ó and light. Aside from a few very odd beings who live around deep-sea volcanic vents, everyone on the planet springs from and lives on that earthly miracle.

What a talent! Look at a redwood, all that towering mass drawing itself into existence from a seed, the soil and the weather, by the impalpable force of light. Light kicks off the biggest manufacturing operation in the world: photosynthesis. At eight photons a pop, a plant sorts out a carbon dioxide molecule to make a carbon compound for its own use, and just by the way drops a molecule of oxygen back out into the air around it. As waste goes, this is rather environmentally benign, especially to those of us who need to breathe it. It does this trick using pigments, usually green, that get excited and start tossing electrons around when they see light. After that beginning, a chain of chemical reactions follows; some of those can happen in the dark. Plants donít actually sleep. (Quite a few animals donít sleep either; it seems to require or be a requirement of a certain quantity of brain.)

Some plants do curl up as if napping, though. Some like California poppies furl their flowers when the light disappears, or even on dim days. Some like sunflowers watch the sun alertly, moving leaves or, more spectacularly, flowers, to track light all day. Even those with less apparent mobility chase the light if they have to, growing spindly long stalks to reach it or oversized leaves to catch as much as possible. A houseplant will change its shape to face and gather light; a shrub will drop neglected leaves from a shaded side. A tree will curve its trunk ó using methods that vary among species, cells either shrinking on one side or expanding on the other ó to push its leaves into the light. When light wanes, in winter, some trees cut their losses and lose their leaves entirely. They'll do this even where water doesnít freeze into inaccessibility, where you'd think everybody could afford to stay dressed all year. Maybe it's a habit formed when they evolved in freezing climates and not disadvantageous enough to give up. Maybe keeping leaves just becomes a net loss when the light lasts only a few hours a day.

Herbaceous plants, with less hard capital investment than trees make, can just drop everything, go dormant and disappear down to the roots, in the dark of the year. It seems drastic, a bit sulky, but it works. Lengthening days will stir them to wake in spring, but now they abandon us and only bits of decaying brown litter are left. Between those and the leafless trees, winter looks bare and stingy even when it's beginning to revive the grass to green. No wonder we cook up rich foods and sweets, and set fire to things. We're lonesome.

The longing for light is more basic than custom or religion. It's a tropism, older than humans, older than animals, older even than eyes. It's one of very few appetites we share with those mysterious green aliens we depend on for food, shelter, and the air we breathe. A kind word of reassurance to your wistful plants would not be out of place in this season.

Posted at 06:40 PM | Comments (1)

Whine, Woman, and, Well...

...I'm not coughing up blood, no. I don't even have the flu. By way of lagniappe with the braces, tho', I went and had a little lump sliced off my nose today. Technically it's a biopsy but the lump hasn't changed in at least a decade (since it appeared) I'm not worried.

The nose is evidently hard to anaesthetize. Plus you don't use Xyloxcaine with epinephrine, you use straight Xylocaine, this being an extremity whose circulation you don't want to chance compromising. The function of epi with Xylocaine is to diminish bleeding -- it constricts blood vessels. Without it, you bleed all over the place. Or I do, at least.

And take note, practitioners (and patients too): The body processes yer average medical procedure as an assault. All those glands and reflexes don't know beans about modern medicine, so someone poking needles and blades about one's body -- about one's face -- register as a sort of mugging, with the consequent after-effects. Shakiness, loose jointedness, weak in the kneesedness, all that, sure, and a certain narrowness of one's sensory processing capacity. But also serious defensiveness -- one (OK, I) might bite the head off one's nearest and dearest or any innocent bystander, because one is working like hell not to punch at random. I suspect that recovery room nurses know this already. I think maybe I used to know it myself.

I really wanted to bite someone but I couldn't risk getting shreds of raw flesh in the damned braces.

But the worst thing is that even now, nine hours and some Christmas shopping while wearing that ridiculous gauze dressing across my nose later, I still can't shake off the smell of my own burnt flesh, from the electrocautery. I mean, it's my nose. I never did like that smell -- imagine singeing your hair and throwing a little blood on to douse it, something between burnt hair and burnt cheese, ugh. No it's not much like burning a porkchop, unless the porkchop is stil alive; somehow that makes a difference. It's nauseating.

Reading Robert Sapolsky and H.P. Lovecraft in close apposition to this experience makes it even more interesting, just by the way.

Posted at 07:04 AM | Comments (2)

December 22, 2005

Soular Nadir

Approaching Solstice and not a moment too soon, say I. Dark, gray, cold, muddy, cloudy, wet, and the weather outside is just as bad too. It ain't just the braces, though it's frankly surprising what a nibbled-to-death-by-ducks feeling I've been getting from those. It's fifty-six other ducks, I guess, piling on. The interior of our house looks like a cyclone hit a junkyard, and that's both cause and effect.

But we did bring the tree in, and it fits (just barely) on the designated whoozits by the window. And the mantle's full of candles, and we'll drink eggnog and trim the tree tomorrow night.

We'd trim it tonight but we got a spur-of-the-moment invitation for pot roast from John and Mary, who've already seen my pathetic attempts at eating so it shouldn't be too embarrassing. This is encouraging, the pot roast invitation. John promised me mashed potatoes too.

Emma stopped by last night to pick up something I'd picked up for her while running errands yesterday, and (another spur-etc) we invited her to sit down and eat supper with us; supper was some of her own barley-and-stuff soup, which she'd given us frozen in commemoration of my delicate condition. I guess this is networking? It does make the difference.

Joe picked up a bit of neighborhood news with the mail. The shade-tree mechanic across the street, in the house on the corner with his teenage son (a buddy of Gabe Downstairs) and the kid's grandmother (who looks to be in her 70s), died yesterday. He'd seemed healthy enough; we saw him outside working on assorted cars and the odd used truck, camper, or step-van (and once, a cherry-picker truck, which I coveted) all the time, or riding around on a bicycle. Evidently he'd been coughing blood for a couple of weeks, coughed up rather more blood last night, and died. He never went to get the cough checked out because he didn't have health insurance. He was 36.

There's nothing I can add to that that hasn't been said a million times already.

Posted at 01:39 AM | Comments (0)

December 20, 2005

Shoutout to my Homie

Since Pharyngula's offline at the moment (Coincidence? Hm.) I'll take the opportunity to cheer the Harrisburg PA judge who decided for the plaintiffsand against teaching "Intelligent Design" in science courses in the Dover ID case.

I particularly liked the no-bullshit quality of these:
"The citizens of the Dover area were poorly served by the members of the Board who voted for the ID Policy," Jones wrote.
"We find that the secular purposes claimed by the Board amount to a pretext for the Board's real purpose, which was to promote religion in the public school classroom," he wrote in his 139-page opinion.
"It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy."

I take the occasion also to remember the actual outcome of the famous-all-over-town Harrisburg 8, um, 6 Trial.

ETA: Pharyngula's back -- I assume it's being overwhelmed with enthusiastic mobs. Here's a link to a PDF of Judge Jones': decision.

Posted at 05:40 PM | Comments (4)

December 17, 2005

War on Christmas Post of the Week

... is Friday 12/16 (that'd be today) at Janis' blog but I'm not sure it's a practical solution, what with increasing commercialization across the board and all.

My Private War on Christmas: Can you believe I was stoooopid enough to get braces installed at the start of the holiday season? I might have to arm myself for all occasions with one of those stick blenders, as our friend John suggested.

Pass the goddamned eggnog, and Merry Fucking Christmas.

Posted at 02:55 AM | Comments (7)

December 16, 2005

Tookie, For the record

Since I'm persuaded that the comment string shouldn't go on longer at Chris', I'll say it here.

I don't really give a shit about the late Tookie Williams personally. "Nobel Prize nominee" means zilch, as anyone who's read up on the Nobel nomination process knows. Children's books about the horribleness of prison life might or might not actually persuade anyone, ever, from a life of crime. I have no faith in the particular court process that got him sentenced, and therefore refuse to say it's factual that "he killed a man and laughed about it" or anything else about that, but I have no doubt he was a thug, and strongly suppose he was responsible for lives lost and other lives being made more miserable that they would have been. My contempt for the culture he exemplified is (so far) boundless.

I don't even particularly believe in "redemption." Some things are so bad that all the do-gooding in the world won't make up for them -- which, by the way, doesn't mean that doing good is not good, whenever and by whomever it gets done.

But the latest state execution was, like those preceding it, a very bad thing, because state executions are bad things period, and because state executions the way the US does them are the terminus of a process so screwed up that I loathe the idea of my own life being at its mercy, and though I know the odds are slim, I see it as so flawed that I am at some non-negligible risk -- because it is really that screwed up, not because I'm going to murder anybody. Or at least get caught.

And of course I loathe equally the idea that anyone else's life should be so risked, too.

Capital punishment on the whole is useless. Places where it's practiced don't exactly benefit from greatly reduced crime rates compared to other places. It doesn't save lives, or money, or time, or societal morale, or family values, or the tears of the Baby Jesus. We're not any safer today than we were Monday, and society (whatever that is) isn't in any way cleansed or improved or made more minty-fresh. For all I know, the air quality might be worse from all the goddamned candlelight vigils.

Maybe somebody somewhere feels better, but that's not quite enough, is it?

I'm also a bit impatient with the idea that Williams was an inhuman monster. I'm not saying anything nice about him in that sentence. "Monster" is a word that's been completely vitiated -- hey, it's not like the old days when there were real monsters; gimme that old-time Gojira -- and it might be instructive to go back to its original connotation: "It just goes to show ya..."

Sorry, folks: he was human. Hitler was human; Stalin was human; Pol Pot was human; that guy down the block who kicks puppies is human. It's not a virtue. It's not something you or I earned. It's not a distinction; there are billions of us and we're all over the place. We can be disgusted to be members of the same species but it's a fact nonetheless: every shithead is our brother. Yeah, or sister. Can't escape it, can't namecall ourselves into a better club, can't blame the devil or the Martians or the other animals.

There's a big unacknowledged danger in calling anybody "inhuman," and I don't mean the obvious one, of allowing ourselves to treat the "inhuman" badly. No, the worse danger is that we'll feel that whatever evil things these "inhuman" humans did are somehow beyond human behavior, that as humans we're therefore safe from ever doing anything that bad ourselves. Unless we look long and hard at our own behavior, at what we do with whatever power we have, there's no reason to think we're incapable of doing things just as evil.

Posted at 04:46 AM | Comments (2)

December 09, 2005

Look Up!

We took the RAV4 over to the garage for a periodic tune-up, stopped at the Berkeley Bowl for fish and bread, and walked home looking at what's blooming and the cheerful sweetgum leaves confettied over the sidewalks and whatever else showed up to entertain us, including a sky in multiple shades of gray.

About Derby and Grant, as we rounded the corner, I turned to see what a couple of crows were hollering about. It wasn't quite their usual "Hey! Airborne predator!" yelp, but not exactly a routine territorial caw either. Something very large, on very long, straight, flat wings, was approaching from the south. It resolved into a raptor shape. It was a couple of stories higher than the crows, who were diving in and out of the small trees behind someone's house. It flew on, taking no evident notice of the other birds, rowing casually against the wind on those long dark wings. Lots of visible head, everything dark, not black, with no white or lighter tones showing anywhere. It flew in a straight line north, the way we were headed, above the block between Grant and McGee, and disappeared behind rooftops and trees still headed north.

OK, we fudged maybe a little because we didn't actually see it from our place, but that's how we got a golden eagle on the yard list.

Posted at 04:15 AM | Comments (1)

December 08, 2005

Then Again, Other Species

Inelegant Design's stupid hijacking of a movie gets a bit of its just deserts.

Thanks for the heads-up, Mona!

Posted at 06:34 AM | Comments (0)

Human Behavior, Stuffed and Gilded

Maybe it's because PZ Myers is younger and more reslilent than I am. He actually looks at some of the work of fools and calls it vile. Yeah, I guess it's depressing, even if you figure it for the work of a sort of stationary troll... A seine? A weir?

But, really, this sort of thing depresses me more about my species. Is this really the best academics can do? OK, if not the best (I forgive the host of that string, Michael Berube, his prolixity and typing speed for the sake of his general humane clarity; he's closer to "the best"), even good enough to be taken seriously? Does Fuller actually make a living doing this sort of thing? Usenet has (still) better trolls than this guy, and every dumb rhetorical tactic he uses has seen its day there and been called out as lame.

As a liberal arts type, I'm embarrassed.

Posted at 05:52 AM | Comments (0)

December 04, 2005

Hot Damn!

Maybe there is such a thing as technological progress. This blog has an interesting use for cellphones that take photos. Dang, maybe I do need one of those after all.

Posted at 06:51 PM | Comments (0)

December 03, 2005

Little-Known Autobiographical Fact

I actually had to go back to college, after I'd completed my AB in English Lit, to learn "Lefty Loosey, Righty Tighty."

Posted at 08:57 PM | Comments (0)

Of Course

Nabbed from Heo Cwaeth, with thanks:

You scored as Grendel's Mother. Vengence will be yours! At least, it would have been if Beowulf hadn't decided to take up the cause against you. Here you are, decended from Cain, yes, but keeping to yourself in your fen, when they kill your son. In revenge you go after one of the King's best friends, which even they can't fault you for. Too bad blood feud was so popular in those days...In any event, you put up a tough fight, and nearly get the annoying little bugger before he snicked off your head.

Grendel's Mother




The Dragon










If You Were in Beowulf...
created with

Posted at 05:43 AM | Comments (0)

December 02, 2005


I have very little to say about racism that I don't expect someone else to say first and probably better. But I do have one exemplary experience to mention, and that's about how it can sneak up and shock even expect-the-worst guarded old cynics like me.

A decade and a half ago, I apprenticed for a couple of dazzling years with the best tree man I've ever met, a local guy named Dennis Makishima. Dennis has since become rather more well-known, lectures all over the world, heads projects, gets called to consult with the big-tree hotshots, all that. But even then he was known locally as the best gift you could give to your landscape tree. He uses a combination of traditional Japanese landscape and bonsai methods and the more recent and scientifically informed work of Alex Shigo. He's also incredibly generous with his time and energy. I got bazillions of dollars' worth of training for absolutely free. He didn't even make me (or any of his students -- he's taught a number of them and still does) start with sweeping up the debris in the traditional Japanese apprenticeship's fashion.

What he would do with students he'd accepted was take us with him to selected clients' trees, and let us work on a particular tree under his supervision. So I'd go up to his house and we'd go somewhere in his old Toyota pickup or sometimes in his bigger newer Ford pickup, depending on, well, I still don't know for sure, maybe the amount of debris we'd have to haul away.

He's about my age, and then we were both in our early 40s. I am by no means good-looking, and for this work I generally dressed in jeans and a Tshirt, hardly glam. Dennis dresses similarly, is a balding and at the time yer-basic-moustached Japanese-American (obviously) guy, pretty ordinary-looking if you don't know him. (Wish he'd grow that moustache again, it was pretty cool. Maybe he thought he looked too much like Pat Morita)

On one job he said he'd buy lunch at a handy not-quite-fast-food joint which, come to think of it, was just down the road from Chris Clarke's. We had something Italian, as I recall, and talked trees -- we can both get pretty wound up and yakkety with the right kind of stimulation. I was about as high as ever on the subject; I generally was that way on days when I went out on the job with him. Working on a tree puts me into a kind of excited trance, and so does learning about them in that hands-on fashion.

So, lunch over, back in the truck and back on the road. As we left the parking lot, a (like us) middle-aged white guy in another pickup was entering. He gave us such a look I was physically startled. I knew what it was, though I hadn't seen it often or in a long time -- what John Howard Griffin in Black Like Me called "the Hate Stare."

And it took me half a mile to realize why.

Where and when I grew up, Asians and people of Asian descent were pretty scarce. I do remember one Chinese laundry way downtown, so there must have been at least one Chinese family; and one newly arrived Japanese-American family who ran the local head shop, whose elder son was considered a hot date by the highschool kids a bit younger than me. He certainly was good-looking. I suppose there just weren't enough of them for racism to apply -- they were just exotic, at least to most folks, at least overtly. But I was, as I've said, naive then; I was shocked to the core when my dad stopped speaking to me for three days because I went out with an African-American guy. (I believe he was shocked at himself, too; he'd been fairly liberal up to that point. Funny.) So maybe there was stuff I failed to notice.

But this is California. I'd learned at least that much history even then, about anti-Asian stuff here; I must have known by then that Dennis' older brother had been born in an internment camp. It just... wasn't quite immediate, was something of the olden days, was some ideological ancient artifact, until that moment. In that moment, I figured out that what the guy in the other pickup saw was an Asian man with a white woman, and that was all that mattered.

I felt a very complicated sort of outrage in that moment. All else aside, that asshole was dissing my Teacher.

Dennis didn't let us call him "sensei" but that's pretty much how we all felt towards him. What he is is a sort of custom-made sensei for adult Americans, neither Lord nor Daddy. So, Teacher with a capital "T." And this oaf, in passing, had presumed to insinuate his mealy opinion into that relationship... I felt soiled, and not even because of any sort of sexual inference the asshole might have been making. Ugh. Damn, is nothing sacred?

No, I guess, in the face of that sort of crap, nothing is. You might say history came alive for me in that moment -- the way it might for a Valley Forge re-enactor who loses a finger to frostbite. Thanks but no, thanks.

Posted at 01:47 AM | Comments (0)

December 01, 2005


Flying Spaghetti Monster Hat!!!

Posted at 06:25 AM | Comments (1)