Archive for the ‘Death’ Category

Even Bugs Die

August 31st, 2012

I’m at nature a gentle sort, so much so that in the frenzy of the Vietnam-war draft, my beloved grandfather unbidden handed me a conscientious-objector reference letter. While he had sneaked away from the farm to enlist in the WWI American Expeditionary Forces to fight the Hun, he knew that I would never be one to kill another person.

Yet at a much lower level, he and I had teamed for years to slay insect pests. He had long farmed “patches” as he called them. These one-acre farms, one or two every summer were wide, deep expanses of vegetables and fruits, 150 running feet each. He’d plant, and from my elementary school time, I’d weed, water, train to trellis, cull, harvest, and more. Inherent in this was the elimination of bugs.

Many years later in my master-gardener course, I learned nifty terms such as integrated pest management. I already knew that part of the curriculum.

Early on, he used nasty chemicals, like DDT. He’d strap big spraying drums to his shoulder and squirt the toxins. Yet, also early on he somehow ran across the Rodale pub, Organic Gardening and quickly converted. We were out there with the pyrethrum (fundamentally a natural, harmless-to-humans insecticide made from marigolds) and with our eyes and hands. Destructive bugs did not like and died in innocuous baths of soapy water, beer, or water that had soaked the juice from a nickel cigar. I’d knock the hornworms, Japanese beetles, potato beetles and their ilk into my coffee cans of to-them toxins. While time-consuming, it killed them, did not hurt me, and did not poison the veggies and fruits.

With that background, I was a bit amused when my wife called to look at this thing on the back deck plants. Asked, she agreed it might be a bug but she was not sure.

What we had, and what had been ruining my wee, grown-from-seed tomato fruits was a tomato hornworm. What it had was parasites. The white thingummies festooned on its back were the growing offspring of a parasitic moth. It was infested and near death with wasp babies eating it from the inside.

There’s a conflict for the gentle guy.

This dreadful caterpillar has been destroying my tomatoes, fruit and plant. These wasps were gnawing at it en masse. Shortly the hornworm will die, the wasps will grow and fly off to create more parasites.

Who should feel sorry for whom?

Truth be told, as a gardener from childhood and by avocation and certification, I have little use for insects that live to eat my crops. Yet a small part of me empathizes with the reality of being eaten alive from the inside by nasties.

I think we could well do without the hornworm. Some versions of it munch on tobacco, which distresses me far less. I don’t have tobacco salads and sandwiches. I also think we could do well without mosquitoes, even though many bats and birds consume them as main parts of their diets.

My wife is very unhappy at the sight and thought of of the besieged caterpillar. I had no problem clipping the leaf and tossing the mess aside. I know that the wasps will finish their business and thrive. I might even hum The Circle of Life.

 

On Ripping Off Relics

March 4th, 2012

I confess, but only as a figure of speech, that relics and reliquaries seem ghoulish to me, a non-Roman Catholic. As matter of faith, I likely shouldn’t find them so. I was a devote little Christian, one who believed in transubstantiation during communion, which I took many times.

Along with hormonal floods, puberty brought dousing of knowledge and analytic thought. I got better.

Today the news from Dublin includes the discovery that somebody made off with the heart of Saint Lorcan Ua Tuathail, later known as Laurence (or Lawrence) O’Toole. That’s a big deal, as he is the patron saint of Dublin.

The relic had been in a wooden box in a square iron cage in the cathedral. It was no impulse pilfer either, the thief/thieves sawed through the bars and  forced the cage free to get the treasure. The church dean said, “It has no economic value but it is a priceless treasure that links our present foundation with its founding father.”

Yet we also have to wonder, as parts of saints have been bought/sold/swapped/stolen for centuries. Some allegedly are duplicated in multiple locations. Other religious artifacts, such as pieces of “the True Cross” whereon Jesus died, appear in so many churches that wags have said there are enough around to build Noah’s ark.

To  believers, even beyond Ireland, such tangible links to holy folk are sacred in their own right. Many supposedly have innate powers — healing the sick if prayed to and beside, and other such miracles. Nearly six years ago, many gathered in Boston to peek at the visiting heart of a saint lent by a French church and briefly displayed here. I joined them.

To us less faithful, we are wont to insult folk by speaking of worshiping a finger bone in a filigree tube (available at the Cloisters in NYC, for one) and such. Catholics are quick to point out that there’s a huge difference between praying through a saint to God and worshiping a body part.

For the best treatment to the relic world concentrated on the whole bodies, I recommend Magnificent Corpses: Searching Through Europe for St. Peter’s Head, St. Claire’s Heart, St. Stephen’s Hand, and Other Saintly Relics by Anneli Rufus. She was fascinated by relics, particularly whole bodies of the incorruptibles — corpses on display allegedly never decomposing, thus proving their holiness. She visited numerous shrines to observe both the saints’ remains and the visitors.

St. Lorcan lived in the 12th Century. There are trails and tales of his body parts too, including buried, disinterred and stolen bones. Even before his relics were shared and disappeared, he was on a fast track to sainthood. Many claimed miracles by praying to him in the months and years following his death (natural causes and not martyrdom) both at his tomb and through his intercession.

He apparently led a saintly life of humility and abstinence, replete with hair shirt, prolonged fasting, forgoing meat and stimulants and such that other prelates enjoyed. Now whether a figurative pure heart translated into a literal holy one, I suppose, is that matter of faith. Regardless, ripping off a religion’s palpable symbol is a terrible act.

Tyranny of Impulse

February 23rd, 2012

Like full-grown house cats or kindergarten-aged kids running across the street, impulses are OK…until suddenly they aren’t. Mammals of all types trust their whims, often ducking their heads and looking to the odds and to their previous experience.  Then, blam!

Think of the streets. In many places, certainly the Boston area, we feign obliviousness as we walk between crosswalks, against lights, after sunset wearing dark clothes, pushing our wee ones in strollers from between parked cars, and such. This is beyond depending on the kindness (and alertness) of strangers.

For vehicles, the wheezing cliché is that cyclists are the danger to the rest of us. Maiming and death stats say otherwise. The 3,000 and 4,000-pound motorized weapons of metal and plastic have other humans aiming them. Many of those are distracted any given moment by punching characters into or talking with cell phones in hand. They can neither pay attention nor are inclined to do so. Less than a second of the fantasy of multitasking can be the end of one for more other humans.

Our primitive impulses are often more fraught than ditzy inattention. Consider blowing through stop signs. You add a little intellectual context, as in it’s an uncrowded area, then let the impulse rule. It’s giving control to that lizard brain or the pubescent who still lives inside us.

Nearly always, it works. There’s no one with the right of way coming and no cop with a ticket book looking.

Of course, we’re either real sorry or accusatory when it’s maiming, death or fines. You were swatting a bee in the car, you just didn’t see the sign, you certainly did stop and look both ways, the other driver was speeding and came out of nowhere…

We really do not have the internal wiring to admit how lame and ill-advising our impulses often are. That likely would be denying our obvious brilliance and morality, eh? No matter how many times we’ve goofed up, we keep trusting the feelings.

The solution is the obvious. Throttle the impulse. Save it for performance art. Won’t you think of the children (and everyone else in your world)?

Probably not.

Harrumph.

Whitney Whitewash

February 22nd, 2012

No escape hatch to hide from Whitney Houston’s corpse and claque… We were positively British in our ghoulish celebrity tracking of her death, funeral and alleged celebrations of her life and career.

Honest to God, what was the live stream of her service on the net and TV?!

Yeah, yeah, there were time when she was a very good singer and times when she was great. She had long and publicly ruined all but the remaining recordings and archives shows. Say it with me, she was addicted to alcohol and other drugs, she lived the self-indulgent melodrama of the very wealthy and famous. Few anywhere have noted that many ordinary folk are likewise swirling the drain.

A fairer view of her decline and demise comes from Maer Roshan. His piece on her addictions and fatal spiral down appeared in The Fix and replayed in Salon. The tens of thousands, likely millions, of words and glam pix of Houston were largely devoid of the real and powerful message of her addictive mind and actions. Talk about teachable moments ignored!

Among his salient observations, Roshan wrote:

Even though decades of research proves addiction is a condition with complicated genetic and chemical roots, far too many journalists continue to see it as a sort of moral weakness. Their failure to actively report on the issue represents both a lack of initiative and funding. After all, covering Whitney’s last moments is a lot easier (and less expensive) than going up against the wrath of formidable lawyers and lobbyists employed by corrupt pharmaceutical behemoths. It’s also a lot more comfortable than venturing into the ravaged small towns of Iowa and Montana to witness firsthand the devastation wrought by poverty and crystal meth.

He notes the reasonable estimate of 22 million addicted Americans. Sure, everyone who dies youngish is a sad story. Sure, we overly identify with good looking celebs. Sure, de mortuis nil nisi bonum. Yet rather than attending the prolonged play at the Theatre of the Magnificent Dead, we could dig into how someone with so much and so many advantages could succumb. There are lessons and possible prevention for us lesser mortals.

God Bless Giraffes

January 19th, 2012

Hamisi1Truth be told, giraffes are my favorite animal. They are beautiful and have an elegant stride, oh, and compelling eyes.

So, I have been emotionally caught up in reportage of Europeans and Americans who shoot giraffes for sport. Trophy hunting of giraffes is by no means dangerous, but it is very expensive $10,000 or more for the experience (plus $2,000 trophy fee).

No Screams

An understandable giraffe myth is that they make no sounds. While they often do not vocalize, they can — moms bellow for lost offspring, males hoping to mate snort, all will bleat on occasion and such.

More obviously, both in the wild as well as in zoos and preserves, they munch plants all day. They run and play with each other. They are gentle herbivores, who are violent rarely. Their only real weapon is a super-strong kick, which can maim or kill a predator such as a lion. Males will sometimes fight each other over a female by swinging their heads at each other.

While I eat meat, I do not believe nor understand hunting for sport.  With mammals as benign, as harmless as giraffes, it makes no sense at all. I have read and seen enough, and have enough hunter relatives and acquaintances, to know some of the other side, such as:

  • Tracking and killing large cats, bears and such is perilous, manly and an expression of a primal struggle for life
  • Hunters of deer and other ruminants cull the overpopulated herd, keeping the survivors healthy and in stasis
  • Some hunters butcher and eat what they kill, equating it with store-bought meat, with the benefit of pelts

Giraffe trophy hunters don’t have any of those arguments. Instead, per that article in the Sun linked above and numerous safari-company sites, it runs:

  • A half dozen African countries allow legal giraffe slaughter
  • The countries use the fees to support their local economy
  • When the residents know hunts are legal and they can get paid for these, they do it rather than poach giraffes for their skins. As one safari guy put it, “Rhino and other animals have been saved through conservation and the most money for conservation is generated from hunting.”

Hierarchy of Affection

Another truth from me is that I am no adherent of ahimsa. I swat mosquitoes, for example, although yesterday, I did remove a fair sized spider from my bathroom by hand, placing it on plants on the deck to scurry off to safety.

Moreover, I regularly eat muscle meat and fish that I purchase. I’m country enough to know chickens don’t grow in shrink-wrapped packages. In fact, I’ve eviscerated fish, plucked chickens and such. It is the sport aspect — the thrill of the kill — that I have never wanted nor understood.

I grew up around hunters. I think of my mother’s brother and his three sons. They loved shooting animals and particularly pleased my country grandmother when they showed up with a deer haunch. They butchered it and we had venison out of the freezer for many meals, including actual mincemeat pie.

I have species prejudice. The idea of killing a whale or any cetacean appalls me. They are far too close to us in brain capacity and are very human in many ways, short of being cruel and ambitious.

From there, I feel an affinity for the great and lesser apes. I identify less and feel less protective of other species, particularly vermin sorts like rats and squirrels. For learned emotional reasons, I would not kill nor eat a cat, dog or other pet variety.

Because I Can

796px-Bundesarchiv_Bild_105-DOA0377,_Deutsch-Ostafrika,_GiraffeWhile not strongly anti-hunting, I do listen to hunters, who like fishermen love to talk about what they do. Many I have known from childhood, into school and college and as an adult, fall into several types. A few truly seem to be those conservation type. They enjoy the outdoors, truly believe that they keep herds healthy through culling, and eat their kills.

My emotional problem is with the many I have known or heard who plainly simply like to kill. The glee they express in describing shooting animals and watching them struggle and die is freaky, scary. We should be glad they have an outlet and are not driven to turning on us.

Likewise for giraffes, there are numerous descriptions and short videos that illustrate both types. Search trophy hunting giraffes to find both safari companies and people opposed to such doings. Oddly, the videos of tourists killing giraffes, posing (invariably under an arced neck) and bragging about it are on both types of sites. One family’s murder is another’s adventure.

Giraffe hunting is not new, of course. The picture above is a pre-WWI one with natives who with their prey. They would eat the animal and sell the hide — old style and not for amusement.

Seeing the videos of the modern version reminds me of a visit to the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY. Mr. Photography loved killing African mammals. His rooms share the building with photography museum. There are elephant and other heads on walls, desks covered in hippo hide and such, and outsized artifacts like umbrella stands made of elephant or hippo feet.

He was quite a control freak, it seems. His journals specify how he micromanaged each trip, down to how many socks of what type each person would bring and precisely what the provisions would be for every meal. In the end, so to speak, he hunted himself as well. He was getting physically feeble and rather than forgo such excursions, he brought in acquaintances one or more at a time, conversing at length to show he was rational (and his will would not be contested), and then killed himself with his favorite pistol. The journals and pistol are on display a floor above the animal trophies.

Long-Necked Muses

Back to giraffes, I am fond of them. As they threaten no one and they are not overpopulated, why should anyone kill them? Short of because humans are atop the food chain and can fairly much slaughter animals at will, I don’t see any good reason.

Those who walk near these 16 to 19 foot tall herbivores and shoot them dead speak on those videos proudly. It does not seem like much of a challenge or accomplishment.

Contrast that with the account in the 1897 The Encyclopaedia of sport, Volume 1 (page 452):

In South Africa the giraffe is invariably hunted on horseback a form of sport which has always had great attractions for English sportsmen. There is nothing finer in nature than the sight of a troop of giraffes in full flight and the excitement of the find and the run up is intense. In its slower paces the giraffe with its curious gliding walk is extremely deceptive It is in reality travelling at a rapid rate. When thoroughly roused these animals are capable putting first rate hunting horses to their utmost speed. It is well to remember that unless the hunter plies sjambok and spur and rides his very hardest at the flying troop in the first two miles of chase he may lose them altogether. At a steady slinging gallop giraffes will travel for hours and wear out a horse but if chased very hard and forced beyond their pace early in the run the hunter will be enabled to ride close up to the particular beast he may single out and put in his shots from the saddle. Some hunters prefer to get up within a hundred yards jump off and fire. In the opinion of the writer and of many experienced African sportsmen it is better to push one’s horse close up to the stern of the giraffe and within a few yards fire from the saddle. A good South African hunting pony needs little guiding in a run of this description and the rider can drop his reins and safely use both hands. The best point to aim at whether on foot or on horseback is the root of the tail. The giraffe’s body is very short and a well planted solid bullet travels right into the vitals of the animal and speedily brings it down broken limb will also effectually bring down giraffe.

The same text notes that giraffes are defenseless against humans. The only danger is if one is dumb and clumsy enough to come in from behind and get kicked.

Anyone with a rifle can kill a giraffe. The guides drive a short distance away. There’s no pony chase, mounted shooting or risk. The giraffes are not skittish and seem to observe the hunters with curiosity, at least until the shots bring down one of theirs.

Putting money into the local economy does not seem at all a justification here. Again, there is no need to cull giraffes, they harm no one and nothing, and hunting them is neither challenging nor dangerous. It seems the hunters should be ashamed to return with a hide or head of these gentle giants.

As the guide company repeatedly point out, such hunts are legal in numerous countries. They offer menus such as on this page, with the per diem as well as the trophy fee, for the long list of animals you can kill. I suppose that’s free enterprise, African style, although U.S. and Canadian hunting preserves have similar plans on less exotic beasts.

It is not in my nature to hunt for sport. I am sad that beautiful, gracious, gentle giraffes die for the titillation of tourists. With the many fulfilling ways to get pleasure in this life that do not bring pain and death, they have chosen most poorly.

Taking a Pass…Twice

November 21st, 2011

Flat out, I don’t have a personal story of childhood sexual abuse. To those of us who don’t, the number we read or hear directly is stunning. With the infamy of the Penn State cases, more moving, inevitably confessional tales broadcast, such as the poignant one by a Notre Dame law professor in today’s Slate.

An oddment is the very brief moment of jealousy in not having a story, very similar to the feeling of us boomer men who did not get thrown into jungle warfare in Vietnam. It is all too human to want to share in the zeitgeist of your various eras. Something seems amiss and missing when you don’t, like those moments when you feel your soul is off somewhere else.

Dispassionately, of course, there’s no reason to visit horrors on yourself. Yet, we want to feel both that we are a part of our times and that we are the sturdy stuff of heroes.

As a very mild expression of these needs, many people I knew in high school, college and my 20s embroidered their shared experience samplers. They were hippies, they smoked pot and hash, they tripped on acid and more, they were sexually profligate, and of course, they protested and rioted on their campuses. All gross exaggerations and outright lies…in the name of shared experience.


Non-Nam


Many of my male chums past and current did go to Vietnam. Some sat on ships or in offices, while others fought, including some who died and others physically and emotionally maimed. Much like those of my father’s generation who killed and who saw the horrors of war, those who did don’t talk about it and if pressed say those who did not were much better off.

There was that pesky military draft, in which I had a very low number. My draft board made a relentless effort to get me, but finally seemed to give up, going for easier pickings.

While in Cambridge on a grant to look at a couple of underground newspapers, I found my board decided I wasn’t technically a full-time college student, so they had a place for me to go. I replied that I would not carry a gun, but I would go as medic, photog or reporter if they needed me in Viet Nam. They responded with CO papers and a notice that I could not pick what I’d do. I sent back that under their absurdly tight CO definition, I didn’t fit, but they could take my deal or send me to jail. They sent another batch of CO applications.

Eventually, they sent me a deferment they gave to fathers of multiple children. Eh? Some vets are positive there must have been someone  at the board looking out for me. A more likely story was through a friend whose father was on the board. He said in such cases, they went after guys who didn’t cause so much trouble and paperwork.


Unabused


Nearly all my best friends and quite a few women I’d kept company with in my single years have tales of being fondled or raped as small or teen kids. A few times, it was strangers they had just met, but more typically, it was a father, brother, cleric, teacher or camp counselor.

The stats sexual abuse prima facie don’t see so terrible, until you read deeper. Start for example from the Wikipedia entry and follow the references to places like Health and Human Services reports to first see that 15% to 25% of girls and 5% to 15% of boys were physically molested. From what I have heard directly and from learning that many of these stats are reported cases, and those percentages are very low.

In retrospect, I wonder whether our itinerant life protected me. We moved every couple years throughout my childhood. It seems that those I know who were abused either were in situations where the perpetrator had gained trust of the family and child, or in which they were in stereotypical abuse hells like boarding schools. It probably helped that my sister and I were not physically abused at all at home by beatings as most of my peers said they were. We were not taught to be submissive. The atmosphere of child as chattel was not part of my life. I also surmise that my willful personality may have acted as a shield.

Motivation for sexual abusers seem clear enough. These tend to be crimes of opportunity. The children are younger, smaller, weaker and often under the older child or adult’s control. Also, there is a strong correlation between having been abused and abusing.

If my second-hand knowledge is accurate, such abuse is never something simply gotten over. There seems to be a spectrum from those who live in victimhood perpetually to those who discuss it was friends or shrinks to those who sometimes shock into recollection to those who sublimate. Yet to those of us who lucked through childhood without being sexually abused, what is astonishing most is how common such behavior is.

This area is another good pointer to humans as not being all that evolved.

After it all, where is evidence of our better nature if we prey on the weakest of us as wild mammals, raptors and even insects do? Where is our alleged striving to be like angels or our god? If the cliché that character is what we are in the dark is true, what does it mean if so many of us even create the figurative dark for our evils?

I Write of Olaf

October 21st, 2011

odocog1The size of Lincoln’s head on a one-cent coin, the demon cog caused trouble. I just had to go for a long, vigorous walk to relieve my electro-mechanical agita. Now my aged Volvo’s odometer works though.

I don’t hold any personal grudge against this wee hard-plastic toothed wheel. It is just as the cliché goes a cog. It also represents a small design flaw for what allegedly is a sturdy, well-built car, a 1996 850 sedan.

When the odo stopped working, I looked in a manual and snooped online. Sure enough, the 850 series is infamous for having this problem around 100,000 miles. Olaf, as we call the platinum silver car, had over 135k when it stopped visibly recording mileage. Allegedly the ECU (engine control unit) computer continued to track distance, but I couldn’t see any advance nor use the trip function.

The design flaw is worse than just putting a brittle and weak part as a single point of failure for a commonly used feature. Volvo engineering ensured that repairing it would tax mechanics as well as we cheap frugal owners. I asked a Volvo dealer about it and he said it happens to all 850s and they could fix it for about $250.

Harrumph, as I am known to say.

The tiny part is unique to the internals of the odometer. There are no substitute. It sells for $15. The rest of the cost is labor.

Why, might you ask, would they charge you two hours of mechanic’s time for something so simple? You’ll hear that it’s not simple. I saw the instructions and ordered the demon wheel, determined to do this myself, no matter how terrified I would be of screwing up the instrument panel and odo, requiring then much more mechanic’s time to undo it all and do it right.

One of the online tutorials for the process is here. There are more detailed ones, but this covers the gist and shows why it’s a big deal for something so simple as replacing a defective cog wheel with a good one. At its basics:

  • Have or acquire a variety of Torx wrenches or bits. (Three key screws holding the odo in place take an almost impossible to find T8; five auto stores including two foreign specialists didn’t have any.)
  • Disconnect battery (to avoid Check Engine error and a trip to a mechanic to turn that off when you finish).
  • Pry out four AC vents.
  • Open one door-side vent with screw, partially remove that, pry and pull forward this vent.
  • Remove seven screws in vent openings and under instrument overhang.
  • Make as much space as possible by moving driver seat back and steering wheel and column down and back. You’ll need ever inch.
  • Carefully wiggle and pry cover over instrument panel, and to its left and right. Force it as high as you can without breaking it.
  • Wriggle and force up the and out the two electrical connectors to the back of the instrument panel.
  • Open the two clips holding the panel to the body.
  • Place a protective towel on the area in front of the panel. (To keep from scratching or scratching the panel lens in the battle to follow.)
  • Grunt, sweat, swear, pry and use all available hands and likely your forehead to make enough space to sneak the instrument panel out of the too narrow area holding it in. (Volvo forums on this often have colorful descriptions of the near impossibility of this operation.)
  • Congratulate yourself and remove the panel to a bench or table for the repair.
  • Remove maybe 10 (depending on whether you have the German or Japanese panel) screws.
  • Flip the panel, carefully pry the two major sections apart, careful not to crack anything or strip the panel covering or hurt the gauge dials. Then set the front part aside so its many component leads are safe.
  • Take the half with the odo, flip it over, and remove the three screws holding the odo unit in place through its circuit board. This requires that mythical T8. I ended up using a tiny, but sturdy flat-blade screw driver, holding it with a sturdy cloth napkin and breaking into a sweat removing and later tightening the damnably snug screws.
  • Slowly pull out the odo motor and display. This is fragile and its leads require considerable care.
  • Remove the two screws holding the odo motor.
  • Pry off the plastic fitting and gear to open the compartment with the likely broken wheel.
  • Pluck out the bad gear, remove the broken tooth or teeth, put a spot of petrolatum as a lube on the larger wheel, and put your $15 tiny treasure in its place.
  • From there, it’s reversing everything, making sure at each step that the leads and components fit precisely and do not bend or break any parts.

In retrospect, I can see why they charge software-engineer wages to do the job. Plus, certainly if they goof it up anywhere among the many opportunities, that’s their problem and expense to fix.

Volvo blundered in its design on this component as well as in its serviceability. Yet, many years later, I pay the price either in anxiety and effort or in cash.

I’m not at all sure I’ll ever need these skills or this knowledge subset…nor a large set of Torx bits (down to T10, but lacking T8). But, hey, those were on sale and I’m a cheap frugal guy.

While I was doing the panel extraction, I revisited an old awareness though. My knuckles were rubbing, the dash cover was doing its best to crush me and prevent the removal, and I flashed on that tiny wheel I’d replace. Our bodies are a lot like that.

There are so many small components in our innards, brains, torso organs and more, that can malfunction. In a car or human, any of a long list of key parts can fail. Our body repairs or bypasses them often. Sometimes, we get sick and need surgery, medicine or prostheses. In less common cases, we or the car just stop working.

I can’t really fix my body often. So, I was pleased to do my bit for Olaf.

Hole in Ground Zero

September 26th, 2011

Yeah, yeah, Boston skies were raining hard at 4:46 AM when I left. So, I decided not to bring a camera and risk ruining it. I was headed to NYC for two days and a night. Traveling without my digital companion was odd, feeling naked odd. I would have the cellphone, with its sort of pic ability. A few of those follow.

My wife was down for a multi-day company meeting. Their NY HQ was directly connected to the 9/11 catastrophe site. The new one was rebuilt two blocks away. The company-designated hotel is adjacent to the WTC site, Club Quarters New York World Trade Center. I was intellectually prepared to be there. As a Bostonian of decades and a former Manhattanite, I had it covered.

Emotionally, I turned out not to be.

During our dovetailed stay, my wife and I refreshed each other on the 9/11 personal presence. I had been in an important (I knew at the time) meeting with my international software company. I was a principal, leading a discussion with our local engineers and the Israeli test and development team. I had gigantic paste-ups of MS Project sheets and was brimming with busyness.

Our conference room was packed with intense, intent geeks when Jeannie, the office manager, opened the door. She didn’t knock, which was unlike her. She was pale and wide-eyed, which was rare for her too. She said something like, “Someone just flew a plane into the World Trade Center. You need to stop your meeting.”

We all walked next door to a room with a TV, watched the second plane hit and the towers collapse.

So, just after 10 years later, I had a grip on it….or not.

cranesnycLast weekend, we overlooked the site. From the 18th floor, we could see directly into that pit. From the restaurant on the top floor, the 20th, we could look west to New Jersey and north to the new WTC 1 building. Everywhere, we could see and hear the 24/7 reconstruction of the site. Machinery I knew well from a previous life as a trade-journal editor lifted for the new and dug to prepare for the new-new. Cranes were a hand clasp in the sky. Hydraulic excavators (some Cat dealer is making a fortune on this contract) dug for the foundations for WTC 2 and 3.

Any trip by or to the windows displayed one massive truck after another heaped with dirt and rock from the site before pulling out. All day, all night, America was righting what Bin Laden ruined.

dignycI found it wrenching. I thought a decade on, many hundreds of thousands of words read, sounds heard, images seen that I was fine. Yet each glance or stare from the 18th or 20th floors ate at me. I also slept poorly, even though the hotel walls and windows were well insulated from sound. I just knew.

Apparently my disquiet is not universal. My wife was in meetings when I arrived and I sat by the entrance to the 9/11 memorial on a Jersey barrier. One phalanx after another of t-shirted firefighters crowded and knelt for snaps with the site and new WTC 1 building as backdrop. Their shirts were from stations in Ohio and California and Pennsylvania. They posed and waved.

I saw clots of middle-aged women with the stereotypical mannishly short easy-to-care-for do trailing hubbies and sons, lining up with their tickets for the site tour. On the hour, people queued concert-style behind metal frame chutes to walk the mud, see the two pools, and crook their necks at WTC 1.

I saw more Amish than I had outside of Pennsylvania and Ohio. There were women and girls from 70 to 14 dressed in their full drabness with their gauzy white plain caps like yarmulkes. Dads had suspenders and all looked terrifically un-New York but very comfortable in themselves. They paused and photographed too.

After checking into my wife’s room, I had lunch two blocks south. The two active tables were filled with firefighters from distant places in their station t-shirts.

FFsIn meals on the 20th, many diners of all ages posed on the balcony with the WTC 1 as backdrop. Most smiled their here-I-am-at-the-notable-location grins. Some were reflective, but nearly all were gleeful as any tourist at any site, loading up the slide-show lineup.

Sunday morning, we happened upon the 10th tunnel-to-towers run, just south of the hotel. The pipers were piping, the cops keeping people behind barriers, and 343 uniformed NYC firefighters lined the Battery Tunnel exit, each wearing a photo placard of one of their brethren who died rescuing those trapped on 9/11.

The run has raised millions of dollars, mostly destined to build houses for quadriplegics from the current wars. It traces the route Brooklyn firefighter Stephen Siller took that day. He was off and headed to play golf with his brothers when he heard about the first plane on the scanner. He drove to his station, loaded up with his 60 pounds of gear, found the tunnel closed, and ran the three miles through it to the towers…and his death.

A decade later, there are many tears, both from the firefighters and the surviving family members and the runners.

Better Than Toilet Ice

September 21st, 2011

We can probably agree some deaths are ignominious, while funny to dispassionate observers. Think getting  run over by a garbage truck.

Likewise would be dying when a big chunk of blue ice from an aircraft toilet crashes through your roof. Far better, if you must meet a violent end, to succumb to a piece of a space rocket. Such death by space debris is unlikely, but increasingly possible.

satellitefall

How likely? Well for scare numbers, maybe millions of thingummies are orbiting the earth, in the down-and-dirty PPT from NASA’s Orbital Debris Program. That’s an extreme way to think of it — millions of bits of the 28,000-plus things humans have shot into orbit since Sputnik in 1957. Over 9,000 of those are up and around there, with under 550 of them functional.

Most of the others are in pieces from those  millions smaller than 1cm to over 100K from 1cm to 10cm to over 11K bigger than that. NASA tracks the largest category. Others do too, like the European Space Agency, whose Space Debris Program estimated that as of 2008, over 140K objects were in orbit above us.

So, Henny Penny, is the sky falling? Well, yes, but for any one of us, the odds are very good.

If the NASA satellite about to fall (drawing of it to right) wastes some earthlings, we can except lots of panicked calls for cleaning our celestial playroom. For its part, our space agency figures that even this six ton piece of junk will either disintegrate in the atmosphere or fall harmlessly. As NASA likes to put it, it would likely burn and crash on “uninhabited landmass.”

They don’t know when it will reenter or where it or parts of it will land. Their best guess is that it’s a 3,200-to-1 shot that it will smash into one of us. Fear not the heavenly garbage truck, they say.

It leads one to ask what’s up with what’s up?

If you want to roll your own, start with those NASA and ESA links above. You might also click:

Short takeaways include that governments don’t care a whole lot about the minuscule chance of humans being hit. They do fret that their populated or otherwise expensive satellites get destroyed or damaged by all the space junk. Another is that we are at critical mass, with all the rubble zooming around and around and around.

Supposedly, NASA and its counterparts are real sorry. They intend to do something yet undefined sometime yet undecided when they can afford it.

Don’t expect any gigantic space vacuum cleaners or rocket-part recyclers anytime soon. We supposedly have 10 to 20 years (a blink in big-project time) to do something. To get a flavor of how far along we are, go to page 150 of the big report (165 in PDF numbering) to find:

Emphasis is placed on research and development because the government does not yet know what technologies will ultimately be necessary or are feasible on the scale required for effective orbital debris retrieval and removal, as well as guaranteed prevention of collisions if such an event is predicted. Although the National Space Policy calls for research and development in this field, it does not specify a threshold or goal, but rather intends such research and development as a beginning to the entire process.

Be ready to duck, I suppose. It won’t work, but gives you something to do.

Block Island’s Markers

September 16th, 2011

This week, we biked and walked around Block Island for three days. As a iconography fan and cemetery tourist, I went to the Island Cemetery and the Indian Cemetery there. They could hardly be more different.

Pix clix: Click a thumbnail for a larger view. If it opens in the same window, use your browser’s back button or command to return.

License note: All pix are Creative Commons-Attribution. Do what you want with them. Just give Mike Ball credit once.

The Narragansett lived on the island from maybe 1300 BC. The smallish Indian Cemetery in the middle of the bottom of BI is only vaguely like our European ideas. While there are a few labeled tombstones, most of those with any stone are very close together (upright, non-casket burials), raw native rock, and no markings. The humor at the moment is that more and more white folk are asking for green burials that just return the bodies to the earth. BIindian1
BIdodgewinged The main cemetery started in the mid-17th century, but had few classic N.E. iconography examples, and no visible, sturdy slate. Here’s one of the winged transitional imagery.
There was iconography artistry though. With different carvers than those in Northern N.E., much style went into such standard images as the willow, indicating life. BIwillow
BImottwillow Several used the 3D version of the willow.
Small details, such as the background placement of the urn indicating the body, show the artist’s interpretation and skill. BIwillow1
BIheavenclose Among similarities with N.E. stones, the heavenward index finger appeared on many stones.
Likewise, the hand clasp of farewell with an implicit promise of greeting later was on numerous stones. BImitchellclose
BInicholasballpen Only a few showed lots of ego. When the King of Block Island, Nicholas Ball (might be a relative) died in 1896, he set himself up with a royal marker. The top had a pen and journal because he wrote self-aggrandizing travel memoirs, an anchor and rope because he was a sea captain, and construction tools because he designed and had built BI’s huge hotel.
As proof of colonial and young nation’s high infant mortality, there are many 17th through 19th century markers. Some were for yet-to-be-named children. BIbabe4
Bibabe1 Many were elaborate, even more so than the parents’ stones. Of these, the marker was often for an only child.
One child’s stone stand up and out for its candor. Here the only offspring, Lora Rose of Ambrose and Laura, died at just under two and one-half. The scold to the Almighty reads simply, “God takes the good” — nuff said. BIbabe2