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I’M SO PLEASED TO HAVE BEEN NOMINATED FOR THE VERSATILE BLOGGER AWARD

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Dracul Van Helsing recently nominated me for The Versatile Blogger Award.
Thank you so much, Dracul, for your support of my blogging efforts.

Dracul’s blog can be found at https://draculvanhelsing.wordpress.com.

He writes fantastical and incredibly complex (often hilarious) tales interwoven with past and present world events, each story closing as follows: “—A vampire novel chapter written by Christopher.” He also writes some very good poetry.
I encourage everyone to visit his blog; I believe that, like me, you’ll marvel at his versatility.

WHAT IS THE VERSATILE BLOGGER AWARD?
“The Versatile Blogger Award was created to celebrate blogs that have unique content, strong writing, and beautiful images or photographs.”

[A brief divergence from the format: Writers are generally advised to “write what you know,” and to find a niche and develop expertise, so I thought I was being undisciplined by just following my curiosity wherever it takes me—sometimes well beyond my comfort zone. But that’s what I wanted to do, and I love learning about new topics. Since I’m the boss here, that’s what I’m doing. And now I’m being honored for my versatility. Who knew?]

RULES
-Thank the person who gave you the award.
-Include a link to their blog.
-Select 7 blogs/bloggers that you’ve recently discovered or follow regularly.
-Nominate those bloggers for the Versatile Blogger Award.
-Finally, tell the person who nominated you 7 things about yourself.

[I stress that these nominations do not imply that I agree with all the sentiments expressed by these bloggers. Often, I strongly disagree. But I feel they have interesting things to say and frequently include wonderful photos, and I enjoy reading their blogs.]

I’M FORWARDING THIS AWARD TO:
https://jpcavanaugh.com
https://lensdiary.blog
https://www.juliaelizabethblog.com
https://leavingfootprintseverywhere.wordpress.com
https://myexpressionofthoughtsblog.wordpress.com
https://creativityoverloaders.wordpress.com
https://ginisnaturenews.com

7 THINGS ABOUT ME
1. I am one happy blogger: I love the writing, the research, the dialogue with my readers, and the sense of being part of this wonderful international blogging community.
2. I consider myself extremely fortunate to be surrounded by caring people: my immediate family, extended family, and friends from various times in my life—some of whom I’ve reconnected with via this blog.
3. My musical tastes are diverse, including (I’m mixing composers and performers) Beethoven and Chopin, Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, Audra McDonald and Lady Gaga.
4. The most extraordinary non-fiction book I’ve read recently is An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and an Epic, by Daniel Mendelsohn.
5. The most enjoyable novels I’ve read recently are The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante (author’s true identity remains a matter of controversy, but who cares?).
6. I’m an unabashed bleeding heart liberal (now progressive) who weeps at the thought of babies torn from their mothers’ arms and of the senseless ending of so many innocent lives by people armed with grudges and automatic weapons that should only be in the hands of the military.
7. I am deeply concerned about the apparent fragility of our democracy and the polarization that divides us, but I continue to believe that deep down—beyond the fear and anger—we humans all have similar needs and wants. And I fervently hope we find leadership that will inspire us and focus on the things that unite us: that vast area of common ground.

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Memo to all, especially my non-blogging subscribers: As you know, annieasksyou emphasizes dialogue, so although this format is different from what you’re used to, please feel free to register your thoughts, comments, and likes as always.

Next week, with gratitude to Christopher (aka Dracul Van Helsing) for nominating me for not one, but two awards, we return to our customary format, covering a topic that will once again demonstrate my lack of discipline/versatility.

Annie

‘Tis a Mystery: I Have Been Nominated for the Mystery Blogger Award

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I am honored to have been nominated by Dracul Van Helsing for the prestigious Mystery Blogger Award.

Dracul’s blog can be found at:
https://draculvanhelsing.wordpress.com

His blog bears the subtitle: “The Life, Thoughts, and Reflections of a Vampire Hunter,” but if that topic turns you off (my initial reaction), don’t let it. An enormously creative and well-informed mind weaves together past and present, real and unreal, mythic and surreal into well-crafted stories that are often hilarious and frequently pointed observations on the foibles and wackiness of our time.

Thank you so much for this nomination, Dracul.

WHAT IS THE MYSTERY BLOGGER AWARD?
“Mystery Blogger Award is an award for amazing bloggers with ingenious posts. Their blog not only captivates; it inspires and motivates. They are one of the best out there and they deserve every recognition they get. This award is also for bloggers who find fun and inspiration in blogging, and they do it with so much love and passion.”
-Okoto Enigma

Dracul, I am delighted that you think I deserve this award.

RULES:
1. Put the Award Logo/Image On Your Blog. Here I feel justified in patting myself on the back. As those of you who have read my descriptions of my technical snafus well know, the fact that I have actually pulled together sufficient technical knowledge to have a functioning blog is amazing enough.

One of my first posts was published with nothing on it, and my scramble with the help of the WordPress Happiness Engineers to find the mysteriously disappearing text devolved into what I’ve described as a clash between my reptilian brain (the part that governs fight/flight/freeze, as well as hunger) and my prefrontal cortex (the part that governs complex thinking and behavior). On that particular night, I still vividly recall, the ole lizard ran rampant across my computer.

So I had little hope of actually capturing that image and importing it onto my post. But voila! There it is, in the place where I believe it belongs. And maybe, just maybe,  by accomplishing this task, I’ve forged a couple more neural synapses in this non-techie brain…

2. List the Rules.
I believe I am in the process of doing that at this moment.
3. Thank the creator of the award and provide a link as well.
I think I’ve checked that box as well; see above.
4. Tell your readers 3 things about yourself (Here’s where the challenge begins. See below).
5. Nominate 10 to 20 people (See below for this one too).
6. Notify your nominees by commenting on their blog (I promise to do so).
7. Ask your nominees any 5 questions of your choice; with one weird or funny question.

3 THINGS ABOUT ME
1. I am seriously dog-deprived at present, so if you have a floppy pup or any kind of retriever, you should keep your distance from me so that I don’t accidentally walk off with him/her/them. I readily acknowledge my preference for long snouts, so you bulldog and sharpei owners needn’t worry.

2. I try to practice mindfulness meditation, but I still haven’t learned well how to deal with my “inner critic,” the judgmental voice in my head. Sharon Salzberg, a renowned mindfulness teacher, suggests naming one’s inner critic and then simply accepting the criticisms with kindness and interest. She calls her inner critic Lucy, after the Charles Schulz character who said to Charlie Brown: “The problem with you, Charlie, is that you’re you.” She gave me permission to borrow Lucy, whom I evoke when I remember. (You see, Lucy, we’re all friends here; it’s gonna be OK.)

3. I’ve long harbored the rather modest goal of wanting my words to change the world—preferably for the better. These days, if I can just make people smile, I’m happy to do so.

DRACUL’S QUESTIONS
1.
If you were stranded on a desert island and the film projector you miraculously managed to rescue from your sinking ship only had 5 movies available on its reels, what 5 movies would you wish they be?
Well, here we turn to mystery—or certainly miracles—presupposing that a) I could swim to safety carrying a film projector (I lift weights, but I’m not such a strong swimmer); and b) I’d have the technical expertise to run the darn thing once I got to dry land (or perhaps to a luxury yacht…that would solve concern b). And would I have to rescue the large screen as well?
North by Northwest
Casablanca
The Lives of Others
Cinema Paradiso
Midnight in Paris (I know, I know, it’s Woody Allen, but I still love it.)

2.
What would be an ideal dinner for you?
One of my most memorable meals was rijstaffel in Amsterdam: I loved the variety and deliciousness of all the small dishes. I’d really like a redo—perhaps in Indonesia…

3.
If you could have coffee with any person in history, who would it be and why?
Eleanor Roosevelt because she was such an extraordinary person and had such a positive influence on her husband. I would have questions, though, such as: How could you have let Franklin exclude African Americans from the benefits of the New Deal? How could you have let him turn back the St. Louis, carrying Jews fleeing Nazi Germany? Did you try to stop the Japanese internment camps? Variations on these questions unfortunately resonate in our time.

4.
What person in literature do you wish had actually lived in reality?
One or more of Shakespeare’s strong women: Rosalind in As You Like It; Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing; or Viola in Twelfth Night. Lady MacBeth? Not so much…

5.
What type of water do you prefer to swim in? Fresh water or salt water?
Any water that when I stand up, the bottom isn’t slimy and little critters aren’t nibbling at my toes. I am not one who wishes to swim with the fishes, literally or figuratively.

MY QUESTIONS:
1.What is the single thing about blogging that you value the most?
2.What episode or aspect of your life would you be most eager to “do over,” if you could?
3.What brings you the greatest personal satisfaction?
4.What musical instrument best describes your personality—and why?
5.If you could perform a single act that you felt would contribute to world peace, what would it be?

A few items before I note my nominees.

1) I know there are many wonderful bloggers out there whom I’ve never had the opportunity to come across, in part because you are so numerous; in part because I’ve been so busy writing and learning the technical aspects of this new adventure that I haven’t yet had the pleasure of your acquaintance. Thus, my nominees are people I know about because for the most part they found me–or we found each other.

2) My nominations do not necessarily mean I endorse their views. In fact, sometimes I emphatically disagree with them. But I believe they display lively minds, often tackle difficult issues, and are effective in conveying their thoughts, and I enjoy reading their posts.

I nominate:

J.P.’s Blog: https://jpcavanaugh.com
Fictionista-Flash Fiction/Musing: https://darnellcureton.com
Stuart Perkins: https://storyshucker.wordpress.com
https://leavingfootprintseverywhere.wordpress.com
JSchuman: https://dividedwefall.com
Joseph Urban: The Old Liberal, https://josephurban.wordpress.com
https://thecontroversialindian.wordpress.com
Doug Gilbert, Poet Laureate of the Primitive Planet: https://xytgeist.wordpress.com

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Memo to all, especially my non-blogging subscribers: As you know, annieasksyou emphasizes dialogue, so although this format is different from what you’re used to, please feel free to register your thoughts and comments as always.

Annie

My “Freeze” Moment

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When the world is too much with us—as it occasionally is for me lately—we often turn to nostalgia. My fellow blogger JP recently wrote a delightful post about a childhood “Freeze” moment: while playing a piece in a piano recital, he lost his place, couldn’t find it, recovered as best he could, and somehow lived through the humiliation.

I guess we all have “Freeze” moments when we wish we could turn back the clock and get a do-over. JP’s post reminded me of mine, which occurred when I was a high school senior. My current self finds all this quite amusing, but those decades ago, my sensibilities were different.

First, some background: In my junior year, I had been a member of what our school called the “Marching Corps.” During half-time of the football games, we marched onto the field carrying large white flag/banners, which we twirled in unison to the band’s music. We assembled ourselves into various choreographed formations—sometimes spelling our high school’s initials, a welcome to the opposing team, or a similar visual. At the same time, the baton twirlers performed their routines. It was great fun.

Then an astonishing thing happened. At the end of the school year, the music director, a very tough-love but inspiring educator, selected me to be THE DRUM MAJORETTE for our senior year.

This was truly a big deal. The drum majorette led the color guard carrying the flags, the band, marching corps, and baton twirlers. It was an honor and a responsibility. My selection also evoked some envy and consternation—Josie Gorman, for one (not her real name) let me know that she was far more suited for the position than I was.

It had never occurred to me that I’d be chosen. All my predecessors had been tall, leggy, statuesque, and usually blonde. I was (e): none of the above. The uniform I inherited required extensive alterations.

And then there was the high hat, topped by a large plume. The rim rested on the frames of my thick eyeglasses. My nose was fine, but the full set of metal braces that uncomfortably filled my small mouth glistened in the sunlight in a manner bereft of any esthetic value. I sometimes worried flocks of birds would be attracted by me, shiny object that I was.

What did that heroic music director see in me when he made his decision? He certainly was far ahead of his time in terms of female stereotyping, bless his heart!

Though I never knew his reasoning for sure, I concluded it was based on his confidence that I knew my right from my left, which may not have been a universal skill among my fellow marchers. He could therefore depend upon me to get the band to its destination in a safe and timely manner. And yes, I could strut up a storm and twirl a baton, though I faked that part in a way that the baton twirling squad never could get away with.

I could do nothing about the braces—they remained with me throughout most of my senior year—but I persuaded my parents that contact lenses were essential. I’m pretty sure I paid for them from my previous summer’s earnings, but that could be a false memory arising from my sense of drama about my plight, as in: Desperate kid scraped up enough to save self from mortification.

Anyway, they agreed, and voila! I got my contacts. I not only felt better—I could also see better, thereby improving my chances of keeping the band intact. (As anyone who’s severely myopic and has been fitted with contact lenses knows, contacts—positioned closer to the eye—can sharpen vision more than glasses do.)

It was a glorious time. On Saturdays during football season, we would march from the high school to the stadium about a half-mile away. Children would line the streets to cheer, and elderly veterans would take off their hats and salute as the American flag passed by. That scene remains vivid to this day and often brings tears to my eyes. To my mind, it was a slice of Americana that holds up in retrospect. We were oblivious to the outside world; all was right in ours.

The final game of the football season was held each Thanksgiving Day, and our rivals were the team from the local parochial school. That game always received the largest attendance of the season, as many alumni returned to see old friends and cheer on their local team.

I was psyched. The weather was great, as I recall, and our practices had been terrific. Everyone looked snappy in our crisp, clean uniforms; we were all dressed up with someplace really special to go.

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The actual image from the back of my jacket, still intact all these years later.

The first half of the game ended, and the players left the field for the locker rooms to rest. The cheerleaders, having energetically bolstered the team with physical and vocal stamina, also got a chance to recharge.

This was our moment. I blew my whistle and marched the band onto the field. Strutting my stuff, I blew my whistle again and held my baton high and to the left, signaling it was time for us all to turn and begin marching into formation.

And then it happened.

I dropped my baton. In front of the crowd in a stadium with nary an empty seat, I dropped my baton.

I quickly bent down to pick it up, but as I did, the band kept marching toward me. That’s when I froze.

Instead of turning around and continuing my strutting and twirling, I spent the rest of the time marching backward. I faced the band while holding my baton in both hands, moving it up and down to slow their advance and prevent them from trampling me. It was inglorious. My magical moment had turned into a self-preservation scramble.

Though I felt that I had disgraced myself and ruined the band’s performance, I don’t recall anyone saying anything to me afterward. Perhaps the crowd assumed I had intended to march backward, directing the band. Maybe they even thought: Look at that drum majorette—she can lead the band marching backward!

Or maybe not. But one thing was clear: nobody cared about it as much as I did—not even the music director whom I felt I’d failed.

These days, I try to practice mindfulness meditation, which encourages focusing on the moment—looking neither forward with worries nor backward with regrets. Mindfulness also urges us to respond to our “inner critic”—that merciless self-judge residing in our heads— with kind acceptance: “OK, so that happened. Interesting, isn’t it?” Though I didn’t know the term at the time, my inner critic was in full mode berating me for my personal catastrophe while most of those around me were oblivious to it.

Obviously, in the scheme of things, my youthful disappointment from dropping my baton was a small blip. And with the passage of time, it hasn’t sullied that happy memory of leading my fellow students through the children’s cheers and veterans’ salutes, never confusing my left from my right, and bringing us all—safely and on time—to our destination.

Please share your reactions, thoughts, and, best of all, your own “Freeze” moment(s) and any lessons learned. I appreciate, enjoy, and often learn from your responses.

Annie

Only Connect!

 

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This title is a bit of a come-on to encourage you to stay with me to the end of a post that is important to me, responds to concerns I’ve heard from some of you, and will, I hope, be of interest to even more of you. You may recognize that imperative from E.M. Forster’s novel Howard’s End.

“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.”

Although you’ll occasionally find some of the elements in that quotation in my posts, and I’m using literary license to suggest that my emphasis on finding common ground among us applies to the last sentence, this particular post focuses solely on the first two words, in their most literal sense. I want to make it easy for you to get in touch with me directly by sending a private message.

When I began what I call my “technojourney” less than a year ago, I had no idea how many ways this blog would enrich my life. Though I’ve been a writer throughout my professional life, I was never able to fuse the time, motivation, and ideas into a sustained, coherent body of work that was solely my own. Until now. The opportunity to follow my curiosity wherever it takes me—unfettered by the demands of an editor—and to write what I choose is wonderfully freeing. 

The idea of a blog originated with my children. And based on the pleasure I’m getting, and a good deal of very gracious feedback and support from you, I think they were more attuned to their mother’s needs than I was. This isn’t the first time I’ve learned from my children, and I continue to be grateful for their caring and wisdom.

Here’s how I explained my motivation for this blog in “Backstage in My Blog World: An Explanation—and an Apology,” which I wrote early on, after my first technical snafu. Though the glitch seemed horrendous at the time, I had fun describing it shortly thereafter. I’ll give you a hint: the first line read: “The title of this post might also be ‘Blogging While Aging Ain’t for Sissies!’” 

“So my venture into the blogosphere is taking some effort. I’m not whining here; nor am I suggesting the effort isn’t worthwhile. I’m committed to building a blogging community because a) I love to write; b) The New York Times doesn’t seem to think all the letters I send them are fit to print; c) there are so many issues that I want to learn more about, and this format allows me to delve into them and share what I’ve learned; and d) most importantly, I am deeply committed to the idea that dialogue undertaken with respect for opposing views is an essential component to our democratic process—and its rarity is one of the many serious problems we now face as a nation.”

What I didn’t anticipate was how vast—and at the same time tiny—the blogosphere is, or at least the portion of it in which my WordPress blog resides. It has been thrilling to connect with bloggers from nearly every continent: to learn from you and have you join me in dialogue right here. 

Among my most recent “followers” (a word I dislike, but I guess we’re stuck with it) are individuals from India, South Africa, Poland, and Bosnia Herzegovina. I am abashed that so many of you live in a multilingual world and can artfully express your views in English, but I’m also grateful for the translating devices on your blogs that enable me to read your work when you choose to write in your native tongues. 

And to those of you who haven’t received a personal welcome since joining me, please consider this my thank you for your vote of confidence. I value each and every one of you.

My emphasis from the beginning has been on dialogue: hence, “annieasksyou.” Once I’ve given you some information and/or my opinions on a topic, I relish exchanging ideas—albeit in a civil way. I am so very grateful when you take the time to provide your ideas, insights, and personal stories, as well as links you find to articles or videos that further enrich our discussions. 

But I’m also deeply appreciative if you just come along for the ride. I have learned that many people whose opinions I would love to have on a particular post prefer not to express themselves publicly. When something strikes me as especially relevant, I occasionally include it attributed to “Anonymous,” but please reserve that option for rare occasions.

And please don’t hesitate if you’d just like to leave a comment that says you’ve enjoyed a post, rather than providing an in-depth response. Of course, if you haven’t liked something, and you want to let me know that, I hope you’ll explain why.

My main point in this post is to make sure you’re able to communicate with me in whatever way you choose. Most of the information that follows is more likely useful to those of you who aren’t experienced bloggers—and that applies to a good proportion of the folks reading this post.

A number of you have told me that you’ve had problems leaving comments or “likes” for a particular post, and some have even given up after wasting time trying and are discouraged from trying again. I’m not only very sorry for your inconvenience; with dialogue as my goal, I’m as frustrated as you are that I’m not benefiting from your insights. I also know how annoying that is because it’s happened to me on other blog sites.

I have spoken with the WordPress “Happiness Engineers” (I think of them as the HEs, a gender-neutral term) about this issue a number of times. On occasion, I have found your comments in my spam file; something triggered the guardians there, though to this day it isn’t clear what did it. If you sent a comment that I didn’t receive, and you let me know, I can check for it there.

Sometimes comments don’t go through because you’re not sure whether you’re an email follower or a WordPress follower. If the latter, you have to sign on to your email account, insert that password, then sign onto your WordPress account and insert that password. (Cumbersome, I know.) Once you’ve done that, you should have smooth sailing to enter your comment in the reply box, but that clearly doesn’t always happen. Temporary technical glitches do occur.

I can offer a few possible ways to address this problem. Although WordPress insists it doesn’t have a timing function on the reply box, several people have told me they now type their comments separately, then copy them and paste them into the reply box. This is particularly helpful if your responses are lengthy. It breaks my heart to be told: “I spent hours composing a response, but it disappeared.”

I’ve also found that a comment or “like” may not go through the first time. If you wait a few seconds (or minutes, or hours) and try again, it often will. You can tell if it does by watching for the blue line that moves across the top of the text (below “Done”) and seeing the comment appear outside the reply box, directly on my blog.

If any of the more experienced bloggers have encountered similar problems with comments/likes that haven’t gone through, I would greatly appreciate hearing how you resolved them.

Sometimes you don’t get the email informing you of a new post; I’ve received word that some people read my posts by stumbling on them on WordPress Reader, not having been notified. I am trying to publish a post once a week—on Sunday or Monday evenings—so if you don’t get an email announcement then, please let me know.

I also realize that the font is light when you enter your comment on your phone. That is apparently a function of the “theme” I’ve selected for my blog. Though I like it a lot, I’m considering choosing a new theme so that it’s easier for you to see your words as you type them.

All of the above leads me to the new Contact page you’ll find linked to my Home page (see above photo). If you want to get in touch with me about any issue at all—a communication problem, a suggestion for a topic you’d like me to explore (I’m happy to consider all ideas, though I can’t promise I’ll delve into each one), a comment you don’t want to make publicly for some reason—please click on Contact and enter your name, email address, and web site (if applicable). This information will not appear publicly. And do let me know if you’d be more likely to leave a comment if the text you enter is easier for you to read. Then write away. I’ll respond to you as soon as I can.

Only connect!

Annie

PS: If you’re viewing this post on your mobile phone, Contact is at the very bottom of the menu on my Home page.

Respect Your Mother…

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Today, April 22, is Earth Day. Above is a photo of my favorite T-shirt, with a message that is always worth a reminder, 365 days a year–unless it’s Leap Year. [Note to my darling daughters: you should in no way assume this is directed at you!]

The fact that due to numerous washings, the vividness of that image is fading gives me pause. But as I always seek a note of optimism, I think of all the kids throughout the world who recently staged a school walkout to stress their concern about climate change. They, too, are a reminder to us that it’s their world we’re screwing up–and we’d better get moving–for their sakes.

My fellow blogger Julia Elizabeth, at juliaelizabethblog.com, notes the following:

“Forty-nine years ago, millions of people took to the streets to protest the negative impacts of industrial development, giving birth to an international environmental movement. Today it is estimated that over one billion people across 192 countries take part in this global event, binding together to fight for our planet and our future.”

In commemorations of this day, you’ll probably read and hear tons of things that we mortals should be doing in the face of the huge challenge looming ahead of us as a result of climate change. (I’m assuming my blogging community believes in science, and therefore I don’t have to persuade you about the existential threat we face.)

Julia Elizabeth, who calls herself a “nomad,”  offers “19 Small Ways to Celebrate Earth Day 2019 From Anywhere.” Her suggestions include the easily accomplished, such as “Turn off the tap when brushing, shaving, and shampooing,” and the slightly less convenient: “Bring your reusable bags, water bottles, coffee cups, cutlery sets, and so on wherever you go.”

She adds the more challenging but equally important: “Say no to plastic bags, plastic bottles, plastic straws…basically anything and everything made from plastic.” And some that are especially aimed at travelers, such as: “Opt for eco-friendly accommodation…”

To remind us what’s at stake, here are some beautiful and devastating photos in a slide show from National Geographic. I thank Gini’s Nature Notes for alerting me to these.

Julia Elizabeth concludes with a quotation from chef Annie-Marie Bonneau:

“We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.”

I think that’s a perfect ending, one that I hope leads to new and better beginnings in this journey that calls upon us all to be activists to ensure our future.

As always, I welcome your thoughts, stories, and any suggestions and anecdotes about your own efforts and/or recommended reading related to our topic: “Respect Your Mother.”

Cheers!

Annie

UPDATE: An astute member of our community posted a link to an invaluable resource from the Union of Concerned Scientists. I encourage anyone who wants to know more about climate change–including skeptics–to go to the Comments section and scroll down til you see the link from frankaufman. Thank you, Fran!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How Do We Avoid the Pitchforks and Achieve Greater Economic Equality?

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I am extremely fond of someone whose politics and world view differ significantly from mine. One text exchange with him really brought me up short. I had written what I consider a self-evident truth: unless we do something about the growing economic inequality in this country, it won’t be only the poor and struggling middle class who will suffer. Eventually, our fraying social fabric will tear completely, and the .01% will find society inhospitable to them as well.

My correspondent’s response stunned me. He said that what I’m suggesting will mean the end of a nation based on merit, and my grandchild will face a dismal future. I responded that I do worry about my grandchild’s dismal future, but it’s because of the ravages of climate change—not efforts to reduce inequality. And so our discussion ended.

I didn’t launch into all the evidence demonstrating that our society has never been based solely on merit—from the Original Sin of Slavery to the very 21st Century scandal of famous people bribing coaches to get their kids into the best colleges.

But the idea that any mention of redressing inequality could evoke such a reaction made me think that it’s time to talk about why the wealthiest among us should welcome steps to close the ever-widening economic gap, why some of them are advocating for just that, and what approaches might be feasible for us as a nation.

I realize once again I’m taking on a “you can’t cover such a mammoth, complex topic in a blog” subject. That’s why I won’t mention world economic inequality right now. I have some awareness of my limits, for goodness’ sake (!?). I must add a disclaimer, however: my formal education in economics is practically zero, so you should be skeptical of anything I write that I don’t attribute to others.

What I do have is a heart that hurts when I see so much suffering and anger in this land of plenty, a conviction that this growing economic inequity is unsustainable, and—I’ve been told—an analytical mind in addressing problems. And my blessed blog gives me a bit of a forum to try to evoke discussion of these views.

So here we go.

We’ll start with Nick Hanauer. I don’t know how many of you are familiar with him and his work, but I’ve attached a link to his 2014 TED Talk: “Beware, Fellow Plutocrats: The Pitchforks Are Coming.” It’s worth “eavesdropping” on Hanauer’s speech, which lays some of the groundwork for the reasons and ways to bring about positive economic change. (I’m not endorsing everything he’s ever said or written—simply focusing here on ideas that make great sense to me.)

I think this is especially important as the Democratic Party internally debates how moderate, progressive, or even (gasp!) socialistic its policies should be. Polls show that most voters—not just Democrats—want policies that are moderately progressive—though the word “progressive” may worry them (worries bolstered by the Trump-Republican push to make even the desire for healthcare sound like we’re racing toward the “evils of socialism.”)

Hanauer describes himself as a “plutocrat” and “proud and unapologetic capitalist” who has made a fortune. (He was the first non-family investor in Amazon, co-founded a company that Microsoft bought for $6.4 billion, etc.) But he says he’s neither the smartest nor hardest working person and was a mediocre student.

“Truly, my success is the consequence of spectacular luck, of birth, of circumstance and of timing. But I am actually pretty good at a couple of things. One, I have an unusually high tolerance for risk, and the other is I have a good sense, a good intuition about what will happen in the future, and I think that that intuition about the future is the essence of good entrepreneurship.”

“So what do I see in our future today, you ask? I see pitchforks, as in angry mobs with pitchforks, because while people like us plutocrats are living beyond the dreams of avarice, the other 99 percent of our fellow citizens are falling farther and farther behind.”

To me, that evaluation resonates strongly, and I hope his message is reaching at least some of his fellow plutocrats.

Hanauer stresses that although he believes some inequality is essential for what he calls a “high-functioning capitalist democracy,” inequality today is historically high and worsening daily. If this trend continues, he says, our society will become more like what 18th-century France had “before the revolution and the mobs with the pitchforks.”

“So I have a message for my fellow plutocrats and zillionaires and for anyone who lives in a gated bubble world: Wake up. Wake up. It cannot last. Because if we do not do something to fix the glaring economic inequities in our society, the pitchforks will come for us, for no free and open society can long sustain this kind of rising economic inequality. It has never happened.
There are no examples. You show me a highly unequal society, and I will show you a police state or an uprising.” [All the passages bolded for emphasis are mine.]

What’s more, he says, this inequality is bad for business. Throw out a belief in “trickle-down economics,” which never worked, Hanauer says, because economies aren’t efficient and don’t tend toward fairness. He advocates what he calls “middle-out economics,” which views economies as complex systems that can be effective only if they’re well-managed.

He gives a cogent illustration of why trickle-down economics can’t work.

“I earn 1,000 times the median wage, but I do not buy 1,000 times as much stuff, do I? I actually bought two pairs of these pants…I could have bought 2,000 pairs, but what would I do with them? How many haircuts can I get?…a few plutocrats…can never drive a great national economy. Only a thriving middle class can do that.”

How do we achieve that thriving middle class? One way, which Hanauer sparked, is to raise the minimum wage. Less than one year after his article “The Capitalist’s Case for a $15 Minimum Wage” was published—and Forbes called it “Nick Hanauer’s near-insane proposal”—Seattle did just that: raised the minimum wage to $15 an hour, more than twice the existing federal rate.

“It happened because a group of us reminded the middle class that they are the source of growth and prosperity in capitalist economies…that when workers have more money, businesses have more customers, and need more employees…that when businesses pay workers a living wage, taxpayers are relieved of the burden of funding the poverty programs like food stamps and medical assistance and rent assistance that those workers need. We reminded them that low-wage workers make terrible taxpayers, and that when you raise the minimum wage…all businesses benefit yet all can compete.”

To those who insist this approach is economically disastrous, he points out that Seattle is doing very well, thank you, and is one of the fastest growing cities in the US, with a booming restaurant business, where the restaurant workers can afford to eat where they work (despite restaurateurs who had said they’d have to close their doors).

Hanauer acknowledges these issues are more complex than he can depict in one speech but says there’s simply no evidence that increasing wages will harm both workers and the economy.

“The most insidious thing about trickle-down economics is not the claim that if the rich get richer, everyone is better off. It is the claim made by those who oppose any increase in the minimum wage that if the poor get richer, that will be bad for the economy. This is nonsense.”

When President Bill Clinton said “the era of big government is over,” we had already been on a trajectory that sees government as a necessary evil at best, or pure evil at worst. (Notably, Clinton had added: “but we cannot go back to a time when our citizens were left to fend for themselves.”) Without mentioning those sentiments, Hanauer calls for “a new politics, a new capitalism”:

“Let’s by all means shrink the size of government, but not by slashing the poverty programs, but by ensuring that workers are paid enough so that they actually don’t need those programs…Government does create prosperity and growth, by creating the conditions that allow both entrepreneurs and their customers to thrive.”

“Balancing the power of capitalists like me and workers isn’t bad for capitalism. It’s essential to it. Programs like a reasonable minimum wage, affordable healthcare, paid sick leave, and the progressive taxation necessary to pay for the important infrastructure necessary for the middle class like education, R and D, these are indispensable tools shrewd capitalists should embrace to drive growth, because no one benefits from it like us.”

He concludes with a message to his fellow plutocrats that it’s time to “recommit to our country”—and to a more inclusive and efficient capitalism…

“…a capitalism that will ensure that America’s economy remains the most dynamic and prosperous in the world. Let’s secure the future for ourselves, our children and their children. Or alternatively, we could do nothing, hide in our gated communities and private schools, enjoy our planes and yachts — they’re fun — and wait for the pitchforks.”

Since this speech, Hanauer has continued to push for change. His podcast, Pitchfork Economics, is widely available. I listened to a segment in which US Senator and 2020 Presidential candidate Cory Booker discussed his proposed bill concerning stock buybacks, explained here. May sound dull, but I found it fascinating.

Before 1982, I learned, stock buybacks were illegal: using corporate profits to buy back stocks, thereby raising the price of those stocks, was viewed as market manipulation. Doesn’t that make sense? But now it’s standard practice, contributing nothing to economic growth except what goes into the stockholders’ pockets. The workers whose increased productivity made those profits possible receive zilch; their wages remain stagnant, as wages have since the late 1970s.

Even worse, there are disincentives to corporations trying to be fair.

Booker cites American Airlines. After having a great quarter last year, he says, “they announced long overdue pay raises to the pilots and flight attendants.” But analysts looked askance at this move, and Morgan Stanley downgraded American’s shares, complaining its action established a worrying precedent for American Airlines and the industry.

So they were essentially punished for trying to be fair to their workers. Is that not an example of an economy gone seriously awry?

Booker’s bill, the “Workers Dividend Act,” says that if corporations plan to engage in stock buybacks, they must give a commensurate share to their employees. He stresses that this bill is not intended to “vilify” wealth, but simply to ensure that everyone has more.

Importantly, he points out why it’s needed:

“We make moral and value decisions with how we structure our tax codes, shortchanging workers, adding to wealth disparity, and weakening our democracy as a whole.”

To me, the big question is: How do we get the plutocrats to change direction before our democracy is further weakened—and/or the pitchforks are activated?

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Michael Tomasky’s Op-Ed, published today in The New York Times: “Is America Becoming an Oligarchy?,” which echoes the concerns expressed here. Tomasky writes:

“Democracy can’t flourish in a context of grotesque concentration of wealth. This idea is neither new nor radical nor alien. It is old, mainstream and as American as Thomas Jefferson.”

Many writers have examined this topic lately, and I think it’s one that we must face as a nation. I plan to explore some of the ideas in subsequent posts.

Are you with me in having this discussion—whether you agree or disagree?

Annie

Whither the Mueller Report?

An Exploration in Rhyme…

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Bill-Barr used unusual gauges
to file the 400-plus pages:
“I’ve made up my mind
There’s nothing to find,
So you’ll see that drivel in stages.”

The people were rather irate
They felt that a lot was at stake.
“If no wrong has been done
And the Trumper has won,
There’s no reason to play with our fate.”

“Let’s see the report as was written
Right now would be timely and fitting.
Place no holds on the facts,
Just forgo the redacts,
We paid for this not to be hidden.”

But Bill-Barr was cranky and dreading
That his reputation was shredding
“My 19-page audition
Said this prez has a mission,
So where did you think I’d be heading?”

And suddenly those with tight lips,
Who’d been wary of not sinking ships
Said “Good grief! Our worst fears
of two long, wasted years
Demand that we now give some tips.”

So the free press arose to report
About several probers’ exhort:
Barr had woven a story
That was really quite hoary,
With the truth it did not quite comport.

And now we’re all in waiting mode,
As Congress takes on this new load
Watch for the subpoenas,
While Fox’s hyenas,
Insist it’s conspiracy code.

But the polls show that most of us feel,
That this onion must finally be peeled.
If it isn’t collusion,
There’s still lots of confusion,
And high time the Whole Truth is revealed!

*****

What do YOU think?

As always, I greatly value your thoughts, opinions, and stories in the comment box below—as well as your feedback in the form of stars (from the one on the left for “awful” to the one on the right for “excellent”) and the “likes” from WordPress folks.  Thanks so much.

Annie

PS: A note to potential respondents: You’ll see a few early exchanges in rhyme. These are not prerequisites: I value your comments in whatever mode you choose. (Don’t want to discourage anyone who’s averse to verse!) Please also keep in mind that although this topic arouses strong emotions in me and most of you, we do want to remain as civil as possible. Thanks again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wherein I Tumble Into the Weeds Yet Again…

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Well, I didn’t really think I’d be returning to this topic—certainly not so soon—but I’ve learned some things since the first post appeared that I feel are worth sharing.

As I noted previously, despite my ambivalence concerning legalization, I’ve been assuming that it will eventually happen. I still do. A number of you have pointed out the analogy to Prohibition, and we all know how that effort to oppose the public will turned out.

But a New York Times report on the collapse of an effort to legalize marijuana in New Jersey, which was a campaign promise made by the state’s governor, Phil Murphy, and had both his strong backing and statewide public support, points to some opposing arguments that legislators made. (I promise if you stay with me through this, you’ll see that I conclude my findings on a high note. Oops, there I go again with the bad puns.)

From the Times:

“Some lawmakers were unsure about how to tax marijuana sales. Others feared legalization would flood the state’s congested streets and highways with impaired drivers. Some would not be deterred from believing that marijuana was a dangerous menace to public health.”

The Times pointed out that New Jersey lawmakers, and those in the neighboring states of New York and Connecticut, have tried to avoid problems that have occurred in states that have already legalized cannabis. 

Colorado, for example, according to a state-sponsored study published in the March 26, 2019, issue of Annals of Internal Medicine, has seen three times as many cases of people presenting to the emergency room for visits attributable to pot since legalization in 2012. 

The greater number of visits was attributed to edibles—“tales of tourists needing emergency care after gobbling too many marijuana gummies”—leading to vomiting, racing hearts, and psychotic episodes. But the worst problems at a Denver hospital were caused by inhaled marijuana. The study was also prompted by three deaths in Colorado related to edible marijuana products. 

An Associated Press report in the Times observed:

“The analysis confirmed edibles are trouble. Statewide, they made up less than 1 percent of total cannabis sales, measured by THC content [the ingredient that creates the “high”]. Yet 11 percent of ER visits were triggered by edibles.”

There’s no information on safe dosing of these edibles, according to Andre Monte, MD, lead author of the Annals study. An accompanying editorial by Dr. Nora Volkow, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, stressed the need for additional research about marijuana’s benefits and harms and called increased oversight of marijuana manufacturing and labeling an “urgent need.”

Some of the legislative concerns have been financial: in California and Massachusetts, tax revenues from marijuana sales have been disappointing.  My biggest worry, about how to protect teenagers from the drug, has also evoked serious discussions.

I’m going to digress slightly here because a dear friend who’s a long-time mental health professional observed after reading my first post that discussing marijuana is not sufficient without also talking about vaping, which she knows from experiences among acquaintances has led to psychotic breaks in some adolescents. 

If you know any young people who are tempted by or are engaged in this activity, this fact sheet for teens contains information about the dangers of vaping both e-cigarettes and marijuana. Many brands particularly target youth, prompting one report to ask:

“How can a tween, teen, or 20-something looking for inclusion, status, or the next cool thing resist? Given that vaping among high school students in grades 9-12 increased approximately 1286% between 2011 and 2018, it appears they are willing to give vaping a try.”

Some people have suggested to me that if pot were legal, teenagers might be less likely to find it attractive. A 1286% increase in 7 years? If that statistic is even half right, it offers little support for the “if it’s no longer illegal, it loses its allure” argument.

Another important issue in states that have legalized marijuana, notes the Times article,  involves “a burgeoning industry dominated by white corporate interests even as advocates in Hispanic and black communities say their neighborhoods have been most negatively affected by the drug.”

As I noted in my previous post, I am deeply concerned that the social aspect of marijuana legalization be addressed. While I touched on that issue, it clearly needs more exploration. (I mentioned that the records for marijuana arrests in areas where it’s legal continue to show racial disparities, and there’s agreement that better police training is needed.)  If legalization is to take place, it had better be done in a way that rights the wrongs that have been inflicted by the criminal justice system for years.

In this regard, the bill that was voted on in the New Jersey legislature last week was exceptionally strong. According to the ACLU:

“The bill before the Legislature is truly historic. It includes forward-thinking measures to reverse the injustices wrought by the failed drug war.”

  • expedited expungements for cannabis-related criminal records;
  • ability for people to vacate current sentences;
  • non-discrimination for cannabis use;
  • opportunities in the industry for people with criminal records;
  • social justice representatives on the cannabis regulatory board;
  • meaningful provisions for diversity in the industry.

No other state has leaned into the social justice elements of marijuana legalization the way New Jersey is poised to.”

Let’s hope that any future legalization legislation is equally forward-looking and just.

So the concerns I expressed in that first post—about the need for sensible regulation, careful monitoring, greater awareness of potency, focus on teenagers, and emphasis on criminal justice reform—remain intact, even heightened somewhat by the Colorado study. I guess this is a societal experiment in which we’ll bumble along and, I hope, with good sense and good luck, get better at doing things right with time.

Here’s where I end this unplanned revisit on a high note:

A friend alerted me to an article in Scientific American with the optimistic title: “Marijuana May Boost, Rather Than Dull, the Elderly Brain.” (The original study appeared in Nature Medicine; here’s the abstract.)

Before anyone gets too excited, the senior citizens in question were of the genus Mus—specifically, mice. According to Scientific American, 

“…the drug might affect older users very differently than young ones—at least in mice. Instead of impairing learning and memory, as it does in young people, the drug appears to reverse age-related declines in the cognitive performance of elderly mice.”

Scientists not involved in the study who found it intriguing cautioned, of course, that additional research is needed before assuming the findings would be relevant to aging humans. But those who did the study noticed that in the treated elderly mice, the neurons in the hippocampus (the part of the brain essential for memory and learning) had developed more of what’s called synaptic spines, by which neurons communicate with each other. 

The Scientific American author pointed out that the researchers were even more struck by the dramatic difference in the hippocampus of the THC-treated mice as compared with the elderly, untreated mice. Andreas Zimmer from University of Bonn, Germany, the lead researcher, stated:

 ‘That is something we absolutely did not expect: the old animals [that received] THC looked most similar to the young untreated control mice.” 

The hypothesis is that the THC and possibly other components in cannabinoids act similarly to the brain’s naturally occurring endocannabinoids, which are directly associated with the brain’s neural activity and appear to decline with age. Thus, externally introduced cannabinoids could, theoretically, reverse that process. 

One clinical researcher who wasn’t associated with the study, Mark Ware at McGill University, observed:

“To anyone who studies the endocannabinoid system, the findings are not necessarily surprising, because the system has homeostatic properties everywhere we look.” In other words, it adjusts to changes in order to maintain internal stability.

That can explain the variations we see, points out the Scientific American author. 

“For example, a little marijuana may alleviate anxiety, but too much can bring on paranoid delusions. Likewise, cannabis can spark an appetite in cancer patients but in other people may produce nausea. Thus, the detrimental effects seen in young brains, in which cannabinoids are already plentiful, may turn out to be beneficial in older brains that have a dearth of them.”

Of course, this is just one study, but it’s quite fascinating, isn’t it? While I’m still worrying about teenage abuse of the substance, and irresponsible drivers, and lack of information about potency that’s sending people to the ER for glomming down too many gummies (I wonder how many gummies it took…), I find myself eagerly awaiting further research on the effects of cannabis on the aging brain.

I received several new clearly weed-related followers after my first post on this topic, and I wondered why they found me a kindred spirit when I was so filled with skepticism and concerns.  Then a friend reminded me of my reverie about cherry tomatoes after my one-and-only experience with pot decades ago.

Another friend had commented that he had been pro-legalization, but my first post made him rethink his position. But I told him about this study. After hearing about it, I now have images of happy elderly folk in all sorts of places, reveling in their carefully regulated dosages of brownies, gummy bears, and the like—followed by a chaser of cherry tomatoes unlike any they’ve ever experienced before.

And in my fantasy view of memory nirvana, all who so engage will be able to promptly retrieve the first and last names of everyone they’ve ever met; the actors, titles, and stories of all those wonderful movies; the plays, players, and scores of sports events they viewed with pleasure decades ago; and…well, you get the picture.

…And Mr. Google will simply have to find another line of work.

As always, I welcome your thoughts, opinions, and stories in the comment box below—as well as your feedback in the form of stars (from the one on the left for “awful” to the one on the right for “excellent”) and the “likes” from WordPress folks.  Thanks so much.

Annie

Can I Really Get My Arms Around This Animal?

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It’s time we talked about octopuses. I hear you saying: “Annie-the-English-major: Don’t you mean octopi?” That’s the first misconception we must clarify right away. All those years we’ve been talking about octopi? We’ve been wrong. Well, not everyone agrees, but here’s what the Oxford Dictionaries say:

“The standard plural in English of octopus is octopuses. However, the word octopus comes from the Greek, and the Greek plural octopodes is still occasionally used. The plural form octopi, formed according to rules for some Latin plurals, is incorrect.”

So I’m taking the strictly classical position; I dare not intermingle Greek and Latin grammar.

It’s possible, of course, that your more pressing question is: Why is it time we talked about octopuses? I shall explain.

A few months ago, I was at a dinner party where the host had made paella. I’d never eaten scungilli or squid—they simply didn’t appeal to me. But there I was, faced with a plate in which the tell-tale rings were abundant. I generously transferred them from my plate to that of a friend who was eager for this gift.

Shortly before that dinner party, I’d heard a discussion about octopuses—how incredibly intelligent and social they are—how those in aquariums form bonds with their trainers and wend their way to that side of the tank. Not squid, of course, but a relative thereof.

In fact, when a naturalist named Sy Montgomery, author of The Soul of an Octopus, was interviewed on WBGH Boston radio, her interviewer began his intro by saying:

“If you’re someone who likes to eat octopus, those days are over.”

He said he’d refrained from eating octopuses just since reading her book. You can disagree with that sentiment, and I’m sure many of you will, but it’s been attributed to enough people to make me think there’s a bit of mystery here.

Why all the fuss? Because these strange creatures—shape-shifting, color-changing invertebrates with 3 hearts and brains wrapped around their esophaguses—are highly intelligent beings that seem to form attractions with humans. Montgomery says her love for Athena, the octopus, began when Athena first sidled up to her in an aquarium. The intro to the interview with her described their first meeting:

“Athena, an octopus toddler living in the New England Aquarium, locked eyes with the New Hampshire native, and without hesitation, Sy plunged her hand into an ice cold marine tank to allow the curious cephalopod to taste her skin. Octopuses, it turns out, taste with their suckers, and as Athena carefully explored Montgomery’s outstretched arms with her own, the writer felt they were both seeking, and connecting, alien skin to alien skin. Or, as we discovered, brain to brain.”

Keep that last thought in mind, as we’ll return to it.

Let’s explore the intelligence aspect a little further. A 2015 article in Nature, reporting on the sequencing of the octopus genome, began:

“With its eight prehensile arms lined with suckers, camera-like eyes, elaborate repertoire of camouflage tricks and spooky intelligence, the octopus is like no other creature on Earth. Added to those distinctions is an unusually large genome…that helps to explain how a mere mollusk evolved into an otherworldly being.” 

We’re talking about real brain power here. The Nature article quotes Benny Hochner, an Israeli neurobiologist who’s been studying octopuses for decades. “It’s important for us to know the genome, because it gives us insights into how the sophisticated cognitive skills of octopuses evolved.” 

What have they learned? That the genome of an octopus is nearly as large as ours, and actually has more protein-coding genes than we do: about 33,000, while we have fewer than 25,000. And the gene groups include one (called the protocadherins) involved in the development of neurons and their interactions. 

Octopuses also have specific, highly expressed genes in certain tissues. The genes in their suckers, for example, appear comparable to those related to the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, and apparently give those suckers their exquisite ability to taste.images-28

This intelligence is associated with the octopuses’ roughly 500,000 neurons, of which as many as two-thirds are located in their arms, particularly their upper arms. Talk about multi-tasking!  They can be doing one thing while an arm or two move around exploring their environment. And their neurons seem to act without being attached to anything via long-range fibers, Nature observes—such as the spinal cord we vertebrates have. And…

“The genome contains systems that can allow tissues to rapidly modify proteins to change their function. Electrophysiologists had predicted that this could explain how octopuses adapt their neural-network properties to enable such extraordinary learning and memory capabilities.”

How does this intelligence manifest itself? For one thing, octopuses are veritable Houdinis. Aquarium personnel know you never turn your back on an octopus in a pail because the next time you look, he’ll be quietly walking down the hall.

They are strong enough to push open the lids of their tanks, and one reportedly took off and made his way from the aquarium back to the sea he’d once called home.  And because of their shape-shifting and lack of bones, a 100-pound octopus can squeeze through a hole the size of an orange, says Montgomery.

They seem to welcome what can only be called mental stimulation. Montgomery speaks of an “Enrichment Manual” that advises aquarium personnel to give them Mr. Potato Heads, Legos, and the like. One inventor created a series of cubes made of plexiglass containing a crab. Each of the three cubes had a different lock; the third had 2 different locks. The octopus opened them all.

They appear to be playful. Philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith became fascinated by them when he was scuba diving off the coast of Australia. He has written a book  describing how octopuses have led him to explore the nature of consciousness. 

In an interview, Tentacled Alien From Under the Sea, he discusses octopuses in captivity turning out the lights in the lab by squirting water on the fixtures. And they demonstrably behave differently to people who treat them kindly than to those who aren’t as nice, perhaps even forming likes and dislikes for reasons that aren’t evident. 

The interviewer asked Godfrey-Smith whether when an octopus grabs your hand and sucks on you, is it tasting you? Godfrey-Smith responded:

“That’s what they are doing…so octopuses will reach out an arm and their suckers  will attach and touch you. All of those suckers contain a variety of sensory organs but in particular they can taste everything they touch.”

“If you’re in an aquarium and you’ve used particular soaps or deodorants, those are extremely strong stimuli when an octopus touches you and will make a big difference as to how you come across to them. This is one of several ways in which their sensory world is just completely extraordinary.”

Montgomery reported about one octopus, Truman, that sprayed a young aquarium worker in the face with water whenever she came into view—the only one who got that treatment. And when she’d been gone for months, and then returned, Truman greeted her with the same tactic—clearly remembering who she was. images-30

Montgomery has reportedly expressed her “surprise that octopuses have personalities and even consciousness—and some of the same cognitive and emotional capacities that we do and maybe a whole bunch we don’t.”

An octopus in a New Zealand aquarium takes pictures of the people who come to see him. In only three tries, he figured out how to work the camera, and he springs to action when he sees people positioned against a white backdrop, placing one of his arms into a tube and  snapping the photo.

The octopus learns in the wild that it’s kill or be killed, and it has a panoply of options when faced with a potentially dangerous situation.  Montgomery mentioned its weaponry:  Eat the predator using its sharp beak? Envelop it?  Turn colors, either to confuse it or blend into the environment?  Pour its “baggy boneless body down a little crack?” Shoot out ink to give it time to escape? 

The octopus meets up with diverse animals with different brains, she says, and outwits them all.

For additional videos, see “Octopuses keep surprising us—here are eight examples how.”

Now we come to the somewhat hypothethetical and, to me, most fascinating part. Because they are so clever, so resourceful, and so very odd, more than one scientist studying octopuses has said some variation of the following:

“This is probably the closest we’ll come to meeting an intelligent alien.“

How did it all happen? No one knows for sure, of course, but one “big idea” (in Godfrey-Smith’s phrase) is that there was a common ancestor between the octopus and vertebrates about 600 million years ago, and two individual evolutionary experiments occurred involving large neuron systems and complex brains.

If octopuses are so intelligent and always eager to escape, the question then arises: is it fair for us to keep them in aquariums? Montgomery thinks it’s fair, because most octopus species in the wild spend the preponderance of their time in tight dens, but they need things to keep them interested and to stimulate their brains. She wouldn’t, she says, think such environment suitable to dolphins, for example.

In addition, octopuses are the subject of study for soft robotics, among other things.

But to our point today, octopuses and individual humans have definitely formed bonds. Montgomery says of her experience:

“I wanted to see if I could reach across the evolutionary chasm to touch an invertebrate from 1/2 billion years ago. It changed my way of thinking about thinking. Their brains evolved from an utterly different route. They’re each individuals.”

Did Athena trust you?, she was asked of her first encounter with an octopus. “There’s no telling–with people either. Maybe she could taste that I wasn’t afraid of her. Maybe she could taste emotions—through neurotransmitters or hormones.”

“Either way, we liked each other very much.”

What do you think? If you’re an octopus connoisseur, are you rethinking your position? How eager would you be to be “hugged and kissed” by an octopus? Do you agree with Montgomery that they’re OK in captivity–or not? Do you find octopuses as fascinating as I do?

As always, I welcome your thoughts, opinions, and stories in the comment box below—as well as your feedback in the form of stars (from the one on the left for “awful” to the one on the right for “excellent”) and the “likes” from WordPress folks.  Thanks so much.

Annie

Wanna Hear About My Colonoscopy?

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Image courtesy of Flickr.com

Probably not. If you’re reading this, you are either a) one of my very loyal readers, in which case I am most grateful for your perseverance; b) interested in all things medical, no matter how icky;  c) a catastrophizer like me, who always goes to the darkest possibility in terms of health; or d) just plain curious to find out what this strange woman is up to. 

Why do I want to tell you about my colonoscopy? March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, so I figure if Katie Couric could have had a colonoscopy live on the Today Show in 2000 (after her husband died of colon cancer in 1998), it doesn’t take much courage to write this post for my blog. She also accompanied Jimmy Kimmel to his first colonoscopy, and you can find that amusing and instructive episode in this YouTube video. 

The purpose, of course, is to encourage screening among those who either don’t think about it or just can’t bring themselves to do it. Colonoscopy screening is one of the indisputable ways to save lives. But even if you have one regularly, I hope you’ll continue to read this because I’ve learned some important information that I don’t think is widely known, and perhaps you can spread the word to others. As Jane E. Brody, who writes the Personal Health column in The New York Times, stated:

“Although I usually refrain from columns linked to national health observances, I believe that Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, in March, is too important to ignore. There are simply too many people who are still getting and dying from this preventable disease because they failed to get screening for it, including people with no excuse like ignorance, lack of health insurance, or poor access to medical services.”

I am close to two people who have lost loved ones to colon cancer in their early 50s. One was a beloved childhood friend; the other a treasured younger brother. Although any young death is a tragedy, both of these people were terrific, warm, loving individuals who left grieving spouses and children—and whose deaths were totally preventable. 

In addition, I think about the vibrant young woman, mother of two, whom I met when I took a mindfulness-based stress reduction course last year. She had had colon cancer once, had a recurrence, but was then doing well, she said. Her purpose in taking the course was to find a way to ease her anxiety while she awaited subsequent test results. She wept briefly as she described her circumstances, regained her composure, and for the rest of the eight-week course, was a delightful, wry person who dealt silently with what must have been a huge psychological burden. I think of her fondly, hoping her health is stable.

Here’s the important point that I’m not sure is well known: Last year, the American Cancer Society (ACS) lowered the proposed age for first screening (for people with no known risk factors or family history) from 50 to 45. That’s because so many younger people have been struck with the disease. 

And 45 probably isn’t low enough. In contrast to a drop in the overall death rate, attributable to greater detection and removal of precancerous polyps, an ACS study found that since the 1980s, colorectal cancer rates have increased by 1.0% to 2.4% each year in those aged 20-39, and since the 1990s, by 0.5% to 1.3% among those aged 40-55. Oncologists are seeing the disease even in adolescents. Those statistics should make us all sit up and take notice. 

It’s not clear why these rates are increasing, writes Patricio Polanco, MD, of the UTSouthwestern Medical Center. He and others say the factors considered include genetic mutations, low fiber diet, obesity, smoking, heavy drinking, and ulcerative colitis.

But conflicting conclusions emerge from other reputable sources. In a 2018 discussion among experts in an  OncLive Peer Exchange,  Michael Morse, MD, of Duke University Hospital said the data suggest neither obesity nor mutational differences are significant. He suggests “something environmental or habit-based…but until we can collect enough data from a large enough number of people, I just don’t see how we’re going to tease it out.” 

This is clearly a societal issue that requires greater awareness on the part of the public. Primary care physicians may need additional education as well, experts have suggested. As there’s no screening for those under age 45, younger people with questionable symptoms may have no time to waste, as noted below.

In my case, as an adherent patient and catastrophizer, there was no way I’d procrastinate in having the procedure right when I was told I should:  at age 50. That first one was fine, but the next one showed a few polyps, as did the following one. And since one polyp was precancerous, I was advised to have another colonoscopy after only three years. I’ve never had root canal, so I can’t use that comparison, but for the uninitiated, the experience is neither a walk in the park nor the worst thing imaginable.

The instructions are that three days before, one should eat only cooked fruits and vegetables. That eliminates about 2/3 of my diet, so right there, I’m at a disadvantage. No blueberries in my morning cereal; no huge salad with dinner, containing five or six of my favorite veggies; not even a small banana. For some reason, a line from Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks’ “2000-Year-Old Man” came to mind: “I’d rather eat a rotten nectarine than a fine plum.” I would have been happy with either—or both.

On the Day-Before-the-Day, I started the liquid diet. Fantastic options there: broth, apple juice, Jello (but nothing red, the only flavors I like), soda, coffee (neither of which I drink), sherbet (but not with milk and also not red, precluding my favorite raspberry). So using a wellspring of creativity, I came up with my day’s menu:

Breakfast: mug of chicken broth, glass of apple juice

Lunch: mug of chicken broth, glass of apple juice

Dinner: mug of chicken broth, glass of apple juice

Dinner was at 3 pm, because at 4 it was time to begin THE PREP.

As many of you may know from experience, the prep involves imbibing a truly noxious-tasting substance—a combo of ingredients designed to flush the system, in my case with a soupçon of lemon-lime flavoring to tickle the palate—all mixed with luke-warm water and then refrigerated, allegedly to make it more palatable.  

Suffice it to say, I got a lot of exercise over the next several hours running back and forth until my system was “clean as a whistle.” That’s all the scatology I’m going to inflict upon you.

On The Day, fortunately, my appointment was at 7:30 am. All the medical history review and pre-procedure steps went smoothly.

Then, with the anesthesia dripping into my vein and oxygen in my nose, I drifted off. What was probably 10 minutes later, I was awake. (The electronic schedule board in the waiting room had shown that my gastro had already done 4 of these before my arrival, and had 2 more in the works before he got to me.) I lay there for a few minutes, chose my post-procedure food and drink—cranberry juice and a blueberry muffin—finished them off in a nanosecond, and that was that.

The news was better than the last time: one small polyp, the gastro informed me—definitely not cancerous; he could tell that clearly. Tonight, just minutes before publishing this post, I got a call from the gastro telling me the biopsy report showed that the polyp wasn’t even precancerous. And because there was only one small one, I now have a five-year respite from this procedure, rather than only three years. So hooray for that!

I am telling you all this in the hope that it will be beneficial. In terms of cancer deaths in the US, colorectal cancers come in second; this year, according to Jane Brody, 51,000 people are expected to die of the disease. 

In addition to colonoscopy, there are less complex tests available; see Jane Brody’s column for a description of them. Colonoscopy, though, is considered the best test, as it can both detect cancer and remove polyps that may well develop into full-blown cancer in time.

The fact that an increasing number of those cancer deaths occur in people in their 20s, 30s, or 40s weighs heavily on me. Polanco, of UT Southwestern Medical Center, says it’s important for young people to be aware of the symptoms: abdominal pain, blood in the stool, constipation, diarrhea, decreased appetite, and weight loss, “and never assume they’re too young to get colorectal cancer.” 

Younger people tend to attribute their symptoms to something less serious, he writes, such as hemorrhoids or irritable bowel syndrome, and therefore don’t seek medical help until they have late-stage disease. Though I don’t want to generate panic on this issue, it is clear that changed circumstances require a new mindset to better protect younger adults. And the rest of us need to do the prudent thing to protect ourselves as well.

As always, I welcome your opinions, insights, stories, additional sources. And thank you for staying with me to the end of a post on a topic that I really didn’t want to write about at all, but felt compelled to do so.

Annie

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