Sunday, February 26, 2012

Anniversary at Buffalo Creek, West Virginia

Today is the 40th anniversary of the Buffalo Creek mining disaster in West Virginia.
The destruction occurred when an earthen dam holding mining waste gave way and flooded the hollows through which the creek ran.  130 million gallons of coal sludge destroyed the towns of Saunders, Lundle, Pardee, Lorado, Crites, and others.  125 West Virginians were killed.  4000 were left homeless.  Lakes, ponds, and creeks were polluted; aquatic life destroyed.
The mine owners called it an Act of God.  Today, in this more secular age, they might say "Yeah, like, shit happens, you know?"
Everyone who lived there knew the dam would collapse one day.  But that made no difference then.  No difference now either.  The same regulations in effect then are in effect today.
But this happened in a place no one cares about and to a people no one cares about.  This is life in Appalachia.
When George W. Bush made the statement that Americans are "addicted to oil" I was shocked.  I couldn't tell if it meant that even an oil-rich Texan sees a problem or if it meant that there was no need to pretend anymore.
Our lust for energy sources is rapacious.  Our profligate use of energy is depressing.  The Power People tell us that we must drill, strip and frack for "Energy Security."   Ah, that word 'security'.  It has covered so many sins over the years.
What they don't mention is that a half dozen refineries are planned (permitting underway) to process natural gas into a state feasible to transport and sell abroad. 
Right now oil companies are exporting American oil abroad even as they tell us we need to find more here for our uses.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012


"Yet such is the control of semantics over the mind that when words (above all, abstract labels) are learned early in life, the associations acquired with them at the time seem almost permanently "imprinted," except for the small number of people who in each generation try to enlarge or correct them."

W. Jackson Bate
"Samuel Johnson"

Goldfish - A Short Story

     Four goldfish swam in a sunken bowl pond fringed with water grass in the small walled garden.  The garden adjoined the dormitory where the whores lived in an off-limits part of town.  There were four of us lounging on the gravel surface surrounding the pond, young soldiers who were a few weeks away from finishing a two-year tour of duty in Japan, and just a few months more from being discharged into civilian life.  We were having morning tea  in the garden which was reached by an open side door of the dormitory.  Well, all except Mike - he was drinking beer.
     "How do we get out of this part of town where we're not supposed to be without being seen?," I asked.
     Don was acknowledged as our group leader.  He said "We ask mama-san to call us a cab.  We can't get in trouble if we are seen riding through."
     "The hell we can't," I said.
     "We'll blame it on the driver," said Don.
     "What'll we do today?" said Mike.
     Virgil said "Why don't we catch a matinee?  The new Cinemascope is over in Fukuoka."  Virgil liked movies.
     "Maybe," Don said.
     "After the movie, what?" I said.
     "Let's go to the turkey farm," said Don.
     "Gobble, gobble, gobble," said Mike.
     "The turkey farm," I said, "Where's that?"
     "Gobble, gobble," said Mike again.
     "In Fukuoka," said Don.  "Hey, mama-san," he called.
     An old woman in a robe came to the door.  Coming up from her bow, she smiled.  She had a face like a marbled gourd.
     "Mama-san, dozo," said Don, "Please get a rickshaw for us."
     "Hai," she said, bowing again and disappearing inside.
     "Gobble, gobble," said Mike, rubbing his crotch.
     "I didn't know they had turkeys in Japan," I said.
     "Geez, Tom," said Don, laughing with the others, "We're not talking about turkeys.  It's girls who gobble your meat.  They call the place the turkey farm."
     "I know," I said lamely.
     "Sure you do," said Mike.
     "We'll take the train to Fukuoka and talk about what to do on the way," said Don.
      All agreed that was a good idea and fell silent, staring at the goldfish until Virgil spoke.  "What are you guys going to do when you get out?"
     "Geez," said Mike, "Who wants to talk about that now?"
     "Well, I've been thinking  about it lately.  Thinking alot about it."
     "Hell, Virgil," said Don, "there must be something you like to do.  Pick something and try it."
     "That's just it.  I can't.  I don't have a choice.  Something's already happened and that's what I'll do, that's what I'll be."  Virgil was more morose than usual.
     "That's crazy.  You can choose."
     "I don't know, Don."  Virgil pointed to the dormitory.  "Last night I'm watching a Japanese girl get the bed ready.  I don't know her name.  She doesn't know mine.  She's naked and so am I.  We're gonna screw each other, and sleep together.  She's in there now if I want more, and it comes to me.  She didn't want to be a whore and I didn't want to be in Japan.  But some old guys started a war fifteen or twenty years ago and here we are.  We had no choice."
     "Well, Virgil," said Mike, "did you screw her or just think about it?"
     "That girl and I ought to be doing something else in some other place, but here we are with nothing to say about it.  Do you see what I mean?  Don't you think there's stuff we can't explain?"
     "You mean," said Don, "like why don't girls whistle?"
     "Or why don't birds fly upside down?" said Mike.
     We were all smiling, good-natured in the tease.
     "Come on, Virgil." said Don, "you sound like a kid."
     Virgil swatted the air with his hand.  "I know that.  I just don't wanna...I don't know... I don't wanna live with nothin' to say...oh, Hell."
     "You will, Virgil," I said.
     "Maybe," Virgil said, but I'm telling you Life has secrets that we don't know anything about."
     "Worse than that," said Mike, "is to know what the secrets are but you don't understand them."
     "No, worse than that," said Don, "is to know what they are and understand them but not know how to use them."
     Don and Mike were laughing.  They looked at me to see what I had to say.  I was looking at the goldfish in the pond.  They were motionless in the water save for the flutter of their gills.  I knew what Virgil meant.  Things happen to people that they just can't seem to do anything about.  My father tried one thing, then another, and nothing went the way he expected.  So he gave up and drank and left the family alone.  My mother grew bitter, silent.  My sisters drifted away.  But I knew what I was going to do.   I was going to re-enlist.  It had come to me one night in barracks when I couldn't sleep and I lay there listening to the sounds one hears in a facility open every hour of every day.  Even when you were asleep, I thought, you knew that out there on the base life was continous, lights were on, work was getting done, a friend was smiling and talking.  And, on waking, it was all there waiting for you to step in and take your place and do your job and keep things whole while others slept. Life had mutuality.  You felt important.  And there were no big life secrets to worry about.  How about that, I got ready to say as I came back from my reverie to hear Mike finish saying "...damn sure won't find me re-upping in this goddamn army."
     "That's for sure," said Don.  Virgil agreed.
     "Hey," I said, "let's go to Fukuoka and find those turkeys."
     Laughing, we rose quickly, stumbling into each other to get inside.  The goldfish fled to the shadowy water grass.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Anthropomorphism? Don't think so.

At first light I went outside to sit on the patio and enjoy my morning coffee.   A group of tiny ants  were moving among some leftover crumbs on the table near my chair. Absent-mindedly I reached out with a finger to crush one ant, and then a second.  Instantly the ants scattered, running in various directions.  I had not moved the table during my attack.  Nor did I speak or even breathe upon them.  Yet the escaping ants knew that their lives were in danger.  It seemed to me that they were able to communicate with each other.  They were capable of making sounds which I could not hear.  They understood danger and they knew fear.  Not instinctively, but from a warning.
Naturalists have known for sometime that elephants are capable of feeling grief and anger and loyalty.  They know that the elephant's trunk is used, not only to bring food to the mouth, but to identify other animals.
Recently scientists released a study about the lives of elephants under observation in an African preserve protected by the State.  The new knowledge reveals that elephants communicate using sounds far below the frequency range of humans.  They can speak without our hearing and knowledge, and these sounds can be heard by other elephants up to a mile away.
I find this discovery exciting, even uplifting.  I have long believed that the flora and fauna of the world have a purpose other than to be foils for man's ego, or to be exploited for man's greedy uses.  Despite teachings in the Old Testament I believe that God has a purpose for everything He put on this Earth.  Who knows how patiently He waits to see if we will ever know what those purposes are?

The renowned anthropologist Loren Eiseley relates an incident he observed which he calls :The Judgement of the Birds."
"...I had slogged through fern and pine needles for half a long day, and on the edge of a little glade with one long, crooked branch extending across it, I had sat down to rest with my back against a stump.  Through accident I was concealed from the glade, although I could see into it perfectly.
     "The sun was warm there, and the murmurs of forest life blurred softly away into my sleep.  When I awoke, dimly aware of some commotion and outcry in the clearing, the light was slanting down through the pines in such a way that the glade was lit like some vast cathedral.  I could see the dust motes of wood pollen in the long shaft of light, and there on the extended branch sat an enormous raven with a red and squirming nestling in his beak.
    " The sound that awoke me was the outraged cries of the nestling's parents, who flew helplessly in circles about the clearing.  The sleek black monster was indifferent to them.  He gulped, whetted his beak on the dead branch a moment, and sat still.  Up to that point the little tragedy had followed the usual pattern.  But suddenly, out of all that area of woodland, a soft sound of complaint began to rise. Into the glade fluttered small birds of half a dozen varieties drawn by the anguished outcries of the tiny parents.
    " No one dare to attack the raven.  But they cried there in some instinctive common misery, the bereaved and the unbereaved.  The glade filled with their soft rustling and their cries.  They fluttered as though to point their wings at the murderer.  There was a dim intangible ethic he had violated, that they knew.  He was a bird of death.
     "And he, the murderer, the black bird at the heart of life, sat on there, glistening in the common light, formidable, unmoving, unperturbed, untouchable.
     "The sighing died.  It was then I saw the judgement.  It was the judgement of life against death. I will never see it again so forcefully presented.  I will never hear it again in notes so tragically prolonged.  For in the midst of protest, they forgot the violence.  There, in that clearing, the crystal note of a song sparrow lifted hesitantly in the hush.  And finally, after painful fluttering, another took the song, and then another, the song passing from one bird to another, doubtfully at first, as though some evil thing were being slowly forgotten.  Till suddenly they took heart and sang from many throats joyously together as birds are known to sing.  They sang because life is sweet and sunlight beautiful.  They sang under the brooding shadow of the raven.  In simple truth they had forgotten the raven, for they were the singers of life, and not of death."

Would that people could do as well.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Longevity means outliving your value

An article (or column) from the Baltimore Sun was syndicated into the Palm Beach Post, a newspaper I read each day.  The author of this article is Susan Reimer.  The title of her piece is "Longevity happier in theory than in practice."
Ms Reimer relates crosscountry conversations with close friends whose mothers are very old and no longer functioning normally.  The conversation drifts into other personal talk but Reimer brings them back to discussing the end of life.
"We shouldn't be planning vacations," she says.  "We should be working on exit strategies.  The one of us who still has it together needs to promise to mix the pills in the applesauce for the ones who don't."
Serious stuff.  But then Reimer presents some facts.  In her own words:

"More of us are living longer and dying slower.  Estimates are that 70 percent of us will need some kind of residential care in the final years of life, and few of us have the savings or the insurance to pay for it - about $75,000 a year in a nursing home and about $20,000 a year for home care.  (It is not either/or.  And almost all of us who have home care will eventually need nursing home care.)
"The CLASS Act, part of the health care reform legislation of 2010, would have provided long-term care insurance for anyone who wanted to buy it, regardless of age or health.  But it was withdrawn last month when the Obama administration realized that it was wildly unaffordable.
"Private insurers appear to have made the same actuarial mistakes and are asking for permission to increase premiuns on policies they have already sold by 40 percent.  Some companies are getting out of the long-term care insurance business altogether.
The assumption that many of us have - that Medicare will pay for our care when we are both old and sick - is wrong.  Medicare only pays for short nursing home stays or short-term at-home care, under certain medical conditions.
"It is Medicaid that is bankrupting itself to pay these costs - and most of us are only eligible after we have drained our savings.  None of us wants to face up to end-of-life issues, let alone pay up thousands of dollars a year in premiums for long-term care insurance.
"And we can't seem to talk about any alternatives to prolonging even the most painful or undiginified life." 

Tough stuff, that.  In just a few paragraphs we have an outline of a serious national problem that will only worsen as more people continue to 'live longer and die slower.'
Please note that I write "national problem" because it can't be solved in any piecemeal helter-skelter way.  The favorite comeback of those who won't face  reality is to speak of extended care in the family.  Oh if it were only so. But the extended family of old is as rare as the two-parent, one-salary family of old.
Matters are made worse by new medical discoveries and technologies which extend the life of a terminal patient years past the natural time of death that was more common in the long ago. 
Today's politicians are full of talk about costs and how health care expenses are out of control.
I wonder, is "health care' the right phrase to use when discussing the cost of servicing terminally ill patients?

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Bad Timing

Last week, CBS Newsman Scott Pelley interviewed Tomas Regalado, the mayor of Miami, Florida.  During the interview, the Mayor said "Miami is what the United States will be 25 years from now."

This week, Forbes magazine issued its annual list of the ten Most Miserable Cities in the U.S.  Number one is the city of Miami, Florida.

I hope one of them is wrong.