Monthly Archives: June 2011

Food Is Bad For You

The food in this Shanghai restaurant got a glowing report.

There are disagreements from one culture to the next about what actually constitutes food.  For instance, many of us in western civilization don’t think insects even qualify as a snack, let alone a meal.  Elsewhere, locusts and ants are considered delicacies.

Within cultures there are differences, too; there are members of my own family who only eat vegetables, while another family member shudders at the thought of having to put a slice of tomato into his mouth.  These are simply questions of preference, though.  The universal truth is that no matter what you choose to eat, there’s a chance that it will make you sick.

Results of scientific studies are released almost hourly which support that conclusion.  The Centers for Disease Control recently stated that new strains of E. coli bacteria are mutating, causing a rise in food-poisoning cases.  Salmonella, the most common source of gut-busting illness, was to blame for misery in about 1 million Americans last year.

“Junk food”, the epithet applied to stuff that is deep fried or laced with sugar, is a familiar villain that most of us seem to ignore.  That may be because it doesn’t make us quickly (but temporarily) sick the way bacteria do.  The onset of junk-food illnesses is more gradual, but the effects are a lot longer-lasting than an upset stomach.

What got me thinking about the perils of food was a recent story in the Los Angeles Times about hazardous dietary ingredients in China.  Reporter Barbara Demick wrote that a woman in Shanghai had left uncooked pork on her kitchen table.  The woman woke up in the middle of the night “and noticed that the meat was emitting a blue light, like something out of a science fiction movie.”  Experts blamed it on phosphorescent bacteria, which was something I hadn’t known I should be worrying about until now.

Science has proven that there are good reasons to avoid eating almost everything, which might lead one to believe that swearing off food altogether is the solution.  You’re welcome to try that approach if you like, but you should be aware that fasting, when conscientiously done (meaning no food whatsoever) is invariably fatal after a couple of months.  Similarly, the all-alcohol diet adopted by William the Conqueror is not recommended; he sustained fatal injuries when he fell off his horse.

So what should we do to avoid the risks lurking in our food?  Oh, you don’t really need me to tell you, do you?  The experts all say pretty much the same thing, and you’ve heard it a thousand times.   Consume smaller portions of healthier foods, exercise, wash hands before preparing your meal, etc.

Of course, you’re an adult and ultimately you’ll do as you please.  For safety’s sake, though, I urge you to learn from the Chinese and heed this new warning:  If your food glows in the dark, don’t eat it!


The Original Gerrymander (looks more like a dragon to me)

It was a shock when the Los Angeles Times referred to the area where I live as “the Ribbon of Shame”.  OK, I’ll admit that a couple of houses in our neighborhood could use a fresh coat of paint, and yes, there’s a bar a few blocks away that seems to be a good place to meet one’s next mistake in life.  Still, I didn’t believe conditions were so bad that we deserved that kind of public ridicule.

It turns out that “ribbon of shame” has to do with the peculiar way the boundaries of our congressional district were drawn:  It is about two hundred miles long, but as little as a few hundred yards wide in places.  What this means is that we have been subjected to a political tradition known as “gerrymandering”.

That’s a term that gets thrown around every time there is an election, and it’s almost as old as the country itself.  Gerrymandering was coined in 1812, when one of America’s first career politicians, Elbridge Gerry, was serving as governor of Massachusetts.

Prior to the election of that year, the Massachusetts legislature had redrawn the boundaries of legislative districts.  The Federalists had a statewide numerical edge over the Democratic-Republicans, but by some creative mapping, most of the Federalists were lumped together in the same district, while the Democratic-Republicans gained control of most of the other districts.

To one cartoonist at the Boston Gazette, the bizarre new political map of Essex County looked something like a salamander, and his illustration appeared in the newspaper with the caption “The Gerry-mander”.  It should be noted that it was the legislature that had redrawn the boundaries, and according to some historians, Governor Gerry signed the bill reluctantly.  He didn’t even benefit; he got voted out of office in that election.

In spite of that, his name has been associated with this questionable political practice ever since, although it is now mispronounced.  The governor — who was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, by the way — pronounced his name with a hard G, like “Gary”.  Somehow, redrawing districts for political gain — gerrymandering — has come to be pronounced with a soft G sound, as if it was spelled “jerry”.

So Elbridge Gerry’s name is linked with a custom that politicians regularly denounce (unless it is done to their advantage).  That might be a bit unfair to him, though, because he did serve his state and country for a number of years, and occasionally with distinction.  Among other things, Gerry was elected to a couple of terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, was a presidential envoy to France, and was the vice president of the United States at the time of his death in 1814.

As for the ribbon-of-shame thing… I’m not feeling so bad about it anymore.  I discovered that the guy who started saying that about us was Arnold Schwarzenegger.  He has proven to be someone who knows no shame.

What to Expect on Safari

Let’s assume you’ve already made the decision to go to Africa, and have figured out how you’re going to pay for the trip.  Let’s assume you’re in the process of getting the required visas and inoculations.  You’re excited about seeing magnificent animals in their natural habitat, but at some point, three basic existential questions occur to you about the safari experience:  1)  Where will I sleep?  2)  What will I eat?  3)  What happens when I need to go to the bathroom?

Chances are good that while on safari you will either sleep in a lodge or a tent camp.  The lodges are essentially small hotels, and vary from fairly basic to pretty darn nice.

The tents are not nearly as primitive as that name suggests.  They do have canvas sides and roof, and the front entrance zips, but the interiors are quite nice, with a shower and flush toilet.  In most of them you sleep in a king-sized bed, and not on a cot.  It’s a good idea to keep your tent zipped up at all times, incidentally — monkeys have been known to go in and trash places that are left unattended.

You probably won’t return from Africa raving about the cuisine, but you won’t go hungry, either.  There are things to eat that are recognizable as being in the food spectrum.  Dining rooms at the lodges and tent camps try to appeal to western tastes, but bear in mind that menus are much more limited than they would be in a city.

For example, one night in Kenya’s Masai Mara we had three options for dinner:  salmon, lamb, or chickpea curry.  Since any other restaurant is many, many miles away and the only way to get there is by walking across vast expanses of wilderness, you would become food before you would find food.  My advice, if you don’t like the entree selections, is to fill up on bread and hang on until breakfast, which is almost always good.

Since the game drives can last for several hours at a time, inevitably you and others in your group will need to use a toilet.  Some of the national parks and game reserves have shacks for that purpose, but none are what you’d call immaculate.  The restrooms at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania are among the world’s stinkiest.

But, you may wonder, what if the need arises while you’re far from anything that even approximates civilization?  Hey, it happens.  The driver will stop the vehicle and the passengers take turns going behind the vehicle, and — you know, going.  Make a note to keep some toilet tissue and hand sanitizer in your safari vest, as well as a Ziploc bag to dispose of the tissue.

But let me get off that topic and emphasize how spectacular the safari experience is.  Some days are better than others, of course, but I always found it exhilarating to drive across the savanna in search of beautiful animals. 

Sometimes the Land Cruiser will be on a dirt track, but sometimes you are in territory where there literally are no roads.  The driver scans the horizon and starts off in whatever direction seems promising.  Soon enough you’re seeing various kinds of antelope and zebras… then giraffes… elephants… lions.  Yes — they are right there, within a few feet of your vehicle!

Oh, and if you’re wondering, the driver keeps the motor running, just in case a quick escape is necessary.  He knows that if you get mauled, it could affect how generously you tip at the end of the safari.

What’s A Fortnight?

"Hey, did he say we have to run for six furlongs or six fortnights?"

Recently I turned on our television; it was set on my default channel, which is ESPN.  For some reason, the sports network wasn’t televising sweaty guys with tattoos — they were covering a spelling bee!  It was an odd spectacle , with adolescents rattling off the correct spelling of words like “zwischenspiel”, which, as you know, means the interlude played between verses of a hymn.

It was interesting to watch for a while, but there was no chest bumping, nostril excavation, or Gatorade showering, so a spelling bee is not a sport.  Maybe ESPN’s rationale for carrying it was that there is an element of tension in the contest.  When a young competitor was challenged to spell “cymotrichous”, she stalled for time by asking the interlocutor, “Can you use it in a sentence, please?”  He did, and even told her that it means “having wavy hair”, but trust me — there’s not a beauty salon operator in any English-speaking country who has ever used that word in a sentence, let alone knows how to spell it.

The experts who publish the Oxford English Dictionary estimate that our language has around a quarter of a million words.  Other research suggests that the average person’s vocabulary is in the range of 50-100 thousand words.  I guess that means that if you’re really, really smart, there are only 100,000 words or so that you don’t know.

Of course, there’s also a gap between the number of words a person recognizes, and their ability to define them or spell them.  Take the word fortnight, for instance.  It’s easy to guess how it’s spelled, but what does it mean?  It means “two weeks”, and is the linguistic legacy of someone who apparently didn’t know how to spell “fourteen nights”.

Fortnight is not to be confused with “furrow”, which is a groove made in the ground by a plow, although it can also be associated with a wrinkled brow.  Furrow has been part of the English language for well over a thousand years, and sometime later got folded into another word:  furlong.  That was also an agricultural term at first, meaning “a long furrow”.

Eventually furlong became a unit of measurement, equaling 220 yards; one-eighth of a mile.  Farmers don’t speak of furlongs much anymore, but it is a term still used in horse racing.  For example, a thoroughbred race of six furlongs is considered a sprint.

Well, I’m sure by now you’ve thought of other f-words you’d like to interject, but these few illustrations will have to do.  I’m proposing that we cap the English language, throwing out all words that exceed the approximate level of difficulty of these examples.  That way we won’t have to feel mentally deficient when we see these twelve-year-old kids rattling off the correct spelling of periscii (“Those who live within a polar circle, whose shadows, during some summer days, will fall toward every point in the compass.”)

How will we get our language down to a more manageable size?  That’s a daunting task.  I’m going to have to think about it for a fortnight or two.

Art Attack

Michelangelo, "The Deposition" c. 1550 (photo by Sally Reeder)

If you have spent any time in art museums, you may have noticed that some of the Greek and Roman statues are not anatomically correct.  Limbs and heads are sometimes missing, and male nudes have been — ouch! — neutered.  Some of that is perhaps due to careless handling over the centuries (“Whoops, dropped Dionysus down the staircase.  Oh, well.”), but some absent body parts resulted from deliberate acts of destruction.

Conquering soldiers or enforcers of public modesty have been the culprits in many instances, but damaged artwork is due to other kinds of damaged people as well.

Rembrandt’s monumental painting “Night Watch” was attacked three different times in the 20th century.  The first assailant, in 1911, was an unemployed cook who claimed he did it to call atttention to his inability to find work.  The job offers didn’t exactly pour in after that, incidentally.  In 1975, Wilhelmus de Rijk slashed it with a bread knife, later explaining that he was on a divine mission.  The most recent attack was in 1990; sulfuric acid was sprayed on it, the New York Times reported, “by a man who was believed to be mentally disturbed.”  Oh.

The Mona Lisa has been victimized more than once, but in one instance (1956) a homeless man threw a rock at it; he said he hoped to be put in jail because he was cold and had no place to go.  He got his wish, and La Gioconda sustained no significant damage.

“The Pietà” by Michelangelo was not as fortunate when a man named Laszlo Toth produced a hammer and began whacking away at one of the world’s most beautiful sculptures in 1972.  The face and neck of Mary were chipped; her forearm fell to the floor, which caused fingers to break off.  Toth hit the statue 15 times while shouting “I am Jesus Christ!”  During subsequent questioning by police, he also said he was Michelangelo.  Neither of those claims proved to be true.

A painting by Diego Velázaquez that is known as “The Rokeby Venus” was attacked in 1914 at the National Gallery in London.  The perpetrator was a suffragette named Mary Richardson, who said that she took a meat cleaver to the painting as retaliation for the arrest of her colleague Emmeline Pankhurst on the previous day.  At her trial, she said that it was a protest against the British government for “destroying Mrs. Pankhurst”.  In an interview decades later, though, Mary Richardson said she slashed the painting of a relatively discreet nude woman because she didn’t like “the way men visitors gaped at it all day long.”

The only art vandal who may have had some justification for his act was the man who began smashing a Michelangelo sculpture called “The Deposition”, also known as “The Florentine Pietà” (see photo).  The attacker was Michelangelo himself, who was still working on it at the time.

Possibly a flaw in the marble caused it to break — Christ’s left leg is missing.  Or perhaps Michelangelo was simply dissatisfied with how it was taking shape; whatever the reason, he flailed at it in frustration.

A servant stopped him before he could destroy it completely, and it was eventually finished by another artist.  To his credit, Michelangelo did not try to shift the blame by claiming to be Laszlo Toth.