To Procreate, or Not

The_Big_Game_of_Africa_(1910)_-_Black_&_White_RhinosA female white rhino, on average, can produce 11 offspring during her lifetime. Who knows how many more are sired by the male rhino … or Mick Jagger, for that matter. A nine-banded armadillo can produce 54, while lemmings and rabbits can produce hundreds. Spreading your genes around is the first rule of life. From an evolutionary standpoint, I’m a complete failure.

The closest I ever got to procreating was in my early twenties when the young woman I was dating and hoped to marry asked me pointblank if I wanted to have children. Yes, I told her, of course. I even convinced myself that I really did. Men will do anything to get a woman into bed.

Fortunately for both of us, she saw through me (the fact that at the time I was employed in a pet shop, dreaming about all the successful books I would write, may have also made her think twice about my future financial prospects). We went our separate ways, sparing me not only thousands of dollars on an engagement ring worthy of my potential fiancé’s expensive tastes, but the inconceivable tragedy of my becoming a parent.

Growing up, I never thought much about having kids. I just didn’t see it as a life goal, the way some people have always known that they wanted to be parents. I want exactly seven—three boys and three girls and one … well, whatever the Good Lord gives us—dealer’s choice.

Occasionally I caught myself thinking about what it might be like. Taking my little boy or girl hiking. Trying to explain the mysteries of sex or how to fry an egg. Passing on my genes and values to some little person with maybe the same blue eyes and big ears, who would for a time worship the ground I walk on and demand all my waking moments, then completely ignore me in her teens, and later call me a terrible drunken monster when she wrote her memoir at 32.

According to a 2013 Gallup poll, over half of all U.S. citizens 18 to 40 already have kids, and even the 40% who don’t still hope to have them someday. Only six percent of this group do not want to have any children, under any circumstances. Seems I’m in the minority.

But at least among the 75 million or so millennials in this country, I have company. According to a recent Cassandra report, fully a third of them do not want kids. Many see this as a deliberate lifestyle choice or not wanting to take on the significant responsibilities that go with parenting. And they don’t seem at all worried about what people will think. Gotta love those millennials.

Of course, if your spouse or significant other really wants kids, it’s hard to say no. I could very well have ended up reproducing, whether I wanted to or not, had I not had the incredible good fortune of meeting and marrying my one and only wife, Josie. She never wanted kids, either. How lucky was that!

I realize that, if every human on the planet shared my views, we would soon go extinct, which might not be a bad idea, considering how our species has totally messed up the planet. We’re not exactly the pinnacle of evolution. We’ve had long enough to change our ways. Why not put some other species, preferably with more intelligence, say ravens, elephants, or even white rhinos, in control of things? The earth would do just fine without us, as it has for billions of years.

Baby naked mole rat

Could be I’m just lacking a baby gene. While other people gush about how cute the new baby is, I’m heading for the door, especially if pictures are involved. The only thing worse than kiddie pictures are dog pictures. Let me know how the kid (or dog) turns out at 21, then we’ll talk. And face it, some babies are about as cute as a newborn naked mole rat.

I could blame my attitude on my maternal grandmother, whom I adored, having spent many idyllic early days on her farm. I remember her warning me how the world was getting worse every day and never to bring kids into this world. Of course, she could have been just tired of putting up with all her own kids’ crap—she had four—or with me, for that matter. I was always getting into trouble, shooting fish and frogs in her pond with my BB gun or cutting down trees in the woods with my ax and leaving three-foot-tall stumps (well, she did ask me to clear out some of the shrubs and trees encroaching on the field).

Not that it’s likely, but I can think of several good reasons why I shouldn’t procreate. First of all, my wife still doesn’t want to. And I doubt very much if she would approve of me spreading my seed around, even if it might potentially benefit the human gene pool. It also sounds like a lot of work, and would impinge on my afternoon naptime.

Second, if I ever did have a kid—perish the thought—I would undoubtedly be a terrible father, the kind who thinks the only good music is classic rock and embarrasses his kids by continuing to wear in public tight Rolling Stones T-shirts over his advancing pot belly.

Finally, there are plenty of people who still want to have kids, as well as plenty who have them accidentally. There are far too many of us here already, with more on the way. As I see it, I’m doing my bit for the planet. The two, four, six (hey, why not twelve, as long as we’re being hypothetical?) kids Josie and I might have had are a counterbalance to those being born. Plus I’ve kept my genes out of the gene pool, which on further reflection is probably a good thing. One Gene is quite enough.

 

Guns, Spears, and Dolls

Vintage_1950s_Bild_Lilli_2014-03-31_08-27six shootersspear-152248_960_720

 

 

 

 

 

Growing up—still an ongoing process—I don’t recall anyone ever telling me how or when to play or whether I was playing too much. My parents encouraged me to read and to get good grades, of course, but I was a nerdy kid who would have done so anyway. Play was just something I did, as natural as breathing or falling on my face.

One time, I played with a shovel and dug for hours in the bare soil behind the shed. As the hole got deeper and my head vanished beneath the surface, I became a paleontologist searching for dinosaur bones. Why not? They could be down there, I thought, waiting for me to discover them. All I had to do was dig. Maybe I would reach the other end of the world. Just imagine—a tunnel through the earth.

Then I found it. It was a birdlike skull and backbone of some strange creature. It had to be a dinosaur. The fact that it didn’t appear to be fossilized and came out of the earth so readily didn’t matter. Part of the game, you see, was to believe. For a few minutes, I reveled in the joy of discovery.

Suddenly a stern voice intruded. “What are you doing?” my dad asked. “And why are you holding that chicken bone?”

Gone was my dream of a new dinosaur or reaching China. Shaking his head, he helped me climb out of the hole. It was not the first time his son had done something stupid. Then he pointed to the hole. “Now get it filled before supper!”

It was a long afternoon. Filling the hole was nowhere near as much fun as digging it. It did teach me a lesson, though. Finding dinosaur bones in your backyard is not that easy.

I remember something else as well. The fact that I had dug a deep and potentially dangerous hole that I could have fallen into didn’t seem to bother my dad. He didn’t stick around to help or watch over me. You dug it, you fill it.

It does seem that since the 1950’s, the period when I at least started to grow up, kids have far less time for unsupervised play, especially outdoors. Increasingly they are protected from dangers, real or imagined, and prodded to take on more organized activities or to study harder. They certainly wouldn’t be allowed to dig a deep hole in the backyard.

“When does a kid ever get to sit in the yard with a stick anymore?”  asked George Carlin. Speaking of sticks, Jonathan Winters was known to improvise with any object handed to him. On the Late Show, Jack Paar once gave Winters a stick and off he went, pretending to be everything from a fisherman to a lion tamer. Which brings me to my own stick adventures.

One day, after my third grade geography class, I couldn’t wait to get home so I could reenact the lesson. It was about a remote native tribe in Brazil, New Guinea, or somewhere, and how they fashioned spears, bows, and arrows out of branches in the jungle to kill the animals they ate or to protect themselves from other tribes. It was a glorious time to be a kid. You didn’t run home after school to watch TV. Many families still didn’t have one, and both the television sets and program selections were dismal. So you ended up creating your own entertainment from whatever popped into your head.

I gathered my gang of friends. There were two or three of us boys, accompanied by the minister’s daughters who lived across the street. Since it was my idea, I got to set the stage, followed by the inevitable squabbling over who gets to play what. We were already into costume. Shorts and no shirts for boys, shorts and blouses for girls. We fashioned our weapons out of whatever sticks we could find. One girl made a bow, with some featherless arrows that never went anywhere. Most of us simply made spears. I had a ready-made one, the shaft of a toy wooden golf club, from which I had removed the head. Sharpening our lethal weapons, we set off into our neighborhood jungle.

After terrorizing some neighbors’ dogs and killing scores of imaginary beasts and tribal foes, we were about to set off into the next yard when a towering, fearsome giant appeared, blocking our path. Scared out of our wits, we froze in our tracks. Actually, it was my buddy Mike’s dad, who at six foot three did seem like a giant to us. Proud of his physique, he was shirtless as usual. With muscled arms folded across his hairy chest, he glowered with menace.

“What the heck are you guys doing? Do you want to kill someone?” At that point, he grabbed my little golf spear and pointed at its well-sharpened tip. “Look at that. You could put someone’s eye out with that.” Then he broke it across his knee, and did likewise with the other weapons. Game over.

He had no right to do that, I thought. But I was not about to argue with him. Had to admit, it was not the wisest thing for us to be doing, and he was just redirecting our play into safer channels.

Most of the time, however, there was little playtime supervision. I adored kindergarten. I remember sprawling out on the floor and playing with blocks with my pal Steve, building tall structures perpetually in danger of falling on our heads. Besides the traditional-sized blocks, there were also these polished timbers, sort of like 2 x 6’s, with which we made long tunnels snaking across the room. Then we would crawl through them, exploring the dark passages we had made. Our teacher, bless her heart, pretty much left us alone. I can’t imagine a kindergarten teacher today ever allowing students to engage in such hazardous construction.

In the same kindergarten room, there was also a full-size dollhouse that you could walk through and play, well, whatever. There were never any boys in there besides me. It wasn’t that boys weren’t allowed. But I was intrigued. A whole house where you could go inside and play. I can’t remember exactly what we played, but I do recall the girls and I had some lovely parties.

It was simple curiosity on my part. I wanted to know what exactly you did in a dollhouse and if it might be fun.

It was the same when I briefly took up playing with dolls. I watched girls as they cuddled and cared for their dolls. Could I be missing something? I had to find out.

So for a while, I had my own baby doll, doing all the things you’re supposed to do. I never tried breast-feeding, however. There were limits. I still saw myself as a boy trying out something new.

No one ever told me I couldn’t, except for my Uncle Johnnie, who took me fishing once and warned me against the dangers of playing with dolls. The fact that none of the other boys in the neighborhood played with dolls didn’t bother me. However, my friend Tommy’s dad—a real he-man kind of guy—sternly informed me that my dolls and I were no longer welcome in his backyard. Guess he didn’t want me infecting his sons.

The interesting thing about this episode is my discovery that there were other kinds of dolls besides infant ones. Once, playing dolls with my two girl cousins, I noticed one of the dolls had a decidedly different look about it. She had a shapely figure, with breasts! She wore high heels and a tight-fitting dress, and underneath it was a bra and girdle. Playing with this doll made me all warm and weird inside. From that day foreword, my doll-playing days were over. I had discovered sex.

As a young kid growing up in a strict Catholic family, I could only imagine sex, of course. There was only one kind of play that was forbidden to me, and that was to play with myself. You’d burn in hell if you touched yourself down there. And to play with other kids in that way was unthinkable.

But kids always find a way. They play doctor, for instance. I remember getting my first doctor set at Christmas. My first patients were the minister’s daughters across the street. I put on my stethoscope and called the first girl into my office. Her name was Barbara. She was in my class, and every day I walked her home from school. We had a thing for each other, but there was never anything physical. We were too shy to even hold hands. But that day, she did something unexpected. She took off her blouse, baring her naked chest for examination. I took one look and nearly fainted. Then, sputtering an excuse, I grabbed my doctor set and ran home. It took me many years before I could look at a girl’s bare chest again.

When not playing dolls or doctor, I played with toy guns. Six-guns, derringers, rifles, shotguns—I loved them all, especially my tommy gun. You pulled back its bolt and it made a high decibel rat-tat-tat that was music to my ears and drove everyone crazy. I’d run from room to room, firing off my gun and mowing down imaginary enemies until some relative would yell, “Get outta here, you’re driving me crazy!”

Growing up on westerns and war movies, guns were always part of my childhood. Later, there were BB and pellet guns, with which I shot starlings and other unfortunate creatures. For a brief time, I even played with real guns, plinking at tin cans in the woods, until I outgrew them.

All through my teens, I loved to take long solitary hikes, imagining myself a mountain man. I would pack a knapsack and strap on a fearsome-looking hunting knife, trekking down my suburban street as if setting off for the wilderness. In those days, while you weren’t allowed to walk down the street with a real gun on your hip, no one gave a second thought to a kid packing a Bowie knife in plain view.

Numerous studies have pointed to the importance of play in childhood. Kids will always play, though in new and different ways. In the future, they won’t need sticks or toy guns anymore, when they can just touch the screen on a computer and make whatever 3D-printed object they desire. They won’t need dolls, when they can act out their fantasies with realistic robots of any age or sex. They won’t need an imagination when they can step into a virtual reality holodeck and set the controls for whatever place and time period they wish to visit. It’s a good thing those things weren’t around when I was growing up. I never would have come out.

Meanwhile, I feel a sudden urge to go out and play, maybe dig a big hole. Too bad I live in an apartment.

 

Sex Toys After 50

DSCN0535The cover headline said it all: “Best. Sex. Ever!” You might think it was an issue of Cosmo, but this was the latest AARP The Magazine. Though confused by the punctuation, I was hooked, especially by the subtitle: “Even in Your 70s—We Show You How.”

Excitedly flipping to page 56, however, I found no steamy pictures of attractive people enjoying sex or detailed instructions on exotic sexual positions. Instead, I found a frank discussion of popular questions by AARP “sexpert” Dr. Pepper Schwartz “about how to stay frisky after 50.” I did find the tip on sex toys mildly interesting, which noted that the Rabbit, the Revel Body Sonic Vibrator, and the We-Wibe “are all said to satisfy consistently.”

Well, I’m no “sexpert,” but I do consider myself a frisky kind of guy. After diligent, trial-and-error experimentation over the years, my equally frisky wife and I have found a few sexual toys of our own. You might want to give these a try.

As far as we’re concerned, forget the rabbit. For hours and hours of amusement, nothing beats a little rubber ducky in the bedroom. I’m not talking about those fancy battery-powered models—the kind that swim around in your tub and quack back at you—just a plain old yellow ducky that squeaks when you squeeze it. (This last part is particularly important. It’s amazing what a little squeak can do for your orgasms.) Just imagine all the pleasures you can bring to your partner with the loving application of a little ducky. For added enjoyment, try lubricating your ducky, or have it whisper naughty little things in your partner’s ear.

Still have that old Slinky toy lying around? Remember how it could magically move down a flight of stairs, end-over-end, and you’d run back up and let it go again all afternoon, never tiring of it? (OK, some of us are easily amused.) Well, forget the stairs. That same old Slinky can also perform tricks in the bedroom. Let it run down the gentle incline of your partner’s spine, seductively stretching and reshaping itself. You never know quite where it’ll end up.

Maybe you grew up playing with plastic dinosaurs. Maybe you still do. Well, why not bring those models into the bedroom for some Mesozoic love play? Use your little dinos as surrogate lovers to act out your most primitive fantasies. Just imagine the squeals of delight as your Tyrannosaurus gently nibbles your partner’s neck.

Maybe you played with dolls instead. Take it from us. That old Barbie and G.I. Joe can do wonders for your sex life. (Though boys usually preferred the G.I. Joe, I suspect many would have preferred the Barbie, if given a chance. How else is a boy to learn about the female anatomy? Then again, you really can’t learn much about a real female body from a Barbie.) If you tend to be shy, repressed, or lacking in imagination, dolls can be especially useful. Have Barbie and the little soldier act out new scenes and positions. Dress Barbie in a leather bra and panties and give her a whip. Have G.I. Joe, wearing his usual camouflage undies, try to fend her off, with flowers or maybe a bazooka. If you’re into kinky, dress G.I. Joe in a short pink miniskirt and Barbie as Spiderman. The possibilities are endless.

While I can’t guarantee these toys will satisfy everyone, they might help you loosen up a bit. They might even bring a little laughter to the bedroom, which is not a bad thing. Best of all, you don’t have to visit a sex shop to buy them. You probably have a few in your closet or basement. Or steal them from your kids. They shouldn’t be playing with sex toys anyway.

You can read AARP article by Dr. Pepper Schwartz here: http://www.aarp.org/home-family/sex-intimacy/info-2015/sex-questions-libido-stds-schwartz.html

 

How I Lost Miss Maine

DSCN0535For the record, I never really had Miss Maine. As relationships go, the time I actually spent with her was short. But for a brief glorious time, she liked me and I liked her. Did I mention she had been a Miss America contestant?

I’m not going to describe her to you. I can’t even remember her name. In a word, she was gorgeous, the kind of woman you can’t help but ogle as she walks across the room. But she was personable and intelligent, not at all like the doe-eyed, dumb stereotype of beauty contestants.

It was late in my senior year at college, and I was grabbing some lunch in the cafeteria when a female friend came up to me and whispered in my ear. “She’s new in our dorm,” pointing at Miss Maine, who for the purpose of this narrative I’ve now decided to call Doris. “She noticed you and wants to be introduced.” Apparently, I was not looking my usual wasted self. I shot a glance across the cafeteria and tried to look cool.

As I recall, we had a couple of dates and that was it. I graduated shortly thereafter and landed a residential teaching job at a private school in Connecticut. In addition to my teaching duties, I had a dorm full of teenage boys to look after. There was a big dinner and dance for all the students, and since faculty members were expected to attend, I decided to give Doris a call and see if she wanted to go. Amazingly enough, she said yes.

I picked her up at my alma mater, where she was now a senior, and brought her back to my school. It was early, so we went up to my room in the boys’ dormitory and had a couple of stiff drinks before dinner. During my senior year, I had taken up drinking in a big way, but now it was a full-blown avocation, especially during awkward social events as this night was turning out to be. A couple of times during the dance, we snuck back to my room for some more refreshments. I did not notice or care that she was not matching my intake.

What happened after the dance remains hazy. Suddenly we were back in my room, where after refusing my offer of a nightcap, she informed me in no uncertain terms that I was too shit-faced to drive her back to campus. Like a drill sergeant, she instructed me to climb into bed. Then she turned off the light and undressed, donning one of my shirts as a nightie. My kind of woman, I thought to myself. Just like that, I had achieved the goal I had long desired.

Alas, my night of passion was not to be. As I tried to snuggle up and put on my best night moves, she pushed me away with surprising strength. “You’re going to sleep it off for a couple of hours,” Doris insisted. There in the darkness, I dimly perceived the absurdity of my situation. Here I was—a lusty twenty-two-year-old lying next to a beautiful woman, and I was powerless to do anything about it. After making one last futile pass, I gave in to sleep. A few hours later, I was sober enough to drive her home in silence.

And what did I learn from this lesson? Nothing. I was still twenty-two and stupid. I confess there were many more such events in my life, though none so poignant as that dark, unfulfilled night. Fortunately, I am here to report that no one died as a result of my wasted youth, including me.

These days, though I still enjoy kicking back with a couple of glasses of wine after dinner, gone is my need to get hammered. Sometimes I catch myself looking back fondly on those old recreational drinking days, while at the same time wincing at the physical and emotional agonies they brought. I think of all the people done in by drinking and driving, and I am quietly thankful. There, partly out of sheer dumb luck but mostly for the grace and good sense of fellow travelers, go I. Thank you, Doris, wherever you are.

(Note: This piece marks the start of my new column “The Absurd Life.” Look for a new piece here every other Friday. If it’s not here, you can send me a polite comment to please get off my ass and write something. We writers need all the help we can get.)

The Belly Button Man: A Business Fable

AN TransparentHis only dream was to sell belly buttons. Admittedly, it was a difficult sell when there was no demand for the product. It was a long time ago, when people still came into the world with no belly buttons. Indeed, so long ago was it that people had not even learned to laugh. The only laughter in the land was from the hyena and the mocking call of the jubal bird.

People still cried, however, and there was plenty to cry about. But you don’t need a belly button for crying.

The world was filled with stony faces, streaked with tears. People went about their lives each day, performing their duties, and that was that. Things were either sad or not sad, with no in between.

The salesman first heard about the invention from a sailor in the Weeping Dragon Tavern. With many drinks under his belt, the sailor slumped over the bar. Suddenly his shoulders began to convulse. He raised his head and looked at the salesman. The sailor’s mouth started to upturn in a most peculiar fashion. Then he broke out into a strange cry. It started with a series of high-pitched twitters that slowly rose in volume to something that sounded more like the grunts, howls, and choking sounds of some great beast. No one in the tavern had ever heard such a sound before. The sailor began shaking so hard he looked as if he might die. But he just shook his head and pulled up his shirt, pointing to a little spot in the middle of his belly that looked like a button. Then he passed out.

For a long while, the salesman sat and pondered what he had seen. There was something about that sound. It all had to do with the button—a strange-looking thing, though not unattractive. Maybe other people would want one, too. From that moment on, the salesman knew exactly what he must do.

Relentlessly he traveled the world, knocking on one door after another. To the sobbing or stony-faced person who opened the door he would say, “Good day, my sad fellow. May I interest you in a bright new belly button?” And then he would open his large black carrying case to show off the hundreds of different kinds of belly buttons he offered.

But, even though the salesman promised free installation and a ninety-day guarantee, and even though his brand of belly buttons were the finest made, not one of the sad people ever bought one. For the reason belly buttons had been invented was to hold a person’s belly in place while laughing; otherwise, during a belly laugh, or even a hard chuckle, people’s bellies would start to come undone, with regrettable consequences. But because people had not yet learned how to laugh, there was still no need for such buttons.

The salesman tried everything. He offered free home trials. He offered big discounts. He gave out coupons. But not a one could he sell.

He tried repackaging the belly buttons to make them seem more attractive. He offered them, both innies and outies, by the dozen, in assorted sizes and colors, and gave away a free belly button brush with each box. On his very best models he promised a lifetime guarantee. Still no sales.

Then he thought, maybe he needed to change the way he looked. So he dressed up in a clown suit, put on an orange wig and funny hat, and painted his face with purple polka dots. When someone opened the door, he threw confetti in the air and, while squeezing a bicycle horn, shouted, “Hooray, the belly button man is here!” Still nothing.

The salesman, now desperate, changed his whole sales pitch in ways that would have raised a few eyebrows back at corporate headquarters. Instead of just opening his case and showing off his belly buttons, he tried juggling them—sometimes thirty or forty at a time—while riding a pink unicycle. Still nothing.

Finally, the salesman got so depressed over not making any sales that at the next house he rang the bell and just stood there, not knowing what to do. When another stony-faced person answered the door, the salesman broke into a sob, relating every miserable detail of his story while displaying his useless merchandise.

The stony-faced person listened without saying a word. Something about the salesman’s story touched him in a new way. It was more than sad. It was pathetic. Trying to sell something for which there was no need, well, it was absurd. For a moment he thought he was going to cry. But he felt different somehow. Suddenly his mouth began to do strange things. Slowly it turned upward like a crescent moon and began to open. His eyes gleamed with an inner light. Then the man felt a strange twinge. It gurgled up his throat like a trickling spring and came out as a chuckle. He started to laugh and guffaw, until from deep inside him there erupted a laugh like a geyser that quite nearly blew his belly apart.

“Quick!” he yelled to the salesman. “Give me a dozen of your best belly buttons. I’ll give you anything you want!”

From that day forward, people started laughing at all kinds of things, sometimes so hard that they felt their bellies might burst. So, of course, they all suddenly needed belly buttons to hold themselves in place, for matters of both safety and public decorum. The salesman, who later became a great motivational speaker, had no more trouble selling them. He sold so many to people all over the world, in fact, that today belly buttons are far more common in households than encyclopedias or vacuum cleaners, and need no longer be sold door to door.

Author’s Note: Read this and other absurd essays and tales in my new book The Absurd Naturalist, available from Amazon  http://www.amazon.com/The-Absurd-Naturalist-Irreverent-Musings/dp/1502977281

Published in 5enses April 2015  http://www.5ensesmag.com/the-bellybutton-man-a-business-fable/

“On Getting Rid of Nature” by the Absurd Naturalist

Absurd Naturalist3As a naturalist, I’m supposed to study nature, though it’s hard to know where to start. It’s all so nebulous and confusing. So I propose that we get rid of nature completely. I am referring here, of course, to the word, not the thing itself. Despite the plethora of books published with smug titles such as The End of Nature and despite the efforts of dedicated despoilers around the globe, the complete termination of nature is nowhere near as easy as it sounds.

We all know what nature is. Or do we? Does your definition of nature include slime molds? Bat ticks? Lizard scat? How about that disgusting sound Uncle Ralph makes after dinner? Or Uncle Ralph himself?

Does it include time and the curvature of space? Quantum energy, quasars, and quesadillas? Does it include Big Bang, Big Bird, and bigamy?

Suffice it to say, it is all these things and more—anything and everything in the entire known universe, not to mention all the unknown universes.

One nice thing about being a naturalist is that you never need to worry about running out of material. Indeed, nature is material, and all the energy wrapped up in it.

By now you have probably noted that I don’t capitalize the word nature. Those who do so are beyond hope.

When we try to put a spin on nature, things get even more befuddled. There are almost as many quotations for the n word as there are for life, truth, and God. Thus, we find writers down through the ages referring to nature as a kind parent, but a merciless stepmother; a diseased thing from the grave, but also the art of God; too noble for the world, but equaling the stupidity of man. And we are told that nature does nothing uselessly, never deceives us, never makes blunders, and that all of its models are beautiful.

Oh, please. Have you ever taken a good hard look at a platypus? Or an aardvark? Or even your own belly button? Can such a nature be trusted? And when I hear about quarks, muons, and hadrons, pulsars, hyperspace, and imaginary time, killer asteroids and mass extinctions and the vagaries of continental drift, I cannot help but think that here lies a nature out of control.

Though I might excuse an 18th century poet like William Wordsworth for writing something so fatuous as: “Come forth into the light of things/Let Nature be your teacher,” naturalists should know better. Yet there are some today who, while poking about in ant hills or contemplating bear dung, still insist that by studying nature closely we might learn more about its inner workings and come to understand its overall scheme of things.

Poppycock! What can we possibly learn from a nature that spends over 135 million years developing dinosaurs in every shape and color and then, for no apparent reason, makes them all go extinct so that today children have nothing but plastic models to play with? Is this the sort of role model you want teaching your kids?

And what kind of order is it that gives us brains big enough to invent H-bombs, CD’s, and silly putty, but denies us what we really want—which is wings—and instead gives them to houseflies, flying fish, and even fruit bats?

In fact, the more scientists discover about this supposed nature teacher of ours, the stranger it becomes. We are told that nothing is as it seems, that everything is relative, and that someday the universe may get all squished together again, unless it keeps expanding forever, which is fine by me. Indeed, nature is not only strange, it’s more ridiculous than the human mind can ever comprehend.

We need a more realistic term, elegant but concise—a word that says exactly what we mean and won’t be put up on a pedestal. I propose the word “stuff.” Say it softly and let your lips linger on that final “fffff” sound. What better way to capture all the bounce and fluff of our weird wild universe? Now say it loudly and let it echo through your head with primordial force. STUFF! Now go back and say “nature.” See the difference?

Thus, nature study would become simply stuff study. Cereal companies would label their products 100% all stuffy. Mother Nature—whoever she is—would become Mother Stuff. And naturalists would become stuffalists.

On second thought, maybe we should stick with the old word for now.
                                                     ©Gene Twaronite 2014

Originally published in 5enses August 2014  http://www.5ensesmag.com/on-getting-rid-of-nature/

For Their Own Good

The last big extinction event on earth was around 65 million years ago, when a giant asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs along with much of the rest of life on earth. During the last few centuries, however, hundreds of species have vanished as a direct result of human activity, and the rate is accelerating. While not as messy or sudden as an asteroid, our hairy ape species seems hell-bent on creating the next big wave of extinctions.

According to one website, the total number of species known to be threatened with extinction is nearly 17,000. Since we still don’t even know how many species of plants and animals there are on this planet—it could be three million or ten million—this number likely represents only a tiny fraction of the true number.

Some animals are so critically endangered that it’s hard to see how they’re going to make it. Take rhinos, for example. According to the website “savetherhino.org,” black rhinos have plummeted from an estimated population of 65,000 in 1970 to just 5,055 today. Asian species are even worse off, with numbers only in the hundreds.

But try telling this to the millions of people who still believe that powdered rhino horn can cure everything from cancer to foot fungus, despite there being not a shred of scientific evidence that it serves any medical purpose at all. Powdered rhino horn is still an integral part of traditional Chinese pharmacy, and can fetch tens of thousands of dollars per kilogram. Against this irrational belief the rhinoceros stands little chance.

Desperate times require desperate solutions. Merely creating new regulations or preserves won’t cut it anymore. Namibia, for example, was the first country to use “dehorning” as a means to protect their rhinos from poaching. On the face of it, it sounds pretty disgusting. What’s a rhino without its horns? But maybe it’s for their own good. Indeed, ever since Namibia began its program, no rhinos have been poached, though other countries have been less successful with this approach. Since the horns grow back over time, the rhinos have to be regularly monitored and dehorned every 12-24 months. For the Namibians, however, a rhino without horns is better than no rhino at all.

Recently a turtle conservancy in California employed a similar technique with two of its rare ploughshare tortoises, valued by exotic animal collectors for their beautiful golden domed shells. So essentially they disfigured their shells by branding them with identification markers that will make them both easier to track and less appealing to collectors, who will often pay tens of thousands of dollars for an unblemished tortoise. In all, they hope to brand all of the less than 700 specimens still alive in the world. Other rare tortoise species are likewise being uglified.

Perhaps this idea of removing the source of the problem, be it a horn or a beautiful shell, could be applied to other animals. Simply remove the tusks from elephants, for example, to keep them from being poached for ivory. They won’t like it very much, but it’s for their own good. Similarly, animals killed for their horns or antlers, such as the Saiga antelope, Asian red deer, and certain species of wild cattle, might just have to lose those appendages in order to be saved.

Unfortunately, such an approach wouldn’t work with some species, such as endangered tigers. Since each of their body parts right down to the bones are valued for traditional folk medicine, it would be difficult to know where to start. On the other hand, with musk deer, which are killed for their musk glands, surgical removal of the gland in question just might work. And animals killed and threatened for their fur, such as spotted cats, fur seals, and South American otters, could be regularly sheared, which is probably a lot more difficult than it sounds. While the prospect of a bunch of naked jaguars and otters running around is not exactly appealing, again it is for their own good.

Of course, if we wish to remove the real source of the problem, perhaps we should start with us. Our human population of over 7 billion is projected to reach 9.6 billion by the year 2050. This means that an additional two and half billion people will require more land, food, water, and other resources, with less room for other living things. If you think things are bad now, just wait. Ironically, this is not only bad for other species, but for us as well. As species go extinct, we will lose a host of natural products used for real medicines, food, and building materials, along with the vital services that wild plants and animals provide, including air and water purification and pollination of our food crops. So I propose that every fertile human being on the planet undergo a little operation—a much simpler one than removing musk glands or rhino horns—to keep each of us from reproducing again. Maybe someday, when human numbers have returned to less harmful levels, we could allow a few of us to breed under carefully controlled conditions—just enough to maintain the gene pool. Some of us might not like it very much, and achieving this goal will not be easy. But it’s for our own good.
                                                    ©Gene Twaronite 2014

Originally published in 5enses June 2014  http://www.5ensesmag.com/for-their-own-good/

 

The Unspeakable

A writer must follow the truth wherever it might lead, even at the risk of losing all self-respect. It was never my intention to write about this subject, but it is one that cannot be ignored. I speak here of a simple unit of speech that can never be spoken in polite company. Yet it is a playful word that causes me to smile whenever I say it. Ripping off the tongue in the same delightful way it emanates, it is so much more fun to pronounce than other words of harsher sound and meaning that still intrude upon even the politest of conversations.

While it never made it into George Carlin’s famous “Seven Dirty Words” list, the word is still considered vulgar by Webster’s. It refers to the expulsion through the anus of intestinal gas or flatus. (Flatus, on the other hand, is perfectly acceptable to say in most social gatherings, though you don’t hear it a lot).

I find it curious that a word, whose alternate definition—“to break wind”—sounds almost poetic, could ever be labeled vulgar.

Of course, that which is deemed unspeakable readily becomes the butt of our jokes. As Carlin noted, “Anything we all do—and never talk about—is funny.” Such jokes pale in comparison, however, to the actual physical process. Nothing can so up end a discussion and set people to tittering as the unexpected, noisome release of a little flatus. A former teacher colleague used to deal with this problem whenever it erupted among his seventh grade students (who, as a group, are particularly susceptible to fits of tittering and releases of flatus) by stating in a casual voice: “What’s the big deal? It’s only air!” But as we all know, this is simply not the case.

The air we breathe today is composed primarily of nitrogen and oxygen, with lesser amounts of argon, carbon dioxide and water vapor. Billions of years ago, however, the earth’s atmosphere more closely resembled that mixture of gases—hydrogen, methane, and carbon dioxide—produced in our bowels as a result of bacterial decomposition. Presumably, if there had been anyone around back then to pass judgment on such matters, the expulsion of this flatus would not have been considered unspeakable. No more so than the release of marsh gas that bubbles up without so much as a titter from the rotting vegetation of countless pond and lake bottoms.

But human bottoms are not supposed to bubble like the rest of nature, at least not in public. We humans have never been comfortable with this rotting business. We prefer not to acknowledge any connection between the foods we put in our mouths and those horrid, gas-producing beasties that lurk within our guts. Far better to ignore the incessant whispering of a darker and cruder nature hidden from our view.

I have always suspected that this is what inspired horror story writer H.P. Lovecraft to create one of his most loathsome supernatural monsters: Hastur the Unspeakable. An elemental creature of the air, it was always breaking out unexpectedly upon this sane and proper world of ours with most regrettable consequences.

Cosmic monsters aside, however, in every mortal being a little flatus must form. When the level becomes excessive, the condition is referred to as flatulence. Some of us, because of heredity or diet, can produce quantities of gas bordering on the supernatural. The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy mentions one study that “noted a patient with daily flatus frequency as high as 141, including 70 passages in one 4 hour period.” Hastur, I presume?

Like death and taxes, flatulence is impossible to avoid. Some might try to avoid eating foods high in indigestible cellulose, such as cabbage, beans, whole-grain products, and many fruits and vegetables, which result in large amounts of hydrogen being generated in the intestines. Yet many doctors are now recommending such high fiber foods in order to help prevent colon and rectal cancer, diverticulosis, and even constipation. We might finally have to admit that, in essence, our species is still tied to crude chemical and biological processes, and that which we now call unspeakable by any another name would smell as sweet.
©Gene Twaronite 2014

Originally published in 5enses May 2014   http://www.5ensesmag.com/not-so-ghastly-emanations/

Selfies from Mother Nature

Ever since the Oxford Dictionary people proclaimed “selfie” as the word of the year for 2013, I’ve been struggling to find a way to use it in one of my essays. It would not be my first choice. As a word, it has all the charm of that scummy ring of hairs at the bottom of your bathtub drain. But in writing, as in life, sometimes one just has to go with the flow.

So I got to thinking about what kinds of photo self-portraits old Mother Nature would post, assuming she even had a smartphone. They might go something like this:

Here I am sitting by a tidal pool at the start of it all—over three and a half billion years ago—when life first appeared on this planet. Welcome to my kitchen. They’re too tiny to see now, but in these waters chains of complex molecules are slowly coming together. Wait till you see what they become.

And here I am at the bottom of the sea during what you humans call the Cambrian Period. It was one of my favorite times, when the diversity of living things on this earth literally exploded. The creature in my hand may look like a horseshoe crab, but it’s actually a kind of trilobite. Paleontologists have discovered over 20,000 different species from every continent. Must confess, I got a bit carried away with the cute little critters. They were the first animals with complex eyes. They ruled the seas for nearly 300 million years, and then they were gone. Oh well, time to move on.

Here’s me riding a Triceratops—yippee, ride ‘em, cowgirl! We’re nearly at the end of the Mesozoic Era when dinosaurs of every description ruled the earth. I have a little surprise for them.

You see this big shadow where I’m standing? I’m on what humans will later call the Yucatán peninsula of Mexico. It’s going to get dark around here real fast. That’s because a huge asteroid is directly overhead and just about to strike the earth. When that puppy hits, all those dinosaurs will be history. Have to admit, I hate to see them go. But 165 million years is long enough. Out with the old, in with the new, I say.

Here I am at the beach under clear blue skies again. Boy, my “little” asteroid sure made a mess of things. Couldn’t see the sun for years. It got so cold I had to put on my woolies. But it’s over now, and we’re at the beginning of the Cenozoic Era. OK, I admit, there were a lot of casualties besides the dinosaurs. Over three quarters of all living things on earth went extinct. Evolution is a messy business, and sometimes you just have to hurry things along a little. But fortunately I still have plenty of stuff to work with. See my squirrel-like animal friend here? He doesn’t look like much. But he and his warm-blooded kin are about to become the next big thing. Humans sometimes refer to this era as the Age of Mammals, but it could also be called the Age of Flowers. Just look at the beautiful magnolia in back of me.

I’m standing at the edge of Grand Canyon, one of my most sublime creations. It gets more hits on Facebook than Madonna or Justin Timberlake, whoever they are. It still amazes me after all these years what you can accomplish with a little uplift and erosion. I don’t much cotton to politicians, but there was one by the name of Teddy Roosevelt who said it best: “Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages (that’s me) have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.”

Here’s Lucy and me lakeside in what humans now call Ethiopia. She doesn’t know it yet, but she’s going to be famous someday. Smile for all your future followers, Lucy. There, I got it—great one. She’s not much for words, but she’s one of the earliest humans. Soon she will die—sorry, Lucy—for life was very hard back then, especially if there’s a big cat like the one over there that’s about to eat you. In about 3.2 million years, give or take a month, human scientists will discover some of her bones and go gaga over them. 

Think I’ll go online to check out what pix you humans are posting these days. Oh dear—what is that? It looks like somebody’s… Gross! And there’s more. After all these years I thought there was nothing that could shock me. I was wrong. What are you people thinking?  Hmmmm.… maybe it’s time for another asteroid.            

                                               ©Gene Twaronite 2014        

Originally published in 5enses April 2014   http://www.5ensesmag.com/selfies-from-mother-nature/

Land of the Solitary Ascidian

Goose In an article on nature writing, author David Rains Wallace once wrote that “the most daunting challenge facing nature writers today is not travel but data. Someone has to translate information into feelings and visions.”

Thus inspired, I set off on a collecting trip not to some far off corner of the globe but to the musty shelves of a nearby college library. (Yes, I could have done this at home, but for the true bibliophile nothing can match the sheer adventure of wandering through towering rows of books.) There, beneath the covers of the latest science journals, I hoped to “discover” new data that I could translate for my readers.

Hacking my way through the jargon jungle of the specialists, however, I quickly came to appreciate what Wallace meant by “daunting challenge.” Right off I knew there might be trouble ahead when the first article encountered in The Biological Bulletin was entitled:“Aggregation and fusion between conspecifics of a solitary ascidian.” Suddenly I felt far more alone than any solitary ascidian. About all that I managed to ascertain from the article was that this was the first time such a thing had ever been reported, and that the frequency of fusion between contacting (and presumably consenting) specimens was 20 percent. Also, that the fused animals had their outer membranes on at the time, unlike the unfused ones (which could have considerable significance if you’re a solitary ascidian).    

Charting a new course, I proceeded along the provocative pathways of the London journal, Animal Behavior. Its author left plenty of good leads for me to follow such as: “Do digger wasps commit the Concorde fallacy?” I’ve committed a few fallacies myself, but this one sounds like one of the cardinal sins. And how could one not want to know more about: “The responses of dark-bellied brent geese to models of geese in various postures”? My mind started racing with possibilities, and I found myself wondering exactly what kinds of postures those researchers were showing the poor geese. Alas, only three positions were shown: head up, head down, and extreme head up. The last one I found extremely disturbing, though I’m not a goose. The geese, by the way, considered the head down model most attractive. I disagree.    

Another London journal, Annals of Botany, led me to a romantic sounding place with its title: “Alnus Leaf Impressions from a Postglacial Tufa in Yorkshire.” I found myself yearning to go there and sit on a nice soft tufa while soaking in the countryside.    

It was in the physical science journals that I really began to go astray. Several articles in the Journal of Atmospheric Sciences sent troubling images through my brain.  What is one to make of the title: “On the Interpretation of Eddy Fluxes during a Blocking Episode”? Does this sound like football or is it just me? While the article entitled: “Improving Spectral Models by Unfolding Their Singularities” left me trying to imagine what a spectral model—especially a “maximally truncated” spectral model—might look like with its singularities unfolded.    

The visions became even worse in the Physical Review. Why, for instance, upon reading the seemingly straightforward title: “Interactions of H and H- with He and Ne” did I suddenly think of the old movie Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice? And why did the article entitled: “Hydrogen atom in the momentum representation” leave me thinking of some weird body-building pose?    

I finally lost my way entirely in the Geological Society of America Bulletin. Oh, it started off innocently enough with a “Crab Bitten by a Fish from the Upper Cretaceous Pierre Shale.” I’m sure there’s a story there, but that’s when I should have turned around. But, feeling adventurous, I went further, becoming hopelessly mired in the title: “Progressive Metamorphism from Prehnite-Pumpellyite to Greenschist Facies in the Dansey Pass Area, Otago, New Zealand.” In spite of my predicament I must admit it was a fascinating world with all kinds of lovely creatures like “Mesozoic graywackes” and “prehnite-pumpellyite facies.” For a time I even managed to keep up with the author until he suddenly went around a bend and left me all alone with: “progressive textual modification ranges from massive, nonfoliated greywacke, semi-schist, to thorough-going laminated quartzo feldspathetic schist.”

Dazed and confused, I straggled on home. I’ll leave that for some other nature writer to translate into feelings and visions.                                                                                                                                                    ©Gene Twaronite 2014                                                Originally appeared in 5enses March 2014   http://www.5ensesmag.com/land-of-the-solitary-ascidian/