Thursday, January 28, 2010

Is your life's path determined at 17?

(The choices that young people need to make are daunting, and possibly made too early.)

When we were kids, I distinctly remember asking my younger brother what he wanted to be when he grew up.  We were sitting on the basement stairs at the time, so he looked around the basement, and answered: "A clothes dryer".  I laughed at him, and attempted to explain that was impossible.  He was a young human being and when he grew up he would just be an older human being, but what would he do for a job as an adult?  I'm sure he didn't understand my logic at the time.  But I have often wondered at the perspective that allowed this young boy to think that he could become a mechanical, inanimate object later in life.

Last night, I had a drink with four of my former undergrad students, all of whom will be graduating in May.  The conversation focused mostly on what they would be doing after graduation.  They are all very bright students and they had been applying to various grad schools around the country.  Should I work on population ecology modeling with Professor X at Penn State or on a topic somewhat less mathematical with Professor Y at University of Georgia?  Should I study fish management at Oregon State or do a study on white-tailed deer at Ohio State?  Should I work on obtaining a M.S. degree now, or go straight for the Ph.D.?  Should I become a clothes dryer or an upright vacuum sweeper?  The conversation with my brother from more than 50 years ago came streaming back into my head.  Was the topic of last night really all that different?

Perhaps the reason I feel somewhat apprehensive about the topic of our beer banter was because I am not at all sure that I would follow the same path again in my professional life, knowing what I know now.  I would likely not go into academia, would not get a Ph.D., and would not have focused so intently on wild animals and ecology as I did.  The details of my thinking will eventually end up in another blog; those details are not germane to my point here.  I have the benefit of hindsight, and these young people do not.  They are pursuing what they THINK will make them happy, but they can not possibly know for sure until after they have spent many more years working on degrees, getting a position, and working at that job for some time.  By then, they will be in their 40s, and it will be tough to turn back.  "You rolls the dice, and you takes your chances", as that old saying goes.

The problem is that these students haven't lived enough yet.  The world has so much to offer, and there are so many interesting challenges and opportunities.  They are bright enough and ambitious enough that they could choose any path they wanted, but they can't possibly know now about more than 1-2% of those potential paths.  They are following the logical direction based on what they chose as an undergraduate major at university.  Think about that.  A 17-year old high school senior picks a major for college based on what they think their interests are at that time, and it generally predicts their life's path for the next 40 years.  Astounding!

I'm even willing to wager my next Social Security check that if these four students did something else in the world for the next two years, that at least two of them would not proceed down the route they are now planning to take.  They might still decide to attend grad school, but the thesis topic they chose, or the major prof they selected, or the degree they pursued would be different than it will now be.  And then, their professional life would become different than it will now become.

Students who read this essay may be disturbed by these ideas, but I think they know there is some wisdom here somewhere.  And by reading this, it will probably only increase some doubts they already have.  I make no apology, because my role in life is largely to make people question.  I guess that is the teenage decision I made all those years ago.  My only advice is to realize that what you currently know or think is only a tiny fraction of all you could know or think, and you don't need to be a prisoner of those limited thoughts.  Perhaps, becoming a ball pene hammer would not be nearly as rewarding as becoming a 5/8 inch socket wrench, but you can't know the answer to that until you have tried them both.  My advice: take the time to explore, investigate, and experiment broadly before you Super Glue your life's map on your chest.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Senescence sucks: My wife now sleeps with Darth Vader (Part 7)

(This man has just been told that he will have to wear this device for the rest of his life.)

As we pick up the exciting action after my last night in the Sleep Clinic, we find DrTom with a new device prescribed by the doctor to wear while sleeping.  It is called a CPAP unit, and it looks like the apparatus one would use to breathe hostile air on a foreign planet (see photo).  The electrical unit pumps air at a predetermined pressure into the mask, which keeps your airway from collapsing during sleep.  DrTom suffers from a common ailment known as Obstructive Sleep Apnea Syndrome.  It involves a closure of the airway due to relaxed muscles that causes you to snore and to wake up gasping for air (although you seldom remember this), which prevents you from hitting the REM stage of sleep.  It is during REM that the body obtains the restorative benefits of sleep.  Prolonged periods of REM deprivation may be associated with hypertension and heart problems, and a lowered sexual drive, according to a major Harvard study.  And, when you awake in the morning, you do not feel rested.

I've now worn the darn thing for three nights, and some changes are already apparent.  My wife won't look at me when I'm sleeping now, and she won't kiss me on the cheek when she comes to bed for fear of getting her lips caught in the clips that hold the mask on my head.  The dog no longer sleeps on the bed, but he stares at me a lot, even in the dark.  I think he is afraid to come near me when I have it on.  I was always fascinated with Star Wars and Star Trek and the idea of visiting other planets with strange creatures, like Pandora in Avatar.  Already, my dreams are now focusing on that kind of adventure.  I am sure this is because of the mind-set I have after donning my space mask as I climb into bed.  When I breathe, I sound a bit like Darth Vader, so the ambiance in the dark bedroom is perfect for fantastical hallucination.  Last night I dreamed I was Luke Skywalker's father.

When I travel with the CPAP unit, which fits in a case about the size of a shoe box, it has to be carried on an airplane.  It is too sensitive to be checked.  I have a letter from the sleep doctor that I show TSA when checking in that this is a medical device, and that it should not count as one of my carry-ons. 

I can see it all now, because I had a similar situation years ago when traveling with my daughter and my infant granddaughter to California.  Amy needed to take one of those mechanical breast pumps with her so that she could bottle milk for me to feed her daughter when I babysat on the trip.  The device was about the size of a small sewing machine and it was fairly heavy; Amy carried her baby and I carried the thing.  We were traveling soon after 9/11.  When I tried to go through security, they called me aside, opened the machine and examined it with special swabs for evidence of explosives.  After all, it did resemble a small atomic device that you see in the movies.  When the test came back negative, I whispered to the young girl what the device was.  She immediately turned to her colleague who was many yards away and yelled while laughing hysterically, "Mabel, it's a breast pump."  At that instant, about 40 passengers about to board my flight turned and looked at the white-haired guy, standing there alone, holding what was obviously the object of everyone's attention.  I don't embarrass easily, but that one made my ears glow.  My daughter was one of those smiling broadly from across the hallway, but her mouth did not utter a word of explanation.

My wife, the former ER nurse, insists that I take care of myself and that I have all medical issues checked out by a physician.  I am trying to be a good patient.  So I will continue to wear the Vader mask, to dream of faraway places and adventures, to frighten the dog, and to deal with security issues at the airport.  What worries me most is that I know from listening to them sleep at night that both my wife and my black lab also suffer from sleep apnea.  It is just that when they are both fitted with their CPAP masks, there will not be enough electrical outlets near the bed to go around.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Homage to Amelanchier

(A flowering Juneberry in May at DrTom's.)

One of the required trees to learn in my field biology course was a relatively insignificant species (from a timber perspective) called Juneberry, or shadbush, or serviceberry. It has several common names, but I am referring to the genus Amelanchier. The common species in our area is Amelanchier laevis, or smooth Juneberry. This shrub or small tree is in the rose family, and rarely gets more than 10 meters high. It flowers in May when the American shad (a fish) used to run up the eastern rivers, and it bears ripe fruit in June (thus, Juneberry).

The tree was always difficult for students to identify in autumn when it contained neither flowers nor fruits, so I made a big deal of how much I loved this tree. During the semester, I often heard students say in discussing the trees they were required to know from their list, “you know the one, Gavin’s favorite tree.” I thought that by exaggerating my love for this species that they would more easily remember what I wanted them to know. But I really do love this species; it is one of my favorite trees in the eastern deciduous forest. But why?

First of all, everything about Amelanchier is attractive. The gray bark with weaves of green running through it, the finely serrated leaves, the abundant white blossoms, and the purple fruits that resemble blueberries offer much. But many open-grown specimens have a growth form that reminds me of a small tree you might see in a Japanese garden, almost like a giant bonsai tree. Based on my observations, they are slow growing, adding only a few centimeters of new growth per year. Although I have never worked the wood, it is supposedly hard and durable and was used in former times as tool handles.

Second, starting about mid-June, the fruits ripen and the show begins. So, my evening ritual (you know, scotch, cigar, binoculars, and folding chair) is often spent sitting several meters away from my favorite Juneberry. Every fruit-eating bird in the area is attracted to this offering, which, of course, is how the tree disperses its seeds. Birds swallow the fruits while they are in the tree and defecate the seeds elsewhere several minutes later. American robins, gray catbirds, veerys, and cedar waxwings are the most common visitors on my property. Lat year on June 14 the fruits were not yet ripe, but the waxwings started feeding on those fruits a couple of days before. (Are those seeds ready to be dispersed yet? Are they yet viable?) This is really curious to me and it deserves further investigation. In a few days, the branches of the tree will be moving constantly with the shifting of bird bodies intent in harvesting as much as they can as rapidly as possible.

The most interesting visitor is the yellow-bellied sapsucker, the fruit-eating woodpecker with a sweet tooth. Remember that this is the species that drills small holes in a neat horizontal line in certain species of trees (like red maples), and then visits these holes later to lick up the sweet sap that oozes from them; it may also feed on insects that are attracted to the sap. For several years, I have had a pair of sapsuckers that visit my Juneberry trees as long as there is ripe fruit available.

Gray squirrels and eastern chipmunks also love these fruits and, although I have yet to witness this, I am betting that deer mice in the genus Peromyscus climb these trees at night to eat the fruits. George Petrides writes that foxes, skunks, raccoons, and black bears also relish Juneberry fruits. They are also quite edible by humans.

I have described my hobby of thinning my woodlot for various purposes. One of the objectives has been to release this sun-loving tree to fuller sunlight along my driveway so that it flowers more profusely. There are now 14-15 specimens lining my long driveway, which provide a beautiful show of flowers in May. I usually proclaim that spring has really arrived when Juneberry is in flower. Oh, I did not mention this, but an old etymology of the third common name, serviceberry, is consistent with my proclamation of spring arrival. Pioneers are said to have used the flowering of Juneberry to know that the ground had thawed sufficiently to bury those who had died during the winter—funeral services could be held at that time.

My enthusiasm for Amelanchier has not changed over the years. About all that has changed is what used to be called “Gavin’s favorite tree” is now referred to as “DrTom’s favorite tree.” Same tree, different name.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Johnnie Walker, the kisaeng, and me

(A kisaeng party can be fun, but watch out for those raw sea slugs.)

When I arrived in Taegu, Korea in 1970, I was assigned liaison duty.  I was stationed with the 502nd Military Intelligence Battalion, and I was given two ROK intelligence offices located in separate locations in the city with which to communicate.  So, a couple of times per week I took one of our black jeeps, and Pusan, my interpreter, and I visited the military officers at these Korean units. 

I was never sure exactly what I was supposed to accomplish (a feeling I had for the entire three years I was in the Army), so we engaged in small talk only.  I guess I was hoping to learn any secrets they might tell me, which they would not, and they were hoping to learn some military secrets from me, of which I knew nothing.  Because we had zilch of a military nature we could or would discuss with one another, Colonel Shim always wanted to talk about American women and sex.  He was absolutely fascinated with the subject, and when he found out that I was married to a long-legged blond, his interest only increased.  On that subject, I DID have some intimate secrets, but they were not to be revealed under threat of death from my commanding officer, the blond general.

In our MI office, we were supposed to be "undercover".  I have never written about this, but enough years have passed that I can not imagine that it matters any longer.  Being undercover in this case meant that we pretended to be civilians who worked for the Army, which was a common arrangement in Korea in those days.  So, my colleagues and I wore civilian clothes, ate at the Officers' Club, and generally stayed to ourselves socially so as not to ever slip about the fact that we were just lowly enlisted men.  Our work often involved interviewing high-ranking commissioned officers about other military personnel who wanted a security clearance, and if these colonels and generals knew we were only buck sergeants, they would not give us the time of day.  I played the same game with the Korean officers I visited every week.

When a new American was assigned to a Korean unit, it was customary for the Koreans to throw a party for the newbie.  These parties are generally for men only, because each man is attended by a kisaeng girl, who are somewhat similar to the geisha of Japan.  At these parties, you are seated on pillows on the floor in front of a low table covered with a cloth that nearly reaches the floor.  Food and drink are served, with the kisaeng girls anticipating your needs, and there was a small band there to play our favorite hits.  Lady Gaga would have been an incredible success at one of these events full of horny drunken Koreans who were obsessed with American sex.  She would have been lucky to have escaped with her veil.

An essential element at this social gathering was alcohol, which I was expected to bring.  In those days, American products were not so easy to come by in Korea unless you got them from a U.S. commissary.  Our office had a supply of "gifts" that we used to grease the lines of communication between Korean agencies and our office; we had a locked cabinet that was full of coffee, cigarettes, and booze.  Pusan and I brought several bottles of Johnnie Walker Red (which only cost $2 a bottle in the Officers' Club) from the official cabinet of goodies as our offering to the festivities.

Once underway, I counted about a dozen Korean officers, 6-8 kisaeng girls, Pusan, the band, and me.  In front of each of us was a plate for food, some chopsticks, and an empty shot glass.  Uh oh.  A shot glass always means trouble.  It was then that I learned the Korean etiquette that would be employed at an occasion like this.  Each Korean wanted to honor the guest of honor, me, with a drink.  So, they filled the shot glass in front of them with JW, and passed the drink to the guest with their right hand, which was accepted with the right hand, and then watched as the guest threw back the drink.  As the guest, I did the same to them.  But can you see the ratio problem with which I was confronted?  There were about 10 of them passing me shot glasses and only one of me passing the drinks back, after I had swigged mine.  Geesh.  I didn't want to offend anyone my first month in the country and upset the balance of power, or cause an international incident that would be chronicled in Stars and Stripes, or give the North Koreans a reason to invade the South, or have kisaeng girls tell the story for generations to come of the Ugly American who came for dinner and refused a drink from his host.

Needless to say, within an hour I was blottoed, stupid, banjaxed, etched, jeremied, legless, snatered, sozzled, smashed, trashed, and wasted--probably toxicly so.  I was so ripped that I got up and sang Arirang, a famous Korean folk song, with the band.  In those days, I actually knew about three verses of that classic in Korean.  It sounded pretty good to me, or so I thought.  I was so bombed that I ate a raw sea slug, which looked for all the world like a giant liver fluke.  I was so blitzed that I got the mailing addresses of four kisaeng girls to whom I promised to write every week when I returned to the states.  Did I mention that I was crocked?

I was a wreck for the next three days.  My stomach was upset, I couldn't eat, and my head felt like a star-nosed mole was living in there.  I learned later that the trick to surviving such a party is to keep a small bowl between your legs under the low table.  After the first couple of drinks, throw the whiskey in the bowl when the Korean host is not watching.  You simply have to do something to even the odds.

That party was 40 years ago.  To this day, if someone offers me Johnnie Walker, even Johnnie Walker Blue that costs $200 a bottle, I almost gag as soon as I smell the stuff.  I would recognize the taste and smell of that swill anywhere.  It is a lifelong taste aversion that will never dissipate.  But as I often say to my closest friends and relatives, a bad memory is better than no memory at all.  And that night in Taegu was not all bad.  In fact, as I pour myself a single-malt scotch now, I think I will work on a new rendition of Arirang.  You never know.  American Idol and Simon Cowell, here I come!

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

This blogger admits being on performance-enhancing drugs

(DrTom has decided to back off the steroids for a while.  None of his shirts fit anymore.)

I have described my gastroenterology experiences of late--hiatal hernia and eosinophilic esophagitis.  Part of the treatment for this condition is a drug that comes in an atomizer (Flovent) that I squirt in my mouth and then swallow.  The active ingredient is a corticosteroid.  Within days after starting this regimen I began to feel wonderfully different.

My wife noticed that I am looking more and more buff as the days pass.  I am stronger, and I have been contacted by Nike to represent them in the blogging world.  Their new line of writing clothes will have a logo of a pen and paper, instead of the Swoosh, denoting the tools of the original authors of old.  The steroid I am taking has improved my ability to think of useful words, synonyms, and metaphors, and the substance gives me an edge in a very competitive arena. I type faster and more accurately than ever, including the ability to hit that back slash with the little finger on my right hand.  Before starting this cycle of steroid, my right-hand finger could not reach past the key that has the left-facing bracket.

Am I worried about an investigation or any unannounced drug-testing of a urine sample?  Not really.  Since I began taking this drug, I only urinate outside in the woods so that the sample soaks immediately into the soil.  They will never get my urine for testing.  Also, I have no need to frequent a locker room for writers, so there is little danger of bragging to my colleagues who would probably squeal to the paparazzi like a stuffed pig.  I have no mistress who might have incriminating text messages from me, and I'm an atheist, so I don't even confess to a priest who might talk.  I have all the bases covered.

Not sure how long this euphoria will last.  And I am worried about the long-term effects of using Flovent.  One side effect is that you begin too lossE yyyour motorr skillz, buh i dubt this wila ahpoen to ee.

(1/11/09: Today Mark McGwire, the baseball home run king, announced that he used steroids for 10 years during that period of his athletic fame.  Let us note that yours truly announced here in writing nearly a week ago that he was using steroids, which would explain his much praised athletic prowess in writing blogs.)

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Does God watch the Rose Bowl?

(When you see military jets doing a fly-over during a football game, it should cause you to ask some questions.)

I watched the Rose Bowl yesterday, or as much of it as I could, because Ohio State University was in the game. I was an undergrad at OSU in the 60s, so I thought I had some sort of obligation to participate in the festivities. I watch almost no sports on tv whatsoever, but I made an exception for this one. I actually lettered for three years in tennis at OSU, so when they won the game, I guess my status ticked up a notch. I still have the scarlet and gray jacket to prove that I'm not just anti-sports.

But I was thinking about what I saw before and during the game. It is all very curious to me. We typically play the National Anthem before most high school, college, and professional sports. How did this custom ever come to be? What does this nationalistic/quasi-militaristic song have to do with sports? At about that same time yesterday in Pasadena, four military jets did a fly-over past the stadium, adding to the battlefield aura of the entire spectacle. (By the way, do the taxpayers pay for this flight time?)

And then, military veterans were prominent during the ceremonies, with the Wounded Warrior representatives in attendance. It reminded me of stories you hear about the early days of the Civil War, only in reverse. Apparently, citizens from the nearby town would come out with their picnic lunches to watch a real battle between the North and South from a hill overlooking the battlefield. Pass me a watercress sandwich, please.  But now, real soldiers come out to watch civilians battle it out on the gridiron.  (In fact, they kept referring to the game between Oregon State and University of Oregon to decide which team went to the Rose Bowl as a "civil war".)  Can it be that combat with an opposing force is so ingrained in our genetic code that we have to reenact a facsimile of it over and over again?

Religion is even incorporated into the pageantry of these sporting events. Each team, or many members of each team, usually pray to their god just before the game starts. I assume they are praying for victory over the other team. In the case of OSU and University of Oregon, I have to assume that they are each praying to the same god. Now, I don’t believe in an all-knowing, all-powerful god for one minute, but apparently these players do. Therefore, I find this pre-game prayer the most pretentious and selfish behavior I have ever seen. There are tens of millions of people on this planet struggling for survival every day of their lives, millions of babies starving to death each year, and millions more suffering from malaria, dysentery, tuberculosis, and water-borne parasitic diseases. If this god had the power to grant you the winning of a football game while he/she/it allows all this human suffering on earth, I would have to conclude that this deity was pretty sadistic.

I don’t really want to begin the new year by bashing an activity as American as a college football game. But the behaviors which humans display are not just some random actions that have no meaning or history. They all come from some place and they had, or still have, significance for us. We may have forgotten from whence they came, so this essay is simply a reminder to ponder what we see and hear. As I’ve said many times, human behavior is about as interesting as it gets. It ranks right up there with bobolinks.