Friday, September 28, 2012

Living the Wildlife

I grew up with the usual assortment of cats and dogs.  There was even a pet skunk. Yet, I wasn’t enthused about acquiring pets once I moved out on my own. I didn’t want the responsibility, and, for a few years, I successfully avoided it. Cats, however, found me. More precisely, my first cats were a gift from my sister. She was an animal lover who took in a stray cat one month before it gave birth. I found myself with two of the kittens. One of them, a Sylvester look-alike named Succotash, was with me for the next 20 years.

This parallels the broader human experience. In a general way, cats found us. While there are specific breeds of domestic cats (Persians, Himalayans, Siamese, etc.) the common domestic cat is indistinguishable morphologically from the African wildcat pictured below. It is true that domestic cats come in a riot of colors whereas all African and European wildcats are tabbies, but tabby is the most common color pattern for domestic cats, too. While often (not universally) regarded as separate species, they really aren’t. Domestic cats and wildcats can and do interbreed, and (in the case of tabbies) there is no way to tell the difference between them. A wildcat raised from a kitten will be a domestic cat. This indicates that domestication was the cat’s idea. Whenever domestication is our idea, there are quick and dramatic morphological changes as we bend the animal to our purposes by selective breeding. It seems that sometime prior to 5000 years ago – possibly 10,000 years ago – when the grain stores of newly agricultural humans started to attract rodents, cats showed up at the door to exploit them (and us). They never left.

The two cats who presently tolerate me in their home are Maxi and Mini. They inherited me from my parents 11 years ago. The cats are 13 years old. Mini is the big one. She is a waddling 20-pounder who loves being a housecat; she sometimes goes outside onto the grass for short periods, but rarely travels more than 20 feet from the house and always keeps the back door in sight. She never spends the night outside. Maxi, her littermate, is a trim 9-pounder; he loves the outdoors and prefers to spend the night outside except in the coldest of weather. Sometimes he disappears for up to three days, but then comes home hungry and tired. When Maxi does come in for the night, he demands to go out at the crack of dawn, even in a blizzard. Ignoring him doesn’t work. He will fuss nonstop for hours, so I lose less sleep by stumbling out of bed and letting him out than by not doing so. 

Maxi, as you might imagine, brings home a variety of presents ranging from birds to rabbits, often alive. More than once I have heard him at the door and opened it without looking, only to have him bring a gift inside. Once he deposited a chipmunk at my feet and went back out the door. The chipmunk scrambled off and was in my house for a week before I finally caught him and put him outside. Mini is not so ambitious. Yet, last week, when I left the slider door open for a few minutes, she came marching inside carrying a mole. It must have been a very slow mole. This is the reason I don’t install a cat door. I don’t intentionally share my home with just any critter, and I don’t doubt a cat door would invite visitors.

Some animals have gotten inside even without one. On one occasion, a pair of raccoons jimmied a screen off an open window, entered the house, went to the kitchen, opened the cabinets, found a bag of dry cat food, dumped it into a pot of water in the sink, and chowed down. That is where I found them when I came home. They weren’t neat about it either. Another time I came home at night and detected some movement out of the corner of my eye. For several minutes I couldn’t locate it. Then I spotted the source. An owl was perched atop a curtain rod. He must have come down the chimney. In a (possibly rare) moment of intelligence, I remembered that this was a nocturnal creature, so I turned on all the internal lights, opened the door, and jumped up and down in front of the owl. Eventually he became annoyed with my antics and flew out the open door into the darkness. I’ve had a bear get into my garbage and a deer go swimming in the pool, though (fortunately) neither came inside.

All of which reminds me that I need to stop at the supermarket and buy cat food, an act which demonstrates clearly who has domesticated whom.

African Wildcat

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Mixin' with Vixen

Two of the roller derby teams I follow – the NJRD and the Major Pains – had bouts last night within driving distance.  Being somewhat larger than a quantum particle, I can’t be in two places at once, so I had to choose. My pick was purely a matter of geography: Morristown was closer. There, the Major Pains in their home rink hosted the Susquehanna Valley Derby Vixens.

The Major Pains are the junior team of the Jerzey Derby Brigade league, skating their first professional bout in April of last year. They lost that match and most of the following ones, as is to be expected of a new team, but last night experience, practice, and effort all came together to produce a big win for the Pains against a formidable opponent. It was a win marred, however, by the injury of a Vixen skater in the final minutes of play.

The first few jams set the tone for the bout. #9 Baked Beanz as jammer for the Pains faced off as jammer against #1222 Toxic Avenge-Her for the Vixens. Toxic jumped into the lead but was held up on the next pass by Pains blockers Bruta Lee and River Slam, allowing Beanz to put points on the board. The Pains blocking – which was loose in the early days of the team – was tight and effective last night. Repeatedly the blockers obstructed the Vixen jammers long enough to keep the Vixen point totals down, with Pains blocker (and captain) Easthell Getty playing an especially aggressive game. Nonetheless, Vixen jammers Toxic Avenge-Her, #2 La Zorra, #6 ParaNorma, and #5:14 Dotty Deathwish showed speed and competence breaking through the Pains wall to score, and were able to keep the bout competitive through the first half. They also were able to restrain Pains point totals by getting on the heels of Pains lead jammers, inducing them to call off jams. (If any reader is lost, see video at end of Wheel Appeal for derby rules and terms: )

Vixen blockers also formed solid walls and hit hard, but the Pains now have a depth of jammers adept at exploiting any hole in an opposing defense. Baked Beanz and #57 Heinz Catchup both are good at this and are fast in the open besides. #187 Maggie Kyllanfall sometimes slips through the pack Houdini-style. All racked up points for the Pains. The one Pains jammer who has improved the most is Voldeloxx. She did well last night generally and in one power jam (when the opposing jammer is in the penalty box and so unable to score) I frankly got distracted briefly by other attractions on and off the track, and so lost count of the number of times she passed the pack; let’s just call it several.  At half-time the score was 134-51 in favor of the Pains, a commanding but not an insurmountable lead.

In the second half, the Vixens turned up the aggression while trying to make up for lost ground. The frequency of knock-downs and pile-ups increased. The Vixens were able to close some of the point gap, at least in percentage terms, but ill-timed penalties impeded their efforts. With only a few minutes left of play, Toxic Avenger-Her made an especially determined push to score for the Vixens. The effort was an inspired one but it cost her; when she reached the pack she went down hard and stayed down. The clock was stopped with 2 minutes and 41 seconds remaining. EMTs rushed in. After several minutes they removed Toxic in a gurney. Officials called the bout at that point, with a final score of 258-114 in favor of the Major Pains.

This morning on the Facebook site for the event, I see that Toxic (Brandi Heller) posted that she has a sprained neck but is otherwise OK. Glad to hear she’s alright. I and other Morristown fans want her and the rest of the Vixens back for the rematch.

Monday, September 17, 2012

“If this is coffee, please bring me some tea, but if this is tea, please bring me some coffee.” --Abraham Lincoln

The aroma from my coffee mug fills my office, and my tongue is still warm from the first sip. I prefer mine black, the same as my tea, and until the second pour I don’t really care if I can’t tell the difference.
No one knows who brewed the first cup of coffee. A charming tale of Kaldi the 9th century Ethiopian goat herder, who watched his goats dance after eating coffee berries, has been repeated since Antoine Faustus Nairon told it in a 1671 treatise on coffee, but in all likelihood coffee is far older than that. Paleo peoples roasted and brewed pretty much anything edible (and much that proved not to be), and it’s hard to imagine they would have ignored coffee plants which grew wild in parts of Africa. It is true, however, that Ethiopia is where Yemeni merchants encountered coffee drinkers in the mid-1400s. They recognized an export opportunity when they saw one. The traders’ marketing efforts were aided by the ban on alcoholic beverages in Islamic lands; coffee shops soon cropped up all over the Middle East and North Africa. By the mid-1500s, the shops were an elemental part of urban life throughout the Ottoman Empire.
It was another century before coffee invaded western Europe in a significant way, but when it did the impact was profound. We often forget just how boozy a place the West was prior to coffee. Contaminated water meant vast amounts of beer and wine were consumed instead. At the Children’s Hospital in Norwich England in 1632, for example, each child was rationed 2 gallons of beer per week. The first coffee house in London was opened in 1652 by Pasqua Rosee, an Armenian in the employ of an English merchant. Other entrepreneurs followed. In a single decade coffee houses were all the rage across Europe, taking especial hold in the Netherlands. Unlike mind-addling alcohol, coffee, according to one anonymous poem from 1674, was

That Grave and Wholesome Liquor
That heals the Stomach, makes the Genius quicker
Relieves the Memory, revives the Sad
And Cheers the Spirit, without making Mad.

Coffee houses became conference centers for European intellectuals. The abundance of sober meeting places advanced science, promoted the arts, and launched modern merchant capitalism. Joint stock companies and brokerages were formed in coffee houses and operated out of them. The Age of Coffee was the Age of Reason, of empirical science, and of the Enlightenment. It was no mere coincidence.
            Not everyone in the 17th century welcomed coffee. (When does everyone approve of anything?) London tavern owners tried to get coffee houses banned. Charles II worried about political intrigues in coffee houses and imposed burdensome taxes on coffee. There was a women’s group that presented The Women’s Petition Against Coffee, representing to public consideration the grand inconveniences accruing to their sex from the excessive use of the drying and enfeebling Liquor. Apparently their men spent so much time in the coffee houses that they were “as unfruitful as the deserts from where that unhappy berry is said to be brought.” It was all to no avail. Coffee houses prospered.
            Coffee was a matter of Empire, too. European powers, worried about their dependence on Middle Eastern sources for this precious resource, strove for coffee independence. The Dutch smuggled some cuttings out of Africa and planted them in Batavia (Indonesia). The French did the same in the West Indies and the Portuguese were the most successful of all in Brazil.
            The lure of coffee diminished in later years. In the British Empire in particular it soon found a stiff competitor in tea. Nonetheless, coffee houses retained cultural significance in much of the world at least through the much-parodied Beat Era. By the 1970s, few establishments of this type were left. I’m surprised they haven’t made more of a comeback in recent years in the US, given the rise in the legal drinking age to 21. (Starbucks makes a decent cup of coffee, but it really doesn’t count as a classic hang-out.) In the 17th century, though, coffee houses provided the right stimulant at the right time. They changed the world.
            For now, my ambitions are more modest. I’ll just pour myself a second mug and let coffee change my morning.

Coffee House Poetry from High School Confidential (1958)                    

Thursday, September 13, 2012

A Chimp off the Old Block

A perennial debate in the social sciences is the one between naturists and nurturists. At the extremes of either group you find determinists, whether cultural (nurture is everything) or biological (nature is everything). In truth, few people have all ten toes in one camp or the other; for most, the argument is over how many digits to place in each. The mostly-nurturists argue that the human mind predominately is a blank slate that can be acculturated in almost any imaginable way; the mostly-naturists, many of them now calling themselves evolutionary psychologists, argue that hard-wired predispositions acquired during the course of our species’ evolution are at the bottom of human behavior. For more than half a century the mostly-nurturists have dominated academia; the mostly-naturists never went away entirely, however, and in the past decade they have come back forcefully, especially in the published literature.

In academic disputes, as in political ones, there is a tendency for people to pick a side and dig in, selectively accepting or rejecting information depending on whether or not it reinforces our own views. Yet, it is possible, though difficult, to resist the temptation to groupthink, and to evaluate evidence more openly. In her books I, Mammal and Meet Your Happy Chemicals, Dr. Loretta Breuning manages to do that.

Breuning makes wide allowance for nurture – and, more importantly, for deliberate modification of one’s own behavior – but within the context of an inherited mammalian brain. She notes in I, Mammal that humans share with other mammals any number of hard-wired needs, drives, preferences, and fears, to the extent that “the field notes of a primatologist are eerily similar to the lyrics of a country western song.” Yet, that biological framework allows for a huge range of learned individual behaviors. In I, Mammal and in Meet Your Happy Chemicals she identifies the neurochemicals (dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins) which motivate and reward us – or just keep us going – and the all-purpose stress chemical cortisol. She even informs us how to use them to lay down new neural patterns (and thereby acquire new, and presumably better, habits) over 45 days. She emphasizes that it is not physically possible to feel happy all the time, and that sometimes we are better off feeling bad for a while rather than trying to “correct” the feeling with interventions that may work in the short term (another snort of cocaine, as an extreme example) but which are ultimately self-destructive.

I had the pleasure of meeting the author last week – and walking away with two autographed books. Dr. Breuning’s blogs appear regularly in Psychology Today (, where I frequently leave online comments. Last weekend she was at Rutgers University in nearby New Brunswick, NJ, doing some research on Robert Ardrey (best known for The Territorial Imperative). She e-mailed that she had some questions about what motivates people to belong to a third political party (as I had made it known I do), so we met for lunch at The Frog and Peach (yes, as in the classic Dudley Moore/Peter Cook skit). I hope my remarks on the subject were in some way helpful, but, either way – and whether by nature or by nurture – the company and the lunch were enjoyable.

I, Mammal and Meet Your Happy Chemicals are accessible and entertaining treatments of their subject matter. They and Breuning’s earlier book Greaseless: How to Thrive without Bribes in Developing Countries are available on Amazon.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Take Me Down to the Pair O' Dice City

Women’s roller derby returned to Morristown NJ last night with an exciting bout between the hometown Corporal Punishers of the Jerzey Derby Brigade league and Pair O’ Dice City Roller Derby, skating far from the team’s home court in Wilbraham, Massachusetts.

The Corporal Punishers have come a long way since their early days when uneven defensive play surrendered points and made scoring difficult for their own jammers. (For an explanation of derby scoring, play, and terms, see the video at the bottom of the older post Wheel Appeal: The blocking in recent games, with #333 Doom Hilda and #23 Bruta Lee at the helm, has been tight and aggressive. In addition, the team has a depth of effective jammers. #9 Baked Beanz, #57 Heinz Catchup, and #157 Maggie Kykllanfall are extraordinarily fast when in the clear, all have endurance, and all are good at exploiting holes in the pack. The Punishers needed their hard won skills last night against the challenge from Pair O’ Dice.

Maggie Kykllanfall scored the first points of the game for the Punishers. #1338 Olive R. Twisted put Pair O’ Dice on the board in the next jam. Both teams overall played tactically well, calling off jams for best advantage and threatening opposing lead jammers to keep their point totals down. Both teams blocked effectively, with Doom Hilda especially on her game, repeatedly delivering hard but clean hits – she was sent to the penalty box only a couple of times, which is actually not bad for such forceful play. #007 Neon Stiletto took more than her share of hits from Punisher blockers, but still managed to score for Dice. Throughout the first half the Punishers built up a lead that was only partly closed by a double grand slam by Olive R. Twisted; a hard block by #AK47 Assault Shaker stopped a third. The score was 74-51 in favor of Punishers at halftime.

Having gotten the measure of the Punishers in the first half, the Dice came back stronger in the second. As often happens, the skating was more rough-and-tumble in the second half as the clock becomes more of a factor in the outcome. Hard skating included a very peculiar series of alternating power jams (a power jam is when a jammer is in the penalty box, so only one team can score) with Neon Stiletto, Maggie Kyllanfall, Donny Brook, Baked Beanz, and Mega Burns each taking turns. As the clock ran down the Dice closed the gap to 3-points. Heinz Catchup added points for the Punishers, but in the final jam the outcome was still uncertain. Punisher blocking succeeded in preventing a last minute upset, and the final score was 128-119 in favor of the Corporal Punishers, very close by derby standards.

MVP for Pair O’ Dice was Olive R. Twisted, who was the most successful jammer. MVP for the Corporal Punishers was Assault Shaker who was versatile and effective as jammer and blocker.

The next home bout for the Jerzey Derby Brigade is September 22 with the Major Pains facing the visiting Susquehanna Valley Derby Vixens. I don’t intend to miss it.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Yellow Buses

The “Drive Carefully, School’s Out” posters on the roadsides once again have been exchanged for “Drive Carefully, School’s Open” posters.

The local schools opened today – I don’t know why today rather than yesterday. As it happens today, September 5, is the anniversary of the day I took my first peek inside a classroom. Preschools were virtually unknown at the time, so it was first day of Kindergarten. (On the other hand I was 4; throughout grammar and high schools I was the youngest in my class; “redshirting” was not yet fashionable; on the contrary, back then parents’ liked to see their kids skip grades.) What year? Well, let’s just say a fellow named Ike was still scratching the floors of the White House with his golf shoes. The teacher was the ominously named Miss Feare, though if I recognized any irony in that I don’t recall it, and I doubt I was capable of it.

Some 17 years later I walked away from my last class at GWU, which was on 19th century European diplomatic history. Realizing it was my last undergraduate class, I recall thinking, “I should be experiencing greater emotion than this.” Well, some landmark events we take in stride more easily than others. (Actually, I did end up taking classes after that, but not toward another degree.)

Was all of that really valuable? Is it for students now, especially considering that the cost of schools and college are about triple in real terms what they were in my days of attendance? Yes, it was valuable in a humanistic way, at least to me; I simply like having had a liberal arts education. Viewing diplomas and degrees as union cards for white collar work, however, as we tend to do these days, the answer is murkier. There are degrees that are aimed at specific careers (e.g. accounting), and these are certainly valuable economically, but most bachelor degrees are not so precisely targeted. Few people of my acquaintance work at anything resembling their fields of study. I surely don’t. (I neither opened a history shop nor demanded a living on the grounds that I could read Latin, though perhaps I missed an opportunity.) It’s not at all clear that taking on substantial debt burdens just for a degree is economically beneficial per se. College boosters point out that people with college degrees have far higher lifetime earnings on average than people without them, but that average includes all those people with the career-specific degrees (doctors, architects, civil engineers, and so on). Also, it seems likely that the kind of people who finish college are the kind of people who later do well at work – not because of the degree but because of the personal qualities that enabled them to earn it, and which they still would have without it. In strict dollars and cents terms, many of these folk might be better off joining the workforce after high school, thereby getting four extra years of full-time earnings.

Still, I’m not urging anyone to drop out – certainly not any Kindergartener on his or her first day of school. There are those humanistic benefits of education to keep in mind, and if you are of an ilk to enjoy those (and can afford them), by all means grab them. But if you’re not, maybe when 12th grade rolls around (but not before then), it’s time to do some math and make choices accordingly. Our modern cultural assumption that college always is best needs a rewrite, or at least an addendum.

“20 Years of Schooling and They Put You on the Day Shift”

The business managers for Bob Dylan (who dropped out of college freshman year, by the way)  protect his copyrights very well indeed, and no longer permit embedding most of his videos, but here is a link to view and hear Subterranean Homesick Blues on site