Best of Fish & Bicycles: Transplanting Life

Originally Published: May 17, 2011


I read an incredibly moving New York Times story this morning that’s been haunting me, and it took me a little while to think it through and figure out why.

For those who don’t have time to read the Times article, by way of summary, in the photo above, the woman in the center and her children are placing their hands on the chest of a man whom they just met.

Why?

Because when the woman’s husband, the father of those children, died a year ago of a brain hemorrhage, his heart was transplanted into that man’s body. The man had been in a hospital suffering from severe heart failure.

Mirtala Garcia laid a hand on Sebastiao Lourenco’s chest, then pressed her ear there for a moment.

“That’s my heart,” she said. “It’s still beating for me.”

I know. Wow.

If that weren’t enough, Mr. Garcia was so young and otherwise healthy that donations from his body greatly improved and/or saved the lives of a total of eight people. Mr. Lourenco received his heart, his corneas went to one or more anonymous people, his pancreas to another anonymous person, the right lobe of his liver went to an adult woman with cancer, the left lobe to a toddler with congenital liver disease, two friends of the family received a kidney each, and one lung went to a man with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis.

Makes me think of the line from It’s A Wonderful Life — “Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?” The first sentence is right on, but in this case, Mr. Garcia actually filled an awful lot of holes after he wasn’t around anymore.

So, a touching story for sure, but why was it haunting me?

Well, after some thought, as I mentioned, I realized that it had to do with the fact that I was adopted at birth, and I recognized that there are some similarities between adoption and organ donation.

Organ Donation: Amidst death and grief, a gift is given — a new lease on life for the organ recipients.

Adoption: Amidst the social trauma and emotional pain of an unplanned pregnancy, a gift is given — a chance for a baby to have a stable home with two parents who are ready to take on the responsibility of raising a child.

So, just like Mr. Garcia’s organs, I was transplanted.

I’ve never met my birth mother. Though I’ve contemplated a search many times, I’ve always balked because of all the uncertainty that I could ever find her, much less get a chance to meet her. (UPDATED June 2012: I have met her now!)

And yet, reading about how the organ recipients had a chance to meet the wife of the donor, to posthumously thank her husband and to thank her and her children, really stirred up my desire to find my birth mom.

She gave me life, after all. The least I can do is thank her.

Best of Fish & Bicycles: If Baboons Can Do It…

Originally Published: April 11, 2011


I read an absolutely fascinating article in Yes! Magazine today by Robert Sapolsky, loaded with a ton of information that I did not know about primates, full of surprises, by turns disturbing, sweet, sexy (yes, sexy!), sad, scary, and hopeful.

Disturbing

It used to be thought that humans were the only savagely violent primate. That view fell by the wayside in the 1960s as it became clear that some other primates kill their fellows aplenty. Males kill; females kill. Some kill one another’s infants with cold-blooded stratagems worthy of Richard III. Some use their toolmaking skills to fashion bigger and better cudgels. Some other primates even engage in what can only be called warfare—organized, proactive group violence directed at other populations…

Goodall and other chimp researchers have carefully documented an endless stream of murders, cannibalism, and organized group violence among their subjects…

The most disquieting fact about the violent species was the apparent inevitability of their behavior.

Sounds pretty bleak, huh?

Sweet

But all along there has been another chimp species, one traditionally ignored…Now known as bonobos, they are recognized as a separate and distinct species that taxonomically and genetically is just as closely related to humans as the standard chimp. And boy, is this ever a different ape…

Male bonobos are not particularly aggressive and lack the massive musculature typical of species that engage in a lot of fighting (such as the standard chimp). Moreover, the bonobo social system is female-dominated, food is often shared, and there are well-developed means for reconciling social tensions.

What’s that I hear? An old song I discovered via the Grateful Dead?

That’s right, the women are smarter
That’s right, the women are smarter
That’s right, the women are smarter
The women are smarter than the men today.

–Norman Span

Sexy

And then there is the sex…

Bonobos have sex in every conceivable position and some seemingly inconceivable ones, in pairs and groups, between genders and within genders, to greet each other and to resolve conflicts, to work off steam after a predator scare, to celebrate finding food or to cajole its sharing, or just because.

You know, I kinda wish I was a bonobo all of a sudden.

Then again, maybe not…

Sad

So—a wondrous species (and one, predictably, teetering on the edge of extinction).

Sometimes I really hate that fucker Charles Darwin.

But, here’s where it gets REALLY interesting.

Sapolsky proceeds to describe two troops of Savannah Baboons he observed over many years, troops that inhabited neighboring territories, troops that were typically aggressive and violent, until one day a tuberculosis outbreak, spread via the garbage from a tourist lodge, wiped out the whole troop nearest the lodge as well as most of the males from the other troop, who made early morning raids into their neighbors’ territory in order to get at the garbage from the lodge as well.

Scary

The results were that Forest Troop was left with males who were less aggressive and more social than average, and the troop now had double its previous female-to-male ratio…

The social consequences of these changes were dramatic. There remained a hierarchy among the Forest Troop males, but it was far looser than before. Aggression was less frequent, particularly against third parties. And rates of affiliative behaviors, such as males and females grooming each other or sitting together, soared. There were even instances, now and then, of adult males grooming each other—a behavior nearly as unprecedented as baboons sprouting wings.

Speaking as a male primate, that is some scary damning evidence that the very testosterone coursing through my veins is the primary cause of so much death and destruction throughout history.

And yet…

Hopeful

Female savanna baboons spend their lives in the troop into which they are born, whereas males leave their birth troop around puberty; a troop’s adult males have thus all grown up elsewhere and immigrated as adolescents. By the early 1990s, none of the original low aggression/high affiliation males of Forest Troop’s tuberculosis period was still alive; all of the group’s adult males had joined after the epidemic. Despite this, the troop’s unique social milieu persisted—as it does to this day, some 20 years [later]…

As defined by both anthropologists and animal behaviorists, “culture” consists of local behavioral variations, occurring for nongenetic and nonecological reasons, that last beyond the time of their originators. Forest Troop’s low aggression/high affiliation society constitutes nothing less than a multigenerational benign culture…

The first half of the twentieth century was drenched in the blood spilled by German and Japanese aggression, yet only a few decades later it is hard to think of two countries more pacific. Sweden spent the 17th century rampaging through Europe, yet it is now an icon of nurturing tranquility….

Is a world of peacefully coexisting human Forest Troops possible? Anyone who says, “No, it is beyond our nature,” knows too little about primates, including ourselves.

Best of Fish & Bicycles: Video Fridays: Neil Young Covers

Originally Published: April 15, 2011


I’ve written several times about my love and appreciation for the art of interpretation, especially as it applies to cover songs.

Well, today I came across a video of my favorite band, Wilco, doing a cover of a somewhat obscure Neil Young chestnut, Broken Arrow, from Neil’s days in Buffalo Springfield.

And, as is often the case with YouTube videos, watching the one video led to watching another video and so on, and so on, inspiring me to dedicate today’s Video Fridays installment entirely to Neil Young.

I discovered this first one while reading on Pitchfork about an upcoming DVD of a concert tribute to Neil Young. That DVD, with performances by Wilco, Neko Case, Dave Matthews, Norah Jones, Elvis Costello, Ben Harper, and many other top-notch artists, will be a delight for cover song lovers like myself.

It’s a real treat to see/hear this version of Broken Arrow, since I’ve always theorized that this song was the primary influence for Wilco’s Pieholden Suite, from their 1999 album Summerteeth. Both songs, as the title of the Summerteeth track suggests, are in suite form, consisting of short pieces, with changes in tempo and melody, sewn together to make one longer composition.

Remember, when you start watching, don’t get fooled into thinking that it’s the wrong video just because the first thing you hear is another Buffalo Springfield song, Mr. Soul. That’s how Broken Arrow actually starts off. The song is autobiographical, after all, exploring the experiences, stresses, and conflicts that go along with being in a famous band…a band like, say, Buffalo Springfield.

Next up, another fairly obscure song, Don’t Cry No Tears, off of Neil’s 1975 album Zuma, performed here by Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie and Jay Farrar from Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt.

Not as much to say about this one, except that I really love Farrar’s harmony vocals here.

And finally, another song from Zuma, this time the better-known epic Cortez The Killer, performed here by the Dave Matthews Band, with guest, electric guitar master, Warren Haynes.

Best of Fish & Bicycles: Lyric of the Day: Rise To Me

Originally Published: April 18, 2011


Well, for the third Lyric of the Day installment in a row, the theme that grabbed me is Love.

The source of today’s lyric, Rise To Me, from The Decemberists‘ most recent album, The King Is Dead, is just about the most beautiful song I’ve heard in a long, long time. From a musical perspective alone, the song has a lovely, simple chord progression and verse-chorus-verse-chorus-etc. composition; and the arrangement, rooted in acoustic guitar, piano, harmonica, Chris Funk‘s gorgeous, pining pedal steel guitar, and Gillian Welch‘s perfectly placed harmony vocals, provides a lush canvass for Colin Meloy‘s characteristically poetic lyrics.

So, let’s dig into those lyrics and see what’s going on here. I think you’ll agree that Rise To Me is a very powerful expression of love.

Big mountain, wide river
There’s an ancient pull
These tree trunks, these stream beds
Leave our bellies full

In this first verse, Meloy sets up an image of a maternal natural world that lovingly sustains us. And while the mountain is big and the river wide, the first chorus that follows speaks of challenges and threats.

They sing out:
I am gonna stand my ground
You rise to me and I’ll blow you down
I am gonna stand my ground
You rise to me and I’ll blow you down

The photo I’ve included above seemed to capture something of nature’s stubborn determination to stand fast in the face of challenges. While the tree may have been shaped by the wind and receding glaciers may have moved those boulders around tens of thousands of years ago, the boulders now seem unmovable, the tree still stands, green with life, and the green grass, too, seems to have decided that it will stick around as well.

With this image of steadfastness established, Meloy turns to the subject of his son Henry, who has high-functioning autism.

Hey Henry can you hear me?
Let me see those eyes
This distance between us
Can seem a mountain size

As a father of a son myself, this is the part of the song that first caught my attention. There may be nothing more painful, emotionally, than to witness your child suffer, and so it’s only natural that a parent, out of pure, primal love, might desire that their child learn from the example set by the unyielding force of nature in the first verse, so that he may be as prepared as possible for the many challenges that life will bring.

But boy:
You are gonna stand your ground
They rise to you, you blow them down
Let me see you stand your ground
If they rise to you, you blow them down

Finally, Meloy adresses his wife, wishing for her the same kind of strength and resiliency. And I can’t help speculating that there’s recognition here too that the strain of raising a child with autism can lead to strain in their marriage, and that on top of all the usual challenges most couples face, there’s hope that their relationship can stand firm.

My darling, my sweetheart
I am in your sway
To cold climes comes springtime
So let me hear you say

My love:
I am gonna stand my ground
They rise to me and I’ll blow them down
I am gonna stand my ground
They rise to me and I’ll blow them down

Reminds me, in a beautiful way, of a line from the famous sonnet:

[Love] looks on tempests and is never shaken

–William Shakespeare, Sonnet 116

Anyway, enough analysis. Here’s the band, sans Gillian Welch unfortunately, performing Rise To Me live.

Best of Fish & Bicycles: In Defense of Moss

Originally Published: April 20, 2011


I don’t know whether it’s thrilling or depressing that some local news made it on the front page (albeit below the fold) in the National Edition of the New York Times today.

On one hand, it was exciting to see a beautiful photo of the lush green moss that is so prevalent here and that I love so much, and I thought the front page headline was cute:

Nature’s Wall-To-Wall Carpet

But then, here’s the headline of the story on Page A-13:

Poor Season for Sunshine Is Great One for Spores

What a frickin’ let down!

Sure, New York Times, rub it in our faces that this has been, so far, the coldest April on record here in Western Washington, remind us that it snowed just six days ago, and refer to my beloved moss diminutively as spores.

That’s.Just.Cruel.

There are some things that I never get tired of living here in the Pacific Northwest. No matter how many times I see a Bald Eagle soaring overhead, or the towering western red cedar or Douglas fir, or the jagged snow-covered peaks of the Cascade Mountains, I’m always enthralled.

Well, the same goes for nature’s wall-to-wall carpet — moss — an astounding 700 varieties of which, as I mentioned back in June 2010, grow in our Olympic National Park. Whenever I’m out on the trail and I see the green stuff covering trees and rocks, softening the rough edges, I can’t resist the urge to reach out and lay my hand on it, or in the case of a large patch on the ground, to lay my body down upon it. Every year, I notice that more of my lawn is being consumed by moss, and I look eagerly forward to when there is no grass left at all.

And yet, as if we needed any more rain, the Times rains on my mossy parade by focusing mostly on people who are busy trying to reduce or rid their environment of moss.

Hmmmm. Maybe the New York Times 20-article diet isn’t such a bad thing after all.

Best of Fish & Bicycles: Happy Old Decade

Originally Published: December 31, 2009


numbers
Listen, I’m not a Left Brain person. When I look at bank statements, Excel spreadsheets, those huge lighted signs at the airport showing flight numbers and departure and arrival times, my head goes all fuzzy, like it’s filled with cotton balls, my eyes cross, and the numbers seem float up from the surface and scramble. (I wouldn’t call it dyslexia, though, because I got an A in Statistics at Rutgers in 1988. Chuckle, chuckle.)

Anyway, if it weren’t frustrating enough to do things like payroll at work or balancing a checkbook, there’s the whole numbers and time and calendars thing, which Wikipedia attempts to make clear:

The Julian calendar was used in Europe at the beginning of the millennium, and all countries that once used the Julian calendar had adopted the Gregorian calendar by the end of it. So the end date is always calculated according to the Gregorian calendar, but the beginning date is usually according to the Julian calendar (or occasionally the Proleptic Gregorian calendar).

Crystal clear, huh?

As I mentioned in a post a few weeks ago, I’ve been reading all these Best Of lists, not just for 2009, but also lists of what folks consider the Best Of the first decade of the 21st Century.

And as I think about this, my Right Brain orientation doesn’t want to trust my subordinate Left Brain when it screams out that it’s a bit premature to declare an end to the first decade of the 21st Century.

I’m reminded of similar brain hemisphere confusion in the run-up to January 1, 2000. The Y2K Bug hype was in the air and much of the world seemed determined to celebrate the coming of 2000 as the beginning of the Second Millennium. After all, 2000 is such a nice round number, isn’t it? It’s just so Second Millennium-ish!

And yet, if you ask an astrophysicist at NASA, well, it’s not.

Question: I’m 17 years old. I’d like to know when the new millennium starts. Isn’t it Jan 1st, 2001? Why do people get excited about 2000 then? How can I explain this to my friends? Please help.

Answer: You are right that the millennium starts on Jan 1st 2001. There is no year zero, so the first millennium started on January 1, 1 C.E., the day after December 31, 1 B.C.E. The first millennium ended 1000 years later, on the night of Dec 31, 1000/morning of Jan 1, 1001, and the second millennium ends 1000 years after that, on Dec 31 2000/Jan 1 2001.

The main reason people will celebrate the millennium on the night of Dec. 31 1999 is to hold big parties, and to hold them a year sooner than they would otherwise. I expect that, around February, 2000, people will start coming around to the belief that the millennium does indeed start with 2001, and plan their next party accordingly.

By the same highly educated reasoning, this would mean that the first decade of the 21st Century doesn’t end until January 1, 2011.

And so, while I’m happy to have evidence that I can still manage to utilize both sides of my brain, I still intend to party tonight like it’s 2011.

Happy New Year!
Happy Old Decade!

Best of Fish & Bicycles: Consider The Bald Eagle

Originally Published: January 5, 2011


The current surge of anti-government sentiment in the U.S. — the government is too big, too intrusive, markets should be totally free from government regulation, there should be little or no taxes, etc. — amazes me on so many levels, and today I came across an article that really highlights the folly of those attitudes.

The ideas that Americans don’t need the government telling them what they can and can’t do, and that anything the government does the private sector can do better, really don’t square with what usually happens when American behavior goes unchecked.

Case in point: The Bald Eagle.

Designated as the U.S. national symbol in 1782, included in the Great Seal of the United States, the Seal of the President of the United States, and on much of our currency, you’d think the country actually cared deeply about the animal and its wellbeing.

Well, as it turns out, no. Left to their own devices, the American people, through hunting, habitat destruction, and pesticide use nearly drove the Bald Eagle to extinction in the lower 48.

According to Wikipedia:

It is estimated that in the early 18th century, the Bald Eagle population was 300,000–500,000, but by the 1950s there were only 412 nesting pairs in the 48 contiguous states of the US.

It took the government stepping in — declaring the Bald Eagle an endangered species in 1967 and banning the pesticide DDT in 1972 — to keep the country from destroying its own mascot.

Now, I live in eagle country, and knew about the dramatic recovery of the population here, and with friends in Maine knew about a similar success story there, but now this:

But even the most optimistic could never have predicted the resiliency of the birds and the ferocity of their comeback. In Iowa, hopeful environmentalists set a goal of 10 or 20 nests by 2010. But exponential population growth took the Department of Wildlife by surprise. Last year, federal staffers lost count at 254 nests, nearly as many as once existed in the entire continental U.S. The bird left the Endangered Species List in 2007.

Iowa?! I didn’t even know there were ever Bald Eagles in Iowa!

Governments, historically, are never perfect and frequently the opposite, but what we need is better governors not less government. And since we are our own governors, it’s up to us.