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Thoughts on Food Poisoning

Secular humanism and its companion philosophies assure us that we and the animals are tight – family, if you know what I mean. But the differences seem pretty glaring at times.

Item: there have been a rash of food poisonings lately – Salmonella on Florida tomatoes, tainted shellfish on cruise ships, E. Coli on spinach from California, bouts of norovirus here and there (and don't get me started on Chipotle)– we cook 90% of our food, and wash the rest – and process it – and STILL we get sick. But animals – none of their food is cooked. Ever. Sure, some of it is really fresh – raw is another word for it. I would imagine a wolf with a blood-spattered, steaming kill still has pathogens to resist, especially once the intestinal lining is breached by ravenous fangs. Then there are the slimy foodstuffs fished out of ponds and other bodies of water that you know are just teeming with multi- and unicellular microbes, and here the meal is simply marinated in it. (You ever put pond water under a microscope? It looks like a damn party where all the participants wriggling and thrashing about are figures from a Miró painting come to life.) And loads of other species consume “second-hand meals” – roadkill and other forms of carrion. And another thing: all that stuff is on the ground, for chrissakes. In the DIRT. Not on a plate on a table spritzed with sanitizing cleansers or a fresh linen tablecloth.

So why don’t you see, when you are ambling through a National Park, a black bear puking its guts out? Or a raccoon with the runs, crapping over hill and dale? Are we humans just wusses in comparison, lacking in conditioning and gastronomic fortitude?

And what about the whole allergy thing? Oh, I can’t eat peanuts, I can’t eat strawberries, I can’t eat wheat germ and baked goods with gluten in them. Are you f**king kidding me?! I’m lactose intolerant, so no cheese for me. I can’t drink red wine, it “comes up on me”.  Such frailty disgusts me.

I am continually amazed at the ubiquity and dominance of the human race on this planet. I almost feel like the ancient Greeks who in murky tales spoke of a past Golden Age, those “halcyon days of yore”, when men were men and performed heroic deeds, and peace and prosperity permeated a countryside bursting with abundance. Perhaps our forefathers were greater men, and we stand on the shoulders of giants. I bet that at least they could not only hold their liquor, but stomach their vegetables.

My Challenger Story

On January 28th, 1986, thirty years ago to the day, the space shuttle Challenger exploded soon after takeoff, killing its entire 7 person crew. This was one of those defining events of a generation that everyone sentient at the time tends to remember – where they were when it occurred, what they were doing, how they felt about it, etc. Other events that fall into this category for people of my age are the attacks of 9/11 (of course), the eruption of Mt. St. Helens and the days President Reagan and Pope John Paul II got shot.

I was in junior high school at the time, and I remember that hushed sense of “something is wrong”, that I detected from teachers muttering discretely to each other in the hallway.  Finally our teacher came into the room and solemnly announced to us that the space shuttle had just exploded. We were all a bit stunned, and then a few minutes later, the bell rang and class was over. I walked into my next class and there was confusion in the air – a few students were openly wondering just what the fuss was about. Clearly this other teacher had not yet spread the news of the tragedy. Well, I knew, and excitedly decided to inform them.

At some point haven’t we all immaturely savored the realization that WE knew something that other people didn’t?  I will always have that moment seared into my memory. I was taking an unseemly amount of satisfaction in being able to disclose the news – like I was a herald or town crier fulfilling an important duty, and with some amount of relish I proclaimed, “Geez guys, don’t you know what’s going on – the Challenger just totally blew up!” It was then I looked over and saw her – Stacy Resnick.

Stacy Resnick, who of course was the niece of Judith Resnick, who was one of the crew members of the doomed shuttle. Because of this the hype at our school had been almost unbearable prior to the launch. The school had taken a great deal of pride in the fact that one of its students had a link to this space mission, and the fact that Resnick was one of the first women in space provided additional weight to the occasion. So as you could imagine, Stacy had been treated like royalty the past few weeks. And I just essentially rubbed her nose in what was no doubt the most upsetting thing that had ever happened in her life to that point.

I don’t know if it was truly me that broke the news to her or if she already knew (I seemed to recall that she already looked as if she had been crying) – although I can’t help but wonder, why would the faculty leave her in class after telling her?  Wouldn’t they sequester her in the office so she could have some privacy? But on the other hand, wouldn’t they make sure that she was the first student to know? I’ll never have the truth of it, but I certainly made a horrible day for her even worse, because everyone in the room then looked from me to her, and the focused attention was the very last thing she needed at that moment. She visibly crumpled and then burst into tears, burying her head in her hands. Her friends were immediately roused to indignation: “God, you’re such a jerk!” “What’s wrong with you!?!” To say I was contrite does not begin to describe my reaction. But there was nothing for it – I was going to be the Insensitive Jerk to her for all time, no matter what.

To be honest, I might as well say that Stacy was the stereotypical JAP, she pretty much was always a little snob; but still, there’s a line that simple decency precludes one from consciously crossing, you know?  And I inadvertently crossed it. I regret my behavior that day, and for years felt a twinge of shame when recalling it. Unfortunately, though the episode made me more discrete it wasn’t the last time that I said the wrong thing at exactly the wrong time. But that's another story for another time…

Garden Maiden

I had basically completed this three years ago, but it seemed something was missing and not quite right.  The woman in the foreground is the Wife, and she didn't think the rendering was an accurate likeness.  (This is why I hate doing portraits most of all.)  Well there are limits to my prowess - I can't help it if no matter how big I make the painting, the composition expands in scope with it, so that the person's face always ends up no bigger than a postage stamp!  So last year I made a few tweaks to the face to improve it more to my satisfaction, if not entirely to hers.  But something still was lacking.  Then it hit me - it needed a cat (especially if the Wife was part of the composition). Now when I painted it originally we didn't have Belle yet, and she was the only feline to not yet make it into a painting.  And she's the only climber amongst them, so being on top of the wall made total sense, and her black and white coat mirrored the black and white of the Wife's outfit, reinforcing their bond, so it felt like an epiphany when the idea occurred to me. It didn't take long for me to rough her in at all.

There's a few highlights here for me - I'm very happy with the dress, the wisteria flowers, and the garden gate, and the frick'n shingles, that I painted laboriously one at a time.  I'm a bit less happy with the shrubs, tulips and the garden wall, but the overall lighting is what I was going for.  All in all, I would say the painting does what it needs to do.


Eking It Out...

This robin's brethren are long gone, but this guy has been camped out all week in the hawthorn tree behind the house, defending its fruit against all comers.  But the cold is no doubt its most implacable foe...
(4 degrees F this morning!)

I Told You So

I don't know if this is Belle's way of declaring a definitive end to the holiday season or if this is merely the culmination of many increasingly frantic attempts to sink her teeth into the poor snowman ornament, but it underscores the fact that we can no longer have nice things.

Senseless Purging

Several years ago, when I was transferred from the dissolved Architectural Services Division to the Bridge Division, I was put in charge of moving, merging, organizing and curating the Structural Engineering Library, which contains all manner of building and design codes, textbooks, software manuals, design aides, industrial literature and manufacturer’s product info. I had become the one guy who “knew where everything was”, or how to find or acquire it if I didn’t. It’s a good niche to occupy if you can get it.

Recently, the head of our office decided that the Transportation and Environmental Divisions should relocate and basically switch locations at the beginning of the year, and in that spirit everyone else was “encouraged” to clean and tidy up their own offices, cubicles and other areas - with a particular emphasis being made on throwing out old, unused material.

So on the day of The Great Purge I happened to walk by our library/conference area and see three of our younger engineers pulling items off the shelves, thumbing through pages in a desultory fashion, and then pitching whatever they had into large recycling bins or a big pile on a conference table eventually destined for the dumpster.  As I regarded the scene, my heart skipped a beat. I apprehensively asked what they were doing, hoping for some kind of mollifying explanation. The oldest of the trio just favored me with a half-sneer and said, “We’re just throwing out all the important stuff and keeping the stuff we never use!” Very funny. I wanted to ask him what made them think they were qualified to decide what was important and what wasn’t, considering his relative youth and the fact they only designed bridges, and no other kind of structure, but I refrained and stalked away. I was upset – I couldn’t believe that not only was I not asked to lead or participate in this endeavor, but I wasn’t even informed that it was going to take place. At the time, I couldn’t help but view it as a personal snub.

The cavalier attitude of the guys pitching stuff in the trash was infuriating.  Like typical Millennials, they believe that everything is on the internet somewhere or can be downloaded as a pdf, and if it isn’t on the internet then it just must not be very important or useful! (A sterling sample of “DISQUALIFY!” if there ever was one). The library represented the careful and purposeful accumulation of knowledge by highly educated people with decades of experience. It took years and years to form, and was destroyed in a couple hours.

It was very distressing to witness, but I stifled my tongue and continued on my way.  But I felt like getting down on my knees, pounding my fists on the floor and shouting like Charlton Heston at the conclusion of Planet of the Apes: “You really did it, didn’t you? You animals! Damn you – damn you all to HELL!”

Here’s the aftermath – the ransacked remnants of my once proud, fully-stocked precious structural library, the shelves, once brimming with edifying material, now 75% empty:

Post script: both my supervisor and the head of our division have since approached me and issued mea culpas – the former didn’t even know this was happening and the latter, while giving a general order to “tidy up” group areas, did not think that the purge would be so thoughtlessly comprehensive and was appalled when he saw what had transpired.  They assured me that they were in agreement that a bad oversight had been made. So guess who gets to root through all the rubbish bins to attempt to retrieve the most important books and other resources: me. Hurray! Ugh. Well, at least I’ll be able to salvage some items near and dear to my heart…and I may even swipe a few of the retrievals and bring them home to augment my personal collection.  Now I get to experience hours of the "pleasures" of pondering, "I remember an important binder being right here on this third shelf - now what was in it?"

It’s so easy to destroy things.  It seems order is so precarious, and perpetually in danger of being eradicated if not constantly maintained and safeguarded. Engineers should naturally be guardians of order. But my colleagues, not for the first time, have let me down.

Seasonal, If a Bit Tardy

Well it's finally snowing today, and it looks like it will stick this time (I can hear the tell-tale "whoosh" signalling the incoming cold front), so it is fitting that I post my favorite winter painting, Comfort at Christmastime.  It is the apotheosis of my oil glazing technique, using SEVEN layers of paint for the sky (and four different shades of blue).  A fine drafting pen was used for the detail work.


Let’s check in with Europe and see how the social experiment is going…

Yikes. But don’t jump to conclusions - the perps aren’t necessarily Muslim immigrants!

Oh wait, they are. But Cologne is only one city. It’s not like this happened all over Germany…

Crap, it has. In fact, enough that it qualifies for its own Wikipedia page.

But just because Muslin immigrants have caused problems in Germany, doesn’t mean there are committing horrible crimes elsewhere…What about Finland?

Hm, not too promising. What about Norway?
OK, then – Sweden, surely their experience has been better!
Fine, but really, who could have possibly predicted this? (Aside from myself, obviously.)

Holiday Debriefing

Christmas was actually better than I expected this year (the past couple years have featured some rather awful ones, so expectations were low).  Everyone in the Wife's family got along, there wasn't any rushing around, didn't eat too much; I actually got some relaxation time.  There was but one fly in the ointment...

The past two years I have really wanted to get back into playing guitar.  This last year I managed to take it out a couple times and clumsily pick away at it, which only served to frustrate me when I realized how much I suck now compared to how good I used to be 15 years ago.  But one of the things holding me back was that my amp really wasn't working anymore, and I didn't know a reputable place where I could get it repaired.  So the entire notion was on the back burner.  But as it turns out one of the presents the Wife got me was a brand new amplifier.

I was pretty psyched about it, even though it seemed an extravagant purchase (which makes me feel uncomfortable), but the next day I was excitedly extracting it from its packaging, reading the instructions about the various nifty features and settings, and finally I got an opportunity to flip it on and start putting it through its paces.  I eagerly hit the power button and - nothing. No glowing LEDs, no distinctive hum.  I checked the back, thinking maybe I needed to put in a battery or something (who knows what developments have occurred in the last 15 years since I set foot inside a music store?), nope.   So I tried a different outlet.  Nothing.  I switched the new chord with the one from my old amp - nothing.  Fearfully, I called the Wife in, had her give a go at it.  As expected, she became more upset than me.

I was rather stupefied - I have never had something broken and completely inoperable right out of the box before.  Can't help but think it is emblematic of the State of Things in general... So there we were, the day after Christmas, driving out East to buttland in the pouring rain to go to the music store and wrangle with customer service (because it was ordered online and shipped, rather than bought at the actual brick-and-mortar store) and get a replacement.

But get one we did, and yesterday I played it until I was forced to stop because my poor fingertips throbbed in protest.  Boy do I have a lot of work to do...

Xmas Artistic Effort

- To facilitate the proper mood.