Thursday, November 5, 2015

Guy Fawkes: Gunpowder, Treason, and Mushy Peas.

One thing I knew for certain: Guy Fawkes was a bad man. A very bad man. So bad, in fact, that every year, in the days leading up to November 5th, my brother Ian and I would round up old clothes from the rag bag, stuff them with crumpled newspaper into a reasonable facsimile of a human being, and trundle him around the streets of Clifton Village, requesting “a penny for the guy” from passers-by. The money went to buy fireworks, while Guy met his fate, sizzling on a bonfire. Gleefully, we sang,
"Please to remember the fifth of November,
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason why gunpowder, treason
Should ever be forgot."

At first it was all good, clean fun. Even when I learned the word “effigy,” and understood that the guy we were burning represented a real person, I was unfazed. He was a traitor, pure and simple. He deserved to die.

As I grew older, the black and white certainties of childhood history became clouded with nuanced shades of gray. Was Guy Fawkes really the scheming villain of my youth, or might he have been set up?

What is known is that on 5th November, 1605, Guy Fawkes was caught in the cellars of the Houses of Parliament with several dozen barrels of gunpowder, looking for all the world as if he was about to blow up the Houses of Parliament, King James I, and with him, the cream of the English aristocracy's fairest and finest (which if you ask anyone of Irish extraction, isn't saying very much.)

Nobody asked questions like: how did he manage to procure so much gunpowder when it was so scarce, and how did he get it past the guards?

Guy was found guilty, and was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered. I won’t spoil your breakfast by describing the technique, which ranks among the most brutal methods of execution ever devised by man (which is saying quite something): suffice it to say only that the castration which began it was the easy part, after which things rapidly got worse. So determined was our hero to avoid the torture that he jumped headlong from the scaffold and broke his neck, thus depriving the assembled onlookers of their morning’s entertainment.

While not quite in the same league as the Borgias in Italy, the court of James I was not far behind. In particular, the Lord Cecil was a ruthless schemer such as would make Richard Nixon look like the Easter Bunny. There is some considerable evidence to suggest that Cecil masterminded the whole plot, including Guy Fawkes’ arrest. And execution. His goal was to stir up vehement anti-Catholic sentiment, and in that he was more than successful.

Historical revisionism notwithstanding, November 5 was always a good excuse for a party and the best were in Yorkshire. Being in the north of England, Yorkshire is considerably colder and darker than the south; and on November 5th, the darker and colder the better. Certain traditional delicacies were prepared in advance: parkin, a dark and gloriously sticky gingerbread made with black treacle and golden syrup, and the aptly named "mushy peas"—overcooked peas mashed to a glutinous paste (a technique pioneered and perfected in the kitchens of British Rail)—and rendered strangely exotic by the addition of mint sauce (finely chopped mint leaves mixed with white sugar and vinegar.)

Most major holidays are relatively homogeneous, and involve dinners round a table using knives, forks and spoons. Not so our Yorkshire Guy Fawkes celebrations! The contrasts were thrilling: icy cold at our backs driving us ever closer to the ferocious, skin scorching, hair frizzing heat of the raging bonfire; fingers frozen numb, threatening to drop the paper cups that did little to insulate against the veritable furnace of mushy peas; the biting cold of the icy ground snapping at our feet through ridiculously thin soled shoes; the roaring whoosh of flames devouring everything we fed them— leaves, branches, broken down furniture, even on one occasion a piano deemed beyond all hope, wildly out of tune, with a cracked sounding-board….It serenaded us in its death throes, twanging a macabre melody as one by one its strings exploded, curling red-hot into the black night sky. Wild, pagan, celebrating a revolutionary who sought to overturn the status quo by unthinkably violent means: five dozen barrels of gunpowder, ready to blow the English government to kingdom come.

Or was he some poor stooge, easily manipulated by those more devious, more ambitious, more malevolent than he? Are the children’s voices, still urging their listeners five hundred years later, to “remember, remember the fifth of November” doing exactly what Cecil wanted: stirring up anti-Catholic feeling in a country where to this day “all religions are the same, except Catholics, and they’re wrong.”

Monday, March 30, 2015

Big Pharma loves me . . . or does it?

As a starry eyed newlywed in San Francisco some thirty-three years ago, I bypassed the butter at the supermarket and brought home a tub of semi soft margarine. It was low-cholesterol, made with non-hydrogenated oils, and I felt like a health-conscious, savvy shopper.

My husband Robin was less impressed: "What on earth did you buy that for? I'm not eating that toxic … “(he used a brief, emphatic word unfit for publication). “You’d be better off with butter.”

Now, the annoying thing about Robin is that, at least in matters medical, he’s always right. Watching TV medical dramas, he beats the doc to a diagnosis every time. This shouldn't really surprise me given the impressive list of his medical credentials, but it’s still annoying.

In The Case Of The Soft Margarine, I rose to the defense of my purchase: I knew—I had read in a magazine—that hydrogenated fats were bad for you, oils were good. Therefore soft margarine was infinitely preferable to its hard cousin, stick margarine, or worse yet, butter. Research had proven it—scientific research.

The very mention of "research" brought on a whole stream of brief emphatic words; apparently this was something of a sore point with my husband. I soon found out why.

Robin had spent two years at one of the nation’s top medical schools, researching the causes of high cholesterol. He found that the liver manufactures approximately 80% of the cholesterol found in the blood; only the remaining 20% is dietary. So, assuming an impossibly rigorous diet with zero cholesterol, the greatest possible reduction would be a measly twenty percent. Moreover, it seemed that the liver would simply crank up its production to make up the dietary shortfall. He asked the obvious question, one nobody else seemed to be asking: what causes the liver to over-produce cholesterol, and how can it be regulated?

Following their doctors’ advice, millions of Americans take statins to lower their cholesterol. They endure unpleasant side effects in the hope of avoiding heart attacks, strokes, and premature death.  Robin’s research held out the promise of a non-toxic, low-cost way to help the liver regulate itself. The impact would be felt globally—statins are the most widely prescribed drug in the world. He typed up his proposal, got the approval of the head of department, sent it to the National Institutes of Health, and waited. 

The verdict came back: “Approved but not funded.” He tweaked the proposal a little to make it even more elegant and resubmitted it. Same result.

His head of department told him why it would never be funded: the good folk at the National Institutes of Health were not about to sanction any research that would hurt their friends in the drug industry. And if Robin’s hunch was correct, and a few dollars worth of thyroid hormone each month would regulate cholesterol production and make statins irrelevant, it would bankrupt the drug companies who are making billions of dollars per year from the sale of statins. That’s right, billions. From statins alone. Now, if there’s one thing the drug companies know how to do, it’s make a profit: in 2005, the thirty-three major drug companies made more money than the rest of the Fortune 500 combined. With stakes like these, small wonder the NIH only funds “research” that safeguards Big Pharma’s bottom line.

It’s amazing how many congressmen a few billion dollars can buy.

Hmm, I thought, if money is more important than saving patients from heart attacks and strokes, what about vaccines? Might the same principle apply? I set about some research of my own, No Funding Required.

What I discovered will be the subject of another blog.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Can Two Great Danes Fill an Empty Nest?

The great exodus occurs, the children leave home. Whether you call it an empty nest or a successful launching pad, the result is the same: a silent house. Not so for me! By a great accident of serendipity, my two Great Danes seized the opportunity to fill the silence: they began to speak.

While seated at my computer the other morning I became aware that I was being watched, and that intently. Glancing over at the dog bed I saw Percy stretched out, sound asleep and snoring like a drunken sailor. Next to my chair stood Froby with an agonized expression on his face.

Let me tell you about Froby. We found him, age 7 months, at the animal shelter; he had been rescued from a life of at best neglect, at worst downright abuse. He looked like a walking skeleton and was virtually wild. Taming him was a labor of love that stretched into months, and is still very much a work in progress three years later. Froby has no idea how terrifyingly vast he is, and is scared stiff of everything from a rabbit to an open door. His body language more closely resembles a deer than a dog.

Thinking that a second dog might help to calm his many neuroses, we agreed to take on Percy (short for Persephone), also 7 months, who had ridden down from Bakersfield in the back of a pickup truck when her owners discovered that it takes a tidy sum to feed a Great Dane. Rather like a canine Marilyn Monroe, Percy makes up for what she lacks in moral fiber by looking irresistible. I like to imagine her arrival in Ojai wearing Marilyn’s trademark headscarf and sunglasses. She would have looked so cool!

Percy relies heavily on her looks. Unfortunately for her, Froby has a highly developed sense of justice that is not to be swayed by her beauty. So when Percy took over the whole L.L. Bean Extra-Large dog bed, what could Froby do but appeal to higher authority, to wit, me. "Mum," he said (he gets his English accent from me), "Mum, Percy's in my bed." Then, seeing that I made no move to eject her, he raised the volume and tried again. "I said, MUM!” (this time he barked my name), “Percy's in my bed and she's taking up all her side AND all of mine and It’s Not Fair"!

Percy stopped snoring. One eye opened a slit and promptly closed. Without uttering a sound, she said clearly, “I’m not listening,” and resumed her slumbers.

I contemplated the odds of moving either of them. Froby tips the scales at around 130 pounds, Percy at 120 or so. If they don’t want to move, there is nothing I can do to make them. Happily, I managed to persuade Percy to bend her knees enough to make room for Froby.

You might think that, once they’d proved that there was plenty of room for two, the sharing problem would be at an end. Nothing could be further from the truth! In this the dog bed acts very much like the backseat of the car, where a misplaced elbow or hip can cause a monstrous dispute.
Today, however, all is quiet; Percy nabbed the bed, leaving Froby the ancient wicker loveseat. The only sounds are the dogs’ heavy breathing and the ticking of the grandfather clock.

It sounds suspiciously like the silence of an empty nest.

I wonder if the shelter knows of another Great Dane in need of adoption—preferably a nice talkative one. 

Percy takes up the whole bed,

but she can also look tiny.

Froby relegated to the love-seat

We'll share, as long as I don't have to touch him.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Aldous Huxley and the Birds

It was the goldfinches that did it—brought Brave New World to mind, that is. Goodness knows it had been long enough since I read it, somewhere in my teen years, but as I watched the goldfinches’ antics that afternoon, Aldous Huxley’s masterpiece came flooding back. You see, it rapidly became apparent to me that there is a wide variation among goldfinch IQs, as revealed by their efforts to get seed from their new feeder.

The ingenuity of this feeder lies in its construction: a clear plastic cylinder full of thistle seeds, with dowels inserted at intervals for perches. The trick is that the feeding holes are cunningly positioned beneath the perches, thus requiring the birds to hang upside down if they want to get at the good stuff. (This also keeps the less acrobatic common house finches at bay.) It had never occurred to me that goldfinches are not created equal (to be perfectly honest, I’d never given the matter much thought), but as I watched their efforts, I found my thoughts returning again and again to Huxley’s dystopia and its rigid caste system.

Alpha birds cottoned on straight away, inverted themselves and started feeding with enormous gusto—so much so that, in a vivid demonstration of trickle-down economics, showers of seeds cascaded to the ground beneath. (Note to self: purchase donkey to eat volunteer thistle plants next spring.)

Betas lacked the executive initiative of the Alphas, but learned by watching and soon were imitating them successfully.

Gammas were by far the most entertaining: they swung round in a complete circle, grabbing a seed as they zoomed past the hole. Sometimes the speed of a revolution would fling them completely out of their orbit, and they would flutter back to their perch with an indignant flurry of wings.

Deltas were a mixed bunch: some sat upright on the perch, tapping disconsolately at the seeds they could see but never reach, while others perched atop the hummingbird feeder and simply looked puzzled. They could tell there was food in there, but it was strange food, not a bit like thistles, not at all, at all …

Meanwhile, the Epsilons hopped around beneath the feeder; every now and then, as if by magic, a small flurry of seeds fell from above—in many ways, they did better than their brainier counterparts perched on high. I would have ranked them higher had it not been for Pyga, the cat. Any avian plan for life that does not take the cat into consideration is, unfortunately, doomed to failure.

The tremendous range of goldfinch IQ shocked me; as my mother might have said, slipping into her native Scots brogue, “fa wid hae thocht it?” (whoever would have thought it?). And yet, none of them is any more a goldfinch than another, and all are equally beautiful, give or take a few ruffled feathers. Given equal opportunity, some outperform others—just like humans.

But whatever their performance, whether Alpha, Gamma or Epsilon semi-moron, every one of those finches is beautiful; every one is necessary; every one is valuable.

Just like humans.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Central Heating and the Cooling of Family Relationships.

Little has been written about central heating’s effect on family life, and less still has suggested that it may be for the worse. Yet that is my bold contention. To say that mine is a lonely stand would be an understatement. In fact, I have yet to meet anyone who will even pretend to agree with me, least of all my husband, who grew up in the frozen wastes of North Dakota. But to me, the conclusion seems inescapable: the advent of central heating dealt a crushing, perhaps even a mortal blow to the nuclear family.

Consider, if you will, Plug, the Neolithic cave man, huddled with his family around an open fire. They are warm, or at least their fronts are toasted almost to the point of spontaneous combustion while their backs freeze in the bitter night air. As long as the fire burns, they are safe from the unwelcome advances of the friendly neighborhood saber tooth tiger. The winsome Hlug eyes their dwindling supply of firewood apprehensively. Will it last till morning? Her gaze rests on her teenage son, Glug; she shudders as she remembers the piteous screams of Vlug, her firstborn son, who strode off into just such a night as this in search of more firewood, and never came back …

(Anachronism alert: we all know that teenagers were an invention of the early 20th century, and that Glug must therefore have been either a boy or a man, but this does not affect the overall message: if you want to survive, stick together!)

Fast forward to medieval times, to spectacularly cold castles in which rich tapestries serve as a barrier between the bitter cold and damp of the bare stone walls, and the inhabitants bravely striving to obey the songs of the period and "make merrie.” (Hard to do when your hue is blue.) Before the advent of the chimney around the 12th century, banqueting halls had a nasty tendency to fill up with smoke whenever the wind direction changed. Better a hall full of smoke, however, than marauding Vikings! Safety in numbers meant that, red eyes or no, this was where anyone interested in keeping safe and/or warm spent much of their days, and definitely their nights.

Fast forward again to the mid-twentieth century, to the England of my youth. Common sources of heat included a coal stove or fireplace, a one or two-bar reflective electric heater, and in some homes, the luxury of an open gas fire (perfect for toasting crumpets.) Typically, only one room was heated—the living room. And kitchen, if the oven was in use. If I wanted to indulge my teenaged angst, which was by now quite fashionable, I was free to do so in the privacy of my bedroom. If, that is, I didn't mind my body turning as blue as my spirits.  Saber tooth tigers—not a problem. Marauding Vikings—ditto. With personal safety out of the mix, the only incentive to sociability was keeping warm. To rewrite the old hymn, “Shall We Gather By The Fireplace?”

So you may imagine my horror when I learned of the newest development in Scandinavia: open plan houses. Instead of having one room that was a fortress against the cold, with stuffed rolls of fabric keeping out the fearsome drafts that otherwise whistled under the doors, these northern wastrels designed houses with no doors (except on bedrooms), so that the whole house had to be heated. Imagine that—family members roaming freely through a uniformly warm house!

One winter, a lengthy power outage gave our family the privilege of experiencing several thousand years of heating history. For three days we huddled round the wood-burning stove in the basement. It was our sole source of heat, and all our meals and cups of tea originated from its flat top. As evening drew on, and the brief hours of daylight came to an end, I read aloud by candlelight while my husband wreaked his culinary magic on the stove top. To all intents and purposes, the rest of the house, in all its Arctic splendor, ceased to exist. We rediscovered our inner caveman, and we liked it. I even harbored hopes that the experience would be transformative—that this feeling of family unity, this contentment in togetherness, would carry through the return of electrical power.

Not a bit of it! When the lights came back on with a suddenness that had us all blinking like myopic owls, the children seemed almost to dissolve; I discovered them moments later, returned to their natural habitat—their very own, electric lit and heated rooms. They all enjoyed the outage, but showed no interest whatever in recreating it; my suggestion that we should have one electricity-free day a week (a month? a year?) was met with incredulity as one of my daftest ideas ever (believe me, in my family’s eyes that’s saying something.)

We never had another outage that lengthy; the City of Everett cut down the trees nearest the power lines, and thereafter losses of power were measured in minutes, not days. And yet, all these years later, the children still recall those days as “awesome.”  

Because without central heating, family living really is “chill.”