Sunday, July 28, 2013

Living a boy's adventure tale part II – the musical

For my last post I used a title which seemed appropriate for the book I was reviewing, but actually I ripped it off from a song which I've had it stuck in my head since then. You might remember a band called A-ha that made a big splash back in 1985? They were a trio of Norwegian pretty boys with a cool video for their song "Take On Me" which reached #1 in the US and won a bunch of music awards. In 2002 they were ranked #8 on VH1's Greatest One Hit Wonders. But that's misleading.

Although their popularity in America waned after their first album, it grew in a lot of other countries – especially Brazil. They actually had lots of hits and went on to record 8 more albums, sold an estimated 80 million records, and are ranked in the top 50 highest earning bands of all time. They hold the Guinness World Record for the largest paying pop concert audience (nearly 200,000 people!) at a Rio de Janeiro stadium in 1991. They actually had another US hit from that first album, "The Sun Always Shines on TV," which reached #20, and their song "The Living Daylights" was a James Bond theme song. They only just stopped touring a few years ago. I only know a handful of songs beyond Hunting High And Low, but I still listen to it now and then and I thought I'd share “Living A Boy's Adventure Tale.” I always thought it was a little unusual, but it's still one of my favorites. (Sorry, no official video – just a collage of pictures from some female admirer.)

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Living a boy's adventure tale

One of the things I love most about living in California is going to the beach with my family. One of the places I hoped to go when I served my LDS mission over 26 years ago was somewhere in the islands of the South Pacific (instead I went to southern Brazil and loved it!). I used to have a 50 gallon saltwater reef aquarium, and it was amazing! (I hope to set one up again sometime when I have more time.) One old movie I love watching with the kids is "Swiss Family Robinson," and I'm probably one of the few people who really liked "Castaway" with Tom Hanks. Heck, I even got into watching the TV series "Lost" for a little while (and I'm not a TV-watcher). And I've already mentioned that a couple of my favorite books are Robinson Crusoe and The Mysterious Island. I even enjoyed Lord of the Flies. Notice any pattern? Me neither.

Just kidding! Of course I love the beach and love the idea of living on a tropical island (this is probably because I grew up where it was really cold in the winter). But since getting shipwrecked on one doesn't look very likely in my case I can at least keep reading books about people who are so lucky, and the latest one is The Coral Island by R. M. Ballantyne. Written in 1858, this book is NOT in the same class as the literary classics I mentioned above but it's still a classic – it's just more of a children's classic (with a caveat, as I'll explain). In fact, it was the inspiration for Lord of the Flies and Treasure Island.

The story is told by 15 year old Ralph of his adventure being shipwrecked on a small island in the South Seas with two other young shipmates, Jack (18) and Peterkin (14). They quickly make themselves at home, and even though they have very little in the way of materials scavenged from the wreck, they find fruits, roots, fish, ducks, and even wild pigs to eat. And it's very idyllic for a while, exploring the island and swimming in the warm ocean and hunting and just living a boy’s adventure tale. Even when a couple of large canoes land on shore and two groups of Polynesians get out and have a battle, they're having a great time. (Of course, the boys intervene and help defeat the attackers, but they still choose to stay on the island. Alone. And I can't say I blame them.)

But things take a much darker turn when pirates arrive, and this marks a change where the story becomes quite violent. Nowadays we tend to look down on filling our children's minds with violence (unless it's from video games, of course) and some parents might be a little surprised at some of the savage customs that apparently used to be quite widespread among Polynesians (like smashing their enemies skulls, eating their enemies, sacrificing babies to eel gods, and surfing). Also, an overriding theme throughout the book is the civilizing influence of Christianity, and although I'm a Christian I had to roll my eyes at how often Ralph speaks of praying and the goodness of God and thankfulness for salvation. If you think Robinson Crusoe overdoes it, you won't after reading this one! But Ballantyne was deeply religious and felt it was his duty to provide boys with an uplifting story. Fair enough.

And, honestly, I actually enjoyed it for the most part. Of course, I like a little cannibalism now and then. Besides, if I ever actually ended up on a desert island in real life I'd probably die. If not from eating something I shouldn't have then certainly from the world's worst sunburn! So it's probably just as well that I stick with the stories in books.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Cows save the planet

One of my favorite story lines in The Wonder Years was about Kevin's math teacher, Mr. Collins. He wasn't very personable but was a focused and demanding teacher who took his job seriously. He was there to teach his students the subject matter yet was wise enough to know how to handle adolescent problems, like the episode where Kevin is struggling and resorts to cheating on quizzes when he sees other kids getting away with it ("Every problem contains its own solution, Mr. Arnold.").

I had a teacher back at West High who was kind of like that.  Mr. Ekberg taught biology classes and was notorious as a hard teacher, and because of that quite a few kids disliked him (like this poor fool).  But I probably learned more from his classes than all the others, and one class I really loved was "Ecology" which is the study of how environments function.  In fact, me and my friend, Todd Bartholomew, liked it so much that we asked Mr. Ekberg one day about careers in ecology.  He told us what kind of jobs there were and when we asked how those jobs paid he admitted that they didn't pay well.  But that was back in the early 80s, and by the mid 90s such jobs were a hot choice when environmental science grew in popularity and importance.  And even though I chose a different career path, I still find myself drawn to ecology and the study of the environment and it's probably why I read Cows Save the Planet: And Other Improbable Ways of Restoring Soil to Heal the Earth by Judith D. Schwartz (which I received from Amazon Vine).

Schwartz argues that the obsessive focus on limiting carbon emissions is somewhat misguided when we should be using nature to pull that carbon out of the air and put it back in the soil where it belongs (what she calls restoring the "carbon cycle").  The primary source of carbon emissions up until the 1970s was agriculture, mainly due to practices which allow carbon in the soil to oxidize into the atmosphere.  But she claims that using the "holistic management" ideas of Allan Savory in the way we farm and use land we can not only reverse that trend but renew the health of our soils.  Cows play a part in this process because undergrazing is as big of a problem as overgrazing, and grazers are a natural part of many ecosystems, especially grasslands (and yes, she touches on the issue of methane from cows).  She explains how this can also solve problems of erosion and desertification and mitigate the damage from both floods and droughts (fixing the "water cycle").  I thought Schwartz did a great job of explaining how grazing would help natural grassland areas and it made sense, but I didn't quite follow how the same thing would apply in a farming situation.  It sounded like leaving bare ground (especially when the soil is tilled) is the biggest problem since that's when oxidation of carbon happens and I think she advocates a method of planting crops right in the natural grass cover – something I'd like to understand better.

She also points out that USDA statistics show the nutrition of our food has been steadily declining – in some cases more that 50% since I was a kid in the 70s – and says this is due to minerals being depleted where most of our food is grown.  Some researchers link this to the health issues of today, and while blaming it for things like cancer seems a bit tenuous, the connection to obesity makes more sense.  If our bodies aren't getting the right nutrients we continue to feel hungry and eat more.  Of course, better soil management principles can replenish the soil and correct such deficiencies and she cites a couple of examples of instances where it has improved health.

Normally I have an allergy to words like "holistic" which (perhaps wrongly) conjures up images of crystals and quack medicine.  In this case, however, holistic refers to ecologically-sound principles that emphasize the natural relationships of microbes, fungi, and worms in the soil with the roots of the plants, and the grazers that preserve the proper balance of plants above the surface and promote healthy soil.  And this natural order makes a lot of sense to me: it's not anti-farming or anti-people like a lot of environmentalist literature, but advocates a balanced and healthy relationship with what many have called our most valuable resource.  I also have to give her credit for offering better explanations than most I've read for why chemical fertilizers and GMO foods can be harmful.

But while it makes a lot of sense in my limited understanding, Schwartz unfortunately offers little tangible evidence like peer-reviewed research and scientific studies to back up her assertions.  There are a total of 3 notes at the end of the book and 2 pages of bibliography which looks more like "further suggested reading" than documentation.  She includes examples of farmers in the book who have changed their practices and have seen greater yields and less problems from flooding or droughts, but unfortunately that's only anecdotal evidence.  I would feel a lot more comfortable with solid evidence even if it's limited, but I'll still recommend the book on the basis that it seems in line with my own reading and experiences with gardening and composting.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Saying goodbye...

I just realized that I've been saying goodbye a lot this year.  Almost two weeks ago we said goodbye to Braiden as we sent him off on his mission.  For weeks Jamie had been getting teary-eyed at the slightest provocation.  Me?  No problem, right?  I served a mission.  I know the drill.  No big deal.

Then Tuesday night arrived and we took a break from packing to go to the Stake Center so he could be set apart... and suddenly it became real!  And Wednesday morning in the airport?  Geez, it was harder than I expected.  Luckily, Jamie became the strong one.  Funny how things like that happen when you've been married as long as we have.

We had to get up at 3 AM and the airport was packed by the time we got there at 4 AM.  We hoped for a "terminal pass" so we could all go down with him to the gate (I didn't even know they did such things) but they only gave us one - and of course the mom gets it.
Isn't this a cute picture?  We took it at church the Sunday before he left.

And a couple months ago I said goodbye to Grandma Alice.  The timing wasn't good to take off work for an out-of-state funeral, but she was the last of my grandparents and Jamie insisted I go.  And I'm glad I was there to say goodbye, and it was nice to see so many cousins I hadn't seen in years.

The Delta, UT cemetery.

No, they didn't all dress that way for the funeral - they were getting ready to drive home and I guess they wanted to be more comfortable.

And the last goodbye might seem a little silly, but it was hard for me.  For 22 years I've been driving a 1991 Honda CRX.  It wasn't a practical car for a guy with 4 kids, but it was the car I'd loved ever since I was a teenager.  While my friends were wishing for Porsches and Ferarris, I just wanted a CRX.  (Maybe I set my sights a little low but I'm probably the only one who got the car he wanted, too.)  It still got really good mileage and was great for my commute but it wasn't as reliable as it used to be and was having a few problems (and I'm not a "car guy" who can fix problems).  It was surprisingly hard to see it drive away, but having a brand new car helps.

When Hondas are so reliable you can drive one for 22 years with minimal problems, you tend to stick with what works.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013


If you've already read David McCullough's excellent 1776 you might not find a lot of new information in Joseph Ellis' newest book, Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence. In fact, I think Ellis himself has already covered some of the same ground in his other books such as His Excellency, First Family, and Founding Brothers. What Ellis brings to the summer of 1776, however, is perspective.

We get a perspective of John Adams trying to manage a revolution while events quickly spin beyond his control. Adams could see that any attempt at reconcilliation with Britain was pointless, but not everyone in the Continental Congress was as convinced. In May he wrote what has come to be known as the Preamble to The Declaration of Independence. Nonetheless, he orchestrated things as well as he could in Philadelphia, got someone else to write an 'official' Declaration, and as the head of the Board of War and Ordnance was one of the few who knew just how badly things were going with the army. All the while he had to worry about his family in Boston, who was dealing with an enemy even more feared than Great Britain: smallpox.

We get the perspective of George Washington, trying to live up to the expectations of the Continental Congress and assemble an army bearing some semblance of order to face the well-trained and professional army just arrived from overseas. Everyone expected great things after Bunker Hill (which was actually a British victory, but so very costly for them) but New York was a very different situation. The city and its islands were essentially indefensible, and the sympathies of the inhabitants leaned more toward the British. Washington’s attempted defense ended in a costly and embarrassing defeat that had the potential to end the nascent rebellion just as it was beginning.

We get Benjamin Franklin's confidence that "The Cause" would prevail. He even accused King George of being the cause of the rebellion. If not for the way he treated the colonies by sending armies and foreign mercenaries to oppress them, the colonists would have been happy subjects.  The king's actions had effectively started the war according to Franklin's logic.

And we get the perspective of just how close it came to going the other way that summer. Ellis dispels any myths we might still have from our grade-school education that the American Revolution was accomplished with the signing of The Declaration of Independence, or that the war was won handily by a rag-tag bunch of scrappy colonists confidently and enthusiastically backing the American Cause. In fact, few people considered themselves "Americans" at the time; instead they were Virginians, Pennsylvanians, Bostonians, etc. Unity would come, but it was precarious in 1776.

But the best perspective, in my opinion, was why General Howe (and his brother Admiral Howe) failed to deliver a decisive blow in New York that could have destroyed the Continental Army. Having served in America previously and having a feeling of brotherhood for the Americans, General Howe wanted to go softly and play the part of the diplomat – ending the rebellion with minimal loss of life on both sides. It's a surprisingly human perspective we don't usually grant to the "enemy" in the war. And to me that was the main value in this short book, and why I always jump on the opportunity to read a book by Joseph Ellis. (I received an advance copy from Amazon Vine.)