25 things…

There is a craze currently consuming Facebook’s bandwidth called 25 random things about me. The idea is simple. You expose 25 bits of your life history without reference to importance or priority, 25 things that reveal who you are, what you’ve done, how you feel. You then post your list to 25 people you want to know better. Given the popularity of the exercise, I believe Facebook has now limited tagging to 10 people in a single note so really it’s 25 things to 10 people.

Anyway, as an exercise in giddy candor and with complete disregard for my dignity or future employment, I give you my 25 things.

1. An albatross once landed on my head. We were both half asleep at the time. Apparently I was the most likely looking roost within hundreds of miles of ocean. When the albatross realized its mistake, my ears were softly boxed by its 6 foot wingspan as it struggled to gain altitude. It was like being enfolded in the wings of an angle. Fortunately it didn’t poop on my head.

2. When I walk any distance I close my fingers over my thumb, forming a fist. It’s something I learned from Carlos Castaneda and he learned from his mentor, a Yaqui sorcerer named Juan Matus. It actually makes my stride feel more energetic but looks a little weird.

3. In my life I’ve broken arms, legs, wrists, ankles, ribs, fingers, nose, and furrowed my skull—the result of a consuming curiosity or a reckless disregard for reality. I still don’t know which.

4. I believe that, if there is a God, it doesn’t have a human shape, it doesn’t intervene in the lives of men, and it’s driven by one thing only—an insatiable curiosity. The function of God is to endlessly ask “What more?” and remember the answer.

5. When I was a child I was terrified by the film Darby O’Gill and the Little People. For days afterward the screams of the banshee haunted my dreams. Snow White was pretty scary, too. (You don’t think a witch living in a castle of thorns is scary?)

6. During the McGovern presidential campaign, now ancient political history, I registered with the Socialist Labor Party, just short of becoming a communist. After McGovern lost dismally, I no longer registered at all. I was no better at being a socialist than I was at being a democrat.

7. I have an FBI record, first because I was a clerk in a nuclear artillery battalion, secondly because I was discharged from the US Army as a conscientious objector, and finally because I was registered with the Socialist Labor Party. I’ve been something of a disappointment to the FBI.

8. In high school I dated the daughter of an FBI official, the man in charge of the hunt for Angela Davis. (Look her up in Wikipedia. Both John Lennon and the Rolling Stones wrote songs about her.) We never got along well, the father and me, especially when I refused to shave my beard. America, you gotta love it, or leave it.

9. I drove the water truck that filled the quicksand hole on a film with the working title of Black Bart. I had lunch at Slim Picken’s table. Mel Brooks yelled at me through his bull horn to get the damned truck out of the shot. The damned truck didn’t have baffles in the tank. The first hill I hit the water sloshed aft and the front wheels came off the ground. I could spin the steering wheel freely at 35 mph. The film was later renamed Blazing Saddles.

10. I was recruited into the Flag Land Bureau, the governing organization of Scientology, by Suzette Hubbard, the daughter of L. Ron Hubbard. She was a fetching red head. I didn’t last much longer as a Scientologist than a socialist and quietly slipped away in the dead of night. They may still be looking for me. I owe them money.

11. I have never killed a deer in my life but I once rode shotgun with a poacher driving a hefty four-wheel drive madly through the woods at night. My job was to hold the spotlight and keep a lookout for the cops. I could probably fill a list of 25 things with a “wild ride” theme.

12. At one point I owned both a ’49 Chevy Coupe de Luxe and a ’54 Ford pickup with a flathead six and 3-speed overdrive. Neither was restored; both had original equipment. Surprisingly, I wasn’t a collector. I used them for everyday transportation. The Ford didn’t go up hills well and the Chevy’s front wheels tended to ratchet side to side when I hit a pothole. Both were painted an alarming yellow.

13. I went to boot camp in San Diego when I was 14. I lied about my age to join the Sea Cadets. Actually, my father lied about my age. He thought a paramilitary organization would make a man of me. The Sea Cadets were a lot like the Navy but for adolescents. They taught me how to make a life preserver out of my pants, how to smoke unfiltered cigarettes, shirk duty, and swear like a sailor—all served me well in later life.

14. Earthquakes follow me. I survived the San Fernando Earthquake (Los Angles) in 1971, the Loma Prieta Earthquake (San Francisco) in 1989, and the Nisqually Earthquake (Seattle) in 2001. Where I walk the ground trembles.

15. I still haven’t written a novel.

16. I spent a summer living in a camp trailer in the Mohave Desert. There was no air conditioning. When the sun came up like thunder I had 10 minutes to wake up and get out before my blood began to boil and trickle from my ears.

17. I once attended the Renaissance Faire in Los Angeles dressed as a monk in the company of a pregnant nun and a bishop with staff and miter. We carried a goatskin full of wine. By the end of the day we were utterly in character and barely comprehensible.

18. I’ve never met the most influential people in my life. They were writers. All of them are now dead.

19. I believe we must all play the cards we’re dealt by life but some hands are better than others. It’s not the obvious things that determine the strength of your hand, not wealth and privilege, but the things that go unseen, the things that happen to children behind closed doors.

20. I suspect that humanity doesn’t have much time left. What survives will be hardly recognizable to us now but it may be a wiser, more respectful, less arrogant species. Or not.

21. I once lived briefly surrounded by a flock of sheep that were guarded by Basque shepherds and their fierce dogs. At night the coyotes gleaned the flock and barked on my doorstep.

22. I’ve learned you can survive any circumstance except the one you don’t and that one doesn’t much matter. I’ve lived a lot of places, some without money, friends, home, work or prospects and each time I’ve rebuilt my life, one step at a time. That’s a lesson I think a lot of people are going to learn soon.

23. The Doors and the Jefferson Airplane played gigs in my high school gym. Terry Gilliam is our most illustrious alumni.

24. I remember watching the original episodes of Saturday Night Live in a 100 year old house in Marysville, California. The house was built on stilts to accommodate the Yuba River historically flooding the town. You could ride a skate board from one side of the living room to the other without pushing. I was especially fond of John Belushi’s Samurai.

25. I once worked backstage on a college production of The Hobbit. The costumer—a big woman with a mischievous sense of humor and a history of prostitution—sewed a stuffed penis and a pair of balls onto my sleeping bag. She was a clever seamstress. The penis had veins and the balls sprouted hair. She hoped I would invite some woman camping and when I rolled out my bag, the penis would rise like a flag. The cost of thread, stuffing and cloth—a few cents. The look on my face—price

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Master of Controlled Collisions

 Steering Ships Through a Treacherous Waterway | Science & Nature | Smithsonian Magazine

The Smithsonian has a four-page article online about the pilots of the Columbia River bar, a place that has honestly earned a reputation as the graveyard of the Pacific. I have never seen a piece of water that more closely approximates hell than the Columbia River bar in a gale.


As deep water storm swells begin to feel the bar shoal beneath them and the strong outwash of the Columbia River confronts them, monstrous seas are formed. But even in moderate weather the strength of the river’s current can create waves of exceptional height.

The bar pilots are responsible for millions of dollars of equipment and cargo, not to mention the lives of all onboard, but the skippers of the pilot boats have a more intimate challenge. They need to pin their vessel against a wall of steel long enough for the pilot to transit safely while each vessel describes its own eccentric orbit in the seaway. I once heard the captain of a San Francisco bar pilot boat describe himself as a master of controlled collisions.

Above, footage of the pilot boat Chinook on the Columbia River bar. And below, a view from a pilot boat in relatively calm weather.


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Standing Waves and Cloud Caps

 Mt. Rainier puts on a show! | KOMO News – Seattle, Washington | Weather Blog

KOMO News published a series of wondrous photographs of lenticular clouds forming over Mt. Rainer on December 5. The clouds look surreal as if the work of Salvador Dali.

Lenticular clouds form when moist, warm air strike the flanks of Rainier and are deflected upward where it cools and condenses into cloud like the cap of a mushroom.

The air forms a standing wave as it streams over the mountain’s peak and descends the far side into the trough, warming and drying as it falls. The cloud remains stationary at the crest of the wave, continually resupplied by the moist air drawn from the westerly wind and the sea.

Lenticular cloud, Mt. Rainier. Photo attribution: Tim Thompson.  Photo attribution: Tim Thompson.

Lenticular clouds form over Mt. Rainier several times each year but rarely are they this spectacular. Because of the turbulence associated with the formation of lenticular clouds, the pilots of powered planes avoid them but sailplanes ride the wave lift to great heights and distances. Imagine riding a sailplane through such a cloud!

The only named wind in the British Isles, the Helm Wind, forms similar clouds above Cross Fell. The clouds are called the Helm Bar.

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To Break Dead Things

 USGS Release: Tree Deaths Have Doubled Across the Western U.S. — Regional Warming May be the Cause (1/22/2009 2:00:00 PM)

The trees are dying, their mortality rate doubling across the western forests in the last few handful of years. It doesn’t seem to matter—young or old trees growing at elevations high and low, pines and firs and hemlocks.

Deadwood_OlympicPeninsula  Photo attribution: Majorcascadia.

US Geological Survey scientists believe the cause of death is the warming climate—1 degree Fahrenheit over the last few decades. Only 1 degree but enough to trigger cascading consequences. New growth isn’t replacing the loss quickly enough to maintain equilibrium. Winter snowpack is less, snowmelt comes sooner, summer drought lasts longer. The longer, hotter summers invite insect that burrow into bark or browse on leaves.

“A doubling of death rates eventually could reduce average tree age in a forest by half, thus reducing average tree size,” said Nate Stephenson with the US Geological Survey and co-leader of the research team that documented their work in the article “Widespread increase of tree mortality rates in the western United States” recently published in Science magazine.

What does it mean when the forests die? I can’t imagine the loss of living in a world forested by naked snags and skeletal branches.

Strong to break dead things,
the young tree, drained of
the old tree, ready to drop,
to lift from the rotting
of leaves, the old
crumbling pine tree stock.
The Dancer
Hilda Doolittle

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Sea of Fog

When thermal inversions settle upon Puget Sound, the fog settles as well. The view from Tiger Mountain in the late afternoon was captured by Stephen Van Dyck and featured on Cliff Mass Weather Blog. The clouds streaming from the west are a nice touch.


Cliff is a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington and the author of The Weather of the Pacific Northwest. I’ve just received my copy and I’m dying to know why weather forecasters on Puget Sound so often get it wrong.

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A Carnivore’s Sensibility

In the last year of the last century, the Makah, an aboriginal people who inhabit the outer coast of Washington, hunted and killed a gray whale from an open boat. The death of that whale ignited a firestorm of opposition. That opposition constellated around three arguments.

  • Lack of necessity
  • Inhumanity of the killing
  • Intelligence of whales

I’ve written elsewhere about choosing your food based upon a sliding scale of self-awareness (see Devouring Intelligence) but I wonder still about what’s humane. Is the pain we inflict an inverse measure of our humanity?

Mind you, I’m not a hunter; I am a carnivore. I live by devouring life. It doesn’t seem to me fair to draw a distinction between animal and vegetable life. I don’t gut and bleed the animals I eat or rip the vegetables from the ground; I pay someone to do that for me. I risk nothing in the hunt; my prey is bred and raised from birth, held captive, often in horrendous conditions, in order to maximize profit per pound. The fact that I’m removed from the bloody business doesn’t make me less culpable. I can’t distance myself from the awful mystery: life consumes life.

Makah flensing whale on the beach at Neah Bay circa 1910. Asahel Curtis, photographer.

It seems to me hypocritical to deny our biological imperative. One way or another, we all live by devouring life. In some cultures we even eat each other. Mind you, I’m not recommending cannibalism if for no other reason than the bio-magnification of toxins in predators. My question is whether the pain we inflict on our prey make us more or less humane.

In other words, is the absence of pain our greatest good? And pain for whom, predator or prey?

Web of Indebtedness

The whole food chain is enmeshed in a web of indebtedness. Life feeds upon life. Stockmen and slaughterhouses and chicken farms keep us a safe distance from the blood and the dirt but the debt piles up until it’s too big to pay.

The Makah have been hunting whales since before the birth of Christ, maybe even before the birth of Rome. They stalked whales in open boats until they were close enough to be wetted by the whale’s spout, close enough to kill by hand with a harpoon tipped with clam shell, close enough to be killed by a twitch of the whale’s flukes. They knew there was no fundamental difference between themselves and the whale, that hunter would inevitably become hunted. Life feeds life. They acknowledged the debt; they repaid it with their lives.

The measure of our humaneness is surrendering the separation between ourselves and the world…

The Huichol are another aboriginal people. They live in the Sierra Madre of Mexico. They’re a poor people barely scratching a living from the dirt but each year they walk hundreds of miles to make a sacrifice to the sea. By the time they return to their mountains they’ve eaten all the food they could carry and walked the soles off their sandals. It’s an absurd, painful ritual but the Huichol believe that the world will end if the sacrifice isn’t made. They’re paying the debt for us all.

The measure of our humaneness is surrendering the separation between ourselves and the world and acknowledging our indebtedness to all life. Ultimately it’s not about saving the whales. It’s about sacrificing ourselves.

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Perigee Approaches

 NASA – Biggest Full Moon of the Year: Take 2

Moon over Puget Sound. Photo attribution: PFLY.

This Saturday, January 10, the moon will be in perigee, it’s closest approach to the earth for the year. It will be a moon of magnificent size especially as it nears the western horizon at 7:39 Sunday morning.

For reasons still unexplained, the moon seems larger near the horizon. I remember a night watch onboard a boat we delivered from Oahu to San Francisco. We were a week into a three week passage, already a bit dazed from standing watch-on-watch. Because there were only three in the delivery crew, we stood our watches alone. There was no one to ask when, in the middle of the wide Pacific, a ship steamed over the horizon on a collision course for the only other boat in existence, a 40 foot sailboat making four knots.

It must have been a cruise ship. The decks were flooded with light. Amid all the back scatter, I couldn’t pick out its running lights, couldn’t determine its exact direction, but it was coming on fast. I seriously thought about turning on the engine but where would I steer? The ship seemed to fill the eastern horizon as if it were about to run us down. They wouldn’t even feel the collision. They’d even know to turn and look for survivors. There seemed no escape.

And then the ship’s hull cleared the horizon. Something in my head audibly clicked. What seemed a ship at risk of collision turned into the moon rising above an empty ocean, an enormous moon sailing overhead.

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Scent of a Whale

Tucker, a black Lab trained in tracking animal scat, has been deployed two of the past three summers to track down orca scat between the San Juan Islands and Vancouver Island in Haro Strait, sniffing his quarry from the bow of a research boat for a University of Washington research team.

Local News | With dog’s help, clues to orcas’ decline found in whale scat | Seattle Times Newspaper


It seems slightly incongruous when a Labrador Retriever spends its summers tracking whales. Specifically, whale scat. Like traditional Chinese doctors, marine biologists can learn a lot from poop. Like the fact that there’s not enough of it.

Orcas in the Salish Sea are suffering from malnutrition. They’re starving to death. As a byproduct, they’re not pooping as much. That makes Tucker’s job a lot harder. The fact that Seattle Times reporters can’t use the word poop in print makes their job a lot less fun.

Who’s to Blame?

Besides the incongruity of a dog trained to hunt whales (and the image of the biologists collecting it, and the fact that whale poop floats), what most intrigued me about the Times article were the comments.

The first comment was by a former commercial fisherman who laid the blame squarely on the Indians. According to the comment, the Indians’ treaty rights enabled them to deplete the salmon fishery. As a result, the orca are starving.

Sadly, some things never change. The comments, and the prejudice, remain the same.

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