I’ve misplaced my spectacles!

To lose or not to lose, that is the question….

I’ve misplaced my spectacles, where have they gone?
I’ve looked on two tables flanking my chair,
I’ve checked on my desk where I place all the mail,
I’ve scanned the floor where they might have escaped,
gotten down on my knees to see if they lay
masked by a book that fell when I slept,
I’ve picked up the chair to see if they crawled
away when they fell off my nose when I napped,
I grabbed up an article I forgot that I’d read
and threw it away, but the lenses weren’t there,
I peered in a box that once held a mouse,
not one with fur and whiskers and feet,
but one with buttons and lasers and wheels,
I searched in the kitchen, on the stove, in the fridge,
I considered the cabinets—why would they hide there?
But they weren’t where they should be,
they could be anywhere!

I went to the bathroom and glanced at the sink,
the toilet tank cover didn’t hold them at all,
I gazed at the tub, but I don’t wear them to bathe,
I viewed where the ointments sit in a row,
I ogled the t.p., stored in its stack,
the rolls stayed silent, the glasses weren’t there.
I went to the car and checked over the visor,
I scoured the floor, even under the seats,
I got out a ladder and went up to the roof,
the gutters were filled with debris, not eyewear,
the whole roof was bare of spectacles too.
I called nine-one-one and they laughed in my ear,
I tried four-one-one and they hadn’t a clue.
I asked my neighbors if they’d seen them around,
they seemed quite concerned, a bit alarmed,
but had not spotted the glasses at all that day.
I finally gave up and went back inside.
They were where I had left them, where they belong.


“Have a Good Day”

“Have a nice day!”

“How is the day treating you?”

Sometime in the last few years, I worked out a response for these greetings, at least between me and people who know me a little. I’m sure I would just get looks of bafflement from those who don’t.

“The days are all the same. It’s what you make of them that matters.”

A day, after all, is just a block of time we’ve stitched together to help us make sense of our lives. Twenty-four hours and most of us experience day and night, each of which has very specific characteristics in the amount of light, temperature, humidity, winds (aka atmospheric convection currents), and all of the creatures attuned to these variations.

If we weren’t endowed with the minds we have, we would just do the things that kept us living until inevitable mortality swept us aside. If I was a worker bee (I’d have to be a drone as all worker bees are females, but stay with me for the moment), we would spend our days searching for nutrients for the drones, our queen, and her spawn. Over our 4 to 5 week lifespan, if we were tasked with nectar gathering, we would gather enough nectar to create one-twelfth a teaspoon of honey, but we would never sleep. A colony of 50,000 to 60,000 workers would gather about 4,000 teaspoons (about 5.2 U.S. gallons or 19.71 liters) of honey in the 4-5 weeks, followed by other workers and so on.

Apis mellifera (all rights reserved J.K. Lindsay)

But we are not bees, nor will we ever bee (ahem… pardon me). While we are both social creatures, we think about our days in ways that would have the worker bees tied in knots, wondering whether it wasn’t time for a break from the constant business of keeping the colony alive. If we were a drone, a male bee that loses its sex organs when it mates in flight with the queen, dying afterward, we might reconsider that last coital flight, binge-watch another season of Que Sera Sera on the BBC, eat honey and bee bread until we could no longer move. If we were a queen bee, we would have been chosen—seemingly at random—from huge numbers of female larvae and fed royal jelly throughout our lives. We would lay 1,500 to 2,000 eggs per day and live four to five years (instead of the 4-5 weeks a worker lives), although our production of eggs would fall after the first two years. But if we were intelligent and could make choices beyond those typical of queen bee-dom, we might give up producing so many eggs, cutting back to a mere 150 to 200 over one year and then having some fun for the remaining years.

Some of us (the >7.475+ billion of “us”)—by no means all of us, unfortunately—get to choose what our days hold for us, but every day is the same, every day is just twenty-four hours of minutes and seconds. Whether we have a “good” day or a “bad” day depends on where we live, our class, ethnicity, gender, religious beliefs, education choices, genetics, lifestyle choices (by which I mean what we choose to put into our bodies (salted corn chips or fruit? vegetables or meat?)). If we are female and live in a male-dominated society with fundamentalist religious beliefs of any type, our education choices are probably limited by what the patriarchs say is possible within the context of their realm. The men define the realm based on their view of what “God” (this is in quotes because in this context, the notion of “God” is suspect) would accept and they have inferred that women do not need to be educated beyond an ability to speak, do chores, and raise a family. Of course, in some of those societies the men hold themselves to strict practices as well, but that doesn’t keep them from inequitably limiting the choices of others.

There are a lot of these inequities in the world, inequities that block some from the rights that others enjoy without question. Because of the barricades constructed by some, a day may be a period in which survival may or may not happen, in which whatever rights are allowed are further limited by detention (at home, in prison, at work). The day looks on in its unblinking way, seeing and not-seeing all the lives that are lived within it, providing its amoral interval in which we can make choices or have choices made for us.

But the days are fine, thanks.

What will you do today?


The Old Man and the We

Those who go down to the sea in boats…

My dad retired after over twenty-two years service in the U.S. Navy. He completed his service as a Commander and served in what I now think of as three wars: WWII, Korean, and Cold. As a result of his service, we moved a good bit for the first 12 years of my life and—very importantly for me—spent two and a half years on the island of Malta when he was seconded (to use the cooler-sounding British term) to Headquarters, Allied Forces, Mediterranean (HAFMED in the strange acronymic language of probably all military organizations everywhere), a NATO subsidiary. To date, I have no idea why he got this plum gig but I think the explicit reasons he took the post were that (1) my mother was dual citizen British and U.S. until she was 18 and this was a way of her introducing her kids to an element of British Commonwealth (aka colonial) culture and (2) he had a much more global and progressive perspective than most of his colleagues in the military. As such, when people ask me where I’m from, I never have a simple answer as I do not have any sense of the place I was born. I was raised in all over.

I actually have a poor understanding of what he did in his day job. What I do know is that on retirement, he used his G.I. bill benefit to return to university and complete his education, started with no great skill or enthusiasm (as he admitted) back in Great Depression era in southeastern Washington state. Apparently, day job or not, he had spent so much time reading during his service years that he was able to place out of much undergraduate coursework and obtained his B.A. with top honors in Philosophy in two years. Anyone who has taken a sophomore or above course in philosophy knows that the stuff is usually written with the eloquence of a legal document without the story-telling prowess usually demonstrated therein. He immediately started work on a History Masters degree, one that required a full-length dissertation (or perhaps he wrote one out of pure bloody-mindedness because he just wanted to), and wrapped that up in a year… with top honors again. This led to employment as an assistant professor of history, which eventually resulted in his advancement to a professorship at a regional campus of a state university.

Now, I provide all of that back-story to place the worm on the hook. I will not be talking about the apparently dull life of the retired Navy officer who becomes a professor and spent most days in his study reading astonishing numbers of periodicals and preparing formal lectures for his classes.

I will be revealing what a very dubious experience (to put it mildly) fishing was with this career Navy man. It is pretty easy to dismiss the idea that he was a sailor in any sense, particularly given the semi-piratical clichés that accompany landlubber notions of sailor-dom. He did not, as might have been true in earlier centuries, spend any time at all running up the mizzenmast or belaying a halyard or battening hatches (well, he might have battened some as this just means to close a hatch in bad weather). I do know he stood by the large guns that pointed out at targets over 8 kilometers distant. He was somewhat deafened by that practice.

But when it came to piloting the 20-foot plywood boat with the 35-horsepower motor, when it came to setting it in the water, running around in the tidal waters that ebbed and flowed around the sea islands he chose for a retirement home, when it came to fishing, it was usually ninety-nine problems versus the fish.

To be analytical, these problems came in two varieties: (1) problems associated with poor navigation and planning and (2) problems of the weather. Neither problem was ameliorated by my father’s inability to convince his kids (my brother and me) into thinking this was all part of the wonderfully complex plan he had intended. Or part of a Robert Louis Stevenson/Daniel Defoe/Samuel Taylor Coleridge/Herman Melville/Nordhoff&Hall/Ernest Hemingway-inspired adventure pitting a man and his sons against the forces of fish and sea. His temperament tended to the choleric, which is sort of antithetical to what is required by fish and fishing.

Although we did fish, usually catching sharks and stingrays rather than what we hoped, we sortied for shrimp more often. The mighty shrimp traveled in schools and spawned in the labyrinth of finger-like inlets and creeks that surround the countless islands of the intracoastal waterways of our new home. To call the complexity of these inlets and islands fractal-like would be doing them a disservice; they were so much more irregular and odd-shaped than even the most complicated Mandelbrot set. The islands in their essence are little more than accretions of silt and long-dead oyster beds festooned at their edges with marsh grasses, building towards the center of any isle of size with yaupon holly, wax myrtle, live oak, and palmetto trees. The shrimp come and go with the tides in this brackish water and as they do, they grow into the tasty question marks we boil, behead, defrock, devein, and dip into a purée of tomatoes and horseradish (I can do without the horseradish bit, thank you!). To get them to the boiling pot, the amateur shrimper must thread their way through the shoals of marsh grass, past living oyster beds and sand bars and submarine ridges of the dark silt the region calls “pluff mud” that lie just beneath the surface of the dark water. Then, they use a circular casting net, weighted at the edges, that can be drawn into form a bundle of sorts. The bundle, if a cast has been successful, contains bunches of shrimp, all of which are snapping their bodies in a seizure-like motion that makes a tiny sound like fingers snapping for attention.

Featured image

The next step in shrimping is a less graceful one. It involves removing them, all very busy in their contortions, from netting in which they’ve been snared. You see, pointy ends of shrimp faces are adorned with a rostrum, a sharp extension of their carapace.They also have a scaphocerite, short antennae, chela, long antennae, pereiopods, pleopods, and a uropod, not to mention a segmented abdomen, so they are well-made to get hung up on the interwoven strings that primarily compose a net.


If you pick the shrimp up without gloves or if the shrimp head is not poking out of your hand, you will get punctured, gored much in the same way a rampaging bull might gore you, albeit without the trampling part of that festivity. The fresh hole in your hand will include an injection of whatever microorganisms were living on the sharp shrimpy bit. It will need attention or an infection may set in (note to my adolescent self: bring peroxide and antibiotic cream on the shrimping expedition; you didn’t back then, but now you know). You will be punctured many times and your fingers and hands will feel numb and tingly, not in a good way. The good news is that this puncture wound is much like those delivered by various fish spines or barbs around the mouth of a catfish; the stingray spine actually contains venom, unlike shrimp rostrum and catfish barbs.

Once the shrimp are removed from the net and sitting in a bucket of water contemplating their future in a boiling pot of water and Old Bay®, the net is arranged for the next cast into the murk.

Of course, this glosses over the very important fact that shrimp do not swim around holding dayglo signs above their schools. The intrepid shrimper has a tremendous number of fingerling marshy areas to visit. One drops anchor (it is tidal water and always on the move), casts a few times to determine that the area(s) chosen have no shrimp who are willing to be gathered, weighs anchor, and moves on to the next picturesque cove in search of the elusive decapods.

And this is where the story becomes one of a retired sailor, two kids, and brackish water instead of about tasty crustaceans (I hope the descriptions above have not put you off; they are rather delicious once their rostrum-enhanced carapace has been severed from its abdomen and it has been deprived of its intestinal tract (aka “deveined“)).

For whatever reason, my father was forgetful about bringing along a very important spare part on our waterway adventures. The spare part is known as a shear pin, a short, skinny cylinder of soft metal that ensures that the outboard motor propeller turns when the engine is running and stops turning when the propeller hits a sandbar, mud bar, oyster bed, a patch of submarine grasses, a bit of junk floating just out of sight, et cetera. Basically, anything that exerts more torque on the propeller blades than the shear pin is designed to resist will break the pin so that the propeller stops turning, although the motor continues to purr happily away. The result of the shear pin doing its duty is that your boat will not be going anywhere unless the currents and tides say so. Well, unless you have oars of some description.

The thing marked “11” is the shear pin

But our vessel was a twenty-foot plywood thing with few adornments other than a steering wheel and throttle up in the front bit and some lengths of plywood along the floor that covered its shallow bilge. It may have had a basic windscreen; I can’t remember. Its primary features were that it was blue and white, it floated, and it was very heavy. Wooden boats float when they are not waterlogged, but wood is not as light as fiberglass or aluminum. They need to be hauled around on a boat trailer and the trailer backed ddown a ramp into the water—submerged—before the boat can be coaxed off its resting place. When floating, an oar or two are usually (but not always) included among the necessary ingredients to ensure an error-free day. But these paddles are most often used to push off a dock or a sandbar or a mud bank. They are not persuasive in the “let’s go home” department, particularly against a current or tide that has a mightier master than paddles wielded by an old man and his adolescent sons. This boat did not resemble a canoe, kayak, or rowboat in any conceivable way. I have looked for a picture of a similar vessel and have found none that are as basic in design. The entire catalog of boats posted on the web and available through Googling “twenty-foot boat” are prettier than ours was or simply are very different. Our boat has gone the way of the dodo bird; it has ceased to exist.

Off we go, a heavy blue boat in the arhythmic chop of the river, outboard running, its deep grumble pushing us through the water, going to some set of inlets where shrimp are presumed to be. There are tall creosoted poles in the water here and there, warning the larger boats (no ships in this river—it is wide and deep but not for them) to stay in the center of the passage. We do this, although we will be veering off into the shallower parts as that is the point of the mission.

Waterway Markers

Eventually, we arrive at an inlet, rumored by someone to be a hot place to cast the net, and drop anchor. We cast—and no shrimp come up. We spread our arms in the graceful way a net must be cast again—sort of a prayer to the dark waters and their contents—in another zone nearby, suspecting that another imaginary cylinder of water is the one that contains the delicious question marks with their pointed beaks and snapping tails. None come up. Now it is just a matter of pulling anchor, starting the motor on low, finding another pool between jetties of marsh grass, dropping anchor, casting the net, and seeing what comes up.

Tidal Marsh 2.jpg
The labyrinthine nature of lowcountry salt tidal marshes
(all rights reserved, Christopher Craft, Indiana University)

Now, let me be clear. All of this moving around in the web of water and grass is the fun bit. It’s mostly peaceful, casting is a sort of beautiful zen-ish experience that has a lot of inherent grace to it—it can even be done fairly well by those who have never done it—and whether there are shrimp or not is really secondary to the pursuit (although getting shrimp, barbs and all, is a good outcome too).

What Lies Beneath… (an oyster bed at low tide, just the right height for an outboard propeller)

Problems start when the outboard is on and in gear, meaning that the propeller is turning and pushing water in a spiraling cone behind the boat. When the propeller is turning, it can hit a submerged oyster bed or sand bar or just the thick ooze of the pluff mud. If there is enough resistance, the shear pin will do what its name implies (is there a word “explies,” because that’s really what is needed here—a word that states that something is explicitly indicated in its meaning).

Pluff mud at low tide

As a child on into my adolescence, it was sort of fun to go walking in pluff mud. The stuff smells like sewage, but the chemist in me now knows that this is just the result of deterioration of living things—grasses and creatures—their substance turning into amino acids and other fundamental molecules, some of which contain sulfur (cysteine, homocysteine, cystine, methionine, taurine, s-adenosylmethionine, etc., all the way down to hydrogen sulfide). The good thing about hydrogen sulfide is that we can smell it at very low concentrations. The bad news is that at high concentrations it is lethal to human beings. The mud, outgassing hydrogen sulfide and other volatile sulfur-containing compounds, is not telling us it will kill us outright. It is more subtle than that. If you walk into it and lack the strength to extricate yourself from its powerful ooze, you may need help getting back out. In tidal waters, it is important to get out before the water rises above your head. Death by pluff mud is not common. Fear associated with the sense that you are stuck, your shoes have disappeared somewhere in the sticky holes your legs have made, and your next step will place you knee-deep in the dark clutch of that heavy, smelly sump of life, the fear is real and common, particularly among the senselessly brave people we call “the young.” Pluff mud may hide something far more sinister than suction, though. It may hide old oyster beds or shells abandoned to the waters at some time in the past. Those oyster shells all have edges that will lacerate a foot, ankle, calf, or arm (it is common to try pushing yourself out of the mud’s grasp by giving it your arms to sup on while it is busy with your legs) and open cuts that will bleed into the mud as happily as they will bleed anywhere else.

So, here we are, leaving one shrimp-free zone and moving to another zone, hopefully shrimp-enhanced. We are moving slowly but we are moving under power. The propeller hits something and we stop moving. We try turning on and off the motor. We tilt the motor out of the water, reach down and find the propeller is spinning freely, that no connection exists between it and the driveshaft. We are, in the modern sense as surely as in the ancient one, dead in the water. We will go where currents and tides take us. If there is a wind, it will move us as well, but we are no longer capable of moving on our own.

There are various ways in which this scenario plays out from this point on:

  1. Not only have we sheared the pin, we have beached ourselves on the submerged mass of whatever description we will soon learn when the retreating tide reveals it
  2. We have now learned that we do not have a spare shear pin
  3. We reach for the oars which we know we placed in the boat and find that we did not place the oars in the boat as our memory tells us we did, thus giving us no choice about what to do next
  4. One or more of us exits the beached chunk of plywood, temporarily not much of a boat, and tries to prise it off the mud, sand, or oyster bed, thus losing our shoes and sinking in mud, cutting ourselves on oyster shells, or (and this was the best of the outcomes) finding that we could push ourselves off the sandbar and go on our way
  5. We have and oar, we push ourselves off the impediment without issue but find that we are now simply adrift with an oar, maybe two, in our hands and no conceivable way of using them to “row” our way back whence we came
  6. We have had the good luck of freeing ourselves, absent shear pin, but it now starts to rain in some very exhaustive and punishing way, filling the shallow bilge and covering the plywood that keeps the bilge hidden, thus requiring the use of containers meant for shrimp, which were not caught, to be used for bailing
  7. During the bailing, one of us finds that the fish hooks, being at the ends of fishing lines which are spooled out from the fishing poles we brought with us, hoping that if shrimp were not caught we could catch something with fins, those fish hooks are floating about at the ends of the lines and, against all probability (as they are quite small and the boat is much larger), they skewer my brother’s thumb with the deliberateness of an arrow shot at his finger by William Tell himself
  8. We are drenched, we are oarless, we are pin-less, we are skewered, we are beached, we are shrimp-less, our vessel overly full of murky water, and we are at the mercy of others
  9. Who, somehow and against all probability, arrive and tow us back to our landing and our boat trailer, looking much like a set of freshly washed felines would look if they were leashed up and taken for a pleasant walk around the neighborhood.

So, this is why I don’t fish.

And then there is the toadfish. A picture will suffice:

The Toadfish, nature’s answer to the angler’s prayer

The problem with all of this is that it is now uncommon to find wild shrimp in these inlets; they have been overfished. The shrimp boats once common to these waterways and the Atlantic just off the southern United States, have to go out for longer journeys. Many shrimpers don’t even try anymore. The haul does not pay for keeping the boat maintained, much less running after the increasingly elusive morsels that used to be so common. It’s a problem that affects much of fishing worldwide. For me, for my brief history of fishing and longer history of doing it very badly indeed, it’s not a personal problem. It is very much a problem for all of the people on earth who have survived for millennia on the seas’ bounty. We could all take a moment to care for their future as they have helped us enjoy the fruits of their labor in the past.





Featured image: https://id.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berkas:Camarones.JPG

On The Day

On the day…

On the day the whole sky was filled with rainbow light,
someone said “I don’t like the color red,”
another said “I don’t like the color green,”
another said “I don’t like all these colors lighting up the sky,”
and another said “I wish rainbows came in more natural colors,”
but most people just stayed quiet and smiled
at the beautiful sky full of rainbows
and wished for another day
as beautiful as this.

On the day it rained honey in glimmering drops while the sky shone,
someone said “this is sticky! I need a bath!”
another said “this is too sweet! It should be in a jar for later!”
another said “if this stuff is so good, why do bees let us have it?”
and another said “I like my sugar in tiny parcels I can open as I need them,”
but most people opened wide and
let the golden dew fall into their hearts,
course through their blood, infusing them with
the essence of flowers and sunlight.

On the day the air smelled of jasmine and roses in all its parts,
someone said “what happened to the smoke from burning forests?”
another said “I liked the air better when it reeked of oil,”
another said “I want that stench of cattle farms back!”
and another said “nothing smells better than that new car smell,”
but most people just filled their lungs and let it out,
and did it again and again, relishing the way their chests,
filled up with all the invisibility of delicate scents,
then emptied to prepare for another gulp of what the day had in store.

On the day the earth had mountains and valleys and rivers and oceans,
someone said “what are these lumps? They are too high to climb!”
another said “if I walk into this valley, I have to walk back out!”
another said “the water in this river is cold and the fish bite!”
and another said “the ocean is not a good color and the waves are too large!”
but most people saw the beauty around them
and were astonished that they found themselves alive in such a place
with eyes to accept light and mouths that could gape in wonder
and a brain that kept impressions and memories when the wonders weren’t there.


Featured image: Sam Valadi Rainbow uploaded to Flick April 2, 2015

Princess Jin and the Tower of Vines

Princess Jin lived deep in a thicket of…

Princess Jin lived deep in a thicket of vines covered in enormous thorns. The thorns glistened with sap with an odor so profound that one breath would send any male into an impenetrable sleep. For some reason, Princess Jin was not affected by the perfume and conducted her daily business with a song in her throat and a smile on her lips.

Princess Jin did not just live in a thicket of vines, though. She lived in a tower created from vines that had twisted themselves upwards and fashioned a glorious green room at their lofty tip. Vine leaves had matted together to form a roof and ceiling through which no rain could fall and no wind could blow. When it was cold, the vines pumped warmth from its roots into the walls of the tower, and when it was warm, the leaves and tendrils breathed a bit and parted so breezes could keep her cool.

Jin (for she did not like to be called “Princess”) spent her days weaving diaphanous garments from the silk caterpillars delivered and from webs spiders left behind with their blessing. Her gowns were iridescent, catching the simple light of the sun and turning them into a spectrum of colors that gleamed out from the oriel windows, oilettes, and loopholes the vines made for her, then were sealed over when the vines shielded her against weather. On top of her golden braided hair, worn like a crown, she placed a circular lace cap inscribed with lessons she had learned from her life in a language secret to all but herself.

The vines oversaw her bed-making as well. When she rose each morning, tendrils reached in from the walls and refreshed the leaves they had placed the day before with new ones, long and wide, stacked one upon the other until the mattress rose to Jin’s waist. The bed was firm, though, and gave way just a little when she composed herself for a night’s rest, the top leaves folding over her peaceful form and keeping her warmth close in.

In the morning, a small leaf bearing a miscellany of berries had appeared on her table, just a pedestal bearing a plateau of petals at its top, poking up out of the tower’s floor, itself a seamless interlacing of thorns covered in soft, warm leaves. She had never seen how the berries and nuts arrived, but they were always there, her needs expected before she thought them, her hunger never more than a dim fear hidden away in her history.

When she was five and living a sheltered life in the nearby lands of King Conor, he had imprisoned her mother Queen Isa in the dungeons of the palace. She remembered visiting her mother there. She had only been visible by torchlight, which always burned webs and dust from the passageways she navigated with her guard. Queen Isa’s cell was smaller than a horse stall in the royal stables. There was a bed of straw, which smelled of mildew and offal, and a hole cut in the floor which allowed the Queen to answer nature’s call into a stream that trickled by below her. A crust of bread sat on the floor next to a wooden bowl of water. Her mother, the woman who bore and raised her—and who had married the King when she had turned fourteen to unite his kingdom with that of a neighboring lord—was clothed in a burlap sheath. Her face, arms, and legs protruded from her garment like broken kindling from a bundle on a forester’s back. Her eyes, sunken and dry from weeks of weeping, were gray in their hollow sockets. Her death was a certainty and, on the twenty-first anniversary of her birth, she was carried to the throne room and beheaded before the courtiers and the father of her child. Her head fell from her shoulders much like a petal does from a dry flower, not so much severed but free from the burden of imitating life for one more day.

Jin was raised by a series of tutors who would last for days or sometimes weeks, then disappear as completely as if they had never existed. From them, she learned courtly manners, including the proper way to address the multitude of courtiers whom she might see whenever she left her room. She was taught that knitting and crocheting methods kept demons at bay. They shared their belief that God was wise in selecting her father as monarch and the church showed its respect in supporting him above all other lords, ladies, and commoners, domestic and foreign-born. Most importantly, they ensured that she understood the importance of honoring her father first in all matters, public and private, even if she were to marry nobility from a distant demesne.

Her only friend, aside from her maids and ladies in waiting (who were not friends but sycophants and spies in her father’s employ), was one of the court jesters. Nature had been cruel to Arguello. He was a dwarf, bow-legged and hunchbacked, with huge, gentle hands and crooked fingers. Large, blue eyes peered out of his wart-embossed head. His smile seemed frozen in place when he was in the court pulling pranks at the behest of the head jester. He was treated worse than the court hounds by most, including the other jesters, but Jin had seen through his flaws into his funny and loving soul. He was just a child like her, after all, no more than a few years her senior when they first met, but they knew that their friendship and loyalty was steadfast from the start. Arguello would provide the latest court news and rumors, and she would share her fears and nightmares. He brought her books and helped her to read them, as she had not been taught to read by her many tutors, who always told her it was not necessary for a princess or queen to learn such things. He had learned to read by pretending to nap in the monastery library while secretly reading the sacred books as the monks read them aloud to each other to to prepare for the abbot’s test of their piety. It was in this way and no other that the princess discovered the outer world of cruel facts and wonderful magic.

When the court alchemist declared Jin fertile on her thirteenth birthday, her father summoned her and told her that she was to be wed to a noble within a year or two. Slowly, then with increasing frequency, earls, marquises, squires, princes, barons, knights, kings, and dukes came courting. They would visit her in a private chamber set aside for visitors. It was several stairways, corridors, and rooms away from the king’s court, ensuring privacy but also reminding her that she was just a princess, a pawn in the king’s quest for increased wealth and power, the daughter of a forgotten queen. The knights, squires, lords, and supplicants of all shapes, ages, languages, and descriptions would enter the room, bow, and tell the princess of their lands, riches, and plans for their future together. None of this mattered to her. She knew that several scribes were hunched behind the tapestries to her left and right, scraping down every word the visitors said to her. As her visitors completed their presentations, a set of guards would appear from a hidden door and escort them away before she said anything that might embarrass the king and his court.

And it continued, week after exhausting week, her time with Arguello’s books diminished by these annoying men and their tales laced with outrageous lies.

One day, a man so fat and oily he made all others before him seem profoundly beautiful by comparison came to make his case. His face was ruddy with excess drink and his clothes smelled of smoke and weasels, for they were the pet he allowed to run freely in his ducal manse. After he had bowed, he waddled up to her throne and grabbed the front of her gown, ripping it away from her chest in one sweep of his arms. He clutched her by the hair and pulled her face to his, sticking his tongue past her lips, sweeping it about in her mouth as if he thought he had left his scullery key in her gullet. As she retched, coating his face with her breakfast, the hidden guards pulled him off and hurried him through passages she did not know. The dumbfounded scribes sat with their pens suspended in mid-air, useless and mute as always. As Jin screamed and started crying, Arguello appeared and threw a prayer shawl over her torso, hiding her from any other eyes that might arrive. He guided her from the throne and back to her bedroom, where she threw herself on the bed, sobbing and screaming into her pillow the rest of the day until she slept a disturbing sleep.

No other suitors came for a month after that. No word was ever spoken of the corpulent duke and his breach of propriety. Arguello knew that the duke’s life had been foreshortened and shared this news with her. She did not want to speak of him and her first kiss, so Arguello shared no more about his painful end at the hands of the kingdom’s cruelest hands.

Her father brought her to his court one day and told her how her life would be. Only a couple of guards and a gaunt monastic advisor was there to hear his announcement. She was to wed within the fortnight to a rich man from a nearby land. He was a duke with more acres under plow and ox, forests under bow and ax, lakes and streams to fish and row than could be visited in a week of riding. It was thought by all the king’s advisors that he would one day be king of his own lands if he were not to marry Princess Jin and merge his property with King Conor’s.

Jin was horrified. Was she to meet him?

“On your wedding day,” said the king.

Was he old, young, fat, thin, handsome, ugly, kind, or cruel?

“You will only know the answers as his wife,” said the king.

Can we go back to accepting suitors in my chamber?

“The duke will be your husband, daughter. Let us hear no more questions” said the king, and dispatched her from his presence.

“Arguello, what am I going to do?” asked Jin of her only friend.

“I know of a place on the edge of these lands that will keep you safe from your liege and his whims,” said Arguello, a grave look on his face as he held her shaking hands in his firm, soft hold. “We will leave tonight. The moon was new last eve and this night is clouded over and foggy. I will take you down a guard’s passage to a tunnel below the moat. It will not be a long walk, but we must go tonight!”

“I will come willingly, dear Arguello. What should I bring?”

“Bring your favorite books and simplest clothing. All else will be cared for; you will never know want again.”

Just past the midnight bells, they escaped down one of the poorly lit stairwells spiraling down to a narrow hall beneath the castle. A thousand steps later and another spiral staircase led them up into a copse of trees that hid a stone mound with an iron door. They emerged here, where the forest was thickest, but Arguello knew every step to take as they slipped, tree-to-tree through the wilderness, moving farther with every footfall from the king and his realm of bootlicks and pretenses.

After some hours, with the sky and air still hidden by fortuitous cover, they arrived at a thicket of tendrils covered in vines. As they approached, Jin heard a strange crackling sound amongst the undergrowth. The vines parted slightly, pulling the thorns into their thick, dark green surfaces and allowing them both to pass. They wandered another thousand steps into the broad leaves and spikes as the vines opened before them and closed as they moved ahead. Finally, they reached an area where a bed of leaves and petals had been placed as if by one of her chambermaids. It was thick and soft to the touch.

“Lie down, dear Jin. You have nothing more to fear from your father. You will be safe here in perpetuity. If you need anything, just say my name three times, and I will be here within a day. If you fear anything, say it backward twice, and I will be by your side.”

“How is that possible, Arguello? Are you a wizard?” said Jin, in awe of the powers Arguello had just revealed to her.

“No, dearest Jin. I am a servant to any who grow up in fear of those who should love them, as you have. I am a protector for all those who have known cruelty. I am a teacher of all those who were raised to be ignorant of the world’s ways, yet who were intelligent enough to learn. I am your knight errant and have wandered the earth saving those who need my skills since long before your father was born. Most importantly, I am and always will be your friend, simply and without explanation. Lie down, dear princess. Rest your eyes.”

Jin curled up on the leaves and petals and was soon in a deep sleep. When she awoke—although she did not know how long it had been—she was in her verdant tower in a bed much like the one they had found in the clearing. Her new life had begun. Slowly, with greater certainty each day, she put aside the fears that had grown within her as she had aged from infant to adolescent. She was unsure of her age but felt like many years had been left behind. Her life was a pleasant dream as she did only what she wished.

Every so often, she would say Arguello’s name three times, and he would be there within the day, always with new books and a basket filled with strange fruit and vegetable varieties; she could never empty a basket as it always seemed at least half-full. Best of all, he never told of the palace, of the king, of the duke to whom she had been betrothed, or the courtiers who had spied on her and told their lies to curry favor with their sire.

And he never told her his secret either. With her freedom from the palace had come his as well. While he had other charges to fulfill, other children to protect, other missions to complete, he was as done as she was with King Conor and his realm.

And that reward would suffice, the eternal friendship of Queen Jin being bountiful as well.

Featured image: United States Department of Agriculture via Flickr (some rights reserved)



Fire! I Bid You To Burn!!!

When did fire become a thing? Poor old Prometheus… Probably not his fault at all….

When did fire become a thing? No one knows the answer to that question. Fusion certainly occurred before fire—it happens in suns, along with nuclear fission (radioisotopes exist in the sun)—but this is not fire. It appears flamey. It is hot. It radiates through varying segments of the electromagnetic spectrum. But I am going to limit the definition of “fire” to “combustion,” if you don’t mind.

The simplest combustion reaction occurs when pure hydrogen (H2(g)) and oxygen (O2(g)) gasses are combined in a 2-to-1 ratio and given a little energetic push called activation energy (i.e. hydrogen and oxygen will hang out with each other unless they are provided this energy). Diagrammatically, the activation energy looks like this:

Activation energies Ea(X->Y) or ‘Ea(Y->X)’ need to be supplied to initiate the reactions X-> or Y-X, respectively.

The reactants (hydrogen and oxygen in our example) start on the left side of the hump, an appropriate (or excess) amount of energy is provided, and products result on the right side of the hump. The “ΔH” thing on the right side is beyond the scope here but represents a positive, negative, or neutral amount of energy released in the reaction.

The amount of activation energy varies widely from very small (e.g. some explosives) to “no reaction will ever happen regardless of energy input.” Here is what the most basic combustion reaction looks like in chemical reaction shorthand called “stoichiometry:”

2H2(g) + O2(g) → 2H2O(g)

And now, an entertainment of limited scientific value:

Combustion is generally thought to involve hydrocarbons (e.g. octane in the “gasoline” or “petrol” you use in automobiles) or their oxygenated friends the carbohydrates (e.g. cellulose, a polymeric carbohydrate used in paper and present in wood). The simplest combustion reaction is between methane (CH4(g)) and oxygen (2(g)), again resulting water but also resulting in carbon dioxide (CO2(g)) when the reaction occurs efficiently. When it does not occur efficiently or when it occurs in the presence of other substances (e.g. most of the time) it produces by-products including carbon (elemental symbol “C” aka “soot”). Here is the stoichiometry of that simple reaction:

Combustion of methane in oxygen(with appropriate activation energy added) results in carbon dioxide and water

Methane is commonly known as natural gas, although natural gas is not pure methane when used as a fuel. What the stoichiometry tells us about this reaction is that each molecule of methane uses two molecules of oxygen and produces one molecule of carbon dioxide and two molecules of water, along with an amount of energy released in the process. The energy is used to heat various processes, including home furnaces and water heaters, and used to drive steam and gas turbines to produce electricity.

When octane is used as the hydrocarbon, the balanced equation is as follows:

2C8H18(g) + 25O2(g) → 16CO2(g) + 18H2O(g)

In common English, this means that each molecule of octane requires 25 molecules of oxygen (and that activation energy thing, typically supplied by spark plugs) and results in 16 molecules of carbon dioxide and 18 molecules of water, along with a good burst of energy that drives the pistons, drive shaft, and wheels; the wheels have tires that turn and exert a force against driveways, roads, dirt, mud, water, etc. and the automobile moves forward—or backward—at various speeds as allowed by the transmission.

A transverse internal combustion engine with the drivetrain for a manual transmission

Candles (if you were wondering where all this leads) are made from paraffin wax, which is a varying mixture of hydrocarbons typically with between twenty (C20) and forty (C40) carbons in their structures. A C20 hydrocarbon like eicosane can have up to 366,319 isomers (isomers all have the same chemical formula of a chemical compound but differ in physical and some chemical properties), while tetracontane (C40H82) has 62,491,178,805,831 (that’s sixty-two trillion four hundred ninety-one billion one hundred seventy-eight million eight hundred five thousand eight hundred thirty-one) isomers (somehow, it seems like more isomers if you spell the number out). The C(xy) compounds between C20 and C40 have numerous possible isomers as well and they increase logarithmically (see chart below) as the number of carbons increase. Not all of these hydrocarbons are in paraffin but these numbers should give you an idea of how chemically complicated a simple candle may be.

This website represents output from one method of addressing the number of isomers per number of carbons but it provided a nice Excel-friendly list for my charting purposes. The reference at the bottom of the referenced web page is in German; additional approaches can be found at the link provided at the “discussion” link provided below.

While this already seems like a brain-damaging subclause to our proceedings, the estimates for number of isomers for each number of carbon is actually more complicated than I am representing here. If you have further interest, you can take a look at this discussion. If not, let’s proceed.

There is a standard equation for calculating how much product results from combustion in oxygen of any hydrocarbon; it is:

where z = x + y/4.

This means that in cases where there are 20 carbons as for eicosane, the carbon dioxide and water molecules result in the following way:

2 C20H42(s) + 61 O2(g) → 40 CO2(g) + 42 H2O(g)

or… for each two molecules of n-eicosane (one of about 366 thousand isomers of eicosane) are consumed by combustion, sixty-one molecules of oxygen are consumed, thus producing 40 molecules of carbon dioxide and forty-two molecules of water.

The thing is that it is rare that anyone burns a candle or anything else in pure oxygen. When hydrocarbons are consumed in air, a messier equation obtains to the problem:

Note that carbon monoxide is produced, along with hydrogen gas and the more familiar carbon dioxide and water. This version of the equation is why it is critical to ensure adequate air supply when using a kerosene (or other hydrocarbon-based) space heater in a closed space; the amount of carbon monoxide goes up as the amount of oxygen available goes down. Carbon monoxide, a colorless and odorless gas, causes humans to fall asleep and die due to a special kind of asphyxiation caused by very strong binding of carbon monoxide to the iron atoms in your hemoglobin and myoglobin. Once that happens, those proteins cannot carry oxygen through your arteries and your body is “starved” of oxygen.

Carboxyhemoglobin is formed when carbon monoxide is present; when this happens no more oxygen can be carried by hemoglobin (or myoglobin, a related protein)

Okay, so hydrocarbons burn in air (n.b. there is also lots of nitrogen in air and that produces problematic by-products as well) and that means carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, water, and hydrogen are produced, along with a substantial amount of particulate matter (e.g. particulate carbon and other solid carbon by-products), which ends up in our shared atmosphere (n.b. there is no “U.S.A. atmosphere” or “China atmosphere,” there is one planetary atmosphere). The most common liquid fuel currently consumed is octane but that is not consumed as pure octane, so there are other hydrocarbons and “stuff” consumed at the same time… in air… which produces problematic by-products.

Here’s a chart of how much world liquid fuel has been consumed and is projected for consumption PER DAY over the listed time period:

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration

Yes, the chart does indicate that we consume between 94 and 96 million barrels of liquid fuel per day. One barrel of liquid fuel is equivalent to 0.1172 metric tons and a metric ton is 2,200 pounds (for the non-metricized readers). One barrel is 257.4 pounds of liquid fuel. If we are consuming (let’s be modest) 94 million barrels of liquid fuel per day (and let’s be factual) there are 365 days in a year, we are consuming 8,846,490,400,000 pounds of fuel per year. If we were to pretend that all of this were octane (which it isn’t) and all of that octane followed the simplest hydrocarbon-to-carbon dioxide equation provided above (which it doesn’t), we say that every two units of octane produces sixteen units of carbon dioxide. These don’t have the same mass, of course.

To make this simple, a gallon of gasoline weighs about 6 pounds. Each gallon of gasoline produces about 18 pounds of carbon dioxide (idealized as stated above). If we divide the number of pounds of liquid fuel consumed annually by 6, we will have an estimate of the number of pounds of carbon dioxide produced. Well, the number is:

(8,846,490,400,000 pounds of fuel per year)/(1 gallon/6 pounds) =
1,474,415,066,666.67 pounds of carbon dioxide/year

To do our numbers-into-language thing, that is one trillion four hundred seventy-four billion four hundred fifteen million sixty-six thousand six hundred sixty-seven (let’s round up, given the decimal figure) pounds of carbon dioxide produced from the aforementioned pounds of liquid fuel. Pretty incredible, right?

The bottom lines are these:

  1. we can’t breathe carbon dioxide (it chokes us)
  2. actual combustion produces lots of other by-products that are also not useful for human respiration and cause various respiratory illnesses (cancer, emphysema, asthma for starters)
  3. these numbers don’t include gaseous fuel like methane, ethane, propane, or butane (starting with pentane and going up to heptadecane (C17), the compounds are liquid at 25°C), which are also used as fuels.
  4. these numbers don’t include non-petroleum fuels such as ethanol, which is an oxygenated hydrocarbon but also produces all the by-products listed for hydrocarbons
  5. Our global economy is heavily dependent on consuming something that
    1. is finite in quantity and
    2. produces harmful by-products
    3. is going to go up in price as the amount available nears complete consumption
  6. We have not solved the equation for producing less carbon dioxide and less harmful by-products while maintaining our current lifestyles.

Okay, end of lesson. Talk amongst yourselves. This all needs to be solved.

Burn a candle while you’re at it. Couldn’t hurt (much).

Featured image: Catano Oil Refinery Fire

The Alternative to Lying

When is a lie better than the truth? When is a compliment justified?

The film The Invention of Lying could easily have been titled “The Invention of Flattery,” although the central conceit of the film really does involve Ricky Gervais’ character creating a complete fiction—and being the first in all of humanity to do so. This makes him very powerful as no one can comprehend that what he is doing represents falsehoods.

In the film, Mark Bellison is a writer who is much ridiculed by his co-workers, male and female. They do not believe they are maligning him, they are just stating their true sense of what they believe.

I don’t think anyone would view this as a great film but it does reveal some interesting ideas about the importance of lying in human society and how we might all be if we could not. Would we all walk around saying things that are true but are hurtful or insulting in our actual society? Would there be no flattery, often if not always a form of lying, even when a compliment was due someone? Is a compliment flattery, a lie, in all cases or would we never flatter each other in a world without lying? Are there interactions where flattery is a justified form of interaction or is it always a way of buttering someone up? Just to be clear, I don’t know but they are interesting questions. Perhaps we should ask ourselves some of them before we initiate an unnecessary lie.

Well, there’s little chance that we’ll transform into a society in which lying doesn’t exist. Perhaps flattery is an unnecessary form of lying, though. Most of us have had managers (or will eventually) who thrive on employees who seem to do little actual work (except making us all work more). They make our managers believe they are the best versions of themselves, what they see in the mirror each morning before the stride among us—giants among us who can do no wrong, whose every action is in the best interests of the company and its shareholders. Wouldn’t all of us enjoy our work more completely if our bosses encouraged more truth, more bad news along with the good, more honest feedback about their performance and those of our coworkers?  I think it would. This kind of workplace will probably continue to be as ephemeral as willow-the-wisps, actually a sort of charged swamp gas that glows in the night and isn’t magical at all.

There is nothing wrong with hoping, though. Flattery gets some of us somewhere, although it only leaves the taste of ashes and bitterness for us who prefer more truth in our days.

Featured image