Sunday, July 26, 2009

Sinos and seals

Last weekend, my brother Steve and his girlfriend Marika visited San Diego. They just arrived from Shanghai, and were admirably alert and spirited after one very solid night of sleep. We even made it to see BrĂ¼no, which I was eager to see so I could learn more about the Austrian people, just as Borat was a valuable cultural exchange tool that taught us the true spirit of Kazakhstan. I was intrigued by the challenge of a more realistic portrayal of the Austrians than The Sound Of Music. And who could more effectively judge the authenticity of Austrian movies than our group? One American who lives in Austria, and had three whole months to soak up culture while averaging 80 hours per week and speaking introductory German. And two other people who live in China, namely another American and French Canadian. In SoCal, watching an Englishman playing a gay Austrian visiting SoCal.

Fortunately, I can happily say it is as well researched as Borat. Like Borat, almost the whole movie was in the US, and hence it mocked Americans more than anyone else. (It’s nice to see this is still hip even after our new president.) Also like Borat, they passed up blatant opportunities for humor that would in fact have been educational. Americans would be amused by eating horses and drinking horse milk, both common in Kazakhstan, yet neither of these were mentioned in Borat. Bruno was a movie with all sorts of odd gay themes, yet no exploitation of lederhosen, pumpkinseed oil, locking people in cellars for 25 years (yes, any Austrian will wince at this), weird violent anti-Nazis, or grunting, sweaty weightlifters. They did not bother to get a dialect coach for a proper Austrian accent, which greatly amuses (at least) northern Germans. You could dub Lawrence of Arabia with someone speaking in a southern German or any Austrian accent, and a typical Bremener would laugh all the way through the movie. The reason they did not make any such effort is that it would have been lost on Americans. Like Andy Kaufman, and to a lesser extent Framk Zappa, the man can make a successful show out of insulting his audience. And I see no reason why he will stop. The same formula keeps working. Time for the Ali G movie, or a new region to come from that Americans find exotic and intriguing. Iceland. Paraguay. The Ozarks. Detroit. Berkeley.

The experience did have the unexpected effect about making me yearn more for my return to Austria. I was a bit insecure about the relatively banal nature of my destination. I got parents that went to 76 countries, a brother in China, and I live in a major western country where everyone looks like me and speaks English. And globalization continues to erode heterogeneity all around the world; now is a fading opportunity to see the kaleidescope of humanity. And to hike the eastern Alps, since the hiking boots that served me so well in Colorado are now in my suitcase, and will be on Austrian mountains next month.

The next day we mostly hung out with our old friends the Hoopes brothers, and on Sunday, we made it to the beach. It was heartbreakingly wonderful. This alone would have made the whole trip worth it. We went to the legendary Pine Street beach, which is not too close, but always delivers. Always parking, always a spot on the beach, always at least mediocre waves, always close to Fidel’s Norte. It was indeed only a mediocre wave day, and made me remember that they’re still good. Winston Churchill was not a beachgoer, and if he was, he would have added the beach to his quote below.

„Democracy is like sex. When it’s good, it’s really, really good. When it’s bad, it’s still pretty good.“
Attributed to Winston Churchill (I did not verify it)

A similar theme is captured by a bumper sticker seen in America sometimes: „The worst day fishing is better than the best day working.“ I can think of exceptions, and don’t really agree with the theme, but you see the point. Even with the hassle of parking, traffic, crowds, sun hazards, weather risks (unless in San Diego, of course), etc, beachgoing is still more than worth it.

There’s nothing like southern California sun. I tried laying out around the EU, and enjoyed it. Sure, they have sun there too. But it’s a different experience when you combine the freakishly dry air, the smell of the Pacific, the lack of concern for a single cloud - even the local sand seems caressing somehow. But the star of the show is, of course, the sun. Nothing like the feeling of sunlight oozing through your skin, pouring warmth and love over every pore, triggering melanin and endorphin and dopamine systems that flood the brain with antistress. I still hope I can someday work somewhere that lets me hike and go to the beach. Doesn’t seem like so much to ask, especially if I produce better work than the next guy. Relaxation is highly competitive.

And the waves. Slowly swelling as they roll toward the shore, undulating with reflected sunlight. You can see maybe five of them at any time, in different stages of their final push. Way out you can see just the beginnings of a swell. Look up to the next wave and it’s growing, threatening, and then it reaches too high and wavers and crashes and lumbers on, pushing a few lucky surfers and rolling over less interested or talented ones. The crash of each wave seems all the more intense given how long it took to get there. Like some salmon, insects, scientists, and other creatures, waves have quite a lifespan that most people never see or think about. They didn’t just start popping up there a quarter mile out for you. Waves hitting the Pacific have been all over that sea, seen countless changes in water temperature and weather, hosted a myriad of little sea beasties going through their brief and typically ignored lives too.

Some of the waves slap against the „Childrens‘ Pool“ in La Jolla Cove. The city of La Jolla has hosted a longstanding fight between seals and children. (Think about that for a minute. It doesn’t get any cuter. It is cuter than baby pandas vs. kittens.) A beach area in La Jolla is famous for seals that sun themselves on the rocks there. This seems very reasonable to me. I can relate to seals. Tourists love to come and take pictures of the cute seals. However, others allege that the donors of the pool area intended that it be used as a wading area for kids. This has gone on and on, spurring eloquent editorials, emotional appeals, and a even a few underattended public meetings. I got back to San Diego and learned that there was just a major development: the city shall drive off the seals. Method: loudspeakers playing the sound of barking dogs. I wonder if this is actually a proven method for antagonizing the seals, or is just a cruel stunt by the seal-hating proponents, some of whom may live close enough to hear the seals barking every night. After the seal egress, the beach will be dredged to make a wading area for kids. I was intrigued by this story, partly because the bar for engaging journalism was so low after celebrity death trivialities, but mainly because I was always surprised the seals were winning all these years. They don’t have lawyers. I looked it up. At least in California, no seal ever passed the bar. Now, although I did not look it up, I do not think any kids passed the bar either. So, it was a question of which side could inspire more lawyers to work pro bono. I figured the kids, since in La Jolla, a lot of kids will have lawyer parents, whereas seals‘ parents poop on rocks.
The merits of the case never entered into it. Who cares about California law, the will of the donors, city council dicta, the seals, kids, beach, etc? This is California. Whoever has more legal resources wins. And so I was all the more shocked a few days ago when a judge called off the dogs by ordering the whole plan paused, because someone alleged that dredging the beach would cause an environmental catastrophe. Oooooooh. Good move. That’ll freeze everything for years. The current occupants of La Jolla Cova shall bark, slap, bask, and wallow in happy oblivion. Kids – well, they don’t really understand anyway, but think the seals are cute. The next escalation in California style weaponry of mass distraction would be to allege psychological damage that the seals cause the children. Or toxic effects of seal feces on native plant species. Now you have the risk of even bigger lawsuits. But that will take years; this case and the Cove will not be unsealed for years.

Some cute La Jolla seals.
The caption reads: „A group of Pacific harbor seals swim in the Childrens Pool in La Jolla. La Jolla, California, USA Species: Phoca vitulina richardsi“

Monday, July 13, 2009

Bear Scare

I spent most of June in and around Ouray, Colorado. I was there in 2008, also for almost a month, and thought it was far too short. This time, I had to devote a fair amount of time to work, and so the sense that I left Colorado too soon is even stronger now. How I’d love just one more day to hike, or see one more cousin I didn’t get to see, or ride the gondola in Telluride, or soak in the local hot springs, or just veg in a pristine mountain paradise for another day.

Or see some bears-a great experience, now that it's over. Last time, I showed a picture of the Taylor job bear. This bold black bear showed up a tone of my dad’s jobs. You can see pictures of him in my October 2008 entry. The bear caused many construction workers severe psychological trauma, preventing them from working for the rest of the day. Apparently, the trauma was such that they required immediate and proactive destressing, which is one possible explanation for why Dad found them a few hours later in the town pub.

It’s a cute story. I could sour it with the ending. Just like the backstory to the writing of Clapton’s „Wonderful Tonight“ ruins the song, so too would the above story be ruined by two facts. First, that bear already had 2 eartags, meaning he was a „bad bear.“ This is indeed the official technical term for a bear who unlearned fear of humans, and poked around someone’s house or otherwise scared a human enough to call the appropriate authorities. The first time, they stun the bear, put a tag on his ear, then move him somewhere else. Same thing the second time. As long as he does not already have 2 eartags, he gets another chance. Otherwise, like 99% of disagreements between bears and men, the lack of lawyers within the bear community leads to a resolution most bears would find biased.

Of course, that bear was in human territory. It could be a different encounter entirely. If, for example, your neck is in their neck of the woods. So it was as I was hiking up Hayden Trail on a sunny morning, armed only with Wally the Walking stick, alone. I knew to look for bears and mountain lions, and usually did, although all I ever saw before were signs left by their paws and anuses. Unfortunately, I was at just that moment dreaming happily about a brilliant and beautiful woman at UCSD who I thought (quite mistakenly) was keen on me. It would have been a magnificently ironic time to get mauled by a bear, and fittingly enough, there was suddenly one about 40 feet away. Adult black bear. So this snapped me out of the clouds right quick, and I started backing up slowly, trying to avoid eye contact, which is difficult because IT IS A REAL FUCKING LIVE BEAR and the dew on the adjacent aspen was somewhat less absorbing than it was a minute ago. I briefly reviewed my combat options and most likely outcomes. It was a very different experience when tussling with, say, a duck or badger.

Bare hands: Perhaps throw cell phone for distraction. Try to gouge eye. Offending arm bitten off, then swatted with nearest paw, breaking my other arm that I tried to use as a shield. Try to ignore pain from bloody stumps and develop new options for unarmed combat until swipe from other paw splinters rib cage through internal organs.

With walking stick, Baseball bat style swat: Swing stick in wide arc to my right side, aiming for head. Miss because bear is lunging forward to position teeth to stomach. As bear's momentum is greater, fall backward, jiggling the section of my torso in his mouth.

With walking stick, impaling thrust: Try for direct thrust to eye. Maybe also try to impale paw or neck. (Bonus feature: holding the stick makes it much harder for him to bite my arm off.) Move in for the thrust. Offending arm badly raked, causing stick droppage. Subsequent rake from bear’s other paw hits ear and greatly expands Sylvan fissure.

Improvise new weapon: No rocks; sticks inferior to my walking stick; trees too big. While trying to uproot tree anyway, bear tackles from behind and bites through head before hitting the ground.

Climb tree: If unlucky, fail to climb high enough to escape jaws. Feel jaws biting through nearest leg and pulling me down for face eating. If lucky, get high enough that paws are needed to pull me down for the same outcome.

Flee: Would bear's first swipe tear off leg completely below the knee, or leave some tissue attached through knee skin? This might slightly affect my height when jaws avulse medulla.

Call in support: Remove cellphone from pocket. Open it. Dial the 9 of 911 before bear bites through offending hand and cellphone. Wave bloody stump in the air and yell, and/or try to spell „help“ in blood on the ground. While jumping, bear disembowels with mighty swipe. Land in own intestines.

Blogmock: Warn bear of damage done to ducks, badgers, monkeys, and other (smaller) beasts by mockery in previous blog entries. Promise a great story if he simply runs away. Bear charges, tackles, then goes for the throat. Die musing about bear eating my neck in his neck of the woods. Wit left unwritten. Bear unsympathetic.

Drop to knees and pray to Jesus: I am proud to say, quite honestly, I never seriously considered this one. Ironically, since one response to a bear is to play dead, this might be a good tactic. Other men might have had their lives changed, thanking Him forever for His mercy.

So there was my brief burst of high speed cognition, a phenomenon that continues to fascinate me more and more. It sure does seem that you think more quickly, decisively, thoroughly, and memorably in crisis. And this is hard to study, since you cannot really deliberately inflict real stress on research subjects. But there it was, a lot of thinking in well under a second. It was not enough time to really react emotionally to possibly imminent death, just enough to try to avoid it through that particular mechanism. I had said many times, before hiking, that getting mauled by a bear would be a great way to go. I since became a renewed fan of dying asleep in a bed.

And that outcome may happen, cause the bear had a different encounter strategy. He saw me, looked at me for a very long fraction of a second, and ran away loudly. I wondered what the flight or flight surge was like for him. Judging by the outcome, he had it all wrong. Why run from me? I’m not the same as the guy that blew away his brother. I had no real weapon, no protective SUV, no possibility of help, not even an attack chopper. Now don’t get me wrong, I thought that very quietly at the time. I’ll go with a bluff even if I didn’t plan it. I scared away a black bear. Don’t fuck with me.

After that, I stood there and pondered my next move. Unfortunately, the bear ran ahead. So, if I continued on the trail, I might run in to him. I eventually figured, he seemed really eager to avoid me before, and it’s too early in the hike to turn around. So I plugged on. There I had another experience in cognition. I walked up the path for a while, felt tired, and stopped. Went again, and stopped way too early. It genuinely confused me. I knew what kind of hiking shape I was in and how much I would take. Then I realized, my heartbeat was throwing off my own evaluation of fatigue. My heart wasn’t beating cuz I needed a rest. Ignore it. Three hours later, I was well above the treeline being hailed on, and thought that I should have turned around. And then, a couple hours after that, I got the following picture of Red Mountain reflected in Crystal Lake.

I put my other hiking pictures on my Facebook page, but this one is not only pretty, but has a story to go with it.

Only a week later, I was hiking the Weehauken trail with my parents. I was in front, and spotted a bear about 80 feet away. While genetically a black bear, this one was brown. And the same thing as before; I spotted him before he saw me, and once he saw me, he ran away. Dad saw him too. Mom did not, and asked if the three of us could have beaten him. No, we said. But we have sticks, she said. No, we said.