Dig Those Roots

There’re so many amazing science stories in the daily news – it’s hard to keep up. Yeah yeah – now you know my pathetic excuse for another two-month post-lapse. Since we all know the topic I love most though, I just gotta share when some tidbit about my favorite primate has me humming Roots Rock Reggae (uh huh, from back in the day…).

This recent news story made me feel infinitely better about occasionally seeking solace in the bread box: “Study: Dietary carbohydrate essential for evolution of modern big-brained humans” (- the study, authored by Karen Hardy et al, is here). It’s one of those research papers that seems to tie a number of loose root-ish threads together: how early humans’ changing ability to digest edible roots (aka USOs – underground storage organisms) is correlated with human brain enlargement over the past 2 million years; the deep contribution women & grandmothers made (& continue to make) toward providing essential food for the tribe; & why the (overlooked & under-appreciated) sea & water environment is one of the keys to human evolution.

I know we love meat – there’s evidence of early humans scavenging meat as early as 2.5 million years ago. But more & more research is also pointing to shellfish, water plants, roots & tubers as the primary sources of digestible protein & carbohydrate energy that helped feed our ancestors’ ever-larger energy-sucking brains & ever-more-immature milk-sucking babies – even before the monumental evolutionary change of controlling fire.

The conclusions of this study address a number of problems with the long-held meat-made-our-brains-big scenario (loved by steak-wielding guys everywhere): #1 is that the earliest evidence of humans controlling fire is about 800,000 years ago. While scientists may find evidence of earlier use of fire (which has so far proven difficult because, well, the evidence was burned), we’ll need to surmise, in the meantime, that either our ancestors were eating uncooked meat (which was possible if they’d figured out a way to make steak tartare with flesh from a very young animal, but generally-speaking, raw meat isn’t easily digestible); &/or early humans (or at least those who survived to evolve into us) had figured out other ways to make the broader range of foods they were eating more palatable (maybe via drying, soaking, fermenting, & pickling), which in turn was more likely if they were thriving by living & eating along waterways, lakes & coastlines. Sadly, that evidence is also lost – either composted or hundreds of meters under water due to many periods of rapid climate and sea level change over the past 2 million years.

But we have genetics! This study analyzes the evolution of salivary & other digestive enzymes in early humans & correlates that analysis with evidence of cooking; reviews the body & brain’s need for energy produced by glucose; & describes how cooking starchy carbohydrates would have increased survival rates, in particular among infants & lactating women.

OK – I admit it: I especially dug this report because I love slow roasted USOs (also love ’em frittered or fried with salt…as in that favorite fast food). And sashimi – double yum. Probably that’s why this research resonates: the proof is in our genes.

In any event, I’m rooting for this narrative of how our (mostly useful) pre-frontal cortex mushroomed over the past 2M years: it was enriched by women’s work, fertile earth & muddy marshes.

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Flight Paths & Funerals

Sadly, our Live Oak home is no longer underneath the SFO flight path. For decades I would lie in bed, trying to fall asleep, when I’d hear the approaching muted, far off roar of a jet, presumably from Shanghai or Bangkok, or maybe just from LA, & if I looked up

through our bedroom skylight at just the right moment I’d see the far away flickering lights of that flying boat of humanity for a few precious seconds, leaving me to imagine their thoughts (& dreams, if they’d managed to fall asleep) at that moment too, & where they’d come from & where they thought they were going. Sometimes I tried to stay awake just to see those planes pass by, high up, with their cargo of spoken &, for some, unspeakable stories.

But alas, sky lights pass above our skylight no more. The SFO flight path has been reconfigured eastward & earthward. The earthlings under the new flight path aren’t happy & legislators are demanding answers: Who made this decision? Why do the planes now fly over us? What’s the rationale for such significantly lower altitudes? Why are they so loud? (- see previous question.) Why do we have to shoulder this burden of 21st century civilization? Why not move the flight path over someone else? Jeez FAA, at least please shift it higher up, further away from these vociferous primates.

Why us? Why them?

Which can be similar to the questions we ask at funerals of someone younger than we think they ought to have been when death arrived. We still sense their physical presence & can be overwhelmed by deep feelings of love for the uniquely-wonderful human they were. During a recent funeral though, I wanted to ask my pew-mates: what else runs through your mind during these somber community gatherings? Be honest. Do you look forward to seeing co-workers who are two decades older (as are you too) but with whom you can’t really talk (no, not there) about what’s happened in your respective lives during those wisdom-building years? Do you wonder what people might say about you at a gathering like this, & wish they would instead just say it to you (or not) next week, or sometime when you could actually appreciate (or maybe even learn from) it? (- granted, this thought doesn’t technically apply to me, because the MediCare cohort is probably considered “old enough” for our inevitable fate…). & finally, do you rail at the apathetic gods about why these particular unfalteringly fantastic folks were the ones who died too young of a stroke at 50, cancer at 35, mental illness at 19? What do we mean by too young, anyway?

Why them? Why us?

One longs to hear a coherent story; one tries to conceptualize a rational flight path. Most of us value cause & effect, sequential steps, logical outcomes. Sometimes we understandably become obsessed with the irrationality of unexpectedly tragic, or even just unexpectedly annoying, changes in the path. Sometimes we just happen to be sleeping on the wrong plane.

In my experience, life is pretty much the luck of the draw (n.b., I didn’t say ‘crap shoot’ because this is a family blog & people might misunderstand the c word in this context). I suspect that’s one reason why I love playing Mah Jongg: the ancient Chinese who crafted the game clearly embraced the concept of luck. Occasionally the tiles present a sure winning path, but (more often) there just doesn’t seem to be a fair distribution of jokers, or the timing of their appearance isn’t at all helpful. Another game of luck is not knowing which of our own unique collection of genes will fire (or not) along life’s path, & although we know that environment (in the broadest sense: air, food, family, stress, hugs/day, etc.) interacts with heredity, science is just now beginning to learn more about these interactions. 

So, I’m perseveringly adjusting to fewer late night flight dreams, & friends are sadly adjusting to daily life without cherished loved ones. Forgive me for coupling these incomparable losses in this random moment – just trying to make some sense of it all…

…as usual.


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Evolution for Everybody

I know polls say not even a majority of Americans accept that evolution is a result of natural processes, but this fact is nevertheless the #1 choice of a recent California central coast art cabal.

This admittedly-not-scientific poll over the past weekend was conducted as part of open studios at 17thAvenue Studios where my new writing workspace resides.  As the new kid (haha) on the block, & one of only a handful (if even) of non-visual-artists, I wanted to figure out some way to be part of the event. So, with the help of IMG_2641friends*, we concocted an easy Evolution Word Game: put a few stickers on a poster filled with (mostly) common words associated with evolution, or write in your own.

It was energizing to talk w friends & visitors about bonobos & books, asteroids & adaptation, primates & planets. &, exhausting! In honor of the MAH, it even seemed to ignite a few unexpected connections, & whew – no one argued with me about Highway 1 widening. I was especially relieved to be distracted from the 2nd-crash-in-2-weeks of my MS-for-MAC Outlook email program.  Hard to give up 20 years of that particular email habit, which is probably why it crashed – too many years of accumulated stuff!

Anyhow, here are the Evolution Word Game highlights:

  1. #1 word association: natural selection…followed closely by adaptation (#2). Yay Art Lovers! Natural selection & adaptation to changing natural environments are two key elements of IMG_2643the evolutionary process, & ones that Charles Darwin (#4) presented in On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859). In the 150 or so years since, scientific research in evolutionary biology & related fields (including Darwin’s own research & subsequent books) has broadened the list of evolution’s key mechanisms to include genetic drift, variation (#5), migration, & coevolution.
  2. #3 word: mutation.  Another yay for the creativity cabal! Genetic mutation is “the ultimate source of genetic variation“.  Mutations are random errors in DNA replication which occur commonly during the reproduction process. Mutations may be neutral, helpful, or unhelpful for an organism, & how these factors manifest during that organism’s life is partly dependent on it’s environment, & whether that environment is stable or changing (& ergo, more stressful).
  3. #6: survival of the fittest. I almost didn’t include this phrase on the list because it has a bad reputation, owing to its unfortunate appropriation into early 20th century ‘social darwinism’ philosophies. The concept of fitness however, is significant in our current understanding of evolutionary biology – the main idea being that fitness is relevant to reproductive success.  Fitness received only one vote in the Game.
  4. Language & Questions Still Abound tied for 7th place. Descent with modification (the current short definition of evolution) & extinction tied for 10th place.
  5. Biggest surprises: Zoonomia by Erasmus Darwin, Charles’ grandfather, came in at #8.  The Y-chromosome only got one vote (sorry guys). Alfred Russell Wallace garnered only 3 votes – a little sad as he came up with the unifying theory of evolution at about the same time Darwin was preparing to publish Origin. Wallace is pretty much an unknown to most folks: imho, it’s important to know about him because the fact that two naturalists of the era came up with key evolutionary principles makes it clear that science at that time was heading in the direction of figuring this out sooner or later. We love & ‘revere’ Charles Darwin (witness Darwin Day) & he was a meticulous, incredibly thoughtful & prolific scientist, but it could just as well have been Al Wallace…or someone else.
  6. & boo hoo – no one voted for one of my favorite words – tetrapod!

Well, what a fun weekend.  Kudos to 17thAve artists who work so hard to produce & present their fantastic works of art – your creativity inspires me.

& finally:

*A huge thank you to my artistic & otherwise advisors Elizabeth, Justin, Lisa, Zephyr, & to my friends who stopped by & shared happy & not-so-happy news amidst talk of randomness & survival. & congratulations to Megan who won the drawing for an autographed copy of The Upright Thinkers by Leonard Mlodinow.  Come visit me again next year!

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The Drone Age

About a year ago, a nephew excitedly revealed his new electronic toy at an afternoon family BBQ at our home.  Since I had just that morning, while preparing the meal, dropped a pot of boiling water on my leg (which resulted in a trip to urgent care & a subsequent two month recovery process featuring gross blisters, countless rolls of gauze, & character-building scarring), I wasn’t up for a group walk to the next-door church parking lot for the flight demo.  Instead, I was quietly resting outside in the backyard, leg raised & thankful for tylenol, when an oddly-buzzing apparatus appeared overhead, hovered for a few moments & then darted off here & there like an imagined alien spaceship.

My profound sense of unease that day on the backyard chaise was pleasantly mitigated by modern medicine.  I now realize that it was only excellent pain management that allowed me to laugh companionably at immediately ensuing photos of the drone’s Live Oak Avenue excursion.

Recently, R & I were at Seabright Beach for a MAH Light Waves Beach Theater event which was totally eclectic & fun except for a red & green brightly-lit drone buzzing overhead the entire time (not part of the program, btw).  Personal drones are causing so many safety & security concerns on the Golden Gate Bridge that officials have appealed to US Senator Diane Feinstein for help in restricting their use.  & I’m sure you’ve heard by now about Google & Amazon plans for drone delivery of all that stuff we buy that we don’t really need.

Starting tomorrow, our very own Santa Cruz Kaiser Permanente Arena will host the Drones, Data X Conference.  The City’s Mayor & Economic Development Director will welcome the crowd of…dronads?? dronaholics? dronophiles?…it seems we don’t yet have a term for this new addiction (a new-as-of-this-month FB page is just called Drone Addict). The Drone (& Data X? – I guess this tag enhances tech appeal) conference is paired with an invitation-only ‘VIP weekend’ of mountain biking, surfing, survival skills, food, & of course, drones.  No doubt it will be a high-flying success for the long list of sponsors, investors, & new tech aficionados.

looks like NOAA & the National Marine Sanctuary folks figured this out earlier than the rest of us.

I’m not a Luddite.  I pack an iPhone (ok ok, it’s still a 4 but I’m gonna upgrade soon), I love Survivorman, & I’ll happily play for hours with paper airplanes (well, as long as grandson D plays along with me).  But, while I can kinda grasp the boyish appeal of these next-gen electronic playthings, my current sentiment about the nascent Drone Age is deepening dread.

& now, this drone conference buzz in our own little tech-&-enviro savvy burg. Their website conveniently includes a map showing where flying fun is allowed, or not.   —>

The unmanned aircraft system (or UAV, unmanned aerial vehicle – the current popular acronym) juggernaut is just taking off:  please consider this (semi-)private post my own paltry protest of the pernicious new air show.  These electronic imitations of giant Permian Age insects are going to irrevocably change many things about our lives – maybe some of the changes will be good for some people, but I’d wager most will land on the downside.

It seems to me this isn’t a buzz to ignore.


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Not Aging Well

These days, if I stand still too long, my (thankfully-still-functional) feet seem to sink noticeably further into that squishy phase of contemporary (North American female human) life when one can no longer ignore the preponderance of pop-ups, adverts, magazines, robocalls, inserts, etc etc re the “Secrets of Living Your Dream Life into the Third Age” & “Secrets of Getting Rid of Disturbing [Age Spots][Belly-Fat][Unwanted Facial Hair] Without Surgery” etc etc.

this is not me.

I’d like to be able to tell you I’m having none of this secret aging drivel: I’m gainfully employed, thank you, trim, waxed, lifted & botoxed, greeting each day with a youthful outlook & looking forward to decades of thrilling travel adventures to check off my long bucket list.

I’m not. Sadly. Any of those things. & I detest the term ‘bucket list’.

Well now, having put this in writing (& having also no doubt insulted a good number of my friends who in fact do look & feel as great as this beautiful 80-year old), I guess the above isn’t totally true. There are things I (truly & totally) love about being eligible for MediCare. And being the ever-available grandma. Art workshops with freewheeling female artists. Freely expressing my opinions at meetings without worrying (too much) about my professional reputation. Writing in my new 17th Ave. work space (yay!). Playing mah jongg with Linda & the guys, euchre with goddess-worshippers, & poker with dog-worshippers. Visiting snow-birds in strange suburban deserts. Not having to run off to work in the dark, & time to plan history walks in the park. & lest you think I eschew all age-masking procedures, I have been known to indulge in highlights & pedicures.

But.  Still.

Getting older sucks.

One day in the Kinko’s parking lot a few years ago (in those younger 50’s), I offered to assist an elderly (eeek, I don’t consider myself elderly…yet) gentleman & his very frail wife into their car. The old man looked at me with deep fatigue in his kindly listen-to-me-please-I’m-returning-the-favor eyes & said “These aren’t the golden years, you know”. My 83-year old mother had just died & I knew she would’ve agreed. I wasn’t yet old enough to envision myself in their shoes, but I am, now. &, I have lots of company. We boomers are just getting going on this aging adventure, & unlike our predecessors, there are just so damn many of us we’ll be hard to ignore.

NOTE: If you’re under 50 feel free to stop now (if you’ve even managed to get this far), because you probably won’t grasp a word of this moaning & may even feel unsympathetic to these complaints. Really, I won’t hold it against you…I know you’ll (most likely) get here eventually. On the other hand, if you’re over 50 – well, maybe this will give you license to do a little moaning yourself, even though I know you usually tough it out, because – you know the saying – old age ain’t no place for sissies.

Humans haven’t had much experience living this long. First of all, it took us a few million years in Africa to even feel comfortable moving about on two feet. Then, when our brains started getting bigger due to the benefits of bipedal walking (omg, the things we could do with those freed-up forelegs! the energy we saved! the predators we could see! the places we could go!), it took us at least another couple of million years to figure out how to help each other live long enough to birth & nurture our ever-bigger-brained (but ever-more- helpless) infants – while at the same avoiding becoming prey ourselves.

So, yeah, back in the day, there were a few tribal elders – revered I might add – but most people either died in childbirth or in childhood, or from big cats, or from snakes, spiders, starvation, floods, droughts, volcanoes, & a host of other everyday catastrophes. Later on, about 10,000 years ago when humans started settling down due to our love of farmable carbohydrates, communicable diseases were added to the list; for a long time, these voracious viruses did a good job at keeping the human population in check – well, sorta. Antibiotics became commonly available only 75 years ago – conveniently, right before we boomers started being born (…getting the connection here??). Ergo, having so many humans moving into older age at the same time is unprecedented in human history.

So what do we call this age we find ourselves in…upper middle age? Lower old age? For sure we’re not elderly yet, but nota bene, we’d better start figuring out what’s going to happen when we are, because this sketchy patchwork of elder care that we’re living through with our parents isn’t going to work for the multitudes that will all too soon be us.

I recently noticed that my ears are looking more like my mother’s. No really – do you know why this signature aging feature occurs – that the ears & nose seem to just keep on growing?? There are different theories about this – the one that makes the most sense to me, besides decades of heavy earrings, is gravity.  As in, they’re not really growing, they’re just dripping (along with other body parts that will go unmentioned). & even though I’m hopelessly entrenched in that 70’s-feminist-notion of let-it-all-hang-out

…I guarantee you, this sort of hanging & sagging is not what we had in mind back then.


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1-11-15 from 1115

Finally catching my breath in the new year. Can I still say it or is it just too yesterday? – well whatever – I wish it for you. A Good Year.

Jeez, what a relief that the ‘holidays’ are over & we can settle into whatever 2015 has to offer. Which is already a mixed bag…as usual. I’m glad it’s still (technically) winter. How about this year we do away with ‘the holidays’ & just celebrate seasons brought on by earth’s tilting…?? These would be good – & enough – celebrations for me.

Speaking of celebrations: a (very-)belated birthday one, nearly two days with four women I’ve known nearly 40 years – deep Health Collective bonds.  &, the day prior, an hour or so w my oldest female friend of 50 years. Sustaining. Honoring the contributions & the stress of aging (& in some cases, alpha) female primates. Our families & our work. The pain & the perseverance. Yeah. Thankful for these sisters, & for others too, bound as we are by birth, bounty & bravery.

Friendships take work. Attention. At some point this comes as a surprise – or it did for me anyway. We figure out early (most of us) that marriage & family & work consume a lot of effort, but for some reason I’d assumed that friends are friends – you can count on them to be there whenever you need ’em. Not. Necessarily. But hey, why should friendships be different than anything else in life? Energy in, energy out. Like our primate cousins, we need to pay attention to grooming. Sadly, I’ve done my share of neglecting this worthy brand of social glue.


Did I groom enough over the past few days? I wanted to. I hope so. Human primate grooming isn’t as straight forward as the bonobo/chimp variety. It’s more words & less touch. Stories & conversation. Soup. Flowers. It’s the way we are, it seems. Some of us are better at it than others. & we ponder & deconstruct it afterwards…too much I suppose. So we can be better at it next time.

It’s the (um, probably primarily female) human primate way.  Love you, Gals!


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there’s still no cure for dying

You’re probably rolling your eyes at this apparent not-joy-t0-the-world holiday season post.  But hang in here with me – this topic could fuel unusual & maybe even helpful family dinner conversations.  Still skeptical?  Well, just remind yourself that there’s nothing more important to religious holidays than life & death.

hsc3105_hiWorrying about death is uniquely the province of the human primate.  It’s where religion has a big jump on science: our species spent its early millennia around the campfire constructing stories of why & what & how & where & when.  Science only came along within the past 2,500 or so years…a mere scratch (albeit getting deeper daily) on the surface of our ancient narratives.  It’s no wonder we have a hard time letting them go.

Trying to grasp the fact of death, surviving others’, & anticipating our own are arguably among the most emotionally painful experiences of being human.  Other primates & mammals (& also, I’ve observed, chickens) may mourn the death of their offspring or peers or elders, but it seems only humans can anticipate this end for themselves.  It’s no wonder we avoid the topic.

I recently read a provocative article about this particular avoidance (…one of many things humans love to ignore – doing something about global warming being another…):  Why I hope to die at 75 by Ezekiel J. Emanuel.  The first hit from this article is the reminder that now we really do have something to worry about: living too long.  Average human life spans have increased significantly in the past 100 years, primarily as a result of much lower rates of infant death & death by disease.  More of us (& there are a lot more of us now) are living longer than ever, & instead of these diseases, we’re dying of chronic conditions that accompany old age (heart disease, cancer, etc).  Many older folks are losing their minds in the process: 1/3 of people over age 85 have Alzheimer’s disease.

So, how old is old enough?  That’s the resonating question of this essay.  In particular, the author questions the myriad measures routinely promoted by the US health care system to prolong the life of what he calls the ‘American Immortal’.  While not a part of this particular opinion piece, others have noted that about 25% of all US health care expenditures are made within the last year of life.  Some have accused Emanuel of being “adolescent” in his opinions (after all, he’s only 57…75 seemed old to me too when I was in my 50’s…) & others have reacted by touting the wonders of old age.  Of course, it’s the concept, not the number, that’s worthy of some thought & maybe, action…or rather, in this case, inaction.

These sorts of things have been on my mind for a while now, but Emanuel’s article reminds me that we do have a choice in this. The palliative care & compassionate death movements are right-on in this regard, but our choices need to start way earlier than the last days…as in months & years before our DNR’s & advance directives kick in.  While we’re still of (at least moderately, we hope) sound mind.

I don’t want to live to be 100.  or even 90, really.  I know, I know, once I’m faced with a death more imminent than it feels like at this moment, my tune could change, & I’m sure I’ll be sad to miss seeing how things turn out.  My ideal post-death scenario (which, granted, isn’t very original) would be to time travel about 200 years into the future…long enough that I wouldn’t know anybody but short enough to see if we figured out how to survive on a frightfully hotter home planet.

If I can, I’ll let you know what I find out – around the campfire of course.

ps., all this rambling is mostly just a way of sharing a slightly-dark tune about being alive…a little break for you from ubiquitous jingling.  We’re nearing the winter solstice, after all.


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