Friday, July 04, 2014

Traveling--It's a Hell of a Drug (Valine's suggested edit: It's a Hell of a Bug)

   The first time I flew was at 23.  Where I'm from, people can go an entire lifetime without setting foot onto an airplane, and that was certainly the course I'd set for myself.  At 19 and 20, I twice convinced my fellow spring breakers to drive to Fort Lauderdale to board an awful cruiseship to the Bahamas (a 12 hour roadtrip followed by a 4 hour boat-trip) rather than taking what was probably a cheaper and most definitely a shorter flight (3 hours)--Wes Whateveryourlastnamewas, you still owe me $45 for your stupid phonecalls from the hotel that trip.  I would genuinely terrify myself just envisioning being in those metal tubes hurling along at 250MPH 25,000 feet above the ground.  It just seemed so unnatural.  And I'm a guy who to this day gets nervous in "tall" (read:  >10 stories) buildings.
    So when the opportunity to go to Panama was presented to me and I immediately recognized that under no circumstances could I possibly say no, I briefly considered driving.  To Panama.  Through Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and 1/2 of Panama.  Did I mention that I knew zero Spanish at the time?  I accepted the offer and immediately began to dread the flight.  That dread stayed with me, weighing heavier and heavier on me as the flight approached.  My friend that took me to the airport that day thought I was ridiculous.  She had flown extensively.  I brought a little bit of bad rum with me to the airport in a Diet Coke bottle, inspired by my mother's story of getting nice and toasty before her first flight.  My friend disproved.....until she finally felt my tangible terror and pushed me to imbibe the liquid courage.  She left me in the security line with warnings of the noises I'd hear--a godsend because I would've shit myself if I'd gone into that experience unprepared.
     To this day, my palms get sweaty before and during takeoff (and while watching movies like Flight).  That day I probably could've filled a glass.  It was every bit as terrifying as I had always envisioned.  I just kept looking at fellow passengers to make sure nobody else was panicking, just waiting for that moment when it'd be okay to unleash that inner horror that the most recent mechanical sound resonating throughout the plane meant we were all done for.  Then the saving grace flashed through my brain, the thought that I have every single time I fly:  the pilots and flight assistants are human beings that want to continue living too.  With that thought and the plane reaching cruising altitude, I calmed and curiosity, as it's apt to do with me, overcame the fear.  I slipped off my seatbelt and slid over to the window (you'd better believe I was in an aisle seat initially!) to see the world in a way I'd never seen it.
      That first flight was RDU to Newark, NJ, and it was pretty much me, the pilots, and the flight attendants.  I guess nobody from dook was heading home for the weekend.  The second flight I ever took in my life was a 6 or 7 hour beast of a flight to El Cuidad de Panama, where I knew neither a single person or the local tongue.
      Little did I realize the disease I contracted.  That day, I caught the travel bug.
      Travel is all I can think about right now.  You know how whenever you get online, you have that automatic series you go through before you end up where you intended when you first logged on?  Gmail-->Facebook-->Twitter-->oh, yeah, I wanted to see what the weather is going to be like today.  I do it too, probably (definitely) with some Carolina sports message boards mixed in as well.  Hey, what's wrong with a 34 year old man obsessing over the decisions of adolescents?
     But there's another commonality to being plugged in, and that's having go-to pages.  For some, it's Pinterest, others Facebook.  For me, increasingly it's Help-X and MindMyHome.  Those are cheap travel sites, the former being for people who are willing to put in a little labor in exchange for a roof and some food and the latter for people who simply want to spend extended periods of times in random places.
     I'd say that pretty much describes me.
     Valine has the travel bug herself.  And I dont just mean the hookworm AND tapeworm she got in Ecuador.  She's just like me, a citizen of planet Earth and perpetually yearning to explore some new corner of it.  She's logged extended stays in several other countries and has the same insatiable yen to get to a different country.  When we've been in the US for what we perceive as too long, we both start feeling something that's perfectly akin to hunger, an appetite that can only be quelled by novel adventure.  This fall, we're giving in to our common affliction in a major way.  Personal belongings are going into storage or otherwise out the door, jobs are being left, a car is (likely) being sold, and we are hitting the road.  Then the sky.  Then perhaps some boats and trains in between.
    The plan is to travel for as long as the savings accounts will allow.  That's pretty much as much planning as we've done.  Everything else is mere discussion.  We know that we'll be starting in September with a cross country roadtrip, something that Valine's never done.  Europe is number 2 on the list, but with the roadtrip ending around December, heading to high latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere seems foolhardy.  Personally, I'm hoping we find some amazing Help-x or MindMyHouse option somewhere in the Caribbean for the winter.
     In the meantime, friends and family, invite us over for a visit!  The schedule looks like west coast in September, Rockies (MT, CO, UT) in October, Chicago-Boston-NYC-NC in November, other south (ATL, FL) in December.  Hey Canadian friends, what's Ottawa like in November?
     Hmm, maybe then we should drive to Panama.....

Thursday, January 23, 2014

New Year's in the 3rd World

It seems strange to refer to Mexico as the third world considering how easy it is to enter the country.  You may as well be heading to Walmart for the lack of impediments.  You blaze down the interstate at 75 MPH, past the ridiculous sign warning you to watch for illegals with an image of a family running across the road, past the sign that says "Last USA Exit", finally past a few federales who could not care less about you, and, voila, you're in Mexico.
       And that's where things start to get a little different.  The transition between California and Tijuana forms the largest contrast in standard of living in the world.  Tijuana, or TJ, is a huge city with nearly 2M people, but without any tall buildings.  Sprawled over a series of sharp-sided hills, much of the city is composed of ramshackle housing and rough unpaved streets overlooking the highly manicured city of San Diego and its sparkling downtown skyline in the distance.  The moment you cross the threshold into TJ, you're forced to start driving more aggressively lest you suffer the ire of the locals who'll gladly leave you in their dust.  Jockeying for position in the traffic while watching for signs to the cuota, the turnpike that connects Playas de Tijuana to Ensenada, you can't help but to notice the seemingly hundreds of people who are living in utter desolation in the concrete Tijuana River.  Many of the homeless are apparently deportees out of the US, but are outcasts in the city because they're a long ways from their original homes in southern Mexico or Guatemala.
      Of course, the city isn't all dirt and homelessness.  It's a vibrant place with plenty of color and culture.  There are nice homes and renown restaurants, and plenty of people who proudly call it home.
      For Val and I, though, we were blazing through TJ and heading straight to Ensenada for New Year's Eve.  In theory, that should be an hour's trip down the 4-laned and fast cuota along the scenic Baja coast.  Leaving at 2:30PM from San Diego and getting into Ensenada before the immigration office closed at 5PM should be easy.  Unfortunately, little news from just south of the border works it's way into the San Diego mainstream.  Sure, we hear about the occasional crime down in Tijuana, but shockingly little gets reported from the other side of the border considering that we can see the city looming along a distant hillside from much of San Diego.  Had a Californian road fallen into the sea, it would've been headline news here.  Heck, if a North Dakotan road had fallen into a lake, it would've been headline news here.
      The cuota 50 miles south of the border falling into the sea in the middle of the night, triggered by an earthquake, some wet weather, known poor geologic conditions for a road that handles heavy traffic, and finally a huge cement truck, that news did not make it across the border before we began our journey.  It's a tailor-made sensationalist story too, with government agencies pointing fingers at one another for blame, a geology professor saying pretty much "I told you so," and a cement truck driver who experienced and survived a sudden 100 foot drop in the road beneath him at a point seriously called Salsispuedes, or "get out if you can!"  That news was only news to us later in the evening.  I'm not sure we would've taken a different route anyway, but we would've been more prepared for the sudden diversion off the cuota and onto the "libre" on our way down.  Certainly, we would've been more comfortable understanding exactly why we were faced with road cones blocking the road and a big, orange "Desviacion" sign forcing us onto the side road and into the countryside.
       The "libre" is a little different.  Wending its way through villages and inland to mountain passes, the two-laned "libre" is naturally a much slower road.  Mexican villages nearly universally have bumps across the road to slow cars down, many of which are frighteningly tall and scrape the undercarriage of small cars--I've passed over a few of these that I feared would high-point the car even and turn us into a really expensive see-saw.  There are also a plethora of incredibly old cars on the roads too, a product of being in a poor country, some serious ingenuity by Mexican mechanics, and the lack of organized regulations for safety and emissions inspections.  Those old cars just can't accelerate like they used to.  Then of course you have a ton of 18-wheelers on the roads taking advantage of NAFTA.  With the cuota out of commission, these too were forced onto the "libre" along with the rest of us.
      So I was not all that surprised to run into traffic in the middle of the countryside on New Year's Eve at about 4PM.  As we eked through the village, locals were standing along the road marveling at the sheer number of vehicles suddenly forced through their tiny town.  After about 1/2 an hour of bumper to bumper traffic in BFE, Mexico, we finally reached a point where people were pulling off the road, turning around, and most importantly communicating with an official who was very ably handling traffic.  Cars were sloppily parked on either side of the road and a lot of people were walking around and chatting.  I tried to listen in on the conversation this official was having with the car in front of us, a conversation in Spanish which I'm still not very good at.  I hoped by eavesdropping I could process some of the vocabulary before he was to speak to me.  Not catching any of it, I particularly anxious as we pulled up to him.  We hadn't been down that road before and really had no idea what to expect, a troubling prospect considering it'd soon be nighttime.  We were pressed for time and had a schedule to keep--one of the lessons of this particular trip to Baja was that schedules really should not be made.  And there we were on a tiny road that was suddenly a busy parking lot.  It was a taxing moment.
       And then that official said to me in a perfect American accent, "there was a big accident that's blocking the road.  It could be hours before it's cleared.  You can go get in line and wait or you can turn around, but you have to decide right now."  I blinked a moment to take in what he just said and considered the prospect of celebrating New Year's in traffic in BFE, Mexico.  "We really want to get to Ensenada.  Is there any other way?"  "Tecate," he responded simply.  That'd be an hour back to TJ for us, an hour over to Tecate, and an hour and 1/2 down to Ensenada from there.  Hours anyway.  Indecisive, we compromised and pulled off the road.
      I'm pretty hard-headed when it comes barriers such as the one in which we were faced.  Surely there had to be another road.  We eyed the dirt road trailing off into the unknown just across from us and wondered about it.  A Mexican guy who was wondering by the car mentioned to us that he and some others were talking about heading down that road to see if they could make it.  That seemed like a big risk to me, and instead I decided Tecate might be the best option.  I turned on the car and tried to get back onto the road.  "Sir!  Turn off your car and put it into park," the official suddenly told me, "we need to keep the road clear for the emergency help."  Alright, so no Tecate for a bit.
       Emergency help soon came along in the form of a large front-loader tractor with a few trucks behind it.  The driver of the tractor was flanked by two men standing on the sides, and nobody had any sort of official-looking garb.  I suspect they were recruited from a construction site, perhaps where the cuota was damaged.  This stirred up activity among all of the waiting cars in the area.  Some people jumped onto the road, assuming the tractor would soon clear things up.  Others responded to apparently local knowledge that the dirt road would indeed get us to our destination.
       We opted to follow this latter group down the dirt road.
       "I'm not sure your car can make it up there, sir" the official said when he saw us jump into that line.  Valine's really confident in her little Toyota Prius, especially in light of some off-loading that we've experienced in it with success.  Plus, she'd chatted with a guy driving another little sedan who'd chatted with someone else who'd chatted with a farmer who'd said the road would be fine for little cars.  Yeah, it was like that.
       We found ourselves in traffic yet again, this time on a tiny dirt road in BFE, Mexico.  Through fields, past the local trash dump and goats, chickens, and tiny concrete shacks, we shared the road with 18-wheelers, tour buses, and mostly SUVs.  The guy who was Valine's source drove just ahead of us, stopping next to numerous passers-by to have brief conversations.  I guess they never got the answer to their inquiry, which I was assume related to the conditions of the road ahead, because they kept this up with every vehicle they passed.  Either that or we got behind the most garrulous people in all of Mexico.  Cars and federales passed by in the opposite direction that we assumed had come from farther down the main road.  But then we saw a tour bus backing down a pretty steep hill and a lot of vehicles turning around.  I popped my head out again at one point to hear a conversation between a driver that had turned around and the car behind me, but it was futile for the language barrier.  A kid in one of the passing vehicles must've sensed my anguish and hollered out in English, "they opened it!"  Thinking about the official's warning about whether the Prius would negotiate the road ahead, about the prospect of reading an impassable point and navigating our way out of it with a ton of traffic in both directions, and about the quickly setting sun, I made the decision to wheel around and head back off the dirt road.
      As we returned to the main road, we thought we'd been misinformed.  Traffic wasn't budging.  Both of us really needed a bathroom break at this point--I always need a bathroom break, a habit that makes traveling Mexico slightly less enjoyable--so I headed off into the opposite direction.  The road was lined with little restaurants and tiendas, but neither of these are guaranteed to have restrooms in Mexico.  Instead, we popped into the local police station.  We asked the policeman about the status of the cuota.  "It's open," he said in Spanish, "but you have to pay."  Valine explained the diversion to him and asked if there was something going on down the road.  "Probably a rockslide," he responded.  Apparently, the news about the cuota falling into the sea in the middle of the night, triggered by an earthquake, some wet weather, known poor geologic conditions for a road that handles heavy traffic, and finally a huge cement truck hadn't made it to BFE, Mexico, either.  He did let us use his bano though, which turned out to be pretty much the nastiest facility we'd ever seen, and had the added bonus of being adjacent to some bleak-looking but mercifully empty jail cells.
      By the time we got back onto the road, traffic was moving along.  Only a few hours from the beginning of the incident, we were speeding our way to Ensenada again.  We never saw any wrecked cars or ambulances or anything of the sort.  No news about the accident seems to be available on the internet.  Hopefully, whoever was in it had been taken down the road to help.  I fear that the front-loader was simply used to push the wrecked vehicles off the edge of the road and over a cliff, but we'll never know.
      Having arrived safely in Ensenada, we checked into our downtown hotel, grabbed some dinner and drinks, and celebrated New Year's from a thoroughly well-appointed hotel room.  We'd inquired about fireworks and and mass celebrations while out on the town, but nobody seemed to know for sure where such a thing might be happening.  I think we figured out why at midnight when fireworks started going off.  Rather than a centralized event organized by the city, pretty much every home in the city launched their own fireworks show.  It made for an incredible scene, looking out over the sprawling city and seeing fireworks going off by the dozen all over.  A brass band blared Auld Lang Syne with a distinct Mexican flare at a restaurant just outside of our window.
    In the end, I think I really liked New Year's in the 3rd world.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Why vegetarian?

When I was a kid, my Mom (aka Mamma) swore that she thought I wouldnt even care if she didnt make any meat. Little did she know that I'd swear off of it just 6 months after she died. She would have croaked, to reference my Mom's lexicon, if I had gone fully vegetarian when she was alive. I didnt tell her, but I gave up red meat in general, shrimp, and fish well before she passed away. My only violations of this choice was at her dinner table. And when she did pass away, I had no more excuses. So, I had my last chicken tenders dinner from Bojangles, and swore off of it.

Seven years later, I'm still resolutely vegetarian, probably the first ever from Chocowinity, NC.

For me, the seed for vegetarianism was planted years before I took the leap. I read an essay by Moby in the album cover for Play (you know, back when we all used to actually purchase and hold CDs) about why he went vegan, and every single argument, shy of animal welfare, appealed to me. Here are the usual reasons why people go vegetarian, and I'll arrange them in order of importance to me:

1. Environment: The single best thing you can do as an individual for the planet is to have less kids. The second is to eat less meat. Forget biking the 5 miles to work instead of driving. Forget eating organic. Eat less meat, and you're saving habitat for and animals and you're supporting the release of far less CO2. I have never pushed anybody to go full-out vegetarian; but I have certainly tried to convince people that beef aint what's for breakfast. Some brilliant rancher discovered years ago that when it's light outside, a cow will eat. I learned this a few years ago after my friend Phil had his sleep disrupted all night long at a state park in west Texas by the stadium lights alighting a field full of cattle feeding at troughs. The average lifespan of a beef cow has decreased from 3 years to 2 years in the past century, and this is one of the methods that has been developed to maximize efficiency. How much CO2 release is this practice responsible for?

2. Human Welfare: Another important part of my development into a vegetarian was reading Fast Food Nation. A major point of the book is just how inhumane beef "factories" are for the employees. In general, the people working there are illegal immigrants, and have no rights or health care. So here you have a 100 human automatons making the same cuts over and over again all day long for breadcrumbs essentially--because we want McDonald's to offer 79 cent hamburgers--and doing so with blades sharpened to an extent that one foul move sends somebody to the hospital. And when you're whacking away all day long with the same motion, slip-ups happen. Good luck finding health care in the United States, Mr. Mexican/Guatemalan/El Salvadorean immigrant, we'd rather you pick up that left arm and mosey back home.

Yeah, I didnt really want to support that industry any more.

3. Personal Health: I've got a father who had a couple of open-heart surgeries in his 30s and early 40s. Then there's the uncle who died of a stroke, a grandmother of a blood clot, and plenty of other indications that my genetics will not be providing a clean bill of cardiovascular health for life. I've never been interested in smoking anything, really, so that part of staying healthy is covered. The other source of cardiovascular disease is high-cholesterol and high-NACl meat. It just makes sense to cut it out with my family history.

4. Assimilation Energy: When I was a freshman in high school, even at Chocowinity High School we learned that only 10% of the plant matter that a cow eats is available as energy to the next trophic level (you). So, that means that for every pound of cow that a person consumes, 10 pounds of food had to be served up to that cow. This could have easily been a subheader beneath "Environment," but it stands alone for several reason. Number 1, we are looking at a planet today with 7 billion people, only 1 billion or so of which is supported by a regular, farmed meat diet. If we really want to feed the planet and not have starving people all over it, we should probably dedicate our croplands to feeding them and not a bunch of freaking cows. Number 2--and this is where the redundancy with point 1 comes into play--that means 10 Xs more natural habitat gets reduced into monoculture if you're feeding the crops to cows rather than directly to humans. So, yeah, it's good that your beef is from a grass-fed cow. It's good that it's organic and local and "green." But you're still not eating in the most efficient manner for the planet.

5. Animal Welfare: For the reasons discussed below, this is at the bottom of the list. The point is not trivial, however. I've never been interested in veal, for instance, because of the terrible treatment that a calf must experience in their short, horrific lives for me to enjoy the delicacy. Chickens stuffed into a tiny barn, barely able to move around, and often bred to have breast muscles so large so as to prevent movement anyway is also an unsettling thought. Humans are omnivores though, and there're theories that adding high-calorie meat to our diets helped Homo sapiens develop especially large brains (our brains after all being very energy-hungry). I just think the way we go about using animals for your dietary "needs" now-a-days is way out of hand.

I realized a long time ago that when I pay for something, I'm casting a vote for that something to exist. Go to McDonald's, and you're absolutely supporting the destruction of habitat, humans, and animals. There're no two ways about it.

But I do eat meat. I still call myself vegetarian for brevity's sake; but if my friends go out and shoot a white tailed deer (an animal who's populations have exploded in the absence of predators and hence threatens the habitat of other species), I'll thoroughly enjoy some venison. If a fish is sustainable and caught in the right way, I'll certainly have some tacos with it. And I'm just waiting for the day that somebody goes out and takes a wild pig for bbq'ing up NC style. I do still love meat. I just dont want to support the industrialization of it.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Hola, Paraiso!

I probably should've written this about 4 months ago, but I dont like to be negative, and it honestly took me this long to obtain that appreciation for my surroundings that I invariably do. Over the past few months, I've fallen in love with yet another place on this planet. For those keeping tally, San Diego can now be counted alongside of Monterey, CA, Australia, Panama, Lafayette, LA, Texas, and, the creme de la creme, North Carolina.

It was only a matter of time.

Time it was, nevertheless. I knew I'd love Monterey the second I set foot on the campus at Hopkins Marine Lab. Knowing that I could work at a place at which I could walk out and see marine mammals and sea birds galore just outside of my laboratory door, much less the fantastic splendor of the rocky intertidal, was all the inspiration I needed to go to work there. San Diego, on the other hand, was a little murkier.

What do you think of when you hear "San Diego?" I would guess the sports teams would be first for most of the country, the movie "Anchorman" likely second. Then what? Beaches? Sunshine? Tijuana? Most scientists would know that one of the premier research institutes on the planet is also here, Scripps.

Well, there are a few myths about southern California that should be busted. Number 1, while the beaches are beautiful and variable, the ocean is C-O-L-D! It's simple: the water here circulates down from the Artic! As in polar bears, Sarah Palin, and ice bergs! All Californians that own surfboards have invested in good wetsuits as well. Number 2, it aint sunny all of the time. Not a single movie has ever shown southern California as anything but sunny. Not a single one. I'm fairly convinced that the California department of tourism has banned it from happening. Meanwhile, there are the phenomena of "May Gray" and "June Gloom" here. The coastline can be canvassed in cloudcover during these months, ALL MONTH. I've not seen the sun in several days here!

Sunny San Diego, my ass!

The primary reason behind my initial reticence about the city, though, is the fact that it is truly that: a city. Sure, I'm a well-traveled individual. But I grew up in a town of 1,000, went to school in one of the premier college towns in the country, graduate school in a town of 100K, and, largest of all, resided in a city of a million for a year, el Cuidad de Panama. But Panama was the 3rd world, and I didnt have a car there. San Diego stands alone as the largest city I've ever called home, and it's also home to the very definition of urban sprawl and traffic jams.

San Diego sprawls out over a series of peninsulas, plateaus, and valleys, interconnected to one another by bridges and the occasional freeway, usually running up and down harrowing slopes. In effect, the city is like a the fingers on a hand, with smaller capillaries connecting back to larger veins and arteries that in turn singularly connect back together in the hand. Rare is the road here that you can travel straight through a neighborhood without reaching an endpoint at a canyon or a body of water. When you have several million people living over a swiss cheese landscape, traffic is going to suck.

Lately, however, I've taken a liking to this town. My home is a beautiful place to live, being, as I've touted to many in the past, a 10 minute walk from the zoo and the rest of the grandeur of Balboa Park (Central Park:New York City::Balboa Park:San Diego), and an even shorter walk to thriving, but small downtown area. Since I've been here, I've seen a Johnny Cash cover band, a group of acrobats from Tanzania, a travelling Broadway show, an incredible July 4 fireworks show (actually, about 10 of them from our vantage point), a bunch of sunsets, a Padres game, tried beer from 1/2 a dozen local breweries (San Diego is apparently the top local brew town in the country!), and danced the night away in the Gaslamp District (Gaslamp District:San Diego::Franklin Street:Chapel Hill::Bourbon Street:New Orleans::Beale Street:Memphis::Duval Street:Key West). In other words, the cultural opportunities here are abundant. Of course, being in a wonderful relationship, one that was long-distance for my first few months here, helps tremendously.

In the past few months, life has been good. A bit cloudy, but good nevertheless. I miss Monterey, dearly. I miss my community there foremost. I also miss living in a place that is essentially a national park. My time there, unfortunately, was always fleeting. Such is my career.

Thankfully, mercifully, I've now come to fully appreciate where I live.

PS: "Paraiso" = "Paradise"

Friday, March 12, 2010

Au Revoir, Monterey

Three years ago, I was chatting with some friends while on a lunch break from a volunteer fieldwork position. We were near Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, surrounded by Eucalyptus trees, parrots, and kangaroos. I had just related to my friends the stories of how both of my parents, and grandparents, for that matter, had passed away.

"Must be hard," was one response.

I was incredulous. Must be hard? Here we were surrounded by an alien world that's practically a Mecca for biologists (which we all were) and, you know, just about everyone else who was born in Europe or the US. I just failed to understand how in the world that girl thought anything about life was anything but wonderful. And it is. I live a charmed life.

Right now, I'm composing this blog from my balcony, occasionally looking up from my computer screen to take in the grandeur of Monterey Bay and the rising sun on the horizon. Waves are crashing, birds are singing, and a gentle rain just set in a moment ago. I am nothing but a charmed man, personal tragedies bedamned.

Tomorrow, I take off for San Diego to start a new job, and, needless to say, I'm very excited. I'm going to be doing a population genetics study on the endangered California red-legged frog, a project designed to facilitate a future capture-and-release program to boost dwindling populations in hopes of preventing their extinction.

I seriously get to do this stuff for a living.

But I'm going to miss this place immensely, Monterey. People keep asking me if I'm excited about moving, excited about living in the country's 9th-largest city. Well, not really. If I could design my ideal living situation, being able to bike or walk along a rocky coastline a mile everyday, leaving from my apartment with a balcony overlooking Monterey Bay to get to work at Hopkins Marine Station, would be in the equation. Having a farmer's market, a movie theater, and amazing restaurants within a short walk would be in the equation. Being 4 hours from Yosemite National Park, 2 hours from San Francisco, and 20 minutes from the beginning of the Big Sur portion of the Pacific Coast Highway would be in the equation. Most importantly, being surrounded by an amazing, generous, and brilliant community would definitely be in the equation.

In other words, I would probably design my life as it is right now.

We had a despidida (Panamanian for "going away party") for me last night, and, I'm not sure if anyone counted, but I suspect there were 40 people there, at least. It truly knocked me down, the turn-out. And it is them, that amazing, generous, and brilliant community, that I'm going to miss the most about this place.

I'll repeat it again: I live a charmed life.

Why am I leaving this behind? Well, career calls, I guess. While it has been an honor working with Steve Palumbi, someone who's career I've admired from afar throughout my own career, my job has always been a transitional position. No one works as a tech in this lab forever. Beyond that, my personal ambitions (writing, analyzing, publishing, a career) were never part of the job description. These are things that were offered to me by the USGS. These are the things that I told myself would be the only way I would extract myself from this unique community. So, it's time to go.

So, I say au revoir, Monterey. I will miss you.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Plight of My Generation

In a conversation with one of my best friends last night, I made the comment that "we're facing a completely different set of challenges than any of the generations before us. Different than 20 years ago, 40 years ago, 60 years....."

"I'd love to hear how life's so different than it was just in 1989," my friend countered.

"The advent of mass communication," I responded.

This is not exactly a recent discovery for me. It's an argument about which I've discussed with a number of my friends. People today face an extraordinary set of circumstances. Sure, mass communication and transit has made the world a smaller place; at the same time, however, I think it's made it a more complicated one.

I always go back to my parents. They wed at 16. At 18, they had their first kid. Throughout their lives, they regularly saw their brothers and sisters, partied with their cousins, and never lived farther than a few miles from their own parents. In so many ways, I envy their short lives. They regularly hung out with their family; and not just because they were related, their best friends were their brothers and sisters. There's just something so beautiful about that.

Here I am, a man of the world. I've got friends--not just friends, good friends--in countries the world over. I've been in 3 different countries long enough to say that I've lived in them. I'm a Southerner who's become vegetarian, a social liberal who was raised on Ronald Reagan and Philip Morris, and an entirely unprejudiced individual who witnessed quite a bit of racism in his formative years. I've shot off on a tangent from the normal arc of life for people born and raised in Chocowinity, NC; yet, I find myself regularly longing for the good old days.

The good old days. The easiest contrast to make is between today and 100 years ago. 100 years ago, I would be married to some girl from Chocowinity, North Carolina, and we would have about 5 kids right now. There's simply no disputing that. 100 years ago, there was no leaving your hometown, much less your home country. 100 years ago, people would get together, THEN find love, and develop a family. And it was that simple--you marry the girl in town who's your age. All of these attributes that cause us such debate today were of no consequence back then. Attracted? You'll develop that later. Sex? Ha! You didnt know any better anyway. Common interests? Your common interests were that you both wanted to get married and have kids, and that you lived in Chocowinity, North Carolina.

And that's why I think the plight of my generation is a unique one. We benefit enormously from what I've long designated the "instant information age"--we are never more than a few clicks out of communication from our loved ones; we are never lost; and we can stay "in touch" with minimum effort. However, at the same time, we are made to suffer from the exact thing that ostensibly makes us more advanced and happier than previous generations: choice.

I can choose to live in pretty well any country I please now. I can choose pretty much any career in which I might be interested. In essence, however, this ability to choose prevents me and many of my friends from leading what previous generations would call "normal" lives. Rare is the individual that graduates college today with a career plan in mind (Tom, I envy your focus and resolve). Relationships, 100 years ago a matter of convenience, suffer enormously from the array of choices we are presented with today. In the past 6 years, I've lived in 3 countries. How in the world am I supposed to maintain a relationship?

This ability to choose has confounded relationships throughout my life. Essentially, I've created an untenable set of attributes for a significant other. I'm incapable of thinking in simple terms. When it comes to long-term relationships, the women in my life have to be absolutely perfect. Otherwise, "choice" has created for me this veil of safety to which I can easily fall back, and I can always decide that "there's someone else better for me out there."

And this is a common affliction amongst my generation. Most of us lack direction because of an overabundance of choice.

Sunday, July 19, 2009


Every US National Park has it's own personality, it seems. The Great Smokies NP is marked by dark and damp forest passages leading to misty vistas, and by crimson and saffron landscapes during the fall. "Otherworldly" is the first adjective that comes to mind when I think about the Grand Canyon. Even standing at the edge of the mile deep canyon and peering into it's grandeur hardly quells the impossibleness of its existence. Big Bend is a microcosm of all of the parks, with sheer canyons, desert landscapes, and high mountain hikes. It also affords a rare isolation from the crowds that plague most of the other parks in the lower US. At Yellowstone, everything seems to be alive. The rivers roils with rapids, the land boils mud and spews water, the sky explodes with lightning on the horizon, and the terrain is littered with charismatic megafauna.

So, when I went to Yosemite this past weekend, I really didnt expect to be so awestruck yet again. Majestic is the only word that does it justice. Though this place had inspired Ansel Adams and John Muir, I was really expecting just another park. I was expecting mountains and trees and waterfalls. I was expecting buses and crowds. But I definitely wasnt expecting Yosemite.

A mere drive down into and around Yosemite Valley along is worth the price of admission. Maybe it's my isolation from Yosemite as a born and bred Southerner, but I had only seen pictures of Bridelveil Falls. I had only heard of El Capitan and Half Dome. I knew that there would be giant sequoias because of its proximity to King's Canyon, where the largest (non-clonal) trees in the world call home.

Yosemite, though, is truly a special place.

Sheer, granitic walls are the distinguishing characteristic of the park. Glaciers carved their way through the park a million years ago, leaving behind a natural beauty that doesnt exist anywhere else in this country. Half Dome, a high outcrop that can be ascended by the hardy, hydrated, and non-acrophobic, is mirrored on the opposite side of the Valley by another outcrop, and it takes little imagination to envision that they were once part of one, contiguous structure. The lush, verdant valley below is dominated by a central river, fed by waterfalls that line the high, granite walls.

Unfortunately, as my grad advisor used to like to say, we're loving Yosemite to death. Most of the drive into and through the valley had bumper-to-bumper traffic. We hiked one of the more popular trails this past weekend, the trail to Half Dome. At no point were we truly alone (a quality I measure quantitatively by my comfort with using the bathroom close to the trail; if it's crowded, I've got to go real fast). And, while we weren't really considering hiking all the way to the top (a 16 mile, rigorous RT hike), we ran into plenty of fellow hikers who had done so. Apparently, the final push up to the top of Half Dome had a several hour wait yesterday. That's right, you could hike for 7 miles, ascending sharply the entire route, and a 1-2 hour long line is your reward.

That being said, even though we were rubbing elbows with fellow tourists during most of our hike, I've got nothing but rave reviews of the place. We all wish we could have the parks to ourselves. Guess I'd have to go back to Australia to have that.

But Australia's got nothing on Yosemite.

Monday, June 29, 2009


This past weekend was the annual Pride celebration. In other words, it's the annual weekend in which my boy Corey wouldn't be caught within 100 mile radius of San Francisco. For me, I felt compelled to be there. San Francisco is really a beacon for homosexuals the world over. The gay marriage issue is my generation's Civil Rights movement. As a complete social liberal, I definitely didnt want to miss an opportunity to support that community.

I also knew that the people-watching would be brilliant fun.

And boy was it.

To clarify, Pride is a city-sponsored celebration of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community. There are parades, concerts, educational events (though I would argue that for a straight man from Chocowinity, North Carolina, it was ALL pretty educational), speeches, etc, and it's all centered around City Hall in downtown San Fran. It's been going on for 4 decades now.

Unfortunately, I left my camera back in Pacific Grove during this trip; but, my pictures would probably cause my website to get banned anyway. I'm not sure Google would appreciate a picture of an old fart in a crotchless spiderman suit dancing outside of the San Francisco Health Department, meat and potatoes fully swinging in the wind, the same way I would. And yes, that happened. That was the very first thing I witnessed upon my arrival at the Pride festivities.

I also saw the director of Milk speak, along with Dan Choi (an outed Army veteran who'll likely soon be a representative of California), a few of Harvey Milk's compatriots, Cloris Leachman (who's apparently a huge LBGT advocate), and some of the city leaders. All-in-all, it was pretty damn cool to witness so many people, and the leadership of a major city for that matter, embracing a sector of our society that's still largely in oppression.

Anyway, that was my weekend.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Why I Love Carolina Basketball

I dont know how old I was. 7? 8? My earliest memory of Carolina basketball is of me sitting in the back of the living room watching a game with my family, far more intrigued by the fish tank beside me than the happenings on the t.v. My family cheered and jeered around me, putting their emotions on full physical display with each play.

I was an impressionable youth. At one point during the game, my attention was drawn from the fish beside me when I thought a Carolina player had broken out for a solo dunk. Following the lead of my family around me, I cheered.

I was sorely mistaken. That particular play was by a Demon Deacon.

My family's collective death glare sent the message: you dont root for the other team in this house.

My mom was a Carolina fan. My brothers are Carolina fans. My aunts, my uncles, my cousins. I had no other fate. I was born on August 15, 1979 in Chocowinity, North Carolina, and I was going to grow up to be a Carolina fanatic.

And boy did I. During the winter, I live and breath Carolina basketball. My friends well know my common excuse for not attending various social events: sorry, Carolina's playing. My ex-girlfriend once told me she was surprised that I was willing to walk away from it to live in and travel Australia last year.

Australia. I'm a biologist. Australia is every biologist's wet dream.

Maybe it's a commentary on our relationship. Or maybe it's representative of of just how fanatical I am: someone who was about as close to me as one can get thought I would rather watch the Heels than be in Oz, the land of wonder.

My obsession runs much deeper, though, has a much more vital role in my life. See, I was raised by high school drop-outs. Going to college was far less than a foregone conclusion in my family. One of my cousins was the first member of my family to go to college. One of my older brothers followed suite, needing to use the local community college as a springboard to ECU, a pretty good public school.

It became clear to everyone when I was pretty young that college was a very real possibility for me. Apparently, my 7th grade english teacher pulled my mother aside at my junior high graduation and said, "he's going to college" and offered to help my mom find financial assistance for me.

Not once during my academic career did my mom say a word about my grades. She really didnt have to of course--my grades were superior to my classmates by a letter for much of high school. Most semesters, I was the sole "All-A" student from my class, as listed in the local paper. For 2 years, I was the sole male in the Beta Club, my high school's honor society. I remember telling a group of interviewers during a Future Business Leaders of America competition that I was going to be valedictorian of my a sophomore.

Still college seemed daunting, a world away. My brother hadn't yet moved on beyond the community college, and my cousin's experiences were not shared with me.

Therefore, I had very little guidance for choosing a college, and I looked to the only source I knew: Carolina basketball.

The University of North Carolina became a reality to me during a Social Studies club trip to campus as an 8th grader. Before that, Carolina was just a team that we rooted for when they were on t.v. After, I started telling people that I was going to Carolina for college.

I'm not sure I actually believed it. Carolina was still in a different universe, a place that only the rich and brilliant attended. But, guided by my only source of guidance, I stuck to it. As a senior, I applied to only 2 schools: UNC and NC State. NC State, a pretty damn good school, especially for someone who was clearly interested in the sciences, was my back-up school. Actually, my application there was the fulfillment of a childhood promise, that I would attend school with my best friend, Gerald.

Probably fortunate for me (fortunate b/c I probably would've made a different decision in 1997), Gerald did not choose to go to State. I choose to go to Carolina.

It was my dream school. It also just so happens to be one of the best institutes of higher education on the planet. And I ONLY knew about UNC because of Carolina basketball.

That's the role Carolina basketball has played in my life.

So, when Carolina won the championship a few weeks ago, I was genuinely sad. I was sad because I wasnt going to get to watch this team play any more. I was sad because it's such a fixture in my life. I was sad because my mom wasnt around to enjoy the recent glories of the program.

And that's why I love Carolina basketball. I'm not just a fan. It's so much more to me.

Friday, February 13, 2009

In Honor of Darwin day....

The following is an editorial that my current employer wrote for the local newspaper. On the anniversary of Darwin's bicentennial, I thought it'd be appropriate to share it with my friends. Enjoy.


Steve Palumbi: Ignoring evolution invitation to danger
Evolution by natural selection may be doubted in some churches, but you certainly want your doctor to know that Darwin was right.    
If evolution was just a theory, then powerful strains of disease bacteria — virtually immune from many antibiotics — would not have evolved so quickly, or at all. One of the most deadly, Methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus, evolved over the past few decades and results in more deaths a year in the United States than does AIDS.  
An evolution-doubting physician might believe that staph infections were curable by penicillin. But a physician who prescribed penicillin and walked away without checking whether the staph was an evolved strain could have signed the patient's death warrant.  
There is no doubt that evolution by natural selection is an active, ongoing biological process. We can see it happening all around. Not only bacteria evolve, but deadly viruses do too. Insects evolve resistance to chemicals. Fish evolve thinner bodies to fit through fishing nets. Even humans evolve — a very specific gene helps Northern European adults digest milk. If, like me, you don't have these genes, then a big glass a milk before bed is not a welcome thought.  
It so happens that Northern Europe was one of the earliest places where cattle rearing was practiced, thousands of years ago.  
Did that cause selection for milk-digestion genes? A recent analysis of old bones from Europeans who lived before widespread cattle ranching shows few of these genes. Modern people in these areas now possess these genes in high frequency.
Charles Darwin was wrong about how fast evolution could happen. He thought of it as a process that consumed millennia or millions of years. He would have been surprised by the rapid evolution in species as diverse as butterfly bushes, big horn sheep and bacteria. But he correctly identified the basic rules for how natural selection can act to cause evolution. First, you need some variation among individuals. Second, the variation has to affect the likelihood of leaving offspring. Third, the variation has to be passed on to offspring. If these rules apply, then a species can evolve.

Evolution is a major part of our world. Understanding it allows us to create tools that enhance society—farm practices that allow pesticides to be effective longer, hospital routines that protect patients better. Denying our future doctors the knowledge of evolution would be like denying future engineers the knowledge that there were such things as hybrid cars and wind power. We would be hurting their chances to succeed in our currently technological world.

The science of evolution threatens no one. But ignoring that science is clearly a danger in a world where evolutionary changes are accelerating.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Australian Wildlife in Signs

--brought to you by Ingrid Pollet

Saturday, February 07, 2009

I'm Alive

I can't believe I've not written a blog since November. It's not as though life has been so uneventful as to not warrant my posting here--on the contrary, I've had plenty of blog-worthy experiences.


I spent Christmas this year in Eureka, California, which is waaaay up north. The plan was great, albeit rather naive. I was to spend a long weekend there, hike in Redwoods National Park, cross the Coastal Ranges to the interior to see Mt. Shasta (which I've been wanting to see ever since hearing my roommate back in 2002, Erin Riddle, laud it), and also to play some frisbee golf. Little did I know that I was driving into a winter wonderland. My first night there, I called Joey to get him to look up the weather for me.

"So, what's it supposed to be like in Eureka?"
"Cold and rainy."
"Huh. Okay, everyday?"
"Yep. Well, there's a chance of sleet and hail too."
"Fantastic. How about Mt. Shasta?"
"Snow. Lot's of snow."

I'm an idiot. I had NO clue that northern California would be snowy in the winter. "Well then," I told Joey, "glad I brought a sweatshirt."

My first day, I drove up into the Redwoods National Park. Along the way, I passed by the road that I'd planned to take over to Mt. Shasta the next day. There was an electronic billboard that read, "Snow chains REQUIRED." Guess I'll have to see Mt. Shasta some other time. A little further down the road, another billboard suggested that snowchains be used ahead....on the road that I was driving down.

I should point out here that I'm a rather recalcitrate individual when I'm driving. I WANTED to see the mouth of the Klamath River, damn it. Onward, I my 2008 Honda Fit without 4WD, snowchains, or a lick of clearance.

I really am an idiot.

But I made it just fine, albeit rather slowly. Regardless, I saw snow on Christmas again this year. While it wasn't quite as surprising as last year (it was mid-Summer in Australia, after all), it was a pleasant surprise nevertheless. It was well worth the risk. The snow-covered redwoods were beautiful. And, even though I had to fight through freezing rain and hail to get out to the vista over the mouth of the Klamath, the view as awe-inspiring. I highly suggest checking out the pictures. Northern California is a wonderful, wild place.

Northern California is also apparently home to "all of those weirdos" that my Aunt Margaret Ann warned me about when she found out I was coming to California. Eureka seemed to be populated by a thriving contingent of crazy people. In front of where I was staying was a fountain encircling a gazebo raised up a few feet with a circular walkway leading up to it. The whole time I was there, an old homeless man walked up and down that walkway, pausing only to harass passers-by on occasion. There was a guy on the main thoroughfare, 101, giving the middle finger to everyone he saw, hollering "f#$k you! F#$k you!" I kind of wish I would've taken a picture. On Christmas day, I stopped at a little shop that specialized in items made from redwood. The store operator obviously had fried his brain with meth, and could hardly communicate with me. Those are just the examples that stuck with me. I feel like I ran in to quite a few more characters.

My second day there, I went out to play frisbee golf at a couple of local courses, including one on campus at Humboldt State. Now, I should preface this by pointing out that frisbee golf tends to draw a hippy-ish crowd. I should also say that Humboldt has a particular reputation for being a "stoner school."

Well, boy did it live up to it's reputation. Within 40 seconds after getting out of my car there, I had the following conversation.

"Hey, you wanna hit this here pipe?"
"Uh, no. But thanks, really. That's awfully generous of you, perfect stranger, to provide me the opportunity to share whatever the hell's in that there pipe."

I shouldn't be so harsh. Stoners are generous, at least.

The course was definitely designed by somebody on drugs as well. The tee for hole 2 was a redwood stump, involving a 7 foot climb on a perpetually-moist and slippery surface. Fun stuff. I should also mention that the course design made zero sense, at one point requiring a 10 minute direction-less hike (I decided to start following a group who seemed to be in the know early on) to a completely different part of campus. I ended up just following a group around. But, it was well worth it for the overall experience, undoubtedly.


A few weeks ago, my friend from Chocowinity Candice Creasman came out to visit--the first of my friends, by the way, to take advantage of my mass invitation a few months ago. Her visit was mostly comprised of a long, long visit to the aquarium, a hike that nearly killed everyone involved (really not all that eventful, it was just a really arduous hike), and a lunch beside the Pacific Coast Highway. Reason number 1,032 that I love California: whales. As we sat there scarfing down our lunch and resting after the aforementioned nearly fatal hike, no less than about a dozen pairs of whales, probably gray, passed within eyeshot.

I think Candice had an educational experience here. She seemed to have learned that she'd much prefer strolling down 5th Avenue than hiking up the Appalachian Trail. I'll not judge her for it.


In the meantime, I've been working my tail off. I've added no less than 3 side projects that command my attention off the clock. It's pretty overwhelming, but exciting nevertheless. Those are 3 side projects that could turn into publications. Hopefully, I'll get to make some time for more adventures in the near future.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Ticking Another Box

Today I went whale-watching. In my ever-expanding personal bucket list, seeing living whales in the wild has been an elusive goal. I traveled Australia in the exact wrong time of the year to see any there. On a NE roadtrip last year, I made a pretty dangerous overnight trip from Boston to Bar Harbor, ME, to try to catch a 7 am cruise that was later canceled for bad weather. Just this past summer, on my visit here to Monterey to meet my current labmates, yet another attempt was futile. Weather, again.

I told myself that I would absolutely take the first opportunity that arose during my tenure here in Monterey. That opportunity presented itself, and boy was it worth the wait.

When I signed up to head out for it, I really had no idea what whale-watching entailed. To me, it seemed like a grandiose idea, trying to track down animals that spend most of their time underwater, only occasionally breaching the surface to breath, somewhere out there in the huge expanses of the open ocean. I guess there are some patterns as to their migratory routes, their breeding grounds, and their feeding grounds; but this still leaves a lot of search space.

Apparently, whale-watching entails leaning over a boat's rail for several hours (1.5, in our case) until you see a spout, the jet of water that a whale sprays skyward after it breaches to gasp for air. Apparently, they'll take several breaths, then head back down again. Spouts can be spotted from miles and miles away.

It only dawned on me when we were out there that the same tactic with which we were tracking them down was--how does one say "is" in Japanese?--utilized by whalers back in the day. Hence, "thar she blows!"

Had I ever read Melville, I guess I probably would've learned that.

Anyway, spout spotted, the captain of the ship gunned it to their general vicinity. We waited in a hushed silence, bobbing up and downing in the seas while craning our heading back and forth, trying to anticipate where the next spout might appear. We waited quite a while, it seemed, when finally they appeared only a couple of hundred feet from the boat. Again the captain gunned it towards them, only to have them dive again.

The next time they appeared, they were directly beside and beneath the forward hull of the ship, right below me. Both humpbacks came over to the ship, spraying the passengers several times with their spouts of water. We were told that some people think that they'll use a stationary ship as a back-scratch. I'm having a hard time picturing any sort of selectionist mechanism for such a behavior; but they were definitely very curious. They stayed with us for about 10 minutes before getting bored and swimming off.

In the meantime, I learned today that whales have bad breath.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Dear Mr. President-

First of all, congratulations. No matter the outcome of your presidency, your name will forever be recited with the some of the giants of American history. Nat Turner, John Brown, Frederick Douglas, Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, Emmitt Till, Martin Luther King, Barack Obama--you have already secured a place amongst this hallowed group.

But that is not good enough.

Your presidency will rank amongst the most important in our country's young history. You have the opportunity to make us remember you for not only breaking the color barrier to the presidency, but we may one day speak of your actions alongside those of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan. The problems we face as a society are that profound.

Our beloved country is in dire need of change. We need to return to that bold level of freedom upon which our country was originally established. We need to rebuild our economy in such a way as to meet the demands of the environment, become financially and energetically self-sufficient, and to allow reasonable and sustainable future growth. And we need to regain the confidence in our government to trust that our leaders are reliable and capable, transparent in their actions, and just in their motives.

Clearly, the economy is your first order of business. We have a $600 billion debt with China, a budget that is ever-increasing that debt, and 2 wars that are constantly demanding more funding. Clearly, the previous administration left their calculators in Texas, and the American dollar is in shambles because of it.

I think, Mr. President, that we need to bring manufacturing jobs home. The Walmart-ization of society has pushed mass production of low-cost goods pretty much completely beyond our borders. We all know the consequences: unsafe products, child labor, and the increase of pollution for the lack of environmental regulations in these countries. The rise of global transportation and communications has allowed multinational corporations to, in effect, select which laws to which they want to subject themselves. Heck, they sometimes decide to change laws to better meet their needs either by powerful suggestion (e.g., threatening to move on to another country) or blatant intervention (e.g., funding the assassination of government leaders). Meanwhile, Americans are finding themselves out of work and out of money. But hey, there's a sale on widgets and gizmos at Walmart! At least there's one place we can spend the last $20 to our names.

Bring manufacturing jobs home, and the prices of these items will rise, undoubtedly. But we know that current prices are artificial. They do not in any way reflect the actual expenses incurred by society and the environment for their production and transportation. Furthermore, a quiet revolution is already happening across the country. The deaths of thousands of pets the world-over has caused Americans to better consider what is going into dog food. The fear of cancer has elicited the explosion of the organic food industry. Even with the economy reeling, Whole Foods is thriving. The discovery of toxins in children's toys made in China is making parents across the world regard their purchases with a greater level of diligence.

I think American society might be in a position to pay a little more for greater quality, if not for the betterment of the environment and society.

One might suggest that the American worker is beyond manufacturing jobs, that white collar jobs are the way of the present and future. I would point out that in Beaufort County, North Carolina, where I am from and a good representative of rural American society, the average annual salary is $17000/year. The widget and gizmo industry would be welcomed there with open arms.

Bringing manufacturing jobs home would help to solve many of the problems faced by Americans today. It would re-mobilize an American workforce. It would decrease planetary CO2 emissions by eliminating trans-Pacific shipping and forcing manufacturing plants to be powered by energy sources that are subject to American environmental standards. It would also slow that looming and ever-growing shadow of Chinese hegemony that is reshaping the nature of the geopolitical climate of the planet almost as quickly it is the rest of the climate.

How could we do this? In my mind, it is simple: enforce the laws that are in place. Enforce the laws for which Upton Sinclair and Thomas Nast fought. Enforce the new environmental legislation that you will assuredly put into place, legislation that finally makes sense and takes our future into account. Enforce the Taft-Hartley Act to decrease the near-monopolic power of Walmart. If products are sold on our shores, the companies responsible for making them and those selling them should be subject to our laws.

The rampant irresponsible corporate libertarianism allowed by the current administration needs to come to an end and soon.

Then perhaps our beloved country's economy can boom again, but this time with a tone of responsibility and sustainability. I think we are ready for that.

Thank you-

Kelly Barr
A Concerned Citizen

My November 1

Having been dropped off at the Motel 6 on Halloween by the lovely stranger named Sara, I awoke early on the 1st hoping to get back on the road as quickly as possible. Sara had left me with the business card of a man named Gary who was the owner and operator of Picture Rocks Road Tire and Rim and who had, while pretty well inebriated mind you, told me that he would pick me up in the morning.

He was a man of his word.

An hour after I called, Gary arrived at my hotel in his own decrepit little Ford pick-up (apparently, that's the official transportation of native Tucsonians) with my wheels, tires and rims, in the bed. This 60s-ish man with a long gray beard and a sun-pocked face hopped out, shook my hand, and said, "I've got bad news for you, Kelly." And then he showed me where my tires had completely blown out and, more disturbingly, where one of the rims was cracked.

As an aside, the guy lived about 50 minutes away. I suspect he'd immediately jumped into his truck after we spoke on the phone, stopped by my car on the way, pulled the wheels off in about 30 seconds, and met up with me at exactly the time we'd discussed. The guy was obviously skilled.

For the next 2 hours, Gary drove me around the city of Tucson to track down a new rim and 2 new tires. We even dropped by the Honda dealership to find out if, 1, the rim would be covered under my warranty ("are you kidding?" was basically the response) and, 2, if they had any of these items in stock ("Nope. We could order them, though, for $415 for the rim, $120/tire, and $450 for the tire pressure monitors." "Uh, no thanks."). Our first order of business was to tend to the rim. Gary thought it might be difficult to track down that size.

Why cars aren't designed with standard sizes is beyond me. I know car companies probably make quite a bit from replacement parts; but would it be so bad for business to decrease the variety a bit? Perhaps having the same size rims for both Honda Fits AND Civics? Just seems like it would be cheaper to mass produce these things in the same factories, rather than having a separate source for them.

The first rim shop that we stopped at didn't have it in stock. "That one's a hard one to find," the not-so-friendly owner told us. Meanwhile, the whole time we were there, Gary persisted to the guy, "you're going to help me out, right? All the business I send your way, I mean, you're going to give us a deal, right." Gary was really trying to look out for me. At the next shop, I purchased a pretty hideous black universal rim. This shop tried to sell me a tire for about $60 as well. Gary spoke for me, "no! No! That's alright! We'll get the tires elsewhere."

I should mention that between the hotel and shops, Gary, this crusty car mechanic 4 decades my senior, and I managed to build up a camaraderie. He really admired my traveling bug. Though he was living about a mile from where he grew up, he shared the same bug. He was a truck-driver for over a decade, and had lived all over the country. I guess there's just no place like home. Of course, the overarching conversation on the day was the election. Gary asked about my vote. "Well," I stammered, "I do really like McCain. I mean, as far as Republican candidates go, he's better than any other one that I've experienced in my short voting life." I was nervous. Gary's been around a while. He's white. He's lives out in the country. And, last and certainly not least, he's a native Arizonian. I really didn't want to offend this man on whom my future was now so dependent. "But, I've already voted, and I voted for Obama. My views are just far more aligned with his. And I think the country just needs new leadership." "That's good," Gary said, I've got to admit, I was hoping for Hillary; but either of them is better than McCain. McCain's an asshole."

It was at this point that I noticed the bumper stick on the rear window of Gary's truck that said "Fuck Bush."

Somehow, I had stumbled into the care of the country's only country bumpkin liberal.

Gary then took me to a tire shop, owned and operated by a pair of brothers that he'd apparently known since he was a kid. I found myself watching this man, likely in his 60s, wrestling with one of them, also likely around 50, in the parking lot. We got a couple of cheap tires, had them put on the rims, both the original and my new one that's going to be a blemish on my brand new until I either procure a new one or get the cracked one fixed, and hit the road again, headed back out to the National Park to my car. For their troubles and 2 tires, Gary's friends charged me $60.

On the way, I convinced Gary to let me buy him a tank of gas. "Oh, that's okay." "C'mon, Gary," I said, "you've been driving me around all morning and not working. It's the least I could do." "Well, maybe you can put $5-10 in." When we got to the station, I hopped out and grabbed the pump, and said, "it's just a tank of gas, let me take care of it." Gary sort of sank and said, "you sure?" Just as I always do at the gas station, I paid with my card at the pump, started it, and headed inside to use the bathroom and grab something to drink. When I got back out, I saw Gary stopping the pump. "$25," I said, "wow, must be a small tank." "Yep," he responded. Heading down the road, I noted that the tank was only at 3/4.

As swiftly as he'd removed them, Gary replaced my wheels, and I was ready to hit the road minutes after returning to the scene of the previous day's fiasco. "What do I owe ya, Gary?" I inquired. "Oh, let's say $25 for the service call." This guy had just picked me up from my hotel 50 minutes from his shop, driven me all around Tucson for several hours, and only wanted $25 for his services. I peered into my wallet. There were a few singles, a $5, and a few $20s. I grabbed 2 of the 20s and said, "I dont have a five. Here you go." "You sure?" he said, kind of ashamed to take the extra money. "Yeah. You've driven me all over town this morning, worked on my car, and missed out on whatever business you would've had at your shop in the meantime. As a matter of fact," I grabbed another $20. Gary backed up and threw out his hands, "no! No! No! That's completely unnecessary!"

Before he would leave, Gary made me start my car to be certain. He wished me luck, and drove off, heading back to his little tire business, set amongst the saguaro cacti of the national park surrounding his tiny little community.

Week 1

The average American commutes 45 minutes each day to and from work. Twenty minutes in your car each way, not so bad. A few years ago, I read an article about those on the extreme upper end of this range, including one woman who lives in the Poconos of Pennsylvania and works in New York City. Choosing to raise her children in a more rural environment compels this woman to bus daily to the city for a grand total of 4 hours. That's 4 hours on the road, not working, not sleeping, not spending time with her family.

While I appreciate the desire to raise one's family away from the frenetic and blithely superficial concrete jungle that is New York City, having spent a week commuting for 2 hours a day back and forth between Hopkins in Pacific Grove and my incredible temporary abode in Santa Cruz, a pristine mother-in-law suite generously provided by Kristen Ruegg, a post-doc in the Palumbi Lab, Eric Anderson, and their lovely 1.5-year old, Zoe, I do not envy the aforementioned commuter's plight one bit. At the moment, sunset is around 5:30. I generally get to work at 9, meaning that I left work after dark every day this week. When you're spending 2 hours a day in your car, some other activities naturally get sacrificed. For me, apparently, those things were cooking myself dinner (cereal was on the menu quite often this week) and exercising. These 2 activities are exactly my favorite 2 things to do in life.

In other words, while I wouldn't describe my first week on the other coast as miserable, I've not been the happiest of individuals.

But, I things are looking up. Today, I received word that what is quite possibly the greatest apartment I've ever seen is mine for the renting. It's at 126 Forest Avenue in Pacific Grove, California. It's a 2 bedroom with a balcony jutting off the second floor, abutting the living room, with a pretty clear view of Monterey Bay. The apartment is a stone's throw from the Pacific and perhaps a football punt away from downtown Pacific Grove. The building is also all of 1 mile from Hopkins.

My commute will soon be decidedly shorter.

Of course, when I move in, I'll be living a rather spartan life for a while. I've got zilch in the way of furniture or pots and pans or a vacuum or any of the other the stuff of normal everyday life. At least I'll have a view.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

I'm Here

But I'm too pooped to write. Expect a new blog or 2 soon. Good night.

Friday, October 31, 2008

My Halloween

The day started off innocently enough. I awoke this morning in the little town of Wilcox, Arizona, having booked it clear across West Texas and New Mexico yesterday.

My first destination was Tombstone, of wild west and OK Corral fame. There, I found a town that looked as though it had not changed in 100 years, excepting having been turned into a tourist attraction. Stagecoaches offer rides up and down the main boulevard. Mock gunfights are held every hour on the hour. The saloon can be entered through swinging doors. Cowboys and 6-shooter carrying sheriffs pace up and down the streets, only breaking from character to hand out flyers advertising museums, gunfights, and tours. And the same theater that hosted vaudeville shows for the likes of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday still sits on the edge of town.

From Tombstone, I drove down some Arizona backroads to my next destination, Green Valley, the home of a now decommissioned Titan II ICBM silo. Between 1963 and the SALT treaties with the USSR, 18 such silos were manned 24-7 by a crew of 4 Air Force servicemen, all poised to launch a nuclear missile at the USSR upon request by the President. I dont really understand why, but I've always been a bit obsessed with nuclear arms and, well, the military in general. Maybe it's having grown up on Ronald Reagan and GI Joe, and in eastern NC at that, where the military has a heavy presence. The technology developed for these weapons was just remarkable. We're talking about the early 60s, before even color televisions were available. This was a missile that could hit within a block of it's target on the other side of the world. The men manning the silo could communicate with commanders anywhere in the world using any of a number of transmitters, including one that sends and receives signals through the earth's crust. Being in the silo was like taking a step 40 years into the past, but yet, here we were being told about the incredible abilities the military had back then. The 740 ton door to the silo would open in about 18 seconds. The 100 ton missile could launch in less than a minute. And the silo and living quarters were built to survive all but a direct hit by a nuclear warhead.

We developed these technologies in the 50s and 60s, not to mention landing on the moon; yet most of our automobiles are still powered by a technology developed at the beginning of the 20th century! What the hell?

Anyway, later in the day, around sunset, I finally found myself in the primary destination today, Saguaro National Park. It was spectacular. I'll post the pictures soon, because no words can do it justice. I love southern Arizona.

I managed to see enough of the park to be satisfied with moving on for the day in all of an hour. I would prefer to go on some hikes and really take in the scenery and wildlife, but my time is short. So, I started booking it out of the park. At an ess curve just inside the eastern edge of the park, I hit a pothole on the edge of the road and blew both of my passenger-side tires.

Now, I'm a pretty cool customer under duress. Most people would probably be pretty pissed at this point. I simply hopped out of my car and called my brother, Joey, to look up some phone numbers for me. The highway patrol gave me the numbers to a couple of towing services. The first one I called was none too enthused about the prospect of heading out to the national park to pick me up. They basically said they could do it later in the weekend. The next one said the same. I called the highway patrol back, told the dispatcher the what happened, and she responded, "you've got to be kidding me!" She told me to hold on and called one of the services herself. When she came back onto the line, she assured me that they would help me when I call back. The towing company dispatcher apologized to me, took some information, and then tried to get my location. "I'm on Picture Rocks Road just inside the park," I told her. "I need something more than that," she responded. I told her that I'm a tourist, just passing through. I really didnt know the area. I just drove into the park from I-10, and was heading back out the same way.

"Well, I need a landmark or something, because I dont want my driver driving all over the park looking for you."

"Ma'am, I'm just inside the edge of the park on Picture Rocks Road, I'm not sure what else to tell you."

"I need a landmark. I cant just send out my driver to Picture Rocks Road."

I was standing there, surrounded by rocks, cacti, and NOTHING ELSE! So, I told her that. She told me again that she needed a landmark. I said, "well, about a mile down the road, I see some houses, I guess I could go down there, knock on a door, and ask what the neighborhood is called."

I was being a smart-ass. The dispatcher told me to call her back when I did that.

Looking down the road, which was a pretty busy and winding 2-lane road without much of a shoulder. The sun was setting and I'm in the desert. The prospect of walking down that road wasnt all too appealing. Instead, I called my brother again and tried to get some landmarks on google maps. This information proved to be satisfactory to the dispatcher who finally put me into contact with a driver.

"Now, you know it'll be at LEAST 3 hours before I can get out to you, right?"

"Okay, I guess."

"And it'll be..." whatever exorbitant price she gave me.

"Okay, I guess. I guess I dont really have a choice, do I?"

"Alright, I'll give you a call before I come out."

Great. There I was on the side of the road on Halloween waiting for a tow truck to take my car to the other side of the city, apparently, and hopefully drop me off at a nearby hotel. I really didnt enjoy the prospects. So, I called Joey again to get the numbers to some taxis. No go. No one would come out. Then I decided to just hoof it. It would be 3 hours anyway, so I figured I could probably get myself to a hotel in the meantime.

About 100 feet down the road, having donned jeans and shoes to account for the prospect of scorpion and rattlesnake run-ins, I met a lovely woman named Sara, who pulled her truck off of the road before me and, Camel clasped between her nicotine stained teeth, or at least the 4-5 she had left, asked if I needed a ride. I told Sara about my car, and she told me that some friends of hers run a tire shop right up the street. She gave me their number right off the top of her head. Sara and I went back to my car to get the tire sizes, and realized that there was no visible physical damage. Apparently, all I needed was an air compressor, and I could fill up my tires and hit the road. That's what I told Sara's friend at the tire shop.

I suspect had I called on any other night, and not on a Halloween Friday night, I would've gotten help right then; this night, however, the guy on the other end of the phone was obviously several sheets to the wind. "Just leave your car there," he slurred, "get Sara"--pronounced "Shhh-ara"--"to take you to a hotel, and I'll get you in the morning."

So, that's how I found myself spending Halloween 2008 in a Motel 6 just west of Tucson, Arizona.

I've watched the Discovery Channel commercial that I just posted about 1/2 a dozen times to help cheer myself up.

But rest assured, Halloween is still my favorite holiday.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Going Back to Cali

I miss living on the road. Life was much simpler back then. The only decisions I had to make each day were, "should I drink tea or coffee for breakfast?" and, "where are we going to go?" That was the life.

Now I have to figure out things like, "how do I pay for exorbitantly-priced health insurance that'll probably deny paying out if I ever actually even pull the card out from the recesses of my wallet?" as well as, you know, "what the hell am I going to do with my life." For the past few months, I've been toiling away here in the Marko Lab trying to polish off a project that's been 6 years in the making now. I took a personality test in Australia (the subject of a previous blog), the results of which have been doubly confirmed by similar tests since I've returned to the US. One of the more humorous and apt suggestions for my personality-type was to figure out how long something should take, then double it.

That couldnt be more true for me.

Meanwhile, I've been applying for jobs all summer, flirting with a number grand ideas along the way. I'd thought it'd be fun to work for a non-profit, like The Nature Conservancy or Environmental Defense; but my molecular ecology-steeped background, surprisingly enough, doesn't exactly scream "HIRE ME!" to such organizations. Not once, but twice I'd decided that moving to particular cities in pursuit of relationships was my best move. Nope. Both of those relationships fell apart.

Then one day I found in email in my inbox from one Stephen Palumbi, who apparently wanted to know a little more about me. It had been so long since I'd applied for a position in his lab that I'd forgotten about it. Anybody who knows anything about molecular ecology or marine biology would know Palumbi's name. I know a little about both fields, so I was pretty stoked to be receiving an email from him. A few email exchanges later, I was invited to visit him and his lab in Monterey, California, on his coin.

As an aside, my friend Phil Buiser (he of the Target commercial fame in my previous post) and I took a little (ie, a 12,000 mile loop around the contiguous US) roadtrip just after college. While visiting the famous Monterey Bay Aquarium on Cannery Row in Monterey, Phil and I were standing outside of the aquarium taking in the sights, the Pacific Ocean, the seals, and the giant kelp forest below. "We're at the center of some of most important marine sciences research there is out there," I told him. "I'm going to end up here."

Ha! I didn't actually believe it for a second. I was just an exuberant youth showing off. I'd been working in the Marine Sciences Department at UNC for several years now, but I was a nobody. I had yet to go further than doing grunt work on various projects, much less actually conduct any research myself. I hadn't even FLOWN yet, much less actually live outside of the state of North Carolina.

But here I am 7 years later, and I just accepted a job to work at Hopkins Marine Lab in Monterey, CA.

Life is a grand thing, isn't it? I have always wanted to live in California for at least a short period of time. I've always admired the persistent stream of high-level science that emanates from the Palumbi lab. Now, I'll have ample opportunity to both work in a prolific environment and be able to enjoy the many natural splendors of California in my down time.

Now, I'm faced with the prospect of actually finishing up the work I was hired for originally here at Clemson. Using the equation suggested by the personality test, I should have allotted myself 6 months. Now, I'll be departing about 3 weeks shy of that, and I suspect I'm going to be leaving work undone, or at least not very well done. That's the problem with science, there's always more one can do. The work that gets published rarely is the entirety of what was originally planned. Concurrently, I also have to pack up to move to the other coast, find an apartment (and hopefully an apartment-mate, because rent's going to suck out there), and attend as many college football games as I possibly can.

Okay, so that last item on the agenda isn't so stressful, but give me a break! I missed an entire year of sports last year and I'll soon be moving to a place that couldn't care less about football or basketball.

I should get back to work.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Around Australia at 55 MPH or A Year Without Winter

Just the word Australia elicits fantastical thoughts of wonderment for most. Kangaroos, the Great Barrier Reef, crocodiles, Uluru, the Opera House, Tasmania--all of these images seem exotic, remote, and irresistibly alluring. Australia must have the greatest tourism ad campaign in the world, for what other location on the entire planet has such a magnetic appeal for so many? I would wager that if recent college graduates were polled to find out where they would most like to travel to, Australia would be the first choice for most, if not unanimously.

Well, at the end of March, Ingrid Pollet and I completed a complete circuit of Oz, as many travelers refer to Australia. We covered nearly 28,000 kms (18,000 mi) in 4 months. Ingrid added about 280 new birds to her life list, which means I probably saw 250 or so myself. If we drove Beulah at 90 km/hr (55 mi/hr) to maximize her fuel efficiency at 15 L/100kms (which is better than it usually was), and gas was $1.50/L (which is about the cheapest--that works out to about $6/gallon, by the way), then that means we spent approximately $6300 on fuel alone (probably more like $8000). Throw in $500/month for food, $1000 total for lodging, $300 for the Spirit of Tasmania, $500 to dive the Great Barrier Reef, and all of the $3 Diet Cokes I drank, it was a pretty expensive affair, traveling Australia.

Was it worth it? That's a question I'm still debating, honestly. I spent a whole lot of money to see Australia. I spent enough to prematurely end my globetrotting plans. As a particularly frugal individual, I'm not too happy about that. With my budget, I should've seen New Zealand, Thailand, Vietnam, Japan, and China, as I had aspired. Instead, I saw Australia and just Australia.

But I saw ALL of Australia. I've seen more of Australia than 99% of Australians. I've seen more birds there than most Australian ornithologists. I've swam on more beaches than most Australian surfers. I tasted more of the country's wines than many Australian viticulturists . I visited every single major population center across the continent, and traversed darn near every paved road. I got myself inundated in Australian culture and politics, and learned a great deal of its history. I truly traveled the hell out of this continent. I'm not sure there are many people out there who've traveled Australia so thoroughly.

In retrospect, Australian flora and fauna are EVERYTHING they're cracked up to be. Just hearing the call of a Laughing Kookaburra might be worth the price of admission. While most visitors were enamored with the famous Opera House my first day in Sydney back in July, I was completed infatuated with the several hundred gray-headed flying foxes (giant bats) residing in the adjacent Royal Botanical Gardens, not to mention the White Ibises, RainbowLorikeets , and Sulfur-crested Cockatoos. Then there's the day we came upon a koala sitting on it's rump in the middle of the road and the night we were awakened by the din of a grazing wombat a foot away from our tent. I saw trees with hundreds of parrots lining their branches, termite mounds taller than me, and ants that could look back at me. Kangaroos and wallabies really are all over. And if you visit Australia without seeing dozens of different parrot species, you just aren't paying attention.

As for the people of Australia, well, they only subtlety different than ourselves. One of the things I love about my country is it's diversity. While the stereotypical American is the white suburbanite, in reality, our people and culture is the intersection of many, many others. The US is well on it's way to having a greater proportion of minorities than whites. Heck, we might just be well on our way to having a black president.

That is not the case in Australia. While the cities are diverse with large Asian component, the country is decidedly a white one. Apparently, Australia is 95% of European descent. The US is at 66% and steadily dropping. Needless to say, it was a minor change going from Australia to Atlanta, a 65% black city, in a day's time.

Australian culture is duly comparable to that of Great Britain. They drink tea, eat fish and chips, and the word fanny is a very, very naughty. Quite a bit of their culture is decidedly akin to that of the US too. I've learned over the past year that theUS's biggest export is culture. The world watches our movies, reads our books, and listens to our music. I couldn't help but chuckle once when a car drove by in some small town with a driver leaning as far back as he could safely get, wearing a baseball cap turned sideways, and listening to aTupac song from 1992--had that kid even met a black man, much less an American black man? Our bad tv shows also make it around the globe, as well as our news. Indeed, the most isolated cattle rancher in outback South Australia could easily tell you who George W. Bush is as well as his father--could you name the Australian Prime Minister? Had I not just spent 8 months there in the middle of their general elections, I certainly couldn't have. American corporations also have a heavy presence there. Rare is the little town that doesn't haveMcDonalds, and Coke is available for purchase at the most secluded of country stores.

Of course, there are a few things that are distinctly Australian. It's 20 million people are the only ones who could possibly eat vegemite and not promptly commit hara-kiri to end their misery. They commonly drive "utes," which are little truck-cars, like the failed El Camino. A product of the country's size, cross-country commerce happens in the form of roadtrains, which are tractor-trailers with 2-4 trailers. Almost being swept off the road by one of these roadtrains barreling its way down a road wide enough to support a golf cart is truly an authentic Australian experience. Australians also have a manner of speaking that I at once adore and abhor. Our country has adopted "no worries" as a common response. In Australia, they also use "no dramas" and "too easy." That latter response really raises my hackles. I always wanted to cover the person's eyes and shout, "how about now?! Is it too easy now?!"

And then there's "mate." When Kevin Rudd was nominated as the country's new Prime Minister, he spoke of "mateship" in Australia in his acceptance speech. Many country Australians will end every single sentence with the word. At a gas station one day, I witnessed the following conversation between a gas station attendant and a customer:

"Which tank were you on, mate?"
"The diesel, mate."
"That'll be $84, mate."
"The other diesel, mate."
"Oh, sorry about that, mate."
"That's okay, mate."
"Here's your card, mate."
"Thank you, mate."
"Have a good day, mate."
"You too, mate."

And then they made out.

Or maybe I made the last part up.

People really do often greet you with "g'day mate!" Australians also have the peculiar habit of colloquially ending a lot of their words with "o" or "y." So, a bottle shop is a "bottle-o," a cigarette is a "smoke-o," and a beer being drunk by a car passenger (still legal in Australia) is a "road-y."

In general, the people are supremely friendly. I felt completely safe everywhere I went. We often camped right along the main roads at rest areas--something I'd think twice about in much of the US. Many Australians have some real issues with the "Aborigine question;" but I've already addressed this in a previous blog. They mean well, even if many of them are ignorant and a tad racist.

In the environment, Australia is very encouraging to the green-minded individual such as myself. Every toilet I saw all across the country was low-volume with the option of "half-flushing." Many were waterless. Recycling programs were common where there was any infrastructure at all. Most places were free of litter. And the government actually address global climate change as though it's a real thing and not some figment of the imagination of liberal minds (as implied by W, Rush Limbaugh, and Michael Crichton--thank you, you jerks). Of course, there are plenty of places where mines are denuding the countryside and polluting what little water there is. Australia is apparently responsible for more CO2 percapita than any other country (though the good ol ' US of A is easily number 1 in total emissions). And the the 1,000 km long swathe of sugar cane fields running the length of TROPICAL (as in forest) Queensland is pretty discouraging.

Still, Australia is in much better shape than the US when it comes to addressing environmental issues on the short-term. I attended a "sustainability festival" in Sydney and was amazed at just how knowledgeable the seemingly-average Sydney-sider was about green energy. I attended an equivalent event in Atlanta last weekend, and there was so little interest in a green energy seminar that it had to be canceled. That's probably the product of good government incentive programs that make green energy a viable choice for Australians. In the US, there are rumblings of such programs; but we need a damn earthquake.

Australian cities are phenomenal. Each is clean, green, and unique. If Perth, Brisbane, or Adelaide existed in the US, I think I'd call one of those places home. Urbanites are mostly friendly, even while driving. Very rarely did I hear an impatient driver slamming on his horn despite the fact that we were often driving 20 km/hr below the 110 km/hr speed limit. All of the cities have interesting museums, both art and natural history, a diversity of restaurants, and good, inexpensive public transportation. Australia definitely lacks the cross-country infrastructure that we have in the US, meaning that many of the cities have to be approached on slow, stoplight-laden streets rather than speedy, open freeways. But, with only 20 million people in the country, the ridiculous traffic that we have in much of the US is not an issue there. Sure, I was caught in traffic jams in Sydney; but I've already seen more traffic traveling from Atlanta toGreenville, SC, 2 days ago than I did at any one time in Australia.

One thing I particularly enjoyed about Australia was its lack of police. I only very rarely actually saw cops around. Going from that environment back to the US is like going from Bohemia to Nazi Germany. My country really is like a police state. I hate it. Why is it so different? Of course, they have more cameras operating over there to catch both red-light runners (which, by the way, will cost you over $300 in South Australia--ask me how I know) and speeders. But that's so much better than here where you'll see blue lights the moment you make a mistake.

Their advertisements are decidedly different than ours as well, being a little more vulgar. I saw a public safety ad portraying a girl getting into a car accident, with a guy flying into the back of her head from the backseat. The caption read, "the last thing that went through her head was her boyfriend." I was aghast. I also saw a tv ad featuring a bikini-clad woman walking down the beach while holding a beaver's hand. Then she was having a candle-lit dinner with it. Finally, they were rowing on a placid lake together. The narrator came on and said, "you only have one. Take care of it." It was a tampon commercial. Wow.

I think I just convinced myself that I did really like it, and that the expense I incurred for traveling was well worth it. I made some good friends that I miss already. I had some experiences that I'll likely never had again. And I'll long to return someday again in the future. Yeah, I think it was worth it.

Traveling Green

I recently used a couple of online calculators to figure out the environmental impact of my trip to Australia. I learned that 28,000 kms in Beulah equates approximately 7.7 metric tons of CO2 released into the atmosphere. My flights from Atlanta to Sydney and back, 20,000 miles in the air, released ~3.6 metric tons (just for me; the other passengers have to account for their own load). Just for thoroughness, I also figured out that the ferry trip to Tasmania and back, 480 miles, released ~362 kg (again, just my share).

All along I had been debating what I was going to do about these impacts. I've been decidedly not very good to the planet over the past year, and I wanted to remedy that. There are a number of organizations out there now that offer carbon offset programs, from planting trees to funding education and lobbying. I had also considered just donating the equavalent of the cost of offsetting CO2 to a couple of environmental groups I know and respect, such as The Nature Conservancy and Conservation International. I've settled on one called the Clean Air Conservancy.

One of the more sensible environmental initiatives the federal government has instilled over the past few decades is a CO2 credit program for utility companies. Basically, the government put a cap on the total amount of allowable CO2 to be emitted by utility companies, divided that number up into credits that function exactly like shares of stock, and divvied the credits out to the companies. That meant the bigger, more polluting companies had to reduce emissions and purchase enough of the credits from other companies to stay in business; meanwhile, the smaller companies would gain enough in the way of assets to be able to afford to reduce their emissions.

Now if we could only elect a president that gives a crap so we can have an EPA that actually enforces this program.

Banking on the good reason of all 3 of our presidential candidates, I'm going to donate $85 ( to the Clean Air Conservancy to offset the 11.2 metric tons of CO2 I was responsible for releasing during my Australian excursion. With that $85, the CAC will purchase the credits for 11.2 metric tons of CO2 and retire them, such that utility companies can no longer release that much CO2 into the atmosphere ever again.

That's a minor tithe for traversing a whole continent.

For as long as I'm still driving a darned truck here in the US, I'll be purchasing credits to offset my emissions (~6 metric tons/yr) from now on as well.