Tag Archives: science

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty

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There are many words a woman in love longs to hear. “I’ll love you forever, darling,” and “Will it be a diamond this year?” are two fine examples. But young lovers take note: above all else, the phrase every girl truly wants to hear is, “Hi, this is Amy from Science Support; I’m dropping off some heads.”

You have all seen The Producers, right? The version with Zero or Nathan, in the cinema, on TV, on the stage, whatever. Those of you who have not…well…tsk, tsk, tsk, for shame, for shame. Well, there is one scene that pops to mind apropos this book. In the film, the producers of the title have put together a show that is designed to fail. The surprise is on them, though, when their engineered disaster turns out to be a hit. During intermission of the opening performance, to Max and Leo’s absolute horror, they overhear a man saying to his wife, “Honey, I never in a million years thought I’d ever love a show called Springtime For Hitler. One might be forgiven for having similar thoughts about Caitlin Doughty’s sparkling romp through the joys of mortuary science, Smoke Gets in your Eyes. If you were expecting a lifeless look at what most of us consider a dark subject, well, surprise, surprise.

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Yes we are, and dead-ender Caitlin is happy to help with the cleanup

Caitlin Doughty has cooked up a book that is part memoir, part guidebook through the world of what lies beyond, well, the earth-bound part, at least, and part advocacy for new ways of dealing with our remains. Doughty, a Hawaiian native, is a 6-foot Amazon pixie, bubbling over (like some of her clients?) with enthusiasm for the work of seeing people off on their final journey. Her glee is infectious, in a good way. The bulk of the tale is based on her experience working at WestWind Cremation and Burial in Oakland, California, her first gig in the field. She was 23, had had a fascination with death since she was a kid and this seemed a perfectly reasonable place in which to begin what she believed would be her career. Turned out she was right.

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Caitlin Doughty from her site

Smoke Gets in your Eyes is rich with information not only about contemporary mortuary practices, but on practices in other cultures and on how death was handled in the past. For example, embalming did not come into use in the USA until the Civil War, when the delay in getting the recently deceased from battlefield to home in a non-putrid form presented considerable difficulties. She also looks at the practice of seeing people off at home as opposed to institutional settings. There is a rich lode of intel in here about the origin of church and churchyard burials. I imagine churchgoers of the eras when such practices were still fresh might have been praying for a good stiff wind.

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No Kibby, no smoke monsters here

Doughty worked primarily in the cremation end of the biz, and offers many juicy details about this increasingly popular exit strategy. But mixing the factual material with her personal experience turns the burners up a notch.

The first time I peeked in on a cremating body felt outrageously transgressive, even though it was required by Westwind’s protocol. No matter how many heavy-metal album covers you’ve seen, how many Hieronymous Bosch prints of the tortures of Hell, or even the scene in Indiana Jones where the Nazi’s face melts off, you cannot be prepared to view a body being cremated. Seeing a flaming human skull is intense beyond your wildest flights of imagination.

Beyond her paying gig, Doughty has, for some time, been undertaking to run a blog on mortuary practice, The Order of the Good Death, with a focus on greener ways of returning our elements back to the source. (Would it be wrong to think of those who make use of green self disposal as the dearly de-potted?) One tidbit from this stream was meeting with a lady who has devised a death suit with mushroom spores, the better to extract toxins from a decomposing body. I was drooling over the potential for Troma films that might be made from this notion.

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No, not pizza

One of life’s great joys is to learn something new while being thoroughly entertained. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes offers a unique compendium of fascinating information about how death is handled, mostly in America. Doughty’s sense of humor is right up my alley. The book is LOL funny and not just occasionally. You may want to make sure you have swallowed your coffee before reading, lest it come flying out your nose. I was very much reminded of the infectious humor of Mary Roach or Margee Kerr . Doughty is also TED-talk smart. She takes on some very real issues in both the science and economics of death-dealing, offers well-informed critiques of how we handle death today, and suggests some alternatives.

If the last face you see is Caitlin Doughty’s something is very, very wrong. The face itself is lovely, but usually by the time she gets her mitts on you you should be seeing the pearly gates, that renowned steambath, or nothing at all. Preferably you can see Doughty in one of the many nifty short vids available on her site. You will learn something while being thoroughly charmed. Reading this book won’t kill you, even with laughter, but it will begin to prepare you to look at that event that lies out there, somewhere in the distance for all of us, and point you in a direction that is care and not fear based. If you enjoy learning and laughing Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is dead on.

Review posted – 12/11/15

Publication date – 10/15/2014 (hc) – 9/28/15 – TP

I received this book from the publisher in return for an honest review. Well, not really. I mean they specifically said that there was no obligation to produce a review, so there is no quid pro quo involved, but it does seem the right thing to do, don’tchya think?

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter, Instagram and FB pages

You MUST CHECK OUT vids on her site. My favorite is The Foreskin Wedding Ring of St Catherine . All right, I’m gonna stop you right there. Go ahead. I know you wanna ask. No? Fine. I’ll do it for you, but you know this is what you were asking yourself. “If she rubs it does it become a bracelet?” Ok? Are ya happy now? Sheesh!

If you are uncertain about making a final commitment to reading this book you might want a taste of the product first (That sounds sooooo wrong) Here is an article Doughty wrote about her first experience with death as a kid, from Fortnightjournal.com . There are several other Doughty articles on this site as well.

Another book sample can be found here , in The Atlantic

Doughty offers a nifty list of sites to use for dealing with death, your own (presumably, you know, before) or others.

Interview in Wired

You might want to check out one or more of the following
—–The Loved One
—–The American Way of Death
—– The American Way of Death Revisited
—–Six Feet Under

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Filed under Bio/Autobio/Memoir, biography, Non-fiction, Public Health, Reviews

Eels by James Prosek

book coverYeah I know, there are two reactions to the notion of eels. First there is fear when one thinks of large, oceanic moray eels popping up out of some hidden coral niche to snatch a chunk out of your leg as you swim by. Second is “eeewww.” This is for the slippery guys who inhabit rivers, streams and extreme restaurants. Get over it.

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James Prosek – from NPR

James Prosek’s Eels is a fascinating look at an unappreciated creature. Did you know that scads of eels migrate from freshwater streams and rivers to mid-ocean to spawn? The location of the Pacific spawning ground is still unknown, (or at least unrevealed) but they head for the Sargasso Sea in the Atlantic. The author attempted to keep eels once, but their wanderlust resulted in them damaging themselves trying to escape. The urge to get back to the sea can also result in the major YouTube wet dream of giant eel balls (no, Beavis, not oversized fish nads, but masses of intertwined critters, cavorting in a movable orgy) rolling their way over dry land to get to the ocean. It is probably a good idea to step aside.

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from fishermensvoice.com

Prosek offers wonderful profiles of people for whom the eel is a major part of their lives, scientists, eelers, eco-warriers, South Sea Islanders. Ray Turner is a back-woods sort in Pennsylvania who makes a living as an eeler from a year’s worth of work and a few nights of harvest. A large part of the book looks at the significance of the eel in Maori culture. This is quite eye-opening. Think buffalo and Plains Indians. He writes also of how the Japanese regard the eel and manages to find a flight to the very remote Micronesian island of Pohnpei, mentioned to him by a few of the people he interviewed for the book. It is a place of great significance in eel legend. Eels are reputed to be able to make sounds like barking dogs and crying babies, and are ascribed magical powers beyond that. Way cool. He also looks at the activities of conservationists who are trying to spare these remarkable creatures from extinction.

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a Moray eel from howstuffworks.com – not just another pretty face

Catches of eels are plummeting worldwide, the result of dams, overfishing, and the usual human fouling of natural waterways, increasing the need for information about the eel life-cycle so that this important fish (yes, eels are fish) can be preserved.

Prosek’s book is, in short, great fun. By the time I finished I could honestly say, “I’ve been slimed,” but in a good way. This book was released in 2009. It is definitely worth your while trying to locate a copy and when you do, don’t let your chance to learn about these fascinating creatures slip away.

Review posted on GR in June 2010 – updated December 2013

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Prosek’s web site

There is a video on PBS featuring Prosek, The Mystery of Eels that is definitely worth a look, although it is refreshing to see that there is something that this renaissance man, (yeah, he plays music too, in addition to being an accomplished artist and scientist) is not great at, voice-overs. The content and visuals more than make up for Prosek’s stolid delivery.

12/3/13 – Gillian Anderson, in full eel attire, promoting conservation – must see

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Filed under Non-fiction, Reviews, Science and Nature

Among the Great Apes by Paul Raffaele

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…through the observations in Africa and Southeast Asia of scores of primatologists spawned by Fossey and Goodall, we have discovered great ape species each have their separate character. The orangutans are introspective loners; gorillas laid back and largely undemonstrative; the bonobos gleeful hedonists; and chimpanzees the thugs, by far the most destructive and murderous…from the Prologue

But, to varying degrees, and for diverse reasons, they are all disappearing from the wild.

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From the Universitad Pompeo Fabra in Barcelona

The author wanted to see what he could of them in their native haunts while there was still the opportunity. He looks at gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos and orangutans, the first three in Africa, the last in Borneo. What he finds is both fascinating and alarming.

Paul Rafaele is a certified character. In 2007, he was interviewed by Peter Carlson for The Washington Post. Carlson characterized him as

a professional adventurer, perhaps the last in a long line of popular writers who ventured into wild places and returned with electrifying tales of fearsome animals and strange humans.
“He’s the last of a breed,” says Carey Winfrey, Smithsonian magazine’s editor in chief. “I don’t want to use the word ‘throwback,’ but he is a throwback.”
He’s a throwback, Winfrey says, to such 19th-century British explorer-writers as Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke and to the American writer Richard Halliburton, who traveled to Devil’s Island and swam the Sea of Galilee and followed Cortez’s route through Mexico and wrote about it all in countless articles and best-selling books in the 1920s and ’30s.
“He has a childlike curiosity and enthusiasm for people and places,” Winfrey says. “His world is a world of infinite possibilities and infinite heterogeneity. It’s the world as seen through the eyes of a 16-year-old schoolboy

The last apes the Aussie adventurer reported on in book form were the naked variety, and he was looking into the predilection of some for feeding on their own. Not so much with our furrier cousins.

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This image graces the inside rear flap of the book, and does as good a job as any of portraying the author

Gorillas

Diane Fossey made the world aware of gorillas, but not all of them. Turns out there are several sub-species. She specialized in the mountain variety, the largest of the four. There are eastern and western lowland varieties and the one you almost certainly never heard of, the Cross River gorillas, which are undoubtedly the most endangered of them all. Sorry, none from Skull Island or any other islands for that matter.

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The best known gorilla of all time

Raffaele interviews a host of field experts and fills us in on how gorillas live. We get a look at their family structure, group interaction, diet, child rearing, and the problem infants face should troop leadership change hands. We also learn that gorilla vocalization includes higher-pitched tonal calls, similar to humans humming and singing, favored by younger troop members. Can’t you damn kids keep it down? (toga, toga, Toga, Toga, TOga, TOga, TOGa, TOGa, TOGA, TOGA) Sometimes the musicality spreads. Raffaele quotes gorilla expert Amy Vedder:

One individual would start a low rumbling sound, breathing in and out in a modulated tone. This might remain a solo performance, and last no more than a minute. Often, however, others would join, adding gender- and age-specific basses, baritones, tenors and sopranos in a mix. The result was a chorus of entwined melodies, rising and falling in a natural rhythm that might continue for several minutes; a gorilla Gregorian chant in a Virunga cathedral.

Bet ya didn’t see that coming. We learn a bit about the differences among the subspecies. The Cross River offers the most unique experience of the four gorilla habitats. No, our furry friends are not punting back and forth across a waterway on bespoke rafts. Their particular brand of gorilla is named for the Cross River, where they live. It took greater effort for Raffaele to get to them than it did to reach any of the others. He was not exactly a kid when he headed out there, a trek that included significant life-threatening passages. It is particularly exciting to read of that leg of his adventure. The Cross River gorillas are the least interfered-with of any gorilla population. The animals are not at all habituated to humans, and their protectors want to keep it that way.

The plusses and minuses of habituation to people come in for considerable discussion here, for all the species under review. All the gorilla sub-species face enormous challenges. Eliminate near-constant civil wars, locals setting traps by the thousands in gorilla habitat to catch bush meat of various sorts, corrupt officials selling off protected land for logging and making charcoal, and our cousins’ chances of surviving into the 22nd century would skyrocket. If wishes were horses, though, a lot of these folks would probably kill and eat them. The fear is quite real that someday in the 21st century, because of greed and corruption, when we think of gorillas in the mist, the only thing remaining will be the mist.

Chimpanzees

If Kong was the prototypical image many of us had of gorillas, there is a chimpanzee of comparable familiarity, although of much more modest dimensions.

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Doctor Zira in Planet of the Apes (1968)

No, but nice try. There was a much earlier representative of the species, one that remained in the public consciousness long after the films in which he appeared had become quaint. I speak, of course, of a matinee idol.

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Why, Cheeta, of course, ever helpful, ever reliable, Jungle Man’s best friend

The reality of chimpanzee life in the wild is not quite so comforting. Raffaele learns about how culture is transmitted from generation to generation, relative educability of male and female young, age-based mate preference by males (it is not what you might expect), their use of medicinal plants, including A. pluriseta, an abortifacient. They are also quite willing to form gangs and murder members of their own troop. They show a decided predilection for violence. Chimpanzees are clever, and use their intelligence for dark ends.

Bonobos

Bonobos are very similar to chimps in appearance, seeming to be a slightly smaller version. But there are significant differences between the species. Carston Knott, keeper of great apes at the Frankfurt zoo, told Raffaele,

I tell new keepers that if you throw a screwdriver in with the gorillas, they wouldn’t notice it for weeks on end unless they sat on it. The chimpanzees would use it to destroy something within minutes, but the bonobos and orangutans, within thirty minutes, would figure out how to use it to unlock the cage door and escape.

Considerable differences are noted here between chimps and bonobos, the latter being the closest ape to humans, DNA-wise. It is summed up nicely in one simple statement: Chimps are from Mars, bonobos are from Venus. Well, one aspect of their existence anyway

Chimpanzee females come into heat for only a few days a month, and so competition for them among the males can be fierce, with the dominant male granting more mating rights to his allies. But bonobo females are receptive to the males for most of each month, and that means there is hardly any fighting by the males for their favors.

The lively sex lives of bonobos is not restricted by age or gender. Monkey business is just fine for bonobos, whatever their age, with partners of both genders, with plenty positional creativity being applied. Another element that differentiates bonobos from chimps is that bonding with mom persists for a lifetime. Chimpanzee maternal bonds are a lot more fragile. Unlike their larger ape cousins, bonobos do not kill other bonobos.

Orangutans

The orangutan is the largest arboreal creature on earth. Unlike their African cousins, orangutans are primarily solitary, slow moving creatures. They do not really need to get anywhere in a hurry. The orang habitat is under considerable assault, as the government clears large swaths of native forest in order to plant palm oil trees to satisfy a growing international demand. Raffaele picks up a bit of intel on the orang sex life. It includes oral. He spends some time looking at an operation in Borneo that aims at rehabbing orphaned orangs and returning them to the wild, paying particular attention to some serious problems with the program. One unusual feature about orangs is that there is dimorphism among males. The leader of the pack grows large and sprouts those facial flanges that look like rubber add-ons. Should the big guy slip on a banana peel and take a header, the vacuum will indeed be filled. And the successor will sprout the same extra bits.

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Clyde’s seems an appropriate response to the eco-vandalism the Indonesian government is committing against the orangutans’ habitat

Raffaele does take breaks from his extended nature travels to stop in at facilities doing relevant research in various parts of the world. These outings are quite interesting. He is not a fan of zoos, but does acknowledge that the finer institutions of that sort do offer real potential benefits to the species with which they work. He also has a riveting conversation with the head of a tribe whose members, he says, can transform themselves into gorillas and back again. Very Castaneda.

You may or may not go ape for Among the Great Apes, but you will certainly want to hoot and holler for all that you will learn on this journey, and might even want to thump your chest a bit when you are done, thus letting those around you know just how big and powerful your brain has become. And as for the 800 pound gorilla in the room, it is probably two gorillas inside an over-sized gorilla suit. Real gorillas only grow to about four hundred pounds. It night not even do them much good were they to begin growing to double their natural size. The challenges all the great apes face are unrelenting and deadly. The long-term prospects for all the creatures addressed here are far from great. But you will learn a heck of a lot following Raffaele on his quest, or I’m a monkey’s uncle.

======================================EXTRA STUFF

PR on Facebook

PR on Twitter

Interview with the Washington Post

The Smithsonian page for Raffaele includes links to several articles he wrote for them over the years. The information reported in several of these were incorporated into the book

Ok, I really tried to figure out how to get this image into the body of the review, but I just could not force it in. So, in a fit of self-indulgence, I am dropping it down here. Any look at a book about apes, and yes I know this is not supposed to be an ape, but a Homo Sap predecessor, seems incomplete without it.

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If you do not recognize this, you may have more evolving to do

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Filed under Non-fiction, Reviews, Science and Nature