In December 1973, at the beginning of my second winter teaching skiing, my father gave me a slim picture book from 1936 that he’d rediscovered in his parents’ garage. SKI FEVER by Norman Vaughan. Fifty Cents. Fifty pages. Nipples on wooden ski tips. Pole baskets like personal-size pizzas. An unabashed paean to what was then the new sport of downhill skiing. My dad’s note read, in part, “I remember that my buddy Eugene and I devoured the contents before our first big ski weekend at Big Bear, where reality submerged fantasy.” He would have been 13.
It is a marvelous, barely organized mélange. Part primer on the technique of the day, part alpine journal listing results of the just-completed Winter Olympics in Garmisch (the first Games to include downhill skiing events), part glossary, part drool-worthy travelogue – with sparkling black-and-white images from Davos to Sugar Hill – it was all innocent hyperbole for “this new sport that is taking the country by storm!”
Vaughan himself was a kind of adventurer little seen today. He dropped out of Harvard in 1928 when he learned about Admiral Richard Byrd’s planned expedition to Antarctica. He famously talked his way onto the expedition as a dog musher, despite the fact he had never handled a dog team in his life. Byrd named a mountain for him in Antarctica, and Vaughan climbed it on his 90th birthday. He once drove a snowmobile from Alaska across Canada to his native Massachusetts. He lived to be 100.
One of the many short essay contributions in SKI FEVER is by a Bill Cunningham and is titled “All Go Anywhere.” “Now we go anywhere, up mountains, cross-country, down trails, and have a heap more fun.” In 1936, this meant “instead of sitting by the fire every winter week-end, we can all go on a snow train or jump into the car and join the ski caravan.” Another piece refers to skis as “the winged boards.”
Dad did in fact learn to ski and together with my mother introduced my sibs and me to skiing at Mammoth Mountain in the 1950s. (Whoa. That was closer, way closer, to the era of SKI FEVER than it is to the present day.) He came to visit us in Bend this winter, from his native southern California to our new home in the Pacific Northwest. He drove by himself in his Ford C-Max hybrid. “My first car was a Ford. And my last car is a Ford,” he told me proudly when he bought this new one. He is 91. His wife made him clear the trip with his doctor. He has a pacemaker. He has had at least one stent threaded up an artery to the vicinity of his heart. He ambulates on two artificial hips and at least one artificial knee. (I’ve lost track.) Oh, and he has only one eye. Back in his seventies he suffered a detached retina, which failed to respond, ultimately, to various fixes. That’s when he gave up skiing, to his sadness and mine. The three-dimensional balance just wasn’t there.
I thought of Dad yesterday, my last day of this ski season, as I winged around Mt. Bachelor’s sublime folds, its gullies and cornices masquerading as rogue waves, stopped in time. The snow was perfect. The combination of day-and-night melt/freeze cycles, the warm afternoon temps, the angle of the spring sun as it arced from east to west, all worked to marinate the surface just so. I could go anywhere, anywhere imagination and leg strength would take me.
At our table in Bend Dad told stories I’d never heard before about a camping trip his family had taken (DD, Poppy and the three boys) up the Oregon coast in the 1930s. Poppy had built a chuckwagon-style kitchen and lashed it to the trunk of their sedan. And stories about an epic drive he had undertaken at age 13, alone with the same Eugene W. Lott (their parents must have been extraordinarily trusting), up and back the length of California in a Model T Ford Dad had bought for . They slept in farmers’ fields and drove in reverse up the steepest grades of the Trinity Alps. It must have been near this time, maybe even the following winter, that the two of them tried out their skiing fantasies on the slopes of the San Bernardino Mountains.
When Dad got home this March he sent an enthusiastic email to the family that detailed the particulars of his “sojourn”: 10 days; 2,099 miles; 47 gallons of gas at an average 44 miles per gallon; his observations on the good life in Bend (the trees, the view of Bachelor’s voluptuous curves); his stops in Eugene and Santa Cruz and Modesto. He was thrilled with the cockpit of his C-Max, the cruise control set to 55, the radio playing classical music, the miles sliding blissfully by. With ageless delight, he dubbed the whole adventure “Paradise on Wheels.”
My perspective on David Letterman is a little different, I think, than most of his other frequent-but-really-not-that-big-a-deal guests. For one thing, while I can still be freshly awestruck by his intelligence and his creative genius, I like his humanity even more. The thing I like most about Dave is Dave. Plus, I had been a […]
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I first came to France twelve years ago during my junior year abroad. I was the first person in my family to get a passport and I could barely contain my excitement. In the winter of 2003, two years before the riots that followed the untimely deaths of 15 year old Zyed Benna and 17 year old Bouna Traore, I landed in Paris bright-eyed and bushy tailed, armed with a very shaky grasp of French and a naive fascination with this beautiful country.
As an African-American, I was vaguely aware that France did not deal with issues of race the way we do in the United States. And when I happened to forget, French white people were keen to remind me. In one of the sociology classes I took at a university in the south of France, I hesitantly raised my hand to ask a question. The white French professor had been lecturing on youth and delinquency. I asked, in my broken French, if the dynamics he described had any relation to racial or ethnic belonging. “We don’t have that kind of problem here,” he said, adding: “This isn’t the United States.” Embarrassed and flustered, I nodded and continued taking notes. After class, one of the only other black students pulled me aside: “We do have those kinds of problems here. Hang out with me and I’ll tell you about it.”
My new friend was from Cameroon and had moved to France along with her sister and brother several years prior. Over the course of the semester, her family basically adopted me, inviting me to dinners, showing me the area and telling me about their lives. I learned that despite the fact that each of them had white French partners and white close friends, they nonetheless experienced racism. But, as I learned in that sociology class that day, many French people denied that racism was actually a problem in their supposedly colorblind society.
Twelve years later, I am now a sociologist and professor finishing a book on racism and the legacies of slavery in France. And while some things have changed here, many French people are still in denial. Over the past decade, French minority groups have made important gains. 2005 was a water-shed year for raising consciousness about the weight of racism in France. In addition to the riots sparked by the death of French minority youth fleeing the police, new anti-racist groups emerged, such as the Representative Council of Black Associations and Indigenes de la République. There is now a national day of memory for slavery and the slavey trade (May 10th) thanks to a law proposed by Christiane Taubira, now France’s first black (and female) Minister of Justice. New, powerful minority voices have emerged in the public sphere, including filmmaker, TV personality and activist Rokhaya Diallo and scholar-activist Maboula Soumahoro (who spearheaded France’s first “Black History Month” in 2012).
Ten years after the riots, the police involved in chasing Zyed Benna, Bouna Traore and their friends are finally being tried for negligence. Ten years later, it is more difficult for the French to deny the plight of ethnic and racial minorities — though some, especially conservatives, deny this reality daily.
Yet, despite these transformations, the French government seems to have almost entirely abdicated its responsibility for dealing with racism. In terms of policy, French “anti-racism” is a total disaster. Instead of formulating anti-racist policies and collecting anti-discrimination statistics, the country contents itself with anti-racist discourse and magical thinking. In 2011, the U.N. issued a report condemning France for its “racist climate” and lack of “real political will” to address racial discrimination. In 2013, French politicians took steps to remove the word “race” from its laws, apparently guided by the magical belief that changing words is enough to fight racism.
In France, it is illegal for the government to include race or ethnicity on the census, as doing so is framed as a violation of so-called “Republican” values, which insist that the French Republic is “indivisible” and should not be distinguished in terms of race or ethnic origin. The problem with this is that the majority population fails to acknowledge that the Republic has been making racial and ethnic distinctions for a very long time. This, too, stems from denial and ignorance. The truth is that French people who cherish dominant interpretations of “colorblind” Republicanism help maintain the racial status quo. By refusing to support the collection of statistics that could be used to generate policies and measure their effectiveness, they undermine the work of minorities and activists who are working hard to counteract the tide of Republican denial.
While some argue that France doesn’t need more data to fight racism, this almost argument is never made concerning sexism. Most people are aware that sexism exists, but it would be absurd to say: “We already know sexism exists and therefore don’t need data on gender discrimination..”Yet, this is the same kind of magical thinking that prevails in much of the so-called “anti-racist” discourse one encounters in France.
Some of France’s most visible “anti-racist groups” have continually opposed anti-discrimination statistics. Just this week, I appeared on France24 to debate the issue with Hadrien Lenoir, a representative of SOS Racisme — one of the most vocal critics of ethnoracial statistics. During the lively debate, Lenoir presented SOS Racisme as supporting such statistics “in research” — as long as they’re not collected by the government. What he did not admit is that SOS Racisme virulently opposed the cutting edge work of French scholars who produced, for the first time, a large scale study of discrimination in France using ethnoracial statistics. Even if the group claims to have changed its position, the reality is that most French research is sponsored by the government. Thus, expressing support for ethnoracial stats “in research” as long as the government is not involved is nonsensical in a nation where most research is funded by the state. These are the kinds of mind-boggling contradictions that anyone studying French racism has to confront–contradictions that, for many years, made me never want to study race in France again.
It is true that some French people still deny that racism exists–despite the many studies that have documented discrimination. But other groups, like SOSRacisme, actually use their fear of racism in the government to argue against the collection of ethnoracial statistics. They point to the racism of the government during the Vichy regime of World War II as proof that the state cannot be trusted. Most recently, when Robert Menard, a far-right mayor of the town of Beziers, admitted to ethnoracially profiling Muslim children, groups like SOSRacisme argued that this, too, was proof that the government had no business counting people by race or religion. Of course, in making this argument, they draw a false equivalence anti-racist and racist usage of statistics.
In my view, the lesson gleaned from Menard’s racism is simple: People in power will gather data to profile minorities whether or not the government calls itself colorblind. Indeed, 13 Black and Arab men are currently suing the French state itself for engaging in racial profiling.
The more time I spend in France, the more it seems to me that some French people (especially politicians) are extraordinarily skilled at talking about principles that they have no intention of doing anything about. Perhaps the French are stuck because they are far too philosophical and not at all practical when it comes to anti-discrimination. I don’t doubt the sincerity of most anti-racist groups that oppose policies that would actually expose and address racism. I have not always had the policy positions I have now. Certainly when I started my research in France, I did not have strong opinions. While I always saw myself as anti-racist, I was not informed enough to have a clear sense of whether ethnoracial statistics or “American-style” policies were needed in France. But after spending nearly three years living in France and interviewing over 100 French activists and ordinary people, my views began to change. It became increasingly obvious that the French population is mired in ignorance about the social and historical reality of race. Even moreso than in the United States, French discourse “about race” is incredibly superficial, asociological and ahistorical. Of course they don’t know how to fight racism.
I denounce white supremacy in the United States on a daily basis and I have no illusions that numbers will save the day. But it matters that activists and scholars in the United States can point to statistics within communities, organizations and institutions to measure just how much has changed — and just how much has not. It matters that we can use these numbers to inform policies and measure their effectiveness (or lack thereof). No, these statistics are not a panacea. Yes, black people and other minorities continue to experience the on-going racial tyranny of white supremacy. But the numbers help combat the denial and magical thinking frequently found among white people and other dominant groups — denial that would have you believe that centuries of race-making can be undone with beautiful principles and kumbaya colorblindness.
For a country that presents itself as secular, France nonetheless asserts religious conviction in the power of words to erase social and historical realities. In terms of dealing (or rather, not dealing) with racism, France is like a country that prefers faith-based healing over modern medicine for its ailing children. To take the analogy even further — the French political establishment is like a parent who infected their own children with an illness — only to refuse diagnostic tests and treatment.
It’s amazing, really — this intransigent, irrational belief that the language of “colorblindness” can actually undo centuries of race-making. The French seem to believe, that through the magical power of language alone, they can talk racism into oblivion. Nevermind the fact that France spent centuries establishing racial hierarchies at home and in its colonial empire for the purpose of enriching the state. Some truly believe that words like “Republic” and “citizenship” and “indivisible” can suddenly undo processes that were produced and institutionalized over the course of four hundred years.
In my view, French magical thinking about race is reinforced by the near total ignorance of the population with regard to its racial past. The French are struggling, in part, because they do not have widely read sociologists or historians of race. During my time in France this spring, I’ve met young French scholars of race who are doing really important, desperately needed work. But the political and intellectual landscape in which they must work is absolutely depressing. Not only does the French academy lack serious programs in race, but it is also overwhelmingly white and elite. One does not need statistics to see this. Enter any French elite university and you will find very few minority professors, chairs of departments or administrators. There are only a few books that could fall under the umbrella of “Black Studies” in France. Not only is there nothing even approaching “post-colonial studies” — the history of colonialism itself is mostly a non-lieu de memoire : barely taught in schools, mostly forgotten and marginalized in the nation’s collective memory. There is no French equivalent of W.E.B. Du Bois (who essentially founded urban sociology in the United States and pioneered studies of race, racism and whiteness). And there has not yet emerged a French equivalent of Kimberlé Crenshaw or Patricia Hill Collins — scholars who have revolutionized entire fields of thought through their contributions to Black Feminist scholarship and critical race theory. Yes, the Nardal Sisters and Cesaire and Fanon exist, but French scholars of color are still mostly ignored by white French people. Indeed, negritude was far more influential outside of hexagonal France than within it.
The only thing most French people seem to know about race is that racial categories were used against the Jews during WW II. That’s it. If you ask French people to tell you about racism in French colonialism, racial exclusion in the metropole prior to WW II, most probably would have little to say. Most French people can’t explain in any degree of detail where the concept of race came from, how racism perpetuates itself over time or how it is institutionalized. How could they? They do not (and, with few exceptions, cannot) learn about these things at school. But they think they can “fight” racism in a context of near complete social and historical ignorance about what race means and where it came from.
If there was ever a case study in the epistemology of ignorance — and its relationship to white supremacy — France is it. As I argue in the book I’m finishing now, white supremacy and racial ignorance are both key to understanding race in France. Already in the United States, racial ignorance and denial run wide and deep. And yet, despite these challenges, we have intellectual resources and minority networks the French can’t even dream of. And I don’t say this to brag — it’s not like these intellectual resources have saved us. They haven’t. But they matter. They help.
I don’t think most people (French or otherwise) understand that it takes centuries of diligent activism, statistical tracking, policy making and scholarship to even begin to address the damage of racism. The U.S. case shows that it is extremely difficult to confront and combat racism, even when you have the intellectual resources and data. But the French case shows that it is impossible to effectively identify and challenge racism without these things.
Further, French chauvinism prevents many people here from actually embracing a global understanding of racial processes and white supremacy. References to race in the United States or the UK are portrayed as too foreign — imposing an “anglosaxon” lens. White French people will sometimes say that their country can’t learn anything about race from the United States because the two societies are so different. And yet, the same people point to the continued existence of racism in the U.S. as “proof” that our approach to using ethnoracial statistics “hasn’t helped”. But if the U.S. is “too different” to teach anything to the French about race, then it cannot also be used by the French as “evidence” that ethnoracial statistics are a bad idea. It is intellectually dishonest to claim that one can’t learn anything from another society, yet also use that same society to justify one’s position. Further, the fact that France does not collect ethnoracial data means that it is impossible to seriously compare the situation of minorities in most spheres of life (e.g. housing and employment discrimination, political representation and so on). But the French think that they don’t need data to say that their society is less racist than the U.S. — all they need are Republican words. Thus, instead of learning from other nations that have a much longer history of studying race, many of the French prefer their colorblind ignorance.
The bottom line is that from what I have seen, the French majority population does not think racism affecting people of color is important. The reason the French majority population doesn’t think racism is important is because they have not been made to believe it is important. French people of color currently lack the political power and internal organization to compel the majority population to care about addressing racism. And, the French government’s role in suppressing ethnoracial statistics continues to undermine people of color who are organizing to fight racism.
The irony of all this is that the French are currently moving forward with an intelligence law that rivals the Patriot Act in its blatant disregard for civil liberties. The French government wants to collect data on almost everything French people think, write or say but – no data on racism! When it comes to fighting terror, the French know very well that knowledge is power. But when it comes to fighting racism? Data? Knowledge? Not necessary.
Too many French people seem to imagine that if they close their eyes to race, click their heels three times and repeat the words “Liberty”, “Equality” and “Brotherhood”, the boogeyman of racism will simply vanish and disappear. No systematic data or policies necessary. Only pretty, magical, colorblind words.
Recently, I was sitting and thinking about all of the diet and exercise suggestions that constantly bombard us from all sides. While trying to determine which techniques would likely yield the largest benefits, I decided to start from the beginning and attempted to answer a seemingly simple question: When we lose weight, where does the weight go? When the fat from our waistline disappears, what happens to it? Answering this question was actually way more difficult than I imagined at the start, and forced me to think back to my time as a molecular biology major in order to answer the question effectively.
After uncovering the answer for myself, I asked others to think about the question to see if the solution was more obvious to them than it was to me. Shockingly, even many physicians I asked were unable to answer this question accurately and completely. Below are the most popular answers people gave to the question and they are both completely wrong.
A few people were able to give a response that was technically correct, that we urinate it out, but could not account for what happens to the non-water components of our bodies.
The surprising answer to this question is that we breathe it out. Yes, that’s right, the fat in your waist eventually ends up in the air as you breathe it out over time. I’ll explain how this works conceptually, then will run some calculations to estimate the weight loss associated with an average breath, then will discuss how this relates to exercise and some additional nuances of the problem.
The simplest way to think about this requires you to dust off your high school science skills and I will assume at least this level of comprehension. We breathe in oxygen, with molecular formula O2, and breathe out carbon dioxide, with molecular formula, CO2. Notice, that carbon dioxide has the exact same formula as oxygen, but with a carbon attached. This extra carbon has mass associated with it, 12 grams per mole to be precise. That means that for every mole of oxygen that you breathe in and use in cellular respiration, a mole of carbon dioxide is produced, and thus 12 grams of mass are transferred from your body to the atmosphere.
If you don’t remember how cellular respiration works, here is a refresher:
The basic formula for cellular respiration is that one mole of glucose combines with 6 moles of oxygen to produce 6 moles of water, 6 moles of carbon dioxide and releases chemical energy in the form of ATP. Thus, if we just think simplistically about one mole of glucose representing the weight you are losing, 108 grams of water and 72 grams of carbon are released for every mole of glucose consumed in cellular respiration. The water ends up getting expelled mostly through urination and the carbon dioxide expelled through breathing.
Now let’s look at what all this means for the average person and the average breath while resting. Again, get ready to brush off that high school science and basic math. First, we need to determine the difference in mass between an average resting inhale and average resting exhale. (See the Table Below – Again this is driven by inhaling lots of oxygen and very little carbon dioxide, and then exhaling relatively more carbon dioxide and relatively less oxygen).
Based on some online research, I found that the average inhale has 21% oxygen and 0.06% carbon dioxide based on their average concentrations in the atmosphere. Similarly, the average exhale has 17% oxygen and 4% carbon dioxide. Given that the average resting tidal volume of each breath is 0.75L, and there are 24.5L in each mole of gas, this converts to a difference of 0.014 grams per each breath cycle. This is obviously tiny, but adds up over time. Given that there are 453 grams in a pound, it would take 32,623 breaths to breathe out a net pound of mass. Finally, since the average person takes 15 breaths per minute at rest, it would take 36 hours to breathe out a net pound for a resting human being.
Given that the carbon dioxide only represents one route for weight to be lost, lets look at a given pound of body mass and estimate where relative percentages of it go. First, I will assume that the human body is 60% water and that when we lose weight, we lose it in the same proportion from the water excretion due to shrinking cells and by the conversion of glucose into water and carbon dioxide. Of the glucose converted, 40% (72/(72+108)) is expelled as carbon in carbon dioxide and the other 60% is expelled as water. Thus, for a given pound of mass, 84% leaves the body as water (60% + (60%*40%)) and 16% leaves the body as the carbon in carbon dioxide ((40%*40%)). Technically, there are some other substances such as the nitrogen found in proteins, which gets expelled as urea, but this should provide a rough estimate of where weight goes when you lose it.
This analysis makes it clear why exercise is so powerful in the weight loss equation. In the example above, there are levers that can be pulled that will speed up the process of weight loss – the proportion of CO2 that is present during exhale, the tidal volume of the average breath, and the amount of breaths per minute. Exercise can increase all of these factors. The process works like this: exercise increases the rate of cellular respiration, which converts more oxygen, and thus expels more CO2 and water into the bloodstream, which then get carried to the lungs and bladder and ultimately released . We all know that during exercise we breathe harder and faster and this is because the rise in CO2 in our blood stream triggers this response. Thus, during exercise, energy stores (like glucose) are consumed, and CO2 and water is expelled at a faster rate, leading to weight loss in the long term all things else being equal.
No matter which complicated suggestion for weight loss is proposed, the basic equation is the same. You need to expel more mass than you take in. The composition of the food you eat, your genetic disposition, and your lifestyle all affect how easy it is to achieve this, but all weight loss techniques are essentially acting on this basic fact.
Thank you for reading and please let me know if you have any comments, questions, or insights to provide on this topic!
In 2007, a Komodo dragon killed an eight-year-old boy. This was the first fatal attack on a human by one of the giant lizards in 33 years. “The Komodo bit him on his waist and tossed him viciously from side to side,” a national park spokesman, Heru Rudiharto, said. “The boy died from massive bleeding half an hour later.”
This is the stuff of legends; huge reptiles capable of killing human beings, living on a remote Indonesian island. This may have been the first fatal attack for a while but it is just one of many attacks on people that have resulted in serious injury.
My childhood fascination with nature grew out of watching the behaviour of amphibians. Like many children, I learned about cycles of life by watching frog spawn become tadpoles and finally crawl out of the water on frogs’ legs. This interest naturally extended to the world of reptiles. I read about amphibians and reptiles every day and day dreamed about seeing exotic species in their natural habitat. The Komodo Dragon seemed like the least accessible of these dreams so when I moved to Singapore, with Komodo Island within striking distance, I had to ask myself, “is this a possibility?”
The answer was a resounding yes! I couldn’t find anyone that had made the trip before, but I knew it could be done, and so set about booking the trip to fit with a few days of annual leave. The journey starts with a Garuda Indonesia flight from Singapore to Jakarta. I change airplane and land briefly in Timor before bouncing on to Flores, where the tiny plane lands at Maumere. I hire a car with driver to drive the length of Flores to a charming little fishing village, called Labuan Bajo. Here I would spend a night before taking a boat to Komodo and Rinca, the 2 major islands of the Komodo National Park.
I woke up just before first light. My alarm clock was the town mosque where the muezzin recited the most gentle, haunting and melodious call to prayer that I have ever heard. I was excited at the possibility of seeing a dragon but nervous because every wildlife enthusiast knows that nature gives no guarantees. I shared breakfast with my guide over a cup of bitter, local coffee. We walked down the hill to the harbour and climbed aboard our boat. This would be home for the next 24 hours.
Our Captain set sail for Komodo, carving a course through pristine, turquoise waters dotted with small vegetated islands. Dolphins were our guide throughout the journey. I have no idea how long the trip took; it is one of those trips where time is of no importance. The boat approached Komodo and my eyes are already fixed on the beaches and hills. The landscape is extraordinary; long golden beaches, grass carpeted hills with sparse, tropical vegetation met by rainforest, cloaked in low whips of cloud. The only sign of human life is a ranger station at the end of the jetty and a couple of desperately poor local fisherman, selling carved wooden dragons to any passing tourist boat. They found me to be a willing buyer, looking for a souvenir to prove to myself that I was really here.
I felt like Neil Armstrong as I stepped out of the boat on to the island. Was I actually standing on Komodo Island? How did I get to be so far from home, on such a remote and legendary island?
Upon arrival a guide is assigned, whose job is simple; don’t lose anyone and try not to get a tourist killed by a dragon. I was entirely convinced that my guide wouldn’t get us lost but less so that the 6ft long stick with a forked end that had been cut from a dead tree was really the tool of a dragon slayer. Never the less, I placed my life in his hands and we set off for the interior of the island. First we headed into the forests, climbing up to the highest point of land. I stood for a while admiring the steaming canopy when a throaty squawk broke the silence as a critically endangered Yellow-crested cockatoo flapped noisily across the trees; my first ever wild cockatoo. After spending some time searching all known dragon hot-spots we continued on to the grasslands. The island was silent, except for small flocks of Zebra finches buzzing from thicket to tussock, feeding on the parched grass seed. A few hours passed and still no dragon. It was time to leave the island and make our way to neighbouring Rinca, a stone’s throw away and another dragon hot spot. Was the islands infamous resident not going to appear?
Stepping off the boat at Rinca was a different experience. Within moments the first dragon appeared. Nothing prepares you for the moment that you see a creature that you had dreamed of seeing since childhood. The emotion brought on by a rush of adrenaline and feeling that you must pinch yourself to prove that you’re not dreaming, but if you are, you don’t want to be cheated of the best part of the dream. As I floated back to earth, the feeling changed to a desire to telephone my dad and tell him or show him where I am standing. I did none of those things.
The huge Komodo lays motionless but alert with tongue tasting the air for signs of food. This predator shows no fear or even the slightest concern at our presence, for it is at the top of the food chain in this remote world. Another dragon lumbers over and the two beasts greet each other with a gentle touch and lay in the sun. The claws are like curved Arabian Janbiya daggers and skin is rough and beaded with armour. This is a formidable creature.
I allowed some time to pass admiring these beasts before being persuaded to continue exploring Rinca. After a short walk we find ourselves in the company of another guide with a small group of 5 Scandinavian tourists. I wanted to experience the island and her wildlife in solitude, so I suggest that we break off and follow a dry river bed leaving the others to head over the grassy hills. This decision was to transform my Komodo experience.
Within 10 minutes of following the path of dry, cracking earth we round a bend and freeze in our boots. We are standing a few meters from a family of water buffalo. These are huge beasts and well-armed with a crown of horns. We are unbelievably close but they don’t seem to notice us. Their focus is drawn to some boulders in the opposite direction, and they appear nervous. A Komodo dragon steps from behind the rocks and time stand stands still.
Dragon watching buffalo, buffalo watching dragon, us watching dragon and buffalo, nobody moving. The buffalo step nervously from hoof to hoof , snorting and gurgling. The dragon drags himself forward, tongue flicking excitedly and another uneasy stand-off ensues. The adult buffalo position themselves between the dragon and the young calves.
Without warning, the dragon explodes in to a frenzied assault, bursting past the adults; it latches on to the youngest buffalo of the group, throwing it to the ground. We dash for the cover of a dead tree and crouch down. The dragon is a whirlwind of jaws and claws. The cow runs, horns showing, to the defense of her calf. Now the Komodo is latched on to the cow’s nose and blood seems to be everywhere, from the calf, the cow and around the dragon’s jaws.
The bull turns and steps towards the tree that we are crouching under and stops, looking directly at us. I think he might charge but he doesn’t. He just stands looking at us, seemingly imploring us to intervene. My heart is pumping fast, and I know for sure that stepping into this battle with our trusty forked stick will not bring the salvation that the bull is looking for.
I was always led to believe that the dragon bites its victim and then waits patiently, for days until it dies a slow miserable death by infection of the blood. This is clearly not the case. The Komodo is a savage killing machine, fully equipped with the tools required to kill and butcher a meal whenever it chooses.
The assault continued for some time with long stand-offs during which the dragon appeared to gather its strength. At no stage did the buffalo attempt to escape the scene. During one of these stand-offs the bull mounted the cow as if to mate with her in sorrowful recognition that their child would not survive them. It was unlikely that their child would survive the hour. Throughout the attack it felt like the air was thick with silence. Only the sound of hooves and claws in the dust could be heard and the strained, heaving breath of buffalo. The scene was brutal and pitiful; I had a lump in my throat as I watched this young family’s plight. During moments of the stand-offs the only sound I could hear was the sound one makes in our own ears when we swallow.
Before the final act of this one-sided battle was played out, my guide put his hand on my shoulder and said “we need to go. We have been here too long, other dragons will be here soon and excited by the smell of blood. We will be in danger”. I believed him and didn’t need a second asking. We walked for a couple of hundred meters when we were met by a huge dragon, shoulders rolling, body clear of the ground as it hurried towards the scent of fresh blood. The guide recognised this monster as a particularly aggressive lizard and swiftly dragged us on a different path.
We returned to the boat and discussed in excited tones what had just transpired. It seems that I had been fortunate to see such a rare, if somewhat unsettling spectacle.
The boat eased away from the jetty and moored in a bay between Komodo Island and a large mangrove. We ate a delicious, simple meal prepared on the boat and watched the sun drop below the hills. This was the cue for thousands of flying foxes to burst from the trees and head in black chattering clouds towards the fruiting trees of the Indonesian Islands.
I slept soundly on the deck, under the stars that night. This had been a truly memorable experience that will remain with me for as long as I have a functioning memory. Komodo was everything that I had imagined as a child; a landscape that time had forgotten, where dinosaurs walk the earth, and the brutal struggle between life and death plays out in the oppressive heat and humidity of the Indonesian Archipelago.
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It’s an early evening in late April in Los Angeles. I’ve been running in La Cienega Park, around and around that dusty dirt track, spurred on by pop music pulsating through my ear buds and the excitement of a little league baseball game nearby. The sounds that echo through the spring evening – the crack of the bat smacking the baseball and launching it into the outfield, children’s voices cheering, parents clapping – give me an extra spark of energy to keep going, to keep running, to keep pushing my body forward.
I finish my last lap and leave the track. Tired and sweaty, I run across Olympic Boulevard and turn down Alfred Street, slowing to a jog and then to a fast walk as I enter one of my favorite enclaves in this historic South Carthay neighborhood. iTunes skips to the next song – The Lady is a Tramp – and suddenly everything slows down. As Sinatra croons into my ear buds, I take in the soft blue watercolor sky melting into pale yellow, the amber rays of the waning sun casting their golden glow across the tiled rooftops of stately Spanish style homes, the statuesque palms, the immaculate gardens carefully landscaped with delicately blooming roses and cactus flowers. I feel my steps getting easier, almost as though I’m gliding down the sidewalk, and the air rises in my chest and catches somewhere near the back of my throat in a sharp tingle. Water springs to my eyes and though I don’t cry, I am overwhelmed with emotion as I realize that everything in this moment is perfect. It’s as though I’ve been transported back to a Los Angeles of 60 or 70 years ago, frozen in time, nestled away on this perfect street, at the perfect time of day, with the perfect song creating my soundtrack.
I want to hold on to this moment – and how I feel in it – forever, but even as I’m aware of it, I know it’s almost gone. I think about my Dad. There’s a word he would have used to describe this type of evening: halcyon. It means peaceful, tranquil, carefree. In this one moment, I am all of those things. And I’m also grateful: grateful for the memory of a word that comes to me like magic at a moment when time seems to stand still.
And just like that, traffic starts buzzing down the street, the sky grows darker as early evening inches toward night, and the moment is gone. And I head home.
For most of my life, I’ve been moving too fast to notice moments like these. Always in a hurry to get to the next big thing. Ever looking forward to the next exciting date on my calendar, the next time I’d get on a plane to travel somewhere new, the next creative project on the horizon, the next vacation or holiday. Ever looking forward as I skipped over all the “boring” day-to-day moments in the process.
And then when my life started to unravel and people I loved started getting sick and dying, all I wanted was to be on the other side of it. I wanted so badly for things to be the way they used to be, to feel “normal” again, that I threw myself at life as hard as I could. I pushed myself to “get through it” by working hard and setting ambitious goals. My intentions were good – realizing how short and precious life was, I was driven by an internal fire to make the most of it – but my efforts were futile. I learned the hard way that life unfolds as it will, despite my stubborn refusal to accept what it had in store for me, and despite all of my best laid plans.
I’m a control freak by nature, and learning to let go has been difficult for me. But little by little, I’m getting there. I’ve started paying closer attention to the here and now, and I’ve become more comfortable living there. And I’ve started realizing the truth in these words from Julia Cameron’s beautiful book “The Artist’s Way:”
It may be different for others, but pain is what it took to teach me to pay attention. In times of pain, when the future is too terrifying to contemplate and the past too painful to remember, I have learned to pay attention to right now. The precise moment I was in was always the only safe place for me. Each moment, taken alone, was always bearable. In the exact now, we are all, always, all right.
I am no longer in a place where the future is too terrifying to contemplate, and the past, while painful, is getting easier for me to remember. Yet it is still the present moment, most of the time, where I feel most OK. There’s a freedom that comes from not trying so hard, from not pushing so desperately to make my life conform to some idea of what I thought it was supposed to be, and instead, to let it be what it is. I still crave adventure and travel to far-flung locales. I still aim my arrow toward the challenge of tackling the loftiest goals. I still want the big moments in life, with all of their excitement and (sometimes) heartbreak. But in between all of those things, there are many, many smaller things: the small moments that make up a day, and that make up a life. Moments like catching the perfect sunset at the perfect time of day in the perfect place to witness it.
Those little moments are worth holding on to. Those little moments – for the moment – are where my happiness resides.
Until next time, friends.
By Jim Warner Sleep in the ashes of American flags. The radio is a thermostat, taking the temperature of former homes. You know those streets with an ache in your calf. Your parents made a choice before you were school-aged, to pluck you from the subsiding coal fires and dead-eyed mining town for a better […]
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That thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you is usually what you need to find, and finding it is a matter of getting lost.
Reading this book fosters a dangerous sense of restlessness.
I am not a frequent traveler. There are the kids, the money, the animals–many anchors keep me tethered to our medium-sized house and five acres of field and wood. And mostly I’m content to stay. To eat the food in my kitchen, to follow the well-worn routine, to make excruciating plans for those nights when we have basketball practice, boy scouts, and two meetings to accomplish within the same three-hour window. Mostly, I’m happy.
But, like I said, reading this book fosters a dangerous sense of restlessness. Reading this book makes me want to be, ahem, lost. I’m never lost. I mean, sometimes I get lost, such as when Luca has a basketball game at a school I’ve never been to before and the GPS on my phone decides it’s tired of taking orders from someone so obviously clueless. But that kind of lost isn’t a good kind. It’s awful. I feel like a failure when I get lost like that.
But the other kind of lost – I need more of that in my life.
Today is a snowy day, and a snow day. We are all home because there’s supposed to be a blizzard, though the evidence is weak as of yet. I think I’ll make everyone go for a walk later on. Lead my ducks out into the white, all wrapped up in scarves and coats with boots making their feet stiff. We’ll waddle down the road-turned-new and maybe make it to my friend’s house a mile and a half away, and maybe she’ll give us tea and a ride home. I won’t be lost, but it will be something different.
I had lots of plans for this snowy snow day. Work to do, laundry, moving furniture, catching up on details. It’s 4:30. I haven’t done any of it.
But we did go for a walk. Barno, Tallis, and I ventured into the white wind and almost turned back many times. But we kept on, mostly because the six-year-old was being all strong and well, the rest of us would’ve looked pretty bad getting bested by a six-year-old. We trekked up a mountain and nearly got run over by a car and scurried along deer tracks through thorny woods. Well, no, it was a fairly calm walk, and while I wasn’t lost, I did lead the boys through a piece of forest I’d never walked before to shave 20 minutes off our journey. We made it to safety and the pleased face of our friend, who did feed us tea and cocoa, and even macaroni and cheese and Doritos. And dear M brought out the minivan so we didn’t have to walk home. Altogether a good day. Now I’m drinking coffee at the kitchen table, and the damn cat is hopping on the counter to lick the dirty plates that no one has taken care of because it’s just not that kind of day. The six-year-old? He’s back outside. Shoveling. With no hat. He is made of different stuff than me.
Today, like too many days, I am angry. Today a grand jury voted not to bring criminal charges against the white officer who killed Eric Garner, father of six, with a chokehold. The killing is on video, which many people hoped would mean an indictment and, eventually, a conviction. Not so. Today, America tells us once again that the value it places in black life is nil, insubstantial, nonexistent.
The protests have already begun in New York, and I’m thinking about anger, rage. I’m thinking about things that burn. When the grand jury in St. Louis County announced that it would not be indicting Darren Wilson in the killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown, Ferguson burned. Over the weekend, I saw the latest Hunger Games film—Mockingjay—and in it, the Capitol executes unarmed civilians, their deaths broadcasted for millions of eyes. I couldn’t stop thinking about Eric Garner, Tamir Rice: the killing of unarmed people, one a man and one a child, their murders recorded and spreading like wildfire on the Internet. Like in Hunger Games, the people have taken to the streets to protest these killings, demanding change, demanding that the system in which laws benefit some and murder others be overthrown. It’s been written about extensively, this parallel between the Hunger Games and this America that not only sets Darren Wilson free but awards him almost million for…what? In Hunger Games, we stand behind Katniss as she takes on a system bent on her—literal—destruction: she is our champion as she fires an explosive arrow at a plane that targets women and children. In Mockingjay, the film crew following her gets the perfect shot when Katniss witnesses the destruction of one of the weaker districts, shouting into the camera, “This is what they [the Capitol] do!” She gestures at the fire that has engulfed the victims of the district. “And we must fight back!”
There have been accusations that police in St. Louis have set fires in Ferguson, an assertion which some media outlets have claimed to debunk but that protestors on the ground insist are true. Thinking of things that burn, one can’t help but remember the MOVE bombing of 1985 in Philadelphia, in which police dropped bombs on a black liberation group’s commune and then, when the commune was engulfed in flames, “let the fire burn.” In Ferguson, it has been clear since day one that the police and National Guard have been the aggressors in the rising tension since Mike Brown’s death. One can’t sit in the theater with Mockingjay shining in one’s eyes—the Capitol’s troops with their intimidating tanks; their masks; their weapons—and not think of Ferguson. The malicious Peacekeepers keep peace in name only: the audience sees their suppression of revolution and we hate them for it: no one in their right mind would sit in the theater and think to themselves, “You know, maybe if the districts stopped being so angry. Maybe if the districts worked a little harder. Maybe if Katniss had a father, this wouldn’t be happening to her and her people.”
It’s interesting: in Mockingjay, Peeta withers away before our eyes in Capitol captivity, his eyes sunken and his skin chalky. Prisoner to President Snow, he gives a few interviews to the Capitol media in which he says things that make the rebels in the districts curse his name: “Killing is not the answer! Stop and think of what all this violence could mean!” He begs Katniss and the districts to “show restraint,” and when they bomb the Capitol’s dams, Peeta roundly condemns the act of violence.
In the audience, you are aghast. In the audience, you can’t believe that Peeta would call for “restraint” in the face of a system that grows rich off the districts’ blood. In the audience, you know that Peeta must be brainwashed, trying to protect Katniss, something, because clearly you’re on the side of the districts, clearly you’re on the side of the people fighting against tyranny and murder. In the audience, you are filled with rage for the unfairness of it all.
Roughly 64% of Hunger Games moviegoers are white. I would venture to conclude that this means that those white people side with Katniss, with Peeta, with the districts, with the people who are gunned down by government agents and whipped at the post, and see no justice. Yet 32% of white people look at the protests in Ferguson and say that the police response to those events is “about right.” 35% of white people don’t have an opinion at all.
What is it about the Hunger Games that stirs white people’s empathy? Surely it is Katniss and her lovers’ whiteness. After all, Katniss and the districts’ plight have a lot in common with that of black Americans, past and present. Economic marginalization, forced labor, public shootings with no legal recourse, whipping at the post, and even lynching. In the theater, I sat, disturbed, as Katniss sang a song about “the hanging tree.”
“Are you, are you
Coming to the tree
Where they strung up a man they say murdered three”
In these words, I can’t help but hear the accusations leveled against the black lives taken in America to justify their killing. At one point, for a black American to be lynched, the only “crime” they had to commit was being black. Now, in “post-racial” America, there exists a kind of shroud of language around the reason for these deaths. For John Crawford and Tamir Rice, it is shouted that they carried BB guns (despite living in Ohio, an open-carry state). For Eric Garner, it is screamed that he was selling cigarettes. Mike Brown, they say, punched Darren Wilson, although photographs of Wilson’s “injuries” seem to illustrate only rosacea. “They say he murdered three,” sings Katniss, and we in the audience don’t need to ask to know who “they” is: “they” is the system, the Capitol, the President himself. And we don’t need to know if the man being strung up is guilty or innocent: we are on his side, because we know the Capitol is guilty, guiltier, guilty as sin.
At times it seems that the Hunger Games script was written after Ferguson. President Snow sits in his office at the Capitol and consults with his PR people about what they should call the districts that have begun to rebel. He doesn’t want to call them rebels, he says. It gives them too much weight. “Criminals?” his assistant suggests, and in the audience you cringe, you sneer because you know Katniss is no criminal; you know how unfair and twisted it is. “Radicals,” they finally decide. Radicals. And you shake your head, because you know it’s bullshit propaganda.
In St. Louis, Missouri, the same meeting was held. In media offices all over the country, the same meeting was held. Jeff Roorda, spokesman and business manager of the St. Louis Police Officers Association, chose the word “thugs.” All over America, the word “thug” is chosen just as carefully, just as specifically as President Snow chose “radicals.” Are you cringing? Are you hearing the word and knowing you are hearing spin, strategy, propaganda?
One of the recurring themes in Hunger Games—in the films and in the books—is the role media plays in the subjugation of the district; the way crimes—the murder of humans—are recorded and used as entertainment. We look at that world—the world of Panem, a United States not united but torn apart by class wars and violence—and believe it an impossible distortion of our society. Yet Eric Garner’s murder, Tamir Rice’s murder, John Crawford’s murder, were all caught on camera, broadcasted on television and on the Internet—and they mean nothing. They don’t serve as entertainment, no, but these videos, captured for what we all hoped would be evidence in punishing the killers responsible, serve no purpose. Even with video, no indictment for Eric Garner’s killer. Even with video, no indictment for John Crawford’s murder. These videos exist only as an endlessly looping reminder of what America reinforces every day: in this system, black lives do not matter.
The Hunger Games shows us a world in which police are out of control and the government is hell-bent on keeping people poor and afraid; a world in which the masses, tired of being abused and killed on TV, rise up and demand change, by any means necessary. In Mockingjay, Katniss Everdeen looks in the camera and raises her voice, “You can torture or bomb us, blast our district to the grounds. But do you see that? Fire is catching…If we burn, you burn with us!”
I want the white people in the theater cheering for Katniss to look at the countless black lives that have been taken by police in America—one every 28 hours— without justice, and say the same. I want the fire to catch. It is our responsibility. The wrongs that we weep for in Panem, the imagined wrongs that are inflicted on imagined white people, are happening to black Americans around you right at this moment. I want the fire to catch. Look at the damage, the irreconcilable violence, that the police in America wreak on black lives and say, “This is what they do. And we must fight back.”
Last week, I finished the first draft of my screenplay. It was a goal I’d set for myself so long ago – a goal which I had so often delayed – that part of me couldn’t believe that I had actually achieved it, and that I was really, truly, typing the words “Fade Out” on the bottom of page ninety-eight.
However, though I felt an initial surge of excitement upon reaching this milestone, my joy quickly turned to dread. I felt scared. Heavy. Worried.
The negative self-talk started screaming through my brain. “You finished it?” “So what?” “It’s not done. Not by a long shot.” “You’ll probably never finish it.” “And even if you do, who cares?” “Your story isn’t particularly interesting, Sarah. No one is going to want to see this movie.”
It took me three days after completing the first draft to force myself to sit down and read the whole thing from beginning to end, with an eye on what needed to be clarified, edited, and fixed. The process was horrible. As I read along, my self-judgment got worse and worse. Words like “stupid,” “cliché,” and “boring” sprang to mind. One particular scene made me laugh out loud as I covered my mouth in horror, thinking, “I can’t believe I wrote that.”
And on and on it went. My younger self would have been so discouraged at the end of it, I would have buried the entire document in a folder on my laptop and not looked at it again for months, until one night after I’d had too much wine and was feeling masochistic, I’d pick it up again and cry my way though it, bemoaning my poor talentless self and all the months I’d wasted on writing something that was never going to be any good and was never going to see the light of day.
But I am not my younger self. I am older now, and I – usually – know better. The older me took all of my harshest criticism and wrote it down, trying to make my notes as constructive as possible. The older me reminded myself that first drafts are almost always terrible, and I didn’t write this first draft to be brilliant, I wrote it to get to the end. The older me knows that this process is painful, but also knows that the only way to make the pain stop is to keep writing, keep pushing, keep showing up and doing the work. The older me knows that I can’t give up, because if I do, the unfinished work will turn into yet another unrealized dream that will haunt me. And I have too many of those already, thank you very much.
I am fortunate enough to have lots of amazing friends who are actors, writers, artists. And I believe that if we’re honest, we all grapple with the same fears, the same longing, the same self-doubt. We all worry that we’re not talented enough, not smart enough, not unique enough to add our voices to the crowded chorus of storytellers already out there in the world. But it’s not just the artists, is it? Don’t we all harbor a secret “Who do I think I am?” that holds us back from taking bold steps toward our biggest dreams?
After beating myself up for a good long time, I picked up my much-beloved copy of Steven Pressfield’s book “Do the Work.” (If you are trying to finish anything, get it, use it. I am not kidding – this book will change your life). I paged through it as I often do, to remind myself that nothing worth doing is ever easy. I laughed when I got to this part on page 46:
Sometimes on Wednesday I’ll read something that I wrote on Tuesday and I’ll think, ‘This is crap. I hate it and I hate myself.’ Then I’ll re-read the identical passage on Thursday. To my astonishment it has become brilliant overnight. Ignore false negatives. Ignore false positives. Both are Resistance.
And then, in big, bold letters, he writes:
In the end, I have no control over whether people love or hate my story. By extension, I have no control over whether people love or hate me. Making people love me is not my job. My job is to show up and do the work on a consistent basis, and to try every day to get a little bit better. The story that’s burning a hole inside of me deserves that. So every day, I try to remind myself that the process, not the end result, is what I have control over. The process, not the end result, is what demands my focus.
And I also try to remind myself that I have a community of friends and supporters – many of them right here on WordPress – with whom I can share my process, my fears, my journey. And this community reminds me that there’s nothing wrong with the struggle. The struggle is part of the story.
Until next time, friends.