Tuesday, May 27, 2008


Fun For You on a Friday:

A crazy mass improv gag at Grand Central Station.

And here's a great baseball video by the same guys for my nephew Jimmy. (20 8 9 14 11 9 14 7 15 6 25 15 21, 10 9 13 13 25. 9 13 9 19 19 25 15 21.)

Introducing Marcos Penalba-Cruz, born May 22nd, whose mom I work with at America.

Congratulations, Kisis!

Yesterday on the Writer's Almanac Garrison Keillor told this startling story from this day in history:
It was on this day in 1932 that World War I veterans began arriving in Washington, D.C., demanding their military bonuses about 15 years early. Congress had approved the bonuses as a retirement plan back in 1924, and those bonuses weren't supposed to be paid until 1945, when the soldiers had reached the age of retirement. But it was the Great Depression, and most of those veterans were out of work and living in poverty, and they were desperate for early bonuses to help them survive.

The Bonus March was the idea of an unemployed former Army sergeant named Walter Waters, who stood up at a veterans' meeting in Portland, Oregon, on March 15, 1932, and said that every man at the meeting should hop a train to Washington, D.C., and demand the money that was rightfully his.

Walter Waters and his men arrived in Washington, D.C., on this day in 1932. Over the next few months, about 25,000 others joined them. They had been congregating in D.C. for almost a month when the bonus bill finally came to the floor. It was passed by the House of Representatives, but it was defeated in the Senate two days later. Many of the Bonus Marchers went home, disappointed, but the original group of men stayed behind, vowing to remain until they received justice.
President Herbert Hoover ordered the Army to drive them out of town. Several Army battalions of cavalry and tanks advanced on the veterans, tossing tear-gas grenades and setting the shantytown on fire. Over the next week, newspapers and newsreels showed images of veterans fleeing the burning shantytown with their families, through clouds of tear gas and smoke, followed by tanks and mounted troops waving swords. It was a public relations disaster. When presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt read a newspaper article about the eviction, he said, "This will elect me," and he was right.

And lastly, here's a photograph of the Outback, one of the most haunting places I've ever been.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Locks of Love

While I'm talking up family this week, here's one more story for you all. Last week my nieces Molly and Erin got their hair cut. And they really took a lot off. Here's they are before:



And after:


They took 5 inches off of Erin's hair, and 8 inches off of Molly. And on a number of occasions like this they've taken that hair and donated it to a program called "Locks of Love." Locks of Love uses children's hair to create wigs for kids that are sick and have lost their own hair for some reason.

If you're interested, here's the website for Locks of Love. It's the sort of charity that you don't think about, but can be a great support for sick kids.

And here's a link for Pantene, which does something similar for women. They require longer lengths, I think; Molly was excited because she had cut off enough to donate to Pantene this time around.

And speaking of hair...

My niece Ally and her "bed head".

Deep in the Soul of Carrots

Last night the Australian Broadcasting Service had an interview with Michael Pollan, American and bestselling author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and "In Defense of Food." Pollan writes a lot about things like processed food and the way food is marketed as "nutritious" to get us to buy it. One small bit:
KERRY O'BRIEN [interviewer]: You talk about nutritionism as opposed to nutrition, what do you mean?

MICHAEL POLLAN: Yeah, that's key distinction. I mean nutrition and nutritional science is important work and it needs to go on and be perfected. Nutritionism is an ideology, it's a way of looking at food, it's a lens, and basically it encourages us to think about food as a collection of nutrients and that if you get the nutrients right you'll be fine, you know, avoid saturated fat, eat omega 3s and it divides the world into blessed nutrients that if we ate enough of them we'd live forever and satanic nutrients we're trying to drive from the food supply.

There's a couple of problems with nutritionism. One is if the nutrient is the important unit in food and not the food, and only scientists can see nutrients with their microscopes, have you ever seen a nutrient or tasted one? No. You need experts to tell you how to eat and so that we have a priesthood of telling us how to eat and I think that's proved to be very unhealthy.

KERRY O'BRIEN: To illustrate your point of how science gets it wrong, you tell the story of the humble carrot.

MICHAEL POLLAN: Yeah, there's a great example. We know carrots are good for you, right? People have been eating them for a long time and the assumption was that what was good in cancer preventing in the carrot was the beta carotene, what makes it orange. So we extracted that and we made these supplement pills and we gave them to people and low and behold in certain populations like people who drink a lot would get sicker, were more likely to get cancer on beta carotene and the scientists kind of scratched their head. There is a couple of explanations. We don't know. But one may be that the beta carotene is not the key ingredient. You know there are 50 other carotenes in carrots.

Food is incredibly complex. It's a wilderness, you know, we don't know what's going on deep in the soul of a carrot. And we shouldn't kid ourselves to think we can reduce it to these chemicals. It also may be some synergies between different thing. Beta carotene is also found in the company of chlorophyll, maybe it's that combination that contributes to health.

The point is we don't, as eaters, need to know what makes carrots work. We can eat carrots, they taste good, they're good for you. It's that simple. This reductive approach to food that's been pushed by the scientist, and they need to think reductively, no question, they need to isolate variables to test them. But to take that very sketchy information and start marketing food and supplements on the basis of it, it's very misleading. I'm not anti-science, I think nutrition science is very important and eventually they'll get it right but the way I look at it is it's a very young science, it's kind of like where surgery was in the year 1650, okay. Very promising, very interesting, but not quite ready to guide you in your own health decisions.

The rest of the interview can be found here, as both a transcript and video. I really recommend it.

Pollan was so interesting I looked around online and found in another interview a great analysis of Whole Foods.
I use the term “supermarket pastoral” for the experience of shopping in a place like that. Whole Foods, they’re brilliant storytellers. You walk into that store, and it just looks like a beautiful garden, and there are pictures of organic farmers up on the walls, and little labels that describe how the cow lived that became your milk or your beef, and the cage-free vegetarian hens who got to free range.

They’re creating in your minds an image of a farm very much like the ones in the books you read as children—with a diversity of happy animals wandering around the farmyard.

It’s very cleverly designed, but unfortunately like a lot of pastoral forms of art, it’s based on illusions. Not entirely, but if you go to the farm depicted on those labels, you find that in fact, things look a little bit different.

Organic milk might be coming from a dry organic feedlot where 500 cows are milling around and never get to eat a blade of grass. I have a feeling that’s not what the consumer thinks they’re getting.

Free-range chickens—I did go visit a large organic chicken producer here in California, and if you look at their label, there’s a farmstead with a little silo and a farm house and a farmyard and chickens running around, but if you go to the farm, the chickens are grown in these huge barracks as long as a football field. They’re indoors, there are 20,000 of them in a house, and running along this barrack is what looks like a little front lawn—mowed, maybe 15 or 20 feet deep.

There’s a little door at either side of the barrack where, theoretically, chickens could step outside and take the air. But they don’t. One reason is that the doors are closed until the chickens are about five weeks old.

The farmers—if you can use that word, the managers—are concerned that the chickens might catch their death of cold or pick up a germ, so they don’t open the doors until the chickens are five weeks old. They smother them at seven weeks; so it’s not exactly a lifestyle. It’s more like a two-week vacation option. And the chickens don’t avail themselves of this option because they’ve never been outside before. They’re terrified of going outside. First of all, it’s not big enough for the whole flock. Second of all, the food and water is inside; they’re not used to it; they weren’t brought up this way. They’re like the cat in the Manhattan apartment; when you open the door they just stand there in terror wondering about the other dimension of reality outside that door.

Free range is a conceit. It’s to make us feel better about these chickens. It’s not doing anything for the chickens, as far as I can tell.

Yes, that organic chicken is still a better product, I think. It’s getting better feed, it’s got a few more inches of legroom than a conventional chicken, but it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Erin McDermott's Big Week

Last week my niece Erin (above) graduated from preschool, had an Irish Dancing show, and celebrated her birthday -- WOW. I talked to her today about her birthday; she told me, "It was great. There were about 90 people there. Or maybe 60. And I got two sprinklers. We played with them today." So, birthday: Huge success.

Here she is at her preschool graduation:

And after, with gifts from her many fans!

Her mom and dad told me they even played "Pomp and Circumstance" as they walked down the aisle. Unfortunately, they were not allowed to throw their hats in the air. I guess you have to save something for high school...

A few days earlier, Erin danced to some different tunes:

Here's my favorite shot. Look at that face! (To get the full effect, you really have to click on it).

Erin and her brother and sister are always intrigued by the time differential between me and them. Every time I call they ask me, what time is it there? Today when I told Erin that it's 10am Sunday here (it was about 5pm Saturday there), she responded, "Wow. You should call us tomorrow and tell us what time it is then!" Definitely a little spark plug.

Some Final Shots of Cobar

"Main Street" (Marshall Street)

St. Lawrence O'Toole Parish

At the Old Reservoir

The "Newie" (i.e. The New Reservoir)

Monday, May 19, 2008

My Favorite Cobarian

Norman Ferson, born 1800, died 1909. He was a Canadian, originally, tall and strong, shipwrecked off the northern coast of Australia. He lived among Aboriginal people for 17 years.

Norman Felson loved books. Maybe too much: upon finding a book that he had lent to someone put up for sale, he went to the man’s place of work. As the terrified “thief” took off running, Norman hit him on the head with the spoke of a wheel. The man died six months later from complications associated with the injury. Though Norman said he “just gave him a tap on the napper,” he was given three years jail sentence.

At the time, he was 103 years old.

He died six years later at age 109, after breaking his hip when he tripped while carrying a 38 kg case of pickles.

One of a kind.

Is My Ground Too Veiny?

What was your grade school science project? I did one on smelting. Couldn’t tell you anything about it now, other than I really liked that word. Smelting.

After visiting the Cobar museum, I wish I had done one on the evolution of minerals, because it's really interesting. It turns out, it’s sort of like baking a cake:

Recipe for Creating Minerals
1. Take millions of acres of land. Cover completely with water to a depth of one mile or more.
2. Let sit 15 million years (or until mud, sand on bottom hardens).
3. Using a folding motion, scoop hardened rock up and into mountains.
4. Apply wind, rain, heat, water until mountains completely disappear.
5. Repeat as necessary.

The key ingredients are the fluids. Water continues to bring new mud, sand, etc., out of which the minerals are formed, into the area. And other liquid moves through the fault cracks created during the mountain-formation process, picking up the silica and metals that have been created, carrying them along and up, as pressure is applied until the liquid cools and the minerals precipitate out, forming the veins of ore that will be found underground.

This whole process started 450 million years ago in this area, and involved four different sets of mountain ranges being formed and falling away. Today, with a few isolated exceptions, there’s nary a mountain to be found in the area.

Isn't that something?

Striking it Rich

About 5300 people live in the town of Cobar itself, maybe a thousand more in the outlying areas. Most of them have some sort of connection to the large mines in the area.

Mining is big business for Australia; the land, so old and undisturbed by continental shifts over millions of years, bears tremendous mineral resources – gold, copper, uranium, zinc, lead, silver.... If it can be found on the periodic table of elements, it’s probably here.

Here in Cobar copper was the first big strike. It came entirely by accident. In 1870 three guys – Campbell, Hartman and Gibb – were on their way elsewhere, having found that their dam-building and well-sinking services were of little interest to a community struggling through a drought. While moving through the area they came across some strange red and green rocks.

They had no idea what the rocks were (Christmas tree ornaments? Kryptonite?), but a lady they met the next day, Mrs. Sidwell Krue, formerly of England's copper hub Cornwall, immediately identified them as such. Their first test rocks contained an average of 33% copper. That’s a lot. And off they went. Gibb was so overjoyed he took his initial profits, quit the mining business and became a song writer. His first big hit: “How Deep is your Lode”. (That’s right, a Gibb Brothers reference. It's just emotion that's taken me over.)

The Cobar Museum, former headquarters of the Great Cobar Copper Mining Company Limited

Gold was also discovered by chance in the area, when a hungry prospector, Henry Cornish, picked up a stone to brain a possum in a nearby tree and saw that it had some flakes of gold on it. Sweet!

It took 18 years for him to convince someone to back him; people refused to believe there was really gold in the area. But in 1888 he was able to start a mine. And today, gold is the big business in Cobar, along with zinc, lead and silver.

The Open Cut Mine, Cobar

You Say Potato

Monday Trivia:

Anybody wondered what sort of a name is Cobar? Well, according to the good people at the Cobar museum, the name has Aboriginal origins. When people first came to the area, long long ago, what brought them was a water hole in this area. The land around that hole had a red ochre cast to it, (and still does, as you can see). The word for red among the Aboriginals of this area was "gubar."

Aboriginals also used a paint derived from the soil in their rite of passage ceremonies for young men, which were called "corroboree". Corro, gubar... Cobar.

More fun facts:
All over the outbacks you find these lovely two story buildings with verandahs on each level.

Castlebridge Hotel, Dubbo

The reason for them is more than aesthetic: it gets really, really hot here in the summer, 40 degrees Celsius and above. And in the olden times, tweren't no air conditioning to run to. These verandahs served that function, the roof on each level providing a shaded place to escape from the bitter sun. How about that?

Speaking of air conditioning, in Cobar they invented their own special kind of air conditioner unit, made of stainless steel, to handle the high mineral content of the water in the air. It's called...wait for it...Cobair.

Gotta love the word play.

One more such fact: before refrigeration, to keep butter from melting on the trip home in the outback from Cobar, stores would wrap it in wet newspaper.

Which had the added bonus of meaning you could read the funnies in the paper or on your toast.

I've left Cobar as of today, had a great, great experience there. This week I'm going to offer some more little stories and photos about the place.

Friday, May 16, 2008

A Word from the Opposition

Last night, the Opposition Leader of the Australian Government, Dr. Brendan Nelson (who reminds me a lot of actor Ray Wise, above, best known in the U.S. as Laura Palmer's scary dad/murderer from "Twin Peaks" -- see links below for a comparison), gave the Coalition's official reply to the Government's budget announcement from Tuesday. Turns out I was all wrong about the idea that the budget announced is already set in stone. Parliament still has to approve it, and the upper house (the Senate) is controlled by the opposition party. Whoops.

Political speeches here can get a bit personal, but they also have some wonderfully clever rhetoric. If you've got a few minutes, check out the beginning of the speech for some good, crisp writing, as well as the entertainment of watching the speaker's political bobbleheads, nodding and grunting their support at each side of him. Or check out this portion of the speech and zip to 6:15 (the part about gas prices) -- you'll see some good humor there, as well as a fabulous display of righteous indignation. Nelson almost makes you think Kevin Rudd and the Labor Party are responsible for the worldwide spike in gas prices...

That second section also include, around 3 minutes, I think, the speaker throwing a fit about a tax on pre-mixed drinks, of all things -- a tax he supported just two weeks ago. I'm telling you, it's better than a night at the theater.

World politics may not be your thing, but if you take a look, you might enjoy a couple minutes of this.

PS I don’t often post twice in one day, but the entry below this one is new, too. It's got some fun things to check out for a breather on Friday, as well as the current whereabouts of my parents.

Fun for the Whole Family

An Aboriginal-Style Painting at St. Ignatius School
Bourke, New South Wales

Looking for a quick laugh? My friend the doctor, Michael Shashaty (Grey's Anatomy equivalent: Cassie), former Red Cloud volunteer and Olympic medalist in Sleeping (you think I’m kidding), and some of his other doctor friends recently put together this funny mock advertisement about unnecessary medical procedures. The more you know about medicine, the funnier it is. (Mike’s the first guy you see.)

If you’re growing a little tired of hearing Justin Timberlake breathing heavily about Madonna on the radio (I can't get the song out of my head, and I've only heard it twice) and want something with a little more substance, you might check out The Ignatian Schola. The Schola is a New York based singing group, including my friends Chris Derby and Jim Coughlin, who do some great sacred music. I had the chance to see this concert last spring and really recommend it.

For the photo fanatics in the bunch (Dad), my buddy Trip O’Dell, another Red Cloud alum (ee!), sent out an email not too long ago about Adobe Photoshop Express, an all-new online photo editing, storage and sharing service that he helped design, based on the industry standard in photo editing, Photoshop. Great thing about the program: it’s free. As compared to Photshop, which will run you $650. Check it out!

My parents left this evening on a cruise of Europe in honor of their upcoming 40th anniversary as mixed doubles partners at Wimbledon. (The term "Grand Slam" actually comes originally from the unbelieveable backhand my mother and father both wielded in their years on the tour.) They will be traveling along with my aunt Denny on her first trip overseas and my cousins Helen and Pete from England.

Citizens of Europe, you have been warned.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

It's Canberra, Not Kansas

This evening the new government of Australia presented its first budget to the Parliament and people of the country. I spent the last few hours watching the fireworks; here's a couple striking things:

Much as in our own country, the national budget embodies the promises and values of the party in power. But in Australia, it's the treasurer of the government, rather than the party leader, who "delivers the budget". For the 35 minutes during which Treasurer Wayne Swan spoke to the gathered Parliament tonight, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd sat with his party, nodding and "hear-hearing".

Australian Treasurer Wayne Swan, keeping it together.

What's more, the material presented does not constitute budget proposals, but realities. The party in power by definition runs the legislature (the Prime Minister is not a separately elected official like the President, but the leader of the party in control of the lower house of the legislature). Thus, their budgets announcements have more teeth to them, and maybe also drama. Announced changes will be made, even in the next few months.

The treasurer is a funny guy to watch: not flashy, or even charismatic. A little intense and ill at ease, actually. Imagine an accountant giving the State of the Union. Then imagine that accountant is your father-in-law.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

"Lost" Meets the Democratic Party

A little politics to get you started on the week:

This winter the creators of "Lost" circulated a funny 8 minute 15 second video explaining everything that had happened on "Lost" in the last three years.

Here it is.

Recently, someone created a take-off on that video about the Democratic primaries -- "Everything you need to know about the Democratic race for president in 7 minutes".

No matter who you're rooting for, it's good fun.

Many thanks to my fellow Lost castaway Michael Linus Gilson for the link. Good on ya!

Friday, May 9, 2008

Mother's Day

Today is Mother's Day and also Pentecost. A feast of love two-fer!

To our mothers, I give two gifts: first, some beautiful pictures of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost by the kids at the grade school here. And second, a beautiful poem by Mary Oliver.

Mom, Julie, Jenny, Eileen, Denny, Meg (on her first!), and everyone else: Happy Mother's Day!

The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean--
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down--
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?

Mary Oliver

PS Here's a shot of my favorite mom:

Thanks, Aunt Kathleen!

My Niece's First Communion

My niece Molly celebrated her first communion yesterday. A few great photos:

Here's Molly and her mom, my sister-in-law Julie. Isn't it a great shot?

Molly by herself on her big day.

This one's my favorite:
"Mom and Dad, please stop taking pictures."

One anecdote: when I asked Molly how it went she said fine. But she added, the wine was really bitter. I got the impression it would be a while before she tried that again.

And it made me wonder, if we want our kids to actually want to receive under both species, maybe we should make sure that at first communions we use something easy on their palate, a sweet wine.

Might not be a bad idea for everyone else, either.

Congratulations, Molly! I love you!!

Sunday, May 4, 2008

The Generous, Welcoming People of Cobar

I've been in Cobar about ten days now, and I'm finding the people of Cobar are incredibly welcoming and generous. Everywhere I go, people say hello, people ask how I'm doing, how I'm finding things. It's nice to be in a place where you can make connections so easily and immediately.

And people really go out of their way. Like last Friday, the parish priest invited me to an awards banquet for a swimming club that he belongs to called the "Yabbies". (A yabbie, I think, is a kind of a prawn found in the Darling River.) I worried that I might be sort of intruding, but as soon as I walked in, people made me feel right at home. Had some wonderful, wonderful conversations and a really great night.

Then the next day -- well, let me back up. Since the day I got here, I kept hearing about an upcoming "Relay for Life". I figured it was a 5 or 10K run for a good cause, like we'd do in the States.

Over the course of days I came to find it was actually an all-night (4pm-10am) walk at a nearby athletic field to support those who had cancer. And it seemed like pretty much everyone in the community was involved. At the Yabbies dinner the night before the event, one of the group's heads predicted the event would raise $50000-$80000. When you consider that the community of Cobar is only about 6000 people, well, you see just how generous people here are.

I went for an hour or so on Saturday night, and it was really something. Many families camped out for the night, they had events for children (including face painting -- I met some great little Spidermen and aliens), a band, lots of food and drink. People of all ages, from pre-teenager all the way to retired grandma, were out there walking, talking. And you could just feel people's hearts in the whole thing, the ways they had themselves suffered because of the reality of cancer and their desire to help stop it from hurting anyone else.

People talk about the sacred heart of Jesus. Well, maybe on Saturday night I saw little glimpse of it. A heart that has been broken and bleeds, and that is as a result altogether more lovely and abundantly generous.

Like I said, it's great people here in Cobar.

Far From the Madding Crowd (Really, Really Far)

Recently the parish priest and I ("parish priest" in Australia = "pastor") took a little excursion to the neighboring town of Wilcannia. At one time, Wilcannia was a bustling port town on the Darling River, one of the few major rivers in all of Australia. Today, it’s just a shadow of that, 300 people, mostly aboriginals, on what remains of the Darling.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about our excursion was the trip itself. As I said, Wilcannia is the next town over. But we use "next" loosely: it’s 235 kms away -- roughly 150 miles. . It took us over two hours to get there, going 120 kms/75 miles an hour. And in between, literally NOTHING. Not towns, no stops, just lots of low trees, cars whizzing by and birds eating dead kangaroo.

When you're standing above Cobar, here's the view (click on it for the big picture):

Other than maybe in Alaska, I wonder if there's any place as empty as this in the U.S. I'll tell you this, it makes rural South Dakota look like the Eastern seaboard. But as you can see from the photo, the emptiness is quite beautiful.

One anecdote: truly, all along the highway you see birds chewing on remains of 'roo. And, as you might expect, as a car approaches, even from the other side, the birds immediately scatter.

But not all. As we were approaching one such scene, we saw an enormous brown eagle among the birds, head thrown back as though this was his table. When we came near, the other birds flew off, but not the eagle. He just glared.

Outback lesson #1: Never play chicken with an eagle.

In Wilcannia, we visited a tiny kindergarten-second grade Catholic school run for aboriginal children. And while we were there, we had lunch with a lovely sister, Sr. Flo. I just loved her face, so I took some photos. I've put a nice one below.

The retreat goes well. The people here are wonderful. And today was my niece's first communion. I couldn't be there (obviously), but I will post some photos when I get some. She told me she was a little bit nervous, and the wine tasted pretty nasty (Note to self and others in ministry: when you're running a first communion, make sure you use some sweet wine!), but she seemed satisfied.