Sunday, May 31, 2020

An argument for sentient balls of moss.

Neerav Bhatt | CC 2.0 | Flickr

Last weekend, I shared a story on Facebook about a phenomenon called glacier mice. They're balls of moss -- often the only green things on a white expanse of glacier. And as researchers Sophie Gilbert and Tim Bartholomaus from the University of Idaho discovered, they move around. Synchronized, more or less. With no visible connection or means of propulsion. They don't scurry, mind you -- it's very slow movement. But they do move, and they move pretty much in concert with one another. 

I posted NPR's story about this discovery with the caption, "Maybe they're sentient." I knew folks would get a kick out of it. But really -- what if they're sentient?

What we're talking about here is animism, which the Oxford Dictionary online defines this way:

  1. The attribution of a soul to plants, inanimate objects, and natural phenomena.
  2. The belief in a supernatural power that organizes and animates the material universe.
With our glacier mice, what we're after is the first definition. And as a Pagan, soul is a more Christian term than I'm comfortable with, so let's replace soul with spirit. 

A lot of cultures around the world attribute spirit to a whole host of non-human things. In Animism: Respecting the Living World, author Graham Harvey recounts a conversation from the 1930s between anthropologist Irving Hallowell and an Ojibwe elder in Manitoba. Hallowell asked the older man,
"Are all the stones we see about us here alive?" Hallowell continues, "He reflected a long while and then replied, 'No! But some are."
The question came up, Harvey explains, because in Ojibwe and some other Algonquian languages, the word for rock is treated the same way you'd treat the word for a living person, with plural endings and such that are usually reserved for humans. Why is that? Because some rocks have been observed to move. On their own. With no visible means of propulsion.

That story reminded me that in Czech, there are different plural forms for animate masculine nouns and inanimate masculine nouns. Most animals, if the word for them is masculine, get the inanimate treatment -- but not dogs. Dogs get the animate masculine plural form. I expect anyone who has ever had a canine companion can understand why Czechs would think of them as people. (The word for cat in Czech, in case you're wondering, is a feminine noun, and the language doesn't differentiate between animate and inanimate in either the feminine or the neuter case. Which probably says something unpleasant about ancient Czechs, but I digress.)

Okay, dogs are animate. So are cats, dolphins, crows -- lots of animals. I think we can agree that they exhibit the ability to think, to plan, and to communicate. Just because we can't always understand what they're trying to say to us (an idea that has birthed ten thousand memes), it doesn't mean they're incapable of communicating. And they're probably better at communicating with their own species than they are with us. Right? So animals have agency -- they can act independently and make choices of their own free will.

What about bugs? Are they animate? Of course -- probably more animate than we'd like for them to be. Do they have agency? I think so, within certain parameters. A bee might be programmed to make honey for its queen, but the queen doesn't dictate which flower it visits today. A spider has sufficient free will to pick a lousy place for its web. Ants have a whole social hierarchy -- they send out scouts to look for food sources. And when they find one, they go back to their anthill and communicate the information to their fellow ants. But how do they get the word out? They can't talk.

Or maybe they can, but it's in a language we humans can't understand.

I'm reminded of Tolkien's Ents. They lived a long time and talked very slowly, and their own language was nearly impossible for humans to speak. Granted, Ents are fictional. But it wasn't that long ago that we figured out whales can talk to one another, and we don't understand their language, either (except in Star Trek IV, and even then it took some doing).

In The Wakeful World, philosopher Emma Restall Orr discusses the real-life trees that grow on Earth. She observes that a tree recognizes the resources available to it -- sunlight or shade, water, other trees nearby -- and adapts itself to them. It recognizes the seasons and understands what it is meant to do in each one. Just because we humans don't recognize all that activity as the sort of conscious thought we're used to, it doesn't mean it's not happening. And just because we don't understand the language of trees, it doesn't mean they don't have one.

Maybe rocks have a language of their own, too. Maybe it's so slow and moves so deeply that humans can never perceive it. If so, that's not the rocks' fault -- it's our fault for assuming that any language we can't perceive doesn't exist, and that any mode of thinking that isn't exactly like ours doesn't count.

The more I think about it, the more I disagree with the definition of animism that I quoted at the top of this post. Even changing soul to spirit doesn't fix it. Animism doesn't have anything to do with whether a chunk of God or spirit resides in each human or rock or tree -- or glacial mouse -- but with whether each of these things deserves to be recognized as a sentient being. Or, if that's too big a leap for you, whether each of these things might be a sentient being -- and then, erring on the side of caution, treating them as if they are.

Once you get to that point, environmentalism becomes a whole new ballgame.

These moments of sentient blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell. Wash your hands! Wear a mask!

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Adventures with yeast.

As you know, ever since mid-March, certain things have been difficult to find at the store. Toilet paper and paper towels are among them, of course; ditto for hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipes. Around La Casa Cantwell, I've begun to see TP and paper towels returning to shelves, especially if I go fairly early in the day. (You have to actually go, I'm convinced; if you order it from a delivery service, you'll never get it.) I actually picked up a couple of bottles of no-name hand sanitizer at the grocery store a couple of weeks ago. I brought one inside and left one in the care of Eli, my Kia Niro. Eli lives in an underground garage, so there's zero danger of the bottle spontaneously combusting in sunlight (and Snopes says it won't happen anyway).

But other things have disappeared from store shelves, too. Flour, for instance. And yeast. For a while at the beginning of the stay-home order, 100% whole wheat bread was another thing that was always out of stock. Apparently once everybody stocked up on TP, they decided to spend the next six or seven weeks of their time at home baking bread.

I used to have little envelopes of active dry yeast that I kept in the freezer. Alas, when I checked them about six months ago, they were long past their expiration date, so I threw them out. If only I'd known!

So I could only look at posts on social media about the delicious baked goods my friends had made, and sigh. But then I read an email from our local Great Harvest Bread outpost, saying if you asked, they would sell you some of their yeast. So I stopped in and asked, and they did! Except it didn't come in a little packet like I was used to.

*Fresh* yeast? Whut?
It turns out that real bakeries use fresh yeast. It comes in a big block, I guess, and you lop off however much you need for the number of loaves you're making. I'm told it's the same as the compressed yeast, or cake yeast, that I used to see in stores when I was a kid. I haven't seen it in a long time, though, and I've never baked with it. I always just bought the little packets.

Luckily I have friends in the UK, where grocers are not as squeamish about selling fresh yeast to home bakers, and they told me how to use it. It's mixed in at a different point in the process. Dry yeast is added to the liquids (water or milk, depending), and you have to be persnickety about the temperature of those liquids or you will kill your yeast. (I used to make all my own sandwich bread. I might have killed the yeast a few times.) Fresh yeast, or wet yeast, is added with the dry ingredients, and then you add your liquids, and the liquids don't have to be quite as warm. (Here is more info about liquid temperature rules for different types of yeast.)

The process didn't seem difficult -- I mean, people have been making things with yeast for hundreds of thousands of years, and it didn't always come in little packets -- so last weekend I gave it a whirl. I had a can of poppy seed filling and a powerful need to make a coffee cake. But after I talked up the project to Amy, I realized I'd have to make it gluten free. No worries -- we had measure-for-measure gluten free flour.

What I forgot was that baking with gluten free flour is a science unto itself. The coffee cake rose, but not much. It was very dense. And I also put too much butter in the streusel topping, so it ended up in big glops on top instead of little crumbles. The coffee cake tasted okay, mostly, but it was a far cry from what I had envisioned.

Major poppy seed coffee cake fail. Sadness!
I put the remainder of the yeast back in the fridge. Last night I remembered it was there, and I also remembered a friend mentioning they'd made raised waffles using sourdough starter. So there I was at 12:30 a.m., mixing yeast waffle batter with gluten free flour -- and there I was at 2:00 a.m., stirring it down and putting it in the fridge so I could make waffles this morning.

Which I did. And they were good.

Raised waffles. Yummers!
At this point you're probably expecting a recipe, so here is the one my mother gave me for raised waffles. Looks like she got it from a bag of Gold Medal flour. I made half the recipe (using two eggs instead of three) and got 10 waffles, so we each had three. Also, because I was using the wet yeast, I did it backwards: I mixed the flour, sugar, and salt together, crumbled the yeast on top, and then added the milk and the other stuff. It was fine.

2 cups lukewarm milk
2 tbsp. sugar
1 tsp. salt

Crumble into mixture 1 cake compressed yeast or 1 package dry yeast. Stir until yeast is dissolved.

Beat in:
3 eggs
1/4 c. soft butter
2 c. flour (The recipe calls for Gold Medal "Kitchen Tested" Enriched Flour. I used Bob's Red Mill GF cup-for-cup to use it up. King Arthur's GF cup-for-cup is better. The recipe also calls for sifting the flour, but I was not interested in sifting flour at midnight.)

Cover, let rise at 85 degrees for about 90 minutes. Stir down, cover, and set in refrigerator overnight or until ready to use.

Stir down again. Pour onto hot waffle iron. Bake until brown and crisp, 3 to 4 minutes.

Fair warning: The recipe claims to make about eight 7" waffles, but my handwritten note says, "Hah! Made about 18 waffles..." Which is why I mixed up only a half batch last night. Thanks for the tip, past me!

These moments of adventurously yeasty blogginess have been provided, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell. Whether you're cooking or not, wash your hands!

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Mask up!

I guess you can tell what's at the top of my mind these days, huh? My last several posts have been about COVID-19.

I know I'm not alone -- the virus has pretty much been on everybody's minds around the world. And as I said last week, this business of staying home is wearing thin. Which reminds me -- I have a couple of updates for you on our adventures in apartment living: Remember when I said if our new downstairs neighbors complained again about the noise we weren't guilty of making, I'd offer to trade with them because the folks above us had a newborn? Well, the joke's on me; the baby belongs to the complainers.  And our new upstairs neighbors? Stomper still stomps. And they've had friends over both days this weekend. I'm not gonna be a Karen and report them, but I'm annoyed. Social distancing isn't a joke, people!

And that brings me to the subject of today's post, which is the claim made by some folks that requiring them to wear masks in public violates their constitutional rights.

I've just discovered that the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia has produced a number of podcasts about this and other challenges to the government's response to COVID-19. (By the way, the National Constitution Center is a nonprofit, not a government agency.) In the first podcast mentioned at the link, they talk about why requirements to wear masks don't fall foul of the Constitution. TL;DR: The Founding Fathers had a lot more experience with epidemics than we do today, and quarantine was a universally recognized way of handling them. Not only do the rules and regulations we've been under lately not violate our constitutional rights, but they're actually helping us to preserve our inalienable right to keep living.

But some people need more persuasion.

As I'm sure you've heard, the fabric masks we're wearing everywhere now aren't designed to keep us from getting sick ourselves, but to keep us from spreading germs we have to others. And as I'm sure you've also heard, COVID-19 spreads most readily for a couple of days before symptoms appear -- assuming they ever do. So for someone to say, "I'm not gonna wear a mask! I feel fine!" is pretty dumb. Just because you're not feeling sick right now, it doesn't mean anything. You could still be a walking disease vector.

But apparently for a lot of folks (or maybe a relative handful of really noisy folks), that kind of altruistic appeal falls on deaf ears.

So what we need is to find some way to get through to them, the way we have on another public health issue: seatbelts.

When I was a kid, we didn't have seatbelts in cars. Zero, zip, nada. Parents routinely let their kids ride on their laps or in the back of the family station wagon or -- horrors! -- in the bed of the family pickup truck. All without wearing any kind of restraints. It's a wonder any of survived.

But even after seatbelts became mandatory equiment in new cars in 1968, there was a lot of resistance to wearing them. My dad used to say he'd seen people survive accidents by being thrown clear of the wreck, which wouldn't have happened if they'd been wearing a seatbelt. As late as 1980, only 11 percent of people were doing it. States then began to mandate seatbelt use and eventually allowed police to stop and ticket drivers who weren't wearing them without observing any other violations.

At last, states were getting drivers' attention. But the decades-old slogan, "Buckle up - it's the law," needed work. It was North Carolina that came up with the keeper in 1993: "Click It or Ticket."

What I'm saying is we need a P.R. campaign for mask wearing, and it needs a catchy slogan. I've seen a couple of suggestions on Facebook over the past few days, but it wasn't until I saw this meme today that I realized we had our keeper.

Got your attention, didn't it? Feel free to share it far and wide. And kudos to the anonymous meme-maker.

These moments of attention-getting blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell. And remember: #MaskItOrCasket

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Gotta shop?

So there's still a pandemic on, most states' curves have not yet flattened, and we have neither widespread testing nor reliable treatment protocols nor a vaccine for COVID-19. We're still learning about the effects of the virus on the human body; until last week, we thought kids didn't get it, but then epidemiologists in New York realized there was a new rash of kids dying of an unusual disease that appears to be linked to this coronavirus.

All that, and yet governors around the nation are beginning to reopen the economy in their states. Some are moving more cautiously than others, and in some states customers have yet to flock to stores. But this weekend in Arkansas, this was the checkout line at a TJ Maxx.

Supposedly the store had a sign on the door that masks were required for entrance, but clearly a whole lot of shoppers didn't bother with them.

I've also seen a photo from a restaurant in Castle Rock, Colorado, that violated that state's reopening restrictions by letting people dine in. The restaurant, by all accounts, was packed.

This all happened on the same day as the death toll from COVID-19 in the US topped 78,000. (Mama Google tells me that today's death toll, as I write this post, is 80,562.)

But why? What is behind the need to get out of the house, go to a physical store, paw through physical merchandise touched by many other (possibly unwashed) hands, and exchange droplets with other shoppers who can't be bothered to wear a mask, let alone stand six feet from you at all times?

I know, I know. There are Americans who have been told, and who truly believe, that COVID-19 is a Democratic hoax, or else it's germ warfare that was released deliberately by the Chinese, and anyway we're all going to get it eventually and lots of people recover, so why are we hiding from it?

Besides, there are upwards of 20 million Americans who have filed for unemployment insurance since we all went home in mid-March. A lot of them work in the service industry, but not for an essential service like a grocery store or car repair place. These people would like to see a paycheck again.

And we have a contingent of folks who aren't safe at home for a variety of reasons, including poverty, lack of food, and domestic abuse.

But then there are the folks who just have to shop. That's their hobby -- they get in the car and go to a store. And I believe they've been trained to behave that way.

I used to practice simple living back in the day. I ended up not being very good at it and gave it up. But I was still involved in the movement on 9/11, and so I was shocked when one of the first things out of President George W. Bush's mouth after the attacks was to encourage Americans to go shopping.

He couched it in terms of not letting terrorism win. But I honestly think there was more to it. I think the real aim was to keep the US economy from tanking.

Back in 1992, Bill Clinton beat Bush's father to become president with a campaign whose slogan was famously described by campaign strategist James Carville as, "It's the economy, stupid." It's a truism in American politics that presidents are usually re-elected when the economy is ticking along. in '92, Clinton convinced voters that it wasn't. In 2001, Bush the Younger was in the first year of his first term, but he knew voters would remember 9/11 and whether they'd felt safe, both physically and economically, with him at the helm.

Fast-forward to 2020 and COVID-19. The virus has no political agenda. It does not have the mind of a terrorist. It just does its thing -- whether or not we have a vaccine or a cure, or even a reliable treatment protocol. The safest thing to do -- the thing that will save the most lives -- is for everybody to stay away from everybody else for as long as it takes to develop a vaccine or a cure.

But President Trump is up for re-election this year, and it's still the economy, stupid. So our politicians will keep businesses closed just long enough to make sure the infection rate isn't going to overwhelm hospitals with new COVID-19 patients. Then all good, patriotic Americans will need to go back to work, shopping, and eating out.

Actually, maybe we won't keep things closed that long. Some governors -- and President Trump -- think the economy is more important than the lives of regular Americans. They're reopening even though the curve has yet to flatten. They talk about the death toll as if it's not real people dying.

The phrase that keeps coming back to me is cannon fodder. Back before we housed our front-line troops inside tanks (as we did in the war on Iraq in 2003), armies included a lot of infantry. They were the men who went in first, on foot, and it didn't matter whether they all died because they were a dime a dozen. Oh, we still called them heroes, especially if they didn't survive the battle. They'd given their lives for a noble cause, right?

Two months ago, when we all went home and were told to stay there, we began hailing our medical personnel and other essential workers as heroes. The idea made me squirm. Medical personnel are highly trained; presumably they had an idea of what they were getting into when they took the job. But grocery store cashiers? Uber Eats drivers? Not highly trained. Dime a dozen. Cannon fodder.

Now some retail workers are being told by their bosses they need to come back to work -- and if they don't, they'll be considered no-shows and will lose their unemployment benefits. Of course we could pay people to stay home and stay safe, if people were our priority. But they're not. The economy is our priority. And low-skilled workers are a dime a dozen. More cannon fodder.

The folks working shoulder-to-shoulder in meatpacking plants where the owners routinely flout health laws anyway, the people held in prisons, old folks in nursing homes -- they're all cannon fodder, too.

And those folks shopping at that crowded TJ Maxx? The ones who could not stay home a minute longer? I just don't think they understand how little their lives are worth to the people calling the shots.

These moments of less-than-cheerful blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell, who is planning to stay home 'til we have a vaccine.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Apartment living in a pandemic.

Jacob Riis, Lodgers in a Crowded Bayard Street Tenement |
Public Domain
I have very little sympathy for the people who have been risking their own health and that of their loved ones to yell at their governors to re-open their states.

Besides the obvious reason -- i.e., they're risking their health and that of their loved ones to complain about not being able to hang out with their friends -- I'd hazard a guess that very few of them live in an apartment building.

So you've been cooped up in your house for weeks and weeks, and you feel like the walls closing in? Cry me a river, Toots. Try doing it in a 1,200-square-foot box, with other families in similary-sized boxes all around you.

Our apartment is a decent size, as apartments go -- but split between the girls and me, it's 400 square feet each. And while we live in a nice building in a nice neighborhood, the place has its flaws, not the least of which is that the walls, ceilings, and floors are really thin. Like, really thin.

We knew that when we moved in. But as alert hearth/myth readers may recall, the building we moved out of had turned into a construction zone. It was actually quieter here than it was at the old place.

Yeah, well, now that we've all been stuck inside 24/7 since March 13th, the thin walls are becoming a problem.

We got a call from the leasing office about a week ago. People had recently moved into the apartment right below us and had called to complain. Someone in our apartment was making a rhythmic thumping late at night and disturbing their sleep. Not that kind of rhythmic thumping! Like bouncing a ball, okay? Jeez, people.

Anyway, Amy and I were puzzled. Maybe it was just us walking around? But Kitty told us later that she'd been hearing it, too, and had assumed it was either the people next door to us or above us.

I suggested to the girls that if we heard from the office again, we should offer to trade with our downstairs neighbors, so they could be below the family with the newborn who cried at all hours.

I had thought the new parents were right above us -- but maybe not, because I was still hearing the baby even after we learned this week that the apartment above us was vacant. Now we have new upstairs neighbors. They moved in yesterday, and they've been stomping around up there all day. We are hopeful they'll be quieter once they finish unpacking, but who knows?

Then there are the joys of the package room. One of our amenities is a locked interior room next to the office where everyone's packages are left. The delivery folks log the packages in an electronic system that sends the addressees an email or text with a unique code for each package. You punch the code into a device next to the package room and it unlocks the door so you can retrieve your package. The packages are left on shelves by floor, so you often have to sift through a bunch of them to find the one with your name on it. Plus it's a small room in which social distancing is impossible. I went down there today, wearing a mask, to retrieve two packages for us -- and it's a good thing I had the mask on, because two other residents, both maskless, came in while I was in there to find their own stuff.

But there are bright spots. The people two floors above us have a toddler who likes to drop stuff over the side of their balcony. So far we have found on our balcony a stuffed carrot; a plastic zip tie; a drink straw, one end well chewed; and a cotton swab with both ends painted green. (We gave the carrot back.) Unfortunately, not everything makes it onto our balcony; the courtyard planter below us is decorated with a number of crayons and, at one point, her mother's cellphone. Mommy had to go to the office to retrieve the phone, as the courtyard is locked down due to the pandemic.

The best news? Our lease is up in July.

These moments of crowded blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell. I know it's been forever, but keep wearing a mask and keep washing your hands!