For the Love of Frog

No frogs were harmed in the writing of this post.

I’m sure you’ve heard the boiling frog story. It’s mostly used in political discussions to describe the slow and subtle chipping away of our rights and freedoms, or as a way to say we must act now or things are going to get significantly worse. It’s another way to describe the whole slippery slope scenario. Basically, it says that if you put a frog in boiling water, it will jump out. But if you put it in cool water and then slowly increase the heat, it will stay there until it dies.

I’d never given this story much thought, because I always understood the point that the teller was attempting to make, and then focused on how scary that point was. I never thought about the poor frog.

Fictional or not, what sort of a sick individual would do that to an innocent frog? Unfortunately, due to this story, experiments on frogs have, indeed, been conducted on and off since at least 1869. That’s warped.

But, as a friend recently pointed out to me, the story is false. If you put a frog in boiling water, it’s going to freakin’ die, just like a lobster or a crab does. And frogs are rather expert at adjusting their own temperature by relocating to cooler locations. Otherwise, you’d find a lot of fried frogs on hot sidewalks, and their species wouldn’t have lasted this long. So, yes, the frog will make every effort to leave a pot the minute it becomes uncomfortably warm, if it is at all capable of doing so.

While this metaphor can come in handy if you’re wanting to issue a dire warning, it doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. By the way, ostriches don’t actually bury their heads in the sand, either. Sorry if I have altered your worldview. Perhaps you can derive some comfort from the fact that no frogs were harmed in the writing of this post.

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The Not So Wild West

There were only 8 bank robberies in the 15 Western states during the 40 year heyday of the “wild” West.

Most people, when they think of the American West, think of gun fights in dusty streets in front of saloons, Indians kidnapping helpless white women and children, and gangs robbing banks. Hollywood has done a great job of perpetuating these myths, when in fact, shoot outs were relatively rare. Our modern society is much more violent than the wild west ever was, as long as you set aside the gratuitous genocide of a million Native Americans in order to take their land.

According to The Culture of Violence in the American West: Myth versus Reality, although government oversight and protections were not prevalent in areas that were not yet granted statehood, people would often join groups for mutual protection due to their extreme isolation, and create constitutions of their own. In many cases, people who violated these rules simply had to be threatened with ostracism to bring them back in line, because in the remote vastness of the west, isolation could mean certain death.

This article goes on to say that interactions with the Native Americans were relatively peaceful until 1865, which coincides with the end of the Civil War. Before then, settlers were more interested in trading with them, as a profitable pursuit, and tradesmen realize that it’s bad form to kill off the customers. Therefore it was generally agreed that native people had a right to their own land.

Efforts to obtain land were negotiated by treaty until right after the war, so violence wasn’t considered the ultimate solution. (Whether those treaties were fair and enforced is another story entirely.) But in 1871, Congress voted not to ratify anymore treaties, and the violence greatly increased after that.

After the Civil War, railroads really took off. This meant the acquisition of land, not only for tracks, but also for acquiring the iron needed to make these railroads, and the towns needed to support them. The generals who practiced a successful scorched earth policy in the American south now turned these same policies on native villages, with the same result.

This fascinating article goes on to conclude:

“These men utilized the state’s latest technologies of mass killing developed during the Civil War and its mercenary soldiers (including the former slaves known as “buffalo soldiers”) to wage their war because they were in a hurry to shovel subsidies to the railroad corporations and other related business enterprises. Many of them profited handsomely, as the Credit Mobilier scandal revealed. The railroad corporations were the Microsofts and IBMs of their day, and the doctrines of neomercantilism defined the Republican Party’s reason for existing (DiLorenzo 2006). The Republican Party was, after all, the “Party of Lincoln,” the great railroad lawyer and a lobbyist for the Illinois Central and other midwestern railroads during his day.”

So, rather than the shoot-em-up culture that you see in the movies, we really need to think of the west as a relatively peaceful place, until greed and politics, coupled with the violent experience of a bloody war, swept in and changed it entirely.

Some more fun facts, according to this article:

  • There is only documentation of 8 bank robberies in the 15 Western states during 40 of the “wild West” years.

  • The vast majority of Westerners did not wear anything similar to the Stetson cowboy hat we think of today. The bowler was much more common.

  • Cowboys were much more likely to carry a shotgun or a rifle than a six shooter. They thought of guns mostly as tools to protect cattle.

Also, according to Noam Chomsky, the shoot-em-up Western folklore took off after the Civil War because gun manufacturers were seeing a severe downturn in business now that they weren’t producing for the war machine. They wanted people to think it was necessary to have a gun for protection, they wanted them to think men were basically lawless and violent, and they wanted them to feel manly while using guns to protect their women and children. So they created a wild West culture that didn’t really ever exist, to boost sales.

I know. I know. This is all very disappointing. It’s fun to romanticize history. Especially when the truth is so much more gruesome. But the vast majority of the violence in the west had more to do with greedy land grabs, racial prejudice, and political manipulation than lawless, independent-minded early Americans sowing their wild oats.


The West

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Ancient Wisdom

We should take wisdom where we can find it.

It amazes me that so many of us are wont to throw the baby out with the bathwater. There is this view of ancient wisdom that seems to go like this: “Everything from long ago was inaccurate and based on myth and magic, so it shouldn’t be taken seriously.”

We come by that belief honestly. No doubt about it, a lot of what was considered truth hundreds of years ago has turned out to be bunk. Bleeding people by hand or with leeches, when they are already weak from illness, generally will not have a happy ending. Dumping sewage into waterways is not a good idea. No sacrifice is required during a solar eclipse in order for the sun to come out again. Drilling holes in one’s head is more apt to scramble the brains and introduce infection than relieve the pressure. Backbreaking child labor does not make for strong, healthy adults. Not every tooth that causes you pain must be yanked from your mouth. Killing all the predators in your area causes unexpected consequences. And yes, sometimes there are answers that are less extreme than amputation.

Those things mentioned above are the bathwater. Feel free to throw those habits out. But, now, more than ever, we need to take the babies where we find them. We need good ideas if we’re going to survive.

For example, I don’t really understand why so few westerners are willing to try acupuncture. We may not understand how it works, but it’s been around for centuries. I’ve written about this before. I swear by it, and I know a lot of people who have had positive results with acupuncture when no Western medicine seems to be working. So why not try?

I’ve also written about bee pollen. I recommend it to people all the time. But I’m usually ignored. Which is a shame, because I haven’t had an allergy problem in 5 years, and have only had two colds. That’s saying something.

And as this article attests, there’s a lot of native knowledge out there that we’d benefit from if only we took it more seriously. For example, having a holistic view of the ecosystem, as aboriginal peoples do, is very important to species survival. They know that an increase in beaver populations will reduce spawning habitat for salmon and that means less prey for whales. The great web of life should not be ignored.

Indigenous people have much to tell us about how to cope with climate change. They know about the use of controlled burns to manage our forests so that catastrophic wildfires will not occur. They are also more sensitive to altered migration patterns, which are early warning systems of change. They also knew about the importance of biodiversity long before we even considered the concept.

It’s about time we checked our egos at the door and take wisdom where we can find it. Before it’s too late.

Ready to Dance

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The Nullarbor Nymph

It’s funny what you can come across on the internet when you go from link to link, allowing the cyber highway to take you where it will. It’s even funnier, apparently, what capers you can come up with when you are sitting in a hotel bar in a little town, population 8, in the back of beyond in Australia. And it just adds evidence to my theory that people will believe just about anything.

Hence, around Christmas, 1971, the Nullarbor Nymph was born. The press were told that several kangaroo hunters had seen a feral blonde woman running with the kangaroos, wearing next to nothing except some strategically placed kangaroo skins. It was a slow news week. The press ate it up.

[Image credit:}
[Image credit:}

Before they knew it, the little town of Eucla was besieged by both the international press and a swarm of tourists, all hoping to get a glimpse of this woman. Business had never been better! The glimpses were provided. Footprints. Grainy photographs. A girl running across the road just far enough away to be unidentifiable, but just close enough to be tantalizing. A potential campsite. People were entranced.

Far too soon, one of the hunters was in the bar with a tongue loosened by alcohol, and he unfortunately revealed the hoax. I say it’s unfortunate because the tourism potential for this story could have rivaled that of the Loch Ness Monster. Still, it is considered one of the best hoaxes in Australian history.

There are still postcards floating about, and statues, and in recent years, even a low budget movie. And I suspect that people still sit at the bar in Eucla and talk about the nymph. Their population has grown to 86 now. And they have to talk about something, don’t they?

The original nymph, Geneice Scott, standing in front of a nymph statue in Adelaide in 2007. [Image crecit:]
The original nymph, Geneice Scott, standing in front of a nymph statue in Adelaide in 2007. [Image crecit:]

The Worst Urban Legend – Soda Can Tabs

I saw it again the other day, and it made me so sad. A group was collecting soda can tabs because they honestly and genuinely and truly believed that this would help someone. I don’t know if they thought it would get someone time on a kidney dialysis machine, or defray the cost of chemotherapy or provide some desperately needed medical prosthetic, but the fact is they are suffering from a delusion.

The soda can tab myth is one of the most heartbreakingly persistent urban legends out there. It preys on people’s natural instinct to want to help those in need, and it causes a great deal of effort for very little return. People are under the illusion that the aluminum in can tabs is somehow “more pure” than that of the rest of the can. Not. It’s also an alloy. And since no organization, repeat, NO ORGANIZATION will give you more than the normal recycle value for your aluminum, you’d be much better off collecting the entire can rather than just the tab. Because as this article in will tell you, 100 pull tabs will get you approximately 3 ½ cents. It would be even better to get people do donate a penny instead of a pull tab. That way you’d at least get a dollar.

The reason these types of collections make me so despondent is that people want to believe in them so desperately that when you try to disabuse them of this misinformation, they usually refuse to hear you. They get very emotional about it. They continue their collection, using up time and effort, and then only realize the truth when it’s too late. All that energy and good intention could have been directed elsewhere, and all they are left with is a great deal of embarrassment.

If you are hellbent on continuing with your soda can tab campaign, there’s not much I can do to stop you. So I simply ask that before you go through all the hassle, you get a confirmation, in writing, directly from the source of your expected windfall. And, uh… good luck with that.


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Remembering Dave

I used to work with a guy named Dave. When you work on a bridge that requires multiple bridgetenders and you are stuck in a small room with someone for 8 hours at a stretch, you get to know them pretty well. When you don’t get along, it can be pure hell. When you do, as I did with Dave, it can be a pleasure.

Dave impressed me right from the start. He was always kind, courteous, and had an easy smile. (Those qualities can be rare in a bridgetender. It is easy for us to become grumpy old trolls, so I’ve often thought that that myth, at least, was based on fact.) But what really fascinated me about Dave was that when we first met, he was teaching himself Spanish. Just because. Since Spanish is my second language, he often had questions for me.

Having seen this before, I assumed it would be a passing fancy, and that he’d quickly move on to other pursuits. No. Dave studied Spanish for about a year and a half, entirely self-motivated, and for the pure pleasure of it. I have never seen such determination, focus, or drive before or since. I kind of had a mini don’t-think-about-it-too-much-because-he’s-a-coworker-for-crying-out-loud crush on him because of this. Oh, and he was nice looking, too.

And then (and my apologies to Dave’s memory if I get any of the facts wrong here) his mother died. And then a week later his girlfriend died quite unexpectedly. And a week after that his dog died. Overnight, Dave seemed to age about 20 years. He even looked like he had shrunk. It was heartbreaking to witness.

Despite the over-arching sadness that seemed to permeate his existence after all of this, he never lost his dignity. He still was courteous and he would still grace you with his ready smile. He still liked to listen to other people and cared about their lives. That, too, impressed me. He could have become self-absorbed and insular and completely focused on his own misery, but that wasn’t the path that he chose to take.

About a year after that, Dave discovered that his brother had terminal cancer, so he quit his job and moved to Texas to care for him in his last days. That’s the kind of upstanding guy he was. That’s what you do for family.

Dave and I kind of lost touch after that, but he would occasionally call the bridge and say hello. I’d get updates from coworkers and sometimes even get to talk to him myself. He always made me smile. The last I had heard, he’d gotten married. Although that popped my fragile little crush like the soap bubble it always was, I have to say it made me admire him all the more. Dave was all about embracing life in spite of having more than his fair share of adversity.

And then the other day, quite by accident, I heard that Dave had passed away. Brain Cancer. Just like that. Just. Like. That.

I’ll always remember him looking down at me from the catwalk, all angles and smiles and tanned skin, as I walked up the bridge. Most of the world has no idea what it has lost, but it has lost much.

Rest in peace, dear friend.

sunset bridge

Sunset from the bridge where I worked with Dave.