We’ve Been Battling Pests for 200,000 Years

I am fascinated by all things archeological, so I was intrigued by an article in Science News entitled, “Study: Humans have been sleeping on beds for 200,000 years”.

My first thought was that this doesn’t surprise me. Primates make nests to sleep in. And who doesn’t prefer to be comfortable? I doubt that that urge is a newfound one.

But what really interested me about the article was the composition of the beds. It seems that in Border Cave, an archeological dig in South Africa, a scientific analysis was done of the bedding, and it was determined that it was made of the very grass that is growing outside of the cave to this day. Well, that’s a nifty use of the available resources, I must say.

But beneath those layers of grass, scientists discovered, always lies a layer of ash. It is believed that this ash layer warded off some bugs and dehydrated others. Or, at the very least, these people may have been burning their bedding when it became dirty and/or infested. Based on the tools scattered about, it seems they sat upon these beds to work during the day as well. And camphor was found on top of the bedding. That’s an effective insect repellent. It is easy to surmise that bugs were a nuisance back then, too.

From this one little article I learned that these early humans had a sense of organization, and knew how to take advantage of local resources.  They enjoyed comfort, and they hated lice and ticks and other creepy crawlies as much as we do.

Way to adapt, guys! And thank you for doing so. It allowed you to stick around long enough to produce descendants that eventually led to us. Well done!

Border Cave, South Africa

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10 Day Album Challenge #3: Paul Simon, Graceland

If you haven’t been following this series of posts, a friend of mine nominated me to do an album challenge. “The task is to post once per day for the next 10 days about the top ten albums that have an impact on your life, and to pay it forward by nominating someone else each day to do the same.”

Okay, so I’ll play. But I’m changing the rules to suit me. First of all, I’m not writing about this 10 days in a row. I will write about 10 albums, but only on the occasional “Music Monday”. And I refuse to nominate anyone else, because I try to avoid adding stress to the lives of the people I love. Having said that, if you’re reading this, and would like to take up the challenge, go for it!


In these days of digital streaming, there’s really no need to physically own albums anymore, but there is one that I like to be able to hold in my hands. If I were organized enough to digitally download all my music, I’d still keep this one CD: Paul Simon’s Graceland.

This was a controversial album from the very start. Many said that Simon shouldn’t have broken the South African cultural boycott until Apartheid was finally abolished. And while I do agree that extreme pressure needed to be applied to that outrageous system, I actually think that waking the world up to this country’s culture did a great deal to humanize it for all of us. It’s much harder to accept atrocities visited upon people whom you admire. So exposing this rich culture to the wider world by way of this amazing album hardly prolonged Apartheid. If anything, doing so made the practice all the more horrifying and unacceptable.

Another thing I love about this album is that Simon collaborated with so many different artists to bring it to life. I absolutely adore collaborations, because when you combine the best of two or more people, what you produce is more than 1 + 1. Somehow, the magical math of it all creates something even bigger and better. And that’s the case here.

If it weren’t for this album, I would have never heard of the group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, for example, and I admire their work to this day. I had the great privilege to see them in concert several years ago, and it was an evening I will never forget.

This album has a unique bass line, and brings world music, especially African Rock, to center stage. Whether it’s “Gumboots” or “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” or “Graceland” or “Homeless” or perhaps the most famous “You Can Call Me Al”, this music is a love letter to all the culture and artistry that Paul Simon had the pleasure to be inspired by in the mid ‘80’s. I maintain that this was not cultural appropriation. This was a cultural celebration.

Even after listening to it more than 30 years after it came out, it’s like being serenaded by a wonderfully vital and valuable friend. Check it out. I have reason to believe we all will be received in Graceland.


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Learning about Lesotho

Every once in a while I like to pick an obscure topic and learn about it. I get that from my mother. She would have loved the internet! This time, after a nice chat with my friends Caly and Morgaine (waving hello!) about small countries that we don’t know much about, I remembered that I’ve been meaning to learn more about Lesotho for quite some time.

Lesotho fascinates me because it’s the only officially recognized country that is entirely surrounded by another country, in this case, South Africa. What must that be like? I’ve always meant to find out.

Also sharing this surrounded status is the republic of San Marino, within Vatican City, within the city of Rome, in Italy. But it’s not a “country” country, you know? And then there’s the disputed Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh within Azerbaijan. Nagorno-Karabakh has declared itself independent, but no other government has recognized this status. So Lesotho is the one that catches my eye.

The first place I look is Wikipedia. Some interesting facts that it mentions are:

  • About 40% of the population lives below the international poverty line of $1.25 a day.
  • A third of the population is HIV positive.
  • It is the only independent state in the world that lies entirely above 1000 meters above sea level.
  • It is the southernmost landlocked country in the world.
  • It’s hard to imagine this in Africa, but some of its highest peaks are covered in snow all year round.
  • Most of its 2 million citizens subsist on farming.
  • Despite the many strikes against them, their adult literacy rate is relatively high at 82 percent.

As you can imagine, when you are completely surrounded by another country, you tend to develop a sort of love/hate relationship with it. From Africa in Fact and the Daily Maverick, I have learned that these two countries are dependent upon each other.

  • Much of Lesotho’s income comes from remittances from relatives who are working in South Africa.
  • South Africa relies on Lesotho for a good source of wage laborers.
  • South Africa, desperate for water, pays the mountainous Lesotho, desperate for money, for an ongoing project that is basically an elaborate system of dams that will divert its abundant water to the South African people.
  • Lesotho’s government has long been unstable. There have been many coups and battles for power. So any sense of that instability which might threaten that 900 million dollar dam project makes the government in Pretoria extremely nervous.
  • Border tensions are high because there is a great deal of cattle theft going on. Also, Lesotho’s passport is apparently quite easy to forge, which makes it a delicious target for criminals from other countries who wish to cross into South Africa. Therefore, there have been a great deal of travel restrictions imposed upon the people of Lesotho. Imagine what a problem that is if you are surrounded by an uncooperative country, and you are too poor to fly out. Basically you are trapped in your own country whether you like it or not.
  • And then there was that embarrassing incident in 1998 in which South Africa invaded Lesotho. In less than a week, 2,000 ill-trained troops sent the South African Military scurrying home with their collective tail between their legs.

From what I can tell, Lesotho is a beautiful country that is fraught with hardship and challenges. I look forward to seeing what comes next for the people of this unique kingdom. May their future be more peaceful.

lesotho map

Lesotho dam

Part of the dam project with traditional houses in foreground.

[Image credit: africa.com]

Lesotho snow

I realize I’m the victim of my own warped sense of African stereotype, but still… snow in Africa! Wow!

[Image credit: bootsnall.com]

Corrective Rape — “It’s for your Own Good.”

I’m in the virtual world known as Second Life, and a total stranger approaches me. He says, “I want to make love to you.”

“Uh, no thanks.”

“I won’t tell anyone.”

“Thanks all the same, but I couldn’t be less interested.”

Sheesh. Are there really men out there who think women are animals that can be used? Do they really think we go for emotionless sexual congress? If that’s what you’re really after, get a sheep.

That guy quickly moved on to the next hapless woman, and I’m sure he eventually found someone with low self-esteem who was lonely enough to take him up on his offer. That makes me really sad. But it also makes me wonder what lessons this is teaching this man. In Second Life, doing “the deed” requires the woman’s cooperation, but what is this guy like in real life, where that cooperation isn’t necessarily required if you are not moral and law abiding, one wonders?

He seems to be under the impression that his talents, real or imagined, are some sort of gift that all women should appreciate. That’s a really scary attitude and seems like it is only a few steps from there to a slippery moral slope that ends with an alarming trend.

Corrective rape is a hate crime that victimizes the LGBT community. These violent encounters are a way to punish these people, and in the twisted minds of the perpetrators, it is also, astoundingly, supposed to get them to see the error of their ways and somehow start preferring heterosexual sex. Many people do not see this form of rape as the heinous act that it is, but more as a way to “fix” people who are “not right”, so it is often supported, even encouraged, by family members and local clergy.

This type of crime has been reported in Ecuador, Thailand, Uganda and Zimbabwe, but especially in South Africa where rape statistics in general are off the charts. The statistics about this phenomenon in particular are a little sketchy because these countries lump all such reports in with other types of rape, but rest assured that in these countries today, lesbians are living in fear of having the doors to their homes kicked in. That’s no way to have to live. It isn’t right.

Another huge problem related to this trend is that it often goes unreported, because in order to report it, you also have to reveal your sexual orientation to the local authorities, and who wants to do that in an intolerant regime? It also results in a great deal of HIV among members of the lesbian community.

If this type of violence is not taken seriously, it will spread to other countries. It needs to be treated like the hate crime that it is, and people involved in these acts must be prosecuted and given the harshest of sentences. Until we all understand that every person deserves respect and dignity, and that no one has the right to impose their will upon another human being, it will be the perpetrators of these acts, not the people that they are abusing, who will be the ones who need to be corrected.

Animals. Sick, twisted animals is what these rapists are, and as far as I’m concerned there isn’t a well deep enough to throw them down.

corrective rape

[Image credit: womennewsnetwork.net]

The Dinner Party

A friend and I have this little game we like to play. If you could invite 10 people, living or dead, to your house for a dinner party, who would you choose? This is an interesting thought experiment. It makes you think about the questions you’d like to ask. It makes you examine closely the issues and people that you find interesting, and most of all, it makes you see just how many amazing people there are/have been in the world.

So, for tonight, my guest list includes Peter O’Toole, Malala Yousafzai, Bill Clinton, Mary Magdalene, Nelson Mandela, Jessica Jackley, Ben Franklin, Maya Angelou, Mahatma Gandhi, and Eva Cassidy.

I must confess that Peter O’Toole has always appeared on my guest list. Not only has he met a lot of amazing people and done a lot of amazing things, but he was a brilliant raconteur, so he could tell you all about it in delightful ways. I have no doubt that I could listen to him for hours. I wouldn’t really have any specific questions for him. I’d just enjoy hearing anything he wanted to say.

Malala Yousafzai is a new guest, but I have no doubt she’ll be invited to my dinner parties for years to come. Just 16 years old, this girl has already been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. Inexplicably, she did not win. She is an advocate for the education of women, not just in her native Pakistan, but worldwide. At age 14, she was shot in the head for her trouble, but that hasn’t even slowed her down. I would love to ask her what it is like to be so clear in your convictions at such a young age, and also what it is like to be thrust headlong onto the international stage when you started off just a humble young lady who simply wanted to go to school.

I’d love to have a chat with Bill Clinton, because I miss his presidency greatly. I would like to ask him about the one thing in it that disappointed me, though. No, not the whole Monica debacle. As far as I’m concerned, his inability to keep it in his pocket is strictly between him and his wife, since Monica wasn’t a minor. No. What I’d like to talk to him about is Rwanda. Why, why, WHY, Bill, did you look the other way and let all those people get slaughtered? I’ll never understand that.

Mary Magdalene was an outspoken female community leader at a time when that wasn’t as uncommon as you might think, but she is one of the few whose name has filtered down to us. Sadly over the years her reputation has been warped to seem as though she was a prostitute, but historians have found that not to be the case. It is probably a function of not wanting women to have powerful roles in Christianity. I would love to hear her thoughts on the subject. I’d love to know the truth about who she was, what she believed, and what she witnessed.

I can think of a million things I’d like to ask Nelson Mandela, but the primary one is how on earth he could emerge from 28 years of imprisonment and not only avoid bitterness and anger but also become someone who is known for reconciling his people.

I wrote about Jessica Jackley a few days ago. She is one of the founders of Kiva.org, a microloan organization that now benefits small businesses throughout the world to the tune of over 150 million dollars a year. I’d love to hear more about how she came up with her vision and brought it to life to such a degree that it has changed the world. She’s amazing.

Ben Franklin is my hero. I find him amazing. Not only is he an inventor, an entrepreneur, and a philanthropist, but he’s a fascinating politician and historical figure. He’s also quite the ladies man, and his one fatal flaw, I think, is that he treated his family abominably. I’d love to examine that contradiction further.

Maya Angelou is, among many other things, the author of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings which is a wonderful book. She is an amazing and inspirational writer. In her life, she’s been everything from a prostitute to a foreign correspondent to an actor, and she recited a poem at Bill Clinton’s inauguration. I’d have to put her at the opposite end of the table from Peter O’Toole, because they’d be able to match each other, story for story, I’m sure.

Mahatma Gandhi, I think, is one of the most determined individuals who has ever lived. I would love to talk to him about how he managed not to give up on his goals despite all the obstacles that were thrust in his path, as it’s something I struggle with daily. I can not think of a way to tactfully discuss his fatal flaw with him: the fact that he refused Western medicine for his wife, resulting in her death, and yet he accepted that same medicine for himself, resulting in his recovery, but it’s something I’d dearly love to know more about.

And last but not least, I would invite the incredible singer Eva Cassidy. I wrote about her recently as well. She died at age 33, her wonderful talent cut short. This is truly a tragedy. I’d love to know what her hopes and dreams and plans would have been had she been able to live to be 100. I can’t even imagine the beauty that she could have given the world. I definitely wouldn’t be able to sit her next to Ben Franklin, though, because his saucy comments to this gorgeous woman would probably disrupt the flow of the entire event.

I think this party would stretch on to the wee hours of the night, and it would be a most fascinating experience indeed.

Who would you invite to your dinner party?

dinner party

RIP Nelson Mandela

It is very rare when the loss of someone constitutes a loss for all mankind. Gandhi springs to mind. And Mother Theresa and Martin Luther King. And now Nelson Mandela is counted among their number.

He showed the world that it is possible to be a politician and still have integrity and act for the good of his entire country, not just for those who agreed with him.

He showed us that it is possible to suffer years of abuse and injustice and still maintain your compassion and dignity.

He showed us that kindness and decency can be as powerful a force as evil and corruption. It may not be the easiest path to take, but it is the righteous one.

I am proud to have had the privilege  to share the planet with such a great human being, and I weep because I fear we will never see the likes of him again.


Rest in peace, Madiba. You have earned it.

The Bunyip and his Cousins

Behold the fearsome Bunyip. This mythological creature was much feared among the Aboriginal people of Australia. Until recently I had never heard of this beast, but it intrigues me because it seems to be so far from even the mainstream creepy folk creature as to be unrecognizable.


bunyip 2 bunyip stamp 

As you can see from the various artists’ renderings, no one can agree on what this monster was supposed to have looked like, and therefore one can only speculate as to what animal the Ancient Aboriginal Peoples could have seen that appears to have scared them silly. I think a combination of that country’s vastness and isolation and the fact that it’s already a land that is inhabited by some of the strangest animals on the planet all played a part in creating this extremely bizarre imagery.

It seems as though every culture has its bunyip. The boogeyman. The thing hiding under your bed or in your closet. Apparently all humans have a need to conjure up creatures out of their free-floating anxieties.

Below are just a few of the many.


The Chupacabra of Latin America


The Mothman of the Appalachians

ebu gogo

The Ebu Gogo of Flores


The Aswang of the Philippines

 Brosno Dragon

The Brosno Dragon of Russia


The Canvey Island Monster of England


The Taniwha of New Zealand


The Grootslang of South Africa


The Yeren of China


The Jersey Devil of New Jersey


The Peluda of France


The Mongolian Death Worm of the Gobi Desert


The Ropen of Papua New Guinea

It’s a very big world that we live in, full of isolated and uncharted places. It’s also full of people with wild imaginations. But if even one of these creatures were to exist? That’s the reason they are so disturbing to us. We can never be quite sure. Shudder.

Happy Halloween.

“You’re never too old to live your dreams.”

Thank you, Diana Nyad, for reminding us all of this the other day, when you swam for about 53 hours from Cuba to Florida at the age of 64.

This amazing feat reminded me of the many other people I have heard of who have done incredible things at an advanced age.

  • At my last graduation ceremony, one of my fellow students was in his 70’s.
  • Mother Teresa won the Nobel Peace Prize at the age of 69.
  • Mavis Lindgren ran her first marathon at age 70.
  • An ex-boyfriend’s 80 year old mother recently went white water rafting down the Colorado River.
  • At age 61, and weighing only 99 pounds, Gandhi walked almost 200 miles to protest the British salt tax.
  • My boyfriend’s delightful uncle, in his 70’s, takes advanced math correspondence courses and taught himself how to do stained glass and pottery. He now has his own art studio in his garage.
  • As a Learn to Read volunteer, I have encountered many seniors who have chosen to learn to read for the first time in their lives.
  • Grandma Moses, the renowned American folk artist, did not begin to paint seriously until she was 76. One of her paintings eventually sold for 1.2 million dollars.
  • Reverend Scott Alexander, who lead the church I used to attend, rode his bike 3,300 miles across the country last summer to raise $50,000 and raise awareness about hunger. He is 63 years old.
  • Colonel Sanders was 66 when he started Kentucky Fried Chicken.
  • Nelson Mandela became president of South Africa when he was 76, and that’s after suffering in prison for 26 years of his life.
  • Laura Ingalls Wilder, of “Little House on the Prairie” fame, did not publish her first book until she was 64, and continued to do so until she was 76.

So when Diana Nyad walked out of the ocean on shaky legs, sunburned, exhausted, and with her mouth full of sores from the salt water, and said, “You’re never too old to live your dreams,” she wasn’t kidding. And to make it even more amazing, she had tried, and failed, 4 times before.

Never give up. If there’s something you want to do, like travel or learn or create, don’t let your age stand in your way. Use Diana Nyad’s mantra: Find a way.


Diana Nyad. [Image credit: nytimes.com]

Our Expanding Family Tree: Cousins Coming out of the Woodwork

One of the largest and oldest organisms on earth is Pando, a Quaking Aspen clone in Utah that covers over 106 acres. Looking at it, you’d assume that it was just a bunch of individual trees, but it’s actually one organism, and it’s thousands of years old. We didn’t know that until recently. I think of Pando whenever I come across a new relative.

We are all related within 100 generations. Think about it. But one of the most exciting things about the times we live in is that it has become easier and easier to track down distant relatives. It used to be that you’d have to rely on that one family member who was conscientious and persistent and enthusiastic enough to do the painstaking family research, but with Ancestry.com and so many other genealogy sites, often the longest branches of your family tree are but a few keystrokes away!

Just the other day, out of the clear blue sky, one of my second cousins found us. She lives in Australia and is a fascinating person. 30 years ago we probably would never have known she existed.

As a matter of fact, I now have several cousins on Facebook from both sides of the family. Some of them don’t even speak my language, and we probably couldn’t pick each other out of a police lineup if we had to, but we now have a connection, and that makes me very happy.

My family is all over the United States, France, Canada, Germany, New Zealand, Denmark, Ireland, South Africa, Greece, Australia…it’s a global connection. We have much to learn from each other, and much to share.

I have this fantasy that as the branches of all our family trees become ever more intertwined, our prejudice and intolerances will fade away and this will become a much more peaceful world. One can only hope.


This is Pando.

The Amazing Coelacanth—Talk about a Fish Story!

Of all the unique creatures on this fantastic planet of ours, my absolute favorite is the Coelacanth (pronounced see-la-kanth). I love a good backstory, and this is a fish that most definitely has one.

Back in 1938, Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer was asked to come down to the docks to check out a strange fish that a fisherman had pulled up in his net. She ran a museum in South Africa, and was known to be interested in fish. She rushed down, and there it was, this huge, ugly, wonderful thing that no one had seen before. It had these extra stubby protrusions that looked like proto-legs. She knew she had something unique and wanted to consult with scientist JLB Smith, but unfortunately in that era, refrigeration for something that size was all but impossible to come by. She made a sketch, and kept the skin, but the internal organs of this animal promptly rotted.

When Smith got the sketch, he couldn’t believe his eyes. The last time he had seen a fish similar to this it was in fossil form. And the most recent fossil dated from, I kid you not, 65 million years ago. Yes, you read that right. Million. With an M.

Smith became obsessed with finding another one of these fish. He put out posters with a reward in all the fishing villages up and down the coast. It would be 14 years before one finally surfaced, if you’ll pardon the pun, and that was from the Comoro Islands in 1952.

There’s a great deal more to this story, with quite a few twists and turns, so I highly recommend that you read A Fish Caught in Time: The Search for the Coelacanth. There’s also an amazing website that’s worth visiting, www.dinofish.com. You can also find some great documentaries and videos if you search for it on youtube.

Some more fun facts about the Coelacanth:

  • They give birth to live young, which are called pups. They come from eggs, but the eggs and pups stay within the mother’s body. The gestation period appears to be about three years.
  • They like to do headstands.
  • Very little is known about their feeding and breeding habits. At dusk they swim off to depths where scientists are unable to follow. (And incidentally, scientists, why haven’t you devised a Coela-cam, hmmmm?)
  • You’ll never see one in a aquarium. They never survive the change in pressure of being brought up from the depths.

By 2004 I had been fascinated with the Coelacanth and had read everything about it that I could get my hands on, so I knew that a specimen was housed in the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. I just happened to be going to that fair city, so I made it a point to visit. I was so excited. I looked all over that enormous museum and had just about given up hope when there it was, tucked off in a dark corner, in a display case covered in dust. I couldn’t believe it. I bet most people overlook it. I wanted to jump up and down and shout, “Don’t you people realize that this is the most important thing in this entire museum?”

But instead I just broke the rules and took this picture, and felt like I was part of millions of years of history. Ironically, after doing just fine for millions of years, thank you very much, since it is now of interest to man and therefore “collectable” (and with such a long gestation period every one that gets caught in a net makes a huge impact), the Coelacanth is currently on the endangered species list.