Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Salt: A World History

My interest in non-Indo-European languages drew me to The Basque History of the World by Mark Kurlansky. I highly recommend this book, although I read it years before I started writing book reviews. When the library selected Kurlansky's following book from 2002, Salt: A World History recently as a Rave & Fave, I recognized the author's name and decided to read it. Kurlansky wrote a lengthy account of salt and how it has affected world history. One might never have thought that a history of salt could fill 484 pages, yet Kurlansky shared how early civilizations used salt as a way of survival by preserving food with it. Ancient Egyptians didn't stop with food, for pharaohs were preserved in mummification by the generous application of salt.

In the Middle Ages, Venice was one of Europe's leading capitals for the importation and distribution of salt. It regulated prices by keeping control of salt, and even destroyed other Mediterranean saltworks in order to stay on top. In mediaeval times, cities found power not just by how much gold they mined, but also by how much salt they controlled.

As much as I was interested in the topic of salt as a "preservative of world history", I was often bored by the storytelling. This surprised me, as I didn't have the same impression with The Basque History of the World, although I shouldn't make a comparison with merely one other book in an author's oeuvre. There was so much covered over 26 chapters that when Kurlansky made a referral to a name or location covered earlier in the text, I sometimes forgot the relevance of the antecedent, which led me to the generous index to find the earlier passages. However to his credit I cannot neglect to say that in each book, Kurlansky supplemented the histories with local recipes. Many from Salt were centuries old. I found the methods that food was prepared and preserved to be fascinating, and not much different from how our pioneers preserved food before the advent of refrigeration.

The archeological records shows that several European cultures reached North America centuries before Columbus. In order to travel across the Atlantic, these explorers had to have ample food stocks to withstand the journey. I was surprised that Kurlansky did not mention, as he did in his own Basque History of the World, that early trans-Atlantic explorers, such as the Norse and Basques, were able to stay out at sea and stave off scurvy by supplementing their diets with salt cod. Thus salt, when used as a food preservative, enabled explorers to travel farther than they had in the past. The discovery and settlement of North and South America would likely not have happened when it did, had the ships not been able to stock such a vitamin-rich non-perishable food source. Salted fish also saved many European populations:

"Fishermen, instead of rushing to market with their small catch before it rotted, could stay out for days salting their catch. Expeditions to Newfoundland were out from spring until fall. Salt made it possible to get the rich bounty of northern seas to the poor people of Europe. Salt cod by the bail, along with salted herring by the barrel, are justly credited with having prevented famine in many parts of Europe."

Interspersed with these histories and recipes were stories about the ways different cultures acquired salt. Salt was certainly mined, but it was more often produced by evaporating brine. Kurlansky covered how effective each method was and what kind of salt crystals these methods yielded. Salt was produced for different purposes and what I found most interesting was that most salt produced in North America is not for food consumption or for preservation, but rather for snow and ice melting. In fact we owe our system of regional roads in Canada and the USA to the location of salt:

"Studying a road map of almost anywhere in North America, noting the whimsical nongeometric pattern of the secondary roads, the local roads, the map reader could reasonably assume that the towns were placed and interconnected haphazardly without any scheme or design. That is because the roads are simply widened footpaths and trails, and these trails were originally cut by animals looking for salt."

Salt: A World History gave me answers to more questions about salt than I could ever ask, and thankfully satisfied my curiosity about the origins of all the different coarse and colourful salts I like to pick up from Trader Joe's.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Reason I Jump

It’s likely that you’ve never read anything by Naoki Higashida. His is a new voice, an entirely unique one, and I can say that without fear of reprisal. Higashida is a 13-year-old Japanese boy who suffers from autism.

This book has been translated by David Mitchell (remember Cloud Atlas?) and KA Yoshida, parents themselves of a child with autism.  Autism is a very personal and still very mysterious disorder that is growing in prevalence in our worldwide population. It does not present the same way in all its sufferers, in fact diagnosis and even the definition of this disorder is in constant flux. Wouldn’t it be more helpful to know what it is like from the inside? Especially for a child?

Higashida can tell us, from a literate child’s perspective. He lets us know that autism sufferers have a rich emotional life, but a tortuous physical existence. For him, this means that he constantly wrestles with his inability to comply with the social demands put on him. He confesses to despair over his situation: "It's as if my whole body, except for my soul, feels as if it belongs to somebody else and I have zero control over it. I don't think you could ever imagine what an agonizing sensation this is." And this is 100% of every waking moment for him.

The book is mostly set up into a series of questions and answers, posed by occasionally rude but unknown “normal” people, questions like “why don’t you do what you’re told right away” or “why do you speak in that peculiar way”. Higashida is patient and eloquent with each query, and often quite poetical in his responses.

My favourite response is to the question: “why do you ask the same questions over and over.” Higashida's reply is beautiful: "...I do understand things, but my way of remembering them works differently than everyone else's. I imagine a normal person's memory is arranged continuously, like a line. My memory, however, is more like a pool of dots. I'm always 'picking up' these dots--by asking my questions--so I can arrive back at the memory that the dots represent."

Higashida confirms that training and practice are essential to his success and repeatedly asks for patience and forbearance from those who care for him: "[w]hen we sense you've given up on us, it makes us feel miserable. So please keep helping us, through to the end."

Learning to communicate (painstakingly, with the help of his mother) via keyboard has been a godsend for Higashida. In his own words: "[o]ften, while I was learning this method, I'd feel utterly beaten...[w]hat kept me hammering away at it was the thought that to live my life as a human being, nothing is more important than being able to express myself." I agree. 

At only 135 pages, this is a book worth your time to read. Be enlightened and don't ask the rude questions!

Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Enlightenment: And Why it Still Matters

According to Anthony Pagden, author of The Enlightenment: And why it still matters, we are children of the enlightenment. What were some of the key characteristics that differentiated the age of enlightenment, as it is sometimes called, from proceeding epochs? Proponents of the enlightenment say our decision making should be lead predominantly by solid reasoning rather than appeal to outside “authorities” who demand unflinching adherence to revealed truths or accepted traditions. They also believe that the world is a global community and that science should be pursued as a means to help humans live better in their world rather than as a tool for societies to justify who should have access to the benefits on offer. All of this sounds good, right? Who could possibly be opposed to these ideas you might ask. Read on.

Pagden provides a decent blow-by-blow description of the fight between those upholding a Medieval worldview, with its emphasis on history, tradition and authority versus the enlightenment and its band of free-thinkers. The book is well organized. It begins with Europeans growing increasingly dissatisfied with the limitations of traditional beliefs established during the middle ages. This dissatisfaction eventually leads to open hostility and the breaking apart of the established order—that old-time partnership between Crown and Church with its “You support me and I’ll support you” mentality.  Just why did the medieval worldview crumble? The system came under harsh scrutiny as a result of the seemingly endless wars of religion raging across Europe and the discovery of the New World. If the unending war years gave Europeans reason to pause and wonder why and how humans can be so brutal and vicious to one another all for the sake of true religion (for context read any history book on the long and bloody Thirty Years War), then the second event, the discovery of North America and lands beyond, absolutely rocked them. It is hard to be confident in your beliefs when there is a big, big world out there filled with people who have very different traditions and seemingly different views of right and wrong. The narrative flows briskly and mostly details the struggles of the great enlightenment thinkers to elucidate their principles in juxtaposition to those upheld by the authorities who stood most to lose from a revaluation of the religious outlook on life. The names should be familiar to you: Francis Bacon, Spinoza, Voltaire, Rousseau, Hume, Newton, Diderot, and Kant to name only a few. That last name, Kant, marks the pinnacle of the enlightenment’s unflinching belief in the superiority of reason. After Kant (and with a nod to Hegel) the estimation and appraisal of humankind’s powers of reasoning took a decidedly downward turn.

Where does that leave us? The enlightenment seems so yesterday to us postmoderns, right?

Not so fast. In the final chapter of the book Pagden strikes a cautionary note. Religious intolerance is again raising its ugly head. We all know the headlines. There is a vicious form of extremism  floating around, an uncritical, unthinking, authoritarian beast that would rather shout stock answers than engage in meaningful debate—because shouting is just easier. Postmodernism with its relativistic spirit may be compounding the problem. Postmodern thinking suggests every culture is equal, every person has their own version of truth and we must respect this form of autonomy. There is no privileged viewpoint to any belief under the sun, no bedrock values of good, truth and beauty. You can see where this is headed. If true and honest critique is forced to bend the knee to unquestionable cultural beliefs then we too might repeat the mistakes for which the enlightenment was the solution. The enlightenment spirit, if I can call it that, hands reason the microphone and gives it plenty of space to talk. We may allow its principles to fade into yesterday but only at our peril.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Cradle of Gold: the Story of Hiram Bingham, a Real-Life Indiana Jones, and the Search for Machu Picchu

About 100 years ago - on July 7, 1911, to be exact - an American man named Hiram Bingham found the ruins of an ancient ceremonial city, mostly overgrown with Peruvian jungle. Some indigenous families were living on the site, tending small subsistence farms. Despite the fact that local people had always known about the ruins, and despite the fact that the clues of other explorers and many indigenous people enabled his route, Bingham claimed to "discover" these ruins. Those ruins are now one of the world's most famous and most remarkable places: Machu Picchu.

Over the next few years, Bingham would bring Machu Picchu to the attention of the larger world. He would uncover other nearby Incan ruins and open the ancient paths between them, now known as the Inca Trail. He would also violate an agreement he made with the Peruvian government, and illegally excavate, remove and steal ancient artifacts from those sites, including the remains of Incan people - the ancestors of people forced to work there.

I have an enduring fascination with both modern and ancient Peru. I finally went there in 2006, spending three weeks traveling through that country. It was a trip I had wanted to make all my life.

Cradle of Gold: The Story of Hiram Bingham, a Real-life Indiana Jones and the Search for Machu Picchu, by Christopher Heaney, tells many intertwined stories. It's a biography of Bingham and the story of his Peruvian expeditions, with the surrounding historical context. That supposedly heroic tale is intertwined with a much older story, one that is truly heroic and tragic: the final Incan resistance to the Spanish invasion. The book also analyzes the struggle between modern Peru and Yale University over the the tens of thousands of artifacts that Bingham stole from Machu Picchu and other Incan sites, that Yale refuses to return. In addition, and more briefly, the author writes about his deeply felt personal connection to these subjects.

Heaney has written an ambitious book that clearly represents an enormous amount of research. He succeeds in all his stories, but not all readers will be equally interested in each thread. I have little interest in biography, and when I do read a biography, it's either to study history or to learn about a person whose life and contributions are important to me. I found myself distinctly uninterested in Bingham's personal story, and the story of the search for the Incan "lost cities" was written in more detail than I needed. But if you enjoy those kinds of tales, this is a good one.

The final chapters - on the case against Yale and the author's personal story - were, for me, the best parts of the book. Unfortunately, this was also the briefest part, and left me wanting to learn more.

In the book's introduction, Heaney summarizes the Peru vs Yale fight this way.
In 2008, Peru sued Yale for the return of the artifacts and human remains that Bingham excavated from Machu Picchu. Peru claimed it had loaned Yale the collection of silver jewelry, ceramic jars, potsherds, skulls and bones and was now demanding its return. Yale called Peru's claim "stale and meritless" and asserted that now it owned the collection. Peru said Yale had 46,000 pieces; Yale said it had 5,415. Between these two distant poles, I have attempted to find the truth.
I interpreted this to mean that the author believed there is some middle ground, some compromise, between Peru's position and Yale's. I was wary and skeptical of how Heaney might justify a position; later, I was relieved to be wrong. Heaney understands and beautifully articulates why Yale must return Peru's stolen history.

Bingham's expeditions take place against a backdrop of US imperialism; deep, well-justified suspicion and distrust by South Americans of North American intentions and, often, their own government's desire to profit from US imperialism; indigenous forced labour, slavery, repression, and resistance; and an American and European public fascinated by heroic adventures. One interesting thread running through Crater of Gold is the historically contradictory attitudes of white North Americans towards indigenous people. It's a perfect illustration of the Peruvian expression "Incas si, Indios no", meaning, as Heaney puts it, "it is easy to romanticize the pre-Columbian past while ignoring the indigenous present".

I believe that one day the Incan bones and other treasures now housed in Connecticut will be returned to Peru. If that happens in my lifetime, I may have to return to that country to see and celebrate them. (A longer version of this review appeared here on wmtc.)

Islands Beyond the Horizon: The Life of Twenty of the World's Most Remote Places

I love islands and insular cultures, so I was drawn to this new book in the library's collection. Islands Beyond the Horizon: The Life of Twenty of the World's Most Remote Places by Roger Lovegrove is right up my island alley in that it covers places that I have been to (Tristan da Cunha), places I want to visit (Jan Mayen) and places that I had never heard of and am altogether fascinated by (St. Kilda). Lovegrove talks about the islands' history yet his main focus is on the environmental destruction that man has wrought on these islands. In every case man has destroyed these fragile environments either through active exploitation, such as whaling on the island of South Georgia, or through the supposedly noble and innocent action of establishing human settlement. In the case of Guam, as with most of the other islands covered in this book, man razed the native vegetation and alien plants were introduced. Native animals and birds perished under the new human invaders or under the foreign species they brought with them, such as rats, mice and cats. Late last year I wrote a review for another book about islands, Island: How Islands Transform the World by J. Edward Chamberlin, but the subject matter differs from Islands Beyond the Horizon, where the former deals specifically with the social and psychological aspects of insular cultures while Lovegrove's focus is on island ecology. They are therefore found in completely different subject areas in the Sciences and Business Department.

Lovegrove visited all the islands in his book except the St. Peter and St. Paul Rocks off Brazil. They can't even be called "islands"; they're more like islets or, rather, just lumps of rock in the mid-Atlantic. So while he did in fact visit Tristan da Cunha, he made a couple of errors about the place. The island's only settlement is formally known as Edinburgh of the Seven Seas, yet Lovegrove added annoying hyphens within the name. Gough Island lies 350 km outside the Tristan archipelago, not 180. I also found the metric conversions in parentheses to be a distraction, where every imperial measurement was immediately followed by its equivalent in metric. This destroyed the flow of the read every time, like coming across a roadblock immediately after starting to learn about somewhere new and exciting.  

Islands which may have seemed to outsiders as providing an idyllic, castaway lifestyle had this reputation ruined once modern civilization stomped its way in. It doesn't matter if life on these islands was in reality entirely opposite to this castaway myth, as outsiders' impressions often trump local reality in the matters of worldwide reputation. This is perhaps most evident on Tristan da Cunha when the islanders returned from their two-year exile in England following the volcanic eruption:

"On Tristan da Cunha the same seven family names occur as they did before the enforced evacuation when the volcano unexpectedly exploded in 1961, but their life style now is dramatically different. Every cottage has electricity, the hospital is modernized, visitor accommodation has been built, and a policeman appointed. All these developments are clearly beneficial but reliance on a cash economy, increasing numbers of motor vehicles (with almost nowhere to drive) and the introduction of income tax make me wonder if any of the older inhabitants hanker for the days of slower life, bullock carts as transport, oil lamps for lighting, and a community where everybody helped with whatever tasks were needed and payment was not part of the equation?"

Life on Tristan before the 1961 eruption was anything but easy, as research into Tristanian history will clearly show. However once the islanders were exposed to the modern conveniences of 1960's Britain, upon their return to Tristan in 1963 they carried many of these mod cons back with them, and changed Tristanian resettlement history forever.

I was pleased to read of the successful programs to eradicate invasive species and to reestablish both native flora and fauna to some of these islands. The biggest success story is that of Ile aux Aigrettes, which lies less than a kilometre off the southeast coast of Mauritius. This islet of only 26 hectares had been overrun with introduced species of plants and animals, yet has been restored to its former glory of being rat-free. Any kind of eradication project of foreign species is a massive effort, yet the smaller the island, as in Ile aux Aigrettes, the better. Lovegrove wrote about the difficulties experienced on larger islands such as South Georgia, where, at 3528 km2, eradicating the rats over this vast area is compounded by the retreating glaciers, which gives the rats new opportunities to escape.          

How people could have even established settlements on some of these faraway locations seems to defy belief, however if I seem to have no trouble getting my head around the colonization of Tristan--the most isolated inhabited island on the planet--then living anyplace else shouldn't seem so outlandish in comparison. My intimate acquaintance with Tristan seems to make me lose perspective on how isolated it really is. Yet islands such as the St. Kilda archipelago, located 64 km northwest of the Scottish Outer Hebrides, supported very small communities, clinging to the sides of cliffs it seems, scourging for birds and their eggs. It was quite sad to read of the evacuation of the St. Kildan community to Scotland in 1930. The island community, numbering no more than 36, could not sustain itself and had to retreat to the bustle of Scotland in order to survive. I consider the loss of the St. Kildan community as tragic as the loss of a language or a bird species through extinction. Other island communities profiled in Islands Beyond the Horizon were abandoned many centuries before St. Kilda, often for reasons lost to time. My curiosity has been piqued by many of these islands that I had heretofore barely known anything about.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Imagined London: A Tour of the World's Greatest Fictional City

For me, reading Anna Quindlen’s slender slip of a book was like meeting up with a like-minded friend in a pub on a foggy night. The farther I read, the more I kept thinking “I know! Me, too!”  I, too, grew up on a diet of English books (Edith Blyton’s Famous Five series and Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia come to mind) and often wished more people in my world exclaimed “I say!”  while drinking ginger beer.

Quindlen was an American anglophile long before she ventured to London in the flesh (like Henry James, like T. S. Eliot), waiting purposefully until she was in her forties. When I first traveled to England in my almost-thirties, I was also worried that the spell of all its fictions would be shattered once I walked the hallowed ground myself. Anyone who has been there can attest; England truly has the power of literary and historical magic still firmly in hand. I was not disappointed and neither was Quindlen.

Quindlen focuses on the grand city herself, and walks the streets and boroughs with her estimable ghost army of fictional tour guides: P. D. James’ Adam Dagliesh in Soho;  A.A. Milne’s Christopher Robin at Buckingham Palace; and John Galworthy’s  Forsythe family’s sooty assessments of  Green Street, Montpelier Square and Knightsbridge; to name but a few.

Charles Dickens also wandered with Quindlen and bemoaned many a street in London, but Quindlen quickly learned to take his wailings with a grain of salt: “[a] visitor can take the Tube to London’s most notorious neighborhoods, and not see anything that approaches the dingy squalor of Dickens’ London. This is either a tribute to urban renewal or literary overstatement.” She tends to believe the latter is the stronger case.

London also withholds some charm for what it can no longer reveal. On the south side of the Thames, across from the Tower, Big Ben and Westminster Abbey, there is the South Bank and Southwark. Historically, this area was “a kind of London frontier”, where the smelly tanneries and soap factories were placed. This was where Chaucer's Canterburian-bound travelers begun their pilgrimage. Here were the original locations of Shakespeare's Globe Theatres, not too far from its rebuilt modern successor.  Now, “Southwark is new London with a vengeance” and you’d be hard pressed to imagine the stink and decline that once defined this part of town. But it is likely that most tourists, however interested they may be in finding the literary made manifest, appreciate breathing the improved air!

Quindlen admitted there were those occasions when London let her down. 221b Baker Street, home of detective Sherlock Holmes, was commemorated downwind of the address, between 237 and 241. Holmes himself, “who loathed sentiment, much less pretence,” would be beside himself if he saw the Sherlock Holmes food and beverage shop,  Sherlock memorabilia and souvenir shops, and the fake bobby at his wrongly addressed door! Even London can fall victim to kitsch, as much as any other beloved place.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

What's the Future of Business: Changing the Way Businesses Create Experiences

How can businesses, especially vulnerable start-ups, become prominent, indispensable and vital in the minds of their customers? What about their not-yet-but-hopefully-soon customers? Brian Solis’ What’s the Future of Business addresses philosophically how to keep your business relevant to your customers and end users, as well as your future patrons.

Solis advocates taking advantage of current technologies that your customers already employ, like social media or smart phones, to market or promote your business. They’re already on Tumblr, Facebook, and Twitter, so meet them there. Engage your customer’s 140-word diatribe against your long line-ups. Charm them when they Snapchat or Pinterest your featured sweater in a different colour than you are retailing it.  Be ready to adapt your strategies to new social mediums and technologies as they arise. “Listen, learn, engage, adapt” is Solis’ refrain.

Solis is particularly interested in how social media is about shared experiences—specifically before purchasing, during purchasing and after purchasing the product. Positive or not, those experiences are shared in a network of like-minded strangers. In the current culture, the opinions of these “like-minded strangers” carry a good deal of weight.   If you cherish your business’ reputation, this is where the fight to maintain it is waged. Solis encourages that a business’ marketers, IT personnel and customer service reps all need to be savvy in the application and appropriate use of sites like Twitter and Facebook in order to defend effectively the viability of the business.

The book is set up very much like a glorified PowerPoint presentation: with comics to prettily illustrate points; each page is short, pithy and visually stimulating with graphs and screen captures; each chapter highlights where we are in the original table of contents. It’s a bit too cutesy for my taste, but it does make the book a fast read.

What is the Future of Business encourages creative thinking but does offer some examples on how to approach this challenge. It still strikes me as a book for visionaries—AKA management—with the all creative nuts-n-bolts being handed over to IT or customer service. Solis is advocating for new management thinking—places to put money and new talent--and this is a workbook to inspire it.

This review was originally posted in the Mississauga Library System's December 2013 Business Bridge. 

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test


The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is Tom Wolfe's classic book about southern California hippie culture from 1968. I had had this book kicking around my place for many years and even took it to Tristan da Cunha, but it was one of two books I did not manage to read while I was on the island. The Mississauga Library System chose this as a popular "Rave & Fave" a couple years ago (left image), yet in spite of that timely nudge I chose not to read it until now. The main reason I put off reading it was that my 1969 paperback imprint (pictured on the right) had the smallest type crammed onto now yellowed pages. It wasn't an attractive or an easy read, to say the least, yet the library's Raves & Faves designation enticed me to give it a go and I enjoyed Acid Test on my recent week-long trip to Florida.

Wolfe wrote about author Ken Kesey and his entourage of acidheads known as the Merry Pranksters. They had a flamboyantly painted bus which they named Furthur, and drove it across the US and into Mexico, on some of the trippiest highways at the time when LSD was still legal. Furthur was quite the sight as it rolled through town: 

"The painting job, meanwhile, with everybody pitching in in a frenzy of primary colors, yellows, oranges, blues, reds, was sloppy as hell, except for the parts Roy Seburn did, which were nice manic mandalas. Well, it was sloppy, but one thing you had to say for it; it was freaking lurid. The manifest, the destination sign in the front, read: 'Furthur,' with two u's.
"They took a test run up into northern California and right away this wild-looking thing with the wild-looking people was great for stirring up consternation and vague befuddling resentment among the citizens. The Pranksters were now out among them, and it was exhilarating--look at the mothers staring!--and there was going to be holy terror in the land."

I found the spaced-out acid-drenched images quite astonishingly easy to read, and while the descriptions of LSD trips (mostly good, only a few bad) occupied entire pages with not a paragraph in sight, the imagery was easy to follow. I wonder if Wolfe himself dropped acid during his time with Kesey, because his descriptions of LSD trips were so lucid. Compare these to the high-on-horse incoherent ramblings of William S. Burroughs and you'll know which is the literary drug of choice. I might regret saying this but Wolfe made the whole experience of dropping acid rather appealing. Judge my statement accordingly: I who have never even tried marijuana and who have never even allowed a tobacco cigarette to pass my lips is not about to seek out acid strips to lick. However I can see how anyone curious enough about tripping on LSD could make his mind up after reading this book. Had this been 1966, I might have joined them.

Kesey had a contemporary, Timothy Leary, who also publicly championed the mind-expanding qualities of LSD. Kesey and the Merry Pranksters were looking forward to a visit with Leary at the estate he and his own entourage were staying at. It was a bummer, to use acidhead parlance, when Furthur burst through with its Day-Glo swish and rock 'n' roll glitter, as no one in the Leary camp apparently cared:

"The Pranksters entered the twisty deep green Gothic grounds of Millbrook with flags flying, American flags all over the bus, and the speakers blaring rock 'n' roll, on in over the twisty dirt road, through the tangled greeny thickets, past the ponds and glades, like a rolling yahooing circus. When they got in sight of the great gingerbread mansion itself, all towers and turrets and jigsaw shingles, Sandy Lehmann-Haupt started throwing green smoke bombs off the top of the bus, great booms and blooms of green smoke exploding off the sides of the bus like epiphytes as the lurid thing rolled and jounced around the curves. We are here! We are here!
"The Pranksters expected the Learyites to come rolling out of the house like the survivors of the siege of Khartoum. Instead--a couple of figures there on the lawn dart back into the house. The Pranksters stop in front and there is just the big house sitting there sepulchral and Gothic--and them jumping off the bus still yahooing and going like hell. Finally a few souls materialize. Peggy Hitchcock and Richard Alpert and Susan Metzner, the wife of Dr. Ralph Metzner, another leading figure in the Leary group. Alpert looks the bus up and down and shakes his head and says, 'Ke-n-n-n Ke-e-e-esey...' as if to say I might have known that you would be the author of this collegiate prank. They are friendly, but it is a here, friends. Maynard Ferguson, the jazz trumpet player, and his wife, Flo, are there, and they groove over the bus, but the others...there is a general...vibration...of: We have something rather deep and meditative going on here, and you California crazies are a sour note."

So while the meeting between the two acid czars was anticlimactic, Kesey and the Merry Pranksters did strike up a surprising friendship with none other than the Hell's Angels. It was amazing how much the Pranksters, and Kesey himself, could get away with, shooting off their mouths towards the Hell's Angels no less, as long as they were surfing high on acid. I half expected the Angels to beat Kesey's brain in.

That said, the antics of those who are flying sky high can make for some riotous reading. How could they drive such an enormous bus without causing an accident or a fatality? How can you keep your eyes on the road when you're too preoccupied dodging space aliens? How could they elude the police when Kesey was on the run--on the run in a gigantic psychedelically-painted bus? I found the antics Kesey employed to escape the long arm of the law by crossing the border into Mexico to be quite hilarious.

LSD was not the only drug used regularly by the Merry Pranksters, as there was plenty of grass smoking and pill-popping as well. Sleep aids were in need when you were flying high for 48 hours on uppers:

"The Pranksters now realized that Sandy was in a bad way. Kesey had a saying, 'Feed the hungry bee.' So the Pranksters set about showering...Attention on Sandy, to try to give him a feeling of being at the cool center of the whole thing. But he kept misinterpreting their gestures. Why are they staring? His insomnia became more and more severe. One night he walked down the road to the housing development, Redwood Terrace, to try to borrow some Sominex. He was just going to walk up to a door in the middle of the night and knock and ask for some Sominex. Somehow he had the old New York apartment-house idea that you walk down the hall and borrow a cup of sugar, even if you don't know the people. So he starts knocking on doors and asking for Sominex. Of course, they all either panic and shut the door or tell him to fuck off. The people of Redwood Terrace were a little paranoid themselves by this time about the crazies down the road at Kesey's."

What I found surprising throughout Acid Test was that LSD use was far more widespread--and occurred a lot earlier among Kesey and his followers--than I had thought. I had heretofore believed that tripping on LSD was more of a 1967 phenomenon, not realizing that Kesey was dropping acid regularly by 1965. For example, Wolfe wrote about the Pranksters attending a Beatles concert at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. A look at the dates of the Beatles' American tour schedules shows that they played two shows at the Cow Palace on 31 August 1965. I as a Beatles fan found this section particularly interesting, as it captured the feelings of fans who were there in the audience. It also captured the environment of a busful of doped-up acidheads barrelling through San Francisco, waiting to be blissed out by the British Invasion:

"Each group of musicians that goes off the stage--the horde thinks now the Beatles, but the Beatles don't come, some other group appears, and the sea of girls gets more and more intense and impatient and the screaming gets higher, and the thought slips into Norman's flailing flash-frayed brain stem ::: the human lung cannot go beyond this :::: and yet when the voice says And now--the Beatles--what else could he say?--and out they come on stage--them--John and George and Ringo and uh the other one--it might as well have been four imported vinyl dolls for all it was going to matter--that sound he thinks cannot get higher, it doubles, his eardrums ring like stamped metal with it and suddenly Ghhhhhhwooooooooowwwwww, it is like the whole thing has snapped, and the whole front section of the arena becomes a writhing, seething mass of little girls waving their arms in the air, this mass of pink arms, it is all you can see, it is like a single colonial animal with a thousand waving pink tentacles--it is a single colonial animal with a thousand waving pink tentacles,  --vibrating poison madness and filling the universe with the teeny agony torn out of them. It dawns on Kesey: it is one being. They have all been transformed into one being. --Mountain Girl grins and urges them on--its scream does not subside for a moment, during after or between numbers, the Beatles could be miming it for all it matters."

The Beatles obviously weren't deemed uncool for the acid crowd, yet it was the Grateful Dead who became known as the era's acid band. They evolved through the Kesey group and for fans of Jerry Garcia and those interested in the earliest days of the Dead, Acid Test is essential reading. I found the description of the preparations for an early Dead gig to be quite a laugh:

"The Dead had an organist called Pig Pen, who had a Hammond electric organ, and they move the electric organ into Big Nig's ancient house, plus all of the Grateful Dead's electrified guitars and basses and the Pranksters' electrified guitars and basses and flutes and horns and the light machines and the movie projectors and the tapes and mikes and hi-fis, all of which pile up in insane coils of wires and gleams of stainless steel and winking amplifier dials before Big Nig's unbelieving eyes. His house is old and has wiring that would hardly hold a toaster."

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is a Day-Glo time capsule of life on the road, fuelled by hippies high on acid on a kaleidoscope bus. It has aged well, and one is not left laughing at the descriptions of fashions or the phrases that were used then. For fans of Kesey and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, which he wrote in 1962, Acid Test takes the reader on a trip exploring Cuckoo's aftermath. I recommend it for its historical portrait of a time when life, sex and drugs flowed copiously in the early ages of acid discovery. 

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Science of Kissing: What Our Lips are Telling Us

Sheril Kirshenbaum, science journalist, asks a simple question: why do we kiss?  She finds lots of answers, and even more questions.

Did you know that the scientific word for smooching is osculation? It's derived from the Latin word osculum, defined as a "social or friendship kiss, or kiss out of respect."

Did you know that “kissing [i]s practiced by over 90 percent of cultures around the world”?

Did you realize that the chemical exchange of saliva and pheromones can help kissers subconsciously determine if this match is The One?

But why do we engage in this behaviour? There is no easy answer. Kissing is serious business. Okay, not too serious—Kirshenbaum’s truly scientific book is written with an abundantly affectionate humour.

To try to discern our reasons for kissing, Kirshenbaum looks at a variety of academic approaches; evolutionary biology, anthropology, neuroscience, classical history, and psychology. These approaches each have their turn, and some seem more plausible than others. Calling our lips a “genital echo” of the brightly coloured buttocks of the female bonobos, or defending Freud’s theory that kissing is a symptom of breast deprivation, both admittedly trip me up. But they are part of the fun to try to figure out our deep-lipped reasons for wanting to kiss each other.

It was Charles Darwin that brought it to our attention that not all cultures indulge in kissing. The “Malay-kiss” he described as follows:

“The women squatted with their faces upturned; my attendants stood leaning over them, laid the bridge of their noses at right angles over theirs and commenced rubbing. It lasted somewhat longer than a hearty handshake with us.”

Essentially, this exchange is in smelling instead of kissing. It’s very like the kunik, practiced by the Canadian Inuit and similar again to a custom practiced by the Maori, making an interesting Pacific triangle of sniffy influence.

For her neuroscience research, Kirshenbaum attempted to use magnetoencephalography (yes, really) or a MEG machine to scan the “brain on kissing”, but getting two people into said machine and having them kiss without moving proved to be an insurmountable challenge. Kirshenbaum then modified her approach but only to open new directions of questions that shift from the central “why?”

Kirshenbaum concedes that there’s more research to be done, and that for her, the fun in learning more has not diminished. Neither has it for the reader!  There’s a lot more to discover if you read the book, but I won't kiss ’n’ tell any more than I already have. Fewer vacillations and more osculation, I say!