Thursday, December 24, 2015

Christmas and me

Delia Kansas - the closest town to our farm - Population 100 people

1.     Growing up on a farm in northeastern Kansas there were no Christmas Tree lots from where to buy trees – however there was a nice stand of Juniper trees growing on the old family farmstead. A few days before Christmas my father and I would go out and choose a good small tree – The Junipers did not grow as full and balanced as fir trees – so my father used a hand drill to make holes in the trunk at empty spots and inserted small branches of the right size into the holes – By the time he was finished the tree was beautiful.... and it smelled so good!  We decorated it with colorful electric lights, old glass ornaments used year after year, icicles, paper chains made by us kids from construction paper, popcorn chains, and cranberry chains…to my young eyes they were absolutely beautiful by the time we finished.

Midwestern Juniper

2.     There was always a special service the evening before Christmas in the Presbyterian Church. Delia had 2 churches, Presbyterian and Catholic.  The church was decorated for Christmas.  This is where I learned the old Christmas songs; and sometimes I was drafted into the Christmas skit – usually as a shepherd, dressed in a bathrobe and a dish cloth tied around my head…After the service there were Christmas goodies for all.   It was really special if it snowed before Christmas – coming out from  church into the cold crisp air, walking through the crunching snow to our car…And then later that night I would listen intently for Santa's sleigh bells.  ( He always ate the cookies and milk that I left for him!)

Delia Presbyterian Church

3.     The Czech community in Delia had lost many of its Czech cultural roots – but every Christmas and sometimes for Easter my mother and many of the other women made Kolache… these are small 4 inch pastries made of pastry puff dough, with a central core of filling – The most Czech varieties made a traditional filling of dried prunes or dried apricots. Some simplified the filling and just added jam.  There was a roasted crushed nut topping on top… I loved them then and still do!  When I visited the Czech Republic I was interested to see Kolache there – and found that my mother had kept close to the tradition.


4.     Gift giving was part of Christmas – but the gifts were mostly small. Some of my childhood years – my father planted a small field of popcorn to sell – It was however a lot of work to pick the small corncobs – and I remember my sister Helen and I picking the dried ears of corn to earn extra money to buy Christmas gifts.  When we asked our parents for suggestions they told up of things that the other parent would need anyway – A pair of cotton work gloves, Shaving soap, a new pair of scissors, a tool, or a bottle of toilet water.  My sister and I mostly received things that we needed – but usually at least one special gift that we wanted- For my sister it might be a book or a collection of sheet music (she played the piano very well) … for me the most memorable gift of my Childhood was a Chemistry set with a book of instructions for all kinds of wonderful chemical reactions!  Mind you –this was before the day of ‘safe and sane’ chemistry sets – so I could make impressive explosions, dyes that would stain my hands, horrible smelling smoke  (to my delight), invisible ink, model volcanoes… I’m not sure how much real chemistry I learned but I sure had a lot of fun creating things.

A snowy day - ( Photo by Laverne Zlatnik) 

5.     Over the years American economic interests have changed Christmas – Now in many places the push to buy 'stuff' for Christmas starts just after Halloween.  We have Black Friday, and Cyber Monday… buy … buy … buy …In our anxiety, we ask:  "What is the economic index this year? – are Americans spending as much as other years…" It is now one of the most stressful seasons for many – Many people fear that their social status or loving family will be damaged if they haven’t bought the ‘right’ gift for each person on your list… It has gotten really crazy in some households!  There are signs of many people returning to sanity – it is possible now to give a gift to a loved one in the name of your favorite charity.  You can give a pig or a goat, a hive of bees, or a smokeless stove through 'Heifer Project'  or help address world disasters through  'Doctors without Borders'… Sure makes sense to me!  What makes the world a better place – me getting a gift of some electronic garget or a third world person getting a water filter to protect the whole family from water borne disease?

This woman is happy because she just received a donkey - she won't have too carry water 

6.     One of the things I like best about Christmas are the relationships – the people – getting together with family and friends – eating and laughing together – Now, because of distance, we most often spend holidays with Judy’s family – many I only see once or twice a year – but we have long histories of warm relationships – So there are lots of hugs, and story telling, recounting family history – remembering those no longer here… it is family at its best…

Jesus speaking with  an outcast Samaritan - outrageous for him to speak to 1. a Samaritan, 2. an unknown woman, and 3 a woman with a 'shady' past...  he saw her personhood...

7.  In my life, I  have wrestled with the Biblical Christmas story - but I now feel quite comfortable with it.  I realize that there are many stories in the Bible that dont have to be literally true to convey great  truth and meaning.  The coming of Jesus continues to make a difference to people today.  Jesus lived a life of serving others, helping the poor, sick, outcasts, social rejects.   He defied the social and religious norms of his time.  It would be audacious to say that I seek to emulate the ways of Jesus - but I can seek to follow his example of recognizing the personhood of each person. - I can seek to move from arguing to listening to others... from only  asserting my beliefs to attempting  to enter into dialogue. Even more important I know that seeking to  be in relationship with Jesus gives me a sense of wholeness and connectedness...that gives my life meaning. In Jesus I find my center.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

In a fog!

Spending my teen age years in the shadow of the Sierras, I thought of the mountains as my back yard... In wintertime, when the snow was too heavy for hiking in the high mountains, there were accessible locations in the lower mountains.  One winter day I had been exploring with my friend Charlie and late in the afternoon we were hiking along a trail high above a deep valley.  We were aware that the temperature was falling - and in the span of a few minutes the valley below up to our level filled with a thick fog... 

I do not have a photo from that day - but this give you the idea
It was amazing to look over this solid looking firmament of clouds, with billows and ripples and see the sun shining bright and clear.  Our concern was to get back to the car before we were caught up in this cloud - and we did - and once away from that valley the fog lifted.  Now I know that the sudden development of the fog was due to normal cooling of the deep valley air...As air cools it is no longer able to hold as much water.  The point where the air is saturated in called its dew point, and if air cools below that point it must form tiny cloud droplets of 'cloud'.  When this happens close to the ground we call it fog.  What we saw that day was a sudden winter time drop of air temperature in that valley and its moisture had no where else to go but into fog.

Flat bottom - think rising air - air forced to rise past its dew point -
Look at a heated swimming pool or a bathtub with hot water in a cold room and the cool air above the heated water can not hold as much moisture as the air above the warmer surface.  In the San Joaquin valley, the same happens with Tule fog - Soil is a little warmer than the air above- just like the heated pool - and moisture from the soil forms fog in the air... With Tule fog the soil isn’t much warmer than the air, but the difference is enough to form fog.

Oh how I hate Tule fog - sometimes it lasts for many days -
Water warmer than the air ( even a few degrees)-  moisture laden air rises into the cool air and fog forms - think steamy bath tub
The sun normally heats the ground, which heats the air in contact with it... Warm air rises... as it does so it cools off...It cools until it reaches its dew point... and as it rises further - a cloud forms in the air...  But suppose it continues to rise and cool - eventually it reaches the freezing point and ice crystals form from the cloud particles.  If there is a system of vertical winds within the cloud, the ice crystals and the liquid droplets stick together and grow bigger and bigger until they are so heavy they fall out of the cloud - Viola! Raindrops.  All of these steps are needed for rain to form... Next time you see it raining - look up and imagine this vertical zone of mixing - and imagine each rain drop falling thousands of feet before hitting on your head!

Mountain "thunder head" - big enough to have a region of freezing and vertical winds to produce rain drops

This raises another issue and that is freezing point on the earth's surface... Easy to imagine how on a cold night, heat is being lost into space, and the temperature drops... if the temperature drops below 32 F (0 C) ... the moisture in the air does something surprising it changes directly into ice crystals without first going through a liquid stage. It is the formation of frost!  Here is the mystery - often this time of year when my thermometer reads several degrees above freezing there is still thick frost formed on roof tops... How can that be?
Aircraft wing would give off heat quickly  - and would allow moisture to form frost...
  The fact is that frost can not form unless that surface is below freezing. My thermometer is a several feet above the level of the soil - and air currents bring in slightly warmer air... Some materials radiate heat more effectively than others and the roof has lost enough heat that the air sitting above it is below freezing. 

At times is there is no vertical mixing the moisture in an air mass can be converted into an ice crystal cloud - We most often see them in the summer time - formed high above our head...They have the thin wispy nature very different in appearance from our more common cumulus clouds.  

Summer cirrus clouds made off high altitude ice crystals

Friday, December 11, 2015

Seeking wellness

I had the expected childhood diseases– Mumps, Chicken Pox, Measles, - and in each case the country doctor drove out to our farm and examined me and then gave me terrible tasting medicine that he poured into small brown glass bottles – it was to be taken one spoonful at a time… Some ‘wise’ parents arranged to have ‘parties’ in the summer time when it was more convenient to be sick – When parents in the community heard that a kid was sick with one of the common childhood diseases  they would arrange for other kids to visit to ‘catch’ the disease –”It was going to happen anyway.”


Wounds and infections were often treated with poultices – A soft mash was bound in place over infections to ‘draw out’ the redness…The two favorite poultices in my family were made from boiled bread paste and boiled flax seeds... About a half cup of the still warm mixture was placed over the wound and held in place with a bandage.  I’m sure this was a traditional treatment carried over from earlier pre medical societies. 

Poultice before wrapping
Since those early beginnings – I am now a member of Kaiser Medical – an HMO – and I can be seen by my personal doctor anytime – and if she things its appropriate I can see a specialist… It is a great comfort to know that I can have anything from a skin rash to hip replacement for a minimal cost, with a skilled practitioner…  I got into this topic this week because I have developed recurring back pain (This condition seems to be common among people in our time and age) … 

Modern drug development requires careful testing

My Kaiser doctor suggested that besides physical therapy I might like to try Acupuncture… As a scientist I have serious questions about the theory of Acupuncture – something about the flow of energy, ”Chi”, within the body – The concept of chi has never been observed or accepted by the scientific community…  (I have the same problems with the theory of chiropractory)  Still I thought – it has worked in the Asian world for thousands of years – so out of curiosity I went to my first session – about 10 chairs were facing one wall, and 10 more facing the opposite wall – with an aisle down the middle… the acupuncture practitioner explained the procedure to us all – then went down the row and inserted 5 very fine needles in each ear.  

Acupuncture of the ear

It was virtually painless. We sat there listening to soothing music for 40 minutes – then the needles were removed.  Read more here:… My back doctor had told me that my back would be like the stock market – sometimes 'up' and sometimes 'down'… So I don’t know how to judge my acupuncture results – Maybe its wishful thinking or maybe I am a highly suggestive person – but I think I feel  better… so much that I have been back for 3 more acupuncture treatments… Do I think it works – I don’t know – but what the heck – it’s a pleasant experience…
Mexican herb store in San Francisco 
I have in my travels observed other alternative medical practices… In Austria a friend took me to visit her “Kraut Hexa” – (Kraut=Herb, Hexa=witch) … this is a grower and practitioner of using herbs for medical treatments.  In much of the world ( Europe, Latin America, Asia, Africa, Native Americans) there are long traditions of using natural plant products for healing.  Many of our modern medicines are developed from products first identified in natural herbs.  My grandmother used natural herbs. 

The European herbal tradition goes back to the first humans in Europe - this is a Medieval wood cut...
Folk healers learned the use of local plants for treating a wide range of health issues. Today in many modern countries, herbs are seen an a more natural, less invasive ‘cure’ than chemical drugs. I still seek and take what my Kaiser doctors give to me but I respect herbal traditions in other lands. … So the "Kraut Hexa" looked into my eyes and felt my pulse and gave me something for my hay fever – But I was impatient and returned to my chlorphrenamanine…
Herb sales in Africa
In Chiapas Mexico I observed a curandero healer inside a church use live chicken when treating a patient – he chanted and passed the chicken over the body of the sick person – and then both he and the patient drank the local home made distilled alcohol – and I suspect the patient felt much better (at least temporarily).  We modern folk would call this a 'placebo' effect cure.

Curandero practitioner

In a native village in the rainforest of Ecuador I went with my small group of 5 people to the home of a shaman… His healing method was to drink a potion (not the patient!) made for a jungle plant.  This caused him to see visions and to see the ‘evil spirits’ affecting the sick person… he would then know how to dispel the spirits and heal the person. I didn’t try it…These traditions are accepted as valid by the local populations that have not been trained otherwise. 

The Shaman that we visited - we drank homemade Chicha together ( in the bowl)

So we in the west are still believers in our antibiotics and steroids… our Tylenol, Levitra, and Penicillin… I like learning about other traditions but I trust my scientifically tested medical practices…  But what the heck – we still all live with the same human condition seeking to maximize our health and well being…