Country Scribe : Eric Bergeson's Weblog

January 10, 2004

Stopping to see a cousin

I went to visit a cousin and his wife this afternoon. I had only met them once before, but my Aunt Olla really wanted me to stop and say hi, and I am sort of a relative sort anyway. Lee and Marie were delightful.

They live up north of San Diego in a town which looked like a little dot on the map. It is called Poway. It is not a dot on the map. It is a full-fledged bedroom community for San Diego.

Poway is at a high enough elevation so there are some deciduous trees (unlike San Diego itself, where the vegetation is completely tropical), and it felt a bit like fall. They can even grow lilacs and rhubarb, two things which require a certain number of hours below freezing each year to survive, and usually do not work this far south.

The hills around the town were black. Turns out the Poway area is where the big fires burned out of control a couple of months ago. The vegetation was utterly stripped from the mountainsides, right down to the roads surrounding the town.

Lee and I are second cousins once removed, I guess. So, my great-grandmother was his grandmother. We talked family history. The hours went by, the sun set, the dishes were cleared, and we were still having good laughs. I stayed three hours longer than I had planned!

As with many visits to relatives, particlularly somewhat distant ones, I wonder when I go why I am even bothering them--but after its all over, it was great fun. I will be rehashing the stories tonight. Probably won’t sleep. The dark, dark chocolate ice cream won’t help matters, but it was well worth it.


Mission Beach

San Diego is well-known for its beaches. I drove to one of the most famous, Mission Beach, late this morning. It was tough to find a parking spot, even early in the day with the temps in the upper 50s.

San Diego is a hilly city with many nooks and crannies. As you move towards the beach, however, things flatten out. Most of the land near the beach is reclaimed lowlands. You can bet that the reclaiming was done before any wetlands protection laws were in place.

The beach itself is on a strip of land on the seaward side of the many inlets and harbors. The surf from the Pacific was impressive. I watched about a dozen surfers for about a half-hour as they struggled to catch a wave. The waves were mediocre today, according to a bystander. Bigger surf is predicted early next week. I hope to see some of the bigger surf as I move up the coast.

After getting my fill of the sand and surf, I took a walk along the beachfront, a thirty foot strip of asphalt devoted to walkers, runners, bikers and rollerbladers. Inland from the path were crammed the beachfront homes and apartments, separated only by tiny walkways. Many were quite run down, but signs on even the ones with sagging porches said that a two bedroom went for $1800 per month.

After an hour, I had had enough. It was cold, but even so the beach was crowded and there was little or no parking. I cannot imagine what the place would be like in the summer. I have no desire to find out.

The people looked tired, as if they had all partied last night. The joggers barely moved. The buildings looked worn out, even tackier than those on Miami Beach.

I guess if I want to go to the beach, it is going to have to be a lonely beach a little farther north. I am going to drive up the coast tomorrow and see if there is any such place between San Diego and Los Angeles. I somehow doubt it. I think it will be non-stop urban sprawl the whole way.

The crowds down here are amazing! I drove on a 15 lane highway today--and it was going through land which looked like the middle of nowhere. Traffic was thick. The horizon to the west, off the coast, was black with smog. Count your blessings, those who live in the middle of nowhere where the air is clean and the highways empty.


January 09, 2004

Pardon the long entries

Because I am hooking up in hotel rooms with a special 800 number, internet access is costing me a dime a minute (gasp!) So, tightwad that I am, I am writing up one big entry ahead of time and posting it on the website all at once. Sorry about the book-length entries. They'll be like that for about two weeks, I suspect.


Whale watching

The Pacific gray whale is migrating past the California coast from now until March. Several boats go out from the harbor each day to see the show. I embarked this afternoon on a large boat with about 100 tourists aboard.

The San Diego harbor is several miles long, and contains a huge naval base. We first floated past three aircraft carriers, including the Nimitz, which is back from the Persian Gulf for, among other things, a new paint job, and the Midway, which is now retired after spending over 50 years in service. The Midway has been painted and will be moved to its final destination in the harbor tomorrow, where it will become a museum.

Next, we cruised past dozens of naval helicopters, many of them with rotors turning. Then, an airfield where ant-submarine aircraft were practicing landings. And finally, past three nuclear submarines, two of which are equipped to spend much of their time under the polar ice cap.

Lots of tax dollars in those couple of miles. Finally, we cruised out the harbor opening. It looked like we had been in open water for quite some time when the captain announced that we were hitting the ocean, please hang on.

The water was relatively calm, but only seconds after the captains announcement, the ship started rocking slowly. I wasn’t alone in feeling nauseated. I couldn’t discern the swells which caused our rocking until I looked far out to sea with my binoculars. They looked like gently rolling hills.

We went out to sea a few miles, and were instructed to look for water spouts from the whales. After a half hour, somebody said, “thar she blows!” Off to the left, a puff of steam blew in the wind about a half mile from the ship.

To find the whales, we had gone north, against the stream of their migration. Once we located a pair, the ship went behind them, turned around, and followed “our” whales. (If you follow another whale watching boat in order to find your whales, you get “used whales.”)

The ship slowed to a crawl. Whales move at about 4 miles-per-hour. They come up for air about once every five minutes. They blow out the old air and take in new in three or four spurts. Each time you at least see their enormous backs. We became familiar with the pattern of barnacles on each one.

Sometimes one of the whales would show its enormous tail fin. It was very dramatic to see the fin emerge from the water and slide grandly back in. It was as if they were showing off.

The action happened so fast that I only seldom caught the whales in my binoculars. Soon they were so close I didn’t need them.

The captain came down from his perch and watched with a few of us on the prow of the boat. We fought for space along the rail. A couple of photographers tried in vain to get the whales in their lens.

I happened to be watching the right spot in the water when a rare thing happened. It’s called a breech. That is when the whale comes up straight out of the water head first, pushing a good part of its body into the air, and then splashes dramatically back into the ocean.

I saw the whale break water and yelled. The captain next to me jerked his head around and caught the whale at the apex of its leap. The splash was enormous. One big kafooom.

I thought this was routine. However, the captain thanked me over and over for yelling or he would have missed it. He said it was the most dramatic breech he had seen off the San Diego coast (they humpback whales in Hawaii jump all the time, but the gray whales don’t), and that breeches of any sort only happen once every twenty-five trips or so.

So, I was happy.

We followed the whales for two hours. Two sailboats joined. We saw other whales in the distance. Sure enough, our two whales merged with two other whales and swam together for about twenty minutes. They came up together for air, so every five minutes or so we had quite a show. However, after the two couples merged, there were no more displays of tail fins.

The people watching on the ship was interesting, too. There was a young marine, about 6’ 5”, in full uniform, who brought on board six women--I assume they were sisters, a mother, and perhaps a couple of aunts, visiting from the sticks. They were oh so proud of their boy. But the boat wasn’t two hundred yards into the ocean before he put his head in his hands. He was sick. He stayed sick for the whole trip.

Meanwhile, his womenfolks carried on about their time in the big city. They saw some go-go dancers the night before. Giggle, giggle. That was more fun that this! They were bored by the whales. Why can’t they have a casino on here? I’ll bet those whales are fake. They figured the captain just hits the remote control every five minutes. When are we going back? Where should we eat?

The poor marine--I bet he has to entertain them for the entire weekend.

Some whale trivia: The gray whales are about 50 feet long. They commute 12,000 miles round trip each year. They fill up in the arctic and don’t eat much on the trip, losing 25% of their body weight on the way. They deliver their calves off the coast of the Baja peninsula. The calves stay with the mother for a full year. After being hunted nearly to extinction twice last century, gray whales have rebounded to a population of about 27,000.

Whales only started getting friendly with humans about 15 years ago. Before that, it was unheard of for whales to come up alongside boats. But once whaling was controlled, whales eventually sensed that not all boats were hostile.

In fact, the people on the whale boat said they have noticed that the whales seem to distinguish between boats which are friendly and those which are trying to harass them. There is a law against getting too close to the whales and trying to scare them, and hunting whales has largely ended.

As the story goes, a little motor boat was trying to scare a whale by revving its engine very close to a cow and her calf. The captain of the whale-watching boat tried to get him to stop using the loudspeaker, but the guy kept on.

The cow whale came over to the friendly whale-watching boat. She left her calf there, where it occupied itself by flirting with the crowd on the boat. The mother disappeared, but not for long. Soon, her tail fin came out of the water behind the offending motor boat. In a very unusual move, the whale held its tail fin out of the water until it was just about to upend the boat. She then pulled it down, and a few minutes later reappeared beside the friendly boat to reclaim her calf.

The guys on the whale-watching boat were convinced she was giving that motor boat a good scare. They seem to think she let them baby-sit her calf while she went off to deliver her message.

Before we spotted the whales, three dolphins followed the boat for a while. They’re big flirts. We also saw many sea lions basking in the sun on some buoys. They looked supremely lazy, stretched out on their backs, flippers in the air.

The sun set as we came back into the harbor. As we pulled up to dock, a huge cruise ship--it had to be 12-15 stories high and three football fields long--pulled away from the next pier. Hundreds of people watched and waved from shore as the big boat, a moving city, edged its way out of the harbor, its thousands of lights sparkling against the orange of the sunset over the Pacific ocean.


January 08, 2004

Tucson to San Diego

Last winter, I was content to sit in Tucson and read books. This year, it got a little stagnant. So, I left for San Diego today, intending to work my way up the California coast.

The drive from Tucson to San Diego is beautiful. First you head towards Phoenix, then you veer west across the ocean of desert, which is punctuated by islands of craggy, rocky and barren mountains. Just outside of Yuma, AZ, which lies on the border of AZ, CA and Mexico, the desert changes into rich farmland. Most of our winter lettuce supply comes from these fields. They looked much like sugar beet fields in September.

I pulled into Yuma and stopped to see some folks from home. Laurie works for me. She said stop by, so I did. Three pieces of streusel cake, a Diet Pepsi, and lots of laughs later, I took off for San Diego.

Between Yuma AZ and San Diego lies the coastal mountain range. Just after Yuma, the lettuce fields lie at zero elevation. You then climb quickly to 4190 feet and stay there for 30 miles before descending into San Diego.

I kept expecting to break out in the open and see the city spread out before me, but it never happened. San Diego is a hilly city with little nooks and crannies everywhere. I didn't see the ocean until I was about to drive into it.

I pulled over at a Mexican taco shop for supper back up in the hills. I picked it because it looked authentic. Tacos were $1.50 each. I had one cow brain taco, one cow tongue taco, and two spicy pork tacos. Not too thrilling, even to my most forgiving palate. The Spanish names sounded more appetizing than the English translations in parentheses. If this weblog starts deteriorating, chalk it up to Mad Cow.

Then on to find the hotel room in downtown San Diego which I found on priceline.com. It was rated at one star, so I didn’t expect much. My eyes were bleary from a day of traveling. I found the street the hotel was on after a little looking. Big, busy street. Suddenly, off to the left, I saw the hotel sign. There was no oncoming traffic, so I made an aggressive left turn. I didn’t see that there was a median there. So, it was a little bumpy. That’s what four wheel drives are for, I guess.

The hotel room is nice, but I found out why it was so cheap. It is about 300 feet beneath the main flight path into the San Diego airport. Out the back window is a nest of razor wire, and beyond that is a set of train tracks. I might have to to find some earplugs, or it could be the night of the Doppler effect.

TURNED ON THE NEWS last night in Tucson, and saw that there had been a murder in the parking lot of the Circle K convenience store less than a mile from my hotel room. Broad daylight. Somebody shot two people while they were sitting in their Cadillac. One killed, one critical.

Earlier that day, police found a body in a right turn lane on Grant Road, the same street my hotel was on, but quite a ways down. Grant and Oracle, for those of you who know Tucson.

I bought a paper this morning for details of the murders. Well, the news didn’t even make page one--only a little article in the back entitled: “City records first homicides of 2004.” Right up there with the New Year’s babies, I guess.

I also drove past the Circle K two hours after the murder took place there. It was crowded and busy. No sign of anything amiss. Business as usual.

Yikes. Can murder become routine? Seems so.


January 07, 2004

Presidential politics: who cares

Wake me up in November sometime. I just wish this presidential thing would go away. It is so mind-numbingly absurd. I watched a snippet of a Democratic debate the other night, but had to shut it off out of sheer embarrassment. I can't stand it. There isn't one candidate I find inspiring. Most of them act so transparently fake.

Howard Dean is the most entertaining. He says what he thinks. Now he's fumbling to look religious. His assertion that the book of Job was his favorite book of the New Testament isn't going to help. But it might be that his utter lack of smoothness in faking interest in Jesus, or the South, or foreign policy, might help him. He seems to be the most straightforward of the bunch, and if there's anything the electorate craves, it is honesty.

Joe Lieberman? Ugh! That groaning, nasal voice. That self-righteous tone. And, like all grandstanding moralists on both the right and the left, he has a mean streak that doesn't run very deep.

John Kerry? Raised rich in the east. A snob at Yale. Looks as comfortable on a motorcycle as Dukakis did in a tank. Stands for nothing. Nothing. We're supposed to elect him because of his hair, I think. Even though it looks like steel wool.

Dick Gephardt? The national equivalent of Roger Moe. Competent, respected, solid, boring, uninspiring. We should have a Politburo in this country so Gephardt could sit up there and finally look at home somewhere.

Wesley Clark? A smart-aleck Rhodes Scholar. We've had one of those already. Clark, like any Rhodes Scholar, knows he's smart. That's kind of dangerous. It's never good to elect the smartest kid in the class. They not only don't know much, but they don't how much they don't know.

Carol Mosely-Braun? Hey, I'd vote for her. She's the classiest of the bunch. Too bad about all those ethics problems, though. But man, I hope I live long enough to see a black woman elected President. Whoever it is would have to be tough as nails just to get there. She'll probably be a Republican, though.

Al Sharpton? I have a hard time accepting what he does with his hair, although I am sure he would give a rousing State of the Union.

Dennis Kucinich? Well, he showed up for a radio debate today equipped with a big pie chart. Ahem. Dennis....psssst....Dennis!


Man sues cable company for "TV addiction"

A Wisconsin man who has been getting free cable TV for four years is suing the cable company for not turning of their service as he requested in 1999. Seems that in the meantime his wife has gained 50 lbs., he has smoked and drank more than usual, and his kids have become channel-surfing couch potatoes. He wants $5000. Check out the article here.


Lack of space funding debate

I have been searching in vain for articles denouncing the billions spent on the space program. Apparently, the Mars mission's success has quieted the debate. "The pursuit of knowledge is ample justification," says one editorial. True, as long as the spaceship doesn't crash, in which case the question would be, "Why are we spending all this money?" Everybody loves a winner, and everybody piles on a loser.

I wish there was at least some semblance of philosophical debate about why we should go probing around other planets. So we find life on Mars--what does it mean? So we find life on other planets surrounding other stars--what might it mean?

In the scientific age, man has plowed ahead to new discoveries at breakneck speed, limited only by the technology available. This has often resulted in disaster, as man has not often shown the maturity necessary to deal with all his fancy new toys.

Factories belched smoke for decades before man realized the consequences. Nearly 95% of the Redwoods fell before man realized no new ones would take their place. Millions died in WWI, due to fancy new weapons, without the front line moving more than a few feet.

Hitler used the invention of the loudspeaker to fuel his movement. I would argue he wouldn't have taken over Germany if he had been limited to the newspaper as Bismarck was. The Lutheran reformation wouldn't have happened without the printing press.

Invention and exploration change things in unintended ways, some good, some ill. Man's scientific advancement continues at a high speed. Meanwhile, his spiritual ability to deal with the consequences lags far behind.






January 06, 2004

Manners article

Now that I am getting the hang of this, here is a link to the manners article in the St. Paul Pioneer Press which contends that our civilization is going to pot because people are burping at the table.


Article on the people behind the Mars mission

I haven't yet posted a link on this website, that is a thing you can click on to go to a webpage that I am recommending, or am referring to. So, here goes: This is a good article in the Christian Science Monitor about the people behind the Mars project and how harrowing the final minutes before the landing were for them: Click here for the article.


Manners

A column in the St. Paul Pioneer Press today bemoans the lack of manners today. The author seems particularly upset by table manners in restaurants, and goes on to criticize the pace of modern suburban life, which moves too fast for people to sit down and have meals together, much less practice the social graces which go with such a ritual.

I always hesitate to agree that the sky is falling. I am sure there have been atrocious manners all through the ages. Reading history makes me think that good manners were often the province of a few elites, those who ended up in the history books. The rest just didn't bother, and were often more crude than we might imagine.

However, there was a time as recently as the last century when good manners were taught in school. Whether such classes did any good or not, their existence at least showed that somebody cared.

I don't think manners are that complicated. They consist of little more than having consideration for others sharing your space. This consideration, most basically, consists of not calling attention to one's base bodily functions while in close proximity with others. Secondly, it amounts to not imposing on the others in your presence through loud talk and unnecessary distraction.

Then you get to the finer points, and here things are less cut and dry. My biggest pet peeve is one others might not share: People who try to embarrass you in conversation, most often by saying, "You remember me, don't you?" It is the essence of politeness to never assume somebody remembers your name or knows you right off, for anybody's mind can get confused in a crowd. Putting somebody on the spot in a group of people is always rude, yet some people seem to delight in watching others squirm.

Cell phones have caused some talk of manners. People realize more vividly than before that they don't want to be party to the private conversations of others, especially after having one's peace and quiet in a bookstore disturbed by somebody carrying on an argument with their spouse.

Yes, rudeness is epidemic. The more people we pack into the space we have, the worse it gets. Manners are needed more in Manhattan, where people are cheek to cheek, than they are in the rural areas. But they are needed everywhere or our world will just get more brutish.

However, putting a set of rules between two covers of a book misses the point. Manners are easier than that. Good manners can take many forms, and they have nothing whatsoever to do with how you hold your fork, or which fork you pick up for the salad.

My main worry is not about specific manners, but that we are losing our civility, our sense that we need to be good to all people in our daily lives, whether or not we ever meet them again.


January 05, 2004

Why should we pay for space exploration?

The question always arises in my mind: is the collection and analysis of a few rocks on Mars worth nearly a billion dollars of the taxpayers' money? What about the space shuttles? What about big telescopes? Why should the taxpayers pay for the exploration of the universe?

Space exploration falls in the same category as baseball stadiums for me. Nice to have, but how do you justify using public funds for such enormously expensive luxuries?

My opinions as a private citizen (I am all for it!) are different than they would be if I were in elective office (we can't justify this to the hardworking taxpayer).

Why did we need to send a men to the moon? The political reason, it seems, was that we were embarrassed that the Soviets put Sputnik in orbit and we wanted to do something bigger and better to show them up. I am not certain of it, but it seems that nobody put up much of a fuss at the time. It has been said, however, that if it weren't for the Cold War, the moon landings would never have happened.

There are small material side benefits to space exploration. Teflon came from NASA, for example, as did other modern conveniences. However, those inventions alone are not enough to justify the billions spent.

I asked one scientist here in Arizona: what would you do with $50 billion if you had it to spend? He said he would build a space station to house industrial activities which pollute the earth. He also said, however, that he felt the future of space was in the hands of private industry, not NASA. He hopes industry will start its own space program.

However, I doubt whether private industry will be interested in space exploration for the sake of space exploration. If we want to find out more about the universe, taxpayers will have to foot the bill.

All I can conclude is that I would rather have a chunk of my federal tax dollar go to NASA and space exploration than to building nuclear bombs, or funding artists who paint with elephant dung.

Space is our last frontier. We have been conquering various frontiers for two centuries. I suspect that the frontier-conquering impulse is so strong in this country that money for space will continue to be made available by our elected representatives whether or not it makes fiscal sense.

So, without solving the question of whether we should fund space exploration, I would say I am content that we do.

As for baseball stadiums...







January 04, 2004

New column posted

More on the Mars Rover is posted in the "Column" section of this website...In other news, it was nice to see that the Packers won...they'll do better than the Vikings ever would have...The temperature back home has sunk below zero making the "cool" temperatures here in Tucson seem very tolerable...I had a wonderful meal at a Guatamaulan restaurant named Maya Catzal last night...chili pepper stuffed with nuts and potatoes...made my scalp sweat, as hot food should...


Mars rover sends back pics

NASA's Mars rover has been sending back pictures all day today which indicate it landed just fine and will be able to eventually, after nine days of getting ready, begin to roam around the surface of Mars.

This has been a big two days for NASA. The comet mission and the Mars mission are the first two missions since the crash of the Shuttle last January. Success in these highly-publicized missions means a continued flow of dollars. Failure means inquiries and appearances in front of Senate committees and questions about where is all this money going.

Listening to some scientists last night, it was apparent that this mission was preceded by even more testing and troubleshooting than usual. It seems that some people here in AZ were involved with testing the airbags which turned the space craft into a big beach ball before it hit the surface. They dragged those things over every sort of rock to make sure they wouldn't pop. There was a great sense of urgency that this mission succeed.


Something I had never realized before last night: Hundreds, perhaps thousands of people have an enormous personal stake in the success of these space missions. When a mission fails, the whole work world of the scientific team is called into question. One scientist last night was visibly shakey nervous during the entry of the Mars rover into the atmosphere, and a NASA employee here in Tucson said she thought it was worse than having a baby. (She didn't say whether she had borne a child before, one can only assume she had.)