The final book in Bob Woodward’s trilogy chronicling the Trump presidency and its aftermath is aptly named Peril. Woodward co-authored this third book with Robert Costa and released it in September 2021. While the first two books, Fear and Rage, together cover the Trump presidency prior to the historic 2020 election and its aftermath, Peril overlaps a bit with Rage and focuses on the extraordinary actions within the Trump administration, the Pentagon, and Congress in the lead up to the election, the administration’s attempts to thwart the legitimate outcome of losing reelection, and the first several months of the Biden administration. While the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol and the Department of Justice are hard at work investigating what happened from a legal perspective, Peril tells the story drawn from personal interviews of more than 200 people at the center of the events resulting in more than 6,000 pages of transcripts, much of the information never before seen in the news or in publicly released documents. In a historical context, this is an important book. It chronicles what happened from the perspective of those involved rather than strictly what was made public or reported in the news. Continue reading
2021 started out with such promise. Vaccines to help us get past a worldwide pandemic were just starting to be deployed. As their availability widened, they promised at least a partial, if not total return to normalcy until being inoculated (the responsible thing for a person to do) was attacked and made into a political battle. Still, those doing their part by getting their shots when they became eligible were hopeful. Continue reading
There is so much going on these days. We’re just about ready to start a third year dealing with a worldwide pandemic as we face yet another new variant in the midst of a holiday period. While that’s weighing heavily on my mind, in my solitude I think about what constitutes a national holiday. Some are obvious like the 4th of July, the day marking our nation’s independence. That one makes sense. It’s a celebration commemorating the birth of our new nation, founded on the principles of democracy where we the people voice our opinions through free and fair elections determining who serves in our representative government. This one is a truly patriotic, American holiday. Memorial Day and Veterans Day are also American holidays in honor of those who have served our country to help keep it free. Presidents Day and MLK Day honor some of our national heroes which also makes sense as far as patriotic American holidays go. Continue reading
Every so often we are fortunate to cross paths with somebody with that intangible spark that makes them stand out in a really good way. They bring enthusiasm to all they do, and they inspire others to reach far beyond what seems possible. I ran into such a person some years ago, and I’ve been amazed by what this young fellow has done and continues to do.
I first worked with Val Zvinyatskovsky when he was but 10-years-old. He played the role of Jojo, one of the leads, in a youth production of Seussical that I was music directing. This particular group used live orchestras drawn from the greater musician community to give their young actors the privilege and thrill of performing in musicals in a way that would prepare them for potential careers in professional theater. Through the rehearsal process, this young actor stood out as one of the most skilled, prepared, and polished young thespians I’d seen. He not only had all of his lines and blocking down pat long before the cast needed to be off book, but his musical timing was impeccable. He never missed. Even so, it wasn’t until we got into the run of the show that I realized just how accomplished and curious this young man was. Continue reading
When I take my car out for a drive to keep it running, it gives me time away from my computer. These drives give me some “outside” time to think. I notice the people outside of my automotive bubble passing by on foot, on bicycles, and in other cars. Many are masked, but not all. I think about friends and family and how things have changed for all of them over the years. I think about my theater community. Before we became aware of the pandemic in early 2020, music and theater had been a primary focus in my life, much more so since I retired from my engineering career several years ago. While many in that community are now back in productions, collaborating freely and enjoying the comradery they missed for so many months, others like myself are not. There are still huge risks because of the ever looming pandemic that weren’t there before. Continue reading
The choices we make are important. We each make choices about all kinds of things every day. Some are small things such as what to eat for breakfast. Some have longer range effects such as deciding on a career path or whether to accept a particular job offer. Others are even more life changing such as choosing if or when to have a child, or more immediately, whether to carry a given pregnancy to term based on one’s own circumstances. All are personal choices, yet that last one is currently under its greatest threat since the passage of Roe v. Wade. Continue reading
Growing up, we wrote letters. We also talked on the telephone, but if people lived more than just a few miles away those phone calls could quickly get expensive, much more so than the cost of a stamp. I remember when I was in eighth grade, I had a friend who was a high school junior who lived past our local calling zone, so we would write long letters back and forth. After we had been doing this for some time, I accompanied her to school one day when I had a holiday and she didn’t. Throughout the day I went to all of her classes and met a bunch of her friends, all of whom were avid Star Trek fans. She and I originally met at a Star Trek convention, so it stands to reason that many of her friends would be trekkies. After that day, her letters became a compilation of letters from all of these friends, so mine got very long in response. Even mailing these thick letters back and forth was far cheaper than it would have been to call in those days. There was no email or social media back then, at least not for the general public, but computers were beginning to be more accessible in schools and workplaces albeit in mainframe form. In fact my letter associates were all in a computer class at their school and tried to get their teacher to find a way to let me join them. He was game, but we just couldn’t work out the logistics given I was too young to drive at the time. Two of the students in that class who were part of our letter writing group had coded one of the best Star Trek games I’d ever seen, though they took it with them when they graduated. Continue reading
Naturalist, Sy Montgomery, opens up a fascinating world that is foreign to most of us in her 2015, best-selling memoir, The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness. She tells her story of how she was introduced to her first octopus at the New England Aquarium in Boston, MA and was hooked. She was taken with their curious nature, their intelligence, their cunning, and their charisma. The book is her personal tribute to all that is the octopus as she educates her readers by dispelling many misconceptions and fears and bringing these extraordinary creatures to life on the page. The first thing she teaches readers is that the scientifically correct plural for octopus, contrary to common belief, is not the Latin “octopi.” The word octopus is derived from the Greek, oktṓpous, so the plural is instead “octopuses” despite what Dictionary.com may imply. She also gives an initial description of the animal thusly:
“Here is an animal with venom like a snake, a beak like a parrot, and ink like an old-fashioned pen. It can weigh as much as a man and stretch as long as a car, yet it can pour its baggy, boneless body through an opening the size of an orange. It can change color and shape. It can taste with its skin.”
Through her years working with the folks at the New England Aquarium, she joined an inner circle of staff and volunteers in getting to know a succession of octopuses. Behind the scenes, she was able to interact directly with these magnificent animals, letting them get to know her as she did them, and when she was with them, she felt time stand still. Each had its own unique personality. Some were game players. Others were downright cuddly in a slimy, octopus kind of way. And all of the octopuses she met there over time become dear friends as she, along with the octopus experts in the inner circle, plunged their arms into freezing water to let each octopus taste them with their suckers and get to know them.
An octopus is effectively a very dexterous snail without a shell, although it is far more capable and wily than a snail. Through many examples, Montgomery shows just how smart these creatures so alien to land dwellers actually are. She notes that as she watches them, they watch her with just as much fascination. Unlike mammals, octopuses have decentralized nervous systems that allow their arms to act independently without direct commands from their brain, a point that Montgomery drives home describing how one particular octopus stole a bucket of fish unnoticed while actively interacting with three people simultaneously. An octopus can also regenerate their arms if they get bitten off by a predator.
The key to determining the sex of a given octopus is to examine the tip of their third right arm. In females, their suckers extend to the tip of all of their arms. In males, the suckers do not extend all the way to the tip of their third right arm, known as the hectocotylized arm. While it would seem an easy task to identify the sex of an octopus, the animals often keep the tips of their arms curled, so it can take some time before the crucial arm tip is visible, even for those handling the octopuses directly. Montgomery provides a detailed look at how octopuses reproduce through her description of the Seattle Aquarium’s Annual Blind Date.
On Valentine’s Day each year, the Seattle Aquarium brings a pair of Giant Pacific Octopuses together to give them an opportunity to mate. The pair doesn’t always get along, but often they do, and the day brings a very large audience to observe. Montgomery documents one such event when she got the opportunity to fly across the country to attend the blind date several years into her study of octopuses.
Most octopus species are loners, only coming together at the end of their lives to mate. A female can lay up to 100,000 eggs, each the size and appearance of a grain of rice. The last undertaking of a female octopus is often laying and meticulously caring for those eggs until just before they hatch. Very few newly hatched octopuses survive to adulthood as the young are left to fend for themselves, their mother dying just before they emerge, and their father nowhere to be found. When they first hatch, they float amidst the plankton until they grow big enough to swim to the bottom of the sea to find a den, evade predators, and to hunt for their own food. If they do survive, octopuses are very short-lived; the Giant Pacific Octopus being the longest lived species lasts only 3-5 years.
Montgomery tells her story of her introduction to, and certification in, scuba diving. She describes her difficult start to her dive lessons and provides a detailed look into the dangers of the sport recounting not only her own experience, but also that of one of the close friends she made in Boston who was injured so badly he could no longer dive at all. She was determined to dive and after being certified, was invited to accompany some research teams on a couple of very eye opening expeditions around the world. Although focused on octopus behavior, she was also exposed to a whole new world in the wilds of the oceans off Mexico and French Polynesia. Oceans cover more than 70% of the planet, and there are far more animal species in the oceans than on land. Many aquatic animals can only be observed through dives, and others live so deep in the ocean that they have never been observed by humans.
It took Montgomery several years to complete her research for this book, and over that time, she came to know a few individual octopuses at the New England Aquarium. Because octopuses will often eat one another, the aquarium can only have one in their main public display tank, and as that octopus ages, they’ll acquire another younger octopus that they keep behind the scenes in a barrel type arrangement until the old octopus dies. Montgomery describes a few of the mishaps they had over the years with their octopuses. Unlike most of the aquatic animals cared for at the aquarium, octopuses are serious escape artists. Between their curiosity, intelligence, and dexterity, it’s a real challenge to create a truly escape-proof tank. They can hide in very small spaces, and if they do get out, they can actually run across the floor for a brief period. They can live outside of water for just under 30 minutes before they suffocate.
The book is a loving adventure story providing an inside look at these incredible creatures and is well worth a read. The writing is a little colloquial at times, and there are a few editorial errors, but the story is compelling and hard to put down.
The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery
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As happened most nights, Alex and Rowan Jeffries were having an impassioned discussion over dinner. The twins had been sharing a house for most of their lives, Alex a professor of biochemistry and Rowan a professor of music and religious studies at the same university. Having grown up together and only living separately as university students because they attended different schools in different states, it was both comforting and financially practical to have come together again once their student days were over. Neither had ever been married, and they considered one another perfect roommates. They relied on each other and were the best of friends even though they had a few notable philosophical differences. In fact, those differences often helped them, though they really only differed dramatically in a few areas. In other areas of their lives, they were often in agreement even when their approaches sometimes diverged. This evening, they were engrossed in a discussion in which they agreed for the most part, but differed in application. The subject this evening was honesty, or more directly, the value of truth and dangers of lies.
“We agree that lies should be avoided as they cause great harm,” said Alex.
“You’ll get no disagreement from me,” responded Rowan.
“So explain to me why the so-called social contract has been corrupted from its original intent to foster cooperation based on an agreed upon set of rules of moral and ethical conduct that allow people to live together in a society. Instead, it has become something that not only promotes lies, it penalizes people if they don’t lie if what they need or want to say ‘might’ make somebody uncomfortable even if it is entirely accurate,” said Alex.
“Argh,” sighed Rowan furrowing his brow. “You’re getting hung up on the niceties of social interaction again.” Continue reading
Earlier in this series, I talked about how my parents inspired me and encouraged my love of music. They are both long gone now, Dad for over 50 years and Mom for a decade, but every time I play anything, I think of them. In the last installment discussing whether I was still a musician or not, I came to the conclusion that even without performing for others, I am and always will be a musician. The pandemic has pushed me to enjoy my music more privately, and in doing so, return to my roots and my first instrument, the piano. Playing the piano reminds me of my mother, especially when I play some of the repertoire that she played frequently. One of her favorites was Chopin’s Raindrop Prelude. Mom used to play this one with deep expression and early on told me the story her piano teacher told her about the piece. Her favorite teacher used to tell her stories about every piece she was assigned, and in doing so made the music come alive as much more than mere notes on the page. Continue reading