Blog o’ the Humours

In which one modern American man, semi-permeable in both mind and body, through rarefied feats of biochemical introspection (powered by an impeccably cursory knowledge of contemporary biochemistry in admixture with an equally negligible grounding in thoroughly discredited medical theories of antiquity), (a) pinpoints the one internalized substance that has bested all others to govern his thought, temperament, behavior, and overall mojo on a given day, and (b) offers random ruminations on same.

Sunday, February 26, 2006


I thought today’s humour was going to be Barbital, a lethal dose of which was used just after noon to put our dear little self-adoptive, semi-feral family member, Simon, a.k.a. Best Cat, “to sleep.” But Simon’s dying in my arms at the vet’s, following several days of surprisingly overwhelming grief after his terminal diagnosis earlier in the week, had a barbiturate effect of its own—I dropped onto the bed next to L. following a sad walk through a beautiful false-spring afternoon, and the next thing I knew, it was fifteen hours later. So “today” was now “tomorrow,” or vice versa, so a new humour was called for. But apart from the fact that I’ve already expected the ghost cat to appear at the back door, making his ghost “top of the morning” chirrup in passing en route to either the food cupboard or the bed (whichever struck his a.m. fancy more on a given day); and the fact that, in a year in which a lot has gone wrong or at least been very, very difficult for me and those around me, Simon’s care was one of the few things that had seemed to be going right; I really can’t find any more words to add to the literature of grief, or even the literature of pet grief (check it out—24,000 Google matches).

So I’m just going to proclaim “Grey” the Humour of the Day—not as metaphor of my mood, or even because the sky’s taken on that color in the 24 hours since Simon’s death (grey and rainy all day here in Berkeley), but simply because Simon himself was greyer-than-grey, from nose-tip to tail-tip. And in his honor, in lieu of more words, a photo-essay on grey, collected in tonight’s rain (of which he would certainly not have approved).

a.k.a. "Best Cat"

Friday, February 24, 2006

Iron Pyrite

As far as the gods of cruel irony go (and you know they’re out there…), it’s probably akin to waving a red cape before their faces to begin this new project with “fool’s gold.” But for better or worse, iron pyrite is, in fact, the Humour du jour.

If you take a moment to scan the Wikipedia page linked to above, you, like I, might discover some surprising facts about pyrite—namely that, despite the name, there can actually be real gold in fool’s gold. So who’s the greater fool, in the end—the credulous naïf, or the cranky scoffer?

Curious factoid number two is that, like so much associated with the romanticized Gold Rush, iron pyrite can be destructive in the environment. Per Wikipedia: “Pyrite exposed to the environment during mining and excavation can react with oxygen and water to form acid mine drainage in the form of sulfuric acid.” Thus suggesting, along with the better-known environmental effects of the mercury used in gold mining, that a better ultimate name for the whole endeavor might be “Fool’s Gold Rush.”

So who am I to take potshots at the founding industry of the Great State of California? Well, simply put, I’m a descendant of folks who did all that rushing 150 years or so ago.

Which brings me to the real reason that iron pyrite is the Humour du jour—my own encounter with the stuff. I’m turning forty in a couple months, and my lower back and neck are celebrating in advance with increasing levels of middle-aged stiffness. So I’ve been reflecting on my father’s turning forty, which I recall well—my mother had black-frosting roses put on his birthday cake—and on how his own range of motion decided to downsize itself right about then.

But in the midst of these musings on immobility, I recalled a vision of my father from a few years later—probably age forty-three—moving more gracefully than I’d ever seen before. We were spending a summer weekend’s vacation in a town (or titular vestige thereof) called Iowa Hill, a former mining town up in red-dirt Northern California gold country, accessible only by a treacherous switchbacking “road” up the side of a river gorge, with a plaque partway up marking the spot where a rattlesnake once spooked the horses pulling a Wells Fargo stagecoach, causing horses, coach driver, passengers, and parcels to go plummeting to their ends down below. (The fate of the snake went unremarked on the plaque, but I have a feeling the little devil got away with it, and perhaps rightly so.) Some family friends owned a cabin up there—one passed down in the family, if memory serves, since the time when some prankster or homesick and forgetful soul decided to name a hill after Iowa.

One day, we all went down to the nearby creek (which we pronounced “krik,” per local custom, just as we referred to the local quartz quarry as “the diggins”), and the folks who owned the cabin pulled some old rusted gold-pans out of the back of their station wagon. We all took turns playing around with them in the shallows of the creek, the kids using them mainly as mud-shovels or water-heavers. But when it got to be my dad’s turn (i.e., when al the kids were thoroughly drenched and mud-covered), he surprised me absolutely by launching into this rhythmic swirling motion with the pan, with perfect crescents of water lopping over the edges of the pan and back into the creek, and with the scoop of creek soil in the pan’s bottom centrifuging itself evenly into concentric circles of relative mass, the lighter chunks shifting to the sides, and the heavier parts—those more worthy of focused attention—remaining sensibly toward the center of things.

And of course, there among the standard bits of grit and gravel and the tiny olive or brick-colored flecks of what our hosts told us were “Indian paint rocks” (mixed with bear grease to make warpaint back in the day, or so we were told), were a few glinting metallic chips that had me shouting “Gold! Gold!” like so many generations of California fools before me.

Incidentally, to a kid, fool’s gold does have one distinct advantage over the real stuff, which is that you can pulverize it between your fingernails, which for me in particular, as a kid given to more than the usual level of omnipotence-related fantasizing and scenario-spinning, was not without its appeal.

But then as now, what impressed me most about our gold-panning diversion, held amid the more standard getaway activities of barbecuing and swimming; of holding bits of rummaged-up asbestos in a butane lighter–flame and watching them, sure enough, not burn (and then chewing on them—lordy!); and, for the adults, of prowling drunkenly around an old Chinese cemetery and non-lethally self-impaling on a pike-topped perimeter fence (but that’s another story…); was my father’s atavistic display of gold-panning talent. On the one level, there was the pure ingrained rhythm of it—and you have to understand here that my own personal bloodline was largely responsible for putting the “white people” in “white people can’t dance.” But on another level, I realize now that I was witnessing both family and Californian/American history coming to life. My dad learned the panning skill from his father, who lived and worked in a company-owned gold-dredging town (long since dredged into its own destruction—the one time I was in the vicinity, nearly twenty years ago now, you could still see the hulks of the abandoned dredgers in the distance, far from any active roads). I can only imagine the gold-panning boogie was in turn handed down to my grandfather from forebears up the line, for whom the pan must have been the meal-ticket equivalent of the personal computer to this present-day language-dredger. My dad still has a gold-pan of his own in his and my mom’s garage, I believe.

But alas, though I remember the visual experience, my hands and hips have never been taught the moves. If I ever find myself up in Gold Country with a nipper of my own, however—a decent prospect—I’ll at least be able to relate the tale of how Grandpa boogied by the krik-side one fair day in the ’70s (which will seem as distant as the 1870s of Iowa Hill’s heyday to a 21st-century whelp). And maybe, if there’s a frisbee handy, I’ll at least be able to approximate the moves and come up with a chunk of pyrite—and add another momentary fool to the family tree. And then, in my own atavistic display, I’ll douse the nipper with water scooped into the frisbee—some family traditions just cry out for carrying on.

* * * * *
A parting puzzle:

One of the following images is not fool’s gold. Can you tell which?

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The BotH Manifesto

In these information-challenged times, an era in which it can be so arduous to discover, say, what our friends, our loved ones, or even perfect strangers have eaten on a given day; or which movies, books, or CDs they judge to rule, and which, alas, to suck; or whom they think is cute, or not so very; or what adorable thing the cat did; or exactly which part of one’s body them sumbitches in office may consider themselves free to kiss, and often…. In this day and age, simply put, a weblog is too rare and important a thing to leave either to chance or to newfangled whims.

Thus, the Blog o’ the Humours. Grounded in one of the most illustrious and thoroughly discredited medical theories of antiquity—Hippocrates’ system of the Four Humours—this blog will pinpoint the substance (or “humour”) that has had the most profound influence upon the blog’s author on a given day and offer commentary (read: wild guesses and pitiful excuses) as to why the author believes this to be so.

But lest you think this blog will present no more varied fare than a daily trudge through —as Hippocrates had it—blood, phlegm, and the two biles, yellow and black, please know that Blog o’ the Humours (“BotH,” to its friends), like its author, is an entirely contemporary and semi-permeable membrane, open to invading substances that border on the innumerable (dioxins and furans and pthalates, oh my!)—a condition that will be faithfully reflected in the Humour du Jour. So if the mood herein begins to seem sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric, or melancholic at times (to switch to Galen’s sense of Humours), please rest assured that the polychlorinic, the benzinic, and the heavy metallic are not far behind.

Thanks for stopping by. On with the analysis!

* * * * *

Note: Two inspirations should be acknowledged here at the get-go. One is the somewhat new and more than a little chilling (for its discoveries, not its practice) field of biomonitoring, a.k.a. assessing the Body Burden imposed on you and me by our, ahem, chemically rich modern environments (bear with that linked page, folks, it can be slow to load). To summarize the study that partially inspired this blog, which I became aware of while doing some consulting for Whole Earth Magazine: in 2000, the Environmental Working Group in Washington, D.C., in collaboration with Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, set out to measure the toxic-chemical contamination of nine test subjects—among them the DC-based journalist Bill Moyers and Marin County–based Michael Lerner, the president and founder of Commonweal, a health and environmental research institute. (Why just nine? These tests are very expensive, so they went high-profile on the test subjects to raise awareness.) While it will not, perhaps, strike many readers as odd that the entire test group was chock full o’ toxins, what was surprising to me, at least, was that Lerner, basically your typical tree-huggin’, granola-munchin’, clean-livin’ Marinara, had more toxins in his system than Moyers, the jet-hoppin’, late-night-airport-food-court dinin’, second-hand-smoke-in-public-places-inhalin’ Beltway-dweller. Can you win? No, you can’t win. But do check out the EWG site, if you can get it to load. You can also read more about Body Burden studies here. (I’m not as familiar with this organization, the “Coming Clean Network,” but I see one of the principals is Sharyle Patton, another Body Burden test subject and an expert on chemical transmission in breastmilk—as well as another Commonweal higher-up and Lerner’s wife to boot.)

The second inspiration wasn’t a conscious one at first, but it popped into my head recently, and now it seems pretty obvious: Primo Levi’s great book The Periodic Table, which you can buy from an independent bookseller here. So all props to Primo, and may no readers be so unkind as to compare my poor little blog to his work.