Give Your Mind the Dream Vacation it Deserves

Ever think that your life is spiraling out of control?  Do 21st century technological innovations leave you feeling like you’re in the Dark Ages?  Or if you’re like me, the Stone Age.  Before clothing.  And that if you don’t understand them soon you’ll be left to spin round and round like a fly stuck in the toilet bowl?  Wouldn’t you rather be the one with your hand on the flush lever than the fly?  Yeah, in your dreams.

            No, I’m serious.  In your dreams, where there’s now a way to turn technological oblivion into triumph.  Or revenge, if you prefer.  Forget virtual reality games and headsets.  Lucid Dreaming takes escape from reality to a whole new level, to a world without rules, time, boundaries, or the My Pillow guy.  (Not everyone needs help to escape from reality.)

            Simply put, a lucid dream is one in which you are aware that you are dreaming, and taken further, can even control the dream.  In lucid dreaming you can go anywhere and do anything, subject only to the limits of your imagination.  Of course, for many of us our imaginations aren’t what they used to be, thanks to TV and social media.  So don’t blame me if you find that you can only dream of a world with a new smart phone.  For the rest of us though, it is now possible to beat Serena Williams at Wimbledon, climb El Capitan like Alex Honnold, or to ‘boldly go where no man has gone before,’ like Captain Kirk, or Hugh Hefner.

            Research suggests that about half of all people have had a lucid dream at least once in their lives, and that a lucky 10% or so are able to thumb their noses at reality more frequently.  Now, however, there are books, guides, and even apps that can help you take charge of your dreams and explore the fanciful dreamworld of your choosing, or to finally turn the tables on the demons of your subconscious.  Won’t they be surprised.  Just be advised that reality can keep score, and is perfectly capable of inventing some impressive demons of its own.  Dream proof ones too.  Think no further than the nightmares of QAnon, Hallmark TV, or New Math.

            So about now you’re probably wondering either what sort of drugs you’ll need to take to enter this magic realm, or what sort of drugs I’m taking to be writing this nonsense.  Learning to be a lucid dreamer however is an entirely natural process that relies on a kind of mental training.  If you already practice mindfulness, you’re off to a good start.  If, like many, your mind is generally pretty empty, it’s probably a good time to instead consider a run for some public office or other.  Think of it as a public service.  We dreamers, after all, need realities to escape from, or it’s all rather pointless.

            To give beginners the best chance of experiencing lucid dreams, experts suggest the following first steps before trying more advanced techniques:

  • To ramp up your connection with the dream world, begin keeping a journal of your ordinary dreams.  If your ordinary dreams are nightmares, you’re probably sleeping on a pillow from the My Pillow guy.  Switch pillows.
  • Throughout the day, practice your “reality checks” to test whether or not you’re dreaming.  With time, this practice will seep into your dreams and trigger dream awareness.  You might, for instance, try to punch your hand through a solid wall.  If you’re dreaming it will pass easily through.  If you’re not dreaming, you may find that other people will try to perform this reality check on you.
  • Set your alarm for five hours after you usually go to sleep.  After you wake, wait a bit before going back to sleep.  This “waking back to bed” technique should immerse you immediately into REM sleep, the sleep phase where you are most likely to experience a lucid dream.  If all you want to do in this new dream world is go to sleep, you’re probably on the right track.

            Once your dream becomes lucid you are free to manipulate it any way you choose.  Say your desire out loud and the dream will oblige.  Summon dream characters and visit dream locations, real or fictional.  Adopt superpowers and take revenge on your enemies, real or fictional.  If your enemies still sense that your superpowers are more fictional than real, experts recommend mooning them before disappearing through a “dream door” to a new scene.  You are in control and anything is possible.

            Just remember that in your lucid dream, your conscious and your unconscious minds are in essence colliding, so the beginner may experience a bit of turbulence.  Experts suggest tightening your seatbelt and telling your conscious mind in no uncertain terms to take a different flight.  This one is for hedonists only.  Reality can wait at the airport lounge and find its escape in a bottle like the rest of the frequent flyers.       

Release the Beasts!

Caged animals are unhappy animals.  They don’t usually show it of course, because the last thing they want is anyone suspecting that they’re plotting an escape, or figuring out how to put their keepers behind bars.  Or on their dinner menus.  But whether it’s a boa constrictor in a home terrarium that looks at the family dog as an appetizer to the main course, or an orangutan in a maximum security zoo who thinks humans should be kicked off the family tree, they do escape.  Perhaps to remind us of the instincts we’ve lost as we sit in our comfortable houses and watch “Naked and Afraid” on TV.

            Escapes happen quite often from homes and substandard facilities, where knowledge and concern for and of the animals take a back seat to the ignorance and selfishness of owners who struggle to impress their own species.  But it even happens about five times a year on average worldwide from the 240 facilities with certified Association of Zoo and Aquarium care and security standards.  Just like people, there are more than a few animals who simply want a chance to see a bit of the world, to sleep under the stars, and to ponder the meaning of life the way it was meant to be, as food for thought, and many hungry creatures.

            Tigers, who are so smart they’ve combined food for thought and food for the body and simplified their lives, make terrible captives, particularly as the generally out-of-reach visitors are the only menu items they think about.  In the natural world, visitors are not out-of-reach, and hungry tigers make no secret of their distaste for how humans think by devouring everything on the menu but their minds.  So besides the regular demonstrations of their thought process in substandard facilities, it should have come as no surprise when Tatiana, a Siberian tiger at the San Francisco Zoo, somehow climbed a moat wall, and attacked three people, killing one.  Think of that the next time you see a captive tiger, because it’s certain the tiger will be thinking of you. 

            Although there are plenty of examples of great zoo escapes, few animals can brag they’ve done it twice.  Bokito, a Western gorilla, was incarcerated without charges at the Berlin Zoo when he climbed a ten foot wall and made a run for it.  After his capture, he was unrepentant, and so transferred to a zoo in Rotterdam.  Testing a new plan, this time he went into full-on ape mode, jumping a water-filled moat and violently attacking a woman, before running into a nearby restaurant and trying to blend in.  The plan might have worked had not Bokito become impatient and tossed a few chairs to demand faster service.  As one would expect, the people in the chairs complained.

            On hearing of Bokito’s escapes, two orangutans knew that, as higher order primates who could teach even humans a thing or two about restaurant manners, they could do better.  Dubbed “Hairy Houdini,” Ken Allen of the San Diego Zoo became a folk hero with his record-breaking four escapes, while assisting in five others.  Not to be outdone, Fu Manchu at the Omaha Zoo busted his whole family out three times by picking a lock with a piece of wire he kept hidden, and was awarded an honorary membership in the American Association of Locksmiths.  While they never made it back to Borneo, both orangutans said through interpreters that they hoped to be an inspiration to anyone whose lives are on public display.  Social media platforms responded by removing their posts.

            In Hunsbruck, Germany, a wild fox and a wild boar with a call to duty and more empathy than most humans, tunneled under two fences to try and spring a zoo’s prisoners.  Three homesick kangaroos crawled to freedom and hopped away.  The plan unraveled though when none of the local animals could tell them the whereabouts of either the Australian Embassy or the Quantas air terminal, or even locate Australia on a map, sparking an outcry both for zoo reform and better wildlife education.

              One of the longest bids for freedom belongs to Penguin # 337 at the Tokyo Sea Life Park, a Humboldt penguin who jumped a large rock, wriggled through a barbed wire fence, and made it to Tokyo Bay.  For 82 days, the South American bird searched fruitlessly for its name and others of its kind while eluding would be captors, outsmarting and out-maneuvering even the Japanese Coast Guard, who had to endure the taunts of both the penguin and the other Japanese self-defense forces.  All the while the penguin, endangered in its native habitat, was truly threatened in this foreign one while being mocked as “flightless” by the local birds.  Without a name itself, it nonetheless had a few choice names for the authorities upon its return.

            The list of animals making desperate attempts at freedom is long, but most such escapes are kept quiet so as not to alarm the public, or to give the other animals any ideas.  As the escape records show, however, animals already have clear ideas about where they belong, and where they don’t belong.  Many are no doubt even full of ideas about where humans belong, but have also elected to remain quiet so as not to alarm the public.               

Book Review for Hold the Apocalypse – Pass Me a Scientist Please

How cool is this. Here’s a review of my new book from Readers’ Favorite Book Reviews:

Hold the Apocalypse by Bob Lorentson looks at us as “Modern Humans” and shows us what our world has become. But don’t take it too seriously. Even though the subject may be serious, Bob the environmental scientist helps us to see the funny side of our development and of the animals with whom we share our doomed planet. Through 50 essays and poems Bob gives us food for thought by showing us the difference between men and women, and between us and animals or, in some cases, there is little or no difference. Included in the book are subjects that no person would ever think could be written about – but where there’s a will there’s a way – and now we finally know the answers to all the questions that nobody ever thought of asking.

Hold the Apocalypse is best read when you have nothing else to do, because if you have anything to attend to you can be guaranteed that it won’t get done once you start reading Bob’s hilarious tales, essays, poems, and theories. Also make sure you are alone because otherwise you will annoy everyone around you with bouts of laughter and “listen to this” while you read passages from the book to them. If you are looking for a gift for anybody, look no further, you just found the perfect book. There is even a section on how to reduce stress but you won’t need any additional stress release methods after reading this. Hold the Apocalypse will certainly take your mind for a walk. This fantastic book has no negative aspects and I rate it five out of five.

Hold the Apocalypse – Pass Me a Scientist Please

Well, the deed is done. I just hit the Amazon “Publish” button and released my first book into the world, to join with the other 2,700 books that are self-published every day. (That’s not a misprint.) Like those others, I know that its chances of survival are not on its side. Ordinarily I’d blame global warming and the coming Apocalypse, or increased sun spot activity, or increased Romance Novel activity. Something environmental. (They could all be related you know.)

But this book is a different sort of animal. Raised in captivity by a foster parent of well-meaning but ultimately dubious survival skills himself, and with no publishing house in its pedigree, it must now find a way to survive with what nourishment I could provide it – a cool cover, a catchy title, and lots of words arranged in an order that has never before been attempted. They are good words too. In fact if you find any bad words, I urge you to report them to me at once and I will replace them at no extra cost.

I have also managed to provide my book with some extra nourishment that could make a difference. A most curious array of wonderful people have offered fantastic, professional editorial reviews for me to use on my Amazon sales page. These include award-winning writers, editors, publishers, a former president of the Sierra Club, and most eccentrically, the creator of a popular comic strip empire. I can only hope this is nourishment enough to carry it until it can fly on its own.

The rest is up to you readers. Go see for yourself what all the fuss is about by clicking the link to my book on my website (, under My Books, or go to Amazon books directly. Saving the world from an apocalypse may depend on it. At the very least, learning to laugh in the face of Doomsday may yet prove to be a survival skill.

Cloudy With a Chance of Daydreams

Growing up, my parents would tell me that I could move mountains if I worked hard and dreamed big.  To this day I don’t know if they were hoping for a business leader or an explosives expert.  Either way, that was before I ever saw a mountain.  To my parents everlasting disappointment I soon settled for moving clouds.  I found them much more cooperative subjects.  (I believe this was when my parents changed tactics, and settled for trying to move me out of the house.)

            If you move a mountain, what have you accomplished?  The mountain is still there, it’s just in a different location, and likely in someone else’s way now.  And for your efforts, you will undoubtedly find yet another mountain in your way also.  But if you move a cloud, you will have the whole universe in front of you.      

            I have been a cloud watcher ever since I realized the limitations of staring at ceilings.  The sky spoke to me early on, and while it didn’t yet make any more sense than anything on earth, at least it wasn’t trying to fill my head with things like algebra, world wars, and “Great Expectations”.  But while the sky is interesting in its own infinitely mysterious way, it would be a whole lot less interesting without clouds.  Clouds bring the sky’s magic down to earth, so to speak, in a free show that anyone can appreciate.  Even if your imagination is for mature audiences only.  No one has to know.

            To lay on a grassy lawn on a warm summer day and conduct a parade of cumulous floats slowly across the sky is far more satisfying to me than moving mountains.  And I don’t have to lift a finger to do it.  I am no nephologist however.  Nephologists are cloud scientists, people whose business it is to demystify clouds with scientific explanations.  They might just as well de-mistify them while they’re at it, for clouds with either their magic or their water removed cease to be clouds in my mind.  Of course, my mind is always in at least a partly cloudy condition, so I may be biased.

            Instead, I’ll throw my lot in with the CAS, the Cloud Appreciation Society, a loose affiliation of cloud lovers whose business it is to fight ‘blue-sky thinking’ wherever they find it.  It is a battle that only those with their heads in the clouds would consider, as the blue-sky thinkers have managed to convince most people that ‘being under a cloud’ is a bad thing.  The CAS has countered with a phrase of their own, ‘A Day with Your Head in the Clouds Keeps Your Feet on the Ground’, but blue-sky thinkers just smile and point to the dark clouds on the CAS horizon. 

            Word has it that its illustrious founder, Gavin Pretor-Pinney, is finding running the CAS too much work, a concept guaranteed to set its 50,000 members running faster than a sky filled with cumulo-nimbus thunderheads.  As author of  “The Cloud Spotter’s Guide,” Pretor-Pinney has no doubt seen the dark clouds as well.  It didn’t help when he decided to take on the formidable World Meteorological Organization on his own.  As publisher of “The International Cloud Atlas,” the WMO, established in 1950, recognizes 10 genera of clouds, 14 species, 9 varieties, and dozens of ‘accessory clouds’ and ‘supplemental features’.  It does not recognize either sheep or fluffy bunnies.

            Pretor-Pinney, however, recognized in 2009 that the WMO had missed one, a rare, wave-like cloud variety that he called ‘Asperatus’.  In what should be no surprise to anyone, the WMO forecast team never saw either the cloud or the storm that followed.  But after eight long years of fighting Pretor-Pinney, they finally caved in 2017 and amended the Atlas, while ungraciously changing the name to ‘Asperitus’.  Still, it’s proof enough to me that sometimes you can move mountains simply by watching clouds.

            To my mind, Pretor-Pinney may have had an advantage that the meteorologists didn’t have.  Cloud watchers are nothing if not contemplative dreamers, and clouds an ever-changing Rorschach test for their souls.  Whether you see fluffy bunnies, fierce dragons, or a mushroom cloud surrounded by angels praying, there is much they can tell you about yourself.  With so much free psychotherapy, that other elusive cloud, Cloud 9, is always within their grasp.  Stick that in your bleeping Atlas, WMO.

Shooting Stars – Good Luck or Good Bye?

Are You Feeling Lucky?

Who doesn’t marvel at a shooting star, and wonder what it means?  Some cultures believe a shooting star represents the soul of a new baby falling to earth, or that a soul has been released from purgatory and can finally ascend to heaven.  Some, like seafarers, believe they can predict which way the wind will blow.  Others believe that if you spot one on your right, it means good luck, but if it’s on your left, beware, because misfortune will follow you.  Still others believe a shooting star means that a celebrity has gone postal.                                                    

            Shooting stars, for the celebrity and celestial impaired, are meteors.  What are meteors you say?  I’m glad you asked, because no one should be left thinking that God is throwing rocks at us.  Meteors are small bits of space debris, usually rock, but possibly also the remnants of Flat Earth Society member’s minds, that get sucked into earth’s gravitational field, then burn up and disintegrate due to the friction encountered while travelling through the gases in our atmosphere.  It’s much like what happens to anyone entering a boy’s locker room unprepared.  As they burn, these objects then emit a bright light which appears to ‘shoot’ across the sky.   

            Surprisingly, most meteors that enter the earth’s atmosphere are only the size of a pebble, or even a grain of sand.  Occasionally they might get to the size of a human fist.  It doesn’t take much to excite the sky.  Or the sky watchers, for that matter, at least those night owls who find daylight overrated.  The odds of spotting a meteor though are not good.  Twenty-five million of them enter earth’s atmosphere every day, and under good conditions at the best of times (September mornings), one can perhaps see 8 – 16 per hour.  This drops off progressively to a low of 2 – 4 per hour on March evenings, before increasing again.  Meteor showers, which derive from comets, are the exception, and can produce up to 50 – 100 per hour, along with the belief that we’re under attack by alien invaders.

            Those beliefs aren’t always wrong.  About 17 times a day, on average, a meteor hits the ground, whereupon it is then dubbed a meteorite and treated like a long lost cat who has discovered the secrets of the universe.  If one can be found, which is rather like looking for one sane member of QAnon.  Only about ten are recovered every year.  Of course, one can always find you.  In 1954, an 8 ½ pound, 4.5 million year old meteorite smashed through Ann Hodges roof in Sylacauga, Alabama, making her an instant celebrity and a firm believer in hard hats and hard liquor.  Giving no respect to its venerable age and origin however, she promptly used it as a doorstop. 

            In 1911 a meteorite killed a dog near Cairo, Egypt, lending further credence to the belief that God is a cat person.  In 2013, a 7,000 ton meteorite the size of a bus exploded with the force of 20 atomic bombs near Chelyabinsk, Siberia, creating a shockwave that injured 1,000 people, but no cats.  NASA figures that once every 2,000 years a meteorite the size of a football field hits the earth and causes people to change religions.  But neither hard hats, hard booze, nor even hard cats would have helped anyone had they been around 65 million years ago to see the Chicxulub meteorite wipe out the dinosaurs and three-quarters of all life on earth.  (These are merely offered as facts so that you might also consider anti-anxiety medication while you’re watching the next meteor shower with zombie cocktail in hand, football helmet on head, and your cat in your lap.)

Nowhere to run.

            As might be expected when confronted by mysterious fireballs in the sky, and falling rocks that can bring out the Chicken Little in the best of us, human imaginations through the centuries have soared into the stratosphere and beyond in search of answers and superstitions.  Aristotle, who apparently never subscribed to the ‘write what you know’ advice, literally wrote the book on the subject anyway, Meteorologica, in 340 B.C., in which he described shooting stars as “a dry exhalation … scattered in small parts in many directions … and the more and faster a thing moves, the more apt it is to take fire.”  To be fair though, I do now stick to the speed limits.

            In more recent times, meteorologists have distanced themselves from Aristotle and co-opted the term meteorology, while making it about the study of television newscast domination.  This has stuck the people who actually study meteors with the awkward name meteoricists, who get no TV time.  Despite the slight, meteoricists will still tell you about how most meteors occur in the region of our atmosphere called the thermosphere, between 50 and 75 miles high, and how they range in speed from 25,000 mph to 160,000 mph.  But they will also tell you that meteorologists are no better than crystal ball gazers, lucky poseurs who should return the term meteorology to the scientists it belongs to.  Meteorologists respond that meteoricists still don’t understand that, weather forecasting aside, one makes one’s own luck, and it starts by observing shooting stars from the correct side.

Animal Showers – Weather Gone Wild

It doesn’t take a weatherman to know that precipitation can take many forms.  Starting from a slight mist and advancing to a torrential downpour, it can even take on progressively more solid forms when it comes to sleet, snow, hail, or cats and dogs.  I presume those would be frozen cats and dogs.  Or at least stunned.

            Of course when it “rains cats and dogs,” people aren’t actually expecting Maine coons or St. Bernard’s to fall on their heads.  Cats, with their nine lives and all, might find it amusing for a while, but a rain of dogs would likely mean an end to the reign of dogs.  Fortunately this is just a non-sensical expression and not something our pets need to worry about.  Still, mine act pretty antsy at the first crack of thunder. 

            But just because it never literally rained cats or dogs doesn’t mean it hasn’t rained animals that came in other forms.  So let’s take a look at those forms, and the circumstances that precipitated them.

            As most people know, rain is part of the water cycle, which starts with the evaporation of water from the earth.  What goes up, must come down.  The same goes for the fish cycle apparently.  Reports of fish rains around the world are not uncommon, with dozens of such incidents being recorded as far back as 1861.  Before this time either the fish were made of sterner stuff, or people were, and just shrugged them off.  Or simply ate the fish and thanked the Rain Gods for the ocean to table dining experience.  Scientists, meanwhile, believe that such occurrences are due to waterspouts, tornado-like vacuums that suck up water and fish, and then drop them on people just for the fun of it.  Whose fun is open to speculation, as fish are widely known to lack a sense of humor.  And if piranhas are involved, the same can be said for people.

            If being pelted with piranhas isn’t worrisome enough for you, think of being showered by sharks.  Or a shark, since one of them probably equals about a hundred piranhas.  On October 22, 2012, a two-foot leopard shark fell on the 12th tee of the San Juan Hills Golf Club in Puerto Rico.  Golfers more concerned with shooting birdies and eagles were unimpressed with the message however, even though investigators determined that it was likely dropped by a birdie, possibly an eagle.  The shark, still alive, was returned to the ocean, no doubt full of stories about an adventure and a game that sounded completely ridiculous. 

            And who hasn’t noticed their lawn or driveway covered in worms after a rainfall and wondered if the meteorologists were telling us everything?  Well, it turns out that wormy rains have been reported in many parts of the world, just never by meteorologists, who would ordinarily never miss an opportunity to scare us about a weather event.  But miss it they did in 2007 when hundreds of squirmy worms fell on people’s heads in Jennings, Louisiana.  Likewise at a school in Galashiels, Scotland in 2011, a Norway ski resort in 2015, and enough other places to make meteorologists and oligochaetologists both sit up and look at the sky for a change.

            If about now you’re thinking that you might get through this essay without a mention of spiders, well, welcome to my nightmare.  I’m a scientist and have to report the truth.  You, however, are free to go, to save yourself from the psychological trauma that is sure to follow.

            There is nowhere in the world that is safe from spider rain.  It happens like this.  Many species of spiders will climb to a high point, and instead of leaping to their deaths, stick their butts in the air and release silk, causing them to be swept up by a breeze and carried long distances.  This is called ballooning, and is a great way for spiders to see the world, and people to see the end of the world.  Though it’s not usual for them to all do this at the same time and then land in the same place, it does happen.  One recent incident in Goulburn, Australia reported spiders that fell from the air like a black snow, getting in people’s hair and covering the town with their webs.  If you arachnophobes can keep that image from ruining your day, you’re doing well, but I still need to mention that some of the spiders were venomous.  And that none were anthropophobes.

            If you are a new visitor to South Florida and are expecting sunshine, but get a cold snap instead, it would behoove you to take the National Weather Service seriously when they forecast an iguana rain.  At such times, cold-blooded iguanas freeze and become catatonic to the point they often fall out of trees.  Iguanas are considered an invasive species in Florida, where the residents feel that this is not at all how newcomers should behave.  They have already had quite enough of it from the unprepared snowbird species of immigrants from New England.

            And no accounting of animal showers would be complete without a mention of frogs, which have been falling from the sky at least since the ancient Greek historian Heraclides Lembus reported how the roads would be covered in them after such events.  Nowadays Heraclides may be dismissed for his sensationalist reporting, but it seems that frog and other plagues were popular at the time, and they didn’t just pop up out of the ground.  Scientists today generally think that either religious hysteria or tornadoes are responsible for frog rains, but skeptics like to point out that, except when herons or French chefs are around, frogs aren’t particularly religious. 

            All in all, there is no need to worry at this time that animal rains might be a sign of the apocalypse, but if we should start hearing such reports involving elephants, hippos, or blue whales, even a modern day Noah would throw up his hands in despair.

The Great Viking Makeover

Old Viking
New Viking

I am a Viking.  I learned this recently when I read that anyone of Scandinavian descent whose name ends in ‘son’ is likely to have Viking blood in their veins.  I know it’s probably not very Viking-like of me, but I have been afraid of admitting this possibility to myself forever.  I only felt emboldened to accept my heritage because of recent scientific discoveries that put Vikings in a better light.  And let’s face it, a total eclipse of the sun would have put Vikings in a better light.

            I am not a practicing Viking mind you.  I never have, and likely never will go around raiding, burning, pillaging, wearing horned helmets, drinking from human skulls, and just generally going berserk.  But who didn’t do these things back in the carefree Viking days of the 9th, 10th, and 11th centuries?

            Well, in the Great Viking Makeover, it turns out that laying waste to the non-Viking world was only a part time job, and they never did wear horned helmets or drink from skulls.  And only a small percentage of them were genuine berserkers, ingesting psychotropic plants like henbane or fly agaric to put themselves into a trance-like rage, howling and biting their shields while wearing wolf or bear skins into battle.  But I think that every group has a few people like that, don’t they?  We’ve just learned to look the other way.

            In fact, Vikings didn’t have a lot of time for marauding shenanigans, thanks in part to those long, cold northern winters.  Sure, they made the most of the time they had, terrorizing and ransacking their way through Europe and Russia from innovatively designed longboats that took them far up rivers to places the more run-of-the-mill raiders couldn’t go.  But in my mind at least, that was just an early demonstration of what has widely come to be regarded as Scandinavian efficiency.  I will admit that Scandinavian efficiency is probably much more appreciated now-a-days. 

            Most of the time Vikings were too busy farming, fishing, building boats, and exploring.  It is unfortunate that they are not remembered more for their farming and fishing prowess, but then who is?  Viking boat builders however were known to be far ahead of their time, and their ships took fearless explorers on expeditions deep into Russia, southern Europe, and the Middle East, and west to Iceland and Greenland.  As there wasn’t yet anything to pillage in Iceland or Greenland, they continued west and even reached North America well before it became a popular marauding destination.

            The Great Viking Makeover has also turned up evidence that Vikings liked to play games as much as anyone, and tell stories and poems to cheer their hearts during the long winter nights.  One popular game had players split into two teams, with each trying to prove which could drink the most mead while delivering the most cutting insults.  This usually led to another game in which all Vikings excelled – sword play – which featured a very different type of cutting insult.  Stories and poems were told by the winners of these games, and they were no slackards when it came to word play either.  Many Viking words greatly enlivened these sagas and are still in use today, such as slaughter, ransack, berserk, knife, club, hit, and skull.

            And strangely enough, the new discoveries also reveal that any self-respecting Viking worth his name even bathed once a week, and in hot springs, not the blood of his victims.  That’s saying something when Vikings tended to have names like Eric Bloodaxe, Thorir the Troll-Burster, and Harald War Tooth.  Not only that, hip Vikings usually wore eyeliner, dyed their hair blond if it wasn’t already, and had it styled in fabulous braids.  Perhaps not so strangely, no one criticized them.

            Lastly, Viking society was also far ahead of its time in regard to women’s rights.  Viking women could own property, hold jobs outside the home, get a divorce, and be a warrior if they so wanted.  They did not, as previously believed, merely stay at home and scold their men when they came back late from a raiding party.

            I am a Viking, and am now proud to admit it.  Perhaps there is hope for all you Huns, Vandals, and Visigoths yet.

The Donut Factor – Humanity on the Rise

The factors affecting the size of human bodies are complex, but primarily involve genetics, environment, and donuts.  That last factor, of course, may be just a recent shorthand for lifestyle, but can a pre-donut existence really be called living?  It’s hard to say.  While donut dispensaries may boost life satisfaction levels, at least in the short term, some say that human body sizes have responded in ways that pretty much will only guarantee a short term.

            The Donut Factor, however, is just a tiny grease spot on the grand human timeline.  So it may be surprising to note that compared to our ancient ancestors, we are shorter, lighter, and smaller-boned.  It is only within the last few centuries that average height has begun to increase again.  And I’m sure it comes as no surprise that in more recent times, times when the world population is nearly nine billion, that our average weight has been on such an upward trend that it now not only threatens the world’s sustainable food supply, but likely the earth’s rotational balance as well.  This deserves a closer look.

            The first modern humans are considered to be the Cro-Magnon people of Europe from around 40,000 years ago.  They are considered modern because they were the first to hyphenate their name, thus giving it a more urbane feel.  They were also comparative giants, with the males averaging six feet.  Being that they were relatively fresh out of Africa, this isn’t surprising.  Their African kin had long since figured out that a tall, lean body was a useful evolutionary adaptation to a warmer climate, allowing both for better thermoregulation and a sightline on animals that didn’t care what size they were as long as they were slow and tasty.

            The reason that most historical height data tends to focus on those European males of old, instead of other populations, is probably because most scientists are old European males.  But they do concede that the general body size trend has been worldwide.  In any case, they note that by 10,000 years ago, the average European male had shrunk to 5’ 4”, but was considerably bulkier due to their physically demanding lifestyle.  This did not sit well with them, but standing did not much improve the view, so they responded to this humiliating loss of eight inches by wiping out all the remaining ice age megafauna.

            Scientists attribute this resizing to three things: 1) adaptation to the new ice age, which on top of the already colder northern climate, was necessary for more efficient thermoregulation, 2) the introduction of agriculture, which initially was about as reliable as the Rain Gods, and thus made malnutrition their principal crop, and 3) the domestication of wild animals, which, along with the food and services they provided, also introduced new diseases into their midst.  All agree that it was a tough period to be alive, and that with all the difficult introductions going on, it would have been a great time for the introduction of donuts.  Alas, it was not yet to be.

            By 600 years ago, those European males only managed to add an inch back, on average, to attain the height of 5’ 5”.  Poor diet and health are said to be the main reasons for their smaller stature, no great surprise given the influence of astrology and bloodletting on agriculture and medicine.  Perhaps if the people had let a bit more blood out of the astrologists, they could have risen to greater heights.

            Enormous improvements in nutrition and health care in the past few hundred years are seen as the principal drivers of the current height revolution.  Scientists note that good nutrition specifically correlates very well with a taller stature.  Average male heights throughout Europe and America have risen dramatically during this time, from a short end of 5’ 8.5” in France, Italy, and Spain, to a tall end of 5’ 11.75” in the Netherlands.  American males, by the way, average 5’ 9”.  They just act like they’re bigger than everyone else.

            To my knowledge, no one has yet proposed a theory as to why the Dutch should be so much taller, so let me throw out the first ball.  Or donut, as the case would have it.  Donuts, called “oil cakes” by the Dutch, were first invented and enjoyed by them in the early 19th century, giving them a head start perhaps not only on the growth of the donut economy, but the growth of the Dutch people.  Now I know some may say that donuts do not generally, or even remotely, correlate well with nutrition, but, well, science doesn’t have all the answers.

            In the interest of full disclosure though, over the most recent 40 year span, global average weight has risen by nearly 18 pounds per person, a 14% increase.  Some of this, of course, can be attributed to the 1.3% increase in global average height over this period, but far from all of it.  However, as a 6’ 0”, 160 pound male of northern European heritage, I refuse to accept the heretical insinuations that donuts and their kind could be responsible for the rest without further scientific evidence.  If the scientists can change their minds about alcohol and coffee, I can wait them out on donuts.  

The Trouble With Kangaroos

Consider this a public service alert: Kangaroos are in the Macropodidae family, and you should be worried if this family moves in next to you.  One day they will seem fine, grazing pretty as a picture out on the lawn, but look a short time later and there will be twice as many, thanks to a reproductive assembly line that is capable of churning out three babies in only two years.  Not only that, but all the babies are named Joey.  This is undoubtedly part of their desperate attempt to try and normalize an awkward situation, but do they look like any Joeys you know?

            Adult male kangaroos are all named Buck, Jack, or Boomer.  Females are all named Jill, Flyer, or Doe.  Guessing a stranger’s name at a party is never a problem for a kangaroo.  If they even bother with introductions that is.  At the almost plague-like rate that kangaroos reproduce, they might just pair off at Hello.

            And then there’s the relatives, a kangaroo superfamily of 67 peculiar species from evolution’s trial and error department.  These include the Woylies, the Quokkas, the Pandemelons, the Boodies, the Wallaroos, the Narbaleks, the Bettongs, the Potoroos, and others with names that may sound interesting, but really only disguise a limited grasp of how the world works.  Take any of these Macropods out of Australia or Papua New Guinea and before you know it they’ll be trying to convince you that hopping is the best way to get around, and that funny names help you succeed in life.  They don’t seem to realize that most all of them are hopping towards extinction.  To me this is horribly wrong, but how can you argue with the cats, dogs, cows, and pigs of the world.

            When we think of kangaroos, and who doesn’t, we are usually thinking of three species – the Red, the Western Gray, and the Eastern Gray.  Together they are referred to as the “Great Kangaroos.”  Let me be clear about this, there is nothing great about them.  They have huge, oversized feet (macropod MEANS big foot), and heads that are too small for their bodies.  If they were truly meant to get anywhere in life this would be reversed.  They are plantigrade and syndactylous, and just let that sink in for a minute.  They may be the world’s largest marsupials, but as mammals go, that leaves a lot of room for improvement.  About the best thing you can say about them is that at least they’re not monotremes.  (Although I do have to say that their built-in pockets, or pouches, would be pretty cool for keeping snacks in if it weren’t for the constant presence of a hungry Joey.)

            The Red Kangaroo is the largest of the bunch, and gets the most attention.  Rightfully so.  At six feet and 200 pounds, it might be comforting for you to know that it’s supposedly an herbivore.  Don’t let that fool you.  Just as with the short-armed boxing pose it may strike if it takes a disliking to you, these things are merely designed to make you laugh and lower your guard before it disembowels you with one powerful kick from its legs.  Legs that hop 40 mph and jump 10 feet high and 25 feet far in a single bound.  Just be thankful that the kangaroo’s ancient ancestors aren’t still around.  Some were nine feet tall and weighed 500 pounds.  Others had fangs.  Herbivores my eye.

            Kangaroos are social animals that live in groups.  These groups, however, are called mobs.  Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t believe that mobs of anything can be called social, unless your idea of a friendly get-together involves torches and pitchforks.  There’s a reason why the word mob is usually preceded by angry.  Mobs have one purpose, and that is to intimidate.  Try playing a round of golf in Australia someday with mobs of Eastern Grays roaming the fairways and see how well you do.

            Here’s a couple of real oddities about kangaroos I bet you didn’t know.  I mean not counting the fact that they are essentially extremely large and very aggressive rabbits who are used to having things their own way.  One, they cannot move backwards.  I have to believe that this structural defect must cause an absolute panic whenever one finds itself at the edge of a cliff.  Two, their legs cannot move independently of each other, unless they’re swimming.  Yes, kangaroos are good swimmers, so you might not even be safe from them in your pool or at the lake.

            In conclusion then, if after all this you still feel like you could live with the Macropodidae family next door, don’t say I didn’t warn you.  Just be aware that I never even got to mention the tree kangaroos.