Sunday, February 26, 2012

Redefining Extinction

I noticed a news item this week about the seeds from a plant that were preserved in the Siberian permafrost for over 30,000 years and were rescued by Russian scientists, defrosted, cultivated in a laboratory, and grew into the plant and flowered. The plant is called Silene stenophylla. A contemporary version of the plant (said to be very similar to the 30,000-year-old version) still grows in Russia. The revived Silene stenophylla made viable seeds. It is the oldest plant ever to be regenerated and the find proves that the permafrost is a repository for viable life forms (frozen in suspended animation for thousands of years and capable of being revived). The Russian scientists who found the seeds and grew the plants are continuing to search in the permafrost for other viable tissues and seeds. The scientists are searching for tissues that would allow them to regenerate Ice Age mammals. One of the scientists stated, “This path could lead us all the way to mammoth.” I assume this means they are hoping to find viable frozen tissue from a wooly mammoth so they can bring those back from extinction too.

Whoa. My mind is racing. This means that perhaps no creature can be completely extinct because it might be able to come back. This means that DNA or tissues from the wooly mammoth could be found and a wooly mammoth could be grown in a lab. Although I have to wonder why we would want to bring back a wooly mammoth. I imagine a mammoth blinking in confusion in the bright lights of a contemporary lab, far from the prehistoric forests it once walked.

The ecosystem is such a delicate balance. I wonder if the reintroduction of a lost plant or animal could throw everything out of whack. I’m thinking of, for instance, the massive problem created in Clear Lake in Lake County, California, by the introduction of hydrilla, a type of seaweed. People dumped their home aquariums in the lake and established hydrilla, which then overtook the lake because nothing in Clear Lake eats hydrilla. So what if scientists bring back a plant from the Ice Age and they are innocent of the role this plant plays in the ecosystem and it turns out that it spreads like plague and hosts bacteria that kills fruit trees or something? The American chestnut trees were wiped out by a fungus brought over from Europe on the ships that carried pioneering settlers. (The chestnuts are not entirely extinct, but it doesn’t look like they are making a comeback any time soon.) Ya think we could be overrun by wooly mammoths gone amuck? Gives me pause.

While I am intrigued by the concept that something we thought was gone forever can return, I must also proceed with a sort of reserved wonder as I wait to discover the ramifications of the reintroduction of long-lost species.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Thin Veil: Magical Realism or Not?

When Gabriel García Márquez wrote One Hundred Years of Solitude, he was largely writing nonfiction, changing the names to protect the real people, and disguising reality with scanty costumes. The book took place in a fictional town called Macondo, which was really Aracataca (in Colombia), where he grew up. If you read about him and his role as a literary figure, you will find that he is known for popularizing a literary style labeled as “magical realism,” which is defined as a literary device that uses magical elements and events in order to explain real experiences. This is a typically “Western” or “Anglo/Euro” or “Norte Americano” perception of what Márquez does in his novels. According to Márquez, the truth is that his novels are not actually fiction at all and this “magical realism” stuff is real, no magic to it.

Here is a for instance. When Márquez was in his early 20s, his family, which was poor at the time, moved to a new town for his father to start a new job. They rented a small house and packed in their 11 children. Márquez was the oldest child in the family. In his autobiography, Living to Tell the Tale, Márquez writes that on their first night in that house, the ghost of a woman walked into the living room and frightened all the younger children, who fled to their parents’ bed. Every night the ghost entered the room and the children refused to sleep there. Márquez’s parents asked around in the village and discovered that everyone knew about the ghost, who was harmless but a bit unsettling (who wants a ghost walking through their house every night, right?), and that was why the house was so cheap to rent. Well, they didn’t want to have their young children in their bed every night, so they packed up and moved to another house. This entire episode made perfect sense to everyone in the town, but if Márquez were to write it into a novel, it would be defined as magical realism by those skeptics and naysayers who are so out of touch with the spiritual world that they don’t believe that such a thing would happen. For Márquez, of course, there was nothing magical about it. It really happened. His autobiography is full of such stories and reads like one of his novels.

What makes me think about this today is that last night Ron and I spent the evening with a couple, friends of ours who are grieving for a family member who recently passed into spirit. The man talked about his experiences communicating with and visioning entities from the spirit world. In the course of the conversation, the woman said something that I found striking. She said that she thinks that the thin veils between planes of consciousness, between spirit world and corporeal world, are becoming even thinner at this time in the course of human history and that more and more people are recognizing the ways in which their experiences are touched by spiritual entities from other planes. More and more people are communicating across the “spiritual divides.”

I hope she is right. Because I have a novel coming out in June that is written from my perspective of the world as I know it and it could easily be labeled as “magical realism.” But that bothers me because I am with Márquez. Not magical realism at all. Reality as I see it. For some readers, the experiences of the characters in my fiction will resonate with their own experiences and they will say “how wonderful that someone has written openly about this.” For others, those who would call it magical realism, my book will ask them to rethink, to expand their perception, to question what they have accepted as reality and to take a leap into the possibilities.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Outmoded Paradigm for College Tuition

Every year at about this time I have the same conversation with the financial aid office at my son’s private art college. I request an increase in his tuition scholarship because they raise the tuition about $2,000 every year, which means that his upcoming senior year will cost $6,000 more than his freshman year. And every year they tell me that they can’t consider offering him any more scholarship money until he takes out a student loan from the federal government; because he has not yet “accessed all his resources” (i.e., student loans). So every year I explain that we refuse to have our children take student loans, that the student loan system is an outmoded paradigm, and that colleges should find ways to lower their tuition costs and provide more financial assistance.

In this economy, young people coming out of college struggle to land any job, let alone a job with a salary high enough for them to pay off student loans. If my two older children had taken out student loans, they would be deeply in debt, they would have defaulted on those loans and destroyed their credit rating, they would be stressed about their finances, and they would be starting out in life with a depressing inability to save any money for many years. CBS News recently reported that student loan debt is swiftly becoming as big a blow to the economy (potentially bigger) as the mortgage crisis. Students are unable to pay their loans back and parents are going bankrupt as a result of borrowing to put their children through college. (Source: CBS Money Watch, Feb. 9, 2012.) Colleges walk off with the money paid by students and their parents, but the debt remains with the borrowers. President Obama did not finish paying off his student loans until he was already serving in Congress.

Most students must work at least part-time while in school and this makes it more challenging to graduate in four years. It now takes an undergrad an average of six years to complete a bachelor’s degree (national average); a degree which used to take only four years. (Many students take more than six years.) This means at least two additional years of paying tuition and living in poverty. When young people finally graduate, they often have difficulty transitioning into a paid job because of the rapid rise in unpaid internships. (See my blog of a few weeks ago on that topic.)

In December 2011, UC-Berkeley announced that it would offer more financial aid to middle-class students starting in the fall of 2012. (They defined “middle class” as families earning $80K to $140K annually.) This announcement was made after a study found that while low-income and high-income students were enrolling at UC-Berkeley in the same numbers, middle-class student enrollment has been steadily declining. (Duh.) The study found that low-income students were eligible for substantial scholarships and high-income students didn’t need scholarships, but middle-class students’ families couldn’t scrape together their expected contribution to tuition. (Ya think? They needed a scientific study to figure this out?) UC-Berkeley will not expect middle-class families to pay more than 15% of their annual income in tuition starting this coming fall. Many private universities (including Yale, Harvard, and Princeton) already made the no-more-than-15% commitment some time ago to families making up to $200K. UC-Berkeley is the first public university to make this commitment and now others are scrambling to find ways to follow suit.

College is not for everyone, but my husband and I loved it and we are firmly committed to giving our three children the opportunity to experience it. This is an option that should be available to any who choose it. Let’s get personal (even though it’s taboo in this country to talk about one’s personal finances). We have paid more than 15% of our income toward tuition for our youngest child’s freshman, sophomore, and junior years. That 15%+ does not include room and board. (He has helped with that by living frugally, plus he works a work-study job.) When our oldest started college in 2002, we owned our home (with no mortgage). Ten years later, we have two mortgages, a Parent Plus loan from the U.S. Department of Education, and an interest-free loan from the Hebrew Free Loan Association (terrific resource for Jewish families, by the way). With the money we borrowed, we have bought a bachelor’s in journalism for our daughter and a bachelor’s in applied arts and sciences for our son. They are both working and paying their basic living expenses themselves and they both value their college education, which taught them a great deal. In the spring of 2013, our youngest will complete his BFA in media arts. We are proud of our children for completing college. We are grateful that we have managed to help them pay for college without taking any student loans. Instead, however, we are carrying the debt ourselves. Our children have agreed to help us pay down the mortgages if/when they can afford to do so. Our other option is to eventually sell the house, which will require serious consideration regarding where and how we want to live as we age.

My point is that the system needs to change.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Sign of the E-Times in Which We Live

A few weeks ago I reported that the WHERE THE HECK ARE WE? sign that I posted on a tree in the woods in 1991 is currently on display at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) as part of artist Colter’s contribution to the SECA Exhibition. It was a fun story, good for a laugh. But things have evolved since then in a more serious direction.

You may remember that I mentioned that Colter made a temporary sign, with the same question on it, and posted it on the same tree in the woods, as a stand-in for the original sign while it is on loan to the MOMA. His temporary sign was up less than a week before it was apparently stolen from the tree. Colter looked all over the place for it, thinking perhaps it blew down. But it seems to be gone. We are not 100% certain that it fell victim to foul play, but it sure looks like it. It’s tough to imagine someone going to all the trouble of figuring out exactly where the original sign was posted and going out there to steal Colter’s substitute. Colter is a well-known artist, so maybe someone thinks that the sign is valuable since he painted it. It’s possible, but very unlikely, that someone read my blog and searched me on the internet to find my old address at the Ranch. I say very unlikely because not very many people read my blog and you who do are close friends and family. Not strangers. (And I thank you for tuning in every week.)

What this means, however, is that the sign can never go back to its home on the tree without being in danger of disappearing for good. Colter plans to give the sign to me for safekeeping after he takes it out of the museum. Whether or not any WHERE THE HECK ARE WE? sign will ever be posted on the road to the Ranch again remains to be seen. The question might be gone from the road up there for good. And I can’t imagine posting the original sign outdoors again at all, even at our current residence, since it would be in danger of being stolen. This whole story, of everything that has transpired since the sign went to the MOMA and the result being that the sign is now exiled forever from its home, feels to me like an allegory.

My friend Helen L. in Fife (Scotland) posted the picture that appears below on my Facebook page a few days ago because she thought I would appreciate the poignancy of the image.

The bicycle was purportedly chained to the tree by a young man who went off to fight in the war and never returned. I read some of the comments about the picture and one of them related that in the short time since the picture was posted on the internet (and has had almost 10,000 views), the handlebars have been stolen. The photo doesn’t indicate where this bike and tree are located. But someone found out and took the handlebars. Coincidence? Hardly. The bike has been in the tree for nearly 100 years and no one took anything before the image appeared on the internet.

I am deeply saddened that the question I posted on our tree in 1991 is no longer living there. I never once considered taking the sign with us when we moved. It belonged there. It was on that tree in the middle of the woods that the question was most meaningful and most humorous. In my opinion, the question means nothing in the context of a modern art museum. Fame, it seems, has killed the question.

The sign in its natural habitat.