Sunday, November 30, 2008

Potholders--Selected Essays--2008

by Richard Crews


From time to time I write a brief essay on a topic that interests me. Sometimes I write one every day or two; sometimes I skip a week or two. These essays are generally a few paragraphs long. My topics range from historical and scientific curiosities to philosophical or aesthetic insights.

The essays chosen for this presentation are among those I wrote toward the end of 2008. None are imaginative literary creations because, although I wrote a few of those during this period, the genre didn't particularly raise my interest when I was putting together this collection. All of them are apolitical because it is past time for Bush-bashing--he has done his damage and receded to the garbage dump of history--and it is still too early to comment on Obama's efforts.

As to my goals, a bit of explanation I wrote along with the essay "Gorilla Wars" goes as follows:

"In this piece, as with everything I write, my chief aim is to write well--to explore the power of the English language. I am always pleased to have something to say, but how to say it is my primary quest, my obsession.

"As you consider 'Gorilla Wars,' do you agree that the prose, particularly of the first paragraph, is lush with complex, inter-nested mini/micro parts like the jungle?

"Do you agree that the later prose somehow captures and conveys the triple confrontation of raw nature with drum-beating warfare and with soul-deep political unease?

"(Did you see the movie 'Instinct'?)

"I spent many hours thinking about, working on, and writing 'Gorilla Wars.' There was clearly a muse calling me who wanted something special here.

"I am pleased with it. There are some awkward elements and curious juxtapositions that, nevertheless, work to capture and convey the tone, the spirit I was looking for."

One friend after seeing this explanation said something like, "Well, maybe the style often trumps the topic, but you do tend to choose big topics, important topics." So be it.

The organizing principles for this collection are simple: I have grouped together essays that seemed in retrospect more or less related--by theme, by purpose, or by level of anger.

As to the title, "Potholders," it derives from my childhood experience in summer camp. We wove loose, six-inch-square things out of loops of colored cloth and gave them to our grandparents; my mother told me people like best something that you made yourself.

I appreciate the editorial assistance of Norman Andreassen, a very patient and knowledgeable man.

1. Undiscovered Peoples--There are still, around the world, over a hundred tribes of hunter-gatherers who have had no contact with civilization.

2. Gorilla Wars--In the Congo insurgents may kill off the few remaining mountain gorillas in order to get the government and "tree-huggers" to leave them alone to exploit the jungle timbers.

3. Culture--What makes one culture different from another, and what makes one survive?

4. Strange Brain Games--Some people with severely damaged brains have remarkable mental abilities; the rest of us have these too, but we inhibit them in order to live "normal" lives.

5. How Babies Learn--There are three principles that are often overlooked that can help us understand how babies learn.

6. Hunger amid Plenty--There is enough food in the world to go around, but the civilized nations don't have the decency to share it.

7. The World's Water Crisis--Clean fresh water is running out worldwide.

8. The Great Holocene Dying--Geologically speaking, human beings are a disaster in the making.

9. New Kinds of Chemical Threats--Modern science has developed four kinds of chemicals that are different--radically different--from anything nature has had to deal with before.

10. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch--Where do millions of tons of plastic bags go to die--slowly? A vast doldrums out in the middle of the ocean.

11. Life Has Many Moving Parts--It takes more than brilliance to be brilliant. It also takes patience, hard work, and an amazing variety of skills.

12. So Much Trouble, So Little Time--There is a wave of troubles, severe and varied troubles, about to hit us; the future is almost here.

13. U.S. Energy Problems--A puzzle with several parts.

14. Crude Payback--When oil comes out of the ground, it is already severely in debt.

15. Green Crude--Can algae be "taught" (genetically) to make petroleum?

16. Diesel from Trees--An organism has been discovered that can break down woody plants and synthesize diesel-equivalent fuel oil.

17. Fire Ice--Hold a little piece of special water-ice in your hand; it burns as it melts; in fact, it contains a tremendous amount of methane. And there is a lot of it.

18. Battery Hoax--The lead in batteries is very poisonous to the environment, so it is widely and efficiently recycled, right? Legally, yes. In fact, no.

19. A Unique Alien Ecosystem--Here's a species that lives alone. It doesn't need any other species to survive.

20. A Natural Nuclear Reactor--A couple of billion years ago a peculiar deposit of uranium, sandstone, and water in Gabon, Africa went critical.

21. The China Problem--China is rising, and confronting the West with some thorny issues--ecologically, economically, and culturally.

22. Immigration Dilemma--The U.S. was built by immigrants; must we now shut them out?

23. Immigration Strategies--Here are some perspectives and principles for dealing with the immigration problem.

24. Incarceration Milestone--The U.S. is the "land of the jailed"; more so even than Russia, China, or any other nation.

25. The Prison Door--Even after someone is released from prison, they must serve the rest of their lives in another socio-cultural trap.

26. Rehabilitation Plan--What can we do to reclaim the millions of lives lost to crime and punishment?

27. Reality--Reality as revealed by modern science is not what you see, or think, or "know" it is.

28. The "Prime Mover" Conundrum--Who made God's God's God? Or maybe our intellects are coming at this question from the wrong direction.

29. Why Are We Here (Cosmically)?--The "answer" (or problems finding an answer) may surprise you.

Your feedback, comments, and corrections are welcome.
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