Apr 23

Acceptance Is Belonging

A beautiful essay, written by my friend Amy Sequenzia, for Autism Acceptance Month.

Autism Acceptance means more than love and understanding. It means belonging.

Amy lived in Great Barrington for a time, and was very active in CATA. She has published a collection of poetry.

Apr 23

An underreported feature of planned changes in US currency

I am very pleased with the change of heart that places Tubman on the twenty and leaves Hamilton on the ten. Tucked away at the end of this article is another hugely important change, one that is long overdue. Many (if not most) currencies have different sizes for different denominations, enabling people with poor or no vision to be able to tell which bills they are handling.

U.S. Treasurer Rosie Rios told reporters … that the new currency will include … “For the first time in our history, … a new tech-help feature intended to aid the blind and the visually impaired,” Rios said. “This is a new, complex and critical, important element in the production of modern U.S. currency.

As a disabled person, I am keenly aware of what a poor job our society does in providing accommodations that are needed for full inclusion. This one improvement is a huge step forward both symbolically and for its pragmatic value.

Apr 08

The demise of mirror neurons?

The latest (April 2016) issue of Scientific American contains an article that caught my eye. It is billed as “Cognitive Psychology” and subtitled “By honing ax-making skills while scanning their own brains, researchers are studying how cognition evolved.” This is clearly a very speculative venture, and the article (“Tales of a Stone Age Neuroscientist” available to subscribers) is full of interesting anecdotes and hypotheses.

A quick search of the NIH site reveals quite a few related articles, that I will pursue as time permits (ha!). The SciAm article also lists several references.

One thing that struck me was that the author (Dietrich Stout) described a process of cognition long know as “action understanding” without invoking the phrase “mirror neurons” — a topic that I have posted (skeptically) about in the past. A quick glance at the summaries of the articles linked to above revealed no such usage, either. I’ll be interested to find out, by reading those articles, whether any reference (to mirror neurons) is made.

A few years ago, I was a subject in a brain study that was searching for link between so-called “mirror neurons” and autism. One outcome of that study is now the subject of John Elder Robison’s latest book, Switched On. I had a very different experience from John’s, as he reports in his book. And the other autistic subjects (at least the ones I knew and talked with) had varying reactions to the brain stimulation we experienced. Clearly, though, something happened in our brains that changed the way we perceived the world, and created cognitive or emotional clarity, even if only temporarily, that we had not previously known.

This study stimulated (so to speak) my interest in mirror neurons, which led me to do a lot of reading on that topic. I came to the belief that there are no such specialized cells, but that the brain as a whole performs the functions attributed to those hypothetical neurons. And it may very well be that, like so many brain functions, there are areas of the brain that are heavily involved in this process. In that study, Broca’s area was targeted. This area is known to be heavily involved in language processing, and probably in other related functions such as social understanding. The brain regions mentioned in the SciAm article are mostly in the frontal cortex as well, the “newest” area of the human brain (although as the brain evolves, “older” parts of the brain change, too, because the organ operates as a unit, not a collection of disparate functions).

For now, pending further study, my takeaway is the (to me) surprising lack of the use of the phrase “mirror neurons” (may they rest in peace). Instead, the process of “action understanding” was described in the article as

…we use many of the same brain systems to understand observed actions as we do to execute them.

This seems to me like a much simpler and more accurate way to describe how the brain works. Occam’s razor and all that.

 

Feb 19

The Evolution of American Political Parties

Are we on the verge of a major shift in the way our political parties operate in this country?

Jill Lapore has published a postmortem of the 2016 New Hampshire Primary, and perhaps of the political parties that we have known in recent years. Her basic point is that political parties have been with us since the early days of the Republic, and have undergone rapid change several times, in response (mostly) to new forms of communication.

The dates she cites are often arbitrary; evolution (as she admits) is a gradual process. Still, she provides a good synopsis of how rapidly new technologies have changed the way messages are delivered. Obvious examples include the introduction of new printing presses, which made newspapers cheaper and thus more accessible, the arrival of the telegraph, the beginning of the radio era, and so on. There were also more gradual, but equally dramatic, developments, such as rising literacy rates.

In addition to technological and social shifts, there were political movements, seemingly always fueled by an impulse to remove power from the élites and spread it around to the average voters. This year’s election cycle follows both of these trends, with the wide use of smartphones and social media marking the new technology, and “The Party Crashers” embodying yet another shift away from the party élites. Lapore says “this may be the first Presidential-primary season with free Wi-Fi pretty much everywhere.”

I’ve been politically aware nearly all my life, with periods of activism sandwiched around the years I spent getting an education and having a career. I was heavily involved with the Civil Rights and the Vietnam War protest movements in the 1960s and 70s. I became reengaged with politics after I moved back to Massachusetts (my home state) in the 1990s.

My earliest memory of having an opinion about an election was in the 1956 Presidential race. I was shocked to see a bumper sticker on the car of a friend’s parents, advocating a vote for Adlai Stevenson. “How unpatriotic!” I thought, since Dwight Eisenhower was The President. How could you not support The President? Those were the days of the Red Scare, when we learned to hide under our desks in the event of a nuclear attack, and people built and stocked underground bomb shelters where they could hang out long enough to let the radioactive fallout dissipate or drift away. And Eisenhower built on the booming postwar economy (when the top marginal income tax rate was 90%) by constructing the interstate highway system that now bears his name. The purpose of that system was not to facilitate commerce, but to enable the military to move missiles rapidly around the country to fend off the expected Russian invasion.

Then came the the election of 1960, and by then I had become somewhat more sophisticated. I watched the first televised debates, and strongly favored John Kennedy over Richard Nixon. There was something (beyond the 5 o’clock shadow) about Nixon that I found troubling, and I later learned that my instincts were correct when I met Jerry Voorhis and heard his stories about how Nixon had beaten him with dirty tricks to win Nixon’s first political office, in 1946.

Not long after JFK was elected, we experienced the Cuban Missile Crisis, and suddenly it appeared that those bomb shelters might come in handy after all. It was a scary time. On the lighter side, it was the first time I appeared on national TV. One of the networks was filming a special about how America was reacting to the Crisis, and one segment took place in Stockbridge, the archetypal New England town made iconic by the paintings of Norman Rockwell. I was asked to take part in a staged stroll on a crosswalk as the film crew panned Main Street.

Much later, I became involved in the “New Media” aspects of political campaigning, which was right up my alley, since my career in finance had been based on the use of sophisticated computer models. I supported and worked on the campaigns of Howard Dean, Deval Patrick, and Barack Obama. These campaigns were all heavily reliant on new technologies to reach out to voters, and all three of them were considered unlikely outsiders when they started their campaigns.

This year, these themes seem to be playing out again. So far, many of the predictions of the “experts” have not come to pass; voters are an ornery lot. It’s certainly a fascinating process to watch.

Dec 09

Back in the Saddle

Alice and I had not taken the horses out for a long time, but we had a great ride on Monday.Some time ago, Stewart had developed a serious infection in one foot and was sidelined for several weeks while it healed. He seems all better now, but he and Spot had not done any riding for a while.
We tacked them up, and Stewart was his most cooperative self, enjoying the grooming and being very cooperative about getting his boots on (he has those soft Thoroughbred hooves, so I always put a pair of hard rubber boots on his front feet for riding). I usually have to ask Alice to hold him while I put his saddle on (he doesn’t tolerate being tied up), but on this day he just stood still while I did that. As we were ready to leave the paddock, they both got a bit frisky. Which was not totally surprising since it had been so long and the day was chilly.
We decided not to go on the road because they seemed a bit too unfocused. And of course we could not go into the woods since it is hunting season. So we did a series of school maneuvers in my side yard; figure eights and such. We then decided we could go through the woods between my yard and my neighbors’ driveway, to the north, which we did, and we made a circuit of their field, carefully avoiding the one woodchuck hole we saw.
Alice suggested a trip down to the Tom Ball Brook, which I guess I should have accepted, but I was worried about getting too far into the woods. So we came back to my yard and did more circuits there. Quite frankly, Stewart was getting tired by then, and had worked up something of a sweat, so it seems we had done quite enough.

Nov 25

Another Mischaracterization of Autism

An article entitled “The Gene Hackers” appeared in the November 16, 2015 issue of The New Yorker. It attracted my attention because it touches on neuroscience and other topics that interest me. I always worry when I read an article like this that autism will be mentioned in an unfavorable light. I didn’t have to wait too long to have my fears confirmed. On the second page of this 9-page article (3 of 17 in the pdf version), the word appears.

A few well-known disorders, such as Huntington’s disease and sickle-cell anemia, are caused by defects in a single gene. But most devastating illnesses, among them diabetes, autism, Alzheimer’s, and cancer, are almost always the result of a constantly shifting dynamic that can include hundreds of genes.

Ouch! Autism is not a “devastating illness” — in fact, it’s not an illness at all. Why does this mythology persist? (That is a rhetorical question, since many reasons are well known.)

And the word appears again several times later in the article.

The lab employs a similar approach to studying autism. Recent experiments suggest that certain psychiatric conditions can be caused by just a few malfunctioning neurons out of the trillions in every brain. Studying the way neurons function within the brain is difficult. But by re-creating, in the lab, genetic mutations that others have linked to autism and schizophrenia Zhang’s team has been able to investigate faulty neurons that may play a role in those conditions.

“Genetic mutations” have been linked to blue eyes, red hair, and lefthandedness, but to my knowledge people are no longer considering these conditions to have been caused by “faulty neurons.” It is true that until very recently, being left-handed was considered the work of the Devil, but I would hope we are beyond that by now.

Autism and schizophrenia are examples of what we call neurodivergence. Although these two conditions may appear similar to outside observers, they are really quite different. Schizophrenia is a degenerative condition that seldom shows up in childhood. Autism, on the other hand, is a stable personality type that is evident from the beginning of life.

 Last year, the National Science Foundation presented Zhang with its most prestigious award, saying that his fundamental research “moves us in the direction” of eliminating schizophrenia, autism, and other brain disorders.

Again, “ouch!” or “oy!” or any number of other exclamations. Autism is not a brain disorder. And, “eliminating autism”? I don’t want to be eliminated, thank you very much. I’m sure my brain could use some training to do certain things better, but who couldn’t say the same thing?

Although I don’t recall seeing the word “eugenics” in the article, there is mention of a nightmare had by one of the researchers profiled. She dreamed of meeting Hitler, and said:

 I woke up in a cold sweat. And that dream has haunted me from that day. Because suppose somebody like Hitler had access to this—we can only imagine the kind of horrible uses he could put it to.”

referring to the technology that could come out of the research mentioned in the award.

The good news is that the article points out that such uses are years away, and the ethical issues need to be studied. Let’s hope that by the time this technology becomes reality that science (and society) will have a more positive view of the value of differences.

The author concludes:

CRISPR technology offers a new outlet for the inchoate fear of tinkering with the fundamentals of life. There are many valid reasons to worry. But it is essential to assess both the risks and the benefits of any new technology. Most people would consider it dangerous to fundamentally alter the human gene pool to treat a disease like AIDS if we could cure it with medicine or a vaccine. But risks always depend on the potential result. If CRISPR helps unravel the mysteries of autism, contributes to a cure for a form of cancer, or makes it easier for farmers to grow more nutritious food while reducing environmental damage, the fears, like the many others before them, will almost certainly disappear.

This is a much gentler view of autism. Understanding is a good thing. Elimination, not so much.

Oct 22

My Round of Golf with Bob Hope

On a hot summer day, many years ago, I spent an afternoon with Bob Hope on the golf course.

Hope was born in 1903, and he lived to be 100. The day I met him, he was in his mid-70s, and he was still very much a part of the entertainment scene and the celebrity golf circuit.

Hope’s life and career spanned most of the 20th Century. For me, he was one of those people who had always been around. Although many in my crowd perceived him to be out of touch with our social mores, for most of his working days he was immensely popular.

I read a very thoughtful, sympathetic, and detailed book review in The New Yorker by Adam Gopnik, who confesses that, as a youngster, he had been a Hope-hater.

Hope” is the name of the biography; and it is subtitled “Entertainer of the Century.” The author, Richard Zoglin, makes the case that Hope may not have been given enough recognition for his groundbreaking work. Hope is credited with, among other things, being the originator of stand-up comedy as we know it today.

All of this brought to my mind that sunny afternoon in Hartford in the late 1970s when I spent several hours walking the links of the Wethersfield Country Club with Bob Hope and his entourage. Admittedly, it was not just Bob and me out for a stroll, or even a friendly game of golf. Bob played golf that day, but I did not. His partner that day was one of his best golfing buddies, Jerry Ford.

“Shortly after I started playing golf with Jerry Ford I thought it was time to take some lessons. Not golf lessons. First aid.”

True to form, one of Jerry’s shots whacked a spectator on the head that day. But I am getting ahead of myself. Let me tell you how I came to be a part of their entourage.

In those days, I worked for a large insurance company in Bloomfield Connecticut that was one of the major sponsors of the Sammy Davis Junior Greater Hartford Open. In addition to their financial contribution, the company encouraged employees to donate their time, and gave people paid time off to volunteer at the tournament.

As it happened, my good friend Bill M was in charge of the marshals for the several-day event. Bill played soccer with me on the company team I had started, and he was a computer operator for one of the machines I programmed (an RCA 501).

One day, Bill approached me about being a marshal.

“I don’t know, Bill, I really don’t much like golf, and the idea of standing around all day directing spectator traffic just doesn’t sound like a lot of fun.”

“No, you don’t understand!” he countered. “I make the assignments, and I can make you a Roving Marshal. You just walk the course with the players and make sure no one bothers them, and you help them out if they have special requests. There really isn’t all that much to do. Believe me, there are people begging me to let them do this.”

“Okay,” I said, “I’ll give it a try.”

So that is how I came to walk the course with celebrities and top-ranked golfers. One of the golfers I accompanied that weekend was Johnny Miller. He was a year younger than I, and was probably the hottest golfer of the mid-1970s. He was also very personable and relaxed. I tried not to bother the golfers on the course, since they were trying to concentrate, but there was one shot Miller made that astounded me, and I had to comment. On one hole that had a dogleg to the left, with many trees lining the sides, I watched as the other golfers drove their tee shots as far down the fairway as they could, to be in view of the pin. Miller, on the other hand, shot straight at the (invisible) pin, which meant he hit his ball into the woods. If I had seen only the result, I would have thought that he made a very bad shot and was in trouble. But I had watched him deliberately point his body in that direction, study the trees, and he smacked the ball hard; it went straight and true.

As we walked to the next shot, I couldn’t contain myself, and asked him, “You know, it looked to me like you were deliberately shooting your ball into the woods.” He laughed, “Oh, yes! It’s a little bit risky, but not much, since the trees are pretty widely spaced. I figured there was a very good chance I’d have a clear shot to the green.” Sure enough, he did, and he picked up a stroke or two on the other golfers with his aggressive play.

On another memorable outing, I was with Lee Trevino. At the time, someone told me that Lee had been hit by lightning twice in (then) recent years. As I read his biography now, I see only one mention of that happening. In any case, it was still fresh in everyone’s minds, so it created quite a buzz (so to speak). On the day that I went out with him and his golfing partner (along with the inevitable collection of caddies, officials, marshals, and media people), the sky began to cloud up. As the sky darkened, Lee occasionally gave a worried glance skyward. Sure enough, after a couple of holes, we saw lighting flashes on the far horizon. It hadn’t started raining yet, but it was clear the storm was headed in our direction. At that point, Lee’s game fell apart. It might have been amusing to see if it hadn’t been so heart-wrenching; here was a world-class champion golfer totally unable to focus on anything but the distant rumble of thunder. His knees went wobbly, and his shots sent the ball in random directions, not necessarily anywhere near the fairway. Mercifully, after a couple of holes of terror, the announcement came over the PA that the day’s round was being cancelled and all golfers should return to the Clubhouse. Lee visibly relaxed, and he was probably inside before the announcement had been completed. It was quite a sight to see, and a poignant reminder that even these seemingly invincible athletes were, after all, just as human as the rest of us.

Ah, where was I? Oh, yes, Bob Hope. The spectators were out in force that day, and the regular marshals were doing their jobs quite efficiently, so there was very little for me to do other than to follow the golfers and their support crews. Because of the presence of the former President, there were a couple of Secret Service agents tagging along, continually scanning the crowd for possible threats. They were very formally dressed, with suits and ties, in contrast to the rest of us, who were wearing comfortable shoes and slacks and golf shirts. In my case, I had been given a nice green polo shirt that identified me as a marshal. As the temperature soared into the 80s, I felt sorry for the agents, who were obviously over-dressed. I struck up a conversation with one of them, and told him he should feel free to remove his jacket; that no one would mind, given the heat and humidity.

“I can’t!” he laughed, and opened one side of his coat to reveal a radio in the inside pocket, with a wire to his ear. On his waist was a holster containing a handgun. He then turned a bit and opened the other side of his coat to show me a set of handcuffs and a billy club. “Wow!” I said, “that’s a lot of hardware!” He smiled, “Yup. Just doin’ my job!”

It was a very enjoyable day all around, and I felt like I had a front-row seat at a Bob Hope show as he reeled off one wisecrack after another. He would deliver his one-liners for maximum effect, amidst a crush of onlookers, and not so much along the way to the next shot. At the time, I couldn’t help thinking that he was trying too hard; that it must have been difficult for him to feel he had to live up to his reputation as a comedian, rather than just relaxing and enjoying a day on the links.

I was rather taken aback, then, to read in Adam Gopnik’s review that

He became a cue-card comedian—“Stay on the cards, kid,” he warned the improvisational young Jonathan Winters—and could be seen to be reading off them even when you wouldn’t think he had to. Even when he was playing golf with C.E.O.s, his writers would provide him with one-liners.

So, I had thought I was seeing a genuinely funny personality, even if it did seem a bit strained to me, as if he were joking because he knew it was expected of him. And now I find that it was just a continuation of his long-running performance. I wonder if the man ever got to relax, or even knew how.

And then, about halfway through the course, as if on cue, came the Jerry Ford errant ball. He had managed to get fairly close to the green, but unfortunately his ball was in a sand bunker. He sized up the distance to the pin, and gave the ball a good whack. It soared high into the air and well past the green, into the crowd on the other side. The startled spectators scrambled to get out of the way, but in such a thick crowd of fans, it was inevitable that someone was to get hit. Sure enough, the ball landed squarely on some poor fellow’s forehead and bounced back in the direction of the green. I’m not sure how they ruled on that shot, but I do remember the President dropping his club and rushing over to the scene of the accident. “I’m so sorry!” he exclaimed. “Are you all right?” The man was a little stunned, but then began smiling as the President offered to autograph the ball for him.

All in all, my afternoon with Bob Hope and Jerry Ford was a very delightful one, and the memories of it are vivid for me, nearly forty years later.

Sep 11

Kudos to a Harrington’s driver; some other drivers, not so much

A big thank you to the Harrington’s driver this morning who stopped when he saw our horses in distress, very near my house, on East Road in Alford.

He turned off his engine and waited patiently while we got the horses settled down, dismounted, and led them down my driveway.

We of course thanked him profusely at the time, but I thought he should get some public recognition. His quick action saved us from what might have been a very dangerous situation.

My friend Alice and I had set off a couple of hours earlier on what turned out to be a lovely ride (except for those tense moments at the end). We headed south along the road, at my suggestion, to check out the new trails at what I fondly call “Louise’s” — the Hardy land now owned by the Alford Land Trust.

As we went down the hill from my house, Bill and Lois drove up behind us, heading home. Although we had the horses walking on the grass (off the road, in other words), Bill kindly pulled over into the left lane as he passed us, and was nearly to his driveway when a large truck came barreling toward him. He had to quickly pull over the the right to avoid a collision, and the driver of the truck never slowed down one iota, as if the didn’t see the vehicle in front of him or two horses on the side of the road. He must have been doing at least 50. I yelled “Slow Down!” as he passed, so loudly that my horse jumped.

As we continued our ride, at least a couple of other drivers passed us at high rates of speed. “What is wrong with these people?” I asked myself. Maybe they have never ridden a horse, and don’t realize how quickly they can spook and do unpredictable things. We are fortunate that our horses seem pretty indifferent to traffic noise, but ya never know!

On the plus side, at least a couple of (probably local) drivers did slow down as they passed us. Many thanks to them for their consideration. We tried to wave and smile to show our appreciation.

As we passed John Oliver’s house (about a mile down the road), we turned into the pasture there. Alice looked back at me and remarked that, as much as she likes riding in the woods (which is what we usually do), she really liked being out in the open field on such a bright sunny day. We are fortunate to live in a place where we have to choose between such pleasures.

After going through the first pasture, we did turn into the woods, and I think the temperature fell at least 10 degrees. It is lovely and peaceful back there, moving alongside stone walls, among various growths of trees, including some sections of tall pine forest.

Although I had walked parts of this trail, I had never been to the end. I expected it would turn back toward the house and come out near the road. But, no! Surprise, it emptied us out into another pasture, where we have ridden in the past. We made our way through that one and the next one and another one (below the small cemetery on East Road), finally getting back to near the house, where we were able to pick up the path that brought us into the woods, thence to retrace our way home.

The ride back along the road was rather uneventful until we got almost to my house. When we left, the herd of heifers that sometimes hangs out in the pasture next to me were all settled in the shade of a large pine tree that grows in my yard. As we approached my house, Spot (Alice’s horse) noticed that a couple of them had come up the hill to the edge of the road to forage, and that seemed to make him nervous, being that close to them.

I could see that Alice was about to cross the road quickly to get past them and to my driveway, but I heard a large truck coming down the hill, out of sight. I said something to her so that she wouldn’t walk out in front of the truck. She stopped, but (as she told me later) Spot saw some holes by the side of the road, up ahead a little way, in the direction we had been moving. Nothing strikes terror into a horse more than the sight of a hole (stepping into one and breaking a leg can be fatal to them). So Spot, already nervous at the nearness of the heifers, began to back up in a rather disorderly way.

At that moment, the Harrington’s truck came into view, and I signaled to the driver to stop, because I was afraid Spot might step in front of him. The driver immediately took my suggestion, and when he saw the horses acting up, he turned off his engine. I was very grateful for that, because by that time my horse, Stewart, had begun to get nervous, too (panic can be contagious in herd animals).

I turned Stewart around and moved back down the road a bit, but by now the whole herd of heifers had come up to the road to see what was going on. And they were following Stewart down the road! Which, of course, made him even more nervous.

I could hear Spot doing a little dance behind me, and he was slipping on the pavement. Alice managed to get off before she was thrown.

By this time, Stewart was only slightly agitated, and I managed to calm him down and dismount. We walked the horses past the herd, and thanked the driver on our way past the truck, and headed down the driveway.

All’s well that ends well…

Jun 07

Exciting news! My final symptoms are fading away

Exciting news! My final symptoms are fading away.

According to this Harvard website,

The ideal blood pressure is 120/80; as it rises above that threshold, the risk of heart attacks, strokes, and other health problems steadily rises. At 140/90, doctors generally recommend blood pressure medication.

I have a new cuff at home that I am using to check on my readings once or twice a day. My doctor recently recommended that I cut my medication in half, and monitor the results. She said that if my numbers continue at recent levels, she’s comfortable with me cutting out the medication altogether. So far, my results have been hovering around the “ideal” levels identified in this article.

That is wonderful, yes it is. A dozen years ago I was deathly ill (literally) with an unknown condition that turned out to be celiac sprue. [see my note below the line]

So, for the past 12 years, I’ve eliminated gluten from my diet (I have been a vegetarian for over 52 years), and tried to keep my weight under control and get adequate exercise (lately, mostly hiking). All of that gradually cleared up all of my symptoms and blood levels (low everything from B-12 to cell counts to hemoglobin, etc.), but the blood pressure continued at elevated (though not extreme) levels.

In the past year or so, my blood pressure readings started to come down, and have stayed there. With any luck (and a lot of hiking) I’ll have one less thing to worry about…

 


 

Addendum: About 15 years ago, I began to develop strange symptoms of fatigue and other uncharacteristic problems. I discovered my gluten-intolerance only after undergoing every test known to medical science without finding anything wrong. In a way, this was good news, but I was still very sick!

There are several websites (including the one I linked to above) giving a reasonably clear description of celiac sprue, although I do object to it being called a “disease.”

In my opinion (uninformed by any scientific evidence — in other words, I’m just making this up), it is more likely that the inability of the immune system to tolerate gluten is a throwback to a pre-agricultural condition when people (especially in northern climes, where it is most prevalent) had very little in their diets of the grains that contain gluten. As wheat, rye, and barley became more common, many people developed (and passed along to their offspring) the ability to cope with the elevated levels of gluten that came with the new reliance on cultivated grains.

People who did not develop this tolerance did not produce as many offspring, since they probably died of malnutrition at a relatively early age. Celiac sprue is so called because it is an auto-immune condition in which the immune system attacks and destroys the celia in the small intestine, thus (eventually fatally) compromising the body’s ability to absorb nutrients. That is where I was headed.

But perhaps the adaptation was imperfect, and there are those of us who, later in life, lose the ability to tolerate gluten. People like that could still produce and raise healthy children, but might themselves die prematurely. I won’t bother to link to the articles here, but in the past few years there has been much written speculating that JFK (in particular, but probably many others, famous and not) might have suffered from an undiagnosed case of celiac sprue. In JFK’s case (and he was, like me, of northern European descent), if he did have the condition, it might have contributed to his many ailments, including his back problems. One author went so far as to speculate that he was so ill he might not have lived to see the end of a second term, had he not been assassinated.

The condition has been known to medical science for the past couple of hundred years, but it is only recently that an appreciation has developed as to how widespread is celiac sprue. When I first started my gluten-free diet, only a dozen years ago, it was difficult to eat out and even to find gluten-free products such as pasta. Now, every restaurant seems to have a gluten-free menu and every supermarket has a gluten-free section. Some people go gluten-free because it makes them feel better, but for people like me it is literally a life or death decision.

May 09

Two identical very different trips through the Alford Valley

Alford this past week was a string of turquoise days. Dry air and golden sunshine combined into a perfect backdrop for a couple of ambles through the Alford Valley.

On two different days, I took identical routes with different forms of transportation. The first was a walk with my friend Bess, as we surveyed winter damage and restored the trails to passable condition. Along the way, we treated ourselves to a visit to the Devil’s Den. The second outing was with Alice (Spot’s Mom), on horseback.

Here is a crude map of the ground we covered.

[All of the pictures here can be enlarged by clicking on them; return to the post with the “back” arrow on your browser.]

Devils-Den-+-beyond

 

The orange square indicates our starting point (Thyme Hill) on East Road. The green square has no particular significance other than to mark the point south of which I had cell coverage in only one direction. Although our routes out and back were identical, the app I was using seemed to be only approximately accurate. Still, it’s a nice picture of the ground covered that would be hard to map any other way.

I’m very appreciative of having neighbors who generously allow passage over their trails. From my house, heading north, I traverse over the land of the Haas’s, and thence into the property of Frank & Mary Wilcox. When Frank was alive, he took his small ATV out on his trails and kept them open. He was always delighted to hear that I had been using them for hiking, skiing, or horseback riding. Along the ridge (on the westerly dogleg just above the green square), we come to Ray Wilcox’s property. His is the large pasture to the west of all that. The route then jogs north into Henry Flint’s large network of trails. The Devil’s Den is above one of his trails. At the top of the lollipop, we skirted the edge of a pasture used by the Scribner Brook Farm, which is clearly visible to its west. The westernmost loop turns south along the Alford Brook, and takes an old road with an impressive stone wall, overlooking a large beaver pond. Although the beaver dam is mostly intact, we did not see any signs of recent activity.

The entire route was nearly 4 miles. On foot, what with flower-watching, wrangling downed trees, and taking a break in the coolness of the Devil’s Den, the trip took us nearly 4 hours. On horseback, the same route took about an hour to cover.

Along the way, we saw many ephemerals and other items of interest. Bess and I had the pleasure of stopping to enjoy them and to tour the cave, but the horses were not interested in any such distractions.

Here is the first trillium we saw:

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And then, a triumvirate of trilliums (no, “trillia” is not the plural of trillium!):

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There were many trilliums flowering on the hillside below the Devil’s Dan. There were also large patches of ramp and blue cohosh; the latter being nearly a foot tall at this point. We headed up the rocky slope to reach the hidden Den.

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Bess admired the moist colors above the entrance, and beneath her was a large residual block of ice.

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As we carefully made our way down into the interior to inspect the Alter Stone, we could look back to gauge the thickness of the ice.

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We looked back at the entrance as we turned to head back down the hillside by a different path. Devil's Den 0007Devil's Den 0008

While taking care not to slide too fast on the slippery oak leaves and hemlock needles, we noticed leavings of a porcupine winter feast. Evidently, they like to eat the tender needles at the ends of small branches, but doing that on the tree is a little tricky, so they gnaw off the branches and let them fall to the ground, where they are easy to munch on. It may be hard to tell from the photo, but this was quite a pile of such hemlock branches, with clear teeth marks where than had been cut.

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On the way back to the trail, we saw another trio of trilliums. We figured we could say we saw (at least) a troika of triumvirates of trilliums.

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On horseback, it was a bit difficult to take pix. On the way past the beaver pond, I wished I had taken some on the previous trip, because we were moving too rapidly to be able to grab a photo without stopping, which didn’t seem to be the thing to do. By then, the horses realized we were heading home, and if they had shown any signs of tiring (which they really hadn’t, despite this being their first long outing of the season), that was all forgotten in their eagerness to get back to the barn.

The first shot is how the world looks to someone on Stewart’s back. He is patiently waiting for Spot to get ready. The second picture is of Alice as she finishes tacking Spot in my yard. Then come a couple of photos taken along the trail.

All in all, a glorious pair of days!

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