Swimming with Unreasonable Sharks

We are back from summer vacation, and boy do we have slides to show you.

As we did last year, we joined my wife’s daughter and her family in renting a beachside house. Oak Island NC is a barrier island - separated from the mainland by the Intracoastal Waterway – and is near Myrtle Beach SC. The ocean side shoreline runs East to West, and faces South, so you can sort of watch both the sunrise and the sunset. We drove in through lightly-flooded West Beach Drive just as the weakling Hurricane Bertha was passing far out to sea. Last year the air was hot and the water was chilly. This year the air was warm and the water was mild. So I was not surprised to read, New Study Sees Atlantic Warming Behind a Host of Recent Climate Shifts, in Dot Earth:

Using climate models and observations, a fascinating study in this week’s issue of Nature Climate Change points to a marked recent warming of the Atlantic Ocean as a powerful shaper of a host of notable changes in climate and ocean patterns in the last couple of decades — including Pacific wind, sea level and ocean patterns, the decade-plus hiatus in global warming and even California’s deepening drought.

Other climate scientists question whether the Atlantic is actually a mover and shaper, or just part of a complex system, but the article confirmed my sense that the ocean felt like bathwater this summer. Once Bertha moved away we had clear sunny days, but fewer and fewer strong waves to surf.

The house was ten lots away from the one we had last year, and far more comfortable. I would wake up, lurch into the surf and swim up and down while trying to forget all the media buzz about Jaws and sharks and gators. One doesn’t have to venture far out to feel terribly alone in the water. After breakfast I would surf the internet and read. After lunch we men would pile into the waves for body-surfing. Rinse and Repeat. Sometimes the women interrupted our swimming, eating, drinking (and my reading) to drive them places. The idea is supposed to be that everyone gets to relax, but in practice the women kept busy planning and preparing meals, dressing to hunt shells on the beach, dressing to go shopping for t-shirts, dressing to sit on the beach, dressing to go to the Food Lion, etc. And the boys dragged their poor grandmother out to the mall or the WalMart or the Surf Shop.

When they weren’t in the water, the boys played an online war game called Call of Duty almost constantly. I think we had a connection delay because our guys could run around a corner and empty a clip into an opponent – who, unbloodied, would then take them down with one shot. That game features a background voice that barks commands at the players as they coordinate an assault in an urban battlezone. I grew to hate that voice. “Domination!” “Secure the objective!” “We’re losing A!”  “We’re falling behind!” “We’re being dominated!” That insistent voice reminded me of Harlan Ellison’s Twilight Zone episode, Soldier, where Michael Ansara is a heat ray-wielding warrior from the future, wearing an earpiece that urges him, “Find your enemy. Attack, Kill. Attack, Kill.”

We didn’t see any loggerheads hatch this year. Around high tide, we watched brown pelicans diving for fish and flying in tight formations against the wind, and looser formations with the wind. The pelicans were frequently escorted by gulls. Around low tide, tiny Sanderlings and longer-legged and -beaked Willets would scour the beach for anything that might be edible. The women noted that there weren’t as many shells to pick from this year. Once while they looked for conch, whelk and scallops shells, I scored a Corona bottlecap, a rubber band, two rubber hairbands and a charred cigarette. One of the boys found an almost full plastic bottle of Mountain Dew. In the low tide surf there was also a lot of what appeared to be clear, decomposed plastic foam, much like you’d find in the Pacific and Gulf dead zones. My wife found an intact crab, and was wondering what killed it, but we didn’t see any live crabs in the surf.

Last year we went to Pelican Seafood, picked through all sorts of seafood and had a great dinner at the house. This year, Pelican said the boats only brought shrimp, scallops, one salmon and one snapper. It could have simply been a slow day, but it made me wonder what will be available next time. In The Bottleneck Years, HE Taylor’s speculative fiction novel (also posted on Science Blogs), the recently deceased author predicts that the fishermen will sink their boats complaining that the sea had become populated by nothing but jellyfish.

I first read the next chapter of Brown Dog,  a collection of James Harrison’s stories - tall tales really - about a simple soul who lives in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, passes himself off as Native American when it suits, works only when he must, drinks when he can and chases pussy when it wanders too close. Then I started Unreasonable Men, Michael Wolraich’s third person omniscient retelling of the rise of the Progressive Movement in the early 1900s. I met Michael and many other folk online several years ago at the defunct TalkingPointsMemo Cafe. Sometime later he invited me to join his political blog, dagblog, which I did for a few years. I eventually met him in person when he presented his first book, Blowing Smoke, at a Washington DC bookstore.

Unreasonable Men is well organized – each chapter has a clear date, and many omniscient assertions about the inner motivations of Speaker of the House Joe Cannon, Senate Leader Nelson Aldrich, House and Senate Gadfly “Fighting Bob” LaFollette, President Teddy Roosevelt and President William Howard Taft are supported with footnotes. Michael’s assertions may open him to challenges from conservatives who interpret history differently, but the active voice does make one feel in the moment and moves the story along. His descriptions, citing of facts and use of quotes bring life to figures that usually repose in the dust of the passive tense.

Michael opens by describing a political landscape in 1904 that could easily be mistaken for 2014. Rich vs poor, dwindling resources, financial crashes, and congressional paralysis sound like topics on Meet the Press, The Daily Show or Democracy Now. But in telling about the past he leaves us to make our own comparisons with the present. I knew from high school that Roosevelt had fallen out with Taft, and had started the Bull Moose Party, and I knew that Taft eventually became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, but Michael fills in the back story. Learning about Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot’s breakneck assignation of 16 million acres of woodlands into the US Forest Service’s national reserve before an appropriations bill stripped them of that power was worth the whole book. Conservatives lost interest in conserving when it became clear that the land wasn’t being set aside for their future exploitation.

While reading about the tariff debates, I was reminded of a press conference at the Green Party Convention in 2012, which I covered for dagblog:

Each time, as [Dr Jill] Stein or [Cheri] Honkola was answering a question, [Ben] Manski was floating behind, waiting to add a few comments. I stopped trying to figure out the signals and simply raised my hand. Based on Manski’s comment about corporate money, I asked whether the Green Party had accepted or would consider accepting contributions from an environmentally-responsible corporation, if say, Patagonia wanted to support them. Stein hurriedly said that they accepted no corporate contributions or PAC money, and that even if money was found to be from a high ranking company official it would be returned. Manski chimed in that corporations had offered money in the past, but that Patagonia had not.

At the time I wondered which of us was being naive. In my opinion, government serving only business is a kind of fascism, but for government and business to be completely independent would be wasteful if not chaotic. Unless you favor anarchy, the trick seems to be a balancing act between corporate fascism and populist chaos. LaFollette and his brethren led a Progressive movement of the middle class against too much business interference, but one wonders if there is any sort of mechanism to do that today when every politician depends so heavily on corporate contributions to stay in office.

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One response to “Swimming with Unreasonable Sharks”

  1. Michael Wolraich says :

    Thanks for the fantastic review, Donal. To answer the question you raised, campaign money mattered a great deal back then as well, and La Follette’s presidential campaign suffered from limited finances.

    That said, LF was not above financial expediency. In Wisconsin, he accepted support from a lumber baron, Isaac Stephenson, who had become estranged from the Republican machine. LF even helped Stephenson become a senator.

    Like

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