Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Month in Review (Part I): Jainism, the National Geographic Channel Show “Taboo”, Semi-automatic Dead People and the Truth Behind the Camera Adding Ten Pounds

So it’s been a little over a month since I have been on the blog and quite a few interesting things have happened.  The first of my interesting experiences (and the first in my four-part blog series “The Month in Review”) in the last 30 days was my primetime cable television debut as an “expert” for the National Geographic Channel’s documentary program “Taboo” on October 30th. 

The episode I was featured in was titled “Unusual Burials” and presented a segment on a company down south called Holy Smoke that packs your loved one’s cremated remains into ammunition cartridges and then another segment on the Jain ritual of fasting to death known as Sallekhana.  I got to give my two cents about both topics and as a bioethicist and scholar of religion who was serving in the role of “Caption Obvious” on the show I weighed in on what the different religious traditions have to say about encasing the earthly remains of the deceased into a shotgun shell.  According to my research, shockingly, none of the religions say anything about it whatsoever. [Insert sound effect of dissapointment…waa-waah]  So just FYI, doing a google search of what the Bible or the Koran or Torah have to say about it probably won’t get you anywhere, though you will probably find some pretty interesting YouTube videos along the way.  The second segment of the show on the topic of Sallekhana was a little more up my alley in that it documented the final four weeks in the life of Mattaji, an elderly Jain nun who was in the last stages of her twelve year long vow of Sallekhana, which would ultimately result in her death as a result of starvation.

For the last six years people have been asking me “Who are the Jains?” and “What in the heck is Sallekhana?”  And now that the show has aired I am getting these questions via text, tweet, e-mail, facebook message and stranger on the street in numbers I simply didn’t expect.  So I would like to take this opportunity to elaborate on some of the themes central to Jainism that just couldn’t be covered given the time constraints of the show.

So without further ado…

Jainism is an ancient Indic religion that teaches followers that the path to enlightenment requires commitment to non-violence and strict asceticism.  Followers of Jainism are known simply as Jains and for nearly three millennia Jains have been one of the smallest but most influential religious minority groups in India.  Currently, they number around 3 million in a country of over 1 billion people and in the last few decades Jain communities have popped up in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, South Africa, Singapore and Thailand.

The religious icon of the Jain faith.

So what do they believe?  Jains do not believe in a supreme omnipotent being.  Instead, they believe that every being on this earth, from a blade of grass to a human contains a living soul, called a jiva. Each of these souls, whatever species it may be in, is considered of equal value and should be treated with respect and compassion.  Thus, 
Jains are strict vegetarians and pacifists and in fact are so careful not to disturb the environment they refuse to farm or pick fruit from trees on religious principle.  I happened to be in Gurgaon, India during the Monsoon season and everyday when it rained hundreds of thousands of very tiny little frogs would hop around on the steppingstones of the temple I was staying at.  None of the Jains would step outside until all of the frogs had hopped back into the grass for fear of accidentally stepping on one.

Like Hindus, Jains believe in reincarnation and seek to attain ultimate liberation – meaning the ultimate goal is to stop the continuous cycle of birth, death and rebirth and release the soul into an immortal state that knows all and can see all but feels nothing.  They call it moksha but we here in the West might be more familiar with it by another name: nirvana.

Jains believe that 24 individuals have achieved moksha 
and these souls are known as the Tirthankaras.

So how does one achieve liberation?  Liberation or moksha is achieved by eliminating all karma from the soul.  In the West we have come to use the word karma as if it is synonymous with the notion of what goes around comes around.  But for Jains karma is believed to be an invisible physical substance that clings to the soul.  So for every thought or act karmic particles adhere to the soul or jiva.  Thus, the more you think, the more you act, the more life experience you acquire, the more karmic particles stick to you weighing down the soul and making it harder for the soul to break free from the prison of the body and be released.  Perhaps now would be an appropriate time to point out that the Jain view of the body is very different than the Judeo-Christian understanding of the body.  Judeo-Christianity views the body as the temple of God whereas for Jains the body is a prison for the soul.  The soul is believed to transcend the flawed physical form all being take on as opposed to the Judeo-Christian notion of the physical form being corrupted by sin but ultimately created in the image of God.

Each soul has to achieve liberation or nirvana, if you like, through its own efforts.  Remember there is no god to go to for advice or to curry favor with.  In the life of a Jain, one reaps what one sows.  A person’s physical form is a direct representation of the karma they accumulated in their past lives.  For example, physical characteristics such as being tall, having fair skin and an athletically proportioned body are the result of karma just as short stature, a bad complexion, and physical disability are believed to be punishment or rather the result of karma accrued from transgressions in previous lives.  Also the family you are born into is seen as either a karmic reward or punishment for the actions you performed in a previous life. 

This is the demi-goddess Padmavati

So in order to prevent one’s soul from accumulating karma there are five supreme mahavrates or vows that a Jain must take.  The chief vow is that of ahimsa, or the practice of non-violence.  The others are non-attachment to possessions, truthfulness, not stealing and sexual restraint with celibacy as the ideal.  For those who do not choose to become monks or nuns and instead opt to become householder the five vows are modified to allow for the possession of property and the act of intercourse for procreation and these vows are called anuvratas rather than the mahavrates.  It is believed that these principles when practiced diligently lead to the three pillars of Jain faith: “right knowledge, right conduct and right belief.”

Now on the question of “Who are the Jains?  There are four basic kinds of Jains.  There are Jain monks (sadhus), Jain nuns (sadhvis), Jain householder men (shravakas) and Jain householder women (shravikas).  One of the most revered symbols in Jainism is the svastika, with the four quadrants of the svastika representing the four stations of the Jain soul through the cycle of life.  This svastika should not be confused with the Nazi party’s swastika, which is the ancient Indic svastika’s reversed image and was in fact adopted by Adolf Hitler for its association with the theory of a pre-historic Aryan invasion of the Indian sub-continent.  But that is a whole other blog post for another time.

Is there a hierarchy to the four types of Jain people?  Supposedly no, but spend some time in Northern India and read some of the Jain histories and it becomes fairly clear that the lay women occupy the bottom wrung of the Jain social and spiritual ladder.  For example it is believed among certain Jain sects that a woman must be reincarnated as a man before she can even hope to try for the possibility of achieving liberation or moksha.

Depending on the family a child comes from Jain boys and girls can select their life path or have it selected for them by around the age of eight, which is the age at which the boys and girls can enter the monastery and become sahdus and sahdvis.  Those that do not become holy men and women thus become householders.  The basic rules for monks and nuns and householders are all the same, it is just that the monks and nuns are expected to adhere to them more strictly.  For example, monks and nuns can never have sex, but householders are permitted to engage in a limited amount of intercourse for the purposes of procreation and ideally only to produce one or two children, enough to replace themselves. 

Jain monks lead especially austere lives.  Jain monks of the Svetambar sect wear only a single piece of white unstitched cloth while monks of the Digambar sect live out their lives completely naked.  The rationale is that to have clothing is to possess material wealth and since one of the five vows of Jainism is non-possession clothes don’t make the cut. 

Monks renounce all possessions but are allowed a feather
broom (pictured here) to sweep the ground before them so
they don't step on any little creatures. 

I would imagine at this point that some of you are thinking, “this is really interesting Whitny but what do naked monks and reincarnation have to do with that Sallekhana thing and the old lady starving herself to death?”  Well if you will indulge me a little further, we have learned a little about how Jains live, now let us discuss how they die.

I am going to make a bold statement here.  The ideal death in the Jain faith is ritual suicide by means of starvation.  Only they don’t call it suicide, they call it Sallekhana, and they are very quick to point out that the act of starving oneself to death is the most natural, normal and peaceful way to die and is in no way suicide, as suicide means inflicting injury on oneself.  In their view slow starvation is simply allowing nature to take its course and facing death bravely.

It is believed that the only way to purge karma from the soul is through asceticism, which means that monks and nuns deny themselves the pleasures of the world in order to attain spiritual bliss.  The idea is that if you deny yourself all sensual pleasures, feel nothing, fear nothing, live for nothing then you can focus on the soul and either attain enlightenment or at least be reincarnated in the next life in a better physical form.  This might be an appropriate time reiterate that a woman (in certain sects) who adheres to the strict rules of asceticism can only hope to improve her physical being to the level of a man in the next life.  In the original and traditional texts only men are able to attain liberation.

Jain scriptures are addressed mainly to the monks.  It could be argued that this focus on the monks has resulted in a great deal of improvisation and variation in the spiritual rituals of nuns and householders.  But the importance of asceticism occupies the central place in Jainism and regardless of the existence of a spiritual hierarchy monks, nuns, and the lay members of the Jain community ideally all meet death the same way.  So regardless of whether or not they practiced extreme asceticism for the majority of their life or were a housewife until the death of their husband and then became a nun at age 80 they will practice asceticism when nearing death.  And they will meet death via Sallekhana.

Sallekhana, in Jain thought, is embracing death voluntarily.  When both householders and ascetics foresee that the end of life is very near either due to old age, senility, incurable disease, severe famine, attack from an enemy or a wild animal, etc. they take the vow of Sallekhana, meaning they commit themselves to slow starvation.  And the vow can be taken in three different forms representing three different levels of rigor. 
1.     The longest vow of Sallekhana is twelve years in duration
2.     The medium vow is one year in duration
3.     The short vow is anything up to six months in duration

At the point that a person decides to take the vow of Sallekhana they must ask permission from their guru.  To clarify, a guru would be a monk who serves as a preceptor and advises the person on spiritual matters.  Increasingly Jains are seeking the permission or at least an opinion from their physician as well as their guru.  Assuming that permission is granted the person either decides independently or consults with their physician as to the approximate amount of time they have left and then they develop a program of fasting to coincide with their vow of Sallekhana.

According to Jain teaching, a householder, who accepts this vow with pure mind, should gives up all personal relationships, friendships, and possessions. He or she should forgive relatives, companions and servants or acquaintances and should ask for the pardon of all the sins (they don’t really have the concept of sin per se…but the terminology will have to suffice here) he or she committed in his or her lifetime.  He should then discuss honestly with his preceptor or guru all the transgressions committed by him including morally wrong acts which he asked others to commit. During the period of this vow he should eliminate from his mind all the grief, fear, regret, affection, hatred, prejudice, passions, etc., to the fullest extent.

I will read to you an English translation by the Hermann Jacobi of the original Prakrit passage in the Acarangasutra describing the process of Sallekhana:

“Knowing the twofold obstacles (i.e. bodily and mental), the wise ones, having thoroughly learned the law, perceiving in due order that the time for death has come, get rid of karman (2)
Subduing the passions and living on little food he should endure hardships.  If a mendicant falls sick let him again take food. (3)
He should not long for life, nor wish for death; he should yearn after neither life nor death. (4)
He who is indifferent and wished for the destruction of karman, should continue his contemplation.  Becoming unattached internally and externally, he should strive after absolute purity. (5)
Whatever means one knows for preserving one’s life when too severe penance brings on sickness and the probability of instant death, that a wise man should learn and practice in order to gain time for continuing penance. (6)
In a village or in a forest, examining the ground and recognizing it as free from living beings, the sage should spread the straw and commence the suicide by rejecting food. (7)
Without food he should lie down and bear the pains which attack him.  He should not for too long a time give way to worldly feelings which overcome him. (8)
When crawling animals such as live on high or below, feed on his flesh and blood, he should neither kill them nor rub the wound. (9)
Though these animals destroy the body, he should not stir from his position.
After the asravas have ceased he should bear pains as if he rejoiced in them. (10)
When the bonds fall off, then he has accomplished his life.

To elaborate on this process…Initially, he or she should gradually give up food and drink boiled water only.  Ultimately he will give up liquids as well.  He or she should also give up all the passions they once had as they are considered mental weaknesses.  The person should then become engrossed in the meditation without paying attention to the body and should avoid the five transgressions which are:
1) wishing to postpone death
2) wishing death would come sooner
3) fearing death
4) thinking of friends and relatives at the time of death
5) hoping for some sort of reward after death

It is recommended that a person who has taken the vow of Sallekhana select a place to sit for the fast where the government does not object to such a vow.  Ideally it should be a place where other people do not visit and are unlikely to interfere with the process.  Traditionally a person taking Sallekhana should find a quiet place in the forest, preferably under a tree and then focus on nothing and nothingness and allow themselves to be overtaken by the natural forces around them, their body reclaimed and their soul released for either reincarnation or released into the cosmos if it has attained liberation. The translations of the original texts say that in order for Sallekhana to commence properly the person must sit in silent meditation and bear all discomfort.  It says that if insects and vermin bite him he must not defend himself or rub the wound because that would interfere with natural process.  In India Sallekhana is sanctioned as a religious death and so it is acceptable to perform Sallekhana in the home or in a monastery or in the wilderness.

An adherent carrying out the ritual of Sallekhana.

According to the Sadhus, Sadhvis and Jain scholars Sallekhana is a pleasant death.  You leave the world without a care and a great euphoria is experienced followed by a peaceful death.  Many eyewitness accounts tell of the person taking Sallekhana laughing and smiling during the final stages of their death.  There is debate as to what causes this euphoria.  Some say it is the person experiencing spiritual enlightenment and others say it is the result of the shrinking of white and grey matter in the brain.  Many proponents of Sallekhana say that it is not really starvation in the classic sense at all in that the actual cause of death is renal failure.  In the final stages of the ritual the adherent forgoes water and shuts down their kidneys, which essentially allows them to just drift off to sleep, just like many elderly people in rest homes do the world over.

But all that debate over the mechanics and biology of death aside, Sallekhana is an ancient and sacred practice and has profound spiritual meaning for the adherents and their family members.  A person doesn’t just happen into Sallekhana…and once they are committed there is no going back.  This is serious business.

Right now I am researching the current legal battle in India where human rights activists have filed a public interest litigation (PIL) in the High Court of Rajasthan arguing that Sallekhana should be classified as suicide and not protected under the religious freedom legislation of the Indian constitution.  We shall see how this all shakes out and I will keep you posted as to how the court rules.  But in the meantime, at the risk of self-aggrandizing, I would encourage anyone who can to watch the episode of “Taboo” on the National Geographic Channel entitled “Unusual Burials” to get a glimpse inside the world of Jains and perhaps gain a broader view of what end-of-life means to different people.  

Post Script:

As happy as I am to see Sallekhana in the spotlight and be able to share information about the Jain religion and culture it came at the price of having to see myself on camera in High Definition on my parent's 50 inch flat screen.  Let me just say for the record that no one should have to see themselves with that tight a shot on their face on such a big screen.  It's like you're in an episode of The Twilight Zone seeing your own doppelgänger.   And it's not a matter of thinking I should have looked more attractive on's a matter of seeing someone who was supposedly me but in no way was a person I recognized.  The episode plays my voice over footage of the ritual before it shows my face and as I was watching the episode my initial thought was "Why is my mom on tv?"  I sounded just like my mom but in my head I don't sound a thing like her.  Further, in my mind I am more pigmented than I appeared on camera, and I am not used to seeing myself talk on camera.  Seeing still photos of yourself and then seeing a moving image of yourself makes you aware of all of the facial ticks you weren't previously conscious of.  So the lesson to be taken from this is that in the future if you ever do television...don't watch yourself back.  You'll just become convinced that you have a rounder, doughier, more monotone and somewhat creepier doppelgänger out there doing your job.   

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Here Comes Dottie Poo Poo!

Tonight I got the sweetest e-mail from Wendy the volunteer extraordinaire at the Merced SPCA congratulating me on the one month anniversary of adopting one Dottie Braun.  I am pleased to report that Dottie is doing wonderfully well in her new home.  And thank you to everyone who sent e-mails asking about the little girl.  She and Ling, the fourteen-year old Chow/Fox mix that runs the Braun household have become fast friends.  The cats seem to think Dottie is simply another one of them since she is just about their size...and all the two legged folks are pretty fond of her too.

One of the consequences of adopting Dottie at this moment in pop culture history is that it has become almost impossible in the wake of the cultural juggernaut that is Here Comes Honey Boo Boo on TLC not to say, "Here comes Dottie Poo Poo..." every time the little dog walks into the room. 

So for your viewing pleasure I have uploaded some more photos of Dottie Poo Poo in all of her velvety, chocolaty, elfish, adorable glory.  Please note that Dottie Poo Poo is unquestionably better behaved than Honey Boo Boo (a.k.a. Alana Thompson) and to our knowledge has never eaten "sketti" nor has she belched or burped while competing in a beauty pageant.  Of course she's still young and I suppose there is still time.  But she is house trained...which is possibly more than can be said of Honey Boo Boo.  

A Harry Potter House Elf and a Tootsie Roll had a baby.

She has learned to chew on toys and not furniture.

And she observes an appropriate bed time...except on Saturdays
 when she's allowed to let her down and stay up and watch
The Dog Whisperer with Ceasar Milan. 

Sunday, October 21, 2012

How Not to Drown in the Essequibo River

Last week I started a new segment here on the blog where I share travel tips and regrettable life decisions in the hopes that you, dear readers, will not repeat my mistakes.  Today's lesson is how not to drown in the Essequibo River in Guyana.

Now there are two ways to accomplish this task...the first and perhaps the easiest way is to simply not go to Guyana.  But if you choose to take this route then you'd be missing out on all of the amazing sights that the third-smallest independent state in South America and the second-poorest country in the Western hemisphere has to offer...but more on that later.  Of course, the second option for avoiding drowning in the Essequibo is simply to NOT BE A MORON.

I strongly encourage you to choose the latter...

Now how do you find your way to Guyana in the first place?  I landed there in the summer of 2006 as part of a group from the School of Public Health at Loma Linda University.  We were there to study among other things the impact of a 325 million gallon cyanide spill from a gold mine in 1995 that had devastated the waters of the Essequibo River and also to learn about Guyana's national healthcare system.  During part of our time there we were housed at the Iwokrama Field Station.

The Iwokrama International Centre for Rainforest Conservation and Development is essentially a series of thatched roofed bungalows that are sort of like the Swiss Family Robinson treehouse on steroids set in the middle of 371,000 hectares (that's just under 1 million acres) of pristine rain forest.   Now this compound sits along the banks of the river and when you are a grad student sweating your way to a slow death there is really only one thing to a parody of a horror movie featuring a river monster in the Essequibo.

Now we had spent many leisurely hours enjoying the waters of the river.  It is known for its "black water" which is a bit of a misnomer because the water is actually a reddish brown shade that looks almost identical to iodine.  As the leaves fall off of the trees and into the river the tannins leech out staining the water.  So if you stay in for a while it gives your hair a gorgeous red henna tint but unfortunately turns you a less than pleasant shade of orange.

Stay in the "black water" a little too long and you get a
little Oompa Loompa-esque tint to your skin tone.
It's also a little but disconcerting that you can't see the bottom.

Besides the cosmetic risks of bathing in the Essequibo there are some animal hazards to be aware of.  Guyana boasts the largest fresh water fish in the world, the arapaima, which is a living fossil in that it has managed to survive all major extinction events, and it can grow up to fifteen feet long.  The Essequibo is also home to the black caiman, the largest member of the alligator family, known to grow as large as sixteen feet long and get over 850 lbs in weight.  Oh yeah and there are piranha and candiru as know that fish that swims up your urethra.

The thing has managed to survive the last 65 million years
worth of extinction events...clearly it has earned its place as
a river monster.
I mean need I say more than the word "creepy".
This fellow's snack of choice is the world's largest rodent
the Capybara.

The Candiru...a small parasitic catfish that swims up urethras

Anyway, one hot afternoon we were all sitting along the river bank trying to decide what to do with the hour or so of free time that we had and since my one friend Sarah had a video camera and I was willing to go in the water it just seemed like the logical decision to make a parody of a horror film...a sort of homage to the brilliant filmmaking that gave us such masterpieces as Anaconda (1997) and Lake Placid (1999).  So into the water I went.  I did the backstroke and lolled around.  We would theoretically insert  Edvard Grieg's Peer Gynt Suite No. 1 "Morning Mood" and John Williams' theme music from Jaws (1975) later to set the scene for an impending attack.  Then with dramatic flair I began splashing around and faking a giant unseen river monster assault.

Now this should have been the end of this little endeavor except that at the exact moment that I started thrashing around I a) managed to get my ankle tangled up in an underwater vine and then b) the afternoon rains came and the current in the river went from calm and placid to a three knot flow that started carrying me away from the shore fast enough that the vine around my ankle got pulled taught.  Thankfully though, the vine getting pulled taught was the only thing that kept me from being swept away.

At this point, needless to say, I regretted our decision to make a student film.  Fortunately Sarah (the director) told Ramsey our other friend to jump in the water and help me.  So Ramsey dove in.  Sarah kept filming.  But the current was too strong and we couldn't get back to shore.  Thankfully, our other friends John Dangers (yes that's his real name) who had studied at the United States Air Force Academy and Manny Kiesser who had graduated from Annapolis jumped into a canoe and came to the rescue.  John said to me, "Whitny jump up in the canoe, come on you can do it!" I couldn't.  I have literally no upper body strength.  Then Manny contemplated jumping out of the canoe and into the water to help me out.  John said, "Hmm...yeah I think it's better we all stay in the canoe."   It was  quickly agreed that with two of us in the water just struggling to get back to shore another body in the water probably wasn't the wisest choice.  Eventually the current relented a bit and the vine loosened on my ankle allowing me to float down a ways and grab onto a branch.  Then Ramsey was able to help me grab another branch and then another and get to a point where we could touch the sandy river bottom with our feet.

It all felt really dramatic and dangerous in the moment but when Sarah played back the video for us I realized that it just looked like a bunch of fools floundering in shallow waters of a river.  But as ridiculous as it looks please heed my words...learn from my mistakes dear readers and DO NOT BE A MORON.  If you are in Guyana just stay out of the river.

Now for your viewing pleasure here is the link to YouTube where the lovely Sarah Marie Simmons uploaded our foolishness.  

Now remember, Guyana is definitely worth seeing.  Don't let my idiocy deter you from seeing this beautiful and amazing land.  Here are just a few of the highlights of this "Land of Many Waters":

Guyana has beautiful giant water lilies...

...beautiful people...

...beautiful sunsets...

...awesome spiny trees...

...enormous ants...

...enormous skies...

...enormous hearts...

...rare golden frogs...
...and the breathtaking 741 ft Kaieteur Falls...

...and finally, where else in the world do you get to stand at
the edge of a pristine untouched 741 ft waterfall and look
at the next view?

This view is worth almost drowning.

My Dog Looks Like a Baby Hippo

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Remembering a Poor Life Decision: The McDonut

A lot of people look back and their twenties and shake their head in shame at poor life decisions that they made.  For me personally, when I look back on this period in my life, I regret a decision I made in the fall of 2008 while in the Croatian city of Rijeka for the World Congress of Bioethics.  My colleague Magnolia and her husband and I snuck out of a session on mental health disorders in the Balkans to go in search of food.  What we found haunts me until this day.

The McDonut

Rijeka, Croatia is a fascinating place regardless of the McDonut (which we will learn more about later).  Continuously inhabited since the neolithic period  by various peoples of the Adriatic region, Rijeka is now Croatia's principle seaport and third largest city.  It was once considered among the premiere seaside vacation destinations of the aristocracy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the city is still filled with gorgeous examples of baroque and art nouveau architecture...although their facades are peppered by the occasional bullet hole or sign of artillery shelling or bronze placard to the fallen from the civil wars of the 1990s that ravaged the Balkans.  

Rijeka's famed clock tower

From Rijeka tourists can take a ferry to the nearby Isle of Krk where apparently the people who once lived there in the town of Vrbnik must have been really short and are now just really opposed to the wearing of Speedos???  Apparently they aren't fond of vowels either.

There are so many ways to interpret this sign.

Rijeka and it's environs have many fine features for tourists to take in but perhaps the heartbeat of the city is its McDonald's.  Located right in the center of the city across from the famous clock tower it is a warm welcoming beacon to weary travelers.  The familiar smells of fries and whatever other mystery ingredients go into making up the classic and ubiquitous McDonald's aroma drift through the streets.  My friends Magnolia and Angel and I were helpless to resist. 

I love a McDonald's in a 19th century building.

Inside the McDonald's there was a sign that pretty much summed up our mindset at that point in time.  The slogan, "All Roads to Lead to McDonald's" was emblazoned across the top.  

Svi putevi vode u McDonald's
All Roads Lead to McDonald's

Upon looking at the menu up on the wall I saw something that I had never ever seen before and was immediately intrigued by:  The McDonut.  Now I have been to McDonald's in India where they have the vegetarian Maharaja Mac and then to McDonald's in the Middle East where you can order the shwarma-style McArabia.  But never before had mine eyes beheld the sight nor my mine ears heard of this mythical item known as the McDonut.  I had to try it.

Magnolia is skeptical if it is actually even edible.

Instant regret.  The McDonut is kind of like a stale bagel with a puddle of congealed unidentifiable fruit filling in the center and then the whole thing is sprinkled with powdered sugar.  It was sort of like a really bad desert on a strange third world airliner.  Horrific.

At one point I thought it was actually looking back at me.

Someday when I have my own children perhaps I can warn them not to sample mysterious multinational corporation produced baked goods in the Balkans and spare them the experience.  My friend Magnolia was only able to rebound from the experience by ordering a Filet-O-Fish.

Magnolia washing the taste away with some fries.

So boys and girls, the moral of this story is that if you ever find yourself in Rijeka, Croatia a pang of hunger in your belly and some time to kill make your way to the McDonald's in the city center and order yourself up a falafel Big Mac and some I did the next day.  And remind yourself that if it sounds like a bad idea [McDonalds + donut = McDonut] then realize that it probably is and walk away.  

Mmmm good!  Falafel Big Mac!

Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Mark of the Medusa

In a little less than a month I am leaving for Haiti on a work assignment and in order to prepare for this impending visit to the poorest country in the Western hemisphere I have been soliciting travel tips from anyone and everyone who has ever set foot on or around the fair isle of Hispaniola.  In collecting these nuggets of travel wisdom it occurred to me that this blog is sadly lacking in travel writing and thus tonight I am launching the first post in a series of common sense travel advise that I hope will offer the eighteen people who read this blog with some actually useful information.

I figured the best story to kick this series off with was the one that contained the most graphic photo I have of myself versus the elements and the one that paints a picture of me epically failing at employing common sense.  So without further ado...

In the summer of 2008 I was vacationing in Menorca in the Balearic Islands off the coast of Spain with some friends.  They had rented a house high atop the rocky cliffs of Cala En Brut, which is arguably one of the most beautiful coves in all of the world, and we spent a week enjoying lazy days by the seaside.

See what I mean?  It's pretty friggin' amazing.

How could you resist the temptation to jump in that water?

One afternoon I decided to take a stroll down the footpath that led to the crystal clear turquoise waters of the Mediterranean.  Much to my surprise it was around two o'clock in the afternoon and there wasn't a single soul to be found on the beach.  The weather was perfect.  The water was perfect.  And yet no one seemed to be taking advantage of this little slice of heaven on earth but me.  How could this be?  It seemed too good to be true?  Well, a half-way intelligent person would have realized that if it seems too good to be probably is.

But apparently I am not a half-way intelligent person...because I did a swan dive off the cliff into the perfectly luke warm water below.  I did the backstroke.  I did some summersaults.  I floated on my back for a while.  It was quite possibly the best swim of my life and nothing could interrupt my bliss.

Just then I heard my friend Magnolia's heavily Castillian accented voice calling out to me from the rocky cliffs.  I opened my eyes and waved at her.  She managed to snap this picture.

Blissful Ignorance

I could barely hear Magnolia shouting something that sounded vaguely like "Weenie, Weenie...hay Medusa!"  I waved back at her hollering, "Hi Magnolia, the water is fine!"  She seemed to be jumping up and down on the cliff looking increasingly concerned.  But I couldn't be sure if I was reading her right until a second later when something that felt like what I can only imagine a bolt of lighting to a cartoon character might feel like slapped the insides of my thighs.

Then I knew...yup, she was telling me there were jellyfish in the water.  I was an idiot.

I swam to shore and Magnolia and her husband Angel and some well-meaning and curious bystanders met me at the swim ladder.  I crawled up and this is what we saw...

The Mark of the Medusa

Now common wisdom prescribes that the best way to treat a sting from a jelly fish is to quickly douse it with an ammonia-rich liquid like the readily available compound human urine.  But I remembered reading a "Scientific American" article the previous year that said that urine was absolutely useless and even though it worked for Monica when Joey peed on her in an episode of "Friends" that was just an urban legend.  Whether it would work or not I declined the offer from several friendly folk who were about to spring into action and decided to just "walk it off".

So the moral of this story boys and girls is that if you ever find yourself strolling along a world-famous beach that is the playground of the rich and famous and you find that it is conspicuously Twilight Zone deserted...assume there is a good reason for it and retreat.  

Monday, October 1, 2012

Victory in a Poo!

I realize that this post isn't necessarily going to class up my blog...but anytime you can train your new puppy to poop outside and not inside...well I think that is cause for celebration.  I am just sorry that I had to sacrifice Dottie the Dog's dignity in order to share this victory with the world.

Dottie is thinking:  "Is it really necessary to be photographing this?

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Introducing Dottie Braun!

Regular readers of the blog know that a week and a half ago the Braun family lost it's beloved "Big Dog" Snuggles after fourteen years of sweet, loyal, goofy companionship.  After debating whether or not it was appropriate to get another dog, a wise financial decision to add another pet, and if we were all emotionally ready to bring a new personality into the mix, Ling our fourteen-year-old Chow/Fox mix made the decision for us.

Since Snuggles' passing Ling had been moping around.  She had been the alpha dog in a pack of four dogs for most of her life and in the last year the other three members of the pack, Maggie, Odie and of course, Snuggles had passed on.  So poor Ling just seemed to be a little lost.  She clearly needed someone to boss around and impart her sage canine wisdom to.  Also, it just seemed a fitting tribute to Snuggles, who had been a rescued dog, to give another little shelter dog a home.

My initial reaction was to look up the animal shelter in our home county of Mariposa, which is the most rural county in our fair state of California, and adopt a dog that would love life on a 100 acre spread with other dogs and cats to play with and a steady stream of visitors who would gladly give him or her a belly rub.  So I typed in the url for the animal shelter to view the animals currently awaiting adoption.  There was just one...a rooster.  Okay, so much for that idea.  And by the way, who abandons a rooster?

The school year was starting so I had to head back down the mountain to Los Angeles for the work week.  A couple of days later I got an e-mail from my mom who had been looking at the shelter animals in neighboring Merced County and came across this little face:


Her name was Dottie...which was my Grandma Dorothy's nickname. It seemed like a sign.  And she kind of looked like my Grandma Dorothy's dog Tiny Tim who she had back in the 1920s in Chicago.

I am not sure why Tiny Time looks like he only
has three legs in this photo...I was assured he
had all four.  

I called from LA, Mom called from up at the ranch and after a few days we heard back from the volunteer at the shelter, Wendy, who told us she was still available, had been born to a Chihuahua mom and a Miniature Doberman Pincher dad at the shelter and all of her family had already been adopted.  They were hoping to find her a home before winter because she is so tiny and gets cold so easily that she needs a forever home with a fireplace and nice people who will make her sweaters.  We said that we could do that.  

The next morning my Mom called me on my way to work at the university and said that they had gotten her and that she didn't quite look like the puppy in the picture anymore...she said to think more along the lines of Dobby the house elf from the Harry Potter movies.  


So far Dottie has been a member of the Braun family for about four days and has settled into a routine of sleeping under the covers in the bed, trying to engage Harriett the cat to play with her, running up and down the driveway to the house and jumping onto my Dad's face when he is sleeping and engaging in a licks and kisses-attack.  

Regal, no?

She weighs about eight pounds, has a rat tail, bat ears, little deer feet and the nose of a chocolate lab.  As mentioned previously, she is a Chihuahua and Miniature Doberman Pincher mix, or as my friend Chase has said, she's a Chipincher.  

So far she seems to be fitting in quite nicely and Ling is attempting to teach her everything she knows...except how to take baths.  That hasn't quite been communicated yet...but it's a work in progress.

My mom is giving Dottie a thorough ear cleaning.

She looks strangely like a hippo to me here.

Now she is channeling her inner seal.

Dottie is just the sweetest, kindest, most trusting little doglet you could ask for which can only be a credit to the volunteers at the Merced County Animal Shelter.  They foster the animals and provide them with love and safe place to live until they can find "forever" homes.  I would strongly encourage anyone out there who might stumble across this blog post to check them out and consider getting your next four-legged family member from the good people at the Merced SPCA.