Sunday, January 5, 2014

A yoga bio of Rebekah Deter

Rebekah Deter, a great friend and yogic mentor of mine, is leaving Champaign-Urbana to further her scientific career in North Carolina. This prompted me to dig up a little something I wrote after I caught up with Rebekah at Amara Yoga & Arts back in 2013. Here is my (long overdue) interview:

It’s March – a very chilly March – and it’s time for me to get the story behind one of my favorite yoginis, our very own Rebekah Deter. We had agreed to meet at Amara, which on Thursday evenings is the place to be for those in need of some warming restorative yoga. The class over and the mood mellow, a chatty crescent of Amaris avail themselves of Rebekah’s experience. I notice immediately that this is not just small talk, a keeping up of appearances, per se. It’s just a little more real – for want of a better word – a little more sincere. Eventually, my patient loitering is rewarded, and as the students leave, Rebekah and I seat ourselves, cups charged with hot tea. The few lamps lit at this hour throw long shadows across her, shadows that would cause any other visage to take on a mysterious quality. But they seem to paint even more kindness onto her young face, to weave even more truth into the tapestry that is her yogic story.

Hers is a story set in several states, notably Kentucky, but it was not until her time as an NC State undergraduate a decade ago that yoga really found its way into her life. “We were those students”, she exclaims while describing to me her first yoga class, a broad grin on her face. Curious as to what the whole yoga thing was about, Rebekah and her friend Angela had stumbled late into a Raleigh studio, and hurriedly set their mats at the back of the room. The pair had immediately entered a new world, it seemed, their baggy clothes out of place among the form-fitting yoga attire which hugged the asana-tempered bodies of their fellow students. Embarrassed, Rebekah made every effort to emulate those around her, finding her way nervously into something resembling downward-facing dog. Still, it seemed hard for her to focus, not least because the pose Angela had struck was one in which a hand was madly texting her boyfriend, her other three limbs in adho mukha svanasana (not something you’d find in Light on Yoga). The others in the class are surely better yogis than I am if they didn’t have at least had some judgment for the pair.

While it would be some time until Rebekah attended her next yoga class, the self-confessed teenage brat entered her early twenties with newfound vigor. That she would take to asana practice like a duck to water was never in doubt, her gymnastics background affording her plenty of strength and flexibility. Above all, it was the yogic focus - the dharana – that truly changed her. This she attributes to a yogini by the name of Yvonne, whose classes she first attended in 2004. Stunningly beautiful, Yvonne had a bubbliness that inspired scores of yogis each morning to salute the sun even before its rays lit the Raleigh skies. More than a decade Rebekah’s senior, the teacher possessed not only irrepressible individualism and charisma, but also a physical prowess Rebekah also saw in herself. Yvonne proved to be the perfect role model, and showed that a supremely energetic young woman (a vata-pitta for sure) could also be grounded and focused. Unbeknownst to her teacher, Rebekah was escaping a troubled youth and, breath by breath, venturing into a new phase of her life. However, Yvonne soon left the suburban studio in search of greener pastures in the city. Just as quickly as yoga had found Rebekah, she had lost her mentor. Rebekah’s practice – her sadhana – waned, although she did perform the occasional asana at home and continued to educate herself through podcasts. The remainder of her free time was spent dabbling in everything from weightlifting to aerobics to breakdancing. But the void yoga had left was hard to fill and while asana shapes manifest themselves in breakdancing, the awareness Rebekah was seeking – the very aspect that sets hatha yoga apart from other physical pursuits – was not to be found. Rebekah’s arrival in Champaign-Urbana marked the end of a five-year yoga hiatus, after which she dusted off her yoga mat in search of some yin to offset the yang of her hectic UIUC graduate studies. The creative flows of local yogi Deb Lister as well as the soothing stretches taught by Lauren Quinn were now integral to her wellbeing. The prospect of teacher training, if ‘only’ to deepen her own practice, had already crossed her mind in Raleigh. Now, it was well and truly a goal, one that would be achieved in 2011.

I look at my phone – it’s almost 9 pm and we haven’t even started to discuss Rebekah’s yoga teaching. She takes her last sip of tea, and explains “yoga helped me find my voice”. And as cliché as that might sound, it also seems somewhat unbelievable. Just a while ago she was charismatically sharing stories with students and now she’s telling me she was shy and had no voice? I look a little deeper though and begin to see a more internal person, one who gravitates towards reading and self-study (and lots of forward folds!).

After her completion of YogaWorks teacher training, Rebekah might not have led classes at all had it not been for the belief her teachers had in her (Rebekah’s trainer Tatiana gave her the book titled “The Courage to Teach”). Support also came from her peer Jim Rector, whose gift to her of a little cactus,* she explained, was to represent the blossoming of her yoga teaching (suffice to say that the little cactus is not so little anymore!). What motivated her most to leave her comfort zone and teach yoga were the people. Meeting them, helping them. She eschews any thoughts of attaining yoga celebrity (‘yogalebrity’) status, such a position being unsuited to one who genuinely wants to connect with individuals. Rebekah concedes, however, that there was undoubtedly business savvy behind the self-promotion of some prominent yogis. This savvy would be essential if she is to bring to reality her ideas of establishing a prenatal yoga training program.

Prenatal yoga? Hardly fashionable stuff, right? Not something you’d see the Kino MacGregors and Kathryn Budigs of the world teaching. Such niche yogas had piqued Rebekah’s interest early on, her belief being that the mindfulness, strength and flexibility afforded by yoga should be accessible to all. “Women are tired”, she asserts, her aim being to unite groups of pregnant women who might otherwise feel very isolated. You’ll find plenty of workshops (and YouTube videos) teaching fancy arm balances and inversions. But how many yoga workshops do you see dealing with yoga for incontinence? It didn’t surprise me that Rebekah’s attraction to these niche practices was borne out of her willingness to help people in need (among these her mother, who suffered from multiple sclerosis). This empathy, this ability to identify with others and meet specific needs with yogic awesomeness is particularly refreshing. One of her students told me that Rebekah “loves indiscriminately”, something that goes far beyond being young and bendy.

Most people will agree that good yoga teachers are good yoga students. As Rebekah refers to her passion for continuing education (necessary for teachers to be registered with the Yoga Alliance), she points out that “practice is decades”. It’s hard to imagine so much patience from someone who used to have road rage and an inability to wait in line for anything. As someone who’s attended many of her classes, it’s clear to me that she’s in a good place and that her positivity is extremely contagious. If one measures a teacher by the impressions they leave on their pupils, then the smiles etched onto the faces of Rebekah’s many students speak volumes. Add to this her ability to deconstruct asanas and lead new yogis into deep poses (she had a class full of newbies in eka pada koundiyasana ii) and you realize you have someone quite special. Much of this ability stems from her creativity at finding new stretches (you put what? where?) that almost magically enable a ‘full expression’ of ridiculous-looking postures.

As the popularity of Rebekah’s classes grew, she realized that instructors often have no idea who they’re influencing (Yvonne, the yogini who inspired Rebekah, didn’t even know her name). You could have a class full of trauma victims and wouldn’t know it. She tells me the best teachers show preparedness and sensitivity to individual students, skills that undoubtedly were with Rebekah before her yoga teaching, but which matured as she led classes both in Illinois, and later, in the wilds of Alaska. Rebekah’s style of teaching mirrors that of her practice, which, from yin to the more dynamic vinyasa forms, spans the entire hatha yoga spectrum. Her appeal is remarkably universal – from older yoginis to the cliques of sorority girls to all the guys – her classes are often standing room (samasthitih, of course!) only. If you believe only one sentence I write, let it be the next. You’ll find a more experienced teacher, one more well-versed in Sanskrit, but you’d be hard-pressed to find someone better able to connect with such a wide variety of human beings.

* In contrast, Rebekah gave yours truly a fragment of that cactus and I killed it.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

An interview with Don Briskin

When asked to interview Amaris to find out what makes them tick, there was no lengthy pondering on my part in deciding who I might first interrogate. A sunny Thursday morning was made even more beautiful when I found Don Briskin, yoga teacher and practitioner extraordinaire. We met in a cafe by my office and hands we shook as we found a nook where our business we took. And by business I mean pleasure. The simple pleasure of talking yoga.

Elegantly dressed and eloquently expressed, the academic that is Briskin sat down and informed me that we had little over an hour for our discussion, after which he would have to teach his science. Don is a busy man. But when not conducting research or teaching in plant biochemistry, when not with his family, and when not engrossed in his many hobbies (painting being particularly close to his heart), Don finds time for yoga. This ancient tradition has been part of his life since he was a seven-year-old growing up in Southern California, where he was introduced to the practice by his mother. In turn, she found inspiration from the teachings of Indra Devi, the famous yogini who popularized asanas in the West after studying with the influential Indian Tirumalai Krishnamacharya. Don's mother, a professional ballet dancer who practiced yoga well into her nineties, was primarily interested in the physical aspect (hatha yoga) and its benefits. Yoga had only just begun to spread to America, and asanas were performed on carpets (which resembled Persian rugs) instead of the sticky mats which fill studios today. Yoga was, even by Californian standards, very much a novelty at the time. It was certainly marginalized, with practitioners like Don and his mother "considered weirdos". Gradually, however, and due to the pioneering efforts of many (particularly Devi) who practiced in the lineage of the old masters, yoga blossomed in the West.

Now I don't know about you, but the beginning of high school was not a time when I was thinking too deeply about anything, let alone reading (and understanding) the Bhagavad Gita, as a young Briskin did. Also interested in Zen and transcendental meditation, his hunger for philosophical stimulation was matched only by his rapidly deepening asana practice. This latter aspect, he found, represented a perfect complement to his growing interest in surfing. Indeed, not only was it a relaxing yin to the yang of this competitive sport, but the physical aspect proved invaluable preparation for the demanding rigors of surfing. Consider utkatasana (fierce pose) or maybe virabhadrasana II (warrior II pose). It's not difficult to see how even simple asanas afforded Don the balance and strength with which he could carve up the Pacific Ocean. Of course, Don didn't just stick to simple asanas and could often be found in vrschikasana (scorpion pose), dwi pada sirsasana (two-legs-behind-the-head pose) or hanumanasana (monkey pose, a.k.a. the splits), among others.

While scientific pursuits took Don to Canada in 1982, to Utah the following year and to Chambana shortly thereafter, his yoga was a friend always by his side. And this friend was living, breathing and evolving in parallel with Don's interests. The thing that struck me most was the yogic journey Don embarked on as a child and continues to travel on to this day. While his path has twisted and turned, detoured and doubled back through several styles of yoga, he made a point of studying each of these in the most authentic of fashions. His advice to myself and others beginning their journey is simply to "study as closely to the source as possible". Thus, while it is beneficial to practice several styles on the way to finding one's marga (yogic path), Don finds it essential that each style be studied genuinely. In terms of Don's development, he practiced Iyengar yoga for a decade, having studied not only Light on Yoga but also the Astadala Yoga Mala, a more philosophical text penned by the same author. He received the most traditional of Kundalini studies under Sat Khalsa, a student of Yogi Bhajan. Don became particularly attracted to dynamic yoga - the vinyasa styles - which, like many modern hatha yoga practices, stem from Krishnamacharya. Always in search of authenticity, he learned ashtanga vinyasa from Manju Jois, the son of K. Pattabhi Jois, the method's founder. Most recently, he found his niche when training with Srivatsa Ramaswami, a famous student of Krishnamacharya. The style of hatha yoga he performs today involves mindful asana progression which meets the student where they are right here and now. What could possibly embody the phrase 'be present' more than this? The Sanskrit name for this yoga - vinyasa krama - translates to "placing steps in a special way". In this context, the "steps" (asanas, of which there are roughly seven hundred to choose from in the method) are sequenced in an intelligent manner most appropriate not only to the particular student but also their current state of being. Anyone talking to Don about yoga for even a couple of minutes will be inspired by the passion he exudes for this tradition and I imagine that the logical synthesis of asana practice inherent in vinyasa krama appealed very much to the scientist in Don. It turns out that this yoga was precisely that which his mother taught him as a child - his yogic journey had come full circle. The nerd in me cannot help but point out that Don's yoga marga had become a beautiful yoga mala (garland).

In case I haven't made myself clear - Don loves yoga. In fact, he needs it, claiming that his "daily well-being depends on it". Do you feel like yoga is necessary for your health? It certainly is for Don, with his consistent yoga practice keeping arthritis at bay, as exemplified by the healing effects of sirsasana (headstand) on his cervical arthritis. And do you ever feel rotten when you haven't had your asana fix for the day? You're not alone in relying on yoga as "a key point in maintaining day to day functionality". While Don might no longer perform full expressions of vrschikasana, for example, it would be hard to say that his asana practice has slowed down, especially if you've seen him in bhujapidasana (arm-pressure pose), in which he's pictured on many a flier. However, Don did share with me that his practice has gradually (and I mean gradually!) progressed into being more meditative and spiritual in nature. Additionally, his study of classic (and modern) texts is impressive and on more than one occasion in our meeting I felt a little inadequate in not being able to recognize even the title of a book he mentioned. Indeed, me telling you that Don is knowledgeable is a yogic understatement on par with saying that 'B.K.S. Iyengar is fairly limber' or 'Krishnamacharya knew a thing or two about The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.'

While I knew that Don had practiced yoga for half a century, I was surprised to discover that only nine years had gone by since he taught his first class. But boy has he made up for lost time! When asked about the motivation behind his yoga  instruction, Don simply offered that "much greater than in yourself, you'll see the benefits in the people that come to your classes". Benefits like being able to sleep at night after suffering through years of insomnia. Or rediscovering shoulder mobility that had not been found in a decade. These are just two of the countless examples of Don's yoga teaching changing lives. Ever the selfless man, of his yoga teaching he gives: "improving someone's life quality - that's probably the greatest rewarding thing you can do."

Don and I had already been talking yoga for over an hour when we realized that our sunny Thursday morning had become a sunny Thursday afternoon. But I was still eager to absorb a little more wisdom before he had to run off and become Professor Briskin, biochemistry guru. So I asked him if he had any advice for a new yoga teacher such as myself. As I expected, he replied that "every yoga teacher needs to do home practice every single day". The reason was not so much about having perfect asanas to show off in front of everyone, but rather related to having an intimate knowledge of how the poses feel. Anyone can direct you to 'raise your left arm' or 'bend your right knee', but communicating what you might feel in a pose is a deeper skill altogether and helps build a student-teacher relationship abounding in empathy. Don noted that the man who most influenced his own yoga, Krishnamacharya, "was the master of very detailed cuing that included not only what you should do but what you should feel". More than satisfied with Don's answer, I felt extremely grateful to him for sharing his story and his many pearls of wisdom. After we got up, shook hands and parted ways, I couldn't help but feel amazing, a feeling I'm sure I have in common with all people lucky enough to interact with him. That's just the kind of guy Don is.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

What ARE the chances?

Let me begin, if I may, with a question. Let me begin this post, and in fact this year, by asking: do you believe in fate? How much control does one really have over things that happen in life?

I'm not sure I believe in fate per se, but I do leave a lot of things to chance. And I'd say that strategy (or lack therof) has worked, so far at least. I came to Chambana knowing nothing about the place and now I know that there's nothing I'd rather do than stay right here. Having said that, there are certainly places within these twin cities that I would avoid dwelling in. Last August, owing to my fantastic lack of organisation (and the fact that my yoga training had absorbed all my free time), I realized I had but one week left on my lease before I would become a homeless soul. I mean, I had a home - Champaign-Urbana - but the roof of 301 South Busey Avenue would not be over my head for much longer. During my desperate search for an apartment I had realized that the pickings were rather slim. A youngish man had shown me around some locations around campus which smelled even worse than he did. And let me tell you: that's saying something. The man was kinda ghetto, but at least he was nice enough to offer me a ride in his pickup truck (his partner in crime sat in the back, and had to hold on for dear life to prevent himself from falling off the vehicle during my drivers periodic accelerations, which were always accompanied by fits of laughter). I've heard that beggars can't be choosers but to hell with that - I wasn't going to live in his dingy pads. The next residence I inquired about, a modern two-storey dwelling in East Urbana, appeared much more appealing. And, as my potential housemate/landlord had informed me, it even came with a cute puppy. But while the dog was cuddly, the guy turned out to be creepy. The fact that his nice house was in a not-so-nice neighborhood (right near the Bullet, the self-proclaimed "best topless adult club in the world") wasn't working in his favor either. In fact, my friend who had given me a ride to the sketchy locale had come prepared with a switchblade. The aforementioned weapon was proudly displayed to me before we left, in a yoga studio of all places. Trust Jen Mui to bring a knife (correction: knives - she had a machete in the car!) to yoga. Anyway, with half a week left to look for a place I was, it had appeared, out of luck. That is, until Jen put out a plea on Facebook for anyone willing to harbor a "wayward Asian" (her words, not mine!). Anyway, so now I'm blogging from a very nice abode, complete with a cool housemate, a  friendly dog, a flock of ducks and a peep - that's right, a peep - of chickens.

A lot of things have worked out in my life, most of which are not a result of any real effort on my part! If I hadn't been so stressed at work three years ago, I wouldn't have discovered yoga. And if I hadn't discovered yoga I wouldn't have learnt how to stand on my head. And if I hadn't learnt to stand on my head, I would be homesick and would have forgotten how it was to live in the Southern Hemisphere, those peeps being all upside down and what not. And if hadn't been for that friendly customs officer in San Fran (long story - don't ask, let's just say I kinda forgot to get a visa - minor detail, right?) I'd still be in the Southern Hemisphere (or worse still, Guantanamo Bay) as the US would have deported me. But I'm here and it's 2013 and I'm excited to make the most of the first year the Mayans never thought we'd have.

2013 is the year I take life into my own hands and make stuff happen. My little new year's resolution was inspired partly by the pursuits of Davy Rothbart, a comedian/writer whose life was beautifully portrayed in the documentary My Heart is an Idiot. Davy travels the States doing stand-up and being an altogether upstanding citizen of this fine nation. In addition to this, and his promotion of Found magazine, this day-dreaming drifter looks for love in all the right places, in all the wrong ways. Things don't always work out for the free-spirited Rothbart, but it's never for lack of trying! While each of the ninety-four minutes of My Heart is an Idiot was amazing, Rothbart and director David Meiklejohn (both of whom were at the screening I attended) do an amazing job with the films ending. Davy left me with this pearl of wisdom: things will work out, you will get your happy ending, but you have to put your heart on the line, be proactive and make things happen.

So, what do you want to accomplish this year? Are you doing what you really want to do? At the risk of sounding too cliché: let's really go for it in 2013, get out of our comfort zones, take a risk and inspire each other to chase our dreams.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

I Love the Environment (part II)

I wear size 8 shoes. It turns out my carbon footprint is also 8. Every year, I am responsible for the equivalent of 8 tons of carbon dioxide* entering our atmosphere. These molecules absorb infrared light from the sun and begin to vibrate - they get hotter. My footprint would have been less than 5 if I hadn't taken a trip back to Australia last year (them jet airliners burn through a lot of fuel!). But my vegetarian diet and lack of a car work in my favor - the average American has a footprint more than double mine. Most other countries are less polluting, with your average Chinese and European denizen having a footprint comparable to that of moi. Among the worst offenders is Australia :( My nation lives off coal exports, resulting in a whopping 28 tons of carbon dioxide per Aussie!

After finishing grad school three and a half years ago, I decided to holiday my way through Western Europe (yup, that's 3 tons of carbon dioxide right there!). Well, it wasn't strictly a holiday - I was there to attend the Lindau Meeting of Nobel Laureates in Germany. Picture hundreds of chemistry grad students from around the world hanging out with a couple dozen Chemistry Laureates. It was all rather exciting, perhaps the highlight for me being the lectures by Professors Molina, Crutzen and Rowland. These guys discovered how certain chemicals destroy the ozone layer (the Earth's "sunscreen"). As if global warming wasn't bad enough, now we had a second problem on our hands - instead of being absorbed or reflected, the harmful UV rays from the sun were getting all the way to our Earth :(

Last year, I once again had the pleasure of meeting a Nobel Laureate, a certain Prof. Solomon who was visiting UIUC to deliver a lecture. Ms Solomon was part of the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change, a body which had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. I was lucky enough to have been allocated a one hour meeting with her, during which we could discuss research. Needless to say, I diligently put a presentation together highlighting all my plans for converting carbon dioxide into useful chemicals. Transforming a pollutant into a valuable material is like killing two birds with one stone and I was excited to disclose my plans to her. It was late afternoon and we met in my office, went through my work and chatted about climate change and what not. That lasted all of ten minutes. She told me about her adventures to Antarctica to collect ice core samples to quantify the carbon dioxide trapped inside, thereby tracking CO2 levels over the course of many years. She said I should visit the South Pole sometime. I responded by telling her yours truly was cold enough in Illinois and that traveling to Antarctica would be lunacy. She then changed topic by asking me about my story, about which we talked for over an hour. Indeed, the tale of a woman traveling from Hong Kong to Europe, meeting a Swiss man and settling down in Australia appeared much more interesting to her than my research proposal. Fair enough, talking exclusively about chemistry can be a little much sometimes.

While I enjoyed the meeting immensely, the one thought that had stuck with me afterwards was a negative one. She had told me that ordinary people can't really change their carbon footprint much. This had deflated me a little - she was saying that your average peep can't make a difference to our environment. While I understand that individuals can do little to affect how products are manufactured and the way in which energy is processed (although in some countries one can pay extra to have part of one's power bill come from renewables), I beg to differ. However small, our actions have important consequences for the future of our planet and our kids and grandkids. Every little bit counts, so: do take the stairs, do buy those locally grown vegetables, do ride your bike. And next time someone says you can't make a difference - don't believe them for a second :)

When the time comes for me to leave this Earth I hope that I will have done as much as I can to enrich the lives of others. Conversely, I want to have done as little as possible to disturb the environment that we all share. Professors Molina, Crutzen and Rowland, elder statesmen in the chemistry world, had got me fascinated in atmospheric science, an area very unrelated to my research. It's fair to say the next generation of scientists has big shoes to fill. But they also have smaller footprints to make.

*For those interested in chemistry: other anthropogenic greenhouse gases are included in this figure. For example, my existence might also result in nitrous oxide and methane production. Owing to their high absorptivities, these are far worse than carbon dioxide (laughing gas is no laughing matter, if you'll excuse the bad joke). Their contributions are included in the "carbon dioxide equivalents" and are scaled accordingly.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Make love, not war

While walking to the lab yesterday, I recalled an event that transpired on a school excursion sixteen years ago. I was in the eighth grade at the time and the seniors at my high school had gone on a trip, which was, however, marred by an incident which was to become infamous and the subject of discussion in NSW State Parliament.

Said the Honorable R. S. L. Jones: "It is with regret that I have a very serious matter to report to this House. Last week approximately 100 year 12 students from Normanhurst Boys High School were taken on a field study excursion to Broken Hill. They were led by social science master Peter Plant, and science teacher Philip Blackman. The boys came across a baby goat, and I am informed that they were given the options of leaving the goat alone, taking it into town and selling it, or killing it. One of the boys, whose name I have but obviously do not intend to publish, took the goat and threw it down a cliff. The goat survived and the boys scrambled down the cliff, picked the goat up and threw it down again. The goat was still alive. Another boy, whose name I also have, then proceeded to stone the goat to death. If these facts as I have stated them are true, and I am reliably informed that they are, I ask the Minister for Education and Training to instigate an immediate investigation into the behavior of the boys and into the part played by the teachers. Did the teachers encourage these actions? If not, why did they not stop them? Why did the other students not stop the boys? I am absolutely horrified by this alleged gross cruelty to a baby goat. I seek an assurance from the Minister that he will order an immediate investigation."

Well, an investigation did happen and we ended up getting new geography teachers (not that it affected me since I hated geography and dropped it as soon as I could!). But the damage was done - not only in terms of the appalling suffering of the goat, but also with respect to the School's reputation. Our School motto of "Know Thyself" had been jokingly reworded by some to "Throw Thy Goat".

Yogis have five observances (yamas) that we, well, observe. Arguably the most important of these is non-harming (ahimsa). Regardless of whether we're vegans or vegetarians, omnivores or a carnivores, we are all human. And as long as we practice ahimsa, we can all be humane.

P.S. I was reminded of this event when I turned the clock back three three years to my arrival in Champaign. After having my granola one morning, I noticed a lady beetle in my house, which I frantically tried to trap. It eluded me for ten minutes, after which it was finally caught in between my mug and a wall. I slid a piece of paper in between the mug and wall, so I could move the critter, open my window and let the little guy fly into the big wide world, where it would have food to eat and other bugs to meet and greet. After arriving at work late, I was told by a co-worker that these orange bugs were invasive pests. Apparently, the real ladybugs were red, or something like that. But I didn't regret my actions and at least I learned something along the way. I've since trapped and released several spiders of late, which might not sound like a big deal, but given my arachnophobia I'm proud of myself. Come to think of it, I'm scared of any animal with more than four legs (*recalling incident where students laughed at me for running away from a moth 
while TA-ing*) but I don't mean them any harm.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Australia vs America

Having grown up in the sunny coastal city of Sydney, I moved to the less sunny and less coastal town of Champaign in the Fall of 2009. Why did I journey to a place where I didn't know a single human being, you ask? Good question. I thought I'd get some international work experience while maybe getting out of my comfort zone. Who am I kidding: Honduras (with the highest homicide rate per capita) or Antarctica (which has, I guess, the opposite climate to Australia) - now those would have been out of my comfort zone. The friendly folks of Australia and America speak the same language (I know, I  know, that's debatable). They also fight on the same side during international conflicts, these typically being initiated by one of the two countries (I'll give you a hint, it's not Australia). But there are still some contrasts between these mighty nations. Take the food, for example. The "gourmet onion dish" displayed below was described by an anonymous food critic as a "very controversial piece". The gastronomical expert then offered the interpretation that "the placement of the onions represent (sic) the circle of life whereas the chili is a shooting star, arising from a universe of gravy". I guess food is all very subjective but one thing's for sure - there is hardly anything on that plate! Calling it a "minimalist" or "low-calorie" offering would perhaps be the greatest culinary understatement ever uttered. After all, the dish is really not much more than, well, a dish! In stark contrast, within days of arriving in the States, yours truly was introduced to the pizza of Papa Del. Let me tell you, this Papa makes One Mother of a Pizza. Go big or go home. We have a winner: AUS 0 - 1 USA
So are there any other differences between these countries? Absolutely! Australia, being an island, is home to some of the weirdest animals on Earth, these having evolved in their own isolated continent. Many of these fauna are super venomous for sure, but they are largely misunderstood creatures. For a fair comparison between AUS and USA I now present the two variants of possum/opossum native to the nations:
For those of you interested, here's a short video of my brother playing with one. Upon examining this evidence, what you'll undoubtedly realize is that Aussie possums are CUTE! The little guy pictured above, munching on some watermelon in my parents front yard, is no exception. On the other hand, his American cousin is hands down the nastiest thing I've ever seen. There's clearly no contest here: AUS 1 - 1 USA

So at one point apiece, let's call it even. At least until I can think of more things to compare. Vive la différence!

Saturday, November 24, 2012

I Love the Environment (part I)

One afternoon this past Summer, I was walking home from the bus stop feeling pretty amazing. The day was warm and the birds were out, including my favorite blue heron - the unofficial groundskeeper of The Boneyard Creek in Champaign. In terms of people though, I didn't see a soul - I had the whole park to myself. Being quite the daydreamer (and egalitarian), I started thinking: how much space does a human being have on this Earth? Given that two-thirds of our planet is open ocean, and that we can't make much use of deserts, glaciers and the like, we end up having an average of two hectares (twenty-four thousand square yards) of usable land for each peep.

Let's consider the thought experiment in which we each are the sole inhabitants of our two hectares* on which we can do whatever we please. Cultivate some crops, maybe grow some mangoes (or some kiwifruit - they are really yummy too). Raise a pet giraffe. Or go all out and have a pride of lions or an ambush of tigers (or maybe even some ligers!). Run around naked. Y'know, whatever works for you. One last thing: there are walls between each person's two hectare lot. These are HIGH! Higher than giraffes can reach. Higher than the Great Glass Elevator. High enough so the atmosphere over our land stays over our land and doesn't move over to our neighbor's area. So if we are responsible for our own isolated ecosystem, if we have to breathe in only our designated air, what is the likelihood of us polluting? Probably a lot less than if we're all free to roam around as we are now. The fact of the matter is that we don't live in our own little bubble. We share this planet so we can't be selfish and ruin things for others by hurting our Earth. We're all in this together.

*Obviously this idea is very oversimplified. For example, aquatic life is very important in maintaining balance too! So we can each have about four hectares of open ocean, which, although inaccessible, allow some atmospheric regulation (e.g. from plants and bacteria performing photosynthesis).