Cereal Was Almost the Death of Me

This year, 2017, marks the 120th year that Grape Nuts cereal has been in existence. Generations have been raised on it, and as the 1921 ad would suggest, it seems to help little bodies grow big and strong. As the Post company says, “There’s a Reason” for the cereal’s success.

However, through some weird quirk, some random juxtaposition of breath and nerves, a single, tiny particle of this delicious blend of barley and wheat almost killed me.

Or so it seemed at the time.

I consider Grape Nuts part of a paleo diet, of sorts. As cereals go, it’s primitive. It is merely ground bits of grain that never needed to be squeezed into flakes, or coated with sugar or artificial flavorings. For me, it’s like getting back to the basics of breakfast, or in this particular case, an evening snack.

On the night of my close call, while my wife was watching TV, I settled into my home office to edit my newest book while I snacked on a demi-bowl of Grape Nuts, wet with skim milk.

No doubt your parents lectured you repeatedly about the dangers of talking with food in your mouth. Well, in adherence to my parent’s scolding, I was not talking when it happened. I was quietly reading, and breathing.

And then, in an instant, I could not breathe, at all. I could not speak or yell out. I could not swear, or call for help. No air could enter or leave my lungs.

As I looked to the doorway, terrified, half hoping for my guardian angel to appear and magically save me, I realized that if I didn’t do something, quick, I would die. I was most unexpectedly suffocating.

I stood up, planning to head to the bathroom out of some strange thought that it might be my salvation, or at least an easier place to clean up the vomitus mess or whatever else follows death by asphyxiation. And as I reached the door frame a scant twelve feet away from where I’d been sitting, I could feel myself becoming faint.

This could not be happening. What an inglorious way to die.

With all the fortitude I could muster, I was determined to make it into the bathroom before I passed out. A second later, I was bent over a sink, supporting my upper body with my hands, trying with all my might to pull air into my lungs.

Finally, I found that with almost superhuman effort I could squeeze a little air through whatever was blocking its flow. The result was a high pitched nonhuman sounding squeal, a falsetto screech higher than even a little girl can produce. Physicians call it stridor, which sounds like this.

But at least it was something. Again and again I managed to suck in just enough air to keep me alive, one loud screech after another.

In the meanwhile, my greatly concerned wife was asking, “Are you OK, are you OK?”

No, I was not at all OK, but I could not communicate that fact, other than to make that hellish shriek. But with each shriek a few more oxygen molecules entered my oxygen-starved lungs.

And as the fog of impending collapse slowly began to clear, I was finally able to cough.

After that cough, there lay in the sink a tiny granule of cereal, presumably the little spec that landed in a sensitive spot in my larynx or “voice box”, triggering the spasm which tightly closed my vocal cords. With the cords, or more properly “vocal folds”, closed, air cannot enter the lungs. 

Under normal conditions, a person can hold their breath for two to three minutes without losing consciousness. But as I later analyzed what had happened, I realized that the particle of cereal was most likely sucked into my airway when I was just beginning to inhale, at the bottom of my “tidal volume.” So my lungs were not full of air.

Logically, when involuntarily holding your breath with lungs only partially inflated, the 2-3 minute rule may not apply. So, there was a chance that I was about to lose consciousness from hypoxia.

As I later discovered, laryngeal spasm is short-lived, and resolves within a few minutes, leaving the terrified victim shocked but relieved to be able to breathe again.

The aftermath of this incident was that I now realize how little we appreciate the simple act of breathing. For our entire lives we never think about it. It just happens.

Until it doesn’t.

 

I still enjoy my Grape Nuts, and highly recommend it to anyone looking for the simple pleasures of life. But at the same time, I’m now a little more careful when I’m eating, especially if my attention is directed towards something else. Multitasking while eating can be scary.

 

Living Off Universal Energy. Really?

By stuart Burns from Erith, England (_MG_7185 Uploaded by snowmanradio), via Wikimedia Commons

I thought I was misreading the title of the news article. I adjusted my glasses, then looked again.

Sure enough, the news headlines this past week actually reported on a young couple, reportedly a Breatharian couple, who claimed they had no need for food. They lived off of Universal energy, whatever that is. Most amazingly, the news-hungry press actually reported the story, obviously without a bit of fact checking.

As a physiologist, I know that is a patently ridiculous claim. It is impossible for humans to survive without eating. And as a science fiction author, I know it is not even good science fiction. The best science fiction maintains at least a little scientific accuracy.

Could it be fantasy? Maybe, but the story was reported as being true, with no hint of tongue-in-cheek.

However, it did remind me of a revelation of sorts from a few months ago, coming to me in a split second after a quick glance to the side of the road. What attracted my attention as I passed by at 55 miles per hour was a gorgeous white egret, like the one pictured, foraging for frogs and tadpoles in a ditch recently filled to overflowing with water from several days of downpours.

And then it struck me: wouldn’t it be nice if things did not have to die so that other things can live?

Now that’s a fantasy for you. Of course life is predicated upon death. Big animals eat smaller and weaker animals. Physicality cannot exist without death; you cannot live in the body unless something else dies. That’s life, pure and simple. It sucks to be the little guy.

But what about after life? Well, at the risk of turning in my scientific credentials, I will admit I do believe in an after-life, Heaven if you will, for reasons which I will not go into here. But it struck me in that brief moment of observing a beautiful bird, that only in a spiritual realm could energy exist without the simultaneous extinguishment of life.

To my way of thinking, that may be the single greatest distinction between the spiritual realm and the physical realm.

So thank-you Breatharian couple, practitioners of Inedia, for helping me remember my roadside revelation. Perhaps there is a place in some alien realm where beautiful birds, and beautiful frogs, and even humans can coexist without one eating the other. Maybe there is some parallel universe where our laws of physics don’t apply.

Perhaps we will someday discover that parallel universe, and call it Heaven.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

DNA: A Matter of Trust

In combat, we trust our buddies with our lives. We have their back and they have ours. When submitting to surgery, we trust the medical team with our lives, and usually that trust is not betrayed. But should we be willing to trust strangers with our very essence, our DNA?

Recently I was trying to solve a plot problem in the science fiction thriller, Triangle. The storyline relied on a particular individual being singled out by the government for monitoring, not for what he had done, but for who he was.

After finishing the novel, I went back to tie up loose ends in the plot. One such loose end involved a question: How could the government know that this one person out of millions had an unrecognized super power? He was a main character in the book and so I could not ignore that question. Certainly it helps the reader suspend disbelief if the plot elements are plausible, at least superficially.

I did not have to puzzle over that question very long before an advertisement for Ancestry DNA popped up on my computer screen.

That was it!

And so the following text flowed quickly.

The characters in this conversation are Sally Simpkin  (AKA Pippi Longstocking) and Joshua Nilsson, identified below by their initials. She was trying to explain to Nilsson why she and her employers had been monitoring him.

SS: “[The government] detected that you had a high probability of having certain prescient capabilities.”
JN: “Forgive me for being a bit skeptical. Why can’t you tell me [how]?”
SS: “I’m not even cleared to know the process. I just took the assignment. It had something to do with a DNA sample you submitted.”
JN: “DNA? The only DNA I’ve submitted was for genealogy research.”

Triangle was published on May 21, 2017. On May 25, the following BBC headline appeared in my browser.

Ancestry.com denies exploiting users’ DNA. “A leading genealogy service, Ancestry.com, has denied exploiting users’ DNA following criticism of its terms and conditions.”

So, is this author also prescient like Nilsson? Or is this blogger merely a bit jaded.

Genealogy services have a difficult time competing in the world market. After all, there are only so many retired folks trying to trace their family history and solidify their genetic place in the world before their demise. Speaking for myself, I started my genealogy research years ago, picking it up from my grandmothers who told tales of Civil War Colonels and Carpet Bagger treachery, and murder. In fact, I’ve posted on this blog before about some of my discoveries.

With the advent of computers and the availability of free records from the Mormon Church, the ease of doing genealogical research exploded. Some of the software and services were either free or inexpensive. Of course, “free” doesn’t do much for a service provider’s cash flow. So, into each CEO’s mind comes, sooner or later, thoughts of monetization. How could Facebook’s Zuckerberg and others turn a free service into something that can make them gazillions? In the case of genealogy services, they started by charging a monthly access fee, and in one case, by enticing viewers to keep paying fees by waving images of fig leaves to attract their attention. That was a strange but brilliant ploy that worked very well on this researcher.

The next step in monetization is now universal: sell ads to companies who want access to the growing body of amateur genealogists. The final ploy, and by far the most ethically troubling, is selling information about users of computer services. First there were those pesky cookies, but now there is blood, or saliva more exactly.

For some companies, it is not enough to know what users search for. There is now a market for information about who you are, your very genetic essence, which is hidden even to you. But some companies like 23andme, Ancestry, MyHeritage, GPS Origins, Living DNA, and Family Tree DNA, let you take a peek into your genes, for a price.

The ironic thing is, this most personal information is not only freely given, but people actually pay the DNA harvesters to harvest their most sacred self. And of course, once that has been done, your genetic-identity can be sold (read the fine pint). While we are urged to protect ourselves from identity theft, isn’t it odd that we are at the same time being enticed into giving away our most precious identity of all, our DNA? And we seem to be doing so gladly, blithely unaware of the implications for us and our progeny.

But don’t let the natural skeptic in me show through too strongly. I do, after all, have faith that everything we’re being asked to store in the “cloud” is actually as secure as cloud storage facilities (whatever those are) claim. And I’m sure the secrets buried deep in our genes are forever kept private, and safe from hackers.

But then, there is that troubling Orwellian Consent Form.

Oh well, Sally Simpkin’s monitoring assignment in Triangle is purely fictional. Surely, no government would really have an interest in our genes.

Or would it?

 

 

 

Transcontinent Love and War

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Middle aged guys are a sucker for a pretty face, as this odiferous saga proves.

I was headed overseas from New York to Paris, which is always a relatively painful transcontinental experience back in the Economy section. But my trouble started even before we left the gate.

I had selected an aisle seat near the rear of the aircraft. That is not my favorite choice, but it was all that was available on the flight.

There was a frankly gorgeous young woman sitting against the window, on my right. She had the slight scent of perfume about her. She looked up when I sat down, but didn’t speak. We exchanged smiles, and then settled in with no more immediate conversation.

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At this point, the Boeing 757 seating chart becomes relevant. I, illustrated as a red square, was seated in 35J. The young lady sitting next to me (illustrated by pink) was in 35K. As the plane took off, I settled in for a tiring but otherwise uneventful flight.

Once we reached an altitude where seatbelts could be undone, the girl next to me explained that  her boyfriend was a couple of rows back (marked by a blue square), and asked if I could change seats with him. Well, I am not one to impede young love, so I graciously agreed to move further back, from seat 35J to 37J. It was only two rows, I reasoned.

As I strapped in, feeling proud of myself for doing a good deed, I found myself seated next to a young Caucasian man, probably in his mid-twenties. We exchanged cordial glances. Although he seemed shyer than usual, to each his own, I thought. Perhaps he didn’t speak English.

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Within seconds of settling in, I detected a foul odor coming from the shy man in 37K (indicated by black) that, unlike the passing of gas, seemed to linger. I made sure the overhead vents were on full blast, but still the odor was inescapable. It was so pungent that I briefly thought it smelled like putrefaction, as if the man had a gangrenous leg hidden underneath his trousers. But the man did not appear to be in pain, and he clearly was not dead, yet, so my thinking, and revulsion, began to gravitate towards a horrific case of unchecked body odor. As one of my professors used to say, the smell was bad enough to gag a maggot.

I then realized I had been bamboozled by the cute girl in 35K who had taken advantage of this luckless middle-aged man. Once her boyfriend was seated where I had been just a few minutes before, I saw the two of them glancing  back at me, smiling. Yes, that couple in love had pulled off a coup on a gentleman, and this gentleman was now stuck flying through the night immersed in a suffocating stench that defied description.

There was another young lady, also lovely but lonely, sitting across the aisle from me. She kept looking longingly up the aisle, as if someone she knew was sitting there. Meanwhile, I was contemplating means of escaping the fetid odor overwhelming me. I considered shredding a paper towel from the lavatory, soaking it in airplane whiskey and thrusting those alcohol soaked tatters up my nose.

Now, I’ll admit I’m not a fan of whiskey. However, if it would somehow disguise the potentially lethal odor I was inhaling with each breath, it was an increasingly viable option. I had already ruled out the other alternatives, including accidentally throwing him out the passenger door. I’d heard those doors can’t be opened at altitude.

And then like a voice from heaven, the lovely girl across the aisle, in seat 37G, said the following: “Excuse me. My boyfriend is seated up there”, pointing to seat 34J. “Would you mind exchanging seats with him so we can sit close to each other?”

I could be mistaken, but I thought I heard a chorus of angels singing “Halleluiahs”.seating-change-2-circle

Of course I could not deny young love. So, within seconds I was sitting in seat 34J, one row forward from where I had started this flight, and breathing far less foul air.

A couple of hours later I headed to the back of the plane to find the lavatories. As I passed the young man who was seated in seat 37J, as his girl friend had requested, he gave me a mean look. But to be honest, as I passed him I simply thought, “All’s fair in love and war.”

In love and war, sometimes you just get lucky.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Lifetime Gift of Music Education

Score 5th SymphonyOf all the things I accomplished in secondary school, the one that still brings joy to my heart and tears to my eyes is the music I performed in the Symphonic Wind Ensemble at Shawnee Mission East High School in Prairie Village, Kansas. Under the steady guidance of Mr. Kenneth Geoffroy, our marching band, orchestra and Wind Ensemble director, we tackled music that was complex and passionate. Fifty years later, I still remember every note of the Fourth movement, Allegro non troppo, of the Fifth Symphony by the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich.

That is not to say that I can tell you which instrument was playing which note at any given instant. I do not have a photographic memory, and never saw the full score for Wind Ensemble. But since a wind ensemble by definition did not have string instruments, clarinets carried the major parts that violins played in the full orchestral score. I played the clarinet as first chair, and thus played the majority of the “melody”.

The decision to post this today came unexpectedly when I set up a Shostakovich channel on Pandora, and played it through our stereo system. While attending to other matters in the house I heard music that was very familiar. In fact it was so familiar that I found myself singing in my not so beautiful voice the da da da of the 1st B flat clarinet line for the entire Fourth movement. I knew exactly which notes were coming next. I had memorized it many decades ago, and my brain had recorded it for playback after a half century of neglect.

Mr. Geoffroy often called for us to emote in our playing, and some music was especially emotional, such as the Prelude and Love Death in Richard Wagner’s Opera Tristan und Isolde. If you did not sway in your chair, moving your instrument from side to side, you plainly weren’t feeling the passion of the music.

And today, as I rediscovered the Allegro non troppo of Shostakovich, I found myself consumed by joy, the same joy I felt when sitting in the middle of the ensemble, emoting my heart out just as Shostakovich, and Mr. Geoffroy, intended.

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High school prepared me well for the science and writing that defined my career. And for that I thank the sometimes stern, oftentimes nurturing teachers who looked for potential in every student coming under their care. But sometimes it’s the extracurricular activities that enrich our being, which bring joy at unexpected moments even a life-time later.

I would pray that when school boards are tasked with cutting programs, they think long and hard about the intangibles of performance arts. It is true that not every student enrolled in music or performance classes will make a career of it. In fact, I would guess that the number of high school students moving into a music or acting career must be very small indeed. But life is not just about work. It is also about “smelling the roses”. And music from the Masters, as long as it can stir the heart, is a very sweet smelling rose indeed.

Due to the passage of time, it is too late for me to personally thank Mr. Geoffroy; but I would like his family to know that he helped students, not yet adults, accomplish something beyond their wildest expectations. In my mind, that is the mark of a dedicated and impassioned teacher.

In the following video, Leonard Bernstein conducts the New York Philharmonic in the final movement of Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony. It is in the quiet passages mid-way through that my memories are the strongest. It was there that the clarinets and flutes carried the music with full authority.

 

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kenneth-geoffrey-fixedFrom the South Bend Alumni Association Hall of Fame Archives

Kenneth Geoffroy was instrumental in creating the South Bend Youth Symphony and the Fischoff Chamber Music Competition. As a skilled trombonist, Mr. Geoffroy played with the South Bend Symphony and the Midwest Pops. He also was a member of the music faculty at Indiana University South Bend, president of the Indiana Music Educator’s Association, conductor of the Southhold Symphonic Wind Band, and coordinator of fine arts for the South Bend Community School Corporation from 1967 to 1982. Mr. Geoffroy first proposed the idea of a summer musical festival to be held at St. Patrick’s Park, the foundation for the renowned Firefly Festival. (1981)