What Zuckerberg’s numbers don’t get about real friendship

What Zuckerberg’s numbers don’t get about real friendship

By David Rutter

 

With all due respect to the algorithm wizards at Facebook, they’ve sort missed the point with “Friend suggestions.”  

True, it seems preposterous that Facebook and Mark Elliot Zuckerberg could get any element of interpersonal relationships wrong, but there it is.

This “friend suggestion” is a relatively new standard communication from Facebook and additional to “friend requests” which come from fellow Facebookers seeking affiliation with you. The “suggestion” option is based on computer analysis of your search habits.

But I have received “suggestions” in behalf of 30 people. Here are some of my potential new friends being promoted by Facebook: An ex-wife who barely tolerates me being in the state with her; the former husband of my life partner who hates me more than his ex-wife; a former corporate colleague who suckered me into a  business meeting and then fired me from a profession I had hoped to continue for another decade. Nothing personal, you understand. I’m just crushing your career at its highest trajectory point because someone told me to do it. Have a nice day.

There are a dozen or who accidentally were in the same room with me on one day in the last 10 years for no particular reason, though we never exchanged what you’d call an introduction.

There are former co-workers, many of whom were close friends before Facebook, and we all use Facebook to keep connected. But other former colleagues—too many for comfort’s sake— were never my friends when we worked together. And they made sure afterwards that I knew they would not be my friends, either, despite Facebook’s nudgings.

Another subset contains friends of a person I already know from Facebook. This suggested relationship is based on the premise that I would wish to be “friends” with anyone because a third party I know might know them.

In the real world, we call those people “strangers.”

Facebook suggested that I join a group devoted to “Olson Twins gossip.” Cripes! A former sportswriter I once called in print “a useless lapdog for Bobby Knight” is projected as a friend. Don’t think so.

All these karmic collisions reflect that Facebook designers, scientists and programmers either do not know what a “friend” is, at least as I have encountered the term— or they are refining the term for commercial advancement.

 Or just as likely, they are rewarded for “churn” — people moving To, ‘Fro and Yonder in a chaotic dance that creates “activity” but no tangible or meaningful results.

One of my “suggested friends” is a regional newspaper editor who does not know me, but does not answer her phone or return a half dozen calls seeking to talk about a potential news story. Facebook somehow picked her as a “friend suggestion” because I know some of her colleagues.

Luckily, Facebook has constructed a trap door to escape this Mobius Loop. Says the official tutorial: “From the opened page click on Notifications from the left section of the page. From the right section under All Notifications, click on a Facebook option. From the appeared list uncheck the checkbox in front of the “Adds a friend you suggested”  option. Finally, click on Save Changes button to make the changes permanent.”

All this evidence reinforces that, aside from your role being digitized data points on the grid, Facebook does not have much idea who you are as a unique sentient being, despite its corporate chumminess. Yes, theoretically you are the sum total of all the events of your life. But you are also unique for the feelings and moments you never share with anyone.

As for the life you choose to share, Facebook does not recognize that you are a human being with deeply held friends who were well-earned over decades of sharing triumph and tragedy. All it knows is a cumulative running total of who shows up on Facebook, and how often you — or people you know— interact with them.

But “interaction” is a thin definition of friendship.

You might not be a casual person with casual affections, which does not imply you lack the deeper variety.

But you might not ever have been casual about anything. Not everyone is designed to seek elective office by shaking hands with 1,000 total strangers, and pretending each is an old buddy. That makes you indifferent to most of the people you encounter every day, but they are not necessarily potential enemies. Or friends, either.

Facebook only sees a small prism of your reality.

In the Facebook universe, it only seems you have 320 million potential friends in the United States just waiting for you to reach out.

The truth is that you can’t have 300 good friends even if you were inclined. That’s because there is not enough time or energy to invest in making those relationships real, and your brain is not big enough to power more than five deep friendships at a time, and another 150 you’d consider “good friends”.

 All the others are just photographic profile faces attached to bios and resumes.

That deeper limit on real friendship has been scientifically verified by Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary anthropologist at Oxford in England. He has made a study of how many people the average person really knows. It’s about 150.

That’s a biologically built-in number that transcends culture and even your primate family. The shared limiting factor is the size of your brain synapses, regardless if you are a chimpanzee, gorilla or human.

You consciousness simply does not accommodate more than 150 in the “friend file cabinet.”

Dunbar does not suggest we all need 150 friends because even that number is ephemeral. Start counting the names of your “friends” right now. When you get to 50, you’ll hit a psychic brick wall. That’s because at any moment in your life, the people with whom you share llfe likely has shifted to a different group. Fifty of those your brain retains as “friends’ likely aren’t your friends any longer.

As for 150, that’s merely the number of people with different levels of connection that we recognize as being involved in our lives. We know them. But “Friend No. 151” is likely to be all but a stranger to us.

It’s our brain functioning as a filter for incoming data. Your soul guards the entry gate.

Facebook may be functioning only in the commercial sense when it seeks to redefine what the word “friend” means. Because we don’t argue over the definition, Facebook might be winning that debate because we haven’t chosen to reject the new paradigm.

Culture does this all the time. What the word and functional relevance that “phone” meant to your grandparents is not at all similar to what the term means now. Technology not only improves machines, but it also changes our perception of what the machine means.

 Perhaps Facebook is doing the same to the concept of “friend.”

But deeper friendship is so subtle an investment that I strongly suspect Facebook cannot yet understand its nuance, because friendship is a human activity, not a technological one. It’s not even a commercial relationship.

And before Zuckerberg’s algorithms stand in judgment, and I must answer: No, I am not a robot. I am having enough difficulty just being a human being.

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For $250 million, Bill Fichtner at least gave us a good villain

By David Rutter

 

The 2013 movie “The Lone Ranger” was remarkable for several reasons, almost none of them positive.

The only exception in that tepid tableau was William Edward Fichtner Jr., an actor you might not have known was in the film because his persona and Oscar-worthy makeup make him all-but unrecognizable. You still might not know who Bill Fichtner is.

You would never have known from the movie that Fichtner was the splendidly William-Fichtner-in-The-L-010.jpgUnknown.jpeg

fiendish — reptilian as one reviewer called him—heart-eating Bartholomew “Butch” Cavendish. You might not know he’s actually 62 because he looks more like 40 even with a sweaty, scarred face and a heart of evil.

Or that he is the very same person as the wheelchair-bound paraplegic character wooing Allison Janney on the CBS sitcom “Mom.”

For some us, Fichtner is the best of archetypical character actors, always better in intense secondary roles and memorable when the lead is not.

I am not the first to claim deep affection for cinematic villainy, all the way back to my childhood. This genuflection to sidekick villains by everyone who is not me is a relatively recent phenomenon as far as I can tell.

Their characterizations are all amoral, manipulative, greedy, venal and often violent for no good reason, except the fun of it.

The lead actors in old westerns are not particularly interesting. It wasn’t necessary. Nor did screenwriters test their grasp of acting scope. Johnny Mack Brown, Hopalong Cassidy, Ken Maynard and even Roy Rogers were necessary as good guys, but not compelling on the screen.

Dudley Do-Right is funny, but not compelling. Dudley nemesis Snidely Whiplash is compelling because he loves his evilness.

We put up with heroes, but we embrace the villains because they touch some elemental motive inside us which heroes fail to inspire. Alan Ladd was not the star of “Shane.”  The deliciously venomous Jack Palance was the gunslinging star. You won’t remember Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne with much clarity in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” but you can’t forget supreme sneering badass Lee Marvin.

Movie villainy sizzles.

In “B” westerns, the royalty of villainy extends to Roy Bancroft, Robert Wilke, and the sleazy prince of snear, I. Stanford Jolley. Loved them all.

They were all my heroes though movie villainy is not for everyone. Alan Rickman was precise and ornery as Hans Gruber in “Diehard” and Elliot Marston in “Quigley Down Under” but fled villain roles primarily fearing he would be forever typecast. His fans mourned. 

As “New Yorker” critic Ian Crouch noted of Rickman’s “Diehard” mastermind: “He was the movie’s tonal guide.”

He traded that bad guy’s path to be Professor Severus Snape in all eight Harry Potter movies. That was a loss for all of us who prefer dark hearts and darker souls.

Everyone who played the Lone Ranger was a dud, mostly because the character was a dud, while Fichtner belongs to the noble coterie of movie sidekicks, henchmen and gunslingers for hire. To be honest, Fichtner’s “Butch Cavendish” seems like he’d shoot people dead just for the sport. 

But even a great second-banana villain could not save this “Lone Ranger.” First, the digital special effects were massive, but it was all lipstick on an oinker. Disney largely wasted $250 million, cost Disney about $70 million in unrecovered losses and produced art devoid of much artfulness.

Almost everyone involved took karate punches to their ego over this flop and spent wasted energy trying to explain to customers that it was not as drearily bad as it seemed.

The final product wasn’t all the fault of Johnny Depp as Tonto or Disney’s lack of vision, because The Lone Ranger franchise stretches all the way back to 1933 (as a Detroit radio show that produced  2,956 episodes.) The star of the Depp movie actually was Depp’s Tonto makeup, designed by Joel Harlow who got an Oscar nomination for it. The acting and production snub should illustrate the point.

As for the old days, we were an infinitely patient media consuming public in 1933. That led to 221 TV episodes in the 1950s.

The Lone Ranger endured — now as a memory on oldies TV channels— but I cannot testify why. It’s awful and uninteresting. I watched almost all of the original episodes because the alternative in the 1950s was black & white test patterns. Then I consumed reruns at least 10 more times because the alternative was still test patterns.

So I am expert on The Lone Ranger. No, stay seated. Applause is not needed.

Where are we going with this story? First, you might believe “The Lone Ranger” was must see TV in the ancient days which is why Disney resurrected it.

That would be false. Disney spent the $250 million to retelll a story with a hero who was resoundingly unresounding, uninteresting and constructed of something like industrial cardboard. Clayton Moore was a masked man dud in 1952 and the years forward, and Armie Hammer’s reborn Ranger was doomed in 2013.

Moore seemed even less human in person than he did on the TV screen which is saying something.The first LR productions were designed as stilted, do-gooder aimed-at-kids TV, but adults took over the fan base, and kept it alive longer than good taste required. Even Jay Silverheels as “Tonto” was a morose sinkhole.

But when the new Ranger makes its occasional rounds for cable channels, I always make time to watch it, just to be amazed by Depp’s amazingly hilarious Tonto makeup and even more for Fichtner’s badness.

Fichtner is a New Yorker and has been in 20 better films — particularly as the blind counselor to astronomer Jodie Foster in “Contact.”

He and Depp’s makeup saved the reborn Lone Ranger, if only for fleeting moments. You sort of expected more for $250 million, but sometimes two good moments are all you get from a bad movie.

The quest for Abe’s Gettysburg sapling

The quest for Abe’s Gettysburg sapling

By David Rutter

Events sometimes lasso your heart even when you can’t explain why you are a willing captive. You can’t even explain it to yourself. 

So the reasons why I spent the first weekend of May three years ago – 24 hours of it in a car — driving there and back from Gettysburg, Pa., will be somewhat more complex than it seems at first. 

As for specifics, I went to retrieve the last sapling to be grown from the Witness Tree, the honey locust that stands just up the hill from the spot where Abraham Lincoln delivered the Address. 

America has sacred ground, much of it drenched in the blood of noble sacrifice. Except for Arlington National Cemetery, no place grips our soul more securely than Gettysburg.

In the summer and fall after the July 1863 battle, that tree was the last thing living on that hill, except for grass. The battle’s fury — gun powder, artillery, swords and bayonets—killed everything else.  Lincoln came to explain why that price was necessary. You can see the outline of the lone tree behind Lincoln in the few surviving photos of the Address.

The battle toll was grisly — 23,049 dead for the Union (3,155 dead, 14,529 wounded, 5,365 missing). Confederate casualties were 28,063 (3,903 dead, 18,735 injured, and 5,425 missing), more than a third of Robert E. Lee’s army.

The battle even claimed the lives of 1,500 horses. Though the cataclysms did not end the war, it guaranteed the South would never win.

 I was born in Kentucky, raised in Indiana, and now live in Illinois. So except for that presidential/Civil War/freeing-the-slaves thing, my life path is just like Abe.

The trip was as much to honor him as it was to retrieve a small living plant. You must decide what in life holds your affection. This is one of those touchstones for me.

For such a quest, you need friends to see you through. It helps if they understand you can’t quite offer easy explanations. My expedition was blessed with two partners – Jennifer Evans and Bruce Kile. 

Evans, my co-pilot for 1,400 miles, is my true life love and the best friend that you’d hope to deserve in strange, inexplicable quests. Kile is a career forester and hometown Gettysburg historian who made the tree his life’s avocation.

As president of Historic Gettysburg Adams County, Kile raised and dispersed 1,600 honey locust saplings all across the Eastern United States three decades ago. All sprang from that one Witness Tree at the crest of that hill.

The since-ended honey locust project was a fundraiser for which the historical group realized $30 a tree. But the National Park Service strongly suggested the practice end. Pick up a leaf or twig on the grounds at Gettysburg if you wish, but government casts a dim view on making money from it, even if the result was well-intentioned. So now, no one officially preserves the Witness Tree. Many guard it unofficially and with a sense of guarded discretion.

And the little sapling wrapped in swaddling pads that sat in my car’s back seat all the way back from Western Pennsylvania is the last one. The very last one. When Lincoln surveyed the grounds that day and considered the terrible carnage, he likely would have looked to the hilltop to see the ony thing left — the old tree.

Kile said I could have the surviving sprout if I came to pick it up. He could not trust commercial shipment. He had seemed as surprised when I telephoned him unannounced as I was that he answered the phone. “Come,” he said. You have to say yes to that.

The sapling was donated to an enthusiastic Chicago Botanic Garden and its botanists on behalf of my family for whom Lincoln history is an affection.

It’s likely the rarity will be enhanced because Kile’s decades of interest in the tree led him to discover how to pollinate and grow the seed independently from its natural growth cycle. In nature, the sweet seeds must be eaten and then excreted by an herbivore – usually a cow – to grow.

Kile unraveled a complicated process to replicate this process artificially. It is his secret.

The Chicago Botanic Garden’s scientists assured me that they hoped to raise the sapling to maturity. It is truly a legacy creature. The progenitor tree may be 300 years old. Though it survived storm damage and the ravages of pestilence, it is frail. Trees also die of old age.

That July was the 150th anniversary of the battle. 

I stood beside the Witness Tree and touched the bark as Jennifer Evans took photos. Just down the hill was the spot where Lincoln spoke. Visitors gather there as pilgrims. No one pays any attention to the tree, which is just as well. The local historians know the tree well and are not eager to make it a national celebrity, even though they could.

Celebrity is the ugly burden of our era, and the fascinations of 21st century life are untempered by restraint and wisdom. Better to let the tree live in gentle obscurity than be swarmed by sightseers. 

The ground around the tree is open and untrammeled. The ground needs to breathe freely to keep the honey locust alive.

Children and adult visitors stroll past, most of them only vaguely knowing what happened here, or how we are touched and shaped by so many legacies we hardly know exist. They visit the cannons and statuary, but they leave the old tree alone in its anonymity. To them, it’s just another old tree.

The graves of thousands of Civil War veterans ring the hill in neat semicircular patterns. Each Union grave is marked with a small, white-faced stone lying flat, snuggled into the ground. No names adorn the little white stones, only numbers. The notation on the stones is deliberately stark. Regardless of rank, they all paid the same price. They are equals. They are buried barely a few hundred yards from where they fell.

The moment touches your sense of reverence. You want the world to hush for just a moment and listen.

That’s because if one place can ever be said to have been sanctified with sacrifice, this is that place for Americans. 

Plus, spring was near that week I visited. Cool breezes glide effortlessly over the hills. Even the elderly honey locust had tiny green leaves, whispering high up in its branches.

There was life here on this hill, after all, and rebirth. After briefly wondering if this much effort to save a little tree sprout was worth it, that moment in the Gettysburg cemetery answered the question.

I stood silently, and listened to the breeze.

Meet my stomach’s new best friend: ondansetron

By David Rutter

My life has been a long gastric roller coaster with the unrestrained urge to hurl marking the end of many careening dips.

And before you bark at me for my weak-stomach lily-liveredness, consider that I am not asking for sympathy because there likely are millions worse off than I. And, that, is exactly the point.

In that regard, I now have a new friend. A very supportive friend who has

never let me down. The friend’s name is images.png,

ondansetron, a generic drug once sold under its patented nom ’de cure, Zofran. Say On-DANCE-eh-tron.

For more than 20 years, there was a good chance you never received the drug or even knew it existed unless you had cancer that required chemotherapy.

A tiny 3 milligram dose of ondansetron dissolves under your tongue. Fifteen minutes later, your nausea and the biological mechanism that triggers nausea are gone. Side effects? It can make you drowsy, but physical fatigue is a welcome companion if the nausea ends.

Escape from unrelenting anguish is profound. Imagine suffering a lifetime of headaches 4,000 years ago and someone offers you the first natural chemical equivalent of aspirin— the salicylic acid found in Willow tree bark. 

The sudden end of the headache would seem like witchcraft. 

Ondansetron does that, too, if you have spent a life of unrelenting, unexplained bouts of nausea.

For those who have acquired Pepto Bismol, Kaopectate, Zantac, and Super Tums in bulk, I am the poster child for those who repeat what does not work on the theory that eventually it MIGHT work. Call it Intestinal Insanity.

This self-enforced daffiness is typical male ambivalence to regular doctor visits, the ones unaffiliated with pending heart attacks or other catastrophic illness. I am guilty as charged, though I have been reborn.

My experience suggests that many doctors are concerned about nausea only as a symptom of some deeper underlying malady. They might accidentally cure your nausea if they can remove your gall bladder.

As one unintended result of seeking only selected specialists, I had managed to live for 30 years with a deteriorating gall bladder. The monthly bouts of nausea did not raise the suspicion of one single physician at 10 hospitals in five states that my gall bladder might be on the fritz. 

That’s because I was consulting cardiologists or urologists for other calamities. They were interested in the big issues for which they trained for years, not my nausea.

Likewise, not one specialist ever suggested that I might be suffering from a double hiatal hernia, which I was. A surgeon seven years ago took one look at my abdomen and announced: “Well, you have a double hiatal hernia. We can fix that right away.”

That single-mindedness might occur because specialists focus rapier-sharp attention on one spectrum of your reality,  but seem almost oblivious to all others. This is one of the unintended side effects of total specialization.

What I always needed additionally was a very sharp, 360-degree-radius aware general practitioner. What they used to call “a real doctor.” This flaw has been rectified.

This discovery occurred because, in the grip of a momentary idiocy and because I was really hungry, I ate a vintage-and-only-moderately-refrigerated gas station egg salad sandwich a year ago. For my inexplicable doltitude, I got food poisoning. This is the gastric version of tucking a 45-caliber pistol in your belt for safe-keeping and having it discharge into your private parts.

As an expert witness, I testify that the nausea of food poisoning makes you wish you were dead, and would gladly consider that option if only someone would offer it.  

But the emergency room doctor gave me a ondansetron pill after three days of self-induced at-home agony. Ten minutes later I was fine. He sent me home with two extra pills. They became my most prized possessions as if they were artifacts from the Ark of the Covenant.

Ondansetron is a “serotonin 5-HT3 receptor antagonist” which means it blocks the action of serotonin, a natural substance that may cause nausea and vomiting. In medical textbook definition, it says ondansetron “prevents nausea and vomiting caused by cancer chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and surgery.”

It does not say “prevents all nausea and makes life survivable again” although that seems to be what it does.

Never heard of ondansetron?  It’s the seventh most profitable drug in the United States. It’s made billions for pharma giant GlaxoSmithKline but also cost the company $3 billion in fines for improperly hawking the drug for morning sickness without any federal approval. There are tragic implications to that decision.

Thousands of unsettled lawsuits against SmithKline claim the drug might be causing serious birth defects, and SmithKline stands suspected of knowing the risk, but not sharing that knowledge with OBGYNs or their patients. 

Even medical miracles are complicated.

Nonetheless, the nurse in my general practitioner’s office says doctors are starting to dispense ondansetron much more freely and frequently for nausea in general. They could have done that for 20 years, but didn’t because it was approved only as “a cancer drug.” Definitions sometimes limit reality rather than illuminating it.

For example, Hollywood’s storytelling industry still uses the awful side effects of chemotherapy as a narrative plot device. But ondansetron, along with several similar “inhibitor” drugs, has all but neutralized most chemo nausea trauma. 

At one time, patients died of cancer only because they could not tolerate the nausea of chemotherapy, and quit treatments for what well might have been treatable cancers.

(As a slight digression, Hollywood also has come to employ random, violent regurgitation as an amusing plot device. Ten hours of puking never struck me as funny, even if it were you suffering it and not I.)

As for odd, disturbing ironies, some patients never took ondansetron because medical insurance would not cover the cost unless you were a cancer patient. Then it was at least $180 a pill, though the price had plummeted since it went generic, though many drug insurance plans still do not cover the cost for routine prescriptions.

Then an even quirkier oddness occurred a month ago. Humana’s health insurance network decided to cover the cost of the prescribed generic version.

With my GP’s prescription last week, I bought 30 ondansetron pills.

The total bill was 45 cents.

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Let’s save the grand little lightning bugs

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By David Rutter

The backyard had not yet been engulfed by the storm clouds stalking  in from the West. So I went outside to sit for a piece, and enjoy what had become an unexpectedly cool, breezy  dusk.

In the family of my childhood, we’d “sit for a piece” was the term of choice for sitting with the intent of doing absolutely nothing else.

And then I noticed something was missing.  Patted my pocket. Yep, still had the car keys. No, my wallet was still tucked down inside my back pocket. 

It was something else, which I have noticed on other dusks as I watched the stars light up overhead.

There were no lightning bugs. Maybe you called them “fireflies” when you were growing up. Maybe you chased them and collected them in your ancient childhood summer.  And then filled Ball glass jars with them, because no one suggested that asphyxiating small insects was a bad thing. There were hundreds in your yard, and thousands if you included the adjoining properties, too.

 We’ll never run out of bug bioluminescent entertainment, you might have thought, if you gave it any thought at all.

But, now many summers from those gentle old memories, you realize that your yard has no lightning bugs, and, in fact, you haven’t seen one all summer. Or any summer for a few years.

Why didn’t I notice this before, you’ll ask yourself? And then you will realize that the absence of glowing little bugs is not a random, irrelevant curiosity. You really liked lightning bugs. They were happy bugs, and they illuminated your childhood evenings. They seemed to ratify the gentleness of fragrant summer nights.

If you happily enshrined long-gone memories of home, cookouts, chrysanthemums and the perfumery of new-mown soysia grass clippings, then losing lightning bugs is not acceptable. Not one bit. They were no less valuable merely because of their subtle charm. The carpet of lightning bugs blinking in the dark was a gentle signature of slow, well-savored nights before school returned.

They belonged to you, and you didn’t mind  belonging to them.

But are they gone everywhere, or is my yard just unluckily barren?

And then you most go ask the modern electronic Delphi Oracle. Yes, says Google in reply to your query. There appears to be a well-defined decline in lightning bugs everywhere in the world, and bug scientists even theorize they know why.

It’s you. All of you. You’re just a bunch of thoughtless lightning bug killers. And maybe me, too.

John R. Platt, who writes about lightning bugs for “Scientific American” and “Audubon” among other worthy publications, claims the decline in lightning bugs is widely accepted by bug scientists. We’d call entomologists on every reference except it’s too hard to spell repeatedly, and I’d already reserved my computer’s cut and paste function for “lightning bugs” which is also surprisingly difficult to type repeatedly.

The dearth of lightning bugs first came to the attention of civilians in 2010 at the actual and real International Firefly Symposium, writes Platt. Researchers from 13 nations detailed decline of the blinking little creatures. There are citizen research projects aiming to show the scope and possible remedies for the death spiral. There’s even an organization and website— http://www.firefly.org— dedicated to their protection and resurrection.

Considering my affection for all small wing-ed creatures— lightning bugs, Monarch butterflies, honey bees, humming birds and the original Tinker Belle— my ignorance of these facts shocks even me. But I have wised up, which means there’s even less reason for your lack of awareness.

Why make a big deal out of little creatures? In the case of lightning bugs, they feed on insect pests in your yard, help pollinate flower as bees do. But lightning bugs (they’re not actually “flies” at all, but beetles) are susceptible to human indifference and interference.

They can’t stand the brightness of yards bathed in electric lights and gardens ringed with ground level illumination. The grand little beetles flick their bioluminescent blinkers to attract mates and warn of approaching danger. Our lights are interfering with seduction and salvation.

Researcher Ben Pfeiffer, founder of firefly.org, offers some cures if you are missing the100 different species of  signaling lovers floating just at waist level in your yard. He suggests:

1: Turn off outside lights at night.

You can make your yard a haven for fireflies by turning off exterior and garden lights, and drawing your blinds at night so that interior light doesn’t brighten your yard too much.

2: Let logs and litter accumulate.

Some species of firefly larvae grow up in rotten logs and the litter that accumulates beneath the forest canopy. To encourage their growth, plant some trees on your property. If you have trees, consider leaving some natural litter around them to give firefly larvae a place to grow.

3: Create water features in your landscape.

Most species of fireflies have one thing in common: they thrive around standing water and marshy areas. Ponds, streams and rivers can all provide good habitats for fireflies, but even a small depression full of water can cause them to congregate. Build a little pond. They’ll come back if they can.

4: Avoid pesticides, especially lawn chemicals.

It’s likely that chemical pesticides and weed killers may also have a negative effect on firefly populations. Toxicity aside, they tend to avoid bad smells. Fireflies and their larvae may come into contact with other insects that have been poisoned, or they may ingest the poisons from plants that have been sprayed. Avoid using pesticides on your lawn and you may boost firefly populations.

5: Don’t over-mow your lawn.

Fireflies mainly stay on the ground during the day, and frequent mowing can disturb local firefly populations. Maybe you feel that your lawn needs mowing for aesthetic purposes, consider incorporating some areas of long grasses into your landscaping. Fireflies prefer to live in long grasses, and doing this may boost their population in your yard.

But the window is tight for their life-expectancy. The adults live barely a month, though the larvae live for a year or so out of sight during the breeding cycle. Different variations  exist on every continent.

They all light up chemically. In a firefly’s tail, you’ll find two chemicals: Luciferin is heat resistant, and it glows under the right conditions. Luciferase is an enzyme that triggers light emission. ATP, a chemical within the firefly’s body, converts to energy and initiates the glow. All living things, not just fireflies, contain ATP.

But mostly, they were lovely creatures who are hot only useful but soothing to the soul.

When I had all but given up a longer stay against the approaching thunder storm, I sat briefly once more and glanced across the yard. Next year, I promised myself, we will find a way for them to come home if they are still in the neighborhood.

The world has been stripped of enough joy and safety that losing more charming innocence seems too high a price to tolerate.

And then I saw a blink out of my eye’s corner. One little light semaphoring for attention. A lightning bug had breached all the barriers and come to the yard. And then another over there. And then another, and another. And within 20 minutes, there were a dozen.

I felt immeasurably better.

The prodigal lightning bugs had come home. Now I know what the priest at San Juan Capistrano must feel every year.

But I only watched and never approached them. That would be rude and unnecessary.. The fullest joy is just knowing they are there. Plus, I figured I’d done enough harm to the little creatures’ kinfolks over the decades.

I would leave them alone tonight. If they were seeking mates, being courteous to their privacy was the least I could do.

Brothers bound to the music

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By David Rutter

Rich, the gifted guitarist, arose from his chair before The Band’s rehearsal that Wednesday to face us, and deliver the news.

We 20 in the Big Band Sound of Deerfield are mostly slogging the long corridor down the far side of midlife; so when friends share medical news, we usually brace ourselves to hear the hard words, because often the news is grim. 

We all had hoped Rich’s news about Jim, a good friend from the heart of the saxophone section, would be heartening. The same was true of Ron, another gifted sax man. Another bandmate stood to share news about him.

Both fought illness for many months, and both were resilient cusses. They were, according to the shared term we once understood, manly. Both often played when they did not feel well because sharing the music with us meant something to them.

 We admired them for that, as much as for their skill. 

But the news wasn’t heartening. Pancreatic cancer is never heartening.

Jim was in hospice, and his time was short. He had fought as long as he could, and now he wanted the peace of resolution.

The news about Ron was similar. Yes, hospice. Yes, cancer. Yes, he might not have long.

Some cancers force tortured, lengthy fights. Pancreatic cancer barely gives a person a chance to get their affairs in order. “Get their affairs in order.” What a strange turn of phrase we have adopted for being required to die abruptly.

They both faced the verdict because there is little other choice. They both drifted away in a sedated sleep, and then were gone.

Friends soon came to sit in their chairs and play the Basie and Ellington musical charts they had mastered. This is the music and social evolution shared by bands of old brothers. Life ends. With any luck, new friends present themselves and the music continues.

We seek that comfort because you can hear the echoes of old friends in the music we’ve all played together. They and their notes remain there forever if we are lucky, even if the lead tenor chair holds a different person. Big Bands are arranged by “chairs” with each devoted to different instruments playing a different part. The rhythm section holds the musical jigsaw puzzle together.

On most days, we are what anyone including we would call regular guys playing in a volunteer community band. Some are still working into their 60s at their professions. Others are older and retired. Others barely middle aged. One or two are spectacularly gifted kids who had heard about us, and wanted to share the old music. 

Basie riffs can reach out across the ages if you open yourself to the sound.

But when we gather to rehearse, we are just The Band.

 On some nights when the stars and our personal musical biorhythms align, we are almost spectacular. Swing band music is a test of shared, common rhythms and depends fundamentally on great rhythm sections — piano, drums, bass and guitar— to get the ship of notes moving together downstream. 

This band was extraordinarily lucky. There is no specific reason that we should be a good band. But on some nights, some glorious nights of music, we are. It is largely so arbitrary and unpredictable that even Owen, our director and conductor, cannot fully explain the mystery. 

But often the most beautiful aspect of life cannot be explained. How can it be that a beautiful woman inexplicably still makes an old man’s heart skip a beat? Why do stars in the night sky still transfix a soul? Why are the most profound formulas written in invisible ink?

Neither does the music we play make any sense on the nights when it is almost perfect, because big band swing is deceptively difficult to play well.

And when we drive home in every direction from the rehearsal hall, we usually are both exhausted and exhilarated. Swing music is a physical test, and old men are charmed to find they can still pass those tests.

But there are many tests. Life and death is a multiple choice test we essentially all fail when the time comes. But you hope the end, as with the music, is graceful and unexpectedly beautiful.

Other gifted musicians now sit in the sax section chairs once occupied by Jim and Ron. If a band regenerates and survives long enough, the line of generational succession can resemble a royal family’s genealogy, replenished across the decades. The skills, the music, the shared values all endure.

Both Jim and Ron had complex professional lives and devoted families outside of their Band relationships. Their loss hurt many people who loved them and others of us who shared strands of their lives. 

When friends like them exit the world, we are all diminished, but heartened that at least we had them with us for years.

But over time, when we sit to play some music on some nights, we can hear them without straining our psychic sensibilities. At least we feel faint echoes of shared, laid-back syncopation they had mastered. Even those invited to occupy Jim and Ron’s chairs are hardly strangers. They’ve sat in often, as members of the unofficial but valued band-in-waiting system.

A sustainable band is always building and reshaping for its future.

When the new, officially welcomed regulars  play with us now, they will sometimes unfurl the same musical phrases just as Jim and Ron did.

When that happens, it is not odd or eerie. Nothing is being taken from a legacy. The story is being retold, enriched and strengthened. It makes you feel surprisingly confident that the best of life’s moments survive what we think is the end.

The music always brings us back to the path. We are bound to the music, and by it. The music confers a sort of immortality.

After all, Mozart’s music has been played by 200,000 musicians over the centuries and all searched for Wolfgang’s perfect blend of groove and tone. That is the task that Basie and Ellington present. We all seek the same groove every time we sit together and play.

As men, Jim and Ron were more than valued. They were revered, which is the status that every truly mature male person hopes to earn. Both figured out life, and decided not to waste a day of it, even at the end.

Jim and Ron were fellow, elegant travelers on a trip we’re all taking. We miss them every time we play. 

 But if peace and joy exist after this life, that belongs to them now. We all hope that’s true for us, as well as for them.

 Our affection for them endures, because their music never goes away.

 

The Bard of Porter County’s Midway

By David Rutter

Joy and melancholy flow in equal portions this week in Valparaiso, Ind., for those who remember Tom Seibel.

It’s county fair week — actually 10 days — and fair No. 168 if I’m counting right, when all the lovely scents and mesmerizing glitz of rural culture converge south of town astride Indiana 49.  The midway lights twinkle in the shimmering afterglow of dusk. The grandstand rocks, the cotton candy billows, lemonade gushes. Many cows moo.

 

 

 

 

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Tom was a glorious artistic specimen during Porter County Fair week — a chronicler resplendent in his element. He was a Chaucer who found his perfect place to tell perfect little stories. Sometimes that convergence never happens, even for talented writers.

But it did for Tom.

As a reporter, he always could capture the details of capital murder court cases and the grimy residue of government news. But for two summer weeks, he was a reborn monarch butterfly. For the years we worked together in Valparaiso for the Post-Tribune newspaper, he owned the Porter County Fair as much as any person could.

He was the Bard of the Midway.

He was recruited to the job on a hunch, and it did not take long to see his poet’s instincts. 

But Tom was very ill. And four months after his last fair column closed the books on 2002, he was gone. Diabetes and heart failure took him at 59. His body just stopped working and, as much as any early death is a sadness, this was more so for those fans who had found him, just as he had found them.

I was one of those fans. 

We all were deprived of decades of gentle, funny, insightful writing he most certainly would have produced. Every time he wrote about the fair, he explored a deeper, more insightful appreciation of its grandness and the grandness of its denizens. He was a gift to the people of that old county. 

When hometown newspapers flutter and die in the wind, the Tom Seibels that make them great and necessary are never replaced.  Those are losses from which a newspaper and its readers never fully recover.

In truth, my fair memories are a perfect amalgam of nostalgia, fun, and rare courage. 

It’s the only place where I could ride a tall Ferris wheel without vertigo and eat as many corn dogs as my stomach could accommodate.

Perhaps Porter Countians know this, but perhaps not. Not all county fairs are wonderful. Some are mismanaged, lifeless drudges and worse. But as a veteran of county fairs in 10 states, I can testify that Porter County’s annual show is a glittering, translucent  jewel and easily the best fair week of my life.

This is Porter County’s greatest glory because Porter County still has real farms and real farm families with farm kids devoted to raising massive hogs and refined bovines. There’s always a super star musical group. This time it’s Brooks and Dunn. 

There’s always a demolition derby, school bus figure eight races, and tests of tractor pulling strength. Families still battle to claim the homestead title of  “grand champion pies.”

And then there were Tom’s stories.

He had grown up in ribald Chicago newsrooms and had been a fishing buddy of legendary columnist Mike Royko. 

Whatever had flowered in his professional reporter’s mind, the fair touched it, and opened that spirit to the sun.

The 30 or so personal columns he did from the Indiana 49 grounds remain testaments to Indiana county fairs in general and Porter County’s interpretation of homespun showbiz specifically.

He loved the odd, carny freak-show purveyor who traveled with a large alligator in a mobile tank and displayed the creature as though it were a surviving dinosaur, which it sort of was. He loved weird animals and weird people. The fair had both.

He spent one afternoon standing near the 4-H animal pens secretly compiling what visitors said to the animals when they thought no one was listening. If you were an eccentric person with odder life experiences, he could find you at the fair and tell your story.

He could identify who made the best midway lemonade. Why not all corndogs are created equal and who had the best odds of being crowned Miss Porter County Fair.

He could stealthily strike up a conversation with a complete stranger, and before the stranger knew it, Tom would know everything about the person worth repeating to a reader. They’d part as friends.

Tom loved the fair with an open, unambiguous devotion.

As he wrote on the eve of his final fair in 2002:

“Got Japanese beetles on your begonia or wild rose? Follow a Slurpee truck down the street? Hear a distant drone of a calliope?

“As sure as the pesky beetles at fair time are akin to robins in spring, any of the above could be signs that the fair — the 152nd Porter County Agricultural Fair — has begun.”

Later that week, his nose perked up at the airborne scents. He not only profiled events like a good reporter would, he listened to the voices, he could capture the sensory immersion of a fair. 

“On Thursday afternoon, flags fronting the Porter County Fair grounds were blowing west, bringing the scent of fair food to the west parking lot. It’s been a year of wind, a new one every day, it seems.

“On this one traveled an odor of corn dogs, elephant ears, sweet potato fries and popcorn.

“The smell was combined with the fragrances coming out of animal barns.

“Compounded it was, by the humidity falling from the sky.”

‘It’s been slow,’ said Judy Davis at George’s, a vagabond food trailer noted for its elephant ears.”

This is the week I think of Tom, that fair and how they belong together. 

With any luck, heaven is a county fair that never ends, a place where corndogs are always warm, the Ferris wheel’s light show twinkles in the night air, and gentle poets hold court.

David.Rutter@live.com