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Articles Blog

Filtering by Category: General Interest

The Iditarod

Karyn Planett

World’s Longest Dog Sled Race 

For more than six thousand years, dog sleds have been the transportation backbone for native people of the north. As the Alaska and Canadian territories were settled, dog sleds were used to haul mail and supplies into and gold out of the interior during harsh winter months. One of the major Alaskan routes ran from Seward on the Kenai Peninsula to Nome on the Bering Sea.           

In the winter of 1925, a diphtheria epidemic struck Nome. There were no roads to Nome at the time, air travel was dicey at best, and the sea routes were blocked by ice. So, a relay team of 18 dog sleds and mushers was organized to rush the life saving serum 674 miles over the Iditarod Trail from Nenana to Nome. The hero of that effort was a dog, named Balto. A statue of him now stands in New York’s Central Park. 

In 1974, The Iditarod Race was inaugurated to celebrate this epic event and to help preserve a sled dog culture that was fast being forgotten in an era of snowmobiles, airplanes and highways.

The Route 

The Iditarod follows a northward route from Anchorage to Nome. Officially, it covers 1049 miles (reportedly because Alaska was the 49th state) but the actual mileage varies depending on which of two routes is used in a given year (much like the Tour de France).           

The race takes dogs and mushers from sea level to 3500 feet. They endure temperatures from just above to well below freezing (one year the temperature on the course with wind chill was minus 130 degrees). And while the first race required three weeks to complete, the current record is just under nine days and one hour.

The Race 

Between 55 and 75 mushers usually start the race. In 2000, there were 82 teams on the start line. But the rippingly-harsh conditions of the Alaskan wilderness take their toll on both dogs and mushers. 

Race rules require between 12 and 16 dogs on each team. But if a dog is “dropped” during the race he is flown home and cannot be replaced. The reasons for dropping dogs vary from sore wrists and shoulders to a common cold, either of which can slow down the dog and therefore the entire team. Most teams finish with 8-10 dogs though five is the minimum allowable. Mushers are not immune to the same types of injuries and often have to retire themselves for the safety of their team. As a result, the most teams ever to finish a race was 63, and in years with more extreme conditions, there are many fewer than that. 

The race has 22 checkpoints with three mandatory rest stops. At each checkpoint there are race officials, veterinarians who check the dogs (though nobody to check the mushers), food drops, indoor rest areas, and campsites. 

Although teams can pull a typical 40-pound racing sled packed with about 100 pounds of mandatory equipment, they also carry a male musher who may weigh 200 pounds. Perhaps that’s why women have usually done well in this race! And teams reach speeds up to 30 miles per hour though 11 or 12 mph is more efficient as it conserves the dogs’ stamina. The dogs can run for about six or seven hours without getting too tired and teams will generally follow a six hours on/six hours off schedule, averaging about 60 miles a day.

The Dogs 

The modern racing dog is a mutt—a mixed breed that has Malamute, Siberian Husky, hound, pointer and probably a wee bit of wolf coursing through its veins. Taken together they add up to the breed known as Alaskan Husky. And, according to their admirers, these dogs love to pull (though it’s unclear how this information was obtained). They’re friendly to a fault so non-lovers of sloppy dog kisses best beware. Their favorite temperature swings between +10 (t-shirt weather) and –20 degrees Fahrenheit (fur coat weather). They live up to 17 years and can do sled work for most of that time, no doubt competing on the Seniors Tour. 

Sled dogs claim specific positions in the team and, while versatility is desirable, different positions require different characteristics. Lead dogs are willing to run in front, find and follow the trail, set the pace, and respond to their musher’s commands. Swing dogs occupy the second row. They help the lead dogs set the pace and turn the sled. Next are several rows of Team dogs. They basically follow the tail in front of them and provide the “horsepower” for the team. Last in line are the Wheel dogs that act as the steering wheels for the sled.

The Food 

Always a subject of great interest to fans … the modern sled dog diet is a thing of appetizing complexity, even envy. For fans of Burger King burgers, think “The Whopper”. 

Every day during The Iditarod, each dog will consume between 10,000 and 14,000 calories. Their metabolisms are designed to burn carbs, fat and protein with great efficiency (oh, the unfairness of it all). The mushers, by the way, are not named not for yelling “mush” to make the dogs go. No, “mush” is a prepared stew of dry dog food, hamburger, an extra helping of lard, and water that a hungry husky adores. And, these dogs are fussy when it comes to getting the temperature of this repast just right. In higher outdoor temperatures (near freezing) the stew is served cold. On colder days, this mush is warmed on stoves carried along on the sleds. 

So, all in all, knowing about this pampered life, the dogs are also two pairs of custom booties to protect their paws, and about 3,000 training miles per season, it’s no wonder these dogs love to pull. 


Karyn Planett

Drama on The High Seas 

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away there lived a lovely Persian princess named Scheherazade. She had flowing black locks, skin as fair as porcelain, an insatiable thirst for knowledge, and the magical gift of storytelling. Scheherazade passed the warm evenings reciting poetry, debating philosophical points of view, musing on a host of topics, and matching wits with any man.            

Yet it was a King Shahryar who proved to be her greatest challenge. It is said that his monarch “married” a virgin every day then had her beheaded the next morning to avenge his first wife’s betrayal. Some 3,000 women suffered this horrible fate before our lovely Scheherazade entered the scene. And, despite her father’s protests, Scheherazade plotted to spend one night with King Shahryar to secretly test him with her storytelling magic. Meanwhile our princess had set a trap and asked permission to bid farewell to her sister Dunyazad who was part of the scheme. This sister begged Scheherazade to recite one last tale, a story with plots and twists and turns and imagery that lasted till daybreak. The king, captivated by this enchanting story, begged the storyteller to return with another chapter the following evening. Thus he was forced to keep her alive so more of her story could be revealed.           

So, for the following 1000 nights, Scheherazade recited her tales to the king’s delight, so much so that he not only permitted her to live but fathered three sons by her. In time, King Shahryar blossomed into a changed man with a deepening respect for women, far greater kindness, and an unshakable sense of morality. Scheherazade became his queen and they lived happily ever after. 

The Book Of A Thousand And One Nights 

Scheherazade’s stories form the basis for this book for which she is the narrator. Sinbad the Sailor is one of these “story-cycles” of Persian origin recounting the wild tales of a young sailor from Basrah (in present day Iraq). Other stories include Aladdin as well as Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. Scholars claim these tales date back to 800-900 AD though no original manuscripts have ever been found. Never mind. Let’s just get to the good part, the part that happens on the 536th night of the 1001. 

Sinbad The Sailor 

Sinbad, as the story goes, had squandered all his inheritance so he was forced to take to the seas to rebuild his fortune. Very quickly we discover his pattern of missteps, mistakes, and challenges. His first voyage includes details of confusing a giant fish for an island, being adrift on the open sea, and washing ashore only to be embraced by the local king who showers him with gold so he can return to Baghdad a wealthy man. 

During The Second Voyage of Sinbad the Sailor, our lead character becomes “possessed with the thought of traveling about the world of men and seeing their cities and islands”.  Sound familiar? He winds up stranded in a remote valley with massive snakes and even bigger birds called rocs. Curiously, the valley floor is strewn with a carpet of shiny diamonds so Sinbad coats his back with meat, a roc carries him to its diamond-lined nest and our protagonist escapes with a bag of sparkling gems, returning to Baghdad even richer than before.           

The Third Voyage of Sinbad finds our hero captured by a monster that makes Jabba the Hut look like Raggedy Andy. Sinbad manages to blind the monster and escape. But, wait! He then has to wriggle from the grasp of a massive python before returning home with immense wealth. Sinbad shares his riches with the downtrodden thus capturing the moral highground.           

On his fourth voyage, all hell breaks loose. Sinbad is forced to wrangle with naked cannibals who are high on a local narcotic. Thankfully, he’s rescued by a neighboring king who gives him his wealthy daughter as a bride. The twist here is that, upon the death of one partner, the other is entombed with the corpse. Don’t you just hate when that happens? Sinbad’s darker side emerges (think Survivor) as he becomes entombed then steals from other bereaved spouses in the same pickle and lives to fight another day.           

The Fifth Voyage of Sinbad is when his ship is sunk by angry rocs in revenge for sailors devouring their chick. Our hero becomes enslaved by the Old Man of The Sea (not …”and The Sea” of Hemingway fame). This dotty sod wraps his legs around Sinbad’s neck and rides him day and night till Sinbad begs for death. He manages to escape to the City Of Apes for another drama before going home again even richer.           

The Sixth Voyage – shipwreck, riverbed of precious stones, no food. Your basic cliffhanger but this one takes place in Sri Lanka and includes a cup carved from a single ruby and a serpent that swallows an elephant.           

The Seventh (and final) Voyage of Sinbad The Sailor wraps things up neatly with another Chief’s daughter for a wife and birds that carry him to the heavens for God’s messages. Our Arabic Idol Sinbad returns to Baghdad to live out his final days happily everafter, adventure no longer ruling his very soul.


Karyn Planett

Ruggers, Scrums and Mauls 

New Zealand’s winningest rugby team, the All Blacks, is described as “eight snorting bulls and seven black panthers.” Too right. This mass of muscle has grunted and ground its unlucky opponents into the turf again and again guaranteeing their names would be engraved on trophies ‘round the world. Rugby is this nation’s pastime, its passion, its drumbeat that musters Kiwis coast to coast. Just ask a local and he’ll tell you all about this craziness. 

Born in Britain

As the story goes, in 1823 England a student at the esteemed Rugby School named William Webb Ellis “took the ball in his arms and ran showing a fine disregard.” Having tired of simply kicking a soccer ball willy-nilly William grabbed the ball, headed toward the goal, and created a sport of global dimensions. 

The Brits are fond of saying “football is a game for gentlemen played by ruffians and rugby is a game for ruffians played by gentlemen.” The world is changing, however, and New Zealand boasts an excess of 500 clubs, nearly 150,000 registered players, and some 2300 plus referees to keep everything in order. Just imagine … 5,000 fans show up just for an All Blacks training practice! 

The Christchurch Football Club is New Zealand’s oldest rugby club, dating back to 1863. Others popped up wherever there was a patch of grass and a handful of guys. The stature and strength of the indigenous Maori people meant these players were a force to be reckoned with, as the outside world quickly learned. In 1884, a New Zealand team traveled to Australia and won all their games setting the tone for victories that followed. During World War II, the Kiwi team played against South African allies during the North African desert campaign, establishing the contact for future competition as rugby is a national sport to these two nations as well as several South Pacific island nations. 

All Blacks, Springboks and Wallabies 

These are the big boys, teams whose players enjoy handsome endorsements, speedy cars and lissome babes fawning all over them. And they’d like you to learn a bit about their game. Their field is a “pitch” measuring 110 by 75 yards. The ball is like an American football with rounder ends to avoid goofy bounces. The team consists of 15 players. Those numbered 1-8 are forwards and built like brick &*%^&%houses. The 9-15 guys are faster, smaller (relatively speaking) and run like American running backs and wide receivers. There are no downs, no blocking, and the game has two 40-minute halves. Play is continuous, like soccer. A player can run the ball, pass it laterally or backwards, or kick it forward. For the record, some call rugby the “father of American football.” 

The players score 5 points with a “try”, think touchdown. A “conversion” adds 2 points following a try when the ball is kicked between the goal posts. A “penalty kick” awards 3 points as does a “drop goal.” 

“Line outs” are the best part. This is so strange. When a ball goes out of bounds, players hoist a teammate up into the air with everyone going airborne to gain possession of the inbound toss. It’s like Shrek doing gymnastics or rising up from a mosh pit. A “scrum” is considered the precursor to an American scrimmage where manly men literally lock horns, grunting and groaning till the ball flops on the ground, is kicked to someone not in the scrum and play begins again. Play doesn’t stop if someone is tackled. A “ruck” is like a “scrum” but don’t ask. A “maul” is like a ruck and a scrum but the guys are standing up instead of wrestling on the ground. Is this clear?           

More “Rugby-Speak” 

Sin-Bin:   Where a bad player goes for a “time out.”

Rugby Union: A code of play for teams of the International Rugby Board.

Rugby League:  The other guys.

Prolate spheroid:  The ball.

Scratch:  Not what you think.

Touch:  No. It’s the area behind the touch (or goal) line.

Ruggers:   Rugby Union fans.

Rugger Buggers:  Fans in striped shirts drinking Guinness.

Rug-Off:  The kick off.

Alickadoos:   Retired rugby union players.

Ra-Ra:  The obligatory sideline pomp and circumstance.

Footy:  What the Australians call rugby leaguers.

Haka:  The fearsome Maori war dance performed by the All Blacks before they clean the other team’s clock. 


Any fan worth his “stout” will sport his team’s full kit including grip mitts, Ventilator Headgear ($89.99), Shock Doctor Ultra Strapless Mouthguards, braces for everything from patella sleeves to metatarsal lifts, curious “forearm shivers”, hoodies, protective vests, traxion-studded boots with something called … ahem… a stud key, Shock Doctor Compression Shorts with Flex Cup (on sale for $24.99), and a suitable-for-the-little-lady “stress ball” or the “Rugby For Dummies” handy gamebook. For the master of the house, there’s “Odd-Shaped Balls, Mischiefs, Miscreants and Madhatters of Rugby” now on sale. And for the fashionistas, you’ve got the Ralph Lauren “Rugby” collection instead.


Karyn Planett

The “Chattering Sparrows” 

The long, bone-shattering chill of winter has been swept aside by gentler days warmed by a faithful spring sun. Farmers take to the fields to till the soil, plant their seeds, and prepare for a bountiful summer harvest. At day’s end, they relax outside their modest houses perching on miniature stools seemingly more suitable for a small child than for a grown man. Before them, a worn-with-time table strewn with bone tiles no longer white from years of handling and play. In one rough and gnarled hand a smoky cigarette burns undisturbed while the farmer’s other hand is busy shuffling (called the “twittering of the sparrows”) and slamming down tiles, a warning to his undaunted opponents of a fresh attack. 

At the same time, in a soaring high-rise building far from that farmer’s village, a clutch of privileged women with slender hips, designer fashions, porcelain-white hands, and perfectly-manicured nails repeat the same ritual though their tiles are carved of ivory* and their decorated lounge room is large enough to accommodate several gaming tables simultaneously.

The common thread, the age-old link between these two disparate communities, is the game of mahjong that remains even in today’s world of video games one of Asia’s most popular pastimes. 

What’s In A Name? 

The word “mahjong” means “chattering sparrows.” 

Why, you ask? Well, it’s claimed by some that the rattle and rhythm of a fast-paced game of mahjong resembles, as you might surmise, chattering sparrows. To test that theory, should you happen upon a game being played in the shade of some leafy tree, close your eyes and decide for yourself if this is an apt translation. 

But, don’t be afraid to engage some of the seasoned players who, though probably not interested in spending the entire afternoon with a rookie, a novice such as yourself, will be only to happy to tell you a bit about the basics of this game they find so entertaining. 

Games Are A Way Of Life

People across the length and breadth of Asia enjoy playing games, all sorts of games like Chinese Chess, Chinese dominoes, and a game called go. They’re a hardworking people who enjoy their leisure time with an equal level of passion for their work. And, they love to gamble. 

Be cautioned that before you do sit in on a game of mahjong, you should definitely learn a bit about it though that’s going to be hard to do. First off, absolutely no one agrees about its origin. Some say the game was possibly created by Confucius, others trace it back to Noah’s Ark, while still others believe the game dates back to the self-proclaimed Emperor of Nanking Hung Hsiu-Ch’uan. It’s also claimed that the current version of the game began in China in about 1850, but games that are very similar to today’s mahjong go way back to the Sung Dynasty (960-1279 AD). Some historians even pinpoint its origins to Ningbo, China. That all leads us to the mid- to late-19th century with the appearance of the mahjong we know now. As one expert states, the game came into existence around 1880 and all the other stories are mere rubbish. He goes on to say, there are really two distinctive periods ... pre-1920 when the game was played almost exclusively by Chinese and everything after that when mahjong was introduced to the rest of the world.

Amazingly, mahjong even caught on in North America and in Europe where Westerners would don Chinese costumes and give it a go. It was all the rage and a man named Joseph Babcock is credited for some of its popularity. It was he who imported mahjong sets into America in 1922 as well as streamlined the rules to simplify the game so it would appeal to a wider audience. 

In Japan and Korea you’ll find three players in a mahjong game, while in China it’s usually four. The sets contain 144 tiles that are similar to dominoes. Some tiles are decorated with a variety of designs and are divided into suits. In fact, there are 36 tiles in each of the following suits – Bamboo, Circuit, and Character. In addition there are 16 Wind tiles, 12 Dragon tiles, and 8 “bonus” tiles comprised of 4 Seasons and an equal number of Flowers. As the game progresses, the tiles are selected and discarded again and again until the winning player presents a hand with four combinations of three tiles each and a pair of matching lines. For Rummy players, there isn’t much of a learning curve because the two games are basically the same, or at least quite similar 

Mahjong Today

Though no longer the worldwide craze or the fashionable fad it once was, mahjong is still played by people across Asia. For a contemporary twist you can even play mahjong online with such games like “Great Wall”, “Bullseye”, “Pyramid”, “Fish”, “Snake”, even “Teeth” and “UFO”.

For the true purists who want a little more of a mahjong fix, pick up a copy of Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Flip to the chapter titled “An Evening At Mahjong”, order a single malt, and get in the mood for an evening of intrigue.        

How Fish Swim

Karyn Planett

Swimming With The Fishes

Not in a “Sopranos” kind of way, but for real. When we sink below the surface of the tepid Pacific waters, a whole world unfolds before us. Like an aquatic ballet, millions of fish in a rainbow of colors zip to and fro turning on a dime at the command of their alpha fish or dodging a predator’s dark shadow. These animals are magical, a constant source of enjoyment … from a glass-bottomed boat, behind an aquarium window, or within an arms length while snorkeling or diving. Their magic deserves a closer look. 

Mr. Wizard Chimes In

For the record, there are some 25,000 known species of fish. And, they all fall into one of three categories – the jawless, the cartilaginous, and the bony fish. An example of the first group, the most primitive of the lot dating back some 500 million years, is the lamprey. Among the cartilaginous ones are the sharks and skates that only came onto the scene 400 million years ago. They don’t have bones only a cartilage skeleton thus the easier on the diner. They do, however, have nasty teeth and can be a tad unfriendly if provoked. And the last group, though bony, has the long-envied, oft lusted-after swim bladder. See what evolution gets you! They count among them some 20,000 of the known species therefore representing the most numerous. You’ve got your eels, catfish, salmon, perch, pike, herring, even seahorses among the bony group so they’re virtually everywhere.

Let’s Do Some Dissecting

To discover exactly how fish … ahem … swim, let’s look at their anatomy. As with people, the sleek and trim among the school move through their obstacles with ease. The density of the water impedes forward movement so Mother Nature designed fish to be slim and slimy. Your fast swimmers actually flex their muscles one side then the next to wriggle merrily along rather like a snake in the grass. Large tail fins add a bit of a kick to the forward movement while the body fins serve as stabilizers. These body fins can also lie flat against the fish’s torso to further streamline its profile.

Now some fish sorta row themselves along with fluttery pectorals, deprived of all other means of propulsion. A good example of this is the adorable seahorse, one of the sea’s most lovable creatures (ruling out the other all time favorite, the sea slug). Flying fish sport pecs that have evolved into wings that help propel them across the waves when escaping from someone wanting to eat them. Rays themselves have large and very powerful pectoral fins that also resemble wings to let them glide along almost effortlessly. They are truly poetry in motion.          

How Fish Float

Well, that’s pretty tricky. Many fish actually sink, which is dicey for those who aren’t bottom fish. This is exactly why sharks swim tilted upward, to combat gravity not just to see if you’re watching from above. Their oily livers and light-as-a-feather skeletons help them stay afloat. Then you’ve your pike that’s developed a different solution to the problem – an inflatable gas bladder! You guessed it. By controlling the amount of gas in his bladder, he can float merrily along blissfully unaware of the scorn from his fellow pike who don’t dare suggest playing “pull the fin” if you know what I mean. Such is life.

Some Factoids To Remember 

·               A fish’s body temperature is consistent with the surrounding water temperature.

·               Swordfish have been known to swim 60 mph and can actually poke a hole in a wooden boat at that speed.

·               Some catfish in Africa actually swim upside down enabling them to skim the water’s surface with their opened mouth in search of a good meal.

·               There are flatfish that actually propel themselves along by gasping in huge mouthfuls of water then squirting them out through their gills with such force it reminds us of a sort of liquid jet engine or aquatic SuperSoaker.

Well, all this matters not to those of us simply looking for a delicious, delicately poached piece of fresh fish dressed with a delightful white wine and lemon froth. We’re quite happy, in fact, that someone was cagey enough to outsmart the little buggers and catch them for our supper. Sorry as that may be we are, after all, thankfully higher on the food chain.


Karyn Planett

Wet and Wild

When is a glacier not a glacier? When it is a wee flake of snow fluttering about in the frozen air drifting here and there in search of a spot to alight. When more flakes accumulate than are melted away by a sunny day, a glacier is born flake by flake by flake until the weight of it all compacts the snow into solid ice. This is when it begins its crushingly-slow grind to the sea, sculpting and scouring everything in its path resembling a sloth-like teenager on the way to study hall. 

Chile’s Amalia Glacier

For the record, some know the Amalia Glacier as the Skua Glacier. Skuas are local seabirds whose migratory patterns take them as far south as the South Pole. When checking the sea charts, you’ll notice that (by either name) this glacier is found bordering the Sarmiento Channel in Southern Chile. Visitors from around the world make their way to Bernardo Higgins National Park to stand before the powerful ice blue face of this magnificent glacier as it meets the Sarmiento Channel. Glaciologists will recite that this massive ice flow was born in what’s called the Southern Patagonian Ice Field. Many of these experts express concern over the fact that it receded four miles over a 50-year period that ended in 1996. In fact, some concern continues to this day.

Visitors hope that the mist rises and the clouds part to display before them one of Mother Nature’s most remarkable miracles. Bundled up, finding a spot along the railing, they grab a cup of hot cocoa and have their cameras ready for calvings might miraculously happen right before their very eyes. If someone shouts, “Look, over there!” they’ve probably already missed the big event.

Ask Mr. Wizard

Scientists watch glaciers with rapt attention monitoring their movements, recording their sounds, photographing their sudden shifts as bits and bergs collapse and break away from the icy grip to plunge into the sea. Meanwhile, they fill tomes with facts and stats so let’s have a look at a few.

Q:            Why is glacial ice blue?

A:            Because dense ice that’s been compressed over time has few air pockets. The ice is so dense, in fact, that it reflects the color blue while absorbing the other colors of the spectrum. 

Q:            Why is some glacial ice white?

A:            This occurs when the ice is filled with miniscule air bubbles.

Q:            How much fresh water is stored in the world’s glaciers?

A:            You’ll be surprised to learn that the number is nearly 70%.

Q:            How heavy is a glacier?

A:            Heavy. Really heavy. There are places in the West Antarctica Ice Sheet where the weight is so massive that it’s pushed the land down nearly 1.5 miles below the surface of the sea. 

Q:            How thick is the Antarctic ice?

A:            Some estimates are approximately 4,200 meters in certain regions. That’s more than 13,000 feet. 

Q:            What would happen if all the glacial ice melted?

A:            You could probably surf in Kansas.

Q:            Do people drink glacial run-off??

A:            The state of Washington gets hundreds of billions of gallons of water every summer from glacial melt.

Q:            How big are ice shelves?

A:            Some are nearly 50 miles long. Fifty miles long! 

Q:            Was it really different during the last ice age?

A:            Yes. Glaciers, in fact, covered nearly one-third the earth’s surface.

Q:            How big is the tip of the iceberg?

A:            Only about 10% of the total size of the iceberg.

Q:            Any recent calvings of note?

A:            Yes. Not long ago in geologic terms, an iceberg broke off Antarctica’s Larsen Ice Shelf. It measured, they calculate, twice the size of Dallas. Not one to take these things lightly, the Texans broke off half their city and tossed it into the sea. (The last “fact” is, indeed, fiction.)       

Q:            How much of the earth is today covered by glaciers?

A:            Nearly 10%.            

Q:            Is glacial ice good in a tot of scotch?

A:            Yes. And, it fizzles.

Remember to wear your woolies when going outside for glacier-viewing. Mother Nature reminds all visitors that she, indeed, is in charge of all matters … even the weather. 


Karyn Planett

Who Was Buddha?

Gandhi, Buddha, King. Peacemakers all who sought to still the world’s anger and bring enlightenment to their followers.

What sparked these thinkers? From where did they draw their inspiration? How was their message spread to the masses? How was their wisdom judged?

For the journey ahead, Buddha’s teachings will be almost palpable. But, who was this man called Buddha?

Siddhartha Gautama

Sometime between 563 and 556 BC, a son was born on the rugged slopes of what is now Nepal. He was the child of a young, local prince called Suddhodana who named his son Siddhartha Gautama. This baby boy was raised in a world of riches, his comfortable surroundings lavished with earthly treasures, pleasures, and gifts.

Siddhartha Gautama grew to be a fine young man. At 16, as was the custom, he married a woman named Yasodhara and, before reaching his 30th birthday, fathered a son. Yet, despite being a grown man, Siddhartha Gautama had never strayed beyond the confines of the royal palace walls.

One day, Siddhartha Gautama did venture forth beyond his luxurious palace. A shocking truth assaulted him, for the outside world was not at all as he had imagined. He discovered, instead, sad people who lived in wrenching poverty, peasants who huddled in barren hovels, stooped souls who toiled long and hard in the harsh Nepalese climate. Few seemed barely able to feed their feeble children. Hope, it appeared, faded long, long ago.

Abandoning The Comforts

Siddhartha Gautama was so troubled by these visions that he decided to cast off his noble robes and set forth into the world to learn of its truths. While in the Indian state of Bihar, at a place called Uruvela, he rested in the cool shade of a bo tree. At that very moment he experienced what is known today as “enlightenment” and learned of its “Four Noble Truths.”

*            All existence involves suffering.

*            This suffering is caused by desire.

*            To remove this suffering you must escape desire.

*             To escape desire, you must follow the Eight-Fold Path that directs believers to distance themselves from all desires for world gratification.

Throughout the years, Siddhartha Gautama studied further and lived a simple life, never looking back to his comfortable past. He traveled to India’s holy city of Benares (also known as Varanasi) where a small group of Brahmins joined him as disciples. They referred to him as “The Enlightened One” or “Buddha.” Buddha continued his prayers and teachings until, in his 80s, he died following a meal of poisoned food.

Saffron Robes and Prayer Bowls

The morning sun is far from ushering in the dawn when bronzed temple bells awaken today’s Buddhist monks who have passed peaceful nights in their sacred temples or wats. Dressed in their simple robes, they emerge into the warming light after two hours of meditation and chanting. With brass or black lacquer offering bowls in hand, these monks wander through neighboring streets accepting offerings of food from passers-by who happily supply this morning meal for this act is viewed as a gesture of faith and goodwill. The monks then return to their temples for chores and a midday meal, the last of the day. This abstinence is in keeping with Lord Buddha’s practices, for he took no food in the afternoon or evening.

Widespread Following

Buddhism is practiced today throughout Asia, including Thailand, Myanmar (formerly Burma), Laos, Kampuchea (formerly Cambodia), Vietnam, Tibet, Nepal, China, Korea, Japan, and Sri Lanka, and is considered one of the world’s major religions. Ninety-three per cent of the Thai people are Buddhists, approximately 250,000 of whom are Buddhist monks who live by 227 rules. They are identified by their saffron robes and shaved heads. Few Buddhist nuns remain for their order no longer exists officially. Nuns seen today still wear white robes and shave their heads as well.

Young Thai males of approximately 20 years of age enter the monastery for, on the average, three months. (Some leave sooner, others remain years.) During this period, they gain merit for their parents and complete a passage some deem necessary for marriage.

Buddhist temples dot the landscape with their colorful spires and golden images of Buddha. Thai “spirit houses” can be found on almost every property including residences, office buildings, hotels, and shops. The local people can be seen praying at these spirit houses and presenting their daily offerings of fruits and flowers. It is said the sun’s shadow should never darken these mini-temples, which Somerset Maugham likened to “prizes in a shooting gallery at a village fair in the country of the gods.”


Karyn Planett

What’s in a Brushstroke?

“Figures are the most shocking things in the world. The prettiest little squiggles of black looked at in the right light and yet consider the blow they can give you upon the heart.”
—H.G. Wells, The History of Mr. Polly

This prolific, English science-fiction writer recognized what we all know… calligraphy can and does reflect and project emotion. Its flourishes and brushstrokes, tails and wisps seem to release the images from the parchment and pages, freeing them from their literary confines, allowing them to seemingly come to life. They can even give, as Mr. Wells clearly recognized, a palpable blow upon the heart.

The Way of Writing

At its origin in ancient Greece, calligraphy was considered a visual art related to writing, and in its purest form was executed with the control of a single stroke. Time has marched on and modern commercial versions of calligraphy, from wedding invitations to important-looking legal documents to degrees from institutions of higher learning, have obviously taken liberties with that original rule. In fact, most computers even contain a calligraphic font. What would the early Greeks have said about that?

And, though Asian calligraphy originated in China approximately 4,500 years ago and took many forms over the centuries, it did not reach Japan until some time in the 6th Century. Once there, it was simplified into three basic writing styles.

Tackling the essentials of calligraphy, or shodou as its known in Japanese, is required as early as elementary school. Later, it becomes part of the art curriculum in higher education. Currently calligraphy is routinely practiced in adult life by a significant segment of the Japanese population.

The most basic style of shodou is called kaisho, meaning,
“correct writing”, and could be thought of as the equivalent of “printing” in the English alphabet. The simple strokes attempt to imitate the letterforms one might encounter while perusing a book or magazine. It’s the easiest to read and execute allowing beginners to practice using the brush.

Gyousho, or “traveling writing”, is like cursive handwriting in English. It’s a more flowing and rounded calligraphic style that’s easily read by educated Japanese. This is the form most people generally use when penning a casual note.

The most artistic form of calligraphic writing is called sousho, or “grass writing”. With this version, form trumps function and the stylized technique of individual artists and their attempt to define a unique shape often leaves legibility aside. It is, however, closest to the original pure form where the brush never leaves the paper.

Tools of the Trade

The brushes, or fudes, are the calligrapher’s essential tools and are artistic collectibles in their own right. Most commonly, they’re made with bamboo or wooden handles and may contain hairs from a variety of sources—cat, deer, dog, horse, and goat are most common—depending on the desired effect. The best brushes are fifty to one hundred years old although a baby’s first hairs are sometimes used to create a commemorative piece in celebration of a birth.

Next in importance is the ink, or sumi. A charcoal stick is rubbed on an ink stone, a suzuri, while the artist adds water until the desired consistency is achieved. Serious artists will always make their own ink though commercial inks are available, especially for beginners.

Finally, there is the paper itself. The Japanese produce a special paper, known as washi, from a type of mulberry bark noted for its extra-long fibers. Its unique surface texture, consistent absorption rate, and strength make it the choice of contemporary calligraphers throughout the world.

Beyond these essentials, every artist will have a paper weight to hold the paper in place, a cloth to place under the paper preventing ink from bleeding through, and a seal created by the artist to identify his or her own work.

A Global Art Form

All across Asia, the calligraphic arts are on display in every country from Mongolia to Myanmar. And each region will have its own distinctive variations. In East Asia, the differences in approach can be derived from the literal translation of the word for calligraphy. In China it is the law of writing; in Japan, the way of writing; and in Korea, the art of writing.

In India, calligraphic inscriptions were often committed to stone, obviously requiring a much more angular style of lettering. In the Islamic world, calligraphy relates to the spiritual world as opposed to the spoken word, and appears often on the walls and ceilings of mosques. Based on the already flowing Arabic alphabet, it has its own look as illustrated in many classic editions of the Koran.

In the west, calligraphy was used most often in handwritten religious texts laboriously reproduced by monks. And, at the archaeological sites of Central America, calligraphy is found in ancient Mayan hieroglyphs that, even today, are used as logos by commercial companies in parts of Mexico.

For such an ancient art form, calligraphy continues to be appreciated and used as a reference point for the highest form of expression by contemporary artists of every stripe. Author Shawn Martin describes one of the characters from his 2013 novel, Shadowflesh, thusly, “Addison spoke in calligraphy while everyone else talked in scribbles.” Sounds like someone we’d like to meet.

In the meantime, why not have your name written in calligraphy as a memento of your journey.

The Bedouin

Karyn Planett

Tribal Roots of the UAE

United Arab Emirates. Each word provides a clue to why this postage-stamp corner of the world presents such an oversized profile on the international stage. What makes them so different from other Arab states? How did they manage to unite in a culture that reveres clan warfare? And what exactly is an emirate anyway?


Bedouin is the plural form of the word bedu, which translates roughly to desert wanderer. That’s a pretty apt description of the provenance and purpose of the original nomadic families. Born in the pre-Islamic Arabian Desert, the Bedouin eventually spread to the Sahara, the Najd, the Negev, the Sinai and beyond. From the Atlantic Ocean east to the Levant, they grew their herds, established their turf, built families into clans and clans into tribes.

Clans control wells and therefore land for grazing. Their families are related through complex alliances controlled by intermarriage, especially between cousins. Clans making up a tribe can trace a common lineage back for several generations. This blood relationship is the element that binds together key elements of the Bedouin culture.

Bedouin Culture

Loyalty, obedience, generosity, hospitality, honor, cunning, and revenge are the tenets of Bedouin society and behavior. To violate this code is to damage the strength of the clan and bring dishonor to the family. Of these, the highest virtue is hospitality. Born of necessity and driven by the harsh life of the desert, any stranger--friend or foe--can appear at a tent and expect three days of food, shelter, and safe passage.

Hospitality must be offered not just willingly, but generously. Beginning with coffee, which is a Bedouin ritual and the source of great pride; the visitor is served as often as he will drink. This is followed by as sumptuous a meal as the family can provide, even if it means emptying their own shelves and borrowing from neighbors. As a final act of generosity, clothes of the deceased are left atop the grave for the benefit of a needy traveler.

Each family group has a highly developed sense of honor and loyalty, including the morals of family members—rules of life that are defended with blood vengeance if necessary.

Bedouin Life

Like virtually all nomadic peoples, Bedouin families live in tents, their tents adapted to their climate and to the materials most readily found in their universe. The Bedouin tent is long and low and usually black. It is constructed of goat and camel hair cloth, woven by the women of the family. The hair swells in the rain making the tent watertight. The sides can be rolled up to allow breezes in during the heat of the day. A tent can be put up or taken down (also by the women) in about an hour.

The average family tent is divided into two sections. The men’s section is for receiving guests. The rest of the family lives, sleeps and cooks in the women’s section. For Bedouin higher on the socio-economic scale, tents can become considerably more elaborate and may have a generator, a TV and other appliances, and a vehicle parked outside.

Bedouin Tribes

Every Arab country in the Middle East has Bedouin tribes. In many countries, modernization has relegated them to second-class citizenship although, oddly, Bedouin virtues are held up as a model of pure Islamic culture. Only in the areas where Bedouin were the original inhabitants, have they maintained a degree of importance, even leadership.

In Arabia and the Gulf States there are more than 100 tribes, a few numbering as many as 100,000 members. Descendents of these great tribes are the rulers of the modern kingdoms they’ve inherited. The ruling sheikhs of Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and the other Gulf States can trace their lineage back to the great tribes of the ancient days. But, without the oil that has created their wealth, they may still be living in tents instead of palaces and high rises.

The oil discoveries that made it all possible could easily have consigned these former desert dwellers to lives of exploitation and subjugation by the dominant world powers that sought to control their resources. But in 1971 one enlightened leader, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan was able to convince the emirs of seven neighboring tribal states to form the United Arab Emirates. It was the first and possibly last time Bedouin tribes had been formed into a large-scale political organization.

The new leaders of these powerful city-states are still tribal in their social structures, but they are also university educated, socially liberal, economically conservative, fans of capitalism, and friends of the West. Without them, this whole region might have sunk into chaos long ago.

Interview with a Sponge

Karyn Planett

The World’s Most Unusual Animal—Can You Name It?

What follows is an actual dynamic and provocative personal interview by an unnamed reporter (hereafter referred to as “R”) with a legendary being (referred to as “MG” —Mystery Guest) whom scientists believe stands alone among animal greats.

Hidden at the end of this captivating account is the animal’s true identity. Will you be surprised?

R: “Thank you for joining us.”
MG: “My pleasure.”

R:  “Your disguise is quite alluring, by the way.”
MG: “Oh, I just do this to foil those around me.”

R: “I’m writing this story on you because you’re known as one of, if not the, world’s most unusual animals.”
MG: “Of course I’m flattered and, frankly, honored.”

R: “First off, for the record, let’s establish exactly where you reside.”
MG: “Well actually, I’m rather fortunate for I have homes all over the world. You see, I’m ever so fond of many environments for I feel it keeps one alive. Friends can always find me in the ocean depths or enjoying the ebb and flow of the lower shores.”

R: “That’s astounding. You must thrive on this variety.”
MG: “Well, allow me to finish. I take to the refreshing sweet waters of vast lakes, cozy ponds, and rivers everywhere as well. I’m just here and there and all over the world.”

R: “Fascinating. And, since we last rendezvoused you seem to have grown some.”
MG: “Quite so. You know a number of my relatives are nearly six feet tall.”

R: “And what a whopping big family you have!”
MG: “The Porifera Demospongiae’s. Have you met them?”

R: “Well, certainly not all of them. That would be a life’s work in and of itself.”
MG: “Then you’ve heard--we now number 5,000 species in the subkingdom of Parazoa. You know how the prolific side of the family is. Well, actually, all of us generate both eggs and, and, well you understand these things, I’m sure. You see we all have both, ah, oh how do I say this? We’re welcomed into both the ‘ladies’ and the ‘gents’ (wink wink).”

R: “No need to explain. I’m from California.”
MG: “Thankfully, then I need not, or should I?, go into the asexual reproduction thing, just for the record?”

R: “Please do.”
MG: “All right. That side of the family sprinkles their gemmules about just as tourists flock to Vermont to view the fall foliage exploding in the most glorious shades of crimson and flame. Then later, as the jonquils erupt from the warm spring soil, our next generation develops wonderfully. And did you hear that some of our elders actually allow their bits and pieces to be fragmented off, like last season’s Burberry sweater, to become members of the next generation? I’m frankly rather appalled by these actions, but it is our nature, you know.”

R: “Thank you for sharing. Now, I’ve heard you’ve been on a strict diet lately? Is that true--you always looked, well, fine.
MG: “Oh yes, it’s marvelous. As a filterfeeder, I simply adore suspended and dissolved organic debris followed by some delightful bacteria. It’s a constant water in, water out, water in, water out. Oh dear, have I revealed too much about myself?”

R: “Not at all. You’re among friends. But some of those friends feel you’ve been a bit on edge recently. I learned you’ve been poisoning others with your toxins. Is that true?”
MG: “Well, they were sharks after all! Really! Lest you forget all the good I’ve done. I’ve helped treat arthritis, and smoothed rough hides despite the fact I myself have been rubbed the wrong way more than once.”

R: “You’re upset, I’m sorry.”
MG: “I’ve done what I could to clean up many a spill. And I’ve absorbed more than my share of things. Just think, compared to any old rag, such as your out-of-style oxford cloth button-down throw-away, I can take on 15 times as much hot water! But I’m throwing cold water on this interview which I now consider finished.”

R: “Well, thank you for your gracious time in enlightening us on your many qualities (sotto voce…. and detriments), you sponge!”
MG: “Oh sure, tell everyone!”