Narcissus' Echo

Thoughts, tears, rants, ruminations, hopes, fears, love(s), and prayers of just another being passing through this wracked sphere...

My Photo

A round peg in a world of square holes...

Saturday, January 07, 2006


Dog Deaths Surpass 100 Despite Toxic Pet Food Recall

By LiveScience Staff
Posted: 06 January 2006

This cocker spaniel, Sad Sack, succumbed to aflatoxin poisoning recently at Cornell's Hospital for Animals. Credit: Cornell University.

At least 100 dogs in the United States have been killed in recent weeks by toxic pet food despite a recall of the products, scientists said today.

Some 19 brands of Diamond, Country Value and Professional dog foods have been recalled. But many pet owners are not aware of the recall, researchers at Cornell University said Friday.

Dogs have refused to eat the food and, in some cases, their owners have enticed them with gravy and other lures without knowing they were killing the animals.

"Entire kennels have been wiped out, and because of the holiday these past few weeks, the dispersal of recall information was disrupted," said Sharon Center, a professor of veterinary medicine who specializes in liver function and disease at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell.

The dog food is tainted with deadly aflatoxins that waste the liver away. The bad food could be present in a dozen other countries, too, the researchers say. About two-thirds of dogs that show symptoms from the toxin have died.

The dogs seemed to know their food was deadly.

"Some dogs were stealing food from the kitchen counter," Center said. "Others just stopped eating the food and begged for treats. Unfortunately, some owners used gravy and other mixers to entice their dogs to consume what they thought was safe, quality dog food."

Only about two dozen deaths have been firmly linked to the tainted pet food. But Center and her colleagues know the toll is far higher.

"Every day, we're hearing reports from veterinarians in the East and Southeast who have treated dogs that have died from liver damage this past month or so," Center said. "We're also concerned about the long-term health of dogs that survive as well as dogs that have eaten the tainted food but show no clinical signs."

Surviving dogs may develop chronic liver disease or liver cancer, she said.

"Despite our understanding of this complex toxin, we have no direct antidote," Center said.

Symptoms arise over days or weeks. Early signs include lethargy, loss of appetite and vomiting. Later, look for orange-colored urine and jaundice, which is a yellowing of the eyes and gums. Severely affected dogs produce a blood-tinged vomit and bloody or blackened stools.

More information is available at a Cornell web site.

The details of the FDA recall are here.

(Source 1, Source 2)

Friday, January 06, 2006

Tour de Africa--solo

Congratulations to Riaan for successfully circumventing the African continent on a bicycle.

Countries: 34
Distance: 36,500 km (22,812 miles)



Riaan and bike.

Closer look at the bike.

Riding in the city.

Riding through the countryside.

More pictures can be found on Riaan's website: Africa365

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Russian Hill Roulette

A rather weird amusing film by Frank Yeean Chan, of a chap cycling up the 6 steepest streets in San Francisco.

Click here (5 min 10 sec).

I especially like the dedication at the end.

America Dreaming on Two Wheels

What Woodward wrote is so true, people tend to be unexpectedly nice--even kind--when you are cycling.

A bicycle built for seeing America

Writer takes cross-country trip on two wheels

By Calvin Woodward
Associated Press

NEWPORT BEACH, California (AP) -- When you bicycle across the country, people tell you their dreams, because they see you are living yours.

"I've always wanted to ..." they say. "Someday, I'll ..."

They speak of physical challenges to conquer or exercises of the mind. Of going places or doing more at home. Some dreams already are in motion; others may never fly.

People are surprised to find themselves talking about whatever mountain it is they want to climb. Something about someone inching from one side of the country to the next brings it out of them.

Craig Pattison, for example.

He clears trees for a living. Last year, he had a little music festival on his western Missouri hilltop. The rains washed the festival out and he took a financial bath. This year he almost broke even.

His words escape from a bushy beard as he speaks of his dream. "I've always wanted to have Willie Nelson play in my backyard."

Waitresses talk about not being waitresses someday. A teenage girl in small-town Kansas, minding her little brother in a park, notices the bicycle with all the bags and offers with curious eyes and a voice as even as the prairie, "I've never been anywhere."

Crossing the country at 12 mph to 15 mph, loaded down, takes about three months. It's hard. This is an enormous country. Who knew?

One astonishing thing about this trip is that it can be done at all in this day and age.

In this land of congested suburbs, clogged highways and city clatter, it's possible to go from Washington, D.C., to the Pacific on roads less traveled.

The route is stitched together from lonely backroads and byways, bordered by farms and meadows. The silence is often vast, broken only by the wail and thunder of the freight train, still the signature sound of America.

You study every house, examine individual weeds for longer than they are worth.

In the rain or under a blistering sun, you think of this equation too often -- one hour in a car would take you as far as one whole day on a bicycle -- 60 to 70 miles. One day in a car covers as much ground as a week on a bike. It can all seem so absurd.

But then there are places like Union County, Kentucky, endless fields of rich-green soybeans.

And the canopy of leaves over the Katy Trail, an off-road path meandering hundreds of miles along the Missouri River and west, in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark.

And the payoff vista after 2,000 miles of traversing east to west -- the opening act of the Rockies rising in the distance from the Colorado flat country.

The journey reveals a country in subtle transition. Combines still reap the harvest but GPS systems now guide some of them, satellites steering them precisely down rows.

Little towns are starting to live on the flush side of the digital divide, installing wireless antennas atop grain elevators and using high-speed Internet to snag business and connect citizens to the outside world.

Trade as well as technology reshapes the heartland. Trains still snake across the landscape but many of the freight cars carry the names of Chinese companies sending goods from across the Pacific.

And waves of Hispanic or Asian immigration reach deep into places where neighbors have known neighbors for generations, except when they left for a better life.

More than the beauty of the land, the openness of strangers impresses the transcontinental bicyclist. Police officers escort you to the town park for a free night of camping. People take you in, feed you and give you water. They save you from heat stroke and worry that the headless horsemen of Appalachian lore and the Skin Walkers, evil spirits of the southwestern desert, will get you.

"Take my truck," Carla Weatherly pleads, serving coffee at the Main Book Co. bookstore and coffeehouse in Cortez, Colo. "Drive to Flagstaff and leave it there somewhere safe. I'll come get it."

She had just told a stranger to drive her pickup five hours into Arizona and somehow she would retrieve it someday. She did not want to see me going through the heat, isolation and ghostly dangers of the Indian lands.

Her offer was so generous it had to be refused. But America is full of people like Carla.

It's full of dreamers, too.


Calvin Woodward's bicycle parked by the side of a Virginia road.

People bicycling cross-country have many choices but the TransAmerica Trail is the mother road. It dates to 1976, when a group called BikeCentennial, now the Adventure Cycling Association, celebrated the nation's 200th birthday by laying out the 4,248-mile route between Astoria, Oregon, and Yorktown, Virginia.

I began in Washington, negotiating the heavy traffic of northern Virginia and joining the TransAm in Charlottesville.

Virginia is some 400 miles long when riding diagonally to its southwest corner, with much climbing. Adventure Cycling says the Appalachians, although dwarfed by the Rockies, are harder to cross because of day upon day of steep grades. Fields of wildflowers are one reward for the work.

* * * * *

Woodward passes a decaying old house near Charlottesville, Virginia.

In Marion, Virginia, Mark Prater works from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day on his dream -- an Exxon station and convenience store he built on the site of a razed gas station run by his late grandfather for 45 years. Every item is in place. The lighting is warm. A hand-painted mural testifying to the area's railroad roots spreads across the back wall.

Prater shows his visitor how to ring beer. He breaks open cases of 24 and divides them into six packs or 12 packs. He stretches the rings on plastic sleeves over the cans, one at a time, making sure every label faces out. He's fast.

For all that work, he makes an extra 24 cents on six cans of beer by breaking down the cases into smaller units. He figured he'd made $400 by ringing beer since opening his station six months earlier. Every quarter helps. He competes with the Citgo station across the street.

His secret weapon: cheap gasoline that was still in the tanks from his grandfather's operation six months earlier. He survived an opening-round price war that way. His wife, Joanie, joins him in the evenings after her day job.


Dogs and hills are the challenge of Kentucky. Coal trucks on narrow roads, too. Here begin the fields of soybeans that dominate the verdant farmscape for 1,000 miles.

A scream, "Get outta here," makes the dogs turn tail and run. Good thing, because they chased this bicyclist at the rate of a half dozen a day, only in Kentucky. Others use pepper spray.

Norvill Jones, who has biked across country three times and in every contiguous state in his retirement, swears by a big stick. When a pack comes after you, he says, whack the lead dog on the head and they'll all run off.

* * * * *

Mary Hale answers the door, a touch suspicious. The day is roasting. Heat shimmers off the new blacktop on a steep road deep in the hills and hollows. Dizziness, nausea and shivers signal that I have heat exhaustion.

From the porch of her hilltop home, Mary offers ice water and explains her nervousness about seeing a stranger at her door. Her house has been broken into three times. Recently she caught a man trying to go in through a window. All Christmas presents were stolen one year.

Matronly in her long dress and white hair in a bun, she invites me in, makes me a ham sandwich, shows a picture of the house as it was when she and her husband, Mike, bought it. It was falling apart. Now it's like new. They did all the work themselves, and it's still a work in progress. The backyard looks down steeply on tobacco fields.

A thunderstorm gathers and we sit on her front porch watching it sweep by. She shrugs off an apology for interrupting her day. "I was just downloading gospel songs on Yahoo," she says.

At a convenience store miles down the road, a man in a pickup truck pulls up. "I'm Mary's husband," he says. "She sent me to see if you're OK and need a drive anywhere."

Norvill Jones, that veteran of dogs and mountains, had told me: "Never be too proud to hitch a ride up a hill." Mike drives me the last miles to the nearest town.

At Whitesville, Kentucky, near the Indiana line, the terrain abruptly changes. The rollercoaster hills turn gentle. Union County, the last chunk of Kentucky before the Ohio River, is spectacular.

Soybeans and corn everywhere. A farmer pulls up in a pickup, then a neighbor pulls up in his truck on the other side of the road. I stand on the yellow line between them. "I don't like to travel," the farmer says. "I like to know where the sun comes up and where it goes down every day."


An easy two days across southern Illinois brings me to the Mississippi River, riding on levee roads in the state's western section that are so quiet, three hours go by without a car passing. The question arises: Where on earth have the 298 million Americans gone?

Adventure Cycling publishes authoritative maps of the TransAm and other routes, laying out terrain, history, quirks and services of each section. This is vital information when biking many miles between sources of water, food and shelter. On the banks of the Mississippi, the course ahead looks daunting -- the Ozarks, more "nickel and dime hills so overpopulated with snarling dogs," as a friend warns me. Enough.

I go 70 miles north to the Katy Trail on the outskirts of St. Louis. The nation's longest rail-to-trail route, at 225 miles, it demands no steeper climbing than the trains of past centuries could manage. The limestone path turns the bicycle white; much of the four-day leg snakes between the Missouri River and steep bluffs.

Katy gets its name from the old Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad, or M-K-T, and tiny towns along the way are named after railroad executives. One exception is Mokane, Missouri, drawn from the initials for Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska.

A passing biker discloses his strategy for showering after camping in town parks; he ducks into self-serve car washes and hoses himself down at high pressure. No word on whether he springs for the wax finish.

On a particularly remote stretch, a too-large feline figure occupies the center of the trail ahead. It walks in a circle, sits and stares. The "get outta here" yell seems inappropriate. I turn tail and find a path leading to a gravel road and a long looping detour into the nearest community, where people confirm sightings of mountain lions. The big cat was probably heading to the nearby sheep farm for lunch, they say.

The only reasonably direct way into Kansas from the end of the Katy Trail in Clinton, Missouri, is by Highway 7. It isn't pleasant.

Busy and hilly and, worst of all, no services for many miles. I finally come to a convenience store late in the day, with 30 miles to go to the nearest town.

* * * * *

Craig Pattison, 56, pulls up in his pickup. Burly, rough-edged, a braid halfway down his back -- I don't know what to make of him. He invites me to camp at his place on the hill.

It's a great old farmhouse on 63 acres, bought for $160,000 not many years ago. A natural bowl in the earth serves as the amphitheater for his music festival. He's got fancy "hippie chickens" and various gardens, including a patch where he and his wife defy the climate and grow bananas. His daughter Tess has the Internet savvy to help market the festival then two weeks away.

Pattison makes his living as founder of Beaver Stump & Tree. When big hurricanes come hundreds of miles away, he packs up his crew and drives into their path, and has much business for weeks.

He cooks steaks for us. He dotes on his wife, Christy, a truckstop waitress, and stays up past his usual 8 p.m. bedtime for several hours until she gets home. She walks in to soft music and candles.

In the morning, he takes me to breakfast at Christy's restaurant. I tell him he should run for mayor. He points out there is no town to be mayor of.


People of the High Plains ought to have as many words for wind as the Inuit have for snow.

It rules. It fools with you all day. At your back, it makes you sail. Coming at you, it's like swimming upstream in molasses. Mostly it comes at me, out of the southwest.

The trees thin out rapidly after eastern Kansas, yielding to the otherworldly beauty of rolling grasslands. There and in the arid western Plains, services of any kind become infrequent. Hot howling headwinds slow progress to 7 mph. Temperatures are over 100 for days at a time, hitting 109 on a bank sign.

A distinctive building in Ellsworth, Kansas, cries out for renovation.

Brown fields after the harvest kick up waves of dirt that stream across the road. Tumbleweed skitters. The occasional stack of hay bales offers the only sliver of shade to be found for five miles, 10 miles, 20 miles.

Then there are the locusts, three swarms of them, each coating the pavement for two or three miles.

They jump waist-high when you come upon them, the ones you don't crunch. When a cattle truck passes, bringing its own hot wind, they rise in a cloud, hit your face.

This is a land without adornment.

Even the rare gas station is unmanned and self-serve, like an ATM machine with nozzles -- pay, pump, go.

No Big Gulps here.

On Route 96, there are always grain elevators on the horizon, ghostly white towers you can see 10 miles away. Some have soda machines. You pray they don't eat your change.

A friend puts it best: "Kansas is purgatory rolled flat."

Yet, other bikers, experiencing favorable winds and cooler days, count Kansas among their favorite states.

You can sense the mountains now, days before you see them. The pancake flatlands have a subtle upward tilt you wouldn't notice in a car. And when you do go up a mild hill now, you don't go down.

A 35-mile leg south to Garden City from Scott City brings the trip's second encounter with heat exhaustion. Water in the bottles is hot, a passing relief only when I spray it on my head and the wind turns it briefly cool as it evaporates. I have the chills in 105-degree heat. I pass few houses, but stop at two for cold water.

I am riding past feedlots, dirt yards with troughs where cattle fatten by the tens of thousands for slaughter.

Gone is their curiosity back in the grasslands, where they all looked up at the passing bicyclist. Now they are dull-eyed.


Colorado offers many features not encountered since the East. Among them: coffee chains, suburban sprawl, wide shoulders and Democrats.

I'm again on the TransAmerica but only for a short distance. After Pueblo, the TransAm veers toward the Pacific Northwest. Running short on time, I'm now heading toward San Francisco on the "Western Express," hundreds of miles shorter than the TransAm but with extremely remote desert stretches ahead through Utah and Nevada.

Instead of the short, steep ups and downs and switchbacks of Appalachia, the Rockies call for hours of climbing at a time on roads that are generally more gently graded than in the East. Then come exhilarating descents, some as long as 20 miles.

It soon becomes evident even San Francisco will be out of reach in the few weeks left before I'm due back in Washington. Time to head to southwestern Colorado and figure out a route to Los Angeles, now the best bet for making tracks to the beach.

* * * * *

I am not a soldier home from the wars, nor a refugee from hurricanes. Instead, I'm in a pickle of my own making.

It doesn't matter. People throughout the East and the Plains go out of their way to help in every pinch.

When a motel was full in Kentucky, the proprietors opened a spare room in their house.

When the only store at an Illinois crossroads was closed that night, the owner reopened and piled on free food and drink.

In Ness City, Kansas, a band of young men who had moved back after college to try to save their town put me up, invited me for barbecue, showed me the skyline from atop a grain elevator and took me to meet the mayor.

But only in Colorado does a lady give me her husband's pants.

After a 3 1/2 hour climb to Lizard Head Pass, elevation 10,222 feet, I ride into black clouds and a hard, bone-chilling rain. I wheel numbly into Rico, a largely boarded up town of some 200 people, and stand dripping at the door of a tiny cafe.

"Here, give me your sleeping bag, I'll put it in the dryer," Brandi the waitress demands.

Inside, the jazz quintet Rico Blues Project plays. Brandi wants to dry my pants, too, but I have none to change into. Cheryl Wiescamp, wife of the guitar player, fetches her husband's spare jeans from their van.

"Take them," she says. "It's going to get colder. I've got some sweaters too. Do you need a tent? We've got a tent."

Warmed, dried, revived, I leave, Jeff playing his riffs and never looking up as his pants walk out the door.

"He is very zoned when he plays," Cheryl wrote later. "After the gig I told him I gave away his clothes and he said, 'Good, I needed some karma.' "

After offering her truck and a place to stay down the road in Cortez, Carla Weatherly explained why she and her husband, Warren, had been moved to help me that day in August. It had something to do with their own dreams.

"We are two souls with a wanderlust and love hearing about others who are free to travel," she said. "You would think we were settlers hungry to hear of outside news."

She wrote in December to say Warren was killed in a workplace accident. Police said a frozen rock mixture fell on him while he was doing road work at Durango Mountain Resort.

Carla Weatherly and Patrick Slover of the Main Book Co. bookstore and coffeehouse in Colorado.

Arizona, California

In Flagstaff, I meet Ivan from Switzerland, a man bicycling from Alaska to Mexico, then on to other worldly adventures.

Nothing fazes him. He'll set his tent up anywhere, eat almost anything, finds everything around him friendly and beautiful. He enjoys cities and isolation, sun and storms. It's all good. Four years he'll be away from home.

Not me. The calendar is racing.

Weeks later, Route 66 glistens after a rainstorm in Arizona.

A rain-slicked stretch of historic Highway 66. A rental-car drive across the worst of the Mojave Desert. The smog and stark hills of southern California. I bicycle on sidewalks in congested Orange County, finally smelling, then seeing, the Pacific, some 3,500 miles from the start of the journey. Land's end is at Newport Beach.

Lifeguards invite the bike and me down into the surf to take pictures.

* * * * *

Over three months on roads less traveled, I didn't hear America singing, as poet Walt Whitman did in his exuberant 1855 tribute to a rising nation and its confident workers.

I didn't hear it whining, either, as cynics do today.

I saw America going about its business without fuss.

It waved from front porches, fixed up houses, talked about the day and the times in little coffeehouses.

Grew fields of soybeans and sunflowers, saw the sun come up and go down in the same sky each time, ran trains that thundered and wailed.

Downloaded gospel songs.




Logistics, equipment and random judgments from 88 days of bicycling to Los Angeles from Washington, D.C.:

Bike: 2005 Trek 520
Mechanical problems: None
Tires changed: one (rear)
Flats: three on one tire, from spiky weeds in Kansas
Maintenance: Tuneup in Garden City, Kansas
Distance: 3,500 miles, approximate
Drivers most likely to wave: Kansas
Most dangerous traffic: Northern Virginia and Cotopaxi, Colorado, to Salida, Colorado
Major annoyance: Kentucky dogs
Unexpected courtesies: Kentucky coal truck drivers
Most miles in one day: 95, eastern Colorado
Typical daily mileage: 50-65
Lodging: Two nights motel for every night camping
Campground tip: Free camping in some town parks in Kentucky, Missouri, Kansas and Colorado. Check with police first.
Trip cost: $4,500 plus $1,200 bicycle
Best ways to cut that cost: Rough it by camping off the road. Bring cooking gear.
Most overpriced town: Telluride, Colorado
Best riding: central Virginia west of the Blue Ridge; Union County, Kentucky; Katy Trail, Missouri; Westcliffe to Cotopaxi, Colorado
Rural surprises: Free wireless Internet in many small towns
Largest city on route: Flagstaff, Arizona
The don't-leave-home item I left home without: Adventure Cycling route maps
Best recovery: Having Adventure Cycling send the maps later
Luggage: Rear panniers and rack, handlebar bag
Heaviest cargo: Four-pound laptop, three-pound tent
Notable weight savings: Synthetic clothes that can be washed and dried nightly
Unexpected hazard: Laundromat dryers melting synthetic clothes even on low setting
Best convenience store pick-me-up: Sports drink and salted peanuts

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Yippee! Everybody's a winner! Group hug!

Or, to use a more accurate (and colorful) word: clusterfuck!

Self-help's big lie

By Steve Salerno
Steve Salerno's latest book is "SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless."

January 1, 2006

EVER SINCE the United States began weaning itself off the sociological junk food of victimization and its culture of blame, the pop-psychology menu increasingly has been flavored by an antithetical concept — empowerment — that can be summarized as: Believe it, achieve it.

Nowadays, Fortune 500 conglomerates draft business plans with bullet points drawn from Laker coach-cum-inspirational guru Phil Jackson's Zen optimism. Couples write partnership covenants based on the utopian blather of John Gray. Millions of everyday Americans owe their feelings of "personal power" to erstwhile firewalker Tony Robbins, arguably the father of today's mass-market empowerment. And there is Oprah, who is seldom categorized as a guru in her own right but whose status as the movement's eminence grise is beyond dispute: The road to self-help's promised land, and a bite of its $10-billion fruit (as tracked by Marketdata Enterprises), runs straight through Harpo Productions. The nostrums delivered by these and other self-help celebrities form a cultural given, an uncontested — and, we are led to believe, incontestable — foundation for today's starry-eyed zeitgeist.

Lost in the adulation is the downside of being uplifted. In truth, the overselling of personal empowerment — the hyping of hope — may be the great unsung irony of modern American life, destined to disappoint as surely as the pity party that it was meant to replace.

In U.S. schools, the crusade to imbue kids with that most slippery of notions — self-esteem — has been unambiguously disastrous (and has recently been disavowed by a number of its loudest early voices). Self-esteem-based education presupposed that a healthy ego would help students achieve greatness, even if the mechanisms necessary to instill self-esteem undercut scholarship. Over time, it became clear that what such policies promote is not academic greatness but a bizarre disconnect between perceived self-worth and provable skill.

Over a 20-year span beginning in the early 1970s, the average SAT score fell by 35 points. But in that same period, the contingent of college-bound seniors who boasted an A or B average jumped from 28% to an astonishing 83%, as teachers felt increasing pressure to adopt more "supportive" grading policies. Tellingly, in a 1989 study of comparative math skills among students in eight nations, Americans ranked lowest in overall competence, Koreans highest — but when researchers asked the students how good they thought they were at math, the results were exactly opposite: Americans highest, Koreans lowest. Meanwhile, data from 1999's omnibus Third International Mathematics and Science Study, ranking 12th-graders from 23 nations, put U.S. students in 20th place, besting only South Africa, Lithuania and Cyprus.

Still, the U.S. keeps dressing its young in their emperors' new egos, passing them on to the next set of empowering curricula. If you teach at the college level, as I do, at some point you will be confronted with a student seeking redress over the grade you gave him because "I'm pre-med!" Not until such students reach med school do they encounter truly inelastic standards: a comeuppance for them but a reprieve for those who otherwise might find ourselves anesthetized beneath their second-rate scalpel.

The larger point is that society has embraced such concepts as self-esteem and confidence despite scant evidence that they facilitate positive outcomes. The work of psychologists Roy Baumeister and Martin Seligman suggests that often, high self-worth is actually a marker for negative behavior, as found in sociopaths and drug kingpins. Even in its less extreme manifestations, confidence may easily be expressed in the kind of braggadocio — "I'm fine just the way I am, thank you" — that stunts growth, yielding chronic failure.

Then again, one never really fails in this brave new (euphemistic) world. "There is no such thing as failure," posits a core maxim of neuro-linguistic programming, the regimen from which Robbins drew much of his patter. Among empowered thinkers, reality becomes an arbitrary affair, with each individual deciding his or her personal truth.

Consider healthcare, where vague notions of personal empowerment are a key factor in the startling American exodus from traditional medicine. A comprehensive study reported in the medical journal JAMA pegged the number of patient visits to alternative-medicine practitioners at 629 million a year, easily eclipsing the 386 million visits to conventional MDs. In theory, these defections represent a desire for "self-empowered healing" that will "put people in charge of their healthcare destiny," to quote one holistic health website. In practice, the trend puts hordes of Americans at the mercy of quacks who shrewdly position themselves at the nexus of mind and body. It behooves us to remember that feeling better about a health problem is not the same as doing better.

Nonetheless, with such highly visible exponents of latter-day empowerment as Robbins, Winfrey and Winfrey's principal protege, Dr. Phil McGraw, fanning the flames, a generation has come of age on the belief that a positive mental attitude will carry the day. Far from helping his disciples, the empowerment guru does them a disservice by making them "think positive" about a situation in which the odds of success are exceedingly low. As top management consultant Jay Kurtz argues: "The most dangerous person in corporate America is the highly enthusiastic incompetent. He's running faster in the wrong direction, doing horribly counterproductive things with winning enthusiasm."

You cannot have a life plan predicated on the belief that everything is equally achievable to you — especially if that same message has been sold indiscriminately to all comers. In the grand scheme of things, knowing one's limitations may be even more important than knowing one's talents.


Harsh opinions?
Or reality knocking at the door?

Salerno's book has been panned by many reviewers, professional and amateur, for its inadequate research as well as faulty logic, but some of his observations seem to bear a germ of truth, however anecdotal.

In this day and age, more and more people are getting molly-coddled and insulated from the truth. Some schools have stopped issuing "F"s in report cards, replacing them with the phrase, "deferred success." Kindergartens play musical chairs with more chairs than participants--to ensure that "everybody wins."

The question, Have we gone too far?, is now moot. Instead, it is time to ask, Where do we stop?

Will your mood during your next Thanksgiving / Christmas vacation remain as upbeat if you find out that the pilot of the 200-ton jet you are on, is a graduate of a flight school which believes in "deferred success"?

Monday, January 02, 2006

A dialect and a language

Cantonese Are Losing Their Voice

At home with a spicy tongue that can make words of love sound like a fight, they are having to learn its linguistic kin, the mellower Mandarin.

By David Pierson
Times Staff Writer

8:20 PM PST, January 2, 2006

Carson Hom's family has run a thriving fortune cookie and almond cookie company in Los Angeles County for 35 years.

And for much of that time, it was a business that required two languages: Cantonese, to communicate with employees and the Chinese restaurants that bought the cookies, and English, to deal with health inspectors, suppliers and accountants.

But when Hom, 30, decided to start his own food import company, he learned that this bilingualism wasn't enough anymore.

He checked out the competition at a recent Chinese products fair in the San Gabriel Valley and found that he couldn't get much further than "hello" in conversing with vendors.

"I can't communicate," said Hom, whose parents are from Hong Kong. "Everyone around used to speak Cantonese. Now everyone is speaking Mandarin."

Cantonese, a sharp, cackling dialect full of slang and exaggerated expressions, was never the dominant language of China. But it came to dominate the Chinatowns of North America because the first immigrants came from the Cantonese-speaking southern province of Guangdong, where China first opened its ports to foreigners centuries ago.

It is also the chief language of Hong Kong, the vital trading and financial center that became China's link to the west.

But over the last three decades, waves of Mandarin-speaking mainland Chinese and Taiwanese immigrants have diluted the influence of both the Cantonese language and the pioneering Cantonese families who ran Chinatowns for years.

The surging Chinese economy today has challenged Cantonese further. Because Mandarin is China's official language, entrepreneurs like Hom have been forced to adapt, often learning the hard way that business can't be done with Cantonese alone.

Many Cantonese speakers are racing to learn Mandarin any way they can — by watching Chinese soap operas, attending schools, paying for expensive immersion courses and even making more Mandarin-speaking friends. This is no cinch. Although Cantonese and Mandarin share the same written language, they are spoken as differently as English and French.

At the same time, few people are learning Cantonese. San Jose State University and New York University offer classes, but they are almost alone among colleges with established Cantonese communities. The language is not taught at USC, UCLA, Pasadena City College, San Francisco State or Queens College in New York, to name a few.

With the changes, some are lamenting — in ways they can do only in Cantonese — the end of an era. Mandarin is now the vernacular of choice, and they say it doesn't come close to the colorful and brash banter of Cantonese.

"You might be saying 'I love you' to your girlfriend in Cantonese, but it will still sound like you're fighting," said Howard Lee, a talk show host on the Cantonese language KMRB-AM (1430). "It's just our tone. We always sound like we're in a shouting match. Mandarin is so mellow. Cantonese is strong and edgy."

Cantonese is said to be closer than Mandarin to ancient Chinese. It is also more complicated. Mandarin has four tones, so a character can be intonated four ways with four meanings. Cantonese has nine tones.

Beginning in the 1950s, the Chinese government tried to make Mandarin the national language in an effort to bridge the myriad dialects across the country. Since then, the government has been working to simplify the language, renamed Putonghua, and give it a proletarian spin. To die-hard Cantonese, no fans of the Communist government, this is one more reason to look down on Mandarin.

Many say it is far more difficult to learn Cantonese than Mandarin because the former does not always adhere to rules and formulas. Image-rich slang litters the lexicon and can leave anyone ignorant of the vernacular out of touch.

"You have to really listen to people if you want to learn Cantonese," said Gary Tai, who teaches the language at New York University and is also a principal at a Chinese school in Staten Island. "You have to watch movies and listen to songs. You can't learn the slang from books."

Popular phrases include the slang for getting a parking ticket, which in Cantonese is "I ate beef jerky," probably because Chinese beef jerky is thin and rectangular, like a parking ticket. And teo bao (literally "too full") describes someone who is uber-trendy, so hip he or she is going to explode.

Many sayings are coined by movie stars on screen. Telling someone to chill out, kung fu comedian Stephen Chow says: "Drink a cup of tea and eat a bun."

Then there are the curse words, and what an abundance there is.

A four-syllable obscenity well known in the Cantonese community punctuates the end of many a sentence.

"I think we all agree that curse words in Cantonese just sound better," said Lee, the radio host. "It's so much more of a direct hit on the nail. In Mandarin, they sound so polite."

His colleague, news broadcaster Vivian Lee, chimed in to clarify that the curse words were not vindictive.

"It's not that Cantonese people are less educated. They're very well educated. The language is just cute and funny. It doesn't hurt anyone," said Lee, who does the news show on the station five days a week. "The Italians need body language. We don't need that at all. We have adjectives."

To stress a point or to twist a sentence into a question, Cantonese speakers need only add a dramatic ahhhhhhh or laaaaaaa at the end.

Something simple like, "Let's go" becomes "C'mon, lets get a move on!" when it's capped with laaaaa.

By comparison, with Mandarin from China, what you see is what you get. The written form has been simplified by the Chinese government so that characters require fewer strokes. It is considered calmer and more melodic.

Take the popular Cantonese expression chi-seen, which means your wires have short-circuited. It is used, often affectionately, to call someone or something crazy. The Mandarin equivalent comes off to Cantonese people sounding like "You have a brain malfunction that has rendered your behavior unusual."

The calm tones of Mandarin are heard more and more around Southern California's Chinese community.

Even quintessential Hong Kong-style restaurants, including wonton noodle shops, now have waitresses who speak Mandarin, albeit badly, so they can take orders. Elected officials in Los Angeles County, even native Cantonese, are holding news conferences in Mandarin.

Some Cantonese speakers feel besieged.

Cheryl Li, a 19-year-old Pasadena City College student whose parents are from Hong Kong, is studying to become an occupational therapist and volunteers at the Garfield Medical Center in Monterey Park, where most of the patients are Chinese.

Recently, she was asking patients, in Mandarin, what they wanted to eat. When one man thought her accent was off, he said, "Stupid second-generation Chinese American doesn't speak Mandarin."

Li responded angrily, "No! I was born here. But I understand enough."

"We're in the minority," she added, reflecting on the incident. "I'm scared Cantonese is going to be a lost language."

Still, Li is studying Mandarin.

There are places where Cantonese is protected and cherished.

At a cavernous Chinese seafood restaurant in Monterey Park, members of the Hong Kong Schools Alumni Federation gathered in a back room to munch on stir-fried scallops, pork offal soup and spare ribs.

It was a regular monthly meeting of the group and a sanctuary for Hong Kong Chinese people who take comfort eating and joking with fellow Cantonese speakers.

"I just can't express myself as freely in Mandarin," said Victor Law, an accountant who left Hong Kong to attend college in the U.S. 34 years ago. "That's why we have this association. I feel like we're the last of a dying breed."

For Law, it's not just the language but many Cantonese traditions that are on the decline. He says it's now hard to find a mah-jongg game that uses Hong Kong rules instead of Taiwanese rules, a distinction concerning how many tiles you use.

"I'm not ready to be a dinosaur," said Amy Yeung, president of the alumni group.

To the trained ear, it was instantly apparent that this was a gathering of Cantonese speakers. The room was deafeningly loud with everyone talking. Even serious discussions were punctuated with wise cracks.

When Yeung announced that members could get seats and walk the red carpet at an Asian film festival, the room erupted in unison in the only way a Cantonese person expresses astonishment.


Near the end of the night, Yeung had important news. A mother in Hong Kong called to say she was moved to tears by a scholarship the federation had given to her daughter to attend Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"She told me to tell you all, 'Thank you from the bottom of my heart. I didn't know there were such good people in the world,' " Yeung said.

The room fell silent for a moment. Sensing the awkwardness and, God forbid, self-congratulatory tone of the story, Law blurted, "Does she know how to cook?"

Everyone laughed and another successful meeting came to an end.

The alumni association can afford to lament. Many of them speak Mandarin already. But many Cantonese speakers are finding out now that they have to learn Mandarin or risk being left behind in business or even within their families.

To learn Mandarin, Joyce Fong sits in her favorite black leather massage chair in front of her living room TV and goes through Chinese soap operas on DVD. Some are about ancient Chinese dynasties. Others focus on the story of a single mother. And a few are Korean programs dubbed into Mandarin.

The 67-year-old retiree says she has to pick up the language if she hopes to be able to communicate with her 9-year-old and 5-year-old grandsons in China.

The boys had been living with their parents in the Bay Area, but the family decided to move to China a year ago so that Fong's son, Gregory, could take a job at a university and also raise his children immersed in Chinese culture. Although the grandchildren will also speak English, they will primarily use Mandarin at school, Fong said.

"I want to encourage them. I tell them, 'Grandma is trying to learn Mandarin too,' " said Fong, who immigrated to the U.S. from Hong Kong 53 years ago and is socially involved in L.A. Chinatown through her family association.

Walnut City Councilman Joaquin Lim grew up in Hong Kong and immigrated to the U.S. in the 1960s. For decades in California, he found he could get by with English and Cantonese.

But that changed when he decided to get into politics a decade ago.

Running for the school board in his suburban community, Lim quickly realized that most of his Chinese constituents in the Eastern San Gabriel Valley were newcomers who didn't speak Cantonese.

So Lim had his Mandarin friends speak to him in their mother tongue. He watched movies in Mandarin and listened to Mandarin songs. By the time he ran for City Council in 1995, he felt comfortable enough with the language to campaign door-to-door and talk to Mandarin residents.

But there's always room for improvement — as Mandarin speakers are quick to remind him when he gives speeches. A few months ago, he was speaking to the Chinese language media at a news conference announcing a task force to improve health standards in Chinese restaurants.

As he spoke in Mandarin, fellow task force member Anthony Wong interrupted him in mid-sentence to correct his grammar.

The ethnic Chinese reporters chuckled, acknowledging that his Mandarin was a work in progress.

Lim recently spoke at a graduation ceremony in Cal Poly Pomona for government officials from central China who took a four-week course in American administrative practices.

Lim thought it went well. But the leader of the Chinese delegation had a slightly more reserved review: "It's much better than most Cantonese-speaking people."


As someone who speaks both Cantonese and Mandarin, I can attest to the world of difference between the two.

The article got it right too: Cantonese sounds edgy and grating compared to Mandarin. It is also almost always spoken really loud. Hearing a female speak Cantonese is a definite turn off for me. It ranks on the same level as Ebonics: harsh, unrefined, and rude.

Sunday, January 01, 2006


Sitting down to pig out after a nice bike ride, I found myself thinking about my childhood, my parents, and the eating habits of my family. More importantly, I became cognizant of the balancing act my parents performed behind every meal; an act that was invisible to their children: how to balance the household budget, fulfill their personal wants and desires, and still feed the growing brats kids.

As a single adult with no dependents, it is easy for me to severely cut back on food expenditure to make up for an unnecessary or emergency expense. A month of Ramen instant noodles, supplemented with the occasional egg and vegetables, isn't really POW rations; you won't die, and so long as you swallow your multi-vitamin pill daily, you won't get scurvy.

However, this is unrealistic, short-sighted, and unfair to subject other individuals--in particular, your children--to such measures. Growing children require nourishment, or else they might get stunted in their growth. No sane parent would want to live with the consequence or the guilt.

You know the feeling when the quality or quantity of your meals is based not on desire or personal whim, but your budget? When you finish the last mouthful of your meal, and you think, "Gee, I wish there was more," or "Gee, that was awful. It has been the same thing for the last 2 weeks"? Well, having never experienced that while living under my parents' roof made me appreciate all the hard work and ingenuity that went on in the kitchen, and the late-night budgeting meetings my parents had while the kids were all asleep.

In my parents' house, when we left the dinner table, it was only for one of the two following reasons:

1) We couldn't eat any more, so stuffed are we,


2) Mom or Dad's experimental recipe turned out to be other than planned (in which case, we hit the zi cha at the local hawker center or call for pizza delivery).

#2 rarely happens as Mom and Dad are excellent cooks. Mom is an expert in Chinese and Malay dishes, and Dad rocks with steaks, ribs, roasts--anything with lots of meat and potatoes in it.

Our appetites were also enormous. 1.5 kg (3.3 lb) of steak will last only one dinner among 3 growing kids and Dad (Mom doesn't eat beef). 1 kg (2.2 lb) of Kang Kong (a crunchy vegetable that's delectable when fried with Sambal Belacan, a pungent, peppery shrimp paste) is insufficient as a side dish of vegetables for all 5 of us. Rice is bought 15 kg (33 lb) at a time and stored in a large, covered bucket. At the hospital, someone must have switch their real kids with the 3 little piggies or something...

The food budget must have been huge, but it wasn't. I don't know how Mom and Dad managed it. I do know that, to stretch the dollar, they often endured the traffic jams of the Causeway (bridge) over to Malaysia for groceries.

The large dinners were not to make up for a small allowance either. Our pocket money for lunch wasn't mean by any measure. In fact, it allowed us the luxury of having dessert in the tuck shop (canteen). Ever heard of a 9-year-old kid having 3 Lor Mai Kai (steamed glutinous rice with chicken) for lunch?

Now, I am not bragging that we have swan meat, bear's paw and abalone, washed down with bird's nest every night, but we never suffered from want of food or the lack of gastronomical variety in the house. It is a far cry from the food decisions I encounter on my own today:

Hmm, Shrimp Scampi. Two for $9.89

Ramen instant noodles. 24 for $2.40.

*Really wants Shrimp Scampi*
*Looks at the price*
*Takes Ramen instead*
*Grabs the Shrimp flavored Ramen and pretends it is Shrimp Scampi*

Growing up as a child in the household, I never had to do any of this . That's my point. And therein lies my admiration of my parents.

I think it is an incredible undertaking of responsibility for one to bring another sentient being into this world. A being that is essentially half you. A being that is your creation. And then to nurse him or her, feed him or her, and watch your child (hopefully) become something greater than you are--than you will ever be; growing, while you dwindle away with age.

To put aside all of one's personal wants and desires, or, at the very least, temper them; to put them on the back burner so as to nurture and nourish one's offspring, are the unsung achievements and unrecognized sacrifices of every responsible parent. Often, we forget that our parents have dreams and desires, fears and frustrations too. They were just like us: young people with passion, ambition, drive, etc. They are not just there to provide and provide. But that's what they did. That's what they chose to do.

To my parents, who managed this thrice-daily balancing act for decades--never complaining, ever generous--you have my greatest admiration, earnest gratitude and deepest respect.

I salute you!

-A son who never went hungry under your roof.