Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The California Condor - Part 3

Two years ago, I wrote about the California Condor, on the occasion of my first chance to view them in the wild. In a follow up post, I added a few pictures taken by my second cousin, Heather, who has mad photography skills.

This year, the kids and I re-visited Pinnacles and were able to see more condors. When we visited before, Pinnacles was a National Monument. In 2013, however, it became our newest National Park. The main change appears to be an increase in the number of rangers to staff the park. I must say, it would be nice if the rest of the Federal Government was as helpful as the National Park Service.

Again, I would like to make a plug for Pinnacles as an unknown gem, kind of in the middle of nowhere (at least by California standards), and full of beauty. The heart of the park is an eroded core of a long-extinct volcano. It also happens to be located on the San Andreas Fault, the boundary between the North American Plate, and the Pacific Plate. On average, the fault moves laterally at the rate of 1.3 inches per year - the same rate as the growth of fingernails. Over the course of many thousands of years, the bulk of the volcanic core has moved north, leaving the sliver of the eastern side 195 miles to the south, in northern Los Angeles County. (That part is called the Neenach Pinnacles.) Hiking is the main attraction, as it is in most National Parks, but there are also talus caves to explore, plenty of wildflowers in most springs, and some spectacular views of the Salinas Valley, and the coastal mountain ranges.

And also condors.

For a bit of history on the California Condor, see my previous post.

If anything, we had an even better condor experience this time.  

First, we were able to get a great view of one from the High Peaks Trail. This is Condor #444, aka “Ventana.” Her biography can be found here.
I was able to get a sequence of photos of her as she left her nest and flew to an outcropping. 

Although I did get some of her on the rock, my cousin-once-removed Judy got a better picture. (With her superior camera. All my photos are with my subcompact Sony Cybershot. Nice and light, but limited.)

Condor #444 “Ventana.” Photo by Judy Whitworth. Used by permission.

Later that evening, back at our campsite, we watched no fewer than five condors circling over the ridge. Pinnacles (and indeed the entire western United States) has hundreds of turkey vultures, but it is possible to distinguish them by their flight patterns. Turkey vultures tend to wobble, and they have a bit of a “V” shape to the wings. Condors don’t turn fast, and they soar with wings straight out. The definitive test, though, is the feather color. Condors have a distinctive white patch forward on the wings, while turkey vultures have white on the trailing edge of the wing. 

With binoculars, we were able to catch a good flash of the distinctive white when the condors would turn at the right angle to the sun. Endlessly and effortlessly circling, higher and higher, until they were dots in the sky. (For a bird with a nine foot wingspan to become a dot, I expect they were pretty darn high in the sky.) 

Condor soaring on the thermal. Photo by Judy Whitworth. Used by permission.

I am reminded of the description in the various Thornton Burgess books of “Ol’ Mistah Buzzard,” who would soar “up, up, up into the blue, blue sky, until he was just a little speck.”


Just a few more photos, because I can't resist. 

Condor #444. Iphone through a spotting scope. Photo by Heather Leigh. Used by permission. 

My second daughter on the trail. Photo by Heather Leigh. Used by permission.
I LOVE this photo. 
The kids. Picture by me.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

My thoughts on my Alma Mater, Oak Brook College of Law

“Where did you go to school?”

“Where’s that?”


So how does one answer that question? In the past, I have just said that it is “based in Fresno, CA,” which is true in the most technical of senses. I still use it with most people. But how might one answer in a moment of true candor?

“I went to a law school founded by a home school cult whose leader turned out to be a serial sexual predator.”

Yeah, that’s a bit harder to explain.

And, while it too is technically true, it doesn’t capture the full truth.

I’ve mentioned my involvement in Bill Gothard’s cult in several prior posts. While I have had to spend years deprogramming from the bad theology and poisonous cultural message, a number of good things did come out of my years there.

The first is that I met a lot of great people. Including my wife. (She wasn’t in Gothard’s organization, but ran in the same Patriarchal circles.) And also, plenty of friends. So I won’t complain about that part. In fact, one of the paradoxical things about cults is that they tend to attract great people looking for a better life. The same is true about other cults. I can think particularly of the Jehovah’s Witness kids that lived next door when I was a kid. Good people. But bat shit crazy theology. But cults also tend to attract seriously dysfunctional people too - and predators. So it’s a mixed bag. There are a few people I am glad I will probably never have to see again. But on the whole, my life is enriched by the friends I made and retain from those days.

The other positive to come out of that experience was my education. It’s hard to make a direct comparison between OBCL and a traditional law school because of the completely different approach. The better comparison would be with other “non-traditional” schools here in California.

Just to give a quick primer: California has a tough bar exam in compensation for relatively loose rules regarding law schools. Most states require that a school be approved by the American Bar Association, which means brick and mortar, and a very high cost. OBCL was and is “accredited” by the State of California, but not by the ABA, so graduates cannot sit for bar exams in all states. (The issue of eligibility is complicated, and I haven’t really looked into the status for other states lately. I was born and raised in CA, and here I wish to stay, so it is rather irrelevant for me.) OBCL is hardly California’s only distance learning law school. And some of those with physical campuses and/or live classes choose not to seek ABA approval. As a general rule, I approve of attempts to give the ABA competition. I would even go so far as to say that higher education in general has been more interested in “rent seeking” than in actually educating students at an affordable price. The cost of higher education has gone up far faster than inflation, making it increasingly difficult to afford. Thus, one of the purposes of education - social mobility - is reduced. But that is a matter for another post, perhaps.

While I can’t compare directly, I can make some observations from my own experience and from some hard statistics.

OBCL has the advantage of having a great bar passage rate. We have been in the top 25 for California pretty much since inception. I was in the inaugural class for the school, and we did well, setting a standard for those who followed.

Another advantage is a relatively low cost. I, and most of my classmates, managed to avoid student debt, which has been a serious advantage to me, and has given me a flexibility in choosing my career path.

I would also say that I had a generally positive experience. In general, I would say that the professors were genuinely interested in us, and helped to further our own goals, not just those of Gothard. I will especially note Robert Caprera, who was always willing to answer questions; Jordan Lorence (a few political differences notwithstanding), who was a blast to talk to and the best lecturer of the bunch; and Roger Magnuson, our dean, who sadly passed away from melanoma last year, who loved spending time talking with us - the complete opposite of an ivory tower academic. I look back with fondness to those times spent talking about law and life with them. In addition to the professors, I made connections with a number of fellow students, some of whom are friends to this day. Our e-mail discussions and dissections of each other’s essays were vital to my learning, and were a huge factor in passing the bar exam. (I should also give credit to the two attorneys that I worked for while in school - particularly my now father-in-law, who taught me the practical stuff that no law school really teaches.)

But still, how do I explain things?

Anyone who follows the news has probably seen this article in the Washington Post. For me, this was completely unsurprising. As I noted, I long ago realized that Gothard’s teachings were poison. I also realized that he was an empire-building narcissist at my graduation from OBCL.

Our keynote speaker was someone on the Texas Supreme Court. Decent speaker. Typical graduation speech. I can’t remember much from it, but I think it was good.

And then, Gothard spoke.  

I probably expected him to say something about the opportunities that lay ahead of us. You know, we had futures. Most of us wanted to be able to earn a living. (Most of us have done well in that regard. The education was decent.) That was my personal concern. I chose OBCL (with a strong push from my parents) as my college option, so I would have been in a world of hurt if I couldn’t have found a job afterward. Did Gothard say anything about this? Um, nope.

Okay, I would have understood it if he had said something about our chance to use our degrees to further the kingdom of God. Pretty typical church-speak. A little Christianese. I get it. I would have understood that.

Instead, he spent the entire speech talking about how we were destined to serve the Institute. His own personal empire. Yep, we were just pawns to further his personal power. Up until that time, I think I still had illusions that he was a decent guy, just with some peculiar ideas. But after that, it was clear that he wasn’t interested in our futures, unless they furthered his.

My writing of this post was triggered by the recent events. The truth has come out that Gothard has sexually harassed and in some cases sexually assaulted young girls over a 45 year period. Some of those I know from OBCL and IBLP have seen his tendency to pick willowy young women, and spend time alone with them. The victims include close friends of people I know, and even relatives of my own friends. Thanks to the magic of the internet, I have also discovered that there was a serious scandal back in 1980, long before my family ever attended a Gothard seminar. Because bad news was easier to hide back then, Gothard managed to escape consequences, and even solidify his power. This time, it hasn’t been so easy, and Gothard was finally forced to resign.

One good result of this has been that OBCL has severed ties with IBLP. (It is my understanding that there has been quite a bit of desire on the OBCL side to shed the Gothard ties for some time, and the scandal just made it possible.) Whether either IBLP or OBCL will survive into the future remains to be seen. I suppose if OBCL does fold, then I will be in good company with many of my local colleagues who graduated from a local law school that has since gone under.

Still, though, I am left in kind of an awkward position. On the one hand, OBCL graduates are well represented in my county, both in private sector and public sector jobs, and in our local bar association. So in my day to day practice, I am linked with some really great people. On the other hand, in the wider world, OBCL is still linked primarily to Gothard. Every so often, one sees a reference in an article to “Bill Gothard’s Law School,” or even worse, “Bill Gothard’s Fake Law School.” Or worst of all, one of the few alumni who still hold strongly to the Reconstructionist worldview writes an article blaming Doug Phillips’ clergy sexual abuse on women. (I won’t dignify the article with a link.)

Thus, I am proud of my education, and feel it was a positive event in my life; but cringe to be associated with the cult itself or its ideas. 

With any major choice, there is always the question of “what if.” If I hadn’t taken this route, my life would be different. Would it be better, worse, or indifferent? I am not complaining, because I am truly blessed in so many ways. Law is a pretty good gig. But what if? 

By my favorite poet:

The Road Not Taken
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.                        
Robert Frost

And, from a more modern poet:

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Reading With My Kids: Hatchet by Gary Paulsen

Source of book: We own this. My in-laws gave us a lovely hardback edition of this book and the four sequels.

My introduction to Hatchet came as a very young adult. At the time, I was involved with some volunteer work on the Navajo Reservation that had me taking a couple of annual trips out there. On one of them, one of the guys I was working with brought an audio book along for the long drive. (Roughly 12 hours.) It did make the miles pass quickly. 

Hatchet is a kid book, but not a particularly light one. It is a survival book, a bit in the vein of what is perhaps an American tradition. Another similar book is My Side of the Mountain, by Jean George, which predates it by 30 years.

The grittier Hatchet doesn’t shy away from darker themes, including death and divorce. Brian, the 13 year old protagonist, doesn’t have it easy. He makes mistakes that nearly kill him. A series of unfortunate incidents threaten his survival. The book is as much about his failures as his successes, but that is what makes the character development particularly central. Brian has to change his very outlook and his way of thinking. In many survival stories from Robinson Crusoe on down, the protagonist already has a great deal of mental fortitude, a wealth of knowledge, and merely lacks the material resources. Brian likewise has to make do with the clothes on his back and a hatchet, but in contrast, he is unused to self control and lacks most skills that he will need. The need to survive forces him to discipline his brain.

In re-reading this book with the kids, I was struck by the process that Brian goes through to focus his thoughts, to separate out the panic and the pain and the fear so that he can figure out which tasks he must focus on. Food. Ever and always food. And shelter. And fire. But these are not second nature to him. Even problem solving itself is a new language that he must learn.

In this sense, Brian is a normal kid. He hasn’t ever had to rely on himself and his own courage. Fortunately for him, he is fairly bright, he realizes that he must think before acting, and he shows a great deal of persistence. Actually, these are the very things that make the difference between death and survival in many wilderness accidents. Those who stay calm, stay put, and avoid panic are more likely to survive.

Also good in this book are the descriptions of the plants and animals that Brian encounters. Many are unfamiliar to him, and he simply describes them. At the end of the book, he is able to discover the real names of things, but we already know what they are like. Those of us with a bit of background knowledge can figure out what Brian is experiencing even before then. The author has obviously spent plenty of time in the woods, and not just with an encyclopedia.

The kids enjoyed the book. Fortunately, they aren’t bothered much by the more intense stuff. Even my younger son, who doesn’t take danger in movies very well was okay with just a verbal description. Your kids’ mileage may vary. 

 My own crew out on the trail.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Gulp by Mary Roach

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

Mary Roach is a science writer with an eye for the bizarre and humorous. She has a peculiar and dry sense of humor in her writing, and she will try just about anything. 

Gulp is a book about the alimentary canal, from the mouth to the anus, and everything in between. Roach follows whatever weird rabbit trains she wishes in exploring, well, whatever interests her. She weaves the science into the book, and she definitely does a bunch of research. In fact, the number of primary sources she slogs through to get the fun stories is pretty astounding. Much of the original materials seem less than thrilling until she finds a compelling story and a deadpan quote or two that is bursting with “unintentional comedy factor.”

Just a quick scan through the chapters reveals that this book touches on the role of smell in taste, the art and science of pet food, the bizarre fad for extreme chewing of food (the gluten free fad of its day), whether food swallowed alive can eat its way out, extreme eating, rectal smuggling, flammable flatulence, theories as to the cause of Elvis’ death, the similarity of 19th century enema obsession and modern "cleanse" fads, and fecal transplants.

No, this book is probably not for the faint of stomach. For my wife, the ICU nurse, it was pretty mild. I am not easily grossed out, so we make a good match for gallows or bodily fluid humor. Thus, we both found this book to be hilarious.

I would also note that Roach is highly irreverent. About everything. Sacred cows will be slaughtered, stuffed, and mounted. And do not expect that taboos will be observed. I find this to be a great attraction of the book, of course. A very dry sense of humor goes down well.

I read a lot of this book in the evenings while camping, which doesn’t lend itself to taking down notes about stuff to quote. However, there are a few that are too good to forget.

First, as a perfect example of the sense of humor displayed, Roach footnotes a reference to the “primordial soup” with the comment, “Not a Campbell’s product.”

Or, after several instances of really stupid acronyms (technically backroyms, but that distinction only matters to language nerds), she coins one of her own.

“[A]n example of PLEASE - Pretty Lame Excuse for an Acronym, Scientists and Experimenters.”

There is much more, of course, but to detail the contents of the book would be to spoil the delightful writing.

This book is merely the latest by the author. I previously read Bonk, about the intersection of sex and science. (Also hilarious and irreverent. It predates my blog, however, so I never did a review.) Other books include Stiff, about cadavers, and Packing for Mars, about the bizarre elements of space travel. Both of these sound interesting as well.

It should be obvious that Mary Roach won’t appeal to everyone, but for those with a love of the peculiar and a slow gag reflex, her books will be enjoyable.

Roach has numerous videos online, including an extended session with Adam Savage of Mythbusters (one of my favorite shows), a TED talk, and an interview with Jon Stewart regarding this very book.

Here is her introduction to Gulp.


Note on Pop Science:

I’m not a science major, although I consider myself fairly well educated in that area - for an amateur. So much of science these days requires a strong mathematics background to even understand. I do my best to continue to learn, and keep up with new developments, but I admit that I couldn’t hold my own in an argument with an expert in any particular field.

All that to say that I do enjoy pop science. Some other books I have enjoyed are listed below:

By Sam Kean:

By Malcolm Gladwell (pop sociology):


All About Electricity (my very favorite book as a kid)

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Percy Bysshe Shelley: Miscellaneous Poems through 1817

Source of book: I own the complete Shelley.

I had to memorize “Ozymandias” in high school. I knew that Shelley was one of the Romantic poets, and died in a sailing accident. Oh, and he was married to Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein. That was about it. For some reason, Shelley isn’t all that popular these days, although the rest of the romantics seem to have also fallen out of favor. Perhaps one or two Keats poems show up in a curriculum. Southey gets a sentence or two. Wordsworth lives on for a few Hallmark ready poems, while the bulk of his output goes unread.

Perhaps it is just a symptom of the general neglect of poetry these days. There also might be a bit of a problem that our cynical modern sensibilities have with the raw emotion and utter sincerity of Romantic era poetry. Pure feeling without the filter of snark and irony. Perhaps it only lives on in music, and even there, it is hard to find.

As regular blog readers know, I have been reading through my poetry collection. Not just browsing, but reading straight through to be sure not to miss any more than I have to. I try to find complete collections rather than “greatest hits” for that reason. It is the poetry equivalent of listening to albums rather than singles.

For this particular session, I chose to read Shelley’s shorter poems, starting from the earliest, and ending at 1817, because that seemed to be a reasonable amount. 

Portrait of Shelley by Alfred Clint, 1819

Shelley never attained popularity during his lifetime, in part because he died young. He had great difficulty getting his works published, because of the fear of charges of sedition (for politically radical ideas) or blasphemy (for works unflattering to established religion.) Mary Shelley, however, persevered after his death, and was able to bring his works to light. They eventually came to be regarded as fine examples of lyric poetry, and in turn influenced future thinkers and writers, from Robert Browning to Oscar Wilde, to Henry David Thoreau.

All of the Romantics are best read and enjoyed without the steel colored glasses of sardonic detachment. Like the Psalms, they contain violent and unfiltered emotional power, hyperbole, and would sound silly or perhaps even psychologically unhinged if taken in the most literal - dare I say it? - prosaic sense. Let the feeling wash over, reflect, but leave cold, sensible calculation for another day.

Here is an example of the over-the-top romanticism:

To Constantia, Singing

Thus to be lost and thus to sink and die,
Perchance were death indeed!—Constantia, turn!
In thy dark eyes a power like light doth lie,
Even though the sounds which were thy voice, which burn
Between thy lips, are laid to sleep;
Within thy breath, and on thy hair, like odour, it is yet,
And from thy touch like fire doth leap.
Even while I write, my burning cheeks are wet.
Alas, that the torn heart can bleed, but not forget!
A breathless awe, like the swift change
Unseen, but felt in youthful slumbers,
Wild, sweet, but uncommunicably strange,
Thou breathest now in fast ascending numbers.
The cope of heaven seems rent and cloven
By the enchantment of thy strain,
And on my shoulders wings are woven,
To follow its sublime career
Beyond the mighty moons that wane
Upon the verge of Nature's utmost sphere,
Till the world's shadowy walls are past and disappear.
Her voice is hovering o'er my soul—it lingers
O'ershadowing it with soft and lulling wings,
The blood and life within those snowy fingers
Teach witchcraft to the instrumental strings.
My brain is wild, my breath comes quick—
The blood is listening in my frame,
And thronging shadows, fast and thick,
Fall on my overflowing eyes;
My heart is quivering like a flame;
As morning dew, that in the sunbeam dies,
I am dissolved in these consuming ecstasies.
I have no life, Constantia, now, but thee,
Whilst, like the world-surrounding air, thy song
Flows on, and fills all things with melody.—
Now is thy voice a tempest swift and strong,
On which, like one in trance upborne,
Secure o'er rocks and waves I sweep,
Rejoicing like a cloud of morn.
Now 'tis the breath of summer night,
Which when the starry waters sleep,
Round western isles, with incense-blossoms bright,
Lingering, suspends my soul in its voluptuous flight.

This one was rescued from Shelley’s manuscripts by Mary, and may not represent the final version. It is what we have, however, and I find it a fine example of the tribute to a lover or a muse, or perhaps a combination of the two.

I also liked “Marianne’s Dream,” which is a bit long to quote in full. It describes a dream told to him by a Mrs. Hunt, the “Marianne” of the title. The dream, like many, is filled with vague impressions and memorable, but unreal images. She dreams of clouds and a giant and ominous anchor. These give way to a city with towers and domes that becomes engulfed in flames before these are extinguished by the sea itself.

And now those raging billows came
Where that fair Lady sate, and she
Was borne towards the showering flame
By the wild waves heaped tumultuously.
And, on a little plank, the flow
Of the whirlpool bore her to and fro.

The flames were fiercely vomited
From every tower and every dome,
And dreary light did widely shed
O'er that vast flood's suspended foam,
Beneath the smoke which hung its night
On the stained cope of heaven's light.

The plank whereon that Lady sate
Was driven through the chasms, about and about,
Between the peaks so desolate
Of the drowning mountains, in and out,
As the thistle-beard on a whirlwind sails--
While the flood was filling those hollow vales.

At last her plank an eddy crossed,
And bore her to the city's wall,
Which now the flood had reached almost;
It might the stoutest heart appal
To hear the fire roar and hiss
Through the domes of those mighty palaces.

The eddy whirled her round and round
Before a gorgeous gate, which stood
Piercing the clouds of smoke which bound
Its aery arch with light like blood;
She looked on that gate of marble clear,
With wonder that extinguished fear.

That last line in particular thrills me. “With wonder that extinguished fear.” The whole poem is excellent.

I’ll also mention one of the first of his poems.

To _____  (1814)

Yet look on me -- take not thine eyes away,
Which feed upon the love within mine own,
Which is indeed but the reflected ray
Of thine own beauty from my spirit thrown.
Yet speak to me -- thy voice is as the tone
Of my heart's echo, and I think I hear
That thou yet lovest me; yet thou alone
Like one before a mirror, without care
Of aught but thine own features, imaged there;
And yet I wear out life in watching thee;
A toil so sweet at times, and thou indeed
Art kind when I am sick, and pity me. ...

This was probably written for his first wife, Harriet, who probably married him in part to escape a bad situation. It didn’t end well for her, with them breaking up a few years (and two kids) later. She then became pregnant by another man, and, thinking that he abandoned her (he was merely delayed in his return from overseas), she committed suicide. It’s a sad epilogue to what was once a grand passion. (His marriage to Mary also ended tragically, with his early death, but without the bitter heartbreak.)

I like melancholy poems - and melancholy music too. Thus, I’ll end on that sort of note, with this one.


We are as clouds that veil the midnight moon;
How restlessly they speed, and gleam, and quiver,
Streaking the darkness radiantly!--yet soon
Night closes round, and they are lost forever:

Or like forgotten lyres, whose dissonant strings
Give various response to each varying blast,
To whose frail frame no second motion brings
One mood or modulation like the last.

We rest.--A dream has power to poison sleep;
We rise.--One wandering thought pollutes the day;
We feel, conceive or reason, laugh or weep;
Embrace fond woe, or cast our cares away:

It is the same!--For, be it joy or sorrow,
The path of its departure still is free:
Man's yesterday may ne'er be like his morrow;
Nought may endure but Mutability.                        

Extremely simple and traditional in form, it expresses the certainty of change in the way that the best poetry can. Fleeting pictures, language that feels as we do but cannot state in so many words.

A note on Shelley’s journals:

Many of Shelley’s poems were never submitted for publication, and only came to light through the efforts of Mary Shelley.

Last week, our family took our annual excursion to the Huntington Library and Gardens. (I mentioned them, and their connection to the Railroad here.) We go primarily for the gardens, the art, and the rotating exhibitions. The library itself is primarily used by scholars. However, a few books are always on display. Some are standards, like the Gutenberg Bible, and a double elephant Audubon. (How big is that? Forget “coffee table” size. This book could double as your dinner table.)

This time, they had one of Shelley’s journals on display. All I can say is that Mary was a hero, because his handwriting is difficult at best.