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The rod of Asclepius—a serpent coiled around a staff–is a symbol from ancient Greek mythology which represents the physician’s art. Asclepius was a demigod who surpassed all other gods and mortals at the practice of medicine. Because his skills blurred the distinction between mortality and godhood, Asclepius was destroyed by Zeus (an exciting & troubling story which you can find here).
There are several proposed reasons that a staff wrapped by a snake is the symbol of the god of medicine. In some myths, Asclepius received his medical skills from the whispering of serpents (who knew the secrets of healing and revitalization because of their ability to shed their skin and emerge bigger and healthier). Some classicists believe the snake represents the duality of medicine—which can heal or harm depending on the dosage and the circumstance. Yet others see the serpent as an auger from the gods. Whatever the case, the rod of Asclepius is a lovely and distinctive symbol of medicine and has been since ancient times. Temples to Asclepius were constructed across the Greco-Roman world and served as hospitals of a sort. The serpent-twined rod of the great doctor was displayed at these institutions and became a symbol for western doctors who followed.
However there is a painfully apt misunderstanding between the rod of Asclepius and a similar symbol.
Greek mythology featured a separate and entirely distinct symbolic rod wrapped with snakes, the caduceus—which has two snakes and is winged. The caduceus was carried by Hermes/Mercury, the god of merchants, thieves, messengers, and tricksters. Hermes used the rod to beguile mortals or to touch the eyes of the dead and lead them to the underworld.
In the United States the two rods have become confused because of a military mix-up in the early twentieth century (when a stubborn medical officer refused to listen to his subordinates and ordered the caduceus to be adopted as the symbol of the U.S. Medical Corps). Since then the caduceus has been extensively used by healthcare organizations in the United States and has come to replace the staff of Asclepius in the majority of uses. Commercial and for-profit medical organizations are particularly inclined to use the caduceus instead of the rod of Asclepius as the former is more visually arresting (although academic and professional medical organizations tend to use the staff of Asclepius).
To recap: the caduceus, which symbolizes profit-seeking, theft, and death, has replaced the staff of Asclepius, an ancient symbol of healing, throughout the United States. Of course it is up to the reader to decide whether this is a painful misunderstanding, or a wholly appropriate representation of the actual nature of the broken American healthcare system. HMOs, insurance companies, and hospitals, however have started to take note and are moving towards crosses and random computer generated bric-brac for their logos, leaving both ancient symbols behind.
When I was growing up, the Thanksgiving story was simpler. It revolved around the pilgrims landing in Plymouth and nearly dying of famine and sickness. They were saved when a helpful native named Squanto taught them how to fish and plant maize (and convinced the Wampanoag tribe to ally with the puritans instead of destroying them). It never really occurred to me to ask how such a helpful Native-American happened to be on the scene–speaking English, no less. Where did he learn that? It turns out that Squanto’s travels to arrive at Plymouth (which was originally his birthplace of Patuxet) were far more epic and heart-rending than those undertaken by the pilgrims.
Squanto’s original name was Tisquantum and he was born in the Patuxet tribe, probably in the 1580’s or 1590’s (there are lots of approximate dates and words like “probably” in Squanto’s biography). Many historians believe that Tisquantum was taken from North America to England in 1605 by George, Weymouth and then, after spending his youth being “kept” by Sir Ferdinando Gorges, returned with explorer John Smith in 1614. It is possible that Squanto was separated from a wife and child when he was coerced to Europe, and it is also possible that he had an English wife and children. What is certain is that Tisquantum was one of a group of 27 Native Americans kidnapped by Captain Thomas Hunt in 1614. A devious and cruel slaver, Hunt intended to sell the North Americans for £20 apiece in Malaga, Spain. Tisquantum escaped–possibly thanks to help from Spanish Friars with whom he lived until 1618. The friars tried to convert Tisquantum during the time that he lived with them, but his heart yearned for home, and, when the opportunity to travel back to the New World came, he shipped back across the ocean to assist in setting up the Newfoundland colony at Cuper’s Cove (a fur-trading colony set up in 1610).
Recognized by former associates, Tisquantum/Squanto was enlisted to map and explore the New England coast with Thomas Derner. Finally, in 1619 Tisquantum made it back to his village at Patuxet. But when he got there he was in for a horrific surprise. The village had been wiped out by plague (either smallpox or viral hepatitis) and everyone he knew was dead. Bleached skeletons lay among the fruit bushes and tumbled-down shelters. Less than a tenth of the original inhabitants of the region survived and what was once a thriving society lay empty and desolate.
As the last of the Patuxets, Squanto moved in with the remnants of a neighboring tribe, the Wampanoags. Tisquantum told them of the power and strength of the English. When the pilgrims showed up in 1620, he was under house arrest but he was quickly enlisted to translate the negotiations. Thanks to his accounts of English power, the settlers came to a favorable arrangement with the Wampanoags (although it was obvious that the English were in ragged shape since many had died and the remainder had been reduced to grave robbing from the dead Patuxets).
Squanto was released by the Wampanoags and moved in with the pilgrims. He taught them to properly fertilize their grain so it would grow in New England’s sandy soil. He showed them how to plant maize and fish for local fish and eels. He helped them hunt and negotiate with the Wampanoags. Yet he remained an outsider in the Pilgrim community. Through abusive threats he earned the enmity of the Wampanoags who became convinced he was trying to usurp the chieftan’s place. They demanded the pilgrims hand him over for execution but he was saved by the unexpected arrival of the ship Fortune, which provided the pilgrims with a pretext for ignoring the Wampanoag demands. By the end of his life he was in an ambiguous position—considered an outsider by both groups dwelling in what had been his home. During a treaty meeting with the Wampanoag he came down with “Indian fever” and began bleeding through his nose (some historians speculate that he was poisoned by the angry Wampanoags). Squanto was buried in an unmarked grave—after crossing the ocean many times and moving back and forth between different cultures he was at last united with his tribe.
On December 7th, 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. One of the teenage medical volunteers who assisted the many wounded American servicemen that day (and on days after) was Daniel Inouye, the son of Japanese immigrants who had moved to Hawaii looking for a better life. As soon as Japanese-Americans were allowed to enlist, Inouye suspended his pre-medical studies and joined the U.S. Army where he was assigned to the Nisei 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
In 1944, Inouye fought in the Rome-Arno Campaign and then in the Vosges Mountains of France, where the 442ndwas given what amounted to a suicide mission: rescuing the Lost Battalion (a battalion of the 141st Infantry Regiment which was ambushed and surrounded by vastly superior force of German veterans). During that fight, Inouye was shot directly in the chest, but the bullet was stopped by two silver dollars which he had in his shirt pocket. The Nisei 442nd suffered over 800 casualties on that day (and, in fact, went on to become the most decorated unit in Army history). Inouye was given a bronze star and promoted to second lieutenant–which was most meaningful to him because the commission meant he got to carry a Thompson submachine gun into battle.
On April 21, 1945, Lieutenant Inouye was back in Italy storming a German fortification on the Gothic Line (the last line of German defenses in Italy). During a flanking maneuver, at a heavily armed ridge named Colle Musatello, his platoon was pinned down between 3 machine gun nests. As Inouye attacked the first nest, he was shot in the stomach. His wound did not prevent him from throwing grenades into the first gun placement and then rushing in to finish off the German soldiers with his machine gun. Refusing treatment, Inouye attacked the second machine gun nest in the same fashion and successfully destroyed it.
As the other men of his squadron attacked the third machine-gun placement, Inouye silently crawled within ten yards of the position and primed a grenade to throw into the bunker. Unfortunately he was spotted by a German soldier who shot a rifle grenade through Inouye’s right elbow. This meant that Inouye was clutching the live explosive in a hand over which he had no control as the German reloaded to finish him off. Inouye’s astonished soldiers report that the lieutenant ordered them back, then pried the grenade from his own dead arm, and cast it off-hand into the final bunker. After the bunker exploded, Inouye then mopped up with his Tommy gun and charged the main line. Shot in the leg he tumbled to the bottom of the ridge and blacked out. When he came to, the concerned men of his platoon were all around him, but he ordered them back to position with the exhortation that “nobody called off the war!”
During the action at Colle Musatello, Inouye reputedly killed 25 Germans (and wounded 8 more) while being shot in the abdomen & the leg and despite having his right arm mostly shot off (the shattered remains were amputated at a field hospital without proper anesthesia ). While he was convalescing from these wounds, Daniel Inouye met other many other badly wounded men including future Senators Philip Hart and Bob Dole (who became a lifelong friend).
Inouye remained in the army until 1947 and he was honorably discharged with the rank of captain. For his actions he was awarded many different awards including the Distinguished Service Cross, which was later upgraded to the Congressional Medal of Honor. Although his ruined arm meant that his ambitions of becoming a surgeon were ended, he studied political science at Honolulu and then earned a law degree with honors from George Washington University Law School in Washington. Daniel Inouye was the first Hawaiian congressman when the state joined the Union in 1959 and he was elected to the US Senate in 1962. He is now the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. A long-standing tradition is that the most senior member of the majority party serves as president pro tempore of the US Senate, so Inouye, a democrat, is third in line for the US Presidency (after Biden and Boehner). If some appalling disaster brought him to the office, he would no doubt hunt down the malefactors and destroy them utterly (possibly with his own bare hand).
In this era, the political parties of the United States of America are bitterly divided. Whatever happens in today’s election is unlikely to change the long stalemate or foster friendship across the aisle. Things have sometimes been like this in the past—as when Democratic-Republicans locked horns with Federalists or when Whigs fought acrimoniously with the Jacksonian Democratic Party—yet I feel that is dangerous and shameful to have our leaders so deeply divided. There have been happier and more productive times too. Today Daniel Inouye is a bizarre and ancient political dinosaur, but he rhapsodizes about warm friendships with colleagues of all political stripes.
I would like to congratulate the victors in today’s election and wish them every success in their honored positions of leadership. The United States is in need of their finest effort and hardest work. However, I would also like to draw their attention to Daniel Inouye in order to remind them of America’s shared tradition of sacrifice, compromise, and friendship (& badass heroism).
Hurricane Sandy is nearly in Brooklyn: the sky looks like a sepulcher and dark winds are roaring down the street. The gale is howling in the huge London plane trees outside which are swaying and bending as though they were bamboo. This is nothing to sneer at since trees are nearly a meter (three feet) in diameter and twice as tall as the two and three story houses. The trees are probably as old as the neighborhood—which was built about a century ago. Hopefully the trees and I will all be standing tomorrow and not floating out in the Atlantic on our way towards Newfoundland.
For purely academic reasons I looked up London plane trees and I was gratified to discover that they are “fairly wind resistant.” I was also cheered to learn that the trees are a strange hybrid of Eurasian plane trees and American sycamores. Only in 17th century Europe were the new world trees planted in proximity to their old world relatives. The tree loving English realized what a beautiful and hardy tree this is and they began planting the hybrid plane trees along streets.
The trees really are beautiful. Like the magnificent rainbow eucalyptus, London Plane trees have mottled bark albeit in muted splotches of cream, gray, brow, and verdigris rather than in insanely colorful stripes. The trees can grow to 35 meters in height and can be up to 3 meters in circumference–in fact there is (hopefully still) one that big by a nearby church.
Resistant to pollution and able to survive with highly compacted roots, the London plane tree is a perfect ornamental city tree—so much so that the NYC Parks Department tries to limit its planting since the hybrid sycamore/plane makes up more than 10% of the trees in the city. Ironically the logo of the NYC Parks Department is a London plane tree leaf crossed with a Maple leaf.
The London plane tree is said to have beautiful wood which looks like freckled pink lace. The tree also grows ample crops of spiky seed balls which are eaten by squirrels and birds. The true worth of the tree is as a magnificent living specimen tree. I am devoutly wishing for the best for the plane trees on my street (and not only because they tower over the stone house I am inside).
Fifty years ago marked the height of the Cuban missile crisis. The entire US military was operating at DEFCON 3–and Strategic Air Command had moved up to DEFCON 2 (a readiness condition which indicates that “nuclear war is eminent”). As part of these protocols, the Air Force moved nuclear armed interceptor aircraft to smaller airports along the northern border in preparation for a Russian strike.
On the night of October 25, 1962, a guard at the Duluth Sector Direction Center spotted a commando stealthily climbing over the perimeter fence to sabotage the base. The guard fired at the intruder but missed all his shots. He then sounded the alarm. The proper alarm rang at several nearby bases, but at Volk field in Wisconsin, the alarm system was wired incorrectly. Instead of an intruder alarm, the klaxon for nuclear war sounded. The pilots duly got in their F106-A jets (each of which was equipped with a nuclear rocket) and prepared to fly north for the last battle.
Just as the planes were taking off, a truck sped onto the field flashing its lights. The false alarm had been caught in time and the interceptors did not launch. Decades later the Air Force declassified documents relating to the incident. The shadowy saboteur was revealed to have been a bear.
The incident was quickly forgotten because it was only one of an astonishing number of near misses in the subsequent days of the crisis. On October 27th, 1962 alone there were multiple live-fire accidents and misunderstandings: the world nearly ended several times that day. That morning, a U-2F spy plane was shot down over Cuba by means of a Soviet surface-to-air missile and the pilot was killed. Later that day a US Navy RF-8A Crusader aircraft was fired on and one was hit by a 37 mm shell. The US Navy dropped a series of “signaling depth charges” on Soviet submarine B-59 which was armed with nuclear torpedoes (however one of the three Soviet fire officers objected to launching the weapons). Over the Bering Sea the Soviets scrambled their MIGs in response to a U2 spy plane and the Air Force in return launched their F-102 fighter aircraft.
After a bewildering storm of desperate diplomatic negotiations which were interspersed with apocalyptic bluster, the American and Soviet administrations began to back down from the confrontation. The Kennedy administration dispatched negotiators to meet with representatives of the Soviet Union at Yenching Palace Chinese restaurant, and a deal was reached over the fortune cookies and chopsticks. The Soviets removed their nuclear missiles from Cuba and America, in turn, pulled nuclear weapons out of Turkey and southern Italy.
It’s easy to look at the news today and feel a sense of despair about the world and its inhabitants, but it is worth looking back a half a century to the sixties when the world was a much more stupid and dangerous place. Everyone drove giant unsafe cars with big fins. Lobotomy was a common medical procedure. China and India were actively fighting a war. But, above all other concerns, the Soviet Union and the United States eyed each other beadily and prepared to destroy the world in response to a bear or a spy plane or an insult in a Chinese restaurant.
After the Cuban missile crisis ended, the STRATCOM stood down from DEFCON 2 on November 15, 1962. Although the armed forces have returned to DEFCON 3—medium readiness— a few times since then (notably during the Yom Kippur war and on September 11th) the nation has never again gone to DEFCON 2.
Continuing our Halloween theme of undead monsters, we visit the great northern forests of Canada and the Great Lakes. During winter, these frozen woodlands were said to be the haunt of a terrifying undead spirit of malicious appetite–the dreadful wendigo. Although the wendigo has become a mainstay of modern horror, legends of the spirit predate Europeans. The wendigo myth originated among the Algonquian people, who believed it was a manitou (powerful spirit being) associated with hunger, cold, and starvation. For these hunter-gathering people the monster was shaped out of the greatest fear in their hearts and took the form of the ultimate taboo.
The Algonquian culture consisted of hundreds of heterogeneous tribes stretching in a northern arc from New England, up through the Great Lakes to the eastern Rockies. Some of the southern tribes cultivated wild rice, pumpkins, corn, and beans, but the northern tribes were hunter gatherers. Bad hunting seasons could cause terrible winters among the northern people, and whole villages would sometimes starve to death. The wendigo myth seems to originate from such cold lean times of abject hunger when, in the extremity of desperation, starving people would resort to cannibalism.
Although different tribes had different traditions, most stories describe the primal wendigo as a gaunt humanoid giant with decayed skin and long yellow fangs. The creature’s eyes glowed in the dark and it was always hungry for human flesh. These huge monsters could be heard howling in the forest on winter nights and were said to have powerful dark magic, but wild wendigo spirits outside in the wind were only half the story. If a person broke the ultimate Algonquian taboo, and decided to prefer cannibalism to starvation, he or she would begin to turn into a Wendigo. After eating human flesh, a person’s humanity would disappear and their heart would become cold. No food could slake a wendigo’s appetite except for human meat (and even that could not be eaten in sufficient quantity to fill up). Monsters of unnatural appetite, these transformed wendigos would bring death and ruin to all other people unless they fled into the wilderness or were killed by a medicine person.
It is here that the wendigo myth is most fascinating, but most muddled. In the wilds of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and central Canada, the frontier authorities of the nineteenth century sometimes ran across wendigo murders. Most famously a Cree trapper killed and ate his family although he was not far from provisions. Another shaman was tried and executed for traveling the countryside killing people suspected of being wendigos. The anthropology community of the day was fascinated by this sort of thing and proclaimed “wendigo psychosis” to be a real thing–although the fact that the “condition” was localized to a particular time and place (and has never more been seen since) makes it seem more like a made-up mental illness for popularizing horrifying stories.
If wendigo psychosis has mercifully gone away, wendigos themselves have gone mainstream. A wendigo with the power of resurrection was the (terrifying) villain of one of Steven King’s scariest novels and the hungry winter spirits have proliferated ever since in cartoons, movies, and scary literature. What could be scarier than the empty woods in winter or an empty larder?
Today I am uncharacteristically writing about a current social issue in American politics–the controversy over U.S. Health and Human Services mandate on contraceptive coverage which has erupted over the course of the last fortnight.
For anybody reading this from the remote future (which will be next week, considering our 24 hour news cycle), the dispute can be summarized as follows. The current presidential administration attempted to compel religious (particularly Catholic) schools, hospitals, and charities in the United States to provide health insurance which covers contraception for their employees. These institutions balked at this demand, claiming that the president was trampling on their freedom of religion (Catholics authorities indeed have a well-documented history of objecting to people being able to make health choices and moral decisions for themselves). Since it is an election year, the president seems to have backed down.
There has been a great deal written about this from different political/moral/religious perspectives and it is already the subject of much posturing and political theater. Leaving aside the obvious boon which effective contraception provides for individuals and for society (and the fact that the vast majority of American women, whatever their religion, use some form of contraception), I don’t intend to write about the dust-up per se. If the Catholic Church wishes to force women back to a benighted era of limited reproductive freedom, well, they can make that their (abusive and wrong-headed) position [although the Church has argued that these hospitals, charities, and schools are not solely religious whenever questions of public funding and government assistance have arisen]. There are ways around it, and it doesn’t seem like a long-term winning strategy.
I am troubled instead by the implicit assumptions about health insurance and healthcare which are revealed by this controversy.
The religious (and quasi-religious) organizations claim to be angry because they are forced to pay for a service which is against their conscience. This implies that they are paying for the service! Whatever employers claim, health insurance is really ultimately paid for by employees. It is part of compensation. This is one of the reasons that wages have stagnated in the United States for such a long time. Our salaries are not rising because our health care costs are going up. There is a strong incentive not to leave a job which provides health insurance because an employee can not be guaranteed to find coverage elsewhere, particularly if that employee has a pre-existing condition or works in a field with limited employment options (which is pretty much every field). Ideally all employees adversely affected by the Church’s paternalistic overreach would quit and move to new jobs. Raise your hand if you think that is likely or even possible.
Health costs are rising precipitously while health outcomes are getting worse. People are understandably afraid to leave their jobs in search of better options or to start businesses of their own. The stagnation of job mobility is hurting the American economy and society as a whole.
The reason that people should be mad is not because health insurance allows Catholic institutions coercive control over the lives of people who work for them. People should be angry because the structure of health care in this country gives all large employers an undue hold on the people who work for them. Americans are becoming vassals of their employers thanks to perverse incentives of a broken healthcare system.
For Saint Valentine’s Day here is a collection of “sailor’s valentines”. These were ostensibly a form of nautical art—like scrimshaw–created by old sea dogs in the days of canvas and manilla. On the long voyages the grizzled sailors would tenderly glue shells together in wooden (particularly octagonal cases) to give to their family and sweethearts when they returned to port. There is something appealing about this picture–but seashells come from shore. Additionally one wonders how much craft space sailors were allowed in the age of wind.
A counter narrative has arisen that sailors would buy these shell designs from a merchant in Barbados who was responsible for most of the early examples. Once the idea became popular, artisans began to make the little seashell mosaics at home. To be honest, I can picture my great-grandmother at a table filled with shells and glue much more easily than I can sea Captain Haddock putting together something like this. Whatever the case, the carefully arranged shells create delicate and lovely little artworks. Even if they were not made by sailors or given at Valentine’s Day, I am repurposing them as a valentine to all of my readers!
I seriously contemplated joining the nationwide protest against internet censorship by blacking out my blog for a day. As far as I understand them, the SOPA and PIPA bills are flawed bills, which, like most congressionally mandated regulation, necessitate huge unwieldy compliance requirements. This benefits giant corporations (which can afford whole wings of lawyers, testers, and bureaucrats) while effectively crushing smaller players. As a toy manufacturer, I recognize this strategy!
However there is a self-crucifying element to today’s internet strike which reminds me of melodramatic high school logic: “If adversaries want to hurt me or take advantage of me, then I’ll hurt myself worse!” Yeah, that’ll show ‘em.
So instead of blacking out my site, I am advocating a more direct strategy. All American voters should utilize our democracy more intelligently and simply vote against all incumbents this year. I know that most of my American readers are somberly nodding their heads and thinking, “That’s right, everyone else should vote out the crooked elected officials whom they have stupidly chosen…but not me. My elected officials are greedy and self-serving–but they do look after this district and they are better than the alternatives.” This article summarizes how most American voters feel exactly that way. Argh!
To illustrate my point, here is an anecdote involving my grandmother, who is one of the toughest & most all-American mavericks I know. Grandma ran a bar in the small wild town in West Virginia where my family is from. She kept a .357 under the bar and a profane quip on the tip of her tongue and generally exemplified all-American concepts of personal freedom.
When I was in high school I remember talking with Grandma about the county sheriff of that era. Grandma thought the sheriff was both incompetent and crooked. She gave me a long (and compelling) list of reasons to believe these claims. Appalled, I inquired how the sheriff obtained his job. She said he was elected! Problem solved!
“Just vote against him, Grandma,” I earnestly advised.
“That’s impossible!” she snapped.
“Well is the other guy even more corrupt?” I asked (my mind boggling at the concept of such a bad cop).
“No, he’s a republican,” she replied.
Just fill in the blanks differently and that is how everyone feels. We have all been carefully districted and gerrymandered into such a shape that it is almost impossible for the candidate from the other party to win in your district. It’s supremely difficult for a lot of us to even think about voting for the other candidate. But if we all did we would suddenly have a congress full of socially progressive republicans and fiscally conservative democrats
I don’t know a great deal about my current congressional incumbent, Yvette Clarke, because I just moved. All I can say is it looks like she takes most of her donations from public sector unions, lawyers’ associations, and health care professionals and…you know what, that’s enough for me. I want her out. And I have long disliked New York’s senior senator, Chuck Schumer–his staffers never even wrote back to me about toy legislation. They could have at least sent me a photo and a sticker (although both NY Senators just got reelected in 2010 so it’ll be a while before I can vote against him again). Courageously join me! You don’t have to shut down your website. Just vote against whoever is in office during the election of 2012. Most elected officials probably don’t even know what an internet is, but they have heard of voters. We’ll have internet freedom in no time flat. Or even better, we’ll be free of the wretched clowns who are ruining the country.