The Salamander

The word ‘salamander’ today often brings to mind something slimy and wet with very little concern for its own limbs.  After all, it can regrow limbs and other body parts at need.  So an individual arm or leg or even liver would not have the same value to it as these irreplaceable parts do to us.  For quite some time, this ability has been under investigation by the medical community.  After all, what person whose lost a hand wouldn’t give the world to get it back?  There have even been studies (which I know of only from hearsay – I haven’t read the research myself) that the human body originally has this regrowth ability.  Children under the age of five have been known to regrow pinkies – at least those that are cut above the second knuckle.

It seems somewhat realistic then that current medicine hopes to encourage our own stem cells to regrow body parts at least partially today.  While I am a little hesitant to endorse anything named ‘pixie dust’ and made from pig products, it’s still an interesting idea.  I would like to be able to encourage my cells to grow wings so I can fly.  Or at least a useful third arm.

Pixie dust and extra limbs aside, there are other connotations for salamanders that have grown up from misconceptions about the animal that I find intriguing.  Salamanders are named to be fire creature, created from flame, animals that live in intense heat and have the ability to cool fires.  Modern science calls them amphibians, living at least part of their lives in the water, and suspects that the whole fire idea came from rotting logs put on the flames that sent the creatures who lived there skittering out.  According to modern science, they secrete a milky substance when in danger, which may have kept them from being baked crispy by the flames.  But is this really the truth behind their legend?

We may all disparage people in the past, but I find it hard to believe that even the Greeks were without basic concepts of fire building.  A damply rotting log does not burn well.  An amphibian doesn’t usually try to live in a drying-out piece of rot, where its food source has probably already died out.  Be that as it may, there’s a certain attraction regarding any animal said to be born of fire.  Other associations of the word regard soldiers and chaste women.  The soldiers are exemplified for exposing themselves to the heat of the most intense combat; the women, for remaining pure when surrounded by the fires of temptation.  There’s even a verb form in the OED – ‘to live amist fire, like the salamander’.  It reminds me of the proverb about ‘interesting times’ – to live, surrounded by rage and pain and all the other downfalls of society and peril, and still to be a green and glowing thing.  Whether born of fire or pond, the salamander is still a form of renewal and growth and life.

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Houston, we’ve lost the balloon.

I wrote recently about Fournier’s upcoming attempt to break all kinds of records with his stratospheric balloon dive.  Alas, he was again thwarted by events out of his control.  Someone let go of the balloon that was supposed to help him attain such heights, and now they’re running all over Canada, trying to recover it.  While anger may be somewhat justifiable in this case, it’s in situations such as these (i.e, thw thwarting of lifetime goals) that more mature men get super-cranky.  I wouldn’t want to be in the shoes of the guy who lost his grip, or forgot to check that the big balloon was properly secured.

But really, in the end, what has Fournier lost?  A multi-million dollar balloon?  Perhaps.  But he still has his life.  And all his other equipment.  He can always try, try again.  And hey, even if he doesn’t succeed in the next decade, there’s always Everest.  By that time, he might even break the record for oldest man getting to the summit.

Driving to town only once a day? It’s crazy!

CNN recently published an article following the fall in ‘drivership’ due to rising gas prices.  Over Memorial Day weekend, people drove less than in the previous year, many opting for a ‘staycation’ or a cookout in the back yard rather than an hours-long trek to someplace else.  Even more people were opting for public transportation to combat rising gas prices.  At long last, people are being reasonable and actually thinking through their driving.  Of course, it’s only because not thinking is hitting them where it hurts most – their wallets – but I’m willing to take what I can get.

The cultural mindset we have about driving can best be seen in one woman’s change of plans – she comments on the ridiculousness of her new habits of catching rides with friends and only going into town once a day, which she calls crazy.  Maybe I’m cheap and/or don’t currently own a car, but I always like to catch rides with friends.  And most weeks, since I work outside the city, I don’t go in more than once a week.

We expect, as Americans, to be able to drive.  We expect to own at least one car, and possibly more than one.  We expect to someday own our own homes – and look where that’s got us.  We expect to be able to afford and be justified in cross-country trips to see family and friends or just to tour famous sites.  We expect to drive our cars to and from work every day, and to every little errand, whether two blocks or two miles away.  Personally I hope gas prices stay high until we know our expectations are unrealistic.  It may take a long time.