Friday, January 02, 2015

Turtle Acupuncture in Orion Magazine Sept/Oct 2014

For a while now, I've been fascinated by the work of Claire McManus, an acupuncturist whose patients have included dogs, bongos and warthogs. I spent an afternoon with her at the New England Aquarium's Rescue and Rehabilitation center to watch her treat sea turtles.

In the Sept/Oct 2014 issue, Orion Magazine published my story about turtle acupuncture. I'm pretty flattered to be published in Orion -- it's a beautifully produced magazine focused on nature and environmental issues with some heavy hitting contributors and advisors. It first caught my eye when I read an article by Sy Montgomery about octopi.

My own article is not available on Orion's website, but I'm posting it here:

Reptile Recovery

his shoulder. He lies on a table, his belly
placed on a clean white towel, while Claire
McManus, a specialist working with Dexter’s
primary care-giver, Dr. Charlie Innis,
palpates his limbs, pressing her fingers
gently along his skin to locate the bones
and muscles underneath. The lights in
the room are turned down to relax the patient,
and McManus pulls a small needle,
the width of a human hair, from its sterile
package. Carefully, she taps one into Dexter.
A dozen more will be placed into his
head and limbs.

“Unfortunately, we can’t get to his
back,” McManus says.

Dexter’s shell makes that impossible.

Claire McManus is an acupuncturist,
and today she is working at the New
England Aquarium’s rescue and rehabilitation
center, where Dr. Innis is the
aquarium’s head of veterinary medicine
and a specialist on sea turtles. Innis
doesn’t believe that Dexter’s occasional
movements are signs that the needles
cause him any pain. “Even if you’re not
[performing acupuncture],” he says,
“they’re as active as he’s being now. They
definitely don’t withdraw their flipper
like they would if it was a larger needle.”

McManus emphasizes that her practice
is not “alternative medicine,” because
it is not mutually exclusive with Western
medicine. In this case, the procedure is
a complementary therapy, working alongside
science to aid in healing. Or, as Dr.
Innis puts it, “Doesn’t matter what works
as long as the animals improve and can
be released to the wild.”

Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese
medical practice based on the regulation
of the flow of qi through the body.
In humans, pressure points have been
mapped out, each corresponding to a
specific area of the body. “A lot of them
overlap with muscle bundles and when
these pathways are blocked, there’s some
sort of imbalance or pain,” says McManus.
“It could be difficulty moving a limb,
depression, anxiety—it could be a whole
range of things from something physical
to something emotional.”

Dexter can’t tell us if his trauma is
mental as well as physiological—for all
we know, it might be both. Members of
Dexter’s species, the Kemp’s ridley sea
turtle, are born on beaches in Mexico
and travel up and down the East Coast of
North America following warm currents.
Unfortunately, Cape Cod juts east into the
Atlantic and acts like a giant barrier, confusing
and trapping southbound turtles in
Massachusetts Bay. Most years, anywhere
from 30 to 80 of these endangered turtles
are found stranded on New England
beaches and tended to by the aquarium’s
rescue and rehab department. The winter
of 2012 to 2013 was a particularly bad season,
with 242 turtles brought to the aquarium
and more than 100 others found
dead on shore. Many rescued turtles are
treated by the aquarium staff and released
within weeks, while others stay as long as
a year and a half. When regular veterinary
medicines are not working, the aquarium
sometimes calls in outside help.

“When they called me, I did a little
online research and found a rehab place
in Israel, where a vet had treated turtles,”
McManus says. “I talked to them about
styles of needling, gauges of the needles
they would use. There is a small community
of researchers and vets out there who
are doing this kind of work.”

The first time she treated a turtle, McManus
asked one of the veterinary assistants
how she would know if the turtle
was going to bite her. “He said, ‘He’ll
do this,’” and then mimed a slow motion
turn of the head and opening of the
jaw. If a turtle tries to bite, she was told,
“You’ve got a lot of reaction time.”

More and more animals—both wild
and domestic—are seeing acupuncturists.
Numbers are hard to come by, but
major veterinary schools like those at
Tufts and Cornell offer some acupuncture
training to students who request it.
Anatomical maps of acupuncture points,
like those used for the human body, are
being created for animals too, especially
domestic livestock. Chinese practitioners
have made charts for dogs, horses, camels,
and elephants. “You and I aren’t all
that different, structurally, from a dog,”
McManus explains. “We all have femurs,
tibia, all the same bones and a lot of the
same muscles.”

After about twenty minutes, McManus
removes the needles from Dexter,
five from each limb and two from his
head. Since his treatment started a
week ago his appetite has increased; the
acupuncture seems to be working. Following
the procedure, Dexter returns to
his tank, where Dr. Innis will monitor
his progress and, eventually, release
him back into the ocean. With luck, he
will live a long life and never set foot on
land again.

This article originally appeared in Orion.

Proper Citation:
Cheng, Jack "Reptile Recovery," Orion Magazine 33:4, Sept/Oct 2014, p. 12-13

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Parent Child Romantic Comedy

I recently identified a new genre of movie, the Parent-Child Romantic Comedy, and an analysis of these films helped me understand something about being a parent.

My essay was published on the New York Times Motherlode blog here:

Second favorite reaction to my essay: "That was yours? I saw that in a friend's Facebook status."

Favorite reaction: "I liked your essay; it made me realize what a terrible parent I am."

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Roomnet

The Boston Globe Connections column yesterday printed my essay on my experience away from the Internet, forced to actually connect with the other people in my presence to learn anything -- and enjoying it. I coined a phrase to describe the collected brainpower in a room: the Roomnet.
Earlier this year, an archaeological dig took me to a rural part of the world with spotty Internet service. In this village, it came through cell towers, but the signal was weak and shared by hundreds of people. So functionally, I lived without the Internet. 
Researchers have written about how video games and the Internet have changed our brains. My time on the dig required a reboot of my pre-Internet brain. This earlier brain, I quickly realized, was not without resources: Lacking digital search engines, I still had the “Roomnet.” Just as the Internet is the collective intelligence (or lack thereof) of a few billion people, the Roomnet is the collective intelligence of everyone in a given room. 
Read more
I love the illustration by Gracia Lam that accompanied the piece:

Friday, October 17, 2014

Rise of the Black Pharoahs

While in Sudan earlier this year, a film crew from National Geographic came to El Kurru to document our work and interview the dig director, Geoff Emberling. The fruits of their labor aired on PBS on October 1 as "Rise of the Black Pharaohs."

Here's the PBS description:

About the ProgramThe Egypt of the Great Pyramids, the Sphinx, and the Valley of the Kings was an empire of indomitable might. Then, around 800 BC, the impossible happened. Kush, a subject kingdom from the south, rose up and conquered Egypt, enthroned its own Pharaohs, and ruled for nearly 100 years.
These were the mysterious Black Pharaohs of what is today Sudan—the Nubian kings—whose reign has become legendary among Africans and written off as heresy by early archaeologists who refused to believe that dark skinned Africans could have risen so high.
But now, in the heart of Sudan, exciting new archaeological finds are revealing the truth about the great Kush dynasty. A sacred mountain holds the key to the Kush kings’ spiritual claim on the Egyptian throne; stunning statues are providing details about the true color of their skin and their long and prosperous reign; and a long-hidden tomb complex is shedding light on the trappings of their royalty and the extent of their empire.

As of this writing, Rise of the Black Pharaohs is streaming online here:

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Sudanese Hug Revisited

In January, the Boston Globe Magazine published an essay I wrote about my friendship with Mahmoud, a Sudanese archaeologist, and a greeting I had never seen before, the Sudanese Hug.

The basic gesture is a right handed pat on another person’s left shoulder while they do the same to you. The Sudanese Hug is more formal than an embrace, but conveys more warmth than a handshake. In fact, with good friends you might start with an embrace, greet each other while giving the Sudanese Hug, and end with a handshake.

I went back to Sudan this spring for an archaeological project and it was fun to revisit The Hug.

I watched families greet one another with it at the airport, and kept my eye out for it on the journey north to the dig site.

At the site, a Sudanese archaeologist friend named Mortada sauntered up to me and gave a stylish side glancing brush to my shoulder, rather than the squarely vertical downward pat that is the norm. “You remember the Sudanese hug, don’t you?” he asked me. Sure I did, but I had never seen it delivered in such a suave, cool way.

After our dig season was over, we went to visit Mahmoud at his home in Khartoum. I was happy to be able to give him a paper copy of the magazine so he could see the article in print.

“You know,” he told me, “a lot of Sudanese have seen this article online.” Apparently, English speaking Sudanese had passed the link around to their friends. What prompted this popularity? “It’s not often that the international news has something about Sudan that is positive, instead of bad news.”

Mahmoud’s sister, the matriarch of his family, came in. Mahmoud introduced each of us in turn, and then pointing at me, he said, “I introduce Jack with just two words: ‘Sudanese Hug.’”

A huge smile spread across her face and she raised her hands in astonishment. “Mashallah! You wrote that? It’s special to Sudan!” Another Sudanese woman I know in the United States had made the same point: the hug was such a natural part of her physical vocabulary that she didn’t think about it as a cultural phenomenon from her home country.

In fact, I had contacted a few anthropologists who work in Sudan and neighboring countries in northern and eastern Africa and they all commented that The Hug was a uniquely Sudanese phenomenon.

Mahmoud told me that he had heard from strangers who read the article and used some internet sleuthing to piece together that he was the archaeologist I had written about. They wanted to know that the story was true and that he was a real person. Old friends and family also wrote to confirm his identity -- “This is about you, right?” His favorite response came from a cousin who was working in the Persian Gulf. “This must be you. Now I know that you must be doing drugs or something with the foreigners you work with -- you are having too much fun.”

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Smart People by Lydia Diamond

My wife thought Smart People by Lydia Diamond was going to be one of those plays where four people sit around and talk. According to the ads, they would be talking about privilege and ambition and race. She was right for about 5 minutes.

The opening four person dinner party ended mid-scene. Then we were transported back a year to meet all the characters. Brian White is a white professor at Harvard who seems to have found a biological reason for racism. Ginny Yang is a MacArthur Fellow at the university who practices as a clinical psychologist and is doing research on young Asian women. Jackson Moore is Brian's best (only?) friend, a black doctor still in training. Valerie Johnston is an aspiring African-American actress.

They meet, they mate, they talk.

The play is structured very cinematically with lots of quick cuts between scenes, sometimes alternating between scenes that are staged on different areas of the versatile set. Much of the play is written as dialogues, between characters or, in many cases between one of the quartet and an unseen other. Jackson has an argument with his supervisor, for example, but we only hear his side of the story; similarly we hear Ginny's part of a discussion with a shopkeeper about honoring a coupon. Eventually we get back to the dinner party and see what happens afterwards.

The central subject of the play is race, and there are lots of interesting permutations and observations throughout. Ginny complains when the others think of race as "black and white" and excludes myriad others. Brian, studying race, does not use Asian subjects because they're complicated. (Agreed; I just got a Federal form and under race, the "Asian" menu included: Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Pacific Islander... and a Chinese-American whose ancestors worked the laundries in San Francisco is very different from the guy who moved here from Shanghai 5 years ago.)

There's pushback on Brian from the university and his friends. Brian thinks his research will force people to confront and deal with their inherent racism. But does proving racism is biological excuse people for being racist? What sort of racial feeling does a parent with an adopted child of another race have? 

The acting was all very good, and I thought Miranda Craigwell as Valerie was a standout. It may be that she had some of the best lines and a broad range to play: comic, romantic, provocateur and as an actor on an audition trying some different ways to play a character.

The characters find themselves in situations that force the audience to reconcile with their racial context. Jackson loses his temper at work: angry black man or just an angry guy? Ginny has a weird shopping addiction (Imelda Marcos-like?). In the situations where we hear only their side of a conversation, the audience is co-opted into playing the part of hospital administrator, or clothing store clerk. We judge them, and it's clear from how they respond that they feel judged. 

I found the play a bit too ambitious. I respect the endeavor, but I think the subject matter is so vast that many of the intriguing observations got short shrift and ended up being fairly shallow. That said, the story is entertaining and the play will likely start lots of conversations as viewers pick up the threads left dangling by the characters.

Ultimately the show does a good job of showing how race is a context in every situation while portraying four individuals dealing with those situations. Currently, it's also a bit long at over 2 hours plus intermission. There's lots of good material here and if Diamond edits and shapes it, I think the show will improve.

Smart People is a Huntington Theater production currently playing at the Calderwood Pavillion in the South End

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

The Barber of Aleppo

I discovered a cool online magazine called The Weeklings. They publish one essay a day about culture, from music to movies and comics, to someone's random musings on the Syrian Civil War. Last Thursday, those random musings were mine:
I’ve been thinking a lot about the Arab man who held a sharp razor to my throat. I hope he’s okay. 
My first trip to Syria was in 1998. I had somehow managed to convince the new director of excavations at Tell Brak that I could do all the illustrations, photography and database management he would need. We (that it so say, I) made some mistakes but we cobbled together a successful season that spring.
Read the rest here.