Category Archives: science

A total and degrading rush.

jeweled pillbox

Friends of mine were chatting over tea this week about how, if your neighbors are actively cooking up crystal meth in their garage, it creates a strong chemical smell that will accost you when you’re strolling by. In my neighborhood we have been aware of more than one such small industry in the last 30 years, but I didn’t know about the strong “flavor” that might have been wafting down the street back then.

Our conversation reminded me to tell about a book I read last month, on the subject of drug use in Nazi Germany. Normal Ohler’s book Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich, published five years ago, is not the first that has ever been written on the subject, but it’s the only one I’m likely to read. The story about how I came to delve into that depressing topic is a meandering one; I’ll return to it another time.

As I read in a brief interview with the author: A Fresh Light on the Nazis’ Wartime Drug Addiction, the original German title of the book is Der totale Rausch, or “Total Rush,” a play on the phrase “total war” that the Nazis used. The first substance discussed in the book is Pervitin, a drug that contains methamphetamine, which by the late 1930’s people all over Germany were using like coffee, to boost their energy. “Pervitin became a symptom of the developing performance society. Boxed chocolates spiked with methamphetamine were even put on the market. A good 14 milligrams of methamphetamine was included in each individual portion — almost five times the amount in a Pervitin pill.”

Soon it was being distributed to German soldiers in large quantities to help them stay awake for days at a time. Official records on how many millions of pills were manufactured and delivered to the troops during the war years, and references in correspondence and official directives, all testify to how pervasive the use of this addictive upper was. One military report after the invasion of Poland in 1939: “Everyone fresh and cheerful, excellent discipline. Slight euphoria and increased thirst for action. Mental encouragement, very stimulated. No accidents. Long-lasting effect. After taking four tablets, double vision and seeing colors.”

Music is sometimes really a great consolation to me
(not forgetting Pervitin, which provides a wonderful service —
particularly during air raids at night).
-Heinrich Böll

At first it was considered a medicine, but after the Reich health officer Leonardo Conti warned that the use of Pervitin was actually “terrible abuse being practiced in the widest circles of the population,” in 1941 it was outlawed, and from then until the end of the war only military doctors had access to it. Conti kept speaking out, but he was fighting a losing battle. The military found the stimulant essential, in spite of it not being in line with the Nazi propaganda about the superior Aryan race being morally superior and physically fit, certainly not drug users.

Either you give up smoking or you give up me.
-Adolf Hitler to Eva Braun

Theodor Morell on the right.

Hitler himself, however, needed something to boost his own performance, and he became increasingly dependent on the pills and injections provided by his personal doctor, Theodor Morell. Ohler concludes that Eukodal (oxycodone, OxyContin) was Morell’s narcotic of choice for his patient, and maybe it was the most destructive one in the long term; but from the doctor’s detailed notes Ohler calculated that Hitler, listed as “Patient A,” was given “methamphetamines, steroids and other substances 800 times in 1349 days, and took 1100 pills.” The eventual challenge of finding a fresh injection site was also noted.

You must be healthy, you must stay away
from that which poisons your bodies.
We need a sober people!
In future the German will be judged entirely
by the works of his mind and the strength of his health.
-Adolf Hitler

Norman Ohler

In the interview linked above, Ohler recounts: “Hitler loved Eukodal. Especially in the fall of 1944, when the military situation was quite bad, he used this strong drug that made him euphoric even when reality wasn’t looking euphoric at all. The generals kept telling him: ‘We need to change our tactics. We need to end this. We are going to lose the war.’ And he didn’t want to hear it. He had Dr. Morell give him the drugs that made him feel invulnerable and on top of the situation.'”

When Germany did indeed begin to lose the war, and supplies of drugs dwindled, then Hitler may have suspected what was happening to him, and that he was going through withdrawal. Descriptions of his last days are painfully graphic:

“At six o’clock in the morning, after the military briefing, during which he had fumbled ceaselessly with his empty pillbox, Patient A lay completely exhausted and apathetic on a small sofa, filled only with the single thought that the best meal of the day was on its way: a mug of hot chocolate and cakes, three plates full of them. Sugar was the final drug: one more minute release of dopamine, one more small reward for the soul. Those bright blue eyes, once so hypnotic, were now dull. Crumbs stuck to his purple lips: a sweet-eating human ruin wrapped in slack skin. His body felt numb, as if he were no longer present in it. His temperature was always high. Every so often he’d go into the oxygen tent.”

You have all agreed that you want to turn me into a sick man.
-Adolf Hitler

Before I read this book, I had no idea about the use of stimulant drugs in the wars of the 20th century. Evidently the British and American forces also made use of amphetamines, primarily the somewhat less harmful Benzedrine. In the Korean War soldiers concocted an injectable mixture of amphetamine and heroin and called it the speedball.

The only military drug-use-abuse I’d heard of was in Syria, where I.S.I.S. was giving drugs including the amphetamine Captagon to soldiers, who reported  that it  “gives you great courage and power.” It helped explain how they could make human boys into killing machines.

A long time ago I came across some discussion of military history that I think must have originated with S.L.A. Marshall and his book, Men Against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command. He concluded from studying multiple wars that fewer than 25% of soldiers ever fire at the enemy, and he thought that part of the reason was, they did not want to kill their fellow humans: “He will not…take life if it is possible to turn away from that responsibility, and at the vital point, he becomes a conscientious objector.” Many people discredit his particular research data, but his conclusions have been confirmed by other studies going back to the 18th century.

I don’t know if he compared the firing ratio of different cultures and nations, or considered their possible intake of mind-altering substances; but considering that humans are made in the image of God, I do believe that deep down we are averse to killing. The concoctions of drugs that contribute to the alienation of men from their true natures, at the same time injuring their beautiful bodies, are a regrettable accomplishment of modern technology.

The real war will never get in the books.
-Walt Whitman

The challenges of reality.

“There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the wisdom of earlier ages. For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious—such as digging up and mutilating the dead.”

-C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man

Joanna and the sleeping bees.

It felt very coastal this morning with high fog and chill breeze. Along the front walk where I have allowed a volunteer sunflower to grow in the middle of the germander, one flower was close enough for me to notice the cluster of bees.

How did they happen to all bed down for the night on that one flower? Were they even alive? A half-hour later on my way to the car to drive to church I stopped by again; one or two had left, and the others had shifted position, but were quite motionless. About noon, not one remained. [Update: the next morning they were back, and after watching them off and on for an hour, I think they are not bees, but hoverflies. I’ve mistaken them for bees before.] [UPDATE No. 2: I was right the first time. They are bees. They fold their wings over each other, but flies leave theirs splayed out. I think I’ve learned this more than once, on a site such as Beekeeping Like a Girl. And other differences…]

Today was the day we celebrated St. Joanna, and it was also the meeting of our parish women’s book group — in my garden! The weather was as perfect as could be for that. Our group of six included several gardeners who didn’t sit down until we’d discussed borage and the borage flowers hanging into the pathway. The bees draw your attention to them! I quickly dug up a few of the many little borage volunteers for a couple of women to take home later.

It just so happened I had made two trays of borage ice cubes and it was time for me to add them to the lemonade so we could start talking about Frankenstein.

The table where we sat is near my garden icon stand with the stone icon of Christ’s mother; for the day’s commemoration I nestled a TV tray under the olive tree to hold a few more icons. You can read here why I included St. John the Baptist among them.

Early in our talk about Frankenstein I showed the group this adaptation of the novel that had been given to me, and it got passed around the table so that everyone could take a look at the illustrations.

We had a lively discussion about elements of the story, and also concerning ethical questions about the uses of science that are still pertinent in our day. I read only a few lines to the group from this article in the current issue of The New Atlantis about recent questionable experiments.

Various of the readers in our group knew more than I about the historical and philosophical context in which Frankenstein was written, which made it a pleasure to be with them and muse about much more than what had impressed me personally. I think we all were glad to have read the book, especially those who before had only known the movies, but no one exactly loved it.

It didn’t have a satisfying ending, in that, as our moderator said, she had hoped for redemption and there was none. We all agreed it was too long and repetitive. Several women said they definitely wanted to read something “lighter” next time. What constitutes a light novel? Here are the (not necessarily light) possibilities we had brought with us. As we went around the table making our suggestions, it seemed to me that the enthusiasm mounted with each one.

  1. A Long Walk with Mary by Brandi Schreiber
  2. My Cousin Rachel by Daphne De Maurier
  3. The Giver by Lois Lowry
  4. Shades of Milk and Honey
  5. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
  6. The Scent of Water by Elizabeth Goudge

My Cousin Rachel and The Giver were deemed too heavy. Milk and Honey didn’t engender any discussion, and I was personally torn between Potato Peel Society and Scent. Several had already read Potato Peel so they were leaning toward Scent; I was the only one who had read it, and I told them what I loved about Goudge’s books generally. A Long Walk with Mary seemed like a good one to read during our Orthodox Dormtion Fast.

So, we voted in a very informal way, and decided that in six weeks we will meet again and discuss two books: The Scent of Water and A Long Walk with Mary.

Before everyone went home, we toured the other side of my garden, and I told them about acanthus and why I used to not like it, but now I do. The acanthus is more beautiful than ever, its spires taller, and in their prime right now. My 24 lavender bushes are at the height of bloom, too. We got to hear from our sheep farmer lady how she made lavender simple syrup to use in cool summer drinks.

How sweet it was to have these friends to be with me for my name day. After they were gone, there was still lemonade left in the pitcher, and floating among the melting ice cubes, the lemon-bleached borage blossoms.

We drink and breathe in Mumbai.

Nine of us sat down one day in a very popular restaurant where everything looked clean and spiffy, even the classy uniforms of these waiters who were in abundance to meet our needs. Kate’s (American) Indian friend who was visiting from Saudi Arabia brought us to this place because they had the wonderful South Indian food, different from the Punjabi fare you typically get in the U.S., they say.

While we began to look at the menus, glasses of water arrived on our tables — but were sent back to the kitchen immediately by our host with instructions to bring us bottled water. The glasses were removed, and a couple of liter bottles were brought. The same glasses came back, having been emptied but with drops of water clinging to the insides.

So all our party without comment grabbed paper napkins and began drying the glasses thoroughly, after which we filled them with the good water. Maybe the restaurant water was good, too, but who knows? Water quality is one of the things critical to health that is not reliable in India.

In this household we have a large distiller with a tap from which we take all of our water that is used for cooking, drinking, and teeth brushing. For a month I have been practicing not doing the thing I’ve done once or twice a day my whole life through, to the point where I don’t think about it at all: Turn on the faucet in the bathroom and wet my toothbrush. Now I have to think about it with all my power, and be methodical and slow. So far I don’t think I’ve forgotten, in the bathroom. Then there is the kitchen. Even though the distiller is right there, I have once or twice begun to rinse vegetables in tap water at the sink.

Talking about washing things, we do wash dishes in the sink with that common water, and use them again when they are dry. The kitchen here has one of those handy drying cupboards above the sink.

Breathing is a human activity even more fundamental than drinking, and I have always had a generally healthy respiratory system, and have not stopped breathing without thinking, or comfortably. But if you have asthma, it would be best not to live in Mumbai or Delhi.

For most of my stay the air quality has been typical for wintertime when there are no monsoons to wash the air — that is, the worst. My first week here we took a little trip to the Bandra Fort area where you can look across Mahim Bay to see South Mumbai on the other side of the causeway. Sometimes, but not that day. Tom found an old photo to show the contrast with last June.

Tom and AQI contrast

I got my own view of South Mumbai across the bay last week, and it was middling.

I’d guess the air pollution is the worst thing about living in Mumbai. Heat and humidity are forces to be dealt with, but they are not unhealthy in themselves. The particulates in the air cause respiratory illness and worse. Most days when I see it the Air Quality Index is between 100-200, but a few times it’s been under 100. This site www.aqicn.org starts you in India, but has a search tab that makes it possible to compare various cities of the world that use that particular formula and guide. Here is one of the pages pertaining to Mumbai showing real time information this afternoon when I am writing.

If you haven’t had to be aware of the AQI where you live, you can be thankful! Many Indians who live in Mumbai have their head in the sand about the situation and call the white skies “fog” — because what can they do? In Delhi, where children have been seen throwing up out of school bus windows and schools must close on the worst days, they can’t so easily ignore the realities. I haven’t seen anyone wear a mask, and I haven’t worn the cute one that Kate provided for me as a good expat host must do here. But then, I am not out and about for more than a few hours at a time. When I am, I notice my eyes burning.

In the apartment we have several air purifiers, so we don’t suffer while we’re home. Air conditioners keep the temperature down, and dehumidifiers reduce the moisture  in the air that would cause everything to get moldy during the monsoon especially. Even in this dry season, the one in my bedroom sometimes collects a gallon of water in less than a week. These helpful machines collectively emit plenty of white noise, which people living in cities usually count a good thing.

The difficulties of air and water were some of the stresses I was anticipating coming here, but I have suffered little, for which I am very thankful. Water and air — what simple and delicious blessings they are!