Well. . .  A terribly long time has passed since my last update.

A few months into this period of radio silence, the little voices started getting noisy; the electronic messages, and the ones from flesh and blood.  "When will there be an update?  I really enjoy reading about the things that happen to you!  You must do another update."

And after another few months, "Are you still there? Are you okay?  Oh, no!  I think something might have happened to Mark!"

A few somethings, actually.  In any case, there have been a few reasons I've not been reporting myself to the world as frequently as usual.  This last year has been a rather energetic one, to say the least.  It seems to me that every week of the last 52 or so has held an upheaval or dramatic event of some sort, all of which have been well worth writing about in their own ways.  I have been finding however, that my shield and armor against the world, my word processor, while the keys have been dutifully clacking away, the comforting effect this usually brings me has been reduced of late almost to nil.  I've been getting involved in the material a great deal more than I usually do.

When I was younger, all the experiences of the universal drama of life I dealt with by distancing myself.  Become a writer!  Everything, no matter how hard or painful is really just another writing exercise.  A study in human behavior.  "I am an observer."

Well, you grow out of that eventually, (if you're lucky).  In this way, being a writer is childish as hell.  I write fantasy?  Hm.  You don't say?

So things have been fascinating these past months.  Perhaps life has always been like this and I've just never noticed.  In any case, I feel like my learning has been an exponential kind of thing of late, filled with everything from smatterings of the normal human trivia, like love and relationships and such, as well as some rather more original turns of life, all mixed up together.

Most recently, (at the writing of this), my youngest brother came back from Somalia for a week.  He's a soldier.  In this strange age of ours, very few people I think know exactly what it means to be 'army'.  Ever since the world got big, war has been a confusing, fetid, political thing.  But my brother seems to be healthy and happy, and he's going to marry a girl he met in the service.  The only woman on his base.  And she's really neat!  Pretty, too.  That's my brother, catching the heart of the only woman living with two thousand other men in crew cuts.

I have a somewhat strained relationship with my family.  That is, I don't have much of one at all.  Every second year or so, I might see some of them during the holidays.  Other members I see almost never.  I have fewer ties to family than anybody else I know.  I realize that this is far from abnormal, so I'm sure there are those of you out there who know just how lonely it can be around holidays when all your friends head off to family nests and leave you bumping around an empty house or apartment; Gifts sitting wrapped on your bed with nobody to give them to until boxing day.  You can get to feeling like a Simon & Garfunkle song pretty darn fast, which is not generally a good idea.  Luckily this year, two of my housemates were in similar boats and so Christmas day turned out to be a very pleasant thing.

Still, even with this, one can still end up with a couple of spots during the holiday with time alone.  --Interesting spaces, those.  On a normal day, you don't really notice moments alone, but on a holiday which stresses brotherhood and love, etc., you are practically forced to come face to face with your ultimate 'aloneness' in the universe.  Very existential!  And if you can face such an intense battle with composure, well. . .  I think there is a great deal of value which can be found in moments like those.  I almost look forward to them.

Partly as a result of this, one of the things which has been on my mind recently is the type of family you build from friends and acquaintances.  Typically, this is an ever changing landscape with regular newcomers and friends of friends who show up briefly in the background and vanish never to be seen again, --as well as those who are much closer, those rugged features which stick around for longer periods of time.  Sometimes whole life times.  We'll see.  One can hope.

Anyway, I feel like I've been jogging over this landscape lately.  And of course, as with most kinds of motion through the world, like heat and grit generated from friction, stories are also a by-product.  And as always, the most fascinating stories are too close to too many people to tell without causing upset.  The truth of life is such that the lessons we are here to learn are typically difficult and awkward and embarrassing.  While writing about such things is nearly always illuminating and wonderful for the reader, those who actually have to do the learning don't often appreciate being reported on.

Unfortunately, while being an observer makes you very aware of other people's trials and struggles and the marvelous stories unfolding through those trials and struggles, a writer's license does not extend very far beyond his or herself.  Prostitute your own life, certainly, but one must be thoughtful of others.  So once again I sit here at the keyboard sighing.  Six months of the most dramatic, funny script played out by a wide cast of the most amazing characters, none of which I can publish.  I never seem to get used to this aspect of writing. . .

As for myself, though. . .  Let's see.  When I last wrote in this space, I had just begun taking Kung-Fu classes.

One of the single most intriguing things I have learned over the last half year is that there are a LOT more people out there who are trained in the martial arts than I ever would have guessed.  I swear, it seems like every fifth person I meet these days is trained in the skill of smacking other people silly.  Just a couple of weeks ago I bought a sandwich from a small shop around the corner from the comic store.  The middle aged Asian man behind the counter gave a friendly, bobbing smile and let us have our food at a few dollars off the board price.  He and Darren exchanged a couple of kung-fu related news bites.  When we left, Tony explained that the sandwich seller was an accomplished swordsman.  One of the world's best, actually, having scored top ranks in some prestigious competition in his home country before moving to Canada.

In another instance, I was taking the subway home, carrying a big oaken staff I'd been training with, and found myself chatting with an unlikely Caucasian woman about martial arts.  She'd been studying for twelve years and could have been my mother.  While we were talking, a college kid sitting near us added that he was also very fond of staff work, and the two of them nodded at me sagely.  In this way, I keep running into people of every age, race and description who own swords and sticks, or could just plain break guy-on-the-street's arm with half an effort if so inclined; people who were already there, populating this city, but I was just too oblivious to realize.

Now, perhaps this sudden overabundance of kung-fu stars surrounding me is a local trend.  Maybe you don't get much of it outside the city.  Or it may just be an effect of my own limited perception and a lot of chance encounters.  I don't know.  But one thing I will say for certain is that I have become much more humble of late.  --I mean, I've learned enough over the last few months to really hurt somebody, and I have learned very, very little.  Indeed, I find myself wondering if the small woman, or old guy standing next to me on the bus platform might not be able to drop kick me across the street if properly provoked.

I think one of the factors which helps to keep out of public perception any up-front knowledge of this strange legion of warriors works like this: in studying the martial arts, you quickly gain a very concrete respect for the concepts of hurt and harm and physical conflict in a way that, for instance, guns do not afford.  You shudder when you see how bending somebody's hand just so can maim them terribly.  You shudder and think, "Wow.  That's horrible.  I'd never do that to somebody!"  I think it works something like the auto emotional reaction one experiences when looking at a burn victim.  As a result, you just don't see kung fu beatings in the news very often, (if ever).  There are other factors, of course, a prime one being that before one gets very good, practice and discipline are needed, qualities which if a person possesses them, have the general effect of preventing the slide into the kinds of desperate head space where violence tends to spring from.  You certainly don't see middle aged women and college tech students engaging in B-movie fisticuffs on the subway platform!

As it happens, subway and bus platforms have been the starting points for numerous odd turns in my head space of late.  The most recent detour for yours truly occurred only a month and some short weeks ago.

What happened was this. . .

I found myself reading a ten page pseudo-newspaper they've started handing out for free to public transit passengers, and I chanced to run across another one of those articles about Cell Phones and Cancer.  At the time, to my direct left was a kid using a glossy red cell phone to gossip with one of her friends, and a few feet from her was a guy with rotten work boots and muddy jeans talking on his Motorola.  After performing a head count, I discovered that there were no less than 3 people actively holding telephone conversations on the bus, and another 3 people within my line of sight who were visibly carrying portable phones.  I continued reading the article with interest.

Needless to say, the article, (aside from the fact that it was clipped tight and short for the transit-going public), was very like all the others I'd read before it.  That is, I found it wishy-washy and smelling of either poor journalistic integrity or poor research, (which I guess are the same thing).  In any case, and for whatever reason, the overwhelming lack of good information surrounding the whole subject got on my nerves.  On my way home, I counted another thirty or so cell phones, so rather than sit down to draw as I had intended, I slipped into research mode.  I've been doing a lot of that recently.

--Not that the issue of cell phones has much effect on me; I dislike the things on principal and I'd never own one.  I do not like the idea of the world haughtily expecting my chain to be available 24 hours a day for the yanking.  Nonetheless, it seemed impossible to me that no studies had been done into how the human body and brain might be affected by electromagnetic radiation.  (In the back of my mind as well was another concern; I had never shaken the nagging little worries about the huge buzzing computer monitor I often work in front of for hours on end.)

Well, surprise, surprise.  There HAVE been studies done.  Lots of them.  And despite what seems to be the popular belief, science has come to conclusions which are by no means wishy-washy.  Mind you, the good studies are hard as hell to get your hands on.  Several of them are in Polish, as numerous tests were performed in that country on military personel, a practice I suspect has probably been exercised in other nations as well, the main difference being that a good deal of the Polish information has for some reason managed to find its way into public hands. Another number of studies are in Swedish. --Over a decade ago, alarmed by studies linking miscarriages and birth defects to CRT monitor use, Sweden became one of the only countries on the planet to actively implement strict manufacturing standards for computer monitors[1].  In any case, with enough work and enough digging, material becomes available.

Interestingly, a good number of the studies into EM radiation were done more than twenty or thirty years back, before cell phones and computer CRT's became as commonplace as they currently are.  Several of those came about, it seems, as a result of stories about Airforce soldiers manning military radar stations in northerly climates; soldiers who found they could warm themselves by standing in front of radar arrays, effectively micro-waving themselves.

So I sat up late into the night digging and reading, and sometime shortly before dawn, the scratchy feeling in the back of my throat I'd been walking around with for a day or so turned into the flu.  This eroded the last of my desire to draw Rubel and co, so I gave into my new fascination and jumped into a research binge which lasted much of the following week.

My reaction to what I found was to permanently shut down my big high-res computer monitor and buy a flat screen.  (Well, actually it's a used laptop I picked up for a couple hundred bucks and mounted upright to my desk so that it serves as a monitor and portable computer.  A cheep and effective solution.  I'm now a lap-top guy!)

I also now positively wince whenever somebody fires up a Cell Phone.  Some of the stuff I've read would blow your mind, (or put lesions on your brain, at any rate).

For a while it boggled me as to why this material isn't more widely reported, or at least discussed.  I mean, almost nobody talks about it at all.  It seems insane that people are not informed as to some of the effects presented by EM exposure of the kind which is regularly emitted by common consumer devices.

Well, without touching on the all too easy targets that Big Business and Big Money interests provide, (in this case, the telecommunications industry v.s. public heath), I think one of the main issues lies in how Cancer is perceived by the public.  The Big 'C'. With the exception of higher than average incidents of leukemia occurring in people who live in close proximity to power lines, one of the common findings in the studies I looked at is that the connection between EM radiation and Cancer tended to be tenuous and uncertain.

And that's fine by me. Nobody wants to get cancer! The problem, however, is that people relax when they read inconclusive studies.  They feel safe, thinking, "Oh, well if it doesn't cause cancer, then how bad can it be?"  Or worse, "Hum!  So the alarmists were wrong about the cancer thing!  To heck with them!  I'm not going to waste my time worrying about anything else they might say.  Pardon me, my pager is vibrating."

As well, I ran across several documents which appear to have been funded by arms of the telecommunications industry itself which attempt to debunk many alarmist claims.  Weirdly, it was through such documents that I was able to back-track and find some of the more interesting studies, and through comparing those original documents to what was said about them, I found instances where clever wording and twisted semantics had been used to smooth over what appeared to be legitimate concerns.  This really clinched my interest; when Cell Phone companies start behaving like the Cigarette giants, using the same kinds of thinking and P.R. maneuvering, well for me, that sends up alarm flares.

Whatever the case, though, there have indeed been researchers for whom cancer was not the focus of their studies.  My own thinking ran like this:

"The human body and brain are electrochemichal in nature.  We are 70% electrolyte, for heaven's sake!  Skip Cancer.  How does EM radiation affect the brain and nervous system?"

Well, I was certainly being a little presumptuous.  I'm not a scientist, after all.  But according to a whole mess of studies, EM radiation does indeed make a significant impact upon biological physiology, going so far as to affect behavior, memory and cognition.

Of the many tests and studies, one of the examples I found that stood out as particularly potent was this: When exposed for fifteen minutes to low power frequencies (which were four times higher than those emitted from a PCS Phone), rabbits exhibited EEG readings which the researchers described as closely matching those they found induced by hallucinogenic drugs. [5-1]

Luckily, we are not regularly exposed to this kind of EM, (though four times the frequency of a PCS phone isn't a very big leap), it nonetheless illustrates the point.  Biological systems can be directly affected by EM.  Even the American Government, while they claim there is no threat, do advise people to stay a minimum distance away from the cell phone base towers which transmit from the dozens upon dozens of building tops in and around major cities.

So how exactly are we affected by the EM radiation commonly emitted by cell phones and computer monitors and such?  It was quite the task to sift through all the information I was reading.  While some of the studies had been done recently, much of the data was done before the advent of Cell Phones and wide spread use of computer monitors and so the researchers did not restrict their tests to the band widths and power levels generated by such devices, rather examining the effect of hundreds of different variations and exposure periods.  Here are a few of the points I found which stood out from the various studies as particularly interesting:

--When exposed to frequencies and amplitudes common in portable phones, rats were found to have their short term memory impaired, significantly affecting their performance in a maze after 1 hour per day of EM exposure.  In a second experiment designed to measure the time needed to complete a different maze task, it was estimated that exposed animals required approximately one third more time than the control rats. [2]

--A study by a different lab, using an apparatus which tested for object recognition, found that exposed rats suffered significant memory loss after similar levels of EM radiation exposure.  This study was performed in 1994, specifically testing the effects of portable phones. [3]

--The blood-brain barrier in test animals is made permeable to foriegn substances in the blood which would not normally be allowed to pass through the cell walls of brain cells.  This was discovered when researchers injected dye into the blood stream, and found that it was absorbed by brain cells in exposed rats after twenty minutes, but not by those in the unexposed control group.  (Which makes me wonder about the infamous list of chemicals found in a bag of Doritoes.  Are you snacking while chatting?)  [4]

--The general effect of EM on the endochrine system, (the system of glands throughout the body, including the adrenal, thyroid and pancreatic among others,) was also fascinating.  The results from a variety of studies were lengthy and, frankly, difficult to document since it seems that different glands react to different frequencies and power levels in a wide variety of ways, sometimes having opposite effects simply by changing the pulse rate of a given wave form.  Research only scratched the surface, and it seems that the potential for further study was enormous.  Essentially, EM radiation as spit from Cell Phones, pagers, wireless computer hardware and computer monitors does a whole mess of strange and creepy things to the human body.  One researcher simply summed up the overall effect of EM radiation on the glandular system as resulting in, 'general stress disorder'. [5]

Hm.  How many people do you know who are using Prozac, Ritilin and Paxol these days?

For my part, I've noticed since switching to a lap top screen, when I stay up for long hours with a document, that I no longer get greasy skin and acne.  Honestly.  At the ripe old age of 30, I'd wake up the next day after writing all night with pimples!  This seems to have stopped, (at last!).

Here's another of my favorites:  One team of researchers found that after regular exposure, (one hour per day), to frequencies and power levels commonly emitted from computer monitors and in other tests, higher frequency portable phones, Delta Wave sleep patterns of test subjects were inhibited. [5-2]

This particular point took some time before its significance struck me.

Let me explain:

In corresponding upon the subject of cell phone radiation with the editor of a web-based magazine devoted to underground science of exactly this sort, it was suggested that I pen an article on the subject.  I hopped to this, thinking, "Keen!"  Before I finished up with that, however, I remembered that I was first and foremost a comic book guy and that Rubel and company were wondering where the heck I had gotten to.  So I guiltily set aside the project in order to pick up my thief-drawing tools again, (though I fully intend to finish the article at some point!).  However, before changing gears back into 'comics guy', I managed to collate and organize enough information on the subject of EM radiation to really scare myself.

In short, I felt compelled to go out and buy an alternative to the big, buzzing radiation box I'd been staring at for the last seven years.  My solution was to pick up a used laptop, mount it to my desk so that it serves as a monitor, and wire it via ethernet cable into my big computer.  The result has been quite effective.  I now type into the wee hours using a super low-emissions flat-screen, and it only cost about $460 Canadian dollars.

Anyway, after installing this new hardware configuration, I experienced something quite unusual and entirely unexpected.  After about a week of living in my EM reduced environment, I started experiencing powerful and vivid dreams at night.

This was significant in that I had almost entirely stopped dreaming nearly eight years ago.

I know, I know.  There are those out there who may raise their eye brows at such suggestions, but that doesn't alter things very much.  I'll just report my experiences and you can take it all however you will.  I live to entertain!

Now, certainly, I would dream from time to time during those 'blacked out' years.  --I would dream, on occasions when I was under high stress or during other unusual situations, (Some of you may recall that I even wrote about one such dream a few years ago in the comment section of one of the issues), but for the most part, the vivid nightly dreams I used to experience during my childhood and teens dried up as I entered my twenties. The last eight years have been pretty much a total blank, at least in terms of what I could recall upon waking.

Of course, I never for an instant wondered if there was any connection between this and my increased use of CRT monitors.  --Heck, after I moved in with Tara & David, the head of my bed was directly behind a big screen television situated on the other side of a thin plaster wall.  The fact that I would regularly sleep during the day, (when it was on,) meant that I was often radiated during my sleep often for hours at a time.  I am beginning to think it might have been partly due to this that during those two and a half years I stayed with Tara & David, my dreams vanished almost entirely.

After moving out, my dreams did return, but they didn't have any of the intensity I once experienced.  (During my late teens and early twenties, I would often ring up poor Carson and regale him in detail with the hallucinatory experiences my dreams would offer me each night.)  In fact, as I thought back on this in greater detail, (and rummaged around to find some of the notes I would sometimes make of my particularly strong dreams), it occurred to me that my dreams had in fact started falling in intensity right around the time I had purchased my first color computer monitor for publishing T&K on.

Over the last month since having switched to exclusively using a lap-top flat screen, my dreams have returned with a helluva bang, often waking me up in the middle of the night with their intensity and staying with me through much of the day.

While it is entirely refreshing to be recalling my dreams once again, it did leave me with a few questions.  --In particular, none of the research I had read mentioned anything about R.E.M. sleep, (3 to 7Hz of brain activity, approximately), being affected by EM radiation.  The only conclusive data I found related only to Delta Waves, (from about .5 to 3Hz).  Since dreams are not supposed to occur during Delta Wave sleep, I found myself confused. If EM hadn't been found to affect R.E.M. states, then why would removing it suddenly invite dreaming again? 

While the touchy-feely parts of me were by that point perfectly willing to accept that EM might simply be just plain bad for your head, my more analytical side wasn't satisfied, so I headed back for more reading.

To my surprise, the very first page I ran across was a paper by a couple of researchers who had compiled an impressive range of data which demonstrated that reaching an R.E.M. state is not actually a pre-requisite of dreaming; that dreaming commonly occurs at other 'clock speeds,' so to speak.  This was news to me.  The researchers had determined this through the charmingly simple technique of waking people up while their brains were in various stages of sleep as measured by EEG, and then asking them if they had been dreaming. [6]

So this offered a possible explanation for my experiences.

In any case, beyond all of that, I am experiencing something else as well, though it is of a less tangible variety than even dreams; I find that I am waking up these days with a feeling I have long missed and actually thought was just one of those things which had passed forever away with childhood.  --When I was small, I would regularly wake up with a sense of excitement, "Wow!" I would think as I greeted the sun.  "I can't wait to get up!  There are so MANY things I want to do today!"  --It was a general enthusiasm for being alive.  Amazingly, this has also returned.

This is a good thing, because there remains a lot of comic book making to take care of!

Speaking of which. . .

In actual I-Box news;

As many of you have noticed, the next TPB, (number 4) has been delayed several times.

The explanation for this is quite simple.  Two years ago, I had planned for it to encompas 8 issues worth of material.  When it became painfully obvious that there was no way I would be able to tie up the current story arc in so little space, I bumped the publication date and declared that 10 issues should be enough.  Well, 10 issues came and went, and I'm now working on the 11th and not even that will do it.  The next issue, number 36, will tie it all up nicely.  The 4th TPB should be expected this summer or early Fall, and Boy o Boy!  It will be a big thick book!  I really think it's going to be a book I can be proud of.  So for those of you who wait for the Trades, hang in there.  It's on the way!

Gads.  I have to go draw.

Take care, all!

-Mark Oakley

March 14, 2001
4:25 A.M.



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