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My Last Whale Watch (#2)

Posted by Frederick Wasti
Aug 21 2013

Just as I pointed out before, in the "My Last Whale Watch (#1)" blog entry from July 24th, this is not really about my "last ever" whale watch, but my "most recent" whale watch. And, it's not even from this year either, since I haven't yet been on a whale watch this season, but, since I didn't discuss my last year's whale watch (from 8/7/2012) during last season, I'm going to do so this year. Better late than never.

Now, if you happen to be wondering why I am including whale watch reports in my CLL blog, you're maybe not too familiar with me or this blog just yet. To start with, if you don't yet know the reason for the name "Leukos" for the blog, perhaps assuming it simply was vaguely related to the word "leukemia", then please do see the About page for this blog, to see how "Leukos" is related to whales and whale watching. Then, furthermore, of the many occupations I've had during my pre-retirement life, it was the job of whale watch naturalist that I held the longest (30 years), so you can maybe understand that whales and whale watching have been pretty important to me.

In fact, if I am to be remembered for just one of my various and sundry "careers", I would wish that I be remembered as being a whale watch naturalist. I first became a whale watch naturalist as early in my adult life as was possible (considering that whale watching has existed as a formal endeavor only since the late 1970s), and I served as a whale watch naturalist until I could no longer adequately do the job (due to "some pesky medical issues").

I've visited with whales on approximately 2,000 whale watches. I still plan on doing so, although this will happen on only relatively infrequent occasions nowadays.

But, before I begin with discussing "My Last Whale Watch (#2)", I should mention my latest medical news: It's all pretty "boring". But, sometimes "boring" is good, right? My blood test results continue to be stable - unbalanced, of course, but intentionally so. I won't "bore" you with multiple graphs here, but will include just two of them, which illustrate the dramatic changes that occurred earlier in my clinical trial, but which also show how my blood counts became and have continued to be quite stable for some time now.

The total leukocyte counts, which had been almost 60,000 per microliter at the start of Part A, have generally been within the 5,000 to 9,000 range (i.e., within the normal range) since the end of Part A:

The percentages of (good) neutrophils and (both good and leukemic) lymphocytes, while totally "out of whack" at the start of Part A, reversed their relative proportions during Part A, becoming totally "out of whack" in the opposite direction at the start of Part B, and have been kept artificially so ever since:

(For reference, neutrophils should normally make up 1/2 to 3/4 of all leukocytes, while lymphocytes should normally make up 1/10 to 1/3.)

So, Part A was a success, Part B was a success, and Part C has been and continues to be a success. What's not to like? (<smile>)

Well, OK then - Let's get back to the second of my two reports on my "last" whale watch trip...

Today I would like to discuss some of the more-or-less non-whale aspects of the trip. Of course, in a sense, everything that is seen or happens on a whale watch trip is at least indirectly related to whales, because the entire trip is devoted to traveling out to the whales, watching them, and then traveling from them back to port. (Even on those rare - perhaps 1% of the time - trips where whales could not be found, the purpose of the trip would still be focused on finding them, even if not successful, so, even then, everything would still be at least indirectly related to whales.) But, obviously, an entire trip is not directly connected to whales.

A typical whale watch trip from Plymouth lasts four hours (perhaps four-and-a-half hours if the whales were harder than usual to find, or are farther offshore than usual, etc.). The truth is that the majority of the trip is usually spent in "commuting" to and from the whales, and not in actually watching them. While almost half of an "easy trip" might be taken up with watching whales, a "not-so-easy trip" might involve only a half hour or so being spent with whales. These proportions can vary a lot, of course - it is really difficult to predict (or to arrogantly attempt to plan) just exactly how long a trip will be, and just exactly what portion of it will be spent watching such free-swimming, wide-ranging, wild animals.

Therefore, the variable amount of time spent "commuting" is, at the worst, simply a "necessary evil" (especially if one really doesn't like being on a boat on open water). But, for most people (passengers and crew), it is instead an ~opportunity~ to experience first-hand many of the myriad natural and man-made features of our coastal environment. And, even if the route to and from the whales might be approximately the same for several days in a row, those trips will not all be the same as each other -- there simply are too many interacting variables to allow any one trip to be exactly like any previous one or any succeeding one. (I really do believe that, for the 2,000 or so trips that I've been on, none was ever a "copy" of another - each and every one was unique in some ways.)

Every whale watch starts and ends at a harbor, and harbors are full of interesting features, whether the passenger is a native of the harbor's town, or is a visitor from another town, another state, or another country (and international passengers on whale watch trips are actually quite common, in my experience). While I am not featuring the port of Plymouth in this entry (I'm restricting the words and images below mostly to the time spent in the general vicinity of the whales), Plymouth Harbor and Plymouth Bay are certainly interesting places, but so are the other whale watch ports. But it is the time spent ~offshore~ that is most special on any whale watch trip - perhaps because what might be seen is less predictable, and less under the control of humans.

[Please note that all of the following photos, except those of the Tails of the Sea, which was the whale watch boat I was on for this trip, were taken in the general area of the whales we saw that day.]

Among the more notable items to be seen, of course, are boats (and, sometimes, ships). Not surprisingly, these might include other whale watch boats, such as the Dolphin IX that we passed as we were getting closer to the whales, and as it was heading back from the whales to its port, in Provincetown:

The land in the distance (perhaps a mile or two away in the telephoto lens) is the National Seashore area on the ocean side of Provincetown - the harbor and the rest of the town of Provincetown are actually quite a few miles away by boat, all the way around the tip of the Cape on the Cape Cod Bay side of that land. [On this trip we were fairly close to the land -- however, on many trips we would have to go further north (to Stellwagen Bank), or further east (southeast of Stellwagen Bank), or (if we were lucky) further to the west (closer to Plymouth).]

Shortly after passing the Dolphin IX, we passed the Dolphin VIII, which was stopped watching some whales close to a mile or so away from us.

The land at the shore visible behind the Dolphin VIII is also on the outside of Provincetown, but since we are sort of looking straight "down" from a spot to the north of Provincetown, looking over and beyond its dunes, we are also seeing the higher dunes of North Truro in the distance. For example, the towers shown (outlined by red boxes) in the blowup below are actually near the high dune cliffs on the Atlantic side of North Truro, even as the closer land at the shoreline is still part of Provincetown, curving around the "bent wrist" on the "bent arm" that is Cape Cod:

As we were heading towards "our" whales for the afternoon's trip, we were traveling along with another Dolphin Fleet boat, the Dolphin X:

There were quite a few whales around that afternoon (as shown in the "My Last Whale Watch (#1)" entry from July 24th). So, while the Dolphin VIII was still paying attention to a group of whales further to the south of us, the Dolphin X and our boat, the Tales of the Sea (belonging to the Capt John Boats of Plymouth),...

...started watching a couple groups of whales in the general area we ended up at. [Obviously, I did not take the above photo of the Tails of the Sea (nor the one of this boat at the top of this entry) during this trip since I was aboard it during this trip - <grin> - these two images were taken while I was aboard the Capt John & Son IV on other occasions.]

It is typical for a Capt John Boat to spend time in the vicinity of other "south end" whale watch boats. Generally, the southern end of Massachusetts Bay (and the southern end of Stellwagen Bank in particular) are the "hunting grounds" for the whale watch boats from Plymouth, Provincetown, and Barnstable, while the "north end" whale watch boats, from Boston, Gloucester, and Newburyport, are more likely to be found at the northern end of Massachusetts Bay (and the northern end of Stellwagen Bank). Once in a while, if the whales get a bit scarce on one of the bay or the other, there may be a temporary exception to the above, when we get to see a few "north end" boats down "our way", or when the "south end" boats might have to sail further up the bank, say. Generally, though, Plymouth, Provincetown, and Plymouth boats see a lot of each other, and only seldom see the "north end" boats.

There is a lot of radio contact between the captains of each of the boats in an area, in order to coordinate the motions of the boats, so that the boats can "trade whales" once in a while, and so that there is not undue crowding of boats around any one group of whales.

In order to encourage such behavior on the part of whale watch boats, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary (SBNMS), and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) jointly run a Whale SENSE program, where all the captains and all the naturalists of a participating whale watch company have to undergo annual training sessions, and the company, and its captains and naturalists, have to pledge to follow specific specific guidelines that are "above and beyond" what Federal law requires. I am pleased to note that all of the "south end" whale watch companies participate in the Whale SENSE program, even though most of the "north end" companies do not (e.g., only one Boston company does so). If you'd like to learn more about the Whale SENSE program, please visit its web site.

You may have noticed that all of the whale watch boats I've shown above appear to be quite similar in appearance. This is not simply a coincidence, as a great number of Massachusetts whale watch boats have been designed to similar specifications, constructed entirely out of aluminum, and built by the same company, Gulfcraft of Franklin Louisiana.

Each of the current Dolphin boats, the two larger Capt John Boats (the Capt John & Son IV and the Tales of the Sea), and the Barnstable boat (aptly named the Whale Watcher) are similar Gulfcraft boats. The Tales of the Sea is a bit longer than are the Dolphin boats and the Capt John & Son IV, and the Whale Watcher is even longer (and wider, and taller) still. [The older Capt John boats are also aluminum boats built by Gulfcraft (in fact, the Capt John & Son was the first all-aluminum whale watch boat ever built by Gulfcraft), but they are somewhat smaller.]

Besides our fellow whale watch boats, there are other power boats and sailboats to be seen as well, such as fishing boats. These could be commercial fishing boats, most of which fish by setting nets, such as this boat:

Or, they could be private boats, catching fish by hook and line, or, in the case of the boat in the following image, by harpoon:

I have blown up the bow pulpit of this boat to show (with arrows) the handle and the head of the harpoon, ready for use in the pulpit:

The quarry for the above boat would almost certainly have been bluefin tuna, one of which would be worth literally thousands of dollars if caught, which can sometimes be done with hook and line (and that'd be a large hook and very strong line), or sometimes with a harpoon.

Sailboats are generally quite common out in Massachusetts Bay, even on rougher days (sailboats do need the wind, right?) (it was not a rough day for this trip, though.) Many sailboats are not all that large (from a whale watch boat's perspective) or particularly colorful (white and off-white color schemes are quite common with many sailboats, especially for their sails, even if the hulls are sometimes colored), but sometimes there are exceptions that might catch ones eye (or camera lens):

Now, when it comes to the (non-human) living creatures to be seen on a whale watch, there are many. For whale species, the most frequently sighted are humpback, finback, and minke (pronounced "min-key" or "ming-key") whales, although rare North Atlantic right whales can sometimes be observed, especially in the early spring. For dolphins, the most frequently spotted are Atlantic white-sided dolphins. It is not unusual, especially on calmer days, to see either harbor seals or gray seals. Fish (which, unlike the preceding mammal species, do not need to surface for air) are less frequently seen, but they are sometimes visible, at least briefly -- blue sharks, basking sharks, bluefin tuna, striped bass, or even schools of the main whale food in Massachusetts waters, sand lance, might occasionally be spotted (although we did not see any fish on this particular trip).

More frequently seen on a whale watch than any of the above are birds. While inshore as well as when offshore, it is very common to see gulls of several species (herring, great black-backed, ring-billed, and hooded are most common). Similarly, there are several species of terns (smaller relatives of the gulls) that may sometimes be spotted, and common, roseate, least, and arctic terns can all be seen in Massachusetts during the warmer months. Cormorants (mostly double-crested) can often be seen, especially closer to shore.

However, all of the above are strictly coastal birds while in "our" waters -- not only can they easily be seen from land, they themselves are strictly "day-trippers" over open water -- that is to say that they return to shore frequently (at least every night), and never stay over open water for any length of time. In contrast, a whale watch can provide passengers with a very good chance of seeing ~pelagic~ birds, which are seen from shore only infrequently or only at certain locations, and which do not fly to land for most months of the year at all -- pelagic birds spend the majority of every year entirely over open water, generally going to shore only for a comparatively brief breeding and nesting season.

Here in Massachusetts, the most frequently spotted pelagic birds are several species of shearwaters (great, sooty, Cory's, Manx, and Audubon can be seen here, but, during most years, great and sooty shearwaters are most frequently seen). Other pelagics include a couple species of storm-petrels, as well as kittiwakes, northern gannets, fulmars, and jaegers, but I'm going to concentrate on shearwaters in today' blog post.

Great shearwater "shearing the water"

In my experience, great shearwaters are the most frequently spotted pelagic birds to be seen on a Massachusetts whale watch. (Wilson's storm-petrels are actually much more common - in fact, they may be the most numerous bird on earth, despite the fact that land-lubbers never get to see them at all -- however, since they are quite a bit smaller than the gull-sized shearwaters, and since they almost never rise into the air more than two or three feet above the water, they are easily overlooked - or ignored - by most whale watchers.) Shearwaters are well-named, in that their typical motion generally involves a few quick flaps followed by a long, fast glide, with one wingtip or the other often skimming just above the water, sometimes even touching it, ~shearing~ the water as they glide rapidly just above it.

Shearwaters do not fly just above the water's surface -- sometimes they turn into the wind, rise a bit, and then wheel around in a different direction, before swooping down close to the water to glide some more. For example, the next two photos were taken of the same bird two seconds apart - note how the bird has totally changed position in that short period of time (but also notice how the bird in the first photo, even as its body is tipped vertically, still has its head in a horizontal position):

Now, one question you might have at this point is, "OK, I can understand that pelagic birds spend most of their life over the water, but do they fly and glide the entire time, or do they sit on the water to rest at all?". Well, some pelagics do seem to spend at least most of the time in the air (most famous are the albatrosses of the southern oceans and the North Pacific, who seem to glide constantly in windy air, and who land on the water only when the air becomes calm). However, while shearwaters (which are smaller relatives of the albatrosses) do spend much of the time flying/gliding, looking for food (primarily small surface fish or squid), they do also spend time sitting on the surface of the water. (While flying, they are usually solitary, but they tend to be quite gregarious when resting, collecting together to form "rafts" of birds on the water surface.)

One of the factors that make shearwaters such good gliders is their long, thin wings (as compared to the wider wings of gulls). However, one disadvantage of long, thin wings is that taking off, especially without a headwind, requires quite a bit of "running over the water's surface" before the bird can become free of the water. Take a look at the following sequence from this whale watch, which shows a great shearwater taking off from a standstill (or, I should say, from a "sit-still") -- notice how the legs are needed to help take off,...

...but that, once moving fast enough, the bird is once again able to swiftly glide and "shear the water".

It is interesting that the migration routes of such pelagic birds are much greater in length than those of whales. Where whales of some species might stay on one "side" of an ocean (the "western side" or the "eastern side"), and might rarely cross the equator, some pelagic birds travel "both sides" of often more than one ocean.

More specifically, the humpback whales we saw on this whale watch typically spend the winter in the Caribbean, and then spend most of the spring, the summer, and most of fall in the Gulf of Maine (the waters between Cape Cod and Nova Scotia). That is to say that "our" humpbacks do not, as a rule, ever travel to the "eastern side" of the North Atlantic Ocean, nor do they ever cross the equator to enter the South Atlantic.

In contrast, "our" great shearwaters travel much greater distances each year, breeding on a handful of islands in the southern South Atlantic Ocean, then "wintering" in the northern North Atlantic Ocean during our summer, passing over both the "western side" and the "eastern side" of both Atlantic oceans, all during a single year's travel. Let's take a look at a distribution map for the great shearwaters (to which I've added some circles and arrows):


The darker blue areas represent regions in the North Atlantic and the South Atlantic where great shearwaters can be found. (Note that great shearwaters are not found in either the North or South Pacific Oceans or in the Indian Ocean.) Nearly all great shearwaters breed on the Tristan da Cunha Islands in the southern South Atlantic, shown as the oversize yellow dots in the larger red circle. (A very small number instead breed on a couple of the Falkland Islands, shown in the smaller red circle.)

After the breeding season (the southern summer) is over, all of the great shearwaters spread out and start traveling northward throughout the western South Atlantic into the western North Atlantic, some of them to spend some of their "winter" months during the northern summer in our area (and I have circled the Gulf of Maine in green). As they continue their North Atlantic migration, they cross from the western North Atlantic over to the eastern North Atlantic, and then start heading south through the eastern North Atlantic, into the eastern South Atlantic, heading towards their annual breeding location at the Tristan da Cunha Islands (or the Falklands).

Please note that my red arrows are unfortunately overly specific in appearance -- that is to say that they are supposed to represent the overall annual clockwise migration movement, but that great shearwaters do not simply follow these routes except in a general way, so that the millions of great shearwaters are found traveling throughout parts of the North Atlantic during the northern summer, and throughout parts of the South Atlantic during the southern summer. (For some reason I am not aware of, there is a large area off western Africa that is bypassed by great shearwaters -- perhaps it does not provide the food that great shearwaters are looking for.)

The result of the above is that the total distance traveled during one year's migration by any single great shearwater is estimated to be between 12,000 miles and 20,000 (or more) miles during any one year (depending on how direct or how meandering each bird's travels actually are). These are phenomenal distances to travel every year -- each great shearwater travels an annual distance equal to approximately half-way around the earth as a minimum, and could travel an annual distance nearly equal to the circumference of the earth as a maximum. In contrast, North Atlantic humpback whales travel about 3,500 miles north each early spring and about 3,500 miles south each late fall, making for a total migration of approximately 7,000 miles each year, and, even if we were to add in all the miles of local traveling they might do on each end of the migratory route, the total distance traveled by "our" humpbacks is significantly less than traveled by "our" great shearwaters.

[By the way, I still have a habit of referring to great shearwaters as "greater shearwaters", which was a name (in English) they were referred to by many people for many, many years. However, in July of 2010, the American Ornithologists' Union, in its 51st Supplement to its Check-list of North American Birds, changed the "official" English common name from "Greater Shearwater" to "Great Shearwater". The reason given for the change was "to conform to general worldwide usage" -- this species was already known as the "great shearwater" in most other parts of the English-speaking world, and so the North American (US and Canada) usage of "greater shearwater" was "corrected" in order to bring North American English-speaking birders and biologists into line. (Not all politics takes place among government officials.) So, for me. after having referred to these beautiful birds as "greater shearwaters" for decades, I now find myself still using that name until I (usually) manage to correct myself -- I guess "it's tough to teach an old naturalist new tricks".]

I would like to discuss just one more critter before I bring this blog entry to a close. In the following image of two shearwaters,...


...there is a greater - oops, a ~great~ - shearwater gliding by in the foreground, and also what might at first look like another one, although photographically underexposed, sitting on the water in the background. However, that other bird is actually a ~sooty~ shearwater, which can often be seen along with great shearwaters (although it is my experience that great shearwaters are more numerous in the Stellwagen Bank area).


Sooty shearwaters are appropriately named. Unlike the great shearwaters, sooties are mostly a fairly dark, smoky grayish-brown (or is it a brownish-gray) color,...


...although there are some indistinct lighter areas underneath, as shown below (and note the left wing tip cutting through the water):


[By the way, despite the use of "great" in the name "great shearwater", sooty shearwaters are actually slightly larger than are great shearwaters, and Cory's shearwaters are larger still, so, while great shearwaters are distinctly larger than are some of the smaller shearwaters (e.g., Audubon's shearwaters or Manx shearwaters), they maybe should really be called something other than "great shearwaters" anyway (although "sort of great shearwaters" doesn't sound particularly appealing - <grin>).]

Much of what I've related previously in regards to the great shearwater's migration pattern is also true for the sooty shearwater. Here in the Gulf of Maine, we see sooty shearwaters during our warmer months near the northern end of their clockwise Atlantic migration route. "Our" sooty shearwaters - at least most of them - breed in the Falkland Islands and on coastal Tierra del Fuego in the far southwest South Atlantic Ocean (the more obvious circle below). However, sooty shearwaters also breed on islands off the coast of southeastern Australia, and on New Zealand and on islands near it (the other circle). So, sooty shearwaters are found in both Atlantic Oceans, in both pacific Oceans, and in the Antarctic Ocean (where they are often found during the southern summer months, although I don't know how much mixing, if any, might occur there between the Atlantic and Pacific sooty shearwaters).


Within the Atlantic Oceans, the migration path appears to be quite a bit like that of the great shearwater, and Atlantic sooties probably travel similar distances as great shearwaters do each year. However, the Pacific sooties, breeding in the southeastern Australia and New Zealand area, do not follow a similar clockwise circular path -- it seems as if Pacific sooty shearwaters make a huge figure-8 in the Pacific, crossing the equator in mid-Pacific waters, and reaching eastern Asian, and western North and South American waters, before returning to their breeding grounds each year, in a migration that covers an astounding 40,000 or so miles each year. Amazing, eh?

Thus, it's not just the whales that are seen on a whale watch that are capable of great migrations. And so, when one thinks about it, a four-hour whale watch that might cover a few dozen miles doesn't seem all that long, either in time or in distance, in comparison.

So, in conclusion, I do hope, in my two posts about my "last" whale watch trip, I have shown that there is much to see and much to learn about while participating in a whale watch trip. And, to be truthful, I have really just "scratched the surface"...

[By the way, I did write an article a few years ago for the New England Bird Observer magazine, where I tried to provide suggestions for birders heading out on a whale watch trip to try to maximize their chances of seeing "good" birds on a trip that is aimed at looking for whales. The title of the article, "Hey, Captain, the Birds are over There", comes from actually hearing birders on whale watch trips somewhat sarcastically saying that or something similar out loud, bemoaning the fact that - for some "unknown" (to a birder) reason - the boat's mission did not seem to be focusing entirely on finding the "best" birds possible - <grin>.]

Categories: General, Leukemia

Poster Child (#1)

Posted by Frederick Wasti
Aug 07 2013

On Monday (August 5th), we went in to Dana-Farber for what I've been referring to as a "normal Campath day". However, due to a slight change in protocol, there are actually now ~two~ types of "normal Campath days".

Here in Part C of my clinical trial, I ordinarily have to visit D-F only every other week. For a number of months now (and this will continue for a number of months more), every fourth visit (i.e., once every eight weeks) is a "long Ofatumumab day" (due to blood tests, an exam, and premeds needed before the Ofa infusion, which is several hours long by itself). However, up until now, the other three visits in between involved blood tests, and exam, and a Campath (Alemtuzumab) injection, which makes for a considerably shorter day than any of the "long Ofatumumab days" entails.

However, recently, a modification has been made to some of the "normal Campath days", in that I do not have to have an exam after the blood tests have come back before receiving a Campath injection each time. This spares me (and either my doctor or my nurse practitioner) from having to go through an exam each and every time. This is all good news, and not just because it saves a little bit of time -- it acknowledges that my condition is quite stable as is shown in the graph above and in the graphs further below, and is judged as being not so critical as to need monitoring quite so closely now. (<smile>) (Of course, if my blood test results on any particular "no exam day" seemed to be unusual, the "no exam day" would likely turn into a "with exam day" in short order.)

So, the schedule for a two-month period now looks like this: Calling the "long Ofatumumab day" as Visit 1, I then have a "shorter [without exam] Campath day" for Visit 2, followed by a "longer [with exam] Campath day" for Visit 3, and then a "shorter Campath day" for Day 4. (And then it's back to Visit 1, with a "long Ofatumumab day" starting the next cycle, etc.) This is a small change in protocol, but methinks it's a good one.

Now, as for Fred's latest blood test (non-)news, the story is that everything is still about the same. The latest complete leukocyte graph is above, and below are the rest of the latest graphs, and, if you've been following this blog for any length of time, you should be able to interpret them correctly without any additional help, right? (<smile>)

As you can see, very little change has been taking place in my blood for many moons now, and my artificially induced "healthy but immunocompromised" stability continues... (<smile>)

Now, getting back to Monday (and this past Monday was a "longer Campath day"), I did see both Michele Walsh, my nurse practitioner, and Karen Francoeur, my protocol nurse in the examination room (and, later, Melissa Houston, my infusion nurse). Michele and Karen discussed the new protocol with us, and how they would therefore be seeing me less often, but also how it was a good sign. Michele remarked (once again, and she has said this once before at an earlier exam) that I was now "her " for the trial -- that is, when discussing the trial with patients who were not as far along in the trial as I (and who might be perhaps getting a bit discouraged at times, and the Part B protocol - especially - can be quite daunting), she would (in general terms, of course) mention to them just how well ~I~ was doing in the trial. So, I have become the "Poster Boy for Trial NCT01465334". (<smile>)

Of course, being a "poster boy" is an awesome responsibility (Har!) -- I do have to make sure that I do not "stumble", because I wish to serve only as a good example (mostly because the opposite would definitely indicate bad news). However, and while such an appellation is (maybe just a wee bit) "tongue in cheek", it does represent the recognition that I am indeed doing quite well with my treatment during this particular clinical trial. And, what's not to like about ~that~? Right? The way I figure it, if someone has to be the "poster child" for doing well in treatment, I might as well be the one. Right? (<smile>)

Anyway, I did start to think about the various uses of the terms "poster boy" and "poster girl", and their "parent" term (so to speak) of "poster child". There are actually several meanings of these terms, differing in both denotation and connotation. So, let's take a look at the definitions (and connotations) for "poster child", shall we?

The original, most basic use of "poster child" might be "a child appearing on a poster for a charitable organization" (without specifying the reason for the inclusion). The definition could be expanded to include the reason(s), e.g., "a child who benefited from a charitable organization appearing on a poster for the organization" and/or "a child appearing on a poster for a charitable organization to help solicit funding for the organization". Of course, there usually is a practical reason for including a child on such a poster, so most often the definition could be "a child with a particular illness or other problem whose picture appears on a poster advertising an organization that helps children with that illness or problem". Of course, the sex of the child might result in the "poster child" being referred to as a "poster girl" or as a "poster boy".

The connotation of the original definition(s) of "poster child" is generally considered to be (and is generally intended to be) positive. However, there are those who see the possibility that the use of a "poster child" could be exploitative and perhaps a form of child abuse. Nonetheless, my personal opinion is that, while such exploitation is indeed something for society to watch out for, the intent of using the image of a child as a "poster child" is generally benevolent in nature.

However, a more recent, secondary usage for the term "poster child" has also emerged. Nowadays the term can be applied more generally, not just to an image of a child in relation to an organization, but more abstractly to the mention of an specific child or adult, or sometimes even to an animal, or occasionally even to an inanimate object, in relation to a group or to a concept. This might be done either to help illustrate the nature of the group or concept being referred to and/or to help illustrate a quality of the subject because of its relationship to the group or concept.

The subject of the more recent usage is most likely to be an adult man or women, and this idiomatic usage is usually intended to be at least somewhat humorous, although the connotation could be either positive or negative, depending on the situation. (Note also that an image of the subject of such usage often does not literally have to appear on any actual poster.) Some specific types of such usage, depending on how the subject relates to the group or concept, can include the following:

The subject could be an example or an archetype, mentioned in order to illustrate the type of person or thing being discussed.

  • The subject could be a personification, mentioned as someone who is a very clear example of a particular quality.
  • The subject could be a model, mentioned as something so good that it should be copied.
  • The subject could be a template, mentioned as something that could be used as a pattern for copying.
  • The subject could be a prototype, mentioned as the first example of something.
  • The subject could be a stereotype, mentioned as someone who might be exactly what many people expect someone of a particular class, nationality, profession, etc., to be like.
  • The subject could be an instance, mentioned as an example of something happening.

It can be seen from the above list that some of these uses naturally tend to be more positive while other uses tend to be more negative.

The Oxford English Dictionary (which purports to be the guardian of British English throughout the world) notes that this second, more recent, idiomatic usage of "poster child" is primarily a North American usage, although I suspect that it may yet spread further throughout the world (and there will be nothing that the OED, the "Poster Child of Language Conservatism", can do about it). [As I will also point out shortly, the original "poster child" concept is also an American invention, too.]

Here are a few generic examples of such modern usage that I found online:

  • "He's a poster child for militant vegetarianism."
  • "She could be a poster child for good sportsmanship."
  • "[It is] the anti-globalization movement's poster child."
  • "She's the poster child for cosmetic surgery."
  • "The poster child of gluten-free grains, quinoa is a wonderful light, fluffy grain."
  • "She went out with a Calvin Klein poster boy."
  • "She's a poster child for free speech."
  • "He is the poster child for excessive chief executive compensation."
  • "The company has been the poster child of denial among those convinced of global warming."
  • "He is the poster child for incompetent government."
  • "She will be Microsoft's poster child for getting teenage girls interested in technology."
  • "Bamboo is the poster child for environmentally friendly accessorizing."
  • "[That] farm is a poster child for environmental friendliness."

Some quotations of such "poster child" usage are:

  • "I realize I will always be the poster child for police brutality, but I can try to use that as a positive force for healing and restraint." - police brutality victim Rodney King
  • "It's a joke to think that anyone is one thing. We're all such complex creatures. But if I'm going to be a poster child for anything, anger's a gorgeous emotion. It gets a bad rap, but it can make great changes happen." - singer Alanis Morissette
  • "I'm a poster child for Luddites. It was a challenge for me to open myself up the tech world." - environmental activist Julia Butterfly Hill
  • "In my early days, I was about 145 pounds. I was really a starving artist, the poster child for starving artists." - actor Creed Bratton
  • "I did not want to become a poster child for yet another disease." - engineer and businessman Andy Grove (prostate cancer survivor and now Parkinson's disease victim)
  • "I am a poster child with no poster." - civil rights advocate Jennifer Storm

The original "poster child" concept was a creation of 20th Century American charitable organizations. A "poster child" was originally (and is still) used to elicit compassion in potential donors. Images of a "poster child" usually appear, not just on posters, but on most of the literature (and now web sites) of organizations. Furthermore, "poster children" would often make public appearances for publicity purposes. In addition, while a "poster child" can serve as what I would call an "external symbol" of an organization (i.e., a symbol representing the organization in the public sphere), a "poster child" can also serve as an "internal symbol" for those involved in an organization, allowing them to focus on the purposes of the organization.

As far as I know, the first use of a "poster child" was made by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (later called the March of Dimes), an organization hoping to educate people about polio, to improve the treatments for polio, and to develop protections against contracting polio (the March of Dimes provided much of the funding for developing first the Salk vaccine and later the Sabin vaccine against polio). The name "March of Dimes" probably originated with a comment by comedian Eddie Cantor that the donation of many dimes from all across the country could become a "march of dimes", which might also, in turn, have referred to the March of Time newsreels of the time.

The original "poster child" poster

Since children so often were the victims of polio, it seemed (I assume) quite natural to use children as "poster children" for the organization and its work. The March of Dimes credits Donald Anderson, of Portland, Oregon, as being the first March of Dimes "poster child" in 1946, but there have been a number of other children used as March of Dimes "poster children" since then.

March of Dimes canisters (including an "iron lung canister") for collecting donations

"Iron lungs" were a necessary (and very expensive) tool used to keep many polio victims alive

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, himself a victim of polio from a young age, helped found the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (and, in a sense, ended up also becoming a "poster boy" for the March of Dimes).

Before the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis was founded, FDR organized a President's Ball on several of his birthdays to raise funds for fighting polio

A matchbook in support of FDR's Send a Dime to the President program

FDR meeting with Basil O'Connor, the President of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis

So, when FDR died in 1945, and public sentiment desired that his likeness appear on a US coin, an act of Congress in that year specified the dime for that coin, and the "Roosevelt Dime" was finally released on what would have been FDR's 46th birthday in January of 1946.

Roosevelt Dime

[I think it is interesting that the dime in use from 1916 to 1945 was generally referred to as the "Mercury dime", since it seemed to show a winged head of the god Mercury - however, the image on the so-called "Mercury dime" was actually that of the goddess Liberty, with wings on her head intended to symbolize freedom of thought. But I digress...]

So-called "Mercury" Dime

By mid-20th Century, other organizations, such as the Muscular Dystrophy Association, the Easter Seal Society, and the United Cerebral Palsy Association, following in the footsteps of the March of Dimes, also started using "poster children". And the rest, "as they say", is history...

The March of Dimes provided major funding for the development of the Salk vaccine (1955) and the Sabin vaccine (1962)

On the Times cover showing Jonas Salk, "poster children" can be seen at the top, surrounding the magazine title -- this was entirely appropriate because "poster children" had helped greatly in the battle against polio

The fight against polio has been commemorated in postage stamps -- above are stamps from 2006 honoring the developers of the Salk and Sabin vaccines

An earlier (1957) stamp honored all who contributed in the battle against polio

And a 1999 stamp celebrated the tremendous gains against polio due to the use of vaccines

A first day cover from 2006 combined all of the above stamps together

Of course, the fight against polio was not just an American struggle (even if "poster children" were predominantly American), and there have been commemorative stamps issued by many countries...

...including Canada...

and France

In a sense, though, and in the more recent, secondary usage of the term "poster child", historically there have been "poster children" in literature going back thousands of years. Certainly many of the characters (human and otherwise) in ancient texts represent examples of good or evil, brave or cowardly, etc. However, when thinking about metaphorical "poster children", the first literary "poster child" that came to my mind was Tiny Tim, the crippled young boy in the Charles Dickens classic novella from 1843, A Christmas Carol. Tiny Tim provided readers with probably the most well known symbol from the 1800s of the sad life (and potential early death) of a debilitated child from an impoverished family in all of English literature.

While Tiny Tim was not a major character in A Christmas Carol, he nonetheless was an important one. Although we are never told exactly what is the cause of his condition, his infirmity is an important attribute in the story: "[A]nd in came little Bob, the father, [with] Tiny Tim upon his shoulder. Alas for Tiny Tim, he bore a little crutch, and had his limbs supported by an iron frame!" Perhaps more important than his present condition for the purposes of the story is that he is likely to get considerably worse:

When the Ghost of Christmas Present paid a visit to Scrooge, old Ebenezer was shown how weak Tim really was, and he learns that Tim would likely die without treatment - treatment that the Cratchit family could not afford since Scrooge paid Tim's father Tom, an employee in Scrooge's business, so very little. Tim's death was foretold by the Ghost of Christmas Present:

"Spirit," said Scrooge, with an interest he had never felt before, "tell me if Tiny Tim will live."

"I see a vacant seat," replied the Ghost, "in the poor chimney-corner, and a crutch without an owner, carefully preserved. If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, the child will die."

When Scrooge was later visited by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, he did not see Tim any more - all that was left was a grieving family. Because of this preventable tragedy (and other such bleak glimpses into his woeful future), Scrooge finally "saw the light" and vowed to change his ways, so that, in the end, Tiny Tim did not die after all, and it seemed as if Scrooge more or less adopted the Cratchits - and Tim in particular - as if his kin, for which he (finally) felt responsible (as we all should).

So, in a sense, Tiny Tim represents a perfect example of a "poster child" (which is to say he is a "poster child" for all "poster children") - not only does he stand for all the poor, neglected, handicapped children of history, he also presents us with a lesson in the importance of making (or of not making) a proper moral decision. Scrooge was given the choice of doing nothing to help, or of doing something to help, and, because he chose the latter - that is, because he learned to have compassion - Tiny Tim lived.

If I may exercise a bit of additional literary license here, I would suggest that Tiny Tim was likely intended to serve as a "poster child" by Dickens (even though the term did not exist yet). In 1842, one year before writing A Christmas Carol, Dickens visited mines in England where young children worked incredibly long hours under entirely abominable conditions. While attending a fundraising meeting in Manchester for a charity for poor children soon after, he apparently decided that, instead of writing a political essay about the criminal mistreatment of children during the Industrial Revolution in Victorian England (which had been his original intent), he would write a short work of fiction that might illustrate the effects of poverty and gross income inequality more effectively. As Dickens put it in writing to one of the commissioners of the group sponsoring the meeting about the reason for his change in plans, by writing a work of fiction, "[you] will certainly feel that a sledge hammer has come down with twenty times the force I could exert" by writing a mere political pamphlet.

Charles Dickens in 1842

Furthermore (and I may ~really~ be going out on a limb with this one), Tiny Tim himself even viewed himself at one point as being a "poster child" of sorts: When Tim's father Tom brought him home after the two of them attended the Christmas Day service at the local church:

"And how did little Tim behave?" asked Mrs. Cratchit [...]

"As good as gold," said Bob, "and better. [...] He told me, coming home, that he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see."

Now, the first problem with Tim's statement above is that small children generally do not speak (or think) in such a manner. However, this is after all a fictional tale (involving multiple ghosts, and time travel as well), so we should allow Dickens a bit of leeway here. However, it does seem to me to be illogically backward for Tim to think that he, as a cripple (who maybe didn't know he soon could die, but who at least probably felt himself getting worse over time), might remind people of Jesus, "who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see".

Nonetheless, Tim thusly offered himself up as a "poster child" in church, to somehow remind people of what Jesus was biblically ~capable~ of doing. The fact that Tim had not been cured by God may not have been much of a problem to many Victorian era churchgoers -- the influence of Calvinism in much of Victorian Christianity at that time resulted in an unfortunate emphasis on predestination, where the favored would be saved and the rest would be damned (and, by extension, those with a good lot in life must be among those favored by God, and those without earthly comfort were not so favored). However, despite the precepts of Calvinism, Tiny Tim suggested to his father that he could well serve as a lesson to others -- it could be said that this - in a small way - would not be totally unlike the example set by Jesus on the cross, who offered himself as a lesson to others, even as he was taunted for not saving himself - "If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross".

The line in A Christmas Carol that Tim is most known for was spoken during the Cratchit's meager Christmas Dinner, as witnessed by Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present, when, after his father said "God bless us" before their dinner, Tim said "God bless us, every one". That Dickens-the-author felt that ~everyone~ should be blessed is driven home by Dickens-the-narrator, who also ended the book with these words: "And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!" I will point out that "God bless us ~every~ one" does ~not~ seem to be a Calvinist sentiment, and the fact that Tiny Tim's earthly fate was not predestined, but could be changed by the "good works" of a sinner such as Scrooge, does ~not~ seem to be a Calvinist sentiment either. But I digress...

George C. Scott, my favorite film Scrooge

[A complete online edition of A Christmas Carol, surely one of the most important short works of fiction in the English language, is available at http://www.ibiblio.org/ebooks/Dickens/Carol/Dickens_Carol.htm - its 92 short pages of the novella are reproduced in one long page for easy reading by anyone interested.]

Hmmm... Finally, you might remember when I mentioned in a previous blog entry how we saw my nurse practitioner Michele Walsh "riding the bus". Well, today's particular blog entry included, near its beginning, how Michele had said ~I~ was the "Poster Boy for the Trial". Well, now that I think of it, I guess Michele's image on the side of a bus made ~her~ the "Poster Girl of the Simmons Nursing Program". (<smile>)

Categories: General, Leukemia