Tuesday, October 27, 2009


They tell you hopeful things, but they don't really know. They don't really know for sure what the problem is and they are waiting too. They want the news to be good. They want good stories to take home to their families and spouses and roommates at the end of the day. But they don't really know. The nurses are waiting for the doctors to tell them and the doctors are waiting for the test results to come back and even then, it is all a guessing game. But they find the good signs and they tell you about them and sometimes that is a good thing because it helps you not worry so much and makes the waiting easier. But sometimes, they tell you a good thing and it is a false sign or a transient moment and then when things go bad, the crash is worse. But they don't know that when they try to paint the picture in the best colors they can find and they mean well and when things crash, they crash for them too and when there is reason for joy, it touches them too. They don't really know, but what they lack for knowing, they make up for in wanting and caring too.
Photo: Mary McCarthy

Monday, October 26, 2009

I Argued With A Nun Once

I argued with a nun once. She posted and article in the local paper about a workshop she was going to teach about getting over grief. I sent her a letter and told her that was an unreasonable concept. I said you might 'get over' the grief of losing a favorite sweater or a pet or a car or a loved grade school teacher or the guy at work that you saw at meetings now and then. I said that some grief is too big to get over and you should not be asked to get over it and that the most you could be asked to do is manage it so that it doesn't mess up your life or your remaining relationships. That the class should teach how to know if a grief is little enough to get over or big enough that it can only be managed. And then it should teach you how to manage it.
I was thinking of the death of my dad when I wrote this. I was remembering how my young sons sat on his hospital bed in the minutes before we transferred him to the hospital where he ultimately died and how in his pain and weakness, he ran his hand over my youngest long tail of blonde hair and how he patted my oldest on the back and joked with him. they should have had him there for their growing up years and he should have been there to mark their milestones. that should not have been the last they saw of their grandfather. and no one can ever tell me or them that we have to 'get over it'. Each passing year in January I do the math of the year it is then against the year he died and the number grows, 1, 5, 7, 9, 13. And each January I tally the times I missed him so much I thought my heart was breaking, I do a measure of the tears shed that year, and even as the number of years get bigger, the missing does not get smaller.
And so I cry in the privacy of my own car or my own shower and don;t bust up over it in public or when I am supposed to be helping someone else deal with their crisis or trouble. And so I use it to help me treasure my relationships with other people instead of allowing it to make me fear getting close to someone to avoid the risk of another loss. I use it to remind me to mention some good trait or memory or story to my boys or to express more in my personality some admired trait he had. That is the managing of this grief that won't even go away. That is the managing it toward good thing rather than letting it destroy. That is what I told the nun about and she wrote back to me that she was reorganizing her class to reflect just that.

An Olive, A Pickle Spear, and a Half Slice of Lemon

Odd things on my photo storage drive:

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Vices and Virtues: Charity

For all my years as a child, I was hearing my mother sing the praises of a certain neighborhood woman as a woman of charity who gave of her time and talents to organizations and individuals. I vowed to be just like her and become a do-gooder too. But my little heart, I must admit, was mainly wanting to do that so that people would talk fondly of me like they did of this person. My desire to do great works of charity was solely based on the fame that it would accrue me. Later, I figured out that there were better reasons to be involved in causes and give of ones time and I also found out that my mother secretly despised the person as a person. So much for heroes and heroics.
I was called to serve in many capacities, planning events at my software design job that would teach people to overcome race and gender bias, planning Arbor Day celebrations and recommending landscape enhancements as part of a city commission, volunteering on prairie restorations and seed gathering work days, and later, giving talks on natural landscaping, giving prairie tours, teaching art classes, working at the co-op art gallery, spending time on various Kiwanis activities and fundraiser and as an officer and board member, working on a local political campaign, even teaching Sunday school once.
All of these were acts of charity but my motivations were varied and not always good. Sometimes, I was motivated by a desire to be recognized, sometimes by a desire for professional advancement, sometimes even, I was motivated by revenge and used my volunteer positions to get something done to get back at others for some perceived offense to me. Even at my most pure of motivations, to make the world a better place, it was to make MY world a better place, and to make the world that my children would be left with a little bit of a better place.
Exclusively, my volunteer efforts were a result of ME seeing a need and offering myself to it because I valued a thing. Never did I approach a random person or situation and say "What do YOU want or need today?" Nobody does that. That might put the conservative Christian giving the welfare mother a ride to the abortion clinic or reading comforting words from the Quran to the mourning Muslim neighbor. We don't work our charity based solely on needs of others but on the needs WE think are important and WANT to contribute to.
One of the first and greatest 'charities' people give to are churches. But church charities are by and large to promote the goals of their church, to swell membership, you don't much see the Lutherans volunteering at the Catholic food pantry or the Catholics volunteering at the Lutheran gift drive for the youth home. Each church builds their reputation with their own interests and then lists those 'charitable' activities on their 'resume' to promote themselves to prospective members.
Charity of money or time to the church itself is more like dues to ones health club than true charity, for it gets services for ones self in exchange for doing services for others of same faith and interest. Lead the bible study and get Sunday school for your kids. Serve as an usher because you enjoy church service. Donations that pay the utility bills and the cleaning service and upkeep on the gutters are much more like dues to the golf club than any sort of real charity.
And what of the do-gooder who does good at the expense of family and friends and other responsibilities? The doctor who spends so much time in the children's cancer ward he does not know his own kids. The wildlife researcher who sends her kids to boarding school so she can save the habitat of the Amazon floodplains? If time spent on the charitable activity is used to avoid other things we should be doing in our lives, it isn't all that noble of a virtue.
Charity therefore must be examined for the motives of the charitable which is not to say that self-serving charity does not also do others good, but if one really desires to do good, one should at least be aware of who is benefiting and how the needs served by this charitable activity stand against the needs served by other. Volunteering at a church fashion show might not EVER count as true charity in light of other needs in the community, for example. And charity needs to be evaluated for its true costs. Charity costs to the giver, but also to the giver's family and friends who maybe ought to have right of first refusal on more of the giver's time and resources. If others are harmed by your 'charity', it ceases to become a virtue and crosses the line to vice. Or is there really any true line between vice and virtue after all?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Words and Photographs in Books - Fiction

We drove north out of town, following the directions they gave us, and stopped at the side of the road where they said it happened. But we could find no signs. Nothing at all. There were no scraps of paper, no tire marks, no beaten down grass, no broken glass, no burn marks or ashes, no signs of any disturbance or anything unusual at all really. We picked up a few beer cans and some fast food litter to try to redeem the trip from total pointlessness. We debated a while if we should go back and ask for directions again or if perhaps we'd gotten the crossroads wrong, turned too soon or gone too far. In the end, we decided we didn't have time to try again so we drove away, leaving the tall cottonwoods rustling their leaves along on the far side of the ditch. We wondered aloud and privately if it really ever happened and then forced ourselves to change the subject and stop talking about it as we drove on the our next appointment.

Years later, I was driving that road on the way to visit a friend, when the fenceline cottonwoods rose into my view ahead. The early morning light sent shadows of them crossing the roadway and without meaning to, I slowed down as I neared the spot. And there in the tall ditch grasses, exactly where they'd said it would be, was everything we'd expected to find. The books were there, tumbled in the ditch, some lying open, their pages fluttering in the breeze. Black skid marks on the asphalt lead to tire tracks that flattened the grasses. Broken glass, the smell of gasoline and oil, a burned patch in the grass along the shoulder. Envelopes of guitar strings, business cards, matchbooks, a makeup case, CDs, your sunglasses, and folded roadmaps.

I looked up and down the road, but there were no cars, no other people. I started to gather up the books into a pile when a crow landed on the hood of my truck and two more landed on the center line of the pavement. They cawed and flicked and shook their wings and cocked their heads to stare at me. I looked down and the book in my hand was open to the photo of you, victorious and smiling, a strand of hair blown across your face, standing on the steps of the courthouse. I dropped to my knees and cried as I held the book to my heart. The crows cawed, flapped wings, rose and settled again together in a broken branch of the cottonwood trees.

In the end, I left everything there. I knew if I took more time to gather things up, if I picked up the books and straightened their pages and closed them and stacked them in my truck, that I would be late to see my friend. And what would I do with them, how would I explain them being there? What good could those things do me anyway; what use were they to me now? I drove away, leaving it all there, fluttering in the wind, catching and reflecting the sunlight.

I drove away and as I did, the crows dropped out of the tree and flew along and behind me for a ways before veering off into a valley to dive and tumble with each other until I had to leave sight of them to turn my eyes back to the road.

My friend was waiting on the porch, smiling, with a pitcher of lemonade for us to share and a vase of sparkling yellow roses, fresh with dew and glistening in light reflecting from the white of house walls. We talked a while, laughed, shared stories, joked. We talked about our plans, our hopes. Then I saw it there on the chair between us, your book, open, face down. She saw me looking at it and picked it up, closed it, and slid it onto her lap. She broke the silence that had settled upon us by offering me more lemonade, and we talked a while more, remembered, planned, laughed. Once, we sat silent for a while to watch a coal black cat walk the distance of her driveway, then double back and stalk a grasshopper that was sitting in the gravel. The grasshopper popped high over the cat's head at the last minute and the cat walked on as though nothing had happened. When I got up to leave, she stood to hug me goodbye and I saw that her lap was empty, the book not there. She smiled and walked me to the truck and hugged me once more before I drove away.

I miss you but I am not sure you are really gone.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

My Uncle's Garden

My Uncle has an amazing garden. He has recently added a fancy kitchen and family room to the back of the house. The addition has a massive window facing the garden. There is a large beautiful antique multi-pane window on the back of his woodshop that also faces the garden. They frame wonderful views to the garden. He has gardened for very many years, and the garden is backed now with mature semi-dwarf apple trees, so that when I was there in mid-September, the branches were drooping heavy with pretty red fruit. The foreground of the garden is roses along the edge of the deck and the midground is raised beds of individual species of flowers, Asiatic lilies, purple coneflowers. He built the arbor, in the woodshop, of cedar with no nails; it is held together with pegged joinery. From the house, the view is breathtaking. It is restful to sit and visit with the garden out there and it is a nice little outing to go stroll along the paths between the beds and visit the individual areas. It is not quite accurate to call it my Uncle's garden, for although he started it so many years ago and is the driving force behind it, he does not really work on it anymore for health and mobility reasons. His wife, my Aunt, does nearly all the work now, but she still gives him credit, ownership, I guess out of habit. I guess that is what people do for each other when they have been married for over 40 years. They apologized that the flowers were done or past their peak and though I got some nice close-ups, I chose to photograph the garden as a whole by the reflection on the woodshop window, for it captures the allusion and romance and subtle beauty that is there. I love my Uncle's garden, because it is beautiful, but also because of the people who make it.

Vices and Virtues: Gratitude

Gratitude is the most poorly expressed of the virtues. Thanksgiving is the worst of holidays.
We set up a holiday that is to make us think about what we are grateful for and then what? We go to church and thank a deity for those things and then we go home and eat until we are sick. Does that make ANY sense?
What is the point of gratitude? The point of gratitude is not to just FEEL thankful but to express it. But where do the things you are thankful come from? By and large they come from people. The home, the clothes, the food, the stuff, it all comes from people. There are stores full of sales people and cashiers and baggers. The stuff got bought with money. Provided by your employer and with the help of your employer's accomplices, your co-workers. If you run a business, you have clients or customers who provide the money. There are countless other people who provide services that make your life comfortable and enjoyable. The house got built and repaired and maintained by people, often members of your family or your friends. Your kids have teachers, you have doctors and nurses and dentists and hairdressers and other people everywhere everyday that enrich your life. Even nature is there because someone preserved or cultivated it and you probably enjoy nature because someone accompanies you on excursions into it. Natural areas have caretakers and people who keep them clean and safe. Farmers cultivate the beautiful fields and your neighbor cultivates his beautiful garden. If you are thanking a god and eating too much due to your annual gratitude, you are bastardizing what gratitude is supposed to be. If your god has all the qualities you claim he does, he does not need to be thanked, but the people out there do! It would make their task a little lighter to know someone appreciates it!
Figure out who, which people, are responsible for each of the things you are grateful for and express that gratitude to those people. With a note in a card, with an email, with a phone call, with flowers or a gift. And don't do it just once a year, but do it on a regular basis, year around, often and always. When you receive the 'gift' from them is best but any time later that you think of it is really nice too. Live a life of gratitude by sharing it with everyone everyday all the time. An eat a nice light salad on Thanksgiving Day.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

No Parking

I love old signs. It is fun to wonder how the place was being used when the sign went up; what situation caused someone to letter and paint a sign. Often, the use of the area has changed and the sign's wording has not been applicable for many years, but the sign stays, rusting and fading a bit each year.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Flower Sex Parts

Remember you can click on the photo to make it really really big!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Water for the Brain

The courtyard at St. Mary's Hospital in Rochester has a fountain with this lovely stone and brick floor. While I was gone on my mission there, I missed my lake and paddling and more than all that, I missed the family I paddle with. The fountain drowned out the sounds of building air conditioners and ventilation fans and most of the sound of the helicopter ambulance that seemed to arrive many times every day. It reflected diamonds of sunlight from the spray of its nozzles and its surface shimmered watery crystals of light. When I took shortcuts through the courtyard, I would often stop and kick off my shoe and dip a toe in the water. If I had time, I would stop to sit on a nearby bench for a few minutes to just breath and be quiet and calm. The fountain grew to have a grounding effect for me, so that one day when I arrived earlier then usual to find the fountain still turned off for the night, it left me unsettled. I had to make a deliberate point to go back a little later, after the sun was up and the fountains turned on to refresh and calm myself before I felt fully well to face the day's adventures and uncertainties.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Secret Club

Every day that I was there, these strange flat small yellow people guarded this door. It must be some kind of secret club's meeting room or clubhouse or maybe they just keep their secret club regalia there or maybe it is something darker, but it is difficult to think of small yellow people as capable of dark thoughts and acts. I imagine happy things behind that door, though I know not why they would hesitate to share them with the rest of us. I asked them questions and they refused to answer. If I talked to them too long, the human people in the area gave me looks that indicated to me that they are protective of their flat yellow friends and that they wanted me to respect their privacy. I asked it they minded if I took their picture, and they did not say no, so I took the liberty. But they never did talk to me, so their mission and the nature of what is behind the door they guard remains a mystery.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Jolly Green Giant

I grew up with their advertising song on television. I suspect that the excitement of that time over the new technology of color television has something to do with the development of this icon or maybe he predated all that, but the medium sure did show him off. He was a kindly gentleman, cheerful and . . . green! He was always smiling, bending low to interact with humans, solely dedicating his life to getting us to eat more vegetables and therefore, presumably, enjoy greater health and vigor. And HOW MANY TIMES have I driven past the exit to see the fiberglass statue erected in his honor? You don't get much warning; a billboard and BAM there you are having to decide "Is THIS the exit?" Well, I was travelling low on sleep and any stop where I could get out and wander about a bit without making locals suspicious was welcome to me, so I shifted lanes and took the exit. And there he was! In all his green glory. It struck me as a bit odd that you ca climb metal stairs on the back side of his brick platform to stand on the platform between his giant legs and view the dramatic vista of the parking lot of some defunct business, but I went up there anyway, and photographed the guy from all angles. He has kind of a smirk on his face that is not quite as benevolent and kindly as I remembered, but perhaps that has much to do with the extreme angle of viewing him from below, and I am not certain his proportions are quite human and his curled shoes are more than a little creepy to me. But I present to you: The Jolly . . . . Greeeeeeen Gi-ant!

Virginia Creeper Over Lake Redstone Waters

A summer view of Virginia creeper over lake water. Makes me want to paddle!