Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Road Tripping

Sometimes I enjoy driving long distances because it is like a field trip with no theme. Instead of touring the cheese factory to observe cool new things and learn about cheese and the dairy industry or touring the tractor plant to get an inside look at an assembly line and electromagnets and welding and things related, you get a long rambling peek at thousands of interesting but unrelated things, leading to a trippy discombobulated mindset after a few hours.
There are the other vehicles and their wacky duct taped mirrors and garbage bag replacement windows. And the odd things other cars are hauling like three different kinds of barbecue grills on a trailer. And the weird things you can see through their windows like a office chair upside down in the backseat.
There are the things being hauled on trucks like giant machines with 'wide load' signs whose purpose you cannot discern and huge rolls of plastic tubing and many many nested truck bodies and layers of crushed cars and different sizes and shapes of lumber neatly shrink wrapped on pallets and wind tower blades that look elegant compared to the other riff raff on wheels.
There is the terrain. And the ecosystems. Flatter than flat land with no natural nature whatsoeveratall of Illinois give way rather abruptly to evergreens on steep hills in Wisconsin, followed by deciduous trees on rolling hills then fewer and fewer trees and flatter and flatter hills in Minnesota to hardly any trees at all that are not in straight lines in South Dakota.
And the fields. Corn. Corn. Oh, look more corn. Oh, soy beans. More corn. More corn. More corn. Ah, some baled straw, was that wheat? Between corn and corn? More corn. Again corn. Still corn. Corn as far as the eye can see. A pasture with cattle. Corn. Corn being chopped between corn waiting to ripen and dry to be picked much later.
And old landmarks like the rock formation and the army base at the same exit in Wisconsin and the truck-on-a-stick and the first Wall Drug sign a couple dozen miles before Sioux Falls.
And new landmarks like the cool nifty Minnesota visitor center that looks like a hybrid of an old grain elevator and a red barn and the increasing numbers of wind farms with their graceful sweeping motion and their classy white with silvery grey shadows.
And road construction zones and the variety in road construction marking devices and road construction equipment. Some of that makes you wish you could pull over and watch, but I bet that would piss off other drivers since there is often one lane each way and not much in the way of shoulder in either direction.
And the weird stuff that happens at gas station pit stops like conversations overheard about domestic fights and peoples' operations and the woman who was having a cell phone conversation from inside a bathroom stall while she went about her noisy business and I mean all versions of bathroom noisy business. Didn't ANY of those sounds carry through the phone to the other participant in the conversation? And with no hint of irony, at one point, she said "That was a really shitty thing for her to say to you. She is such an asshole."
Then there is the Groton speed trap. Really, does it do anything for the actual speeding rate to have a speed limit sign indicating a drop of 10 miles per hour at a curve? If people miss the sign because of the curve, isn't is just plain MEAN to make it a speed trap? Sure, the locals learn, but those of us 'not from around here' seem at a disadvantage. Would it not make more sense to move the sign a bit more out of town so that people see it before they begin to deal with navigating the curve and actually slow down on their own? Okay, the nice officer gave me just a 'warning' which I get to keep and use as a nifty book mark souvenir, but still. It took probably 4 minutes longer to get here because of that inconvenient stop.
All in all, I saw many interesting things and learned a few things too on my field trip with no theme today. I think I'll do it again in a week or so.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

I'm Glad to Press 1 for English

Yes, it adds about 2 seconds to your phone call and requires you to move the phone from the side of your head and lift a finger to press the button, but hey, exercise is good for you.

I, for one, am glad to press 1 for English if it means that new immigrants and recent immigrants and long ago immigrants get better service with banks and stores and utilities and better access to health care and to get tax questions answered as they fill out the forms to pay their share of taxes to city, county, state, and national governments.

There is a myth out there perpetuated by bigots that their ancestors assimilated faster than the current Mexican immigrants. That is simply false. A higher percentage of first generation Mexican immigrants uses English than previous waves of, say, German immigrants and Polish immigrants and Irish immigrants and Chinese immigrants, and an even higher percentage of second generation immigrants uses English, usually nearly exclusively. And contrary to bigot belief, there were multilingual services and multilingual schools in nearly every language all along the way.

Another ugly myth out there in bigotland is that bilingual schools delay assimilation, while the opposite is true. Kids who are taught with both languages in school learn English faster and more thoroughly, because it is used side by side with their first language, so that the differences in structure and grammar are obvious with daily exposure to the languages in use in real situations, and the kids taught in bilingual classrooms are more likely to be performing at grade level than those forced into English-only classrooms.

In all waves of immigration from all lands, it has been the young that learn the language of the land and served as interpreters for older family members, a burden that is not fair to them and not effective, asking children to interpret adult issues that they might not understand. And believe it or not, English only at the driver's licence department or the bank or on the phone to the electric company would result in longer lines and longer wait for YOU as other customers had to talk through their own family-member interpreters. Having Spanish available for those that can better understand in it keeps the country running efficiently and effectively for everyone.

And you know and I know how very difficult it is for an adult, especially an older adult, to learn a new language, once our brains are all firmed up and all. And think of how hard it is to find time for exercising or reading and you know how hard, especially when there is so much to do keep up with daily life, it would be to take a language class. And you probably know that if you had to move to France tomorrow, that you might pick up some words just from daily living there, but instead of massively re-educating yourself to speak French at the ripe old age of whatever you are, you'd probably just find some English-speaking folks to hang out with in some English-speaking neighborhood. But even then, it'd be easier for you because so many of the French over there have had the polite good taste to learn English. Maybe that is the answer: Make all English-speaking Americans go to school in the evenings to learn Spanish. Yeah, I like that. Free Spanish classes for those that can't afford them and at a fair cost to those who can. Then when we go to the Mexican restaurant or the Mexican bakery or the Mexican grocer, they won't have to put up with us trying to share their culture in English.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Words I Hate

We had a conversation once where we revealed to each other the word we most hated. His was "quonset" and mine was cuticle. I thought it would be cute a few months later to send him an envelope filled with all shapes and sizes of the word. He didn't think it was cute. It made him angry, in fact.
I don't have an issue with 'quonset' but I still dislike cuticle. It is the 'ik-llll' part that I despise. The abrupt change from 'ik' to the guttural 'lll'. The same unpleasant sounds appear in words like 'particle' and a similar shift occurs in 'municipal' and 'principle'.
Other words shift not into a guttural 'lll' but into a similarly nasty 'rrrr' such as in 'rectangular' where the pleasantly spelled 'lar' is pronounced with an ugly 'lrrrr'. Appearing also in 'spectacular' where the contrat between the meaning and that icky sound are profound, it is not nearly so annoying as when heard in 'nucular' which isn't even a word, but a bad bastardization of 'nuclear'.
Then there are the 'awwwww' words like 'mauve' and 'gaudy' and 'Maude' and 'tawdry' which at least ends in the upbeat 'ree' that perks it up and takes away the nausea caused by the 'awww'.
Is it odd to dislike the aesthetics of the sounds of a word? Is it a symptom of some deep psychological maladjustment or merely a sign of someone who wants all the world to be of pleasant sounds and shapes and colors and textures?
I wonder if he still hates the word 'quonset'? And if he has forgiven me for the little prank packet of words I sent so long ago?

Thursday, July 8, 2010

We Can Be Tribal Again

When we were tribal, many thousands of years ago, we lived with people night and day. We got up in the morning and greeted each other and adjusted the tasks at hand to the people present in order to get things rolling. We did those tasks in proximity to each other, doing some tasks together or maybe starting together and then one finishing, lending a hand to one another as we progressed. As we noticed some interesting thing, we could call it out and share it with others. If we encountered frustration, we could call that out and get a little moral support or even a helping hand if need be. If we felt something, we could announce it to check for normalcy and adjust our attitude if it was off or feel validated if others felt the same way. If someone annoyed us, we could gently tell them and get some feedback according to whether we or they were supported by those nearby, or we could just move our task over there by someone more closely aligned with our mood or style.

Then somewhere along the way, we got the idea we should shut ourselves away in separate homes, separate business locations, even separate offices within a larger business. We spent our evenings being entertained by a box with moving pictures and distracting sounds rather than with each other. Something was lost. That connection to the larger whole of society was weakened and that knowing how we as individuals were aligned with the larger group via that constant feedback was lost.

We got privacy but we lost connections and membership in an association of others.

Now we have FaceBook and Twitter and MySpace and email where we can send to a group and use reply all to answer to the group and we have some of that back. We can live tribal again.

We might be having a hard day and we can post that and friends will jump in with support. We might notice a beautiful sky and announce that and others will share their own observation or a memory or ask more about it. We might need ideas to solve a kid problem or be looking for a place to repair the car or need a product to remove a stain on a certain fabric, and someone out there is likely to have an answer or at least amuse us while we find it ourselves or console us if we can't. We can express an opinion and see who agrees or disagrees. We can learn from their responses.

It's the best of both worlds: We can leave the computer off and enjoy our privacy while we eat ice cream sandwiches in our underwear, or we can log on and chat and post and socialize with the tribe.

Friday, June 18, 2010

How To Weather A Storm

First, you have to live on a farm. Then you have to notice that it has gotten really dark in the middle of the day or that the sky is kinda a funny color and that the tops of the trees in the shelter belt are bent over about ninety degrees. Someone should say loudly "We should probably go to the basement." Someone should root around the junk drawer for candles and matches while someone else roots around the tool drawer for flashlights and spare batteries. Someone should go to the shop to get the men and someone should go to Grandma's to get her and hold her elbow while they rush across the lawn to the house. They should stop with her to comment on the trees. Everyone should convene in the basement. Discussion should ensue as to which corner they are supposed to be in. Someone should attempt to figure it out scientifically based on which direction weather patterns generally travel and someone should counter that with how it comes from every direction at some point when the tornado spiral is passing over. There should be discussion of the strongest part of the basement structure and dangerous things like the fuel oil tank and the gas water heater. One of the men should get curious and go upstairs to take a look-see. The other men should join after he doesn't come down after a bit. One of the women should dash upstairs for the camera and go out and stand behind the men and ask if they can see anything yet. The other women should get curious and go up. This leaves the kids and Grandma, who is just as curious and powerless to stop the kids from joining the rest in the front yard. She should make one kid stay back to help her get up the steps so she can see. When everyone is in the front yard watching, if there is or has been hail, someone should find a couple of the biggest pieces to put in the freezer. After it dies down, everyone should get in the car and drive around to look for crop damage and watch the water rushing through the ditches along the highways. The final stop should be that one place where the slope of the highway is misleading and it looks like the water is flowing uphill in the ditch. Then everyone should go home and have snacks. Remember to offer that Grandma should come in for snacks too and remember to help her back home afterwards. Go check on the hail stones in the freezer in the morning.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Missing Martha

"I couldn't save you."

First we didn't know each other. We were miles apart in every way. When we met, we didn't think we liked each other much. We thought we knew each others' "type" and thought we didn't like people like that. We got to know each other and found common ground in kids and a certain irreverent joy in life. We grew closer when we joined forces against a shared adversity. We learned to depend on each other for certain kinds of support, the kind you turn to when things seem out of control and all crisis-ey, when you need someone to feel sorry for you while at the same time spinning the thing into proper perspective so that you know what you knew all along and that is that you will survive this too. She needed so much after the accident and I had only so much to give without damaging myself. But I wanted to save her. I wanted to make her whole again. Once, I asked about her at the nurses station and I thought from the look she gave me from behind her computer screen, the nurse knew what I didn't what to admit yet: She would never be whole after this. I did what I could. But in the end, I lost her to the damage. I miss her. Sometimes not for days or weeks and then, sometimes, really hard. You do what you can but sometimes, even your best isn't enough.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Are Humans Warlike?

It has been suggested that humans are inherently warlike and that our future as a species will always include war. Some agree with me by saying "Yes, there will always be evil in the world that we will need to fight." But is war ever an answer to any evil? Or is it just a counter-evil? Are there other options? Are there always other options? Do we seek hard enough for options?

I listen to popular music and look around at society and what we do with our time and what we value and how we motivate ourselves and what we care about, and I am left agreeing that yes, humans have an insatiable desire for conflict that will always lead to war somewhere and at some time. I don't like that answer, but I can find nothing to justify any other opinion.

We love to rally ourselves together into a larger force and that rallying usually, in order to be FOR something, needs to be AGAINST something else. We are not just FOR a cleaner environment, we are AGAINST big oil and cancer causing chemicals and litter and suburban sprawl. We are not just FOR better health, we are AGAINST cancer and influenza and mental illness. We cheer on sports teams even more energetically if they are battling a long time rival that we can be clearly against. The more succinctly we can put a label and a cause on the thing we are against, the happier we are and the more 'good' we think we have done against it ant its 'evil'.

We love to have heroes and heroes have to have a foe and that foe has to come from within an enemy camp. Sure we can have a teacher as a hero, but often even that hero is most known for fighting AGAINST something like gangs in the school or a certain learning disability as opposed to just teaching more and better.

We tried team building in corporations but if the team was FOR a better product, the concept did little to motivate. If the team was placed in opposition to come competitor outside company, or if internal teams could be challenged to excel in come metric against internal teams, the concept lead to harder work and better quality. The 'enemy' had to be in place for the team to rally!

We love to insist that there is a 'force' of 'evil', but often the things we describe as evil are just the same things we do or reward in others. The Muslim terror bomber is giving their life for their God that wants them to act out against what they perceive is an evil of a world gone too materialistic, i.e. US, and yet, we see THEM as evil. At the same time, we revere the 'good' saints who give their lives literally as martyrs for their god or give their lives over to the service to their god. Maybe there is not evil at all, but just an exaggeration and perversion of normal human desires to accumulate goods, to accumulate territory, to protect turf, to protect family. The desire for power in the business world or in a service organization is called ambition and drive and is regarded as a good thing, but the desire for power in some sort of anti-government group is given other labels. But when the same mechanism is at work for something we do not agree with, how can it be called evil when it is admired in another context?

It is easy to think of a world divided by good and evil, but it is more difficult to accept that maybe the person we label evil is doing the same things we are but due to different motivations. It is easy to bomb and shoot, but it is more difficult to find ways that we can peacefully coexist over mutually desired outcomes. Can we find ways to convince the 'enemy' to disengage in behaviors we don't like by finding motivations for other behaviors?

When you get right down to it, most forces we call 'evil' are doing what they are doing for reasons that look and sound a lot like ours, to improve a situation for their people, their families, to glorify or defend their god. In fact, sometimes, they see us as the force of 'evil'. It hardly seems like violence is the answer in that case and it hardly seems like there will or even should be a clear 'winner'. Perhaps tolerance and conversation and more tolerance and more conversation would lead to a discovery of more in common with each other and less judging and labelling?

We somehow think our bombing and shooting is 'good' but can it ever really be?

Peace is hard work and I am frankly not sure we as humans really want it. We love a cause, we love our heroes, we love to have an enemy, we love to have things we can label 'evil' in contrast to the 'good' that we believe we possess and which possesses us.

Maybe if we ADMIT we love our war, then we can work harder to not use it? If we keep insisting we hate war, will we just keep allowing ourselves to justify using it in yet another 'exceptional' case, this one last time.

Do we indeed love war, and at what cost? Young lives lost, young bodies mutilated, young minds scarred. What will it take to make our love of the cause, the hero, the glory of victory, be outweighed by the love of our own individual people? What will make us give up our warring human ways?

Thursday, June 3, 2010

You Never Forget Your First Love

A blue VW convertible passed me the other day and I was reminded once again of my very first love. I am not in general a fan of blue, except in my babies' eyes or maybe a blue Hawaiian shirt on a salt and pepper haired man of a certain age, but your first love never stops triggering a certain feeling. My license to drive was just fresh in my wallet and we were on a family boondoggle to Watertown, South Dakota, when we stopped in to kill time at the Dodge dealership. It was my first inkling that my parents had been entertaining privately the idea of getting me a car, and I was too naive in the ways of car dealing to know that we were unlikely to actually walk, er, drive, out of the showroom with anything new that day, so I allowed myself to fall in love. It was a little sporty thing, and those more wise in the popular models of the time would know exactly what it was, but it was baby blue with navy blue accent trim and an ivory interior. They had me get in and try out the fit. Yeah! I could SEE myself cruising main street in that baby, I could SEE myself pulling into the school parking lot in that baby. I could SEE me in MY new car! And so, even though baby blue is far down on my list of favorite colors, always forevermore, a certain size car of a certain sweet pale blue will always make my heart flutter, just a little.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Irish Blessing

May the road rise up to meet you, may the wind be ever at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face and the rain fall softly on your fields. And until we meet again, May the earth hold you safely in the hollow of her hand.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Quiting Somthing Is The Hardest Thing

There are resolutions to change of all sorts, but the ones to DO something are far the easiest. If you are going to read more books or eat better, you get a thousand chances a day to put that into motion. Stop for a few minutes before heading off to work to read a chapter, read a little more before dinner and a little more before bedtime. Add some carrots to your lunchtime meal of a sandwich. Park father away and walk more. Clean a closet or a corner of a room and you are on the way to success. Take the steps. Do, do, do, take action, and so it is easy to score on the "do something" resolutions.
But giving something up is an entirely different matter. If you are going to stop eating salty things or stop drinking caffeinated beverages or quit smoking or give up a drug or cease a gambling habit or stop watching television or end your nail biting, you have a thousand thousand times a day to get it wrong. Even if you forego the morning coffee for a nice orange juice, the pot is still brewing when you get to work and even if you refuse to give in then, there are the multiple offers by the waiter at lunch and the drive past a half dozen Starbucks and Caribou's on the way to everywhere and the coffeemaker on the counter top when you get home. If you manage to get into the shower without that first cigarette, there is the drive to work and those poor souls smoking by the back door that would be glad to share one with you for the sake of your company and each time one of your friends takes a break and invites you along and the after lunch smoke you have to resist and at some point, you are sitting at your desk and every minute is one more minute you have to say no to getting up and going out for a smoke.
If you do that one in a thousand chances at the good thing, you have succeeded in your positive "do something" resolution, but you have to say no a thousand times each day to succeed in your "stop something" resolution and one of one thousand where you give in counts as failure for that day.
Making a "do something" change is a walk in the park compared to making a "quit something" change. And after a few days, the new "doing" starts to kick in as habit, but if you crave the thing you are quitting 10 fewer times each day, it is a hundred days before you have a single crave free day and even then, there are countless triggers in the world to pull you back.
The force of habit is an easy thing to make and a terrible hard long long road to break.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

This Isn't About You Unless You Think It Is

It was in high school. We were on a bus, probably a "pep bus" waiting to leave for a basketball or football "away" game somewhere. Some of us were horsing around and joking back and forth and she turned back in her seat to face me and said "Oh, Karma, you are soooo dramatic." And with that statement, she shut me down. I flushed red with embarrassment and shrunk down in my seat, the joke forgotten and all joy taken out of the moment. Others were uncomfortable, some annoyed at the both of us for wrecking their fun and some just at her for being so mean, but that was no consolation to me.

Ever after, I was careful to "keep it in line", moderate the drama, when she was around, or even when any of her friends who might talk were around. I was stifled, inhibited, leashed, under her steely nasty sarcastic patronising control. I hated it. I hated her. I see her photo now and then or come across an article about her, at least I used to, she seems to have faded into obscurity lately, and every time, I felt the shame, the embarrassment, the sharp sting of the put down.
What was it? Was I getting more attention than she was or was I just too over the top and it irritated her calmer demeanor? Was I really offensive in some way? It does not matter. It is not right, and certainly not kind to shut someone down like that.
So don't you do that to me. Don't ask me to be less than I am. Don't tell me to keep it down, don't tell me to relax or calm down. If I want to be over the top happy and joyful, you can either join in my delight or shut up and let me be. If I am sad and carrying on, don't dismiss me and tell me I am over reacting. You don't know how much it hurts me because you can't feel what I feel, so don't tell me it is not as bad as I am making it. Maybe it is a terrible big deal to me. Support me and care about me but don't put me down. If you can't be there with me and share the drama, the ups and down, then get away. Don't tell me to be less, feel less, express less, love less, care less, feel less joy and less sorrow. Don't make me be less of the whole me just to suit your comfortable blandness and social decorum of calm and polite. Let me be all of me or get out of my way.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Why The Tea Party Concept is Stupid

I've been watching the Tea Party movement with interest and that interest has turned into disappointment. You see, I was not completely happy with the outcome of the 2008 elections. Delighted as I was with the win by the Obama-Clinton ticket (okay, I am pretending she is Vice President instead of all too forgettable what's-his-name and instead of whatever all too forgettable position she really holds) I was not totally thrilled with the majority win in the legislature. There is danger in one group having too much power and there is benefit in a forum where multiple positions are forwarded and discussed and there is good when compromises that make everyone a little better off are made. But with the more or less implosion of the Republican party with their bland presidential candidate and their laughable vice presidential candidate, I was really hoping for a take-back of the party by the people. I was hoping for a resurgence of the traditional Republicans that were for less government and simpler government and accessible government and visible government and for the environment to they could hunt and fish and play in it and were for independence from other countries in the name of self-sufficiency instead of adversorialness and all those old fashioned traditional Republican values. I was hoping the traditional Republicans were going to kick the weird extreme "Religious Right" right out of their party and return to solid constitutional values of keeping government out of our religious life and our religious life out of our government. I was hoping and wishing that the Tea Party movement would be about that and about rallying support for those ideas and for recruiting new candidates aligned with those values and moving our country back to having a two party system that engaged in debate and cooperative or even competitive problem solving and real solutions.

Instead what we seem to have gotten is a motley crew of disgruntled rabblerousers hell bent on bashing Obama and blaming him for everything, including often contradictory things, that they see wrong with our nation.

But let's just go with one of their basic premises from whence they get their name: The concept of taxation, which they seem to be claiming is without representation or without adequate representation or just plain too much or something like that. And their solution seems to be that government is wrong and the process of government is wrong and they refuse to participate. So they get together now and then and insist they are not a political party for the purposes of putting forth candidates and they wave signs and yell and then they go home and brag on blogs about how many of them there were in attendance and write inflammatory pieces on the various concepts that were summarized in their misspelled signs.

But okay, I am sorry, you are NOT taxed without representation. Just because you LOST the elections does not mean you are not represented. No one guarantees everyone gets THEIR candidate in. If you are too lame and discombobulated and fractured to find GOOD candidates, well, it isn't OUR fault you lost. And WE didn't bitch about taxation w/o representation in the 8 years your guy was in the Oval office and your guys had majority rule of congress and senate. We got to work and found some good people to run.

So, we have a SYSTEM and the system works and the system represents all of us all the time even though the balance of whose side is in power may shift, so you ARE represented within this system and unless you are proposing some fixes, well, please shut the hell up.

I mean, unless you are really hoping to over throw the current government and displace the elected officials and replace the current system with your own, the only way to CHANGE anything about the system is to USE the system to change it from within. So no amount of rallying and bitching is going to fix anything. The way to end your alleged taxation without representation is to get down to work and define some platform issues that are real and honest and have broad appeal to traditional Republicans and to edit OUT the junk trash that has corrupted and tarnished and ruined your party, and by that I mean the constant references to religion and the constant attempts to intrude religion into government and the silly Obama bashing starting with the birth certificate nonsense and ending with harsh critiques of every single thing he does. And then find candidates that are willing to run on those core less-government less-expensive-therefore-less-need-for-taxes more-visible-government values and get to work getting them in office, and once they are there, don't let them waste time protecting your oil interests and your war interests, but get them to work on paring out silly laws and simplifying and restructuring and making the government truly representative of the people.

To review, the only way in this country to implement change is to work within the system to change the system. And your silly Tea Parties do nothing to that end. While I support your freedom of expression and to gather, until you get it together and start to work the system instead of rejecting it with silly anti-everything signs, I also support the right of the entire rest of the world to laugh at you.

Thursday, April 29, 2010


It was one of those family holidays where we were gathered with the cousins and aunts and uncles at Grandma's house, which was the rural equivalent of about a block away from our house on the same farmstead. In the usual way of childhood fickleness and temporary allegiances, for some reason unremembered, my sister and my cousins were refusing to play with me and I was nearly hysterical with sorrow and frustration and shame. My mother saw me crying off in some corner and rather than lecture and force the issue with the errant cousins, merely took my hand and walked me out the door. We walked to our house, where she took me into the living room and picked out not just one but a whole STACK of books, and settled me in next to her on the sofa and began to read to me. No pointless questions about why they were shunning me or who did what, but merely showing me maternal attention that was a pure and true form of affection, and showing it to me exclusively. Nestled there next to her, hearing her calm and smooth voice reading stories to me, I have never felt more loved. That moment would never leave me. No matter what happened ever, that day or for the rest of my live MY MOTHER LOVED ME. At that moment in time in fact, my mother loved me most of anyone or anything in the whole WORLD.
That is all you need to know, that one person loves you and will be on your side when you need it.
Soon, we grew a bit bored with the books and a little curious what was going on back at Grandma's house, maybe a little hungry for the lavish banquet of holiday foods, so we set back off down the path. And having established such lovely rapport with the reading, we chatted all the way and were still chatting when we walked in the kitchen door to find the family engaged in the usual chatter and laughter and banter. The cousins who had wanted nothing at all to do with me previously now realized me for the valued celebrity that I was and wanted to know where we had been and what we had been doing and suddenly wanted, needed desperately to include ME in their games and activities.
All was right with the world and I hope I gave my mother one last smile of thanks before I ran off to play with them.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Lost Camera, Revisited

Some have kindly suggested that the loss of the camera frees me to enjoy the experience of paddling, to enjoy my hike in the woods, to enjoy the views and the flowers for their pure beauty instead of their potential as a photographic image, to experience the experience without the obligation to photograph.
While I appreciate the friendly efforts to console and cheer me, I cannot really relate to that advice.
To me, part of the joy of nature IS the joy of capturing it in a photograph. To me, there is joy in seeing a beautiful scene and in the process of deciding to frame just a certain part of it to convey a specific message. When you see, you see whole panoramas, you see objects in their situation and in their relationship to all the things around them, but in making an art image, you must edit out much of that and make a conscious choice of what to include and what to exclude. Those decisions determine what message the viewer will take away from the art. Sometimes, there is more than one message, such as the beauty of an individual tree in fall foliage, the beauty of that tree surrounded by others of different shape and color, the separate beauty of the relationship of the reddening leaves to the red rock that gives our Lake Redstone its name, the shape of the individual leaf, or even the vein pattern on part of that leaf. Sometimes, the plant covered in flower is one message and the individual flower with pollen drifted onto its leaves is another and the visiting bee, with its leg pollen sacks stuffed to overflowing is yet another. Ferns say one thing from this angle with the leaf litter under the fronds and another thing from another angle where they rise up to the sky. Lit from behind, the leaf is a glowing bright green that stuns while photographed from the same side as the light source presents a more solid earthy sheen to the surface. Photographing the nature is a way to look at it more deeply, in more detail, to explore the relationships among the parts of the natural world, and to enjoy far more about it than would be seen at first glance. Photographing, or rather the looking and the deciding what message to convey, make nature a richer experience for me and allow me to see more deeply into the relationships and more precisely into the details. Quick, how many lobes on a maple leaf? What is the back side of a white oak leaf like? Where are the legs attached to a bee's body? In taking the photographs and viewing them later, these sorts of things can be studied and learned.
Photography to me is NOT an obligation but a joy, and a way in which I experience more fully the joy that is out there in the world. It is also a reason to linger. Someone might think me a kook if I just stopped and lingered too long in front of their house to look at their magnolia tree buds or their rose shrub thorns quite closely, but if I have a camera in hand, I can inspect and peek and stare and study and no one calls the police or yells at me or send their dog after me. They just smile at the crazy camera lady and leave me be to my joyful soaking in of the details of the world.
And then there is the sharing it with you. I NEED those images to show to my kids and to my spouse and to my mom and to my sister, to email around to friends. to post on this blog, to post on Facebook, to share my story. "I went for a paddle today" is some news, yes, but accompanied with a dozen of the finest shots, it makes other people smile a little bit and hopefully inspires them to get outdoors for a paddle or a walk on a trail or even just around their neighborhood, and maybe the pictures of the things closeup makes them walk a little slower and look a little harder and notice things of beauty that might have been missed. Maybe it makes them love nature a little bit more and support the conservation efforts of some local organization or vote for the candidate who has a 'green' record.
A walk or a paddle with no camera is just me alone, but with a camera, I bring you all along and share it with you in that little way and it is not just me alone anymore but all of us loving nature and our surroundings together. Yeah, it really it that big. I need my camera!

The Lake's Steely Grip

I've heard the tales of others' mishaps, dropped keys, eyeglasses, sunglasses, fishing tackle, favored barware dropped from the pontoon boat serving as party barge, tools dropped while assembling and dissassembling the dock or working on a boat motor, and the very modern versions with dropped cell phones and GPS devices. So when I am out paddling in my little canoe with my treasured camera, I have a system. The camera goes into the chest pocket of my life vest in a zip lock bag. When I am taking landscape photos of the scenery and fellow paddlers, the wrist strap of the camera is snapped into the strap that holds that pocket closed. I can take most pictures with the camera safely snapped into its combined pocket strap/wrist strap tether. When I need to reach out to take a shot of a shoreline flower or the leaves of an overhanging branch, the wrist strap goes around my wrist where it belongs. Alas, the weak point in that fine chain of safety procedures is the transfer point between pocket and wrist, and it was just such a weak point that allowed my beloved camera to be stolen from me last week. I was drifting under some overhanging shoreline branches trying to shoot a little bright green plant growing in a leaf litter filled gap in a tree root that had been eroded bare along the bank, when I decided I had to put the camera away and do some serious remaneuvering to get around an offending shrub that was blocking the perfect angle. I had slipped the camera off my wrist and was moving it to the vest pocket when my boat drifted me into a tree branch that snagged the camera and some other part of me or my boat then released itself to fling the camera out into the water. At least that is what I think happened. One moment I was sliding the camera into its plastic bag lined pocket and the next, I was watching bubbles rise about a foot and an half from my boat.
I stared at the bubbles, stunned. I cussed. I tried to look down into the water to see if it was visible. I stuck my paddle straight down in to see how deep it was: about 4 feet. When you can't swim, four feet under water might as well be fifty. There was no way I could go into the water along that shore of rocky boulders to ever try to get it back, especially not when out there alone. The lake had my camera as though in a steel trap, as though buried a dozen yards underground, as though on the surface of the moon. I would not be taking any more pictures with that one or even retrieving from it all the wonderful shots I had taken so far that day. I cussed some more. I cried. I called my husband on my cell phone, daring the risk of the loss of another electronic devise. He said it was just stuff and to enjoy the rest of my paddle. I cried some more. And paddled away, after one last look at the unphotographed pretty little plant growing in the tree root. And I paddled resolutely down the middle of the channel to the lake. With no camera to photograph it, I chose to avoid the shoreline with its taunting spring wildflowers and fresh green mosses and ferns and rock shapes and sculptural tree roots. I stayed out farther in the deeper water and paddled continuously, testing my stamina and my fears of the deeper waters. I paddled one landmark past the farthest I have paddled alone and then turned around to head for home. It was about then, in that last half hour before sunset, that the light wind diminished totally, and the clear bright light of the low angled sun made the shoreline trees glow warm and brilliant. The reflections in the water were perfect, rippled slightly in a uniform pattern, much like looking at a mirror made of antique rolled glass. I could read the words of the shoreline signs in their reflections, I could see individual catkins on the reflections of the birch trees, I could count the five individual needles that identify the shoreline trees as white pines in their beautiful perfect reflections. Ah, the photographs I could have taken. But I just paddled slowly, cognizant of the limited daylight left in which to make my way back to the home dock. I stopped now and then to drift and soak in the beautiful perfect views. It occurred to me at one point that the views were so perfect that it was as if there was no surface to the water and I was suspended above a perfect upside down world. I decided not to dwell on that thought too long, lest it rouse my latent fear of heights to combine with my suppressed fear of water which might come to bad result in my heightened emotional state of loss about the camera and joy about the beauty around me. So I paddled and drifted and enjoyed the amazing reflections of the beautiful nature of the lake.
And in case you are fond of details, I ordered a replacement camera last night. It was a $215 mistake.

Friday, April 9, 2010

They Grow Up So Fast

I am going to try to write this without crying. People tell you this when you are pregnant and when your kids are little: Enjoy them while they are young because they grow up too fast. I am kind of a bitch about being told what to do, especially by strangers, but this one, I always welcomed. I had known friends and relatives who had kids years before me and now some of those babies were in their early teens. I knew it was so so true, and I welcomed those occasional reminders.
And I did treasure my kids. I held my babies more than the books said you should and I took too much time off from work to hang out with them and sometimes I left work early to get them out of daycare just because I missed them. I tried to remember to take them special places on days off and weekends and in the summer. I tried to remember to take them with me on errands as often as they would agree to come with me and I tried to talk to them in the car and at dinner and whenever I got a chance. Sometimes I am sure they were rolling their eyes, thinking, Jeeze, Mom, get your own life.
And now, now the oldest one has been at college for three years and I still miss him every day and the youngest one is deciding which college to go to in the fall, an especially mean trick of life since having him be my only child has made me get to know and adore and enjoy him more than ever.
And so, there is this thing I do. When I am out in public places, I smile at kids and I smile at their parents and sometimes I even tell them something good about their kids. "Aw, even when he is tired and a little cranky, he still cracks a beautiful smile" or "Your kids play together really well!"
Today, at a cafe in a big department store, a tiny boy was crying and having a fit as his grandmother was trying to watch him while the mother got their meals. But the grandmother gave up and took him to his mother, so when the mother got to the table with all their meals stacked on one tray in one hand and the boy in the other arm, she set down the tray and roughly plunked him into his seat. He was at the edge of crying all over again. I looked him straight in the eyes and smiled my biggest goofiest smile. He smiled back. His mother noticed and I smiled at her. She said "Oh, aren't you a pretty boy!" and went from angry and frustrated to delighted in her beautiful son again.

It's a small gift I can give to remind tired and cranky parents what a joy their kids are and it takes some of the sting out of how grown up and independent my own boys are.
Yes, I miss them as they move on to their own lives, but it's what we have them for: To enjoy and shape and send out into the world to make their own ways. My success at raising them to be competent and confident was due to involvement that makes it all the more bittersweet for the connections we share.

If you are a parent of young kids now, take a deep breath and reach for the joy: Appreciate them as much as you can every moment of every day because the DO grow up so so fast.

If you are a parent whose kids have grown up and moved on, take the time to share a smile with somebody else's kids and to remind them to enjoy their beautiful children who will grow up oh so much too fast too!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010


Yes, I know: Resolutions are usually made at the beginning of the New Year, around the first of January. But as a person subject to Seasonal Affective Depression Disorder (S.A.D.D.) who is prone to deep dark moods in winter and also subject to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (A.D.H.D.) who tends to go overboard with enthusiasm for things and then abandon them with equal fervor, January just seems like a bad time for introspection and goal setting. The introspection is apt to be overly critical and dark, due to my moodiness from lack of sunshine. And I am apt to go gung-ho off into some therefore misguided self-improvement plan then abandon it in despair and misery when it does not yield immediate and abundant results. Instead, winter for me, post-holidays, is mainly a matter of 'getting through'. Getting up and getting showered and dressed each day can be hurdle enough and seeing some people and doing some things are added bonuses. Just get by.
The turning point for me is spring break. Having kids who, to my thinking, must be entertained in grand manner during their holiday from school forces me to focus on planning a trip and executing the steps to get us there. Once on our trip, there is time during each day of touristy touring and quiet nature appreciation to objectively think and assess and analyze and ponder what has been going on and where improvements could be made. And then, on return, when the days are longer and the weather more mild and the flowers blooming on the trees and the ground, I can make my list of what I want to do and accomplish and change and improve. The list will be made on the optimism of spring rather than the gloom of winter and I can immediately begin to put my plans in action and expect a measure of success. The list is make, the process begins. Happy New Year!

Sunday, March 28, 2010

All of Us

To my left, a table of dancers
and physical therapy students.
Talk of injuries and recovery,
grants and sponsors,
strategies for getting credits to graduate,
the fate of an absent student,
the challenge of learning a new dance assignment.
In front of me to the right a bit,
engineering and science majors.
Passing a calculator across the table,
a golf game being set up for tomorrow,
the cost of tickets for a dance,
which problems are included in a certain homework,
advice to avoid a certain difficult instructor.
Very different people, very different areas they study,
very different conversations,
so it goes for a while as I read my book,
but then
both tables are talking about
inertia, momentum, movement in time,
using the same words with the same meanings.

One experiences it in their dance,
the other studies it in their equations.
What they have in common are
the forces we all move through
known and unknown.
We all share
Care for each other.
Another student arrives,
I offer them the extra chair at my table,
they thank me with smiles
and for a moment
we are all one people,
sharing one moment,
dancers, engineers, visiting mom.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Roof Architecture and God

Where did Anson Johnson and Jay le Rondein and such modern architects get their inspiration for the low flat topped horizontally oriented style that they are so well known for? In 1947, a group of American architectural students took a southern European field trip that included Andelania, an island off the coast of Spain. This large island of volcanic mountains had only flat roofs on their homes and offices and buildings. The building codes of the independent island state cited concerns about rain and snow runoff harming people outside the building and undermining the foundations of the buildings by dumping too much precipitation too close to the building itself, so the flat topped roofs were slightly concave to collect the rain water and snow melt water and channel it through plumbing to be deposited far from the building. In fact, the towns' first sewer systems were to carry this roof rain water away from the buildings and were only later copied to carry waste water away from homes via underground plumbing systems. In early times, the rain water went through underground piping while household sewage was carried out of town in barrels and dumped. Later, a piggyback system was build in a layer on top of the rain drainage system to carry the household waste. The architecture students of the '40s liked the aesthetics of the horizontal flatness of the buildings an the layers of the multistory buildings. They found it to be an interesting contrast to the sloping and vertical nature of the surrounding cliffs and mountains of the island, and carried the images back home to their American architectural studios where it played in a rebellious and innovative way against the overdone steeply pitched roofs of the Victorian and Gothic and Colonial Revival houses popular at the time. The completely flat roof did present problems of excessive snow accumulation, so the style quickly evolved into the low pitched roof of the suburban ranch style, with just enough pitch to shed snow but not so much as to echo the steepness of the traditional residential steeply peaked houses so popular then.

Only when architectural historians visited the island in later years was the true origin of the flat roof uncovered. In much earlier historic times, the population of the island worshipped Vol, a god that was thought to reside inside the volcanoes. When Vol was angry, legend said, the earth would shake and tremble. If Vol got angrier still, a dome of one of the island mountains would begin to swell and bulge. If Vol became even angrier, ash and fire and lava would spew from the dome and cover fields and roads and houses and towns and kill wildlife and livestock and people. At the first sign of displeasure, the people would hold meetings and attempt to figure out who among them was displeasing the volcano god. If someone had plowed a field the wrong direction, and had pointed the rows directly toward the volcano god, it was decided that Vol was angry that the person did it to mock him, and that person could be declared the source of the trouble and killed at the base of the rumbling dome. These 'trials' escalated as the volcanic activity escalated, with sometimes whole villages sacrificed to appease the god. In early times, shelters consisted mainly of a ramada type architecture of post supporting beams that supported thatching of reeds and rushes and grasses to shed rain. One village higher on the slopes, where snowfall was prevalent, had adapted a peaked shape to their roofs to more effectively shed the snow. This shape for houses was becoming popular when the volcano of that peak began to show activity. The usual violators were sought out and sacrificed but the volcano erupted one day in late summer anyway. The first thing to light on fire from the burning cinders blasted from the volcano were the peaked thatched roofs. Coincidentally, as the lava flowed down from the dome above, this city was engulfed and a nearby village that had not adopted the peaked roofs was spared. A swelling in the land above the village diverted lava flow to either direction around it, but it did appear from the village as though some guardian hand might have caused the flow to go to either side. This was the origin of the prohibition against peaked roofs. They were for many centuries seen to offend the volcano god because they were thought to be an image of his shape and therefore a mockery of the god himself. Eventually, when Christian missionaries in the 1890s converted the Vol worshippers to Catholicism, the beliefs in Vol and the sacrifices to him were ceased. But still, when the village wrote up its 'modern' building code ordinances, scientific reasons were offered up for various dangers and disadvantages of sloped roofs, and flat roofs were mandated by law. To this date, the cities and the state still mandate flat roofs, and manage to find various engineering data sets which they cite in order to support this preference.
It is a certainly good thing that religion and ancient myth are never allowed to enter into the laws of the obviously much more advanced and civilized country that is the United States of America.

Red Beads

Something landed on the branch of the star magnolia just outside my window, on a brisk March day when the fat and furry bud cases were barely cracked open to reveal white petals within. The movement of settling wings in the periphery of my vision is what caught my attention. I turned my chair to see it was him, there on my branch, keeping his balance by the shifting of his tail feathers. In his beak, he held a strand of red beads, transparent glass, and they seemed to glow from within in the low light of the afternoon sun. He looked at me directly, first with one eye, then the other. I left my desk, grabbed my jacket off the hook by the door, and went outside. He hopped down branch to branch until he was at my shoulder, where he looked at me again, with one eye at a time, twisting his neck from side to side, a habit he knew annoyed me.
"I thought you weren't coming back," I said. He pushed his beak, still holding the beads, toward me. I cupped my hands under them as he let them drop. He shook his head and said, "I lied. You know I always do that." "I forget," I answered and walked toward the back yard. "AWWWW," he called, "Don't go away!" I kept walking. He tried to take flight from the tree but its branches got in the way of his wing feathers. He was forced to drop to the ground, waddle out from under it along the path to more open ground, where he could take flight. He flew out to beyond where I was headed, then circled. "You're mad I came back?" he asked in a pass near my head that made me instinctively duck and swerve a little, which only served to aggravate me further.
"I'm mad you left. What do you think?" I answered, turning away. "You know I can't live in a house and you won't live in a tree. Do we have to go over all that again?" he snapped. "Where did you steal the beads?" I asked, hoping to offend him. "Bought them. Mexico." he answered. "So you shifted to buy me beads?" I couldn't decide if I was touched or angered. "Fly with me," he demanded.
"No." I draped the beads over the branch of a witch hazel tree, longing to pause to smell the curled yellow blossoms. Instead, I turned and walked toward the house, feeling him fly past my head once and again as he made passes through the yard. I went inside and closed the door, leaning back against it for a second. I heard a loud long "Cah-aaaaawwwww" from high in the sky, then the branch by the window scraped the siding when he landed. I did not look out the window. I opened the basement door, pulled the chain to turn on the light, and stepped down into the musky space where I could not look out windows to let him catch my eye. I folded laundry, sheets first, drawing my arms wide to pull the wrinkles out, smoothing the fabric with each fold, then the towels, snapping each one crisply and creasing it slowly and firmly, perfect quarters, perfect thirds, a perfect stack. I looked around for more to do, but things were in order. I climbed the steps, my feet heavy. Silence. I paused and took a deep breath before I opened the back door. Only the beads were there, draped over the outside knob, swinging against the white paint as my hand shook on the inner knob.
I scanned the sky, the bare high branches of the trees along the property line. I pulled the shining beads from the doorknob. There were many shapes and graduated sizes, a carved glass flower in the center, leaf shaped beads to each side. It was beautiful, perfect. The glass beads felt cool in my hands. I held them to my heart. I could feel it pounding: Was he gone for good this time?

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Fear Itself

"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." I don't know where that came from and I suppose I could look it up, but the provenance is irrelevant, really. When I was in that reading frenzy that all pregnant women enter to try to figure out exactly what was going to happen to me and how something the size of a small fire extinguisher was going to get from in there to out here, I would find reference to hormones that would make sure you never remembered the pain afterwards. Oh, yeah, that was comforting: It's gonna hurt like hell but you won't remember. It was a lie anyway: For a while, the memory was quite vivid and easy to call back up, so I am not so sure about the hormones that were supposed to take care of that. But now, 17 and 21 years later, I can say that I don't have a clue what the physical experience felt like. But I still retain vivid memories of the fear. The sense of not being in control and not knowing what was going to happen next were overwhelmingly terrifying for me. I wanted to DO something, wanted SOMEONE TO DO something to retain control of the situation. And when I think now of the things I most dread, it is the fear of the unknown, of what will happen and of not being able to control it.
The phone calls about the illnesses of parents, the waiting in the Emergency Room with a child, the news that a friend is going in for some sort of scan, what I remember most is the fear, the loss of control, the being a victim of whatever had happened and not having a way out or a choice.
My fear of water was like that. Since I cannot swim, I cannot afford for the boat to over turn, and with someone steering or paddling or another person or two even riding in the canoe, there is the risk that they will do something to overturn the boat. When I got my own one person boat, there was fear of waves, of wind pushing me, of current pulling me, and those fears of not being able to control the course of my boat brought me to the edge of panic. But learning to balance and paddle my boat, to steer it to where I wanted it to go, to paddle it back to a place I wanted to be, to stay on course in wind and waves, to learn to control my destiny in my boat on that water on that day keep the fear at bay.
And conquering one fear, standing up to the forces that caused that fear, gives you confidence about facing other fears. I will always fear giving a talk or teaching a class, but I will do fine. I will fear the reactions of people to whom I am presenting a project, but if they don't like things, I will fix them, or explain why they must remain that way and I will do fine. I will fear the airplane ride, but statistics tell me we will land safely, and I will be fine.
Back when I was delivering those babies, I should have focused less on trying to control the external factors, and more on controlling the fear within. The baby will come because the body knows how to make that happen. Let that process take its course, and manage the fear itself. In a canoe, see the waves, face them, and keep paddling, that part is simple, but the fear is a separate thing to be given focus and managed. Each time it is pushed back into its box, it comes out later and weaker and is more easily pushed down.
There is nothing to fear but fear itself, and when we tear fear down to physical symptoms, a lump in the back of the throat, a feeling of the insides rising, sweating, shaking, feeling lightheaded, none of that is terribly unpleasant in itself. If we stay in the moment during fear and stay still and swallow and breath and wait out the panic and calm the symptom for what it is, a physical process in our body and our brain, we can conquer the fear feelings, the fear itself. And what freedom that brings, what confidence that brings. But it is not something you do once. You learn to back down the fear and you do it again and again, every day. But knowing you have before and that you can and will makes it doable!

Friday, March 19, 2010

Damage Beyond Repair

She sold houses. She was good at it. I had worked for her sister and her sister lied like a flounder so when the sister told me she won the top sales award nearly every month, so much that she hardly ever went to the awards banquets anymore, so much that the other sales people in the office were jealous of her, I was skeptical. But one day, long after the accident, I was looking for a kitchen utensil of some sort in her kitchen and opened one of the deep bottom drawers and it was filled with plaques. There were easily dozens of them in there. All the monthly awards and a bunch of annuals ones on bigger plaques.
She was working into the evening on a Friday, between Christmas and New Year's, a slow time for house sales, but you never knew when some young couple would get the hankering to take a look at the models, so she was there. She ran out for something, left a note on the door and took just her wallet, not even her whole purse or her coat. Cigarettes? A snack? Advil or eye drops? A magazine because it was that slow? Who know why she left the office, she certainly didn't remember. She was just going to zip across the street into the strip mall, apparently, and she didn't have her seat belt on, though reports varied as to whether that helped or harmed her. She probably looked both ways and then darted out in her little black car and SLAM! From out of nowhere, a big landscaper's pickup with snow plowing hydraulics on the front bumper broadsided her little car, crushing, bending, twisting it and plowing it along the street up onto the curb. It was dusk and witnesses said he did not have his headlights on, so it was probably in that period between light and dark where the shadows and lights play tricks and maybe she just didn't see him. Some witnesses said he was speeding, but they might have just been piling on because they were angry with him. They said she was thrown into the other side of the car and people helped her out of the passenger side and helped find her wallet for the police and ambulance attendants. They said she was out and walking around and talking. By the time the ambulance got her to the emergency room, her brain was swelling from the sudden impact and they put her into a coma to minimize the effects of the concussion. They found oh so many injuries, a broken pelvis and a broken ankle and bruises and scrapes and long later, after weeks in the hospital and more in in-patient rehab and many more in outpatient rehab, she was still having wrist pain, so they x-rayed and found a break that had never healed because it was never immobilized. The physical wounds eventually mostly healed but her brain never did. She could still sell houses like nobody's business, but she got the paperwork wrong. Or told them the wrong numbers. Or just didn't get the paperwork done at all. They gave her a secretary, but she gave the secretary wrong information or forgot to tell the secretary to do things. Or forgot to show up for meetings or appointments. In the end, they let her go. Too many angry customers who thought they had a deal in the works and didn't, or some detail was wrong at closing and so it fell through. She bounced from job to job, worked a while even for the dry cleaner who cleaned her fancy suits and blouses for years. And oh, yeah, she didn't have health insurance because she was supposed to be on her husband's as part of the divorce agreement many years before but about 2 months before the accident, he got tired of paying it and dropped her. So the medical bills bankrupted her. Oh, yeah, and while she was in the hospital and rehab, her sister went to pharmacies and picked up her pain meds 'for her' and kept them, so when she'd go to get them, they'd be gone. And she'd worry that she'd lost them or was losing her mind.
There is a prairie at the rehab center. I have always wanted to see it, and today, on my way to pick up drafting supplies for a project I didn't want to work on indoors, I stopped there. Wandered the prairie, listened to the dried grasses rustling in the wind, watched the birds dart about the seed heads of the dried prairie flowers. And remembered it all.
There is no lesson. It just happened. It was terrible. I did what I could for her, but in the end, no amount if visiting and running errands and supportive phone calls can fix a broken brain. I don't know where she is. She moved so many times because she could not make the rent and each time, she was embarrassed to tell me. We exercised at the gym together and kept having lunch and then she stopped calling or answering calls or emails. I miss her. I heard she is living with her mother. I don't know her mother's name. I have searched for her on-line. I have lost her. I miss her.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

What Dwight Started

He was a meeting speaker in the early days of our new garden club. He had been an expert in terrariums and a grower and shipper of terrarium plants in the big terrarium boom of the 1970's. He had us each bring an empty wine bottle and he brought the plants and the soil and my kids and I took to it like ducks to water. We still have a few from those days, and while some didn't quite make it, we just keep making more. Here's what I learned starting with that talk at garden club by Dwight Lund.
We are talking about a closed nearly sealed terrarium here, not some giant brandy snifter with a wide open top. If it isn't closed, it is just a dish garden. And those decorative glass paneled miniature greenhouses don't count either, unless the edges of the glass panes have all been caulked to seal them. With their panes left loose, they lose too much moisture to count as true terrariums. Yet a terrarium is not totally sealed either, as it might require some tweaking and at some point, a bit of interior glass cleaning.
Selection of the container is the first step. It needs to be of clear glass to allow light in. It needs to be able to be closed. Wine bottles can be closed with a shooter marble. Larger bottles can be closed with larger marbles and large ball bearings. Canning jars with modern ring lids work, as do the older and reproduction ones with the glass lid hinged on with wire. Lidded candy and cookie jars and apothecary jars work. If you use something like a wine bottle that would have ended up in the garbage or something used from the resale shop, that would be a better thing than purchasing something.
The container needs to be clean and DRY so plan ahead. It is more trouble than it is worth to plant into a container with any moisture in it, because the soil sticks to the edges and makes a mess. Wash it and leave it open to dry well in advance of planting day.
You will need a tool for poking around in there. Make it first and have it ready instead of frantically scrapping about mid-planting in desperate search for something. Chopsticks and wooden or bamboo skewers work if your container is small enough. If your container is larger or if your container has walls that angle out from the top very much, you need a bendable tool, and the very best thing for that is a disassembled wire coat hanger. Cut off the twisted part and use the lower straight parts. Unbend the corners and reach one end in all the way to the farthest corner of the bottle. Bend a little U in the very end to use as a tiny shovel. Leave a few inches at the top to hold onto, bending the end into a handle if there is enough. Make another curved one that reaches the walls of the terrarium if needed.
Dwight taught us to use a bit of gravel in the bottom, then some charcoal, then a bit of soil. This is how we all did it in the '70's but my experience and science I have read tells me otherwise. The gravel serves no purpose in a terrarium because there should never be so much water that it needs to drain away. It looks cool to have layers, so go ahead if you want, and use sand or gravel or stones but know it is only for looks, not function. Charcoal is another matter. Myth has it that it absorbs odor, but who cares in a sealed terrarium? It is alkaline, hence the statements that it 'sweetens' the soil. But most potting soil is fine as it comes. Some things I have read state that its slight alkalinity keeps mold from growing, and if that is the case, you would want it on the surface. This is horticultural charcoal, little 1/4" or smaller irregular granules and not the same at all as charcoal briquettes. Don't even try to crush a briquette - it is not the same stuff. If you are going to be careful about watering and monitoring, this will not be needed anyway. Mold grows when it is too moist in there.
Soil can be anything of quality. Dirt from under mature trees, from under the mulch or leaf litter, as long as it doesn't have chemicals from the lawn or from colored mulch. It can be potting soil, but look before you buy. The soils that have styrofoam in them are just plain ugly and the styrofoam serves no purpose other than to lighten the soil for shipping. Perlite is a crunchy granular porous material used in soil that is too bright white for my taste. Vermiculate is greyish silvery layered substance and is fine. You need far less than you think. The plant in your terrarium is not going to grow very aggressively and just a tiny bit of soil is plenty. In a wine bottle, you will need about an inch and a half of soil. In a quart jar, an inch might be plenty. In a 5 or 10 gallon glass carboy, those bottles that water cooler water used to come in, about 3 inches is plenty.
Plant selection is key to success. The plant should have a mature height that is less than your container. It should be a plant that likes high humidity. Cactus are often recommended since they do not need much water, but they are prone to rotting in high humidity. If the soil has enough water for their roots, there will be too much evaporated into the air in the jar for their tops, which are suited to a high evaporation desert. Air plants (Tilandsias) are often recommended but they too will rot in a too high humidity environment. They grow in tree tops where there is a great deal of air movement. These plants are fine for open dish gardens, but NOT for closed terrariums. Some that I have had success with are creeping fig, whihc also comes variegated with white, small leafed ivies, a creeping foamflower, pellionia, muehlenbeckia, strawberry begonia, and those plants sold as shamrocks around St. Pat's day. They must be plants that grow in the humid rain forest or the humid wetland floor.
The plant must be able to be fit into your jar or bottle's opening. The leaves can be folded or rolled if they are soft, such as ivy or creeping fig, but more brittle leaves will just break, so choose a good match between bottle opening and plant leaf type.
The first step is to put the soil into the terrarium container. Try your best to keep soil off the glass. Make a paper collar or paper funnel to gently drop the soil through. It is easier to keep it off the glass than it is to clean it off later! Use your tool to poke it in place.
Then take your plant out of the pot that it came in and gently tease off as much soil as you can. Squeeze, shake, wiggle, poke, crumble, tug, prod, agitate, until you have freed each plant from the others and as much soil from the roots as you can. Once the plant is free from its neighbors and from much of its soil, it is ready to plant. If your container has a wide open top, such as a cookie jar or candy jar, wrap the loosely in a paper cylinder, stand the cylinder on the soil, and release the paper from the plant. If your container has a narrow neck, make a paper funnel of clean paper and work the plant through the funnel, rolling the leaves gently to fit them through. Once the plant is in the container on top of the soil, use a tool to move it to the side of where you want it to be planted. Use the tool to poke and scrape open a hole the size of the plant's roots. Poke the plant roots into the hole, and poke the dirt around the roots. Use the tool to shake the plant a bit to remove any soil that got on the leaves and to settle the soil and roots together.
Now for the watering. Stop here and take a deep breath. Say to yourself ten times "Less is better. I can add more later. It is really really really hard to get water out and really really really easy to add too much. Moderation is magnificent." Are you calm and restrained? If not, read that over again. You have been warned: DO NOT OVERWATER. Overwatering is the preferred failure method of most terrarium makers. Avoid being this cliche! So, if you are ready to begin watering SPARINGLY, take a look at your container. If it is a pint or quart jar or a wine bottle, you will need to drop in water by the teaspoonful. If it is a larger cookie jar or lidded jar, maybe tablespoons are more the ticket. If it is a five or ten gallon carboy, start with a quarter cup. Pour in that water and wait for it to be completely absorbed by the soil. If there still appears to be dry soil, try another spoonful. If there are not dry pockets, stop now. Put on the lid or stopper, and let it be.
If you got soil on the walls of the jar or container, DO NOT try to run water down the side to remove it. This is probably the biggest mistake people are tempted to make that leads to over watering. Use your tool to poke at particles, or if there is quite a bit of soil, use duct tape or strapping tape or packaging tape to tape some strong paper towel or a piece cut off a sponge onto your tool and use that to clean the glass.
If you have overwatered, you can try to absorb some of the water out with paper towel strips or cloth strips. Do not get yourself in a situation where you get paper towel or cloth stuck in there. So either tape it securely to your tool, or use a long enough strip that some of it sticks out the top to use to pull it back out after it has absorbed the water. It takes many repetitions of sponging water out to remove just a bit of excess, which is why I warned you so strongly to not overwater.
As for long term terrarium maintenance, keeping the moisture level right is key. The water in the bottle will evaporate into the air of the bottle and condense on the inside of the glass. If not very much condenses late in the day, you need to add a bit of water. Start with a few drops and add more if needed. Condensation should be on one side of the jar or just on the top third or so. If there is condensation all around the inside or if there is so much that the water runs in lines down the glass, there is too much water in there. You might be able to just open the jar for a while to let this evaporate out, but if it is seriously too much, you will need to absorb some out.
If the plant gets too large, and you can reach inside, you can prune it. This works for vining creeping plants, but not for plants that just get too tall. If the terrarium is a bottle and the plants have filled it, you may be able to make a hook in the end of your tool and pull some to the top so that you can clip it off.
If algae grows on the glass, you can use your tool with a sponge securely taped to it to rub it off. This is a tedious job that takes time and patience to avoid damaging the plants or to avoid losing the sponge in the terrarium. But is is a sure way to tidy up a messy looking mature terrarium. Remove the sponge and poke any dead leaves down into the soil.
With just a tiny amount of maintenance, your terrarium will survive for years and years, something that can't said of many other houseplants!

Monday, March 15, 2010

Spring Along The James

There was a pasqueflower in the pasture behind the house. We lived between the James River and Highway 1, and that my parents oriented the house toward the highway and not the river testifies to their values, which were typical of their rural farming neighbors: Access was more important than natural beauty. In fact, the 'dump' was down by the river, a pit just high enough onto the shore ridge to never be messed up by spring high water, where we dumped anything that could not be burned. It was not even buried to hide it; it was merely an open pile on the ground. And my mother was terrified of water, certain we were going to drown, so there were strict instructions to stay away from the shore. Still, I would go for long rambling walks back there, in the thigh-high grasses and short shrubby bushes. There were occasional swales where water drained from the land and had carved down a bit into the prairie, and on the near side of one of these, there was pasqueflower. I would ramble aimlessly back there day after day when I sensed it was about the right time, looking at the ground. When I found it, with its amazing fuzzy ruffled leaves and its soft purple glowing flower, I would try to count swales and judge who far back from the river bank it was, how near to the pasture fence it was, so that I could find it again the next year, or even the next week. But those judgements were never as accurate as I wished them to be, and inevitably, it would take much more searching to find it again. In that day, the way to knowledge was the World Book Encyclopedia. If it could not be found there, it remained a mystery, and since I knew it was a pasqueflower, it must have been in some entry there, maybe under flowers or prairie or spring flowers. I remember trying to memorize its features the first time I came upon it in order to look it up, then later finding a picture that was close but not exactly how it appeared in my memory. That was my first attempt to find it again, so that I could better compare the image in the book with the real plant, and be certain of its name. It gave me hope and joy to find that little promise of spring out there, just as it does today when I see the snowdrops and winter aconites along my driveway and the skunk cabbage at the local forest preserve. Yes, I has turned cold again since my muddy foray out there last week, and yes, we could even get snow again, but at least those early plants offer the promise that whatever bad weather is yet to come, it will not last. This winter WILL give way to the frothy pink days of summer then the golden yellow days of summer!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Ritual

This year, a friend beat me to it, announcing he'd seen skunk cabbages at the end of the first week in March, so on the way back from a morning errand, I stopped at my secret place and found them. This year, they seemed more perfect in form, mostly unblemished and strongly sculptural in the delightful twists and angles of their single 'petals'. And for the first time, I witnessed the legendary circle in the snow that proves that they do indeed generate their own heat, using oxygen at night like an animal instead of a plant to make happen chemical reactions that generate warmth enough to melt small circle of snowless ground around them. Spring is indeed on the way! Nothing can stop it now, for the skunk cabbages have made their announcement!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Just a Weekend

It's really just a weekend
One of fifty two
In any given year
Where women come together
On the banks of a river
In a place so rural
It truly really is
In the middle of nowhere.
It's really just an hour
When the bonfire burns bright
Drawing us in
Greetings exchanged
News shared
Conversation flows
Voices raised in rhythmic sound
Drums beat
Hearts lifted.
It's really just a moment
When you're handed o'er the drum
Your fear wants to say no
But you don't let it win.
You feel the power
That was always there inside you.
They saw, they felt, they knew
They drew it out of you
Into the air, into the night
Into your consciousness
Where it will sustain you the whole year,
That instant when
Made them dance!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010


We probably remember them as greater than they are, because we are certainly shaped by a lifetime of subtle influences. And maybe even more than that, we are probably shaped by the basic temperament, as defined by our inherited brain chemistry, with which we are born. But I remember certain influences as being the most significant ones that shaped me.

Hearing my mother praise the community services of a local woman who volunteered for every this and that and baked and sewed and gave to every charity, I thought even as a child that I wanted to be good and kind and do things for other people like this woman. I was surprised in later years to learn that my mother did not actually like her all that much, and in fact, often found her annoying and aggravating! But still, did that in any way diminish her service to the community and the individuals in need? Not to me, and I often find myself inspired to do-gooderness by some remembered image of her bouncing into the church basement with a covered cake pan in each hand and sending someones child out the the car for more tins and dishes and casseroles.

Watching Dr. Seuss's The Lorax on television certainly was not the first I was introduced to environmental concepts, for our agricultural state taught us in science class from the very beginning about conservation of soil and water. Yet, the first I remember of becoming really riled up and motivated to DO SOMETHING about keeping nature natural was from the feelings of loss and then of power at being able to FIX THINGS that I got from that story. Nature needed ME to protect and preserve her!

Surely she was not the first or the only woman to participate in farming, but I remember my parents talking about her as though she were some rare and exotic creature because she didn't stay in the house in a supporting role but got out there and drove the tractors and the trucks. She went out to the barn morning and evening to do the chores. She helped the calves get born and actually did the artificial insemination! My one chance to steal a look at her as I invented reasons to pass up and down the hallway past the kitchen doorway was when the flying club met at our house. Not only did she farm like a man, but she was the only woman member of the local flying club, whose members shared interest in a couple small planes and jointly hired the services of a flight instructor. She was beautiful to me and her very face exuded power and I wanted that. No rules were going to tell me what a woman could and could not do just because of her gender.

Even as the conversations of parents and neighbors reflected a general suspicion of motives, I listened to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the radio and just KNEW that the color of a person's skin should not be cause to treated them poorly, just KNEW that people were people no matter the color of their skin or the language they spoke or the type of clothing they wore or what they believed. Dr. King just made sense to me and it made me MAD that some people used those outward physical signs as reasons to treat other people badly. I found such racism to be especially counter to the 'love one another' message I was getting from the Lutheran preacher and my Sunday School teachers. I vowed to not ever treat anyone differently due to the color of their skin, and to fight for equality as soon as I got old enough to DO something besides sit on the floor and listen to the radio about it.

Never content to leave well enough alone, I often ponder my motives and the reasons I do the deeds I do and think the thoughts I think. I look back through my history for the influences that challenged or inspired or motivated me. Such reviewing is good for us. What if we look back and discover that some influence is not in sync with the values we now have? We should become aware of the power and effect of that influence and work to negate it. But if we look back and find people and personalities that are important and meaningful to us, we can rededicate ourselves to the values and actions embodied by those influences, and purposefully work to be more, do more, become more like them.