Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Love in Small Bites 1001:27

At our family holiday gathering, as the young and healthy sat interspersed amongst the aged and overweight, many small topics were touched on and passed around for a verbal chew.  The Sharing of Small Topics is a common holiday gathering ritual--like herd animals brushing against each other for reassurance of safety and continued extistence, we nit-pick at each others' fleas of inane realities as an expression of interest and vestment.  Topics are generally kept light, refraining from discussing indiscretions, credit card debts, personality flaws.  Those topics are better suited for common, daily herd activities.

During our holiday gathering, sugar was, briefly, a topic of conversation. Not a hot topic, because who really wants to think about what we do to ourselves gastronomically during the season of joy and excess? Nevertheless, it came up during the Sharing of the Brownies and, once the ball was rolling, the forward momentum had to work its way to the end.

“These are sugarless,” I announced, bearing a plate of fat and obviously dark chocolate brownies to the cluster of listless bodies digesting holiday cheer atop stuffed furniture.  I held the brownies aloft with the expectation that they would be fallen on with joy and thanksgiving, not to mention scientific discussion. Doesn’t everyone want to cure the common cold AND have a cake and eat it, too?

A few heads turned soundlessly in the direction of the plate I proffered. A few eyebrows were lifted to aid in mental digestion of my seeming oxymoron. Someone who’d already tested the sugar content of some nice wine put themselves on the line and came up with a reasonable clarification of my statement.

“Oh, you mean they have aspartame?”

Well, I am not renowned for light social chatter, but the wine drinker had lost his conversational reserve and exposed his innocence with the question, so I went through that door of conversation with earnest good intentions. A few clear heads wished they could close that barn door, but the horse was already through it.  So I zeroed in on the one soul in the room who seemed willing to be saved—or at least to bite—and switched on “save the room if not the world” mode. My eyes clamped on his, as I held out the sugarless visual aid.

“Oh, no. They do not have aspartame. Aspartame is evil. God knows what it does to your body.” I paused because I choke up when I talk about fake sugar. When I was able to continue, I said, “Sugarless actually means ‘without sugar.’ "  Everyone knows I am a teacher, but they still find it hard to forgive my habit of dictionary definitions.  The silence thickened as I continued. "These were made with half semi-sweet chocolate squares, and half unsweetened chocolate squares.  And no sugar.”

There was an uncomfortable silence in the room. Everyone might have been digesting the turkey, I don’t know. The amiable one finally accepted responsibility for the barn door and said, “Wow, that’s nice.”

This slight acknowledgement of my work to save his body and soul (which in my religion is one and the same) threw the door open wide. I dropped the Exhortation and went straight to the Invitation. Years growing up in a Baptist church cemented my personal psychology of saving souls; the roadmap to salvation was ingrained by a childhood of observation.  Who better to salvage than indiscretionary family sugar-mongers?  Encouraged, I kept the floor.  Everyone else was sitting in a food coma, anyway.

“A lot of my friends have food issues. Some have high blood sugar, some have high cholesterol. If we all do some adjusting, sugar is a small thing to give up to save ourselves. And the truth is, a month off sugar weans you off it. Spend a month in Japan, for example--you’ll lose ten pounds AND your craving for Hershey bars. Japanese think American food is horrendously sweet.  Which it is."

When I called down the Holy Ghost of National Cultural Straying From the Path, a few eyes glazed over. It often happens in church that way: keep them in the sermon past lunchtime, and you lose them.  Know your audience.

So I skipped straight to the Offertory and passed the plate. “Try them,” I whispered. “They have fresh dates and dark chocolate to compensate for false sweetness. What you will taste is pure….taste.”

A few people took a brownie, in the spirit of the season of goodwill, and to move me out of the doorway, and nibbled them. A few, full of turkey and annoyed at having their dietary souls searched at a culinary bacchanalia, declined.

"Um, very nice,” said the amiable one. A few others nodded. No one asked for the recipe. No one swore off sugar or aspartame.

No one was saved that day. But they had come. They had listened. And now, for whatever use they might put the knowledge to in the future: now, they knew:
There is another Way.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Growing Old 2001:26

Yesterday was classic bright November--clearly THE day for harvesting loofah sponge gourds from the backyard pergola.  And it was Sunday, which suits a day in the garden.  An all-round micro-momentous day, Harvest of the  Loofah.  The vines had lavished leaves and shade and bright yellow flowers across their trellised perch all summer (cat litter = good fertilizer).  Pollinating insects had a thriving metropolis in the high-rise vines.  Now, clearing the remains of all that exuberant life said summer--and a good chunk of autumn--was gone. Long gone, with winter knocking at the door.
So with joy in the morning and sadness in the ending, I plunked my trusty green 6 ft. folding stepladder against the pergola crossbars, stepped lightly upward, and peered into the morass of withered vines to see what I could see.  Without the ladder, only 4 gourds had hung below the trellised roof and were visible.  I didn't know how many had fruited between the thicket of leaves overhead.  I had my hopes up.

I was not disappointed.  The elevated explosion of rope-tough vines had changed into a different kind of beautiful.  Green leaves full of sun every summer morning, and dozens of yellow blooms, hopeful of pollination, had changed.  They were now gray, dried-up, and draped around sinuous dark gourds: the loofah crop. The gourds ranged from an immature 4-inches to a whopping 18 inches long, with up to 6-inch diameters.  Lots of em. Wow.  Happy Day.  The universe was loving them up there in Pergola Heaven while they were loving the growing of themselves.  They had quite a party and were wonderful to watch all summer.  Now, they lay between the thin strips of the trellis, naked and ripe. Hm.

I snipped the vines of the nearby ones, and pulled on the vines of the far-away ones, moving the ladder around a few times.  Altogether I had about 20 salvageable gourds.  Neat!  Some had been too immature to survive last week's mild frosts and were going soft.  The discards went into the city mulch collection.  I left a few small ones lying on the garden patch surrounding the pergola.  The soil there can decompose a few small smooshy contributions.

The rest went into a cool, dry basement where they will evolve to their final form.  They will sweat out their moisture for a few months.  The moisture will collect on their outer rind, in the form of soft mold.  The mold will eventually dry out, around January, earlier or later depending on their girth. Then the gourds are ready to have their dried, crisp skins peeled off.  The peeling will reveal underlying, dried fiber structure which provides a reason for their propagation (besides fun and beauty): loofah sponges.  Excellent for scrubbing, lovely to look at and hold, and a good story of the intelligent design of nature.

Its obvious I love my garden.  It gives me a lot of joy, and things to think about.  Growing loofahs, growing old, mutability.  Process, joy, end, and purpose.  They grow, and then they grow some more, growing old.  http://len7288.hubpages.com/hub/Benefits-of-Using-Loofah-Sponge-on-Skin

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Stories are Good Things 1001:25

My Mom recently turned 90 years old.  For a present, she wanted her kids to show up from the various states we fled to over the years, and have dinner with her.  So I drove 600 miles to help her celebrate, with my siblings and cousins, her siblings and cousins, and long-time neighbors and friends. 

For a couple days, my brother hosted all of us for food,  hayrides, and a firepit.   The last time I saw so many friendly faces from my childhood was at my father's funeral a few years ago.  Everybody appreciated the opportunity to, as one cousin kept saying, "get together for a GOOD reason."   It becomes more apparent as years go by that we might not see each other again, and this reunion was appreciative and reasonably friendly.

For the hardy and well-rested, the evening ended around my brother's firepit, with a cooler of drinks by the chairs, and a rural sky full of stars overhead.  Children ran around in the brisk night, occasionally coming to roost on a reassuring adult lap.  And catch-up conversation evolved, as all night time talk around fires will, to stories.

Many people in my family are good storytellers, which I like to attribute to Native American, Irish, and French blood.  Some stories told on those two nights revisited family idiosyncrasies, or warned of relationship problems, or reminded us of shared history.  Some stories I had not heard before. 

My brother told a story I hadn't heard before, about my mom's older brother, Uncle Vernon.  Vernon had saved Mom once, as a child, from drowning in the Kaskaskia river (or was it the Mississippi river?), by grabbing her by her hair as she went down for the third time.  He pulled her out of the current and to the shore, thereby insuring all of her children of a future.  That story we had heard many times, from Mom.  Vernon went on to join the Navy in WW2, got married, moved to a nearby state, and produced three of my favorite cousins (who were all at Mom's party, by the way).  He brought his family to visit ours often.  As my cousins got older, Uncle Vernon sometimes came to visit by himself, and sometimes stayed with my brother when he did.  Uncle Vernon died several years ago, but remains very much alive in our memories.

My brother loved Uncle Vernon.  He prefaced his story this night, in the dark around the fire, by saying yeah, Vernon was a big guy, well built, about 6'6" (I don't remember him being THAT big, although he was a big guy.  But the cooler had been accessed a few times at this point and maybe all the facts weren't straight as they could've been).   Then he said that Vernon had been a Golden Glove boxer in the Navy, which I didn't know.  The story concerned one of the times when Uncle Vernon had visited my brother, driving several hours from Kansas.  Vernon was about 70 at the time.  He wasn't much of a drinker, but he was tired driving and decided to stop in a little town about an hour from his destination.  The establishment he walked into (one of only two in the town, we all compared notes as we tried to figure which place he had stopped at) was nearly empty, with 3 other patrons and the bartender.  Uncle Vernon ordered a cold beer and a sandwich.  While he was eating, one of the men in the bar got up and came over to sit at the bar next to Vernon, crowding him.  Vernon moved over for a little more room.  The man moved over against him, again.  Vernon moved a little further away.

The third time this happened, Vernon looked at the man and said, "Excuse me, sir, am I in your way?"  The man said, "As a matter of fact you are."  So, my brother reports, Vernon laid him out on the floor.  He then looked at the two patrons remaining, and asked "Do you want any part of this?"   They both said, "No, sir."  Vernon finished his sandwich and drove on his way.

Makes me proud to be part of the family.  Great story, great night, and a great memory sharing the memory.  That, I am coming to believe, is one of the nicest things about growing old: remembering good things. 

Thursday, August 4, 2011

When Everything New is Old Again. 1001;24

Found in "Life Gets Better at 50" from The Daily Beast:"  . . . [after 50] is the time to buy a Porsche and have a breakdown."  The statement has a great ring to it, and I would personally love to do the Porsche bit.

But the article actually goes on to discount that advice.  Writer Casey Schwarz puts forth the view, prompted by President Obama's upcoming Big Five-O, that expectations change when life starts the inevitable down-hill roll--but theres a Happy Face side to getting old, too.  Optimistic Ageing always cheers me up, personally. Check out the article: http://news.yahoo.com/life-gets-better-50-012600469.html

My personal experience dovetails with Schwarz's fact-sheet of shifting emotional goals for over-50 denizens: small pleasures cast bigger shadows as we age gently towards oblivion.  So I'll piggyback on this opp to plug my Small but Happy Summer Project: the simple pergola that went up in my backyard a month ago has become a vine-festooned wonder.  Small potatoes, and that makes me Happy.  Every morning, I look out and see those lusty gourd and bean and grape vines taking over 100 sq feet of trellis, like a bat out of hell--working the short life of summer for all its worth.  Casual eyeballing of the vines tell me that an overnight growth rate of 6 inches is routine.  I'm impressed.  And happy.  Its awkward but true: I empathize with my vines.

Actually, I love my vines. They grow with passion.  They grow and never look back.  Given any chance at all, they will exhaust themselves into the biggest crop they can wrestle out of their rooty depths.  And true to my post-50 status, events like Devoted Vine-Watching fit into the interesting "relieved of the burden of a future" category that Schwarz mentions.  Thats a great phrase, too, isn't it?  Like, ok the fact is I don't need to strive to achieve a hell of a lot in my life anymore, because whats it all for anyway?  I've procreated, been around, hopefully enjoyed some things, and that Big Stuff just doesn't seduce me like it used to.  I'm entitled to Go Down Easy, shift in to lower gear for the home stretch, kick back and smell the roses.  I can be weird as I want now, "weird" being "not trying to get ahead" as well as "mulling over hitherto trivial matters."

It's not just "love" that make the poets sing, eh.  Hormones can make you crazy, but getting old can, too.  Maybe the Old Age Crazy is breaking out of its "lets avoid that topic" stage, and coming into its contemporary self.   Yeah, maybe the "no burden of a future" lifestyle is moving right up there with the classics: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/175907  Sadly, I'm not up to snuff on bawdy irreverent aging lit, but I'm going to work on it.  The topic has captured my limited life-expectancy-view, engaged my shifting emotions, and makes me happy. So to hell with what anybody else thinks. Vines and getting old, high on my list of fun stuff.

Looking around at friends and acquaintances reveals Baby Boomer old folks--older than me, I mean-- immersed in many small things in their life, things that more active, younger adults feel are trivial.  Example: my 90-year-old Mom clips newspaper stories to send to me about gaining weight, having relationships, how to grow garlic, etc., because she has the time to read through the Southern Illinoisian and glean published advice to convince her children to improve their lifestyle. Sometimes I think she is not seeing the whole picture of my social interaction, because I do have the Internet, which beats out the Southern Illinoisian about 400% on any count you'd care to name.  If not more.  But I believe she is happier with her limited access to Important Stuff than I am--my information future, at least, is still more burdened than hers, and I bear that happily.  Or, to put it another way, if Mom is living in her own world, let it be of her choosing, and a happy one. 

When I was a child, small things were more important than big things.  A cat or leaf or anything within the limited scope of my mobility and powers captured my interest (being a child has proven to be great training for getting old, in many ways).  Crazy priorities, maybe, when seen from the pinnacle of mid-life productivity; but very real priorities in the smaller realm of "now".

So, from here on it's Me and My Pergola, Straight Up and Meshugana.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Know Thyself--or Ask My Mom 1001; 23

Feedback is a good thing. Feedback is like a bathroom mirror—it gives us important information about ourselves, like: “is food stuck in my teeth” and “am I wearing something really inappropriate” and “who is the old coot looking back at me.” Feedback is Reality Check. Not all feedback is created equal, as we know. My Mom’s feedback, for example, is not always easy to accept, but it is generally pretty easy to interpret, because she is not constrained by niceties, like: feelings. She shoots opinion from the hip. Her aim is uncanny. Often it is unerring. This kind of feedback can be brutally hard to process without also feeling worthless, but over time, if adapted to, it is highly to be feared.

For example, Mom is always telling my brother that he needs to lose weight. (Well, she says that to a lot of people, but I noticed that she has said it to him a lot. She says it to me sometimes, too, but I’m removing myself from this conversation to maintain some semblance of perspective and fun.) That is brutal. Mom is pretty blithe about it; she doesn’t care if everyone hears, because I know in her (particular kind of) mind the thinking is: “I believe this = this is therefore fact = therefore everyone agrees with me.” I know her thinking because I am her daughter, and we share a bloodline of Mean French Women—in our case the Sassingers. She has often stated, in a generalization disguised as fact, that “French Women Are Mean” because her Grandma Sassinger provided her with the hard data, in the flesh. Her mom continued the data, and as I often tell my Mom, she is a good case example, herself. (Note: I love my mom dearly. I also can’t stand her, need her, avoid her, fear her, am confused and amused by her, disagree and agree with her, disregard her, seek her counsel, and understand and don’t understand her.)

I think my brother dreads birthdays in some small fashion, because Mom always—always—brings him a homemade Angel Food Cake, because Angel Food is less fattening than a really good cake like, say, Upside Down German Chocolate Devils Food Cake. And she does not put icing on the boring Angel Food cake, either, because icing is Fattening. I advised her, this year, to skip the whole Non-Fattening Cake routine and bring a Dairy Queen frozen ice-cream chocolate cake with the works. And to never bring up words related to “pounds, fat, weight, you need to” etc. I’m sure the Sassinger in her would whisper “don’t listen to this wimp ”--(c'est moi, naturelment)--but the Real Physical Personification of Mom laughed and said she’d think about it. Despite her fate-locked delivery of Final Judgement, I value her feedback, because it is Real. Hopefully, she will pay attention to some feedback from a fellow Mean French Woman (although I’m a lot more diluted than her and think I favor my Dad’s predominant Irish Cherokee line, personally); it might make her very pointed arrows slice through to the truth with a little less barbed destruction and a little more of a clean cut.  (Wait, would that be a good thing?) 

But feedback comes in many flavors. My dear brother also celebrates birthdays with friends and neighbors and children and strangers who don’t notice his shape at all.  Because, despite a few extra pounds, my brother (whom I love, trust, suspect, look up to, disregard, and always am dazzled by, except when he shows his stubborn right-winged shallow side) is a highly charismatic, fearless, quick-witted, strong, ephemeral Irish Cherokee kind of guy. And we all know what those Irish are like. And those Cherokees.

And those French. Together, the World Mix of Values Thought is complex and confusing enough to produce World View Feedback of sufficient depth and conflict to keep us guessing and on our toes.

Which feedback should do, eh?

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Person Who Thought Too Much 1001;22

I have a reputation for thinking too much.  I like to analyze, and then analyze my analysis, considering other viewpoints as much as possible.  Its my version of "getting high".  Some people don't appreciate the attendant verbalization of all that thinking.  Ah, Thinking. Its a burden to bear, but old habits are hard to break.  Its especially hard because I do it in my head to pass the time, and I have to consider what I can do instead of live in my head, some activity to break the habit. 

My first thought on how to give up too much thinking is to go the "Be Here Now " route--the moldy hippie standby slogan from my youth, famously associated with the mystic and weird Ram Dass http://www.yogalifestyle.com/BkBeRD.htm, formerly Dr. Richard Alpert.  He was every joint-smoking, hippie college student's hero back in the late 60s and early 70s.   He was a Harvard psychologist who went off to India when it was the thing to do, changed his WASP name and got spiritual and sexual.  He did it in the company of the famously hallucenogenic-drug-researching icon, Timothy Leary http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ldSFuEOA9wc.

More than any teachings he spawned, I remember his face postered in the dorm rooms of fellow wannabe-freespirits with the "Be Here Now" slogan.  That meant, I supposed, that it was a no-no to think too much.  One's best bet was to follow whatever was in front of you and not give too much thought to what was lurking down the road.  It was all very interesting, we felt we were rebelling, and maybe we were--I'm quite sure I was at the apogee of my shallow-thinking potential then.  But ol' RD, despite his flouted "e-z" slogan, was way more into mood-altering drugs than I can really manage time-wise and budget-wise.  Blocking thoughts through alien transmissions aka drugs is not something I'm interested in.  So I must chalk off the "don't think because your mind is on drug vacation" plan.

Casting about for other obvious solutions (most things in my life literally are obvious, lying around my house in an obvious and untended way, waiting to be noticed, which is why I try to eliminate most things in my life and thereby damp down the seduction of thinking about things; I ask you, is it overly-deep to consider what to do with dirty clothes, 2 cats, shoes, things that need cleaning, food, ...?), I think "garden."

When I walk into my backyard, full of plants growing in meandering intensity and tucked amongst trash-picker-inspired objet's d'interest, I stop thinking about things.  I go from spot to spot, checking out how much vine the snake gourds have added on last night, if the green beans have got beans yet, if the basil has given up and died from the hot weather.  Weeds lure me especially--its a long-ingrained pleasureable sensation to grasp a weed by the base of its stem, and feel the "tug" when it comes out spot-clean, root and all.  I prefer hand-weeding to hoeing, any day. It turns off my brain, no 2 ways about it.

I've thought about it a lot--of course--and agree with Mom that weeding is a real and potent form of meditation.  This particular Be Here Now method is not, however, listed on Ram Dass's or anybody else's website besides my own, that I know of.  So you heard it here first, Pilgrim: weed-pulling takes you Away to Where You Want to Be. Cleanses the stuffed bosom of those heavy thoughts.  Dampers the chain reaction to any thought stimuli other than that which fills your hands with dirt and flora.

But weeding is seasonal, and not conveniently handy when I'm in most social situations. So maybe if you have good suggestions for me to loosen the belt of my brain muscle and loose the over-think drive, you could share them with me.  It could be very useful to turn IT off , sometimes.  Yes, I'll admit I'm obsessed with growing old, and ok maybe I think about it more than is comfortable for Being Here Now. Frankly, as a control freak,  I'd like to be an expert at it.  But I confess, its a lot to think of all at once, the "we are all going to die no matter what" kind of thinking I'm fond of.

I will never, I know, give up thinking entirely.  It's a habit, good/bad but definitely ingrained.  I sign off this deeply-thought-through missive with a small anecdote which has comforted me for many years.  It might be some comfort to those of you who are in my boat.

My friend the formerly-New York, currently-vegetarian lawyer said this to me, in a Ferndale, Mi restaurant over a lentil salad,  when I whined that someone had told me I thought too much:

"You don't think too much; they don't think enough."

Thank you, Ray.

'Nuff said.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Mulberries and the Universe 1001; 21

The self-made mulberry tree in my backyard is in fruiting season. It’s a black mulberry, which means the fruits are tasty—white mulberry tastes like cardboard. Black mulberry is quite sweet, no known nutritional value, and its tree grows madly wherever some bird drops it off after processing his/her own nutritional needs. That is how my particular 4-year-old, 12-foot, backyard mulberry came to be: some bird dropped it next to the fence, where I didn’t weed all summer, and it took heart. It apparently believed in itself. After it became a certain size and I noticed it scraggling up, I couldn’t bring myself to harsh its buzz, so I let it grow. It’s a very easy tree to grow; weed trees, my parents called them with a bit of a sniff. Personally, I’m growing some unknown and interesting varieties of weeds in my yard anyway—one looks like a lusciously thornless thistle, and one looks like Jack’s beanstalk before its growth spurt. We’ll see.

So mulberries are sweet spots with darn good shade in just a few years, but they have a couple problems as a food tree: the fruit falls inconveniently all over the ground when ready to eat, and have teensy stems on each and every berry which make strawberry stems look like wimps. Mulberry stems don’t just slide out, they require tugging, and the berries are so small that its not time-practical to clean a lot of them. Even I, with a casual eating attitude, don’t want to just eat the stems—it’d be fiber for a lifetime in one serving, even if they weren’t an unpleasant chew experience. I have at times cleaned enough to throw in pancake batter, and they are wonderful.

Mulberry’s other potential drawback is the method-of-harvesting thing, which after a little research actually has become a high point. If you have ever seen “Under the Tuscan Sun” (one of my personal ‘comfort movies’), you’ve seen the olive-harvest scene, where they lay sheets on the ground and shake the tree, tumbling the ripe-enough olives off the branches. This is exactly the practical and fun way to harvest mulberries, and it makes a good show for the neighbor kids, whom I’m always trying to subtly convert to gardening. I discovered the harvest method by googling “mulberries”. (I also wanted to make sure before eating the berries that this was, indeed, the mulberry I remembered from my distant youth and not some clever imitation that would embellish my final moments on earth with writhing painful gut spasms and foaming at the mouth and stuff. I strongly urge any tasting of unknown things to be presaged by a hell of a lot of checking. Food poisoning is serious business, I can tell you.)

Dad would’ve known with one look at the tree what it was. They were all over our farm. And he grew up as a semi-orphan in several farm households—far distant from his small city home—fostered in exchange for labor. He had plenty of emotional space to fill with wondering about the world around him, and he made excellent observations. Decades after his seedling years, Dad liked to make wine out of anything he could find around the farm in sufficient quantities, including mulberries. His wine was very sweet stuff, but he loved making it for the pleasure of learning about it—and for drinking it. It was very special because it was literally the fruit of his labor, and a personal kind of nourishment, as was nearly everything we consumed on the farm: food on the hoof or from the ground. Americans are awakening to the awareness that our farm-based culture of living off personally-procured food is endangered. Self-sustenance begats gratitude for supplying basic needs, and fast food with no emotional investment encourages obesity. I’m delighted with neighbors who have ducks and chickens in their urban yard—they are in a process of personalizing their food. And learning stuff.

But Dad is no longer around to lend personal experience to the use and fate of my mulberry tree, alas. So the next best thing to his personal experience is my beloved Internet, my personal Library of Alexandria, which has answers or at least opinions and keywords for any question I can pose. I think of Dad when I use it, for matters such as gardening. I think of how so many people, with personally-accrued knowledge like his, have contributed to world-wide personal advice. The internet is a repository of the wisdom of our species. When writing was “the latest” technology, around 6,000 years ago, it was used charily because it was so little understood. To understand it was a privilege of rank and wealth and the luxury of time to learn it. The storied Library of Alexandria was a much earlier attempt to pool all knowledge, back in ( ). As Carl Sagan reverently elaborates in the first episode of the TV series Cosmos, books and written knowledge from all over the known world were aggressively sought and collected by the Library of Alexandria. The collection was vast and esoteric and awesome, and ultimately destroyed by fire.

So I was thinking about Dad, and how he’s no longer my source of hands-on knowledge of things flora. I was thinking about the Library of Alexandria and the incredible collection—not to mention the incredible (incred-bible) lust for gathering all recorded human knowledge which it symbolizes. Unfortunately, both the wonders and the inanities housed in Alexandria’s Library were destroyed, and we will never know them. The sad part is that the collecting of them contributed at least in small part to the destruction of them—they were all in one place and one disaster finished them off. Chances are the individual books, scattered throughout the known world at the time, would never have been unearthed anyway. Still. Sigh.

Then—there’s the Internet. Certainly light-years beyond Alexandria in its stored knowledge (right, Mr. Sagan?). Certainly awe-inspiring. If by some chance the Internet goes down in flames, the chances are good that much of the knowledge on it will be covered and retained, by many dispersed methods. But aside from potential catastrophic destruction of our modern-day unified source, the Internet is a repository of the memory of the human race which I find cosmic, beautiful, and comforting.

Dad is gone, and his wonderful, personal, loving knowledge of the world around him is gone. I can’t call him up and ask him, “Hey, how do I make mulberry wine?” We can’t share the pleasure of reviving and handing over hard-won survival knowledge. But I take a lot of comfort in my fellow humans from this. We all step in to carry on the important stuff. We are all, to some extent, each other’s keeper. We are all the recipients and benefactors of the love and accidents of learning. Alexandria tried, with the technology it had in hand, to take care to preserve knowledge—any knowledge—for the light of learning. Alexandria unfortunately was not built to survive fires and centuries. The Internet has more going for it, although over time its survival will surely be threatened as other technologies are created. And I have no doubt some other forms of preserving knowledge will surface. History says this trait is firmly embedded in humans.

But knowing I can access the personal knowledge of “billions and billions” of minds whenever I want/ need the knowledge is a wonderful thing, an overwhelming thing. People have strived, for millennia, to learn how to survive. We have cared—first through oral stories and then a mere 6,000 years ago by written records—to preserve and share our hard-won testing of knowledge. Our ancestors cared enough to preserve knowledge because they were driven to point the way for their children. They were, if not altruistic, at the least driven to preserve their DNA with their increments of knowledge. For their immediate offspring, the offspring of their neighbors, fellow citizens, and ultimately for their unknown children thousands of years, light-years, distant from them: us.

Carl Sagan posits (Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors) that we, human beings, are descended from the stars; that unfathomably ancient cosmic dust from exploding suns sifted onto our tiny planet from incredibly vast distances and formed the proteins that began life on our planet. So in a way, from the inception of the universe to the moment I spend here typing on my laptop for an internet audience of my vastly-distanced cousins, serendipitous occurrences have wended their way to the subject of the mulberry tree in my backyard, and a way to utilize its fruits.

Because between an exploding sun and earth, things happened. Because some protein strands were once too stubborn or too lucky to quit. Because people learned to relay information, and preserve it. Because every small thing on the planet is unaccountably and intrinsically precious for what it knows. Because everything we strive to understand every day is important. Because some bird left a seed in my yard where I couldn’t easily destroy it. Because my Dad was curious about the world. Because I am his daughter, and because there are children living in the world who can see my actions.

I can freeze the mulberries with the stems in, and look up how to make wine.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Beat Goes On 1001;20

Advice is cheap.  I hand it out sometimes, even though personal experience has shown that Advice can be Hazardous to Friendships.  However, in at least one recent case it earned a nice return.

One of my hobbies is playing acoustic guitar and singing at open mic nights.  Open mic nights are a whole subculture, which I am studying in my capacity as amateur sociologist and philosopher.  An open mic night is an evening at a "venue" provided by a business, and "hosted" by a person who is a musician/singer, and has sound equipment to set-up and share.  S/he shares the equipment with any number of fellow musicians / singers/ songwriters who show up at duly appointed hours to publicly do it musically.  Its a great way to try out songs, get ideas, steal music, meet fellow enthusiasts and have fun--all while stroking our need for attention.  Win/ Win/ Win: for the audience/ business patrons its free entertainment; for the business its free business, for the performers its free fun.  A year or so ago, I discovered there are open mics almost every night of the week in my area.  Communities of players form,who regularly attend the same mics.  To me it's like church, only at night and sometimes in coffee houses, sometimes in bars.  No collections taken, though.

One night at an open mic I handed some free advice to a friend: "capo up a fret or two when youre singing, raise the key youre singing in."  His voice was too low and I couldn't hear his low notes, plus singing a little higher often helps anybody's voice to sparkle.  This is the only advice I ever give about singing. Someone gave it to me years ago and it worked for me.

When I hand out advice the reaction is seldom instant gratitude, although over time said-advice sometimes works well.  I have not always been astute about gracious communication, either, and sometimes irritate people who think they're doing just fine without my input.  But my friend surprised me by saying, "Ok, and I'll give you back some advice."  Here he paused, being a retired social worker and someone who likes to frequently say that he's learned a lot throughout his career about dealing with all kinds of people.  I think he was gauging my reaction to his advice offer.  I must learn that trick.

My reaction looked interested, so he said, "Take drumming lessons."  That was a surprising and somewhat unrelated suggestion, so I looked even more interested.  "It'll help you keep your beat.  Take even 6 months of drumming lessons and it'll improve your singing."  This guy is a percussionist, who obviously believes in his chosen form of musical expression.  His answer was sincere and, as I thought about it, really interesting.  As an amateur singer I strive to improve over time, and I know from feedback that I usually sing too fast, or speed up if I start out slow. Another friend had commented to me once that you could always tell the open mic beginners, because they sing too fast.  (This is great stuff, huh?)  My advisor added, "All you need is a pad and some sticks to get started, and I can loan you some."  My decision scarce needed thinking about--  interesting advice AND free equipment to get started.

So I leaned over two chairs and tapped the back of another regular attendee, who is an experienced professional singer,guitarist, mandolin player, and also--lucky me!--teaches drums.  I explained stuff, and he agreed to teach me drums when I'm ready.  He also agreed with the suggestion that it would take care of my unstable beat issues. 

Between the two percussion advocates, I got excited about trying out Drumming for Voice.  Here I am, at My Age, taking up drums, which 20 minutes earlier had never entered my head.  Heck, Karen Carpenter got her start on drums! I had long been fascinated with my friend's djmbe, doumbek, tambourine, bodhran, and other unusual instruments.  It just hadn't occurred to me that I could or would learn how to use them, myself. 

And the whole idea of learning to pace my singing made me happy. I am an advocate of "Directed muscle action creates concept formation."  Yeah, that.  You know, like when the gorilla in the movie "2001: Space Odyssey"  picks up a stick and randomly whacks stuff, and accidentally hits the big hulking metal phallic-looking shaft that aliens sent to earth during our prehistory heydays, and the gorilla suddenly realizes that he has used the stick as a tool and he's in control.  This scene is actually a good illustration of Russian child psychologist Lev Vygotsky's thesis that children learn through doing stuff.  Like hitting things with sticks.   Our muscles have their own life, and feed their findings to our brain.  Or as neurosurgeon Antonio Dimasio theorizes in his book "Descarte's Error":  We Think Because We Are. (NOT, Descartes, "Cogitus ergo sum"; take that.)   Our brain doesn't figure things out, our bodies figure things out and the brain translates it into the popular media of thoughts, or concept realization.

Recently I've been thinking long on loss of muscle, loss of inspiration, loss of youth, and loss of lots of things.  I guess I fell into the ugly pit of "Old," which is nevertheless a lazy kind of comfort--getting old is an excuse to quit, for some of us wimps.  But some free advice about hitting things with sticks (or hands) has engaged my imagination.  Lifted that old Dark Veil of Disuse.  I even think that learning to rythmically whack things with sticks (or hands) could have some positive metaphorical backwash in my life.  Maybe I'll master The Beat and live more pace-fully.  Maybe, like the gorills in 2001, I'll form some concepts.

Sonny and Cher sang it truely when they sang: And the Beat Goes On...

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

A Little Here, A Little There 1001;19

Romeo and Juliet are the famous, tres young  lovers who die over broken hearts, mixed signals, and other relatively-easily remedied issues which any one could succumb to before we age and get some smarts.  Like:  family opinions can be negotiated, broken hearts can be mended, life can go on. 

However.  In order to learn these great truths, we learn that we have to learn through painful experience.  Tit for tat.  In order to get it, we have to give it up.

Getting older means (we posit) gaining knowledge, wisdom, peace, heartbreak, patience, chutzpah, etc., all for the price of losing a lot of other things: languor, temper, virginity, cortisone, etc.  Some of the things lost are small: eyeglasses, false friends.  Some are a little bigger (depending on how we do the rating): jobs, vision, waistlines.  These losses come gradually over the years, if we're lucky, and we adapt to them.

It seems that the losses get bigger and faster down the road.  Maybe this is not true; maybe it is just that losses become harder to take when the resilience of youth is lost.  Maybe Old Age is another form of adolescence, with the difficulty of adjusting to the awkward growing-into-lifestage--only with Old Age-olescence, its a growing-out of lifestage. 

A salesclerk--who was kindly helping me buy clothes to compensate for my fast-changing self image--and I touched on this topic the other day, between my trips to the changing room.  We initiated our short relationship with a discussion on losing our old "colors"---that changing skin tones and hair colors required us to find other colors to flatter our fading features and shifting muscles and maintain our hold on grooming as we know it in this century (thank God its changed since the last century, with bouffant hairstyles and girdles and other unpleasant stuff).  Styles of clothing have shifted; some from our heyday are even back in style--although not for us.  Age requires a shift in body image and fashion, we agreed. Its great to talk to someone who works with clothes and backs me up on this suspicion that things are changing on all fronts.  Its not just my mirror getting weird, not just me, but my peer group.  The comfort of the herd is a great thing.

So loss is a given, and the returns get harder to appreciate.  The big losses, especially, defy Pollyanna.  Ultimately, friends, spouses, everybody we know becomes a loss, unless we beat them to the punch and die first.  There really isn't any redeeming factors I can see in losing people you know or love.  The best I can make out of this lemon is that all those years of losing things actually has prepared me, a little bit, to face the fact that life is all about letting go.  Of everything. 

Since this is the case, its a good idea to keep hoping that we can avoid the biggest hits, and enjoy the things that don't go away.  Like smiles, beautiful days, a good book, cats, people who fill in the spaces, cortisone replacement, and hey I just found out about Retinol. 

Learning to deal with losses, therefore, could be one of the greatest things to teach kids--as long as its always backed up with hope.  Hope that things can get better, down to the very last loss.  That, my friends, requires all the muscle that any old heart has developed over a lifetime.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Its One of Those Ineffable Days 1001:18

Time is a Sign of Grace.   Once I heard someone say that.
So if Time is a sign of Grace, what does that mean? Age brings with it an increased awareness of Time.  The longer one lives, the less time one has, guaranteed, to live.  Like Tarot cards, ink blots, or mirrors, words are symbols, open to interpretation.  The phrase under question here might say--to me, today--that the longer you live, the more you can: Deal With; Understand; Let Go Of; Wonder About; Come to Terms With; Find Peace With; Find Passion For. Or, that you can Hate, Fear, Avoid.   Or maybe it means that Time is a gift.  If Time is a gift of Life, of Longevity, what do we do with our gift? If we live longer does it neccesarily mean "better"?  Is it better to have Some Time? A Lot of Time? Just Enough Time to figure out that we know something or nothing?  Is maybe the sum of all knowing simply: not knowing? What fills Time?

Wandering down the winding path of Home Philosophy seems to yield a lot more questions than answers.  Mostly, cultivating those questions just yields more crops of words.  Us people like to think that answers and explanations always exist, to all questions. It makes life so much simpler if there are answers. Our favored color of answers is "black-and-white, no gray area."  Thrown in with our belief in Almighty Answers is the belief that we exist for some special reason, other than propagating the species. 

"Believing in answers" is actually, perhaps, one thing which truly sets us apart from other animals on the planet (another thing that us people-types like to believe in is that we are unique animals, beyond our propensity to bite the [ecological] hand that feeds us [Earth]).  I'm not sure that my cats, for instance, have an answer as to why I lie abed in the morning when they are waiting for their ritual, morning teaspoonful of alternate food.  Conversely, they don't show the least interest in some answers I might feed them as to why I'm not moving in that direction.  They simply keep asking the question: "Meow?"  Astrophysicist Carl Sagan might even have agreed with this "answer" differentiation between Us and Them (C.S. made convincing arguments that people are not at all set apart from/ above other animals, in his book Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors).  Despite this, Answers have become a habit, if not an addiction, for humans.  So we persist. 

One  fit-all answer to "What does it mean to say that Time is a sign of Grace" which comes to mind is another group of words, from the King James’ Old Testament: “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity” (1 Corinthians 13:13).  Ah, abideth means dwelling over a period of Time.  This group of words ties some things together, then.  We have faith.  We hope.  We love.  And we have time--some more than others.  Maybe an advisable way to fill our alloted time in this life is to believe and hope and love.  That way, we would not simply all sit down by the side of the road on any given day when things were pilling up on us, and wait for Time to cease to exist.  Instead of waiting for Godot, so to speak, we can keep the chin up by believing, hoping, and being kind.  We can make a Leap of Faith (another Biblical phrase which is a good Answer) that Time is important, and that using it well gives us Grace, and generally makes us feel good.

I think that my cats--and all cats, and generally other animals besides people--hope for future events, and love companionship or food or each other or even people.  I don't have any idea to gauge what they believe in.  Apparently they believe, every morning, that I will rise up and tender little mercies to them.  Maybe they believe, like us people-animals, simply that they will keep on living til they die.  It's true that wanting to die can make it so; it's true that believing in living helps it to happen.  So all of us life forms on this little world could say, together, that hoping and believing and granting charity to each other is probably the best we can do with the time that we have. 

When you spin all the words and the symbols around, does it spew out black-and-white answers?  Does it explain Who and What and Why? 

Today one of my artist friends threw a word out, on the table of our conversation. The word was "ineffable."  Ineffable means: "Too great or extreme to be expressed or described in words."  An antonym for "ineffable" is "definable."  I think Ineffable is a truly great word.  All the signs, symbols, words, answers in the world are attempts at black-and-white, right-and-wrong, knowing-and-not-knowing.  We find, and seek, and ask, and wonder, and fear, and have billions and billions of possible answers, to comfort and aid us. Many of them are very good answers, and bring great comfort and purpose.  I like to think, though, that they are, after all, only words.  Only symbols, signs, maybes, shots-in-the-dark, nursery rhymes and religions. 

I like to think that all the answers to all the questions are poor attempts to understand the Mind of God, as it were, which has been described as beyond all knowing.   For example, I don't really understand my cats. I  witness their actions and reactions.  I don't think they understand my words or why I feed them.  For them, for me, their are no clear answers.  They believe and hope that every day I will feed them and make them comfortable.  I hope and believe that they will sit on my lap and allow me to pet them.  We love our time-share arrangement, and are generally kind to each other. 

Beyond those three things, time seems mostly Ineffable.  Mostly, we can not know what Time is. Or anything really.  We just have to have faith and hope and, in the meantime, be kind.

Maybe thats all that Time is. 

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Iris Spring 1001:17

Once upon a time, several years ago, on a sunny hot afternoon, . . . Aunt Violet, Aunt Imogene, and Mom gathered around a patch of earth and dug up some of Aunt Violet’s pink iris bulbs. Three women in their 80s with shovel, spade, and bucket, working in the dirt on a hot summer day--a picture to remember. It was fun for them, because they are all gardeners. They were committing a gardening crime, because fall is the time of year you are supposed to move iris bulbs.  But I mightily craved pink irises to plant in my yard, and I wasn’t likely to be back at Aunt Violet’s again in the fall. As daughter and niece, I guess I rated enough for them to break the Garden Law. Summer transplant time notwithstanding, the pink irises have steadily, modestly, multiplied in my yard. They are budded out and due to bloom any day now. They are my favorite irises—partly for their color, mostly for their story.

My second favorite irises are planted in a narrow, side garden of the yard. They are short, yellow ones with rusty edges, which came from Mom’s mom’s garden. Grandma’s yellow irises are late bloomers, usually blooming a week or two behind all my other irises. I like their color. Grandma had an eye for pretty things. I think of Grandma every single time I look at them. She was kinda contrary, too.

Also, I have a patch of white irises, planted next to a patch of purple ones. These two colors are the earliest bloomers amongst their peers. I dug up starts of them at Mom’s several years ago, when she and Dad still lived on their farm. They are the descendants of irises which grew like crazy all over the yard, ever since I was a child. Mom swears that you can’t kill these particular irises. When she used to dig them up in the fall, to separate the bulbs and keep them from overcrowding, she’d toss the discards across the road into the ditches, and they would come up there the next year. So maybe those are my favorites, too.
The final member of my Iris scrapbook are some pale blue irises, which are blooming right now, along my fence. I bought those bulbs at Home Depot one year. They are pretty, but their character is still developing. As yet, they have no story. For irises and other garden plants and memories, stories go with the giving and receiving of them. Until that happens, they store up energy and spread out, waiting for their moment.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Poppies are for Remembering 1001:16

Walking around my favorite hometown this morning, I saw a man standing in front of the Post Office.  He was wearing navy slacks, a white shirt, and a navy cap.  He held a cut-away plastic vinegar jug, and a bundle of red crepe-paper poppies.  He stood erect.  He looked to be in his 80's

The man is a military veteran.  You can see him and others like him standing around about this time of year, before Memorial Day, collecting money for veterans.  It is Poppy Day, a day for remembering.

A middle-aged man stopped and talked with him for a few minutes, and donated some bills; maybe he was reminded of his father, or maybe he was also a veteran.  A woman in her 70's stopped and chatted, too.  She was a volunteer at the Plymouth Historical Museum, she told me.  I bought a poppy, because it would be a Major Sin for me to walk by any one in uniform without acknowledging him or her.  Because I've had a poppy almost every year of my life on Poppy Day.  Because my Dad was a WW2 Marine who fought at Iwo Jima, Tinian, and Saipan.  Because WW2 and the Marines were hallmark events in his life, and in my Mom's life, and gave them pride and place in their world.

My Mom collected for poppies last year, when she was only 89.  It was her first Poppy Day without Dad.  She stood with her collection box for a long time inside a local MotoMart, because they asked her to stand inside instead of standing out in the broiling sun which is where she was really supposed to stand, according to the Rules of Collecting.  It was pretty hot that day. Mom acceded the move into air conditioning, but as she pointed out to me later "I didn't sit down though.  I decided if the vets had fought through a war, I could stand up and collect for them."  Pause.  "I did lean against a chair a little, but not much."

There are all kinds of protocols associated with Poppy Day, in my memory.  Certainly, buying a poppy also gave me the urge to head to the local VFW or American Legion and have a cold one.  Those two institutions were and are the gathering place for the males in my family who served in the military--a goodly number.  I remember attending alllll the Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Veterans Day, and general parades where my folks proudly marched in their uniforms.  As they grew older, more and more often they sat in vehicles and rode.

A few years ago, Dad was getting pretty frail.  He refused until the last month of his life to use a cane, but his knees and back and body were shot from a long life of hard use, which included shrapnel, jungle rot and dengue fever, and a bulldozer that rolled on him during his long construction working career.  He and Mom made their way to the downtown of their little city (pop. 2100) for what was to be their last Fourth of July parade.  It was hot and humid, as summers in Southern Illinois are.  But they went, because they needed to.

They weren't really prepared, with chairs or water or umbrellas, they just drove over to Main Street, a short distance from their duplex, and then looked for anyone they knew, to stand with.  Their little city does a bang-up Fourth parade, everybody is in it, there's a carnival in the park, participants throw more candy out then most parades do at Hallowe'en, and you get to see everybody.  For some reason Mom and Dad couldn't find anybody they knew, they got there a little late, and all the good places were taken.  They found themselves standing by a house with a nice shaded porch full of people that Mom thought she knew.  It didn't matter if she knew them or not, really, because she talks to everyone in a way that brooks no dismissal.  She talks to you as if the discussion was the most important thing in life, and you are expected to participate.  Its a gift, or a curse, depending.

So Mom started talking with the people on the porch.  Dad was too deaf to particpate, which was unfortunate because of the two Dad was in many ways the more conversationally gifted, the more decidedly Irish Blarney Stone type.  But Mom mangaged to convince herself and the residents of the porch that they knew each other, because her and Dad wound up in prime shaded seats with someone to talk to for the duration of the parade, with cold drinks to boot.  I love those people, whoever they were.  Mom can't remember their names. 

But thats the beauty of Poppy Day.  I didn't know the man in front of the Post Office today.  But he sure was a stand-in for my Dad.  And for my Mom.  And for all veterans, and my childhood, and our history, and for the U.S.

                                                             Buy a poppy when you can.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Worth is in the Mind of the Beholder 1001:15

Mom is like my lighthouse, alerting me to the shoals of old age. Sometimes I look at her, and see practical advice on ageing, deeply held values, and survivorship. Other times, I mourn the fact that I’m just like her. Who hasn’t heard the line, “You’re just like your Mother” with mixed feelings? On at least one notable point, however, we differ:  she keeps stuff, I don't.
When my parents moved from the farmhouse they had lived in for over 60 years, to a senior duplex in town, many things had to be sorted and disposed of. It was a big down-sizing move. My dad was never a sorter, nor one to run a tight ship. He regularly lost things, lent them out permanently, or let them transform into outdoor sculpture in the odd places around the farm.  Packing was not a problem for him, because most of the tools and equipment he had were left behind or sold for the move. He did pack all of his Marine stuff, which was a sizeable box. To somewhat balance his style, Mom was always the one who liked things tidy. So for their first and last move, from a house full of their life together, Mom took charge of packing household items. This meant that no one could pack anything without her approval.


Obviously, this arrangement of having Mom approve every item that was picked up and put in a box to keep or a box to toss became tedious, not to mention really slow. So when possible, I made my own decisions--erring, I thought, on the side of “maybe she might want to keep this” more often than not. But Mom can not be underestimated. She is, possibly, omnipresent. She has an “in” with God, we have all accepted over the years, and maybe the “in” extends to some of His powers. At any rate, I had to unpack more than one box which she hadn’t directly supervised the packing of. If she wasn’t omnipresent all the time, she made up for it by backtracking her presence.

I think that the obsessive supervision of packing was, partly, her way of controlling a big change. It might also have been a way of controlling her kids. Mom has never been one to be walked over or taken advantage of lightly. It’s not that she can’t easily be taken advantage of, so much as that she will make a lot of noise and stink once she actually does get taken advantage of. No one was out to take advantage of her in this case, however. I was under the illusion I was going to make things easier for her. Wrong. I just made it harder on myself. But we wrestled with the Packing Devil together, at least.

The thing which, to me, most symbolized Mom’s need to control the disposition of her worldly goods was The Envelope. I was seated on the floor of the office room, with boxes and papers everywhere. Mom was being omnipresent right then, and was carefully watching every item I moved from drawer to box. It wasn’t like I was going to throw away the mortgage papers or anything—the house was paid off years ago. I became, I hope understandably, irritable after about a half hour of this, and decided to take a break. Maybe go pack towels, an area where I hoped couldn’t go wrong.

I stood and, on the way up, snagged an empty envelope lying on a pile of papers. The envelope was the brittle yellow that very old, cheap paper turns over decades of non-use. It was a non-standard size. It was all alone in the world, and it was not in great shape. I threw it in a toss box. Before the envelope hit the bottom of the box, Mom was on it. She picked it up, turned it over a few times in her hands thoughtfully, and said “I might need this.” She managed to do this in a way that made me feel as though I’d snatched food from the mouths of starving children in Ethiopia. This is one of her powers. Fortunately, God was present then, because I simply nodded in deep agreement with her decision, and walked away. I didn’t argue the envelope’s worth, nor plead for some freedom of decision in throwing away scrap papers.

I thought about discussing it with her. Trying to point out that she had to let SOMEthings go, be brutal and toss empty envelopes. But it was, after all, her envelope.

The basement provided weightier issues: the old black pot, copper lined, which Mom had made lots of apple butter in; the huge crock she had made lots of sauerkraut in. The interesting old items which are today collector’s items upped the ante in the whole packing decision-making scenario. It upped the life-lesson aspect of packing, too: sometimes tt's hard to sort out how much you love and appreciate someone from how much they can really get on your nerves. At least, this has been my experience.

So when Mom got to packing the basement, there were a lot of items which she wanted to take to a local second-hand store, because “these things are old and they’re worth something.” This was true of some things. Other things, though, had seen a lot of wear and were no longer functional, but Mom still saw value in them. When clearing out houses, I will bet you that the ratio of awful junk is higher than that of valuable stuff. I believe that second-hand shop owners who accept estate items must be good at dealing with human nature, in order to succeed in their business. Everybody thinks that their junk is valuable; other people's junk, however, usually isn't. In the end, a lot of Mom’s stuff got carted off to the second-hand shop, where the dealer gave a fair bid on the items. In my opinion. Not in Mom’s.

Last time I was visiting Mom, I stopped in at the second-hand store. It’s just down the street from Mom’s duplex in the Senior Housing Site. The owner is not getting rich, but she gets by; and she seems to know what she’s doing. I know I would get anxiety attacks dealing with so many items from other people’s lives surrounding me like that. A couple years after her move, some of Mom’s items were still there. Some had sold. None made anybody rich.  The question of value lingers.

Making good use of Mom as a role model, I try to make careful purchase decisions. If it’s choices about buying things like knick-knacks for the house, I’m pretty safe—I live like Walden, frugally. If its clothes, or shoes, or a trip to Whole Foods exotic food wonderland, I have no willpower. When tempted to buy anything at all, though, I can pull up the image of the second-hand store full of people’s once-valued possessions. Old things are worth something, but only if they are found by someone who wants them. Safer to just accumulate worldly goods as slowly and scarcely as possible. Then my kids won’t have to sort through them one of these days.

I’ll start with my shoes.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Of Plastic and People 1001;14

Alas, poor Barbie, I didn’t know thee well.  But the acquaintance was painful.
Barbie the Doll, when I was a kid back in the 50s and 60s, was a symbol of “cool.” Girls who possessed Barbie, thereby imbibed some of her perfect-ness. At the time, perfect-ness was… well, Barbie: big boobs, polyester hair, super-human height, cool clothes, and Owning Barbie. And Ken. And the other dolls in The Group.

I really wanted a Barbie doll, at the age of 8 or 10 or so. Back then, I boosted the (wonderful but limited) entertainment value of living on an isolated farm in many ways. One of those ways was an active Alternate Life in the form of Play People—plastic cowboys, stray humanoid forms of the 50’s, and Things—which were, predictably, discards of older siblings. (Rocks and sticks were good, too.) I remember the loosely-stuffed puppet Howdy Doody had interesting relationships with the smaller, stiffer Rodeo Cowgirl doll, whose boots were particularly appealing to me. The boots didn’t fit Howdy.

My Alternate Play Life included drawing pictures of People Doing Things—a gratifyingly manipulative move which I segued into adulthood and a professional knack for Figure Drawing. (Remind me sometime to tell you about my Fairy Book, which was full of illustrations of ethereal make-believe Little People. Or not.) This was all before Alternate Play Lives were available on the Internet, so while some might feel that the 1950’s APL’s resulted in Creative Expression, it was, even then, absolutely looking for escape from boredom. It did produce immediate and far-reaching, concrete manifestations of that boredom, in the form of pictures and stories (witness la or le text before you). This kind of direct concrete result doesn’t always happen when you play X-Box (Right, Son? JUST being a genius doesn’t mandate physical results, I know.).  Based on youthful experience, I speculate that Necessity might have to arm-wrestle Boredom as The Mother of Invention, I think, if we factor in Limited Facilities of Entertainment. Maybe.
Back to the Plastic People front, though: I was the original owner of a Betsy-Wetsy, the kind of doll you give a small plastic bottle full of water to, between her moulded plastic lips. The liquid immediately and predictably finds its lowest point, which in this case was the doll’s moulded plastic peehole. Even at the age of 4, I exhibited strong portents of my future Earth Mother leanings, and Betsy was surprisingly interesting in her eternal plastic dependency on me to rot out her soft plastic insides (if youre Jungian, I know I had you back at Howdy and CowGirl). Said Insides survived decades, actually. In homage to Betsy-Wetsy (and in tandem homage to our beloved family milk cow Betsy, struck and killed by lightning during a wild storm one black summer night), every inanimate object I have loved over my lifetime is nicknamed “Betsy.” Not Betsy-Wetsy, though, because she can never be replaced. This includes my car, a succession of guitars, and a succession of teakettles, as well as lawnmowers and hammers. Things I can rely on.

My lust for a Barbie had nothing to do with any future maternal success, though. Like all girls my age, which was prepubescent, I wanted Pretty Things. I wanted to be Pretty Things. Another APL plan that I heavily participated in was Reading Everything. I gradually realized that Heroines in books--and Heroes--are generally written up with the same prototype that Barbies and Kens were manufactured to fulfill: Pretty and Plastic. (A nice exception to this broad generalization was the old Tarzan books around the house. Tarzan was written up as a Dumb Brunette, ‘til Edgar Rice Burroughs sent him off to get educated in England. We all know the real fun in Tarzan was his primitive days with the much smarter Jane, whose looks were so-so, but that was moot since she was the only woman in the book. But I digress; my unwritten but upcoming novel, which will imprint on future girls living isolated lives the idea that People Are Not Plastic, is another story.)
In retrospect, though, I can accept Barbie, and even be proud of her. Her little plastic perfect self has escaped the confines of Mattel. They may have marketing rights, and they may physically perpetuate Barbie as the Perfect Woman for Pre-Teen Aspiration, but Barbie has become her Own Self.  Plastic or not, she has been requisitioned by those of us who were there, at her birthing full-blown from the head of a doll manufacturing company (think Venus born of sea-foam, Minerva sprung from Zeus’s head, etcl, with the whole development stage bypassed). The iconic beloved/ maligned female representation has left Alternate Play Life status. Barbie has Left the Building of Make-Believe.

Real Women have adopted Barbie, and given her a whole new icon status. After a half-century (its so fun to use that phrase with perfect ownership—I Am History) women have made Barbie into Us. We no longer try to be like her. Instead, we have Re-Created Her in Our Image (have I just summarized my ideas about God again?). We have created (on our Internet APL Instruments of Creation, no less, so I take back what I said earlier, Son) among other reincarnations a Cougar Barbie, who has aged with a fierce sexuality and a fondness for alcohol and drugs. Barbie gets hit on the Internet version of Folk Tales her fair share of times, spoofed in endless forms.
Recently I received an email manifestation of Barbie sitting on her perfect bedroom set, looking as old and bloated as one could hope for in any former Prom Queen, beer cans tossed on the perfect bedspread and romance novel in hand, with the title “Barbie doesn’t give a shit anymore.” That’s good to hear. Barbie has survived her epically overblown expectations of Forever Young with the same kind of spunk that William Shatner has. Shatner (whose Captain Kirk / Star Trek persona I also wanted to own) successfully and spectacularly evolved from his plastic perfect role as Captain Kirk. Who doesn’t love his contemporary dirty old man parody of his former Space Cadet self? I admire Kirk, and Barbie, for taking the mystique that was thrust on them, and re-incarnating with superiour humor and grace. This is truly a Great Ageing Model, in my book. Have your Day, then have Your Way.

So I was visiting my Mom on Mother’s Day. It’s a long trip to make, and I only do it twice a year. Every time I leave, she gives me things. Some things I love, like clippings from her garden or a bag of frozen homemade brownies. Some things I try to avoid, like my old Barbie Doll.
My old Barbie Doll was finally bequeathed to me when I was 15. This was bad timing. Mom had finally decided to give me a “cool” Christmas present, but it was several years past Barbie Fever, and none of the girls my age played with dolls anymore. Mom must have realized this on some level, which I can’t really bear to explore even now.

Be that as it may, as I was leaving my Mother's Day visit at the age of 58, she insisted I take Barbie with me, because “This is old and its worth something.” (Note to Jungians: upcoming essay on that one.) When I got the doll at 15, I was expected to sew the cool clothes myself, appreciate the doll, etc. I wanted to bury the doll even then for several reasons, but was saddled with Good Daughter issues I still carry.  I dutifully stuck her on my chiffrobe, pedestalled on her Barbie wire stand. So I must have just tortured her; half-a-century later (my new catch-phrase) I look at my Barbie and uncomfortably note she's got ink-pen mutilations and missing polyester hair. (Essay)
Facing my sordid past, I did the Grown-Up Reformed Barbie and Kirk Right Thing To Do: I took it. I took the little plastic problem and put it in my suitcase, said “Thanks Mom” (because Mom’s have the right to escape the Past, too, I hope sincerely), and drove 600 miles away with it. Now, safe in my own world, I debate if I want to ceremoniously burn it, spray-paint it with gold and add it to a panorama of Wise Women, or maybe use it as a sometime model for a new Fairy Journal. The End of the Barbie Journey has not yet been revealed to me. But I Believe.

I still hate Barbie. But I’ve separated that into Then Barbie and Redeemed Barbie. Now, I see a badly-used but interesting personal reminder of Many Things. Which meditation on has prompted a whole text, not to mention some forgiveness and understanding.

Mom, I love you. But don’t make me take all my bad memories home with me.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

My Garden Gods 1001;12

Gardening is a part of my life, bequeathed by my parents. I grew up on a dirt farm. We had the requisite truck garden to supply table food throughout the growing season, and canning produce for Mom. Mom and Dad each had their own zinnia beds in an ongoing rivalry over the years, as well as other flowering gardens, and acres of corn, wheat, and soy. I always knew where food came from.

I remember the first time Mom handed me a handful of seeds and coached me on how to plant them. They were radishes, which are easy to grow. I was about three, and I remember the small radish seeds, the dug-up earth, and Mom telling me to punch a little hole in the dirt, and put them in one at a time. She showed me how to brush the soft dirt over to cover them up, but “not too much dirt” because they had to get some air. Radishes are easy to grow. I don’t remember if they grew, but they must have, because seeds are pretty hardy and grow at any opportunity.
Half a century later, in my urban garden, I’ve been making like Gregor Mendel (1), and like my Dad. For the last couple years, I’ve collected seeds from each year’s harvest with a specific purpose to develop site-responsive plants. It’s a slow-moving experiment, wherein the qualities of each succeeding generation of seeds are noted. I began with a couple of my favorite plants, and Dad’s: gourds, and Kentucky Wonder Pole Beans. Both are climbing plants, and both are dramatic. Drama runs in my family, and the garden was not excluded.

Like all climbing plants, Kentucky Wonder Green Beans make a spectacular visual. For your own KW tourist attraction, just teepee several long wood poles, and plant the seeds around the base of the poles. When the vines trail up the poles, you have a little teepee which the neighbors will certainly take note of. KW’s are easy to harvest, and if the poles are long enough and spaced well, they provide a tent-space where kids can creep inside the teepee. Next year, my granddaughter will be old enough to walk, and I am planning some interesting garden playspaces for her, including a sunflower room.

It’s only my third year for the Kentucky Wonder Pole Beans seed-saving experiment, but I hope to notice some small differences this year. Last year, the seeds actually self-sowed, coming up in the garden from leftover pods I hadn’t cleared out. My tomatoes always do that, and I have rampant old-growth onions scattered throughout. I like to let my garden raise itself as much as possible, and I’m not squeamish about where and when it spontaneously reproduces. Rows or not rows, my garden is allowed to be individual. I think that well-maintained and disciplined gardens are beautiful and undoubtedly more productive. I just have a fondness for the individual random-expression type garden.

But I beefed up last-year’s volunteer bean crop a little with seeds I had saved. The resulting vines were prolific producers, which Kentucky Wonder beans usually are (yep, I’m putting in a plug for my favorite plants ). My casual goal in saving seeds is the simple one of acquiring plants which are adapted to my micro-mini backyard climate. This year, I’ll keep track of how fast the beans grow and produce; I didn’t do that last year. Even Gregor Mendel probably had to work out his method over a few years. Dad kept a journal of his plantings. I imagine a lot of addicted gardeners do. I may add moon-time of planting, spitting on the seeds, or hair addition to future notes, and include any other factors which interest me as my long-term project progresses. My maternal grandfather swore by planting with the moon phases. Dad respected such practices, and consulted the Farmer’s Almanac for plantings. Mom raised us as Baptists, but Dad instilled nature worship. It’s healthy to have variegated spirituality.

Another favorite plant I am growing is the snake gourd. There are many varieties of interesting gourds. They are great for kids to grow, because they are, again, pretty spectacular. (Really, neighborhood kids think that anything that comes up from a seed is pretty spectacular, and I’m plotting ways to make sure prize efforts are in a good viewing spot.) Many gourd varieties make a great climbing vine for patios and privacy fences, besides their interesting crops. There are dipper gourds shaped like long dippers, birdhouse gourds of several varieties, small decorative gourds, swan gourds, basket gourds, I saw a dragon gourd seed package this year; and on and on. Another fun gourd is the loofa, or sponge gourd. This gourd requires a little longer growing season than I get in Michigan, but if I plant it early I can get a few mature gourds before frost. Loofa gourds average a foot or less in length; after harvesting they dry out to become fibrous sponges. The dried sponges make durable dish scrubbers, or bath scrubbers.

I am attached to snake gourds in particular. They make a great, quick-growing privacy vine for my patio. They produce long, spectacular looking fruits, which dry out to make spectacular looking gourds. This year, I have 3rd generation snake gourd seeds (which need to go into the ground this spring stat, I remind myself as I write). I’m hoping they grow faster in my cool climate than the first 2 generations did, and produce better. I did get a larger crop last year from my 2nd generation-saved seeds, but also I planted the seeds earlier and they had a longer growth season, so I can’t really say that they have developed any adaptations to the micro-mini climate here. I planted them from a seed packet in 2009, and then kept seeds from that year’s harvest to plant in 2010. Seeds from the 2010 harvest are ready to plant this spring. The not-so-original theory is that my plants will adjust to the micro-mini-climates they were spawned in, and each succeeding generation of seeds have greater adaptation to local conditions of rain, soil, temperature, etc. You can check out cool information on this kind of seed religion at the website of one of my favorite authors: Barbara Kingsolvers website. Her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, is the documentation of a year in her family’s project of growing their own food, and buying only food grown within 30 miles of their home. The book is a work of love for the earth and our dependence on its sustenance. Kingsolver is an award-winning novelist, whose education was as a biologist. Another of Kingsolver’s books is her novel Prodigal Summer, which is about the inter-relationships of animals, people, and plants. It’s one of my favorite books.

Gardening requires some small commitments. It gives wonderful gifts. Gardening is spiritual. Patience, love, expectation, memory, resurrection, death, ritual, pageantry when its in full growth—all there. Patience is one of my favorite qualities involved in gardening, because I’m not a very patient person by nature. Gourds are a favorite example of this. It takes a summer to grow gourds, and a winter to cure them. Growing anything is an exercise in patience; growing and curing takes patience a little further.

After harvesting the long, heavy, green gourds about the time of frost, I put my gourds in a cool, dry place. My Michigan basement works well for this. In southern Illinois, my Dad used his barn for drying stuff out over the milder winters. The snake gourd mildews from the inside out over the winter, to become a dried pod. When the gourd goes through the process of mildewing from the inside out, it looks as if it is rotting. Circles of white and black mold collect on its green surface as the moisture leeches out. But have patience—after the leeching goes on a few weeks, the mold dries up and the skin becomes a shell. I gently scrub off the mold after it is finished drying. The mold leaves interesting patterns on the gourd. Last year, I left all my gourds natural. This year, I’m painting some of them.

So after curing, you can make stuff out of your gourds. Although I leave a few lying around just to look at, the stuff I decided to make out of mine is rain sticks. If you have ever gone by a Peruvian music stall at a summer fair, you’ve probably heard or seen rain sticks. Rain sticks are musical instruments, of the percussive ilk. Turn them up and down, and you hear tinkling sounds like raindrops. They can be made out of long gourds, or hollowed-out sticks, partly filled with seeds or rice. Horizontal “stops” (thin sticks or dowels) inserted up and down its length cause the rice to sound like a trickling waterfall when the stick is turned up and down (insert webpage directions). They are mesmerizing in the way that kaleidoscopes are.

To make rain sticks, I used a nail to puncture holes in my cured gourds, to insert small horizontal sticks into. When the nail first pushed through the dried skin, there was a small “pouf” of released air. It’s like the dried seeds inside held their breath for the moment of release. I will cut out a larger hole in one of the gourds, to collect seeds for planting. I can glue the cut-out back in place to retain the intact gourd shell. For my rain stick, I inserted the sticks from an unused sushi-roll mat (laying around in my flatware drawer for years) into the nail-holes I punched. Then I have to cut the sticks off flush with the sides of the gourd, and make sure that they don’t slide out. I might break down and use Crazy Glue for this. I leave the seeds inside the gourds that I use for rain sticks, although rice is recommended for making the water-sound. I am a snake-gourd purist on that count.

Two years ago, I harvested 6 gourds. Last summer, I harvested 12. This year, I hope to get double that, or more. Of course, how much I harvest depends on how much I sow, and getting the seeds in at the right time, etc. But I am hooked into my gourd family now. I want to make lots and lots of rain sticks, I want the neighborhood kids to be amazed by my wild garden, and I want to discover over the next few years a difference in the quality and productiveness of my saved seeds.

You never know what research, creative, and spiritual paths a few radish seeds will lead you down.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Many Small Things: the Yin Yang of. 1001;11

Theology, philosophy, and psychology are hobbies of mine. I do not shy away from opinions on religion, gods, or neighbors. People who know me, testify to this. They will add that I am not a trained professional.

However, after recent, multiple, and devastating natural disasters in the world, it is just plain human nature to apply any or all of the above amateur pursuits to the question: What in the hell is going on? Answers, of course, are just wishful thinking, and never guaranteed useful or accurate even if you can find some. Answers are false comfort, and could be avoided entirely if humans were constructed to not think about stuff.
But when faced with persistent Old Testament-quality wrath (think "Job"), we do think about it. And it’s easy to empathize with ancient cultures (sans telephone, newspapers, internet, et al) who meditated, read fresh entrails, and studied the skies for answers. Some (I’m thinking Carl Sagan here, whom I mightily admire) might call these methods “looking for explanations in arcane vistas, where there are none to be read.” Equally true, some might call this “looking for explanations where maybe they exist, but where most of us can't see them.” Yet for all I know—or any of us—the entrails of a goat, when thoughtfully studied, reflect the macrocosm. Actually that is a comforting thought; sort of like Dorothy having the means to “go home” with her all the time, yet clueless about the importance of her shoes.

My friends would say, right about now, as they traded brief resigned looks with you: yeah, she really talks like that. Good friends stick with you, no matter what. I am grateful.

A Japanese friend, once upon a time, inadvertently explained Japan to me in a phrase: “Many small things.” The words applied literally to many small bells, hanging from tall posts on a boulevard by the ocean near Kobe. But ever since I heard the bells and the words, they have applied to many small things which compose Japanese culture: many individuals who function together for the advancement of the Whole, many small dishes of food, many small areas of detail and action and belief. This phrase is like goat entrails, when I think of Japan: a sign to unlock my mind, to see something that is so unlike what my conscious mind seeks that it triggers deeply embedded subconscious answers. (Yep, everybody does that.  Don't you?) 

Pursuing my hobbies of Finding Answers to the Universe and the Wrath of Jehovah, the phrase Many Small Things thus popped into my head, where things often pop in and out. The phrase was called to mind specifically by the Internet Entrails / pictures of the horrific tsunami in Japan, and the tornadic activity throughout the American South. Pictures of pieces of things; pictures of things sharded and shredded; pictures of small homeless items which are utterly worthless, utterly valuable. Pictures of what looked like mounds of toothpicks being picked over by incongruously human humans, moving over the remains of their identities. What civilization do we belong to when our personal, microcosmic civilizations are pulverized? How do we find our Selves in the rubble of our life?

Well, in the pursuit of said hobbies, I have formulated some rules. One BIG rule is: there is always Another Side to every viewpoint (if not a bunch more sides). There is always a New Beginning to every story that ends. There is, certainly, always an Ending to all stories. And there are other rules I make up in my spare time. But today I am fleshing out the newly verbalized rule about The Yin Yang of Many Small Things: Where there is Positive, there must be Negative. That is,  “Many Small Things are beautiful, and Many Small Things are a mess.” Maybe the defining difference between Beauty and Horror is the order we impose on our personal chaos of small worldly Things.

So I look for interpretation in my Internet Entrails: pictures which reveal a de-construction of the human order which was fleetingly imposed on a culture, or a town, a street, a house. In the pictures, many small things were scattered, beyond any possibility of re-uniting into their former state of being. Hearths, altars, herds of personally-contrived realities: all were Poofed. A surviving person, or maybe several surviving persons over the extent of many tragedies, addressed this issue within the hearing of journalists. He, She, or They was/were quoted in a (surely) universal expression among the survivors of uncontrolled Yahweh Old Testament Devastation: You can replace Things; you can’t replace People.

As part of my philosopher/ theologist/ psychologist (and, OK, sociologist/ anthropologist) hobbies, I live a lifestyle which some of my acquaintances refer to as Spartan. If you are fond of Ancient Greek history and/or the movie The 300, or if you were forced to read Walden in your public school tenure, you got the picture. I have two skillets, one pot, one television in the basement which is not hooked up to outside sources, minimalist living space, and the goal to live Waste-Free before I die. In harmony with my perverted and conflicted dedication to Less is More, I reflect on My Goal of leaving this world with nothing left lying in dusty closets or forgotten boxes for my kids to divvy up between charity and the town dump. When my tenure on this mortal coil is fulfilled, I plan on shuffling off via cremation instead of burial. Cast to the wind instead of adding to landfill. Living Without Things is contradictory to everything that is currently American, but it is totally historically American, as reflected by Thoreau and pioneers.
This logical if convoluted personal philosophy applies to my subject: the Negative Aspect of Many Small Things.

Whether or not Yahweh /Jehovah and Shinto spirits and Gaea and Buddha and Muslim prophets and Vishnu and all other Recourses to the Inexplicable are constructs of humans who seek order in entrails or in houses filled with many small things—I will pose an interpretation here, based on my hobbies of considering constructs of order.

Reading fresh Internet Entrails: Many Small Things fill our lives with pleasure and order and a feeling (however temporary) of Control and Belonging. However, people who recently suffered the physical wrath of all-of-the-above deities would say: it’s all Just Stuff. The collections of Disney characters, crystal figurines, power saws, antique cars, photographs, books, furniture, clothes we all horde--they are nice illusions, used to obscure the harsh insights of goat entrails, and support order in chaos. The Stuff we collect works very nicely to do that, too. I love my books and my clothes, and even the extra dishes I don’t need for survival but like to put out just to look at. They organize my chaos into a personal code, and are a positive side of my life.

But according to my new Rule, these little postivies demand equal negatives, for balance. For all the possessions I/we acquire, there is a subsequent letting-go of same. I do not have a theory on “for all letting-go’s, there is a subsequent acquisition.” But I think it must work both ways. I have time to pursue my hobbies further.

So, the fresh Internet Entrails/ pictures I study call up meaning  in the chaos's Search for Answers, which may or may not comfort and inform: The Flip Side of Many Small Things is Don’t Hang Onto Them.