What We Don’t Know About Our Friends and Neighbors

I was visiting with my neighbor Bea in her home when she suddenly turned toward a table in the corner and said, “I want to show you something.”

Bea walked over to the table and picked up two large, clear plastic bags each containing a colorful quilt in them.  “Look what I’ve been doing this winter!” she said, pulling the quilts out of the plastic and proudly draping them over her arm.

I was amazed at Bea’s quilts, their beauty, their crisp seams, and the colorful designs.

She told me one quilt was called “The Disappearing Four Patch.”  She’d seen the pattern on a quilting TV program: “Fons and Porter’s Love of Quilting.”  The other quilt was a collage of antique pink and yellow-themed blocks, and was sewn in a garden star pattern.

I marveled at Bea’s craftsmanship especially since I’m not a quilter myself, and left Bea’s house thinking about a book I read once, The Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham.  The book was about a man who searched the world for the meaning of life. He eventually found his answer in India where he watched a woman weave a blanket. He thought this was our purpose: we’re each a colorful strand of thread making a contribution to some universal pattern. I was disappointed in the book’s conclusion.  The book was a bear to read, and I was looking for something a bit more mystical.

Bea is not the type of person I see quilting.  My image for that comes from my mother-in-law who was an excellent homemaker and spent years cooking and sewing for her family.  Bea’s been a homemaker among other roles, but to me she’s never looked or acted like one.  For example, I’ve never seen Bea wear a dress much less an apron. She seems most comfortable in an old T-shirt and jeans.  Often I’ll see her in a pair of muck boots working in her half-acre yard moving irrigation pipes or firing up her tractor mower. She has short hair and brown, leathery skin, and she spent years weighing potato and grain trucks at a local farm scale house.  Bea’s always been so practical, I just never knew she harbored so much creativity.

Who we are inside, our talents and thoughts, can be a big secret to the world.

We can be like Russian nesting dolls.  Layers need to be uncovered before you actually find the core of us, and it’s only in how we express ourselves, what we make, do, or say that you catch a glimpse of our inner life.  Sometimes that core can be surprising—and sometimes disappointing, even shocking.  For example, Abraham Lincoln was described by opposition newspapers as “…the leanest, lankest, most ungainly mass of legs, arms and hatchet-face ever strung upon a single frame…”  Furthermore, these newspapers said Lincoln’s speeches were “illiterate compositions…interlarded with coarse and clumsy jokes…” (medium.com). On the other hand, Ted Bundy, the serial killer, was characterized as “… young, handsome, and well-dressed in a preppy kind of way (Quora.com).”

Appearances aren’t the only possible deception in the package of who we are.

I was struck by this fact watching the fall-out from the riot last week in Washington on television.  NBC news reported that many of the participants were simply regular people, teachers and truck drivers, some even held jobs that contributed to public safety, like firemen and former police. The old axiom that you can never judge a book by its cover is amplified here. You can’t even judge a book by its plot or characters. You have to go deep to the theme, what animates the person.  For my neighbor Bea, surprisingly, it’s quilts.  For others, apparently, it’s something far more dark and angry.

 

Image credit:  garden star pattern        Image credit:  The Razors Edge        Image credit:  Capitol riot

 

Reading about the Universe on New Year’s Eve

There’s a room upstairs in my house where I store things: my old skis, high school yearbooks, family photos.  Everyone has a place like this.  I foraged around in this room and noticed my personal journals on a shelf, journals I’d written in over a life time.  I rarely reread my old journals.  Writing in them was enough.  But I leafed through a few out of curiosity and was surprised by what I found.  I knew things in 1993 and 2001 and 2010!

It occurred to me that I’d never given my younger self much credit for wisdom.

I’ve always thought wisdom and the knowledge that undergirds it takes years to acquire.  It’s the wheelhouse of the very old—but it seems I was wrong.

For example, the last day of February 1993 I was anxious for spring and the weather wasn’t cooperating.  I wrote: “The temperature outside is 20 degrees—and falling!  Forget global warming!”

Apparently, decades ago I knew about climate change.

I knew about it long before Al Gore’s book An Inconvenient Truth, or young Greta Thunberg’s climate protests.  In 1993 I was a high school reading teacher and a busy mother of four.  I remember grading papers until late in the afternoon, and then picking up my kids from after-school sports.  On the way home we ate take-out Little Caesar pizza in the car.  When did I find time to read about trapped greenhouse gases?  And, where did I read about it?

I wrote an entry in my journal in 2001, the day before the September 11th terrorist attacks in New York.  Interestingly, my topic was life and what it meant to live.  I’d just had my first colonoscopy, and I wrote: “I’ve reacted to this colonoscopy with disabling apprehension…I barely got through it…what with fear and anxiety over cancer, tumors, polyps, biopsies.  How many times will I have to live through these horrid experiences?  And then, THEN, Dr. Williams gave my colon a clean bill of health and told me she’d see me again in ten years.  My spirits went up like a kite.

I wanted to shout to the sky, ‘I’ll live!’—as if ‘living’ is solely dependent on physical health…”

In 2010 I wrote something in my journal that reminded me of a book I’m currently reading about Einstein and physics.  I barely made it through high school physics so I was intrigued to find out if The Dancing of the Wu Li Masters could explain the universe to me.  The author, Gary Zukav, wrote, “…all of the things in our universe (including us) that appear to exist independently are actually parts of one all encompassing organic pattern and …no parts of that pattern are ever really separate from it or from each other.”

The Wu Li Master’s book soothed my grieving spirit this fall when my brother suddenly died, and I felt permanently “separate” from him.

Weirdly, in the spring of 2010 I speculated about how the laws of the universe and the elasticity of space and time might have something to say about death and dying on earth. I wrote:

“…there (are) all kinds of stories:  the story of childhood with its myth and magic; the story of adulthood with its passion and suffering; the story of old age with its death and loss.  But the mitigating factor in old age, in all of life, is the story of the universe, of time and space.  This is comforting to me because in the face of our cruel natural world, there’s a much bigger reality: time and space…”

When I finished reading my journals I restacked them back on their shelf, glad I took the time to revisit my younger self.  My journal writings turned out to be hopeful letters to the future me, that white-haired lady living in the year 2021.

 

Image Credit:  The Universe       Image Credit:  Dancing of the Wu Li Masters         Image Credit:

 

I don’t wanna live like this, but I don’t wanna die…

Erin, my daughter’s friend, is in the first wave to get the Pfizer Covid vaccine here in Idaho.

She’s on the front lines working as a nurse practitioner in the cardiology unit at our local hospital.  I like her attitude. After getting the vaccine she laughed and offered to roll all over her friends to help them with herd immunity.  Lucky Erin. This vaccine can’t come quick enough, not only to stave off further infections, but many people are experiencing the very real problem of Covid fatigue. They’re sick of dealing with the virus and either actively defying health restrictions or passively ignoring them.

“Oh Covid’s everywhere,” a woman told me matter-of-factly this past week. “My daughter and her husband had it. My grandson had a fever for a couple of days.  It was no big deal.  They all survived.” This woman is planning a large family gathering at Christmas.

That’s the thing about Covid: for most people it is no big deal.  Some people are even asymptomatic, something that presented a problem in a school district near my home.  National Public Radio reported that asymptomatic carriers in the Bruneau-Grandview school district in Idaho may have fostered community spread of Covid.  Mask wearing is not popular among students, parents, or staff in this district, said NPR, and, “…there’s also this sense of, well, this is just how it is going to be.”

But the sense of inevitability, that we’re all going to get Covid, is not supported by the facts. After eight months of dealing with this pandemic, and probably largely due to preventative measures, only 5% of people in the U.S. have been infected according to statistica.com.  So why are people being so fatalistic?

Throwing your hands in the air and giving up is one response to ambiguity, or as the Bruneau-Grandview Superintendent noted, the unpredictability of the Covid situation.

Here’s a virus that’s known to be deadly for the elderly, but occasionally kills young people.  It’s often little more than a bad cold, but can send some people to the hospital fighting for their lives. There was no question in the Middle Ages if you became infected with the plague. Those infections resulted in fatality.

The maddeningly, arbitrary nature of the virus is at least partly responsible for our mixed responses to it.  The reluctance to take Covid more seriously has been blamed on either lack of leadership from the White House, or the moral failings of people more concerned with their personal rights than their community responsibilities.  But it’s difficult to bring out the Big Guns and always stand at the ready for months on end when the enemy is as unreliable as Covid.

When I taught school I had a front row seat watching human behavior, what motivated students and what did not.  Also, what made students give up and quit trying.  Later, in my role as an educational researcher I investigated reinforcement schedules, how you time rewards to keep students working and trying.  Too much uncertainty in a situation or outcome, and students lost interest.  It’s no different with this pandemic.

Finally, for some people the rewards for wearing a mask and social distancing has been too long in coming.  They’re just tired of it all.

So am I–I’m tired of Covid too.  I miss our movie group party this holiday season, and hugging my dear, elderly mother.  I’d like my daughter to spend Christmas Eve night with us, but I’m not sure who she’s been around at work, and whether she’s been exposed.  I thought about the situation we’re in the other day listening to some alternative rock music on the radio.  The lyrics of one song said it all as far as I was concerned.  The ironically named group, Vampire Weekend, sang: “I don’t wanna live like this, but I don’t wanna die…”

 

Image Credit:  Erin getting her vaccine    Image Credit: Bruneau-Grandview Schools, Rimrock High School    Image Credit:  Vampire Weekend

 

 

Feeling Good this Christmas

“Do you know what’s in plum pudding?”  Andrea, my daughter-in-law, asked me as she read the recipe from her cell phone.

“Just a wild guess, plums?”

“Half a pound of kidney fat, and get this, you have to cure the pudding for a year before you eat it.”

“Yummy. Kidney fat is one of my favorite things.”

Andrea’s planning a Charles Dicken’s Christmas feast, but I have my doubts about a 150-year-old meal.  Lots of people are going “retro” this Christmas and looking to the past for holiday inspiration.  For example, I’ve read there’s been a run on live, fresh Christmas trees.  Apparently, plastic trees have lost their appeal despite the fact you can shake them open like an umbrella.  Another sign of Christmas retro: the 1946 movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, is currently in the top ten list of most-watched movies.  As I write this, the sixth most-streamed song this week (according to Rolling Stone magazine) is Dean Martin’s 1959 hit, Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow.

One oft-cited theory about our fascination with Christmases of the past is that we all long for a “simpler” time.  Not everyone agrees with this thinking though. I knew a man once who grumbled about fireplaces and wood stoves, the old-fashioned way to heat homes at Christmas.

“Why would anyone want to chop wood when we’ve got central heating?” he asked me.

Every time I’ve watched It’s a Wonderful Life I want to live in that quaint,1940’s town of Bedford Falls where everyone knows everyone else, and predictably, there’s a good guy, George Bailey, and a bad guy, the deceitful banker, Mr. Potter.  Though people and life are much more complex than that, at Christmas especially, we still look for a hero, someone as pure and good as a babe in a manger. We want to BELIEVE. We don’t want to deal with ambiguous leaders who lie worse than Mr. Potter.

Christmases of the past have a certain aura. They always seem so gilded with joy. Maybe because the ones we remember the best, are those of our childhood.  My mother tells the story in the 1930’s of wishing for a doll she saw advertised on a can of Clabber Girl baking powder. With enough Clabber Girl coupons, the doll was free. Mom told me she was thrilled when she discovered the Clabber Girl doll under the Christmas tree.  I remember being five-years-old and excited for Christmas.  I lay on my top bunk straining to hear Santa’s sleigh bells. One of my husband’s fondest memories is the Christmas he got an erector set. Happiness is such a bright, twinkling star. We want to follow that star no matter how distant and unreachable.

Our nostalgia this Christmas probably has a lot to do with the current pandemic.  We relate to Dean Martin crooning: “Oh, the weather outside is frightful…” –because with Covid, the weather’s not the only frightful thing. The pandemic has left many of us craving a safer, more comforting past.  But, that’s our fantasy.  Charles Dickens lived before antibiotics when a simple cold could mean death.  It’s a Wonderful Life was made during WWII.  And, Dean Martin was popular when Russia threatened the U.S. with nuclear attacks.  Even that first Christmas was not safe.  Mary and Joseph, like all Jews, lived under Roman oppression.

No matter what happens in the world, it’s good to remember that Christmas really happens inside of us, in our heart and our head.  For some, it only takes a old movie or a song to get into the Christmas spirit.  For others, it’s a kidney-fat pudding from the 19th century–and to the pudding crowd I say, “Bon appetit!”

Image Credit:  It’s a Wonderful Life  Image credit: Christmas Past      Image credit:  Plum Pudding

Let’s Travel to Another Place…

I’ve been living in the Land of the Sick—and I’m ready to move.  To begin with, I’m sick with some kind of non-Covid throat infection, and this despite the fact that I wear masks, social distance, and disinfect.  How did these bugs sneak by my PPE to my tonsils?  Then, my brother and elderly mother have spent time this month in the hospital.  My daughter-in-law just video-chatted and said their whole family is sick with fever and nausea and waiting on Covid test results.

Looking for a reprieve from ill health, I turned on the TV…

and the screen lit up with people in hospitals on ventilators.  I walked to the kitchen to make a cup of tea (for my throat) but couldn’t miss my kitchen counter covered with thermometers, throat lozenges, and ibuprofen.  A sticky pad listed the health clinic and doctor’s phone number. The scenery in the Land of the Sick is not so great.

There are other lands to live in and plenty of examples of people who, in dire times, discovered them.  Novelist Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote Treasure Island, spent much of his youth in bed sick with bronchial infections.  That didn’t stop him from letting his mind jump a ship bound for exotic, ocean beaches full of nefarious pirates. Teddy Roosevelt too, was a bed-ridden, sickly youth, yet he spent hours with his toy soldiers dreaming of great deeds and military conquests.  Being physically trapped in their beds didn’t prevent these young men from roaming far and wide in their minds.

Another woman I knew told me about her own journey out of the Land of the Sick.

“Koontz and his stories, they saved me,” said Pam. “I got through my cancer treatments and came out the other side, amazingly still sane.”

Pam was just a young woman when she found out she had breast cancer and needed both surgery and chemo. It was a nightmare. She was frightened and became obsessed with thoughts of death.  Then someone gave her a Dean Koontz mystery/horror novel.  Pam told me reading Koontz book she was transported from her hospital room to an alleyway in southern California where some telepathic dog was tracking a killer.

“I wrote Dean Koontz a long letter thanking him for all that he did for me,” Pam told me excitedly, “and guess what?  He answered me back!”

Other lands are far more pleasant than the Land of the Sick.  There’s the Land of Music, the Land of Adventure, the Land of Building.  My father was a trucker in norther Indiana hauling trailer homes across the country.  He spent long hours in the cab of his truck with little else to do but watch the ribbon of highway stretching ahead of him. Dad trucked in a time before podcasts and other entertainments were available. His only diversion was the radio—when he could get reception.  But it was on these lengthy, boring trips to Florida or Massachusetts that dad would design and build a large addition he planned for our house.  He told my mother he had the blueprint in his mind.

This past week I took a hiatus from the Land of the Sick to binge-watch Netflix.

There I saw a great mini-series, The Queen’s Gambit, about a young woman who became a chess master.

In order for Beth Harmon to visualize her chess moves she had to leave the Land of Anxiety and Fear.  No one can concentrate if they’re locked in some awful headspace, but sometimes leaving is harder than we think. Beth Harmon took drugs–not an option for me, unless of course you count Ibuprofen.

Today, my throat still hurts, but I’m no longer contagious. I think I’ll take a drive down the road, not far, just to the place where there’s a little rise. I’ll park the car and sip my water bottle and and watch the traffic in the valley below. Maybe I’ll see a car with an out-of-state license plate, maybe Oregon.  Then I’ll think about that wonderful time we flew kites on the Oregon coast—and escape the Land of the Sick for a while.

 

Image Credit: Covid patient  Image Credit:  Dean Koontz   Image Credit: The Queen’s Gambit

Bad Times and Hard Luck

Winter is coming and many of us are stuck indoors dodging the coronavirus. Sounds like a good time for an inside joke. Isolating is causing me to stress-eat so much my shirt buttons are social distancing.  And, speaking of eating, how are we going to have holiday gatherings during Covid?  Treat everyone like turkeys and avoid from them all instead of just Uncle Cranky?  I might as well mention the job losses caused by Covid.  I’d make a joke about unemployment—but none of them work.

Though my attempt at humor may be fairly lame, the tough times coming this winter are no laughing matter.

The pandemic has already caused a great deal of suffering–but is this really the worst, hard time?

I was ruminating about our pandemic problem when I recently visited a rancher who lives in cowboy country just south of our farm.  Dave wanted to tell me some stories about his ancestors settling the west in the 1800’s, and the kind of winters his family endured in the early days.

“We don’t understand bad times,” Dave said shaking his head. “Winter was a real trial back then. Oh, we get bad winters now. In 1990 we had a cold snap.  Forty below in some places.  I remember I had to bring the cows in to feed. And, 2017 we got dumped on (with several feet of snow).  But my great-grandpa’s family—they couldn’t jump in a warm pickup and haul hay to their cows. At least we’ve got good transportation now.”

Dave showed me a book his Uncle Chet wrote about his ancestors.  His great-grandfather was a teacher from Delaware who came west to stake a land claim.  I leafed through the book and read about the first rock house his great-grandfather built in the high desert near Grasmere, Idaho.

The roof was made of willows, hay, and mud.

Inside the home, coarse muslin cloth was tacked to the ceiling to prevent dirt from drifting down on people’s heads.  Lacking trees in the desert, his great-grandparents burned sagebrush and manure in the fireplace.  Town was forty miles away.

“Life wasn’t easy, but they were young and had dreams,” Dave looked thoughtful. “If you live off the land though, you can’t ever forget that Mother Nature’s the boss.”

Dave said his ancestors learned to expect the unexpected. In the winter of 1919 a mangy coyote wandered into Dave’s grandparent’s yard and fought the family dog in the snow, spewing blood everywhere. Dave’s father, Billy, was just a little boy and loved their cow dog:  Doggone.

Doggone earned his name because anytime there was a mess or something was missing that “doggone dog” was involved.

Dave’s grandmother tried to shoo away the coyote and separate the two animals, but to no avail.  When his grandfather came home, he told Billy they might have to shoot Doggone because the coyote likely was rabid.  Then they learned Doggone had nipped both Billy and several cows in the pasture after his coyote battle. The doctor in Bruneau had to send away to San Francisco for rabies vaccine, and though Billy survived, Doggone and all the cows that were bit, went mad and died.

“That happened—but that wasn’t the worst winter,” Dave said.  The worst winter, Dave told me, was in the 1930’s during the Depression when his Great-Uncle Arthur, who ranched at Wickahoney, Idaho, had no money to buy feed for his cows. He finally went to the Bruneau bank to borrow money, but the bank refused him a loan. Banks were struggling as much as everyone else during the Depression. Not willing to stand by and watch his cows starve, the next day, Dave’s great-uncle hung himself.

“But my dad’s cousin, Rosella, Arthur’s daughter, she survived.  I think those hard times toughened her up, because she lived a good long life after that, well into her 80’s I believe.”

When my visit with Dave ended, I went in my house and walked around marveling at the comfortable and safe environment I live in. The family room felt a little chilly so I turned up the wall thermostat. Then, with a flick of a switch, I brewed some coffee.  As I sipped my coffee I thought about my particular story of oppression: the 2020 Covid Pandemic.  We may not be living in the best of times, but we’re certainly not living in the worst–not even close.

 

 

Image Credit:  Cowboy in snow.    Image Credit: Dave’s ancestral home 1900’s (courtesy Tindall family).  Image Credit:  Amos the cowdog (courtesy Christine Collett).  Image Credit: Cattle in winter (courtesy Christine Collett).

Poetry and Electing an Honest Man

I bent over the worksheet on my desk and followed the outline of the leaf with an orange crayon, and the acorn with a brown one.  Then I filled in the body of the leaf and acorn, lightly stroking the crayon back and forth. I remember how I admired my artwork in third grade.  Below my colored oak tree was printed a poem, the last two lines I still remember: “Poems are made by fools like me, but only God can make a tree.”  I thought about that poem this morning marveling at the colorful ash tree in my front yard turning with autumn. These days pop culture has little use for poetry, but a century or two ago poetry was all the rage.  For me, certain poems are so unforgettable they’ve come to define each step of my life.

Most people are familiar with Robert Frost’s poetry and particularly his most famous, “The Road Not Taken.”  When I was in high school I won second place at the Indiana State Forensic competition reciting this poem.  I remember slowing the final lines down for dramatic effect:  “And I?  I took the road less traveled by—and that has made all the difference.”  The desire of my youth was encompassed in that line.  At seventeen I longed to be unique and make my own mark in the world in my own way.  Now, at the other end of the life cycle, “Birches,” another Frost poem, rings more true.  Frost writes how as an adult he misses his carefree youth:

“So was I once myself a swinger of birches

And so I dream of going back to be.

It’s when I’m weary of considerations,

And life is too much like a pathless wood…”

In college I became a cynic and lost all faith in God.  It was the Viet Nam era and over 58,000 young men and women were fated to die. In 1972 my first grade crush, Dennis Collins, would become a paraplegic fighting in that war.  The banality of weekly death counts numbed me.  I eventually turned to art to reignite my passion for life and living, and joined the college drama program.  I directed my fellow actors in a short performance of T. S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men.”  I asked the players to paint their faces white and wear black turtleneck tops and pants as they took turns reciting: “This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper.”

When I was newly married a relative of mine, someone I cared for very much, “came out” and told me she was gay.  I remember castigating her because I felt this was a lifestyle choice, and she didn’t understand what she was getting into.  To support my argument I referred to the memoir of poet May Sarton, and the struggles she experienced as a lesbian.  It took a few generations before my thinking, and the thinking of the culture at large, shifted. This attitude change was expressed well in Mary Oliver’s poem, “Wild Geese”:

“You do not have to walk on your knees a hundred miles through the desert repenting…

You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”

Eventually I raised my family and began a mid-life career teaching high school English.  I tried all kinds of imaginative ways to make poetry more palatable to my students: a poetry unit using rock music; lessons on dating and romantic poetry; an awards ceremony for the most funny or creative poetry my students could find or create.  Some years I began the class discussion on poetry with Billy Collins’ clever, “Introduction to Poetry”:  “I ask them to take a poem and hold it up to the light like a color slide…but all they want to do is to tie the poem to a chair with rope and torture a confession out of it…”

When I finally retired from education, I had more time and became more civic-minded and politically active. Again poetry encapsulated in just a few stirring words my worst fears and best hopes.  Poet William Butler Yeats wrote with such profound insight, several lines of his poem, “The Second Coming,” have been used for numerous book titles:  “…Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity…”

Just this past week I glanced at British poet, Sheenagh Pugh’s, fall poem:

“Sometimes things don’t go, after all, from bad to worse. Some years Muscadel (grapes) face down frost…

A people sometimes will step back from war; elect an honest man; decide they care…”

As time marches inexorably on, I’m beginning to mourn the loss of friends and family members. Soon it will be my turn, and the thought of leaving this life is fearsome indeed. I find it oddly comforting to consider all the great people who’ve gone on before, Shakespeare for example.  I carry the great poesy’s words close to my heart at this age, and it seems a fitting way to end this meditation on my life’s poetry:

“That time of year thou may’st in me behold when yellow leaves…do hang upon the boughs…

This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong—to love that well, which thou must leave ere long.”

 

 

Image Credit: Diana Hooley    Image Credit:  May Sarton 

That Thing We Have in Common with Caterpillar Moths

Whenever I encounter dumb, really numb-skull human behavior, I think about a story I read years ago by author Annie Dillard. I’ve never met Dillard, but she seems like my kind of person, someone who likes being outside and enjoys observing the world around her. I’ll readily admit I’m not as keen of an observer as Dillard, and she likes to watch small creatures: birds, mice, insects, and such. I’m more fascinated by large, hairy humans. Some have called Dillard a naturalist, but she’s a great writer. I’m particularly fond of a story she wrote about the caterpillar moth. My only experience with caterpillar moths was when I was a little girl and held them in my hand, and watched their wooly bodies inch across my palm.

As Dillard describes it, caterpillar moths like to line up behind a lead caterpillar whose role it is to seek out pine needles, a primary food source. In an experiment, the caterpillar leader was removed to find out if its followers would break rank and find food for themselves. Dillard reported that astonishingly, the caterpillar followers did not vary the route set out for them by their leader, even when there was no food available along this trail. They continued in a “doomed march” head-to-tail around the rim of a garden vase, when just below them down the side of the vase was a stash of tasty pine needles. They mindlessly circled the rim of the vase for seven days, and probably would have starved and died without rescue. Caterpillar moths apparently are insects enslaved by instinct and habit.

I knew a man once, Michael, who like Dillard, enjoyed being out in the natural world. Michael was a fan of all kinds of science though: physics, engineering, astronomy—and bragged to me that he read The Scientific American magazine cover to cover every month.  Michael was truly an intelligent man, not a caterpillar moth at all.  One evening my husband and I invited Michael and his wife over to play Trivial Pursuit, that old board game you play by asking participants to answer questions from different knowledge categories.

Predictably, Michael breezed through all the science and science-related categories, but he was stumped when he drew a Literature category card. Michael was unfamiliar with novels and authors. I wasn’t surprised and thought for sure he’d steer clear of this category in future plays—but he didn’t.  In fact, he repeatedly asked for Literature card questions and repeatedly missed them.  It was as if he thought sheer persistence would gain him the knowledge he needed to answer the Literature questions correctly.  He seemed fixated, unable to break a pattern—just like the caterpillar moths.

My friend Bob on the other hand, is definitely not a caterpillar moth. Bob is a former biology professor who sometimes likes to tease and make comments just to catch people off guard. I mentioned to Bob that I’d gotten my DNA analyzed so I could explore my ancestry. Bob didn’t ask (like most people would) what country my ancestors came from.  Instead, Bob asked, “How much Neanderthal DNA do you have?”

Neanderthal?  I looked at Bob carefully to see if he was joking. Nobody wants to be called a Neanderthal. Everyone knows that Neanderthals are big and dumb. I used to call my teenage brothers Neanderthals because they were hulking brutes that ate peanut butter out of the jar with their index finger. Novelist Jean Auel thought so little of Neanderthals she characterized them in her book, Clan and the Cave Bear like they were caterpillar moths: hobbled by tradition and unwilling to learn anything new.

I did a little research on Bob’s question though.  I found out Neanderthals were actually quite intelligent.  They used tools and could be creative.  They made art.  Most of us with European ancestry have anywhere from 1%-2% Neanderthal DNA.  Whether Bob’s question was meant to be provocative or not, I know how I’d respond to him now:  “Neanderthals aren’t so bad.  Like moth caterpillars and other creatures, they have something to teach us–and of course, the most important lessons are always about ourselves.”

Image converted using ifftoany

 

Image credit: caterpillar moth     Image credit: Trivial Pursuit      Image credit: Neanderthal

 

Not Everyone Wants to Hear an Exercise Evangelist

When I was in college I remember putting on a pair of cut-off pants and sneakers and trying to jog four blocks in the Park View residential area near campus. I weighed much less than I do now, and though my heart was younger and stronger, I was completely exhausted, sweating profusely by the time I finished my jog. The next day my leg muscles hurt so much I could barely walk up the hill from my dorm room to class. I was convinced then, that a lifetime of exercise was not in my future.

The only reason I’d attempted a run that day was to lose weight and a four-block jog did nothing to the numbers on my bathroom scale.

Fast forward forty-seven years, an aging body and the beginnings of arthritis, and now I’m an exercise evangelist.  Movement, I told my 87-year-old mother, is key. Mom grew up in the 1930’s and 40’s when people believed preserving energy was more important than expending it.

“Back then we didn’t have to exercise.  We worked!” mom told me. “My mother stood over a hot iron and ironed clothes for hours.  Dad came home tired every day from working in the Dupont Powder plant.”

She almost sneered comparing modern-day notions of physical activity with how hard people labored when she was a girl.

I was a little frustrated because mom has some heart problems, and yet she enjoys sitting in her grey recliner watching the neighbor kids play outside her big picture window. When I went for my yearly physical, I complained to my doctor about mom’s sedentary habit.

“Oh,” the doctor told me matter-of-factly, “lots of older people like to sit in their chair much of the day. Their energy levels are low, and they’re often worried about falling. Sometimes it hurts to move. I understand why they feel this way. Find some ‘exercises-for-seniors’ videos for your mom. That might help.”

I made my doctor laugh when I recounted what a farmer friend told me once about movement and cattle. The farmer said if cows don’t stand up and move around, they’ll “go down and stay down.” He said it’s important to get new-born calves up and moving, looking for their mother’s milk.  And, if a cow is injured or sick, she’ll often do better if you can get her on her feet and foraging, as opposed to laying in the barn stall.

Mom is taking drugs to combat her heart problems, but I wanted her to read an article with a compelling title:

“Closest Thing to A Wonder Drug?  Try Exercise!” (New York Times, 6/20/2016).

She batted away my outstretched hand when I offered my cell phone to her.  I thought she might want to scroll down and read the article online. I knew I was being pushy, but I couldn’t help myself.  I cared about her.

Elderly woman in glasses thoughtfully looking out the window.

“Why don’t you just tell me the gist of it?” she kindly suggested.

“It says,” I gazed down at my cell phone, “‘…of all the things we as physicians can recommend for health, few provide as much benefit as physical activity.’ And then here it says that exercise is the ‘miracle cure.’  It helps your heart, your arthritis, depression, diabetes, and other diseases. It says to realize a benefit you only need to exercise just 30 minutes—on weekdays. That means weekends are off!”

I looked up excitedly from my cell phone to gauge mom’s reaction, only to find her eye lids drooping, ready for her nap. I was reminded then the many times she’d tried to school me: “You just don’t know what it feels like to be this old,” or “When you get my age you’ll think differently.”

The clock ticked quietly in the kitchen, and I waited a moment before I pocketed my cell phone and left. I lightly patted my mom’s hand, “Hey, I need to go. I’ll give you a call this weekend and see how you’re doing.”

As I gently clicked the front door shut behind me, I sighed thinking how ironic life is.  I didn’t like exercising when I was a young college co-ed, and now my old mother feels the same way. The burden of movement is life-long.

 

Image credit:  Jogger     Image credit:  Old woman looking out a window

 

I’m Afraid of the Air…

Outside the sun is rising, a burnt orange ball on the horizon, ominously beautiful. I watch it from the safety of my bunker, formerly known as my home. Like some apocalyptic, dystopian novel, I have become afraid of the air we breathe. It’s an alien invasion of either forest fire particulates or Covid virus. A mask seems like such a flimsy defense against our marauding atmosphere here in the west. Several people, including myself, have wondered, “When will our air be breathable again? When can we give up our suffocating masks and be normal?”

Covid, according to the latest from the scientific community, won’t die down until next year some time. The summer wildfires in our droughty western climate are an entirely different matter altogether. Out of control forest and range fires will continue, says reporting in the New York Times (9/11/2020), until humans change our behaviors.

“What percent of the wildfires this summer do you think are human caused?” I looked at my husband over the rim of my coffee cup this morning.

I’d been doing some research on the subject, and I was curious what he thought. I know my husband to be a well-read man, and as a farmer, an astute observer of the natural world, the weather, and the climate.

“Low, I think human caused, that percent must be low,” he said. “There was that lightning storm earlier this month. I think that’s what ignited the northern California fires.”

I was surprised by his response because he was uncharacteristically, dead wrong. According to my research, 80% of wild fires are started by humans. The Center for Climate and Energy Solutions says the biggest issue is that towns and cities are allowing land to be developed for homes in wild and forested areas susceptible to fire. It’s called a “wildland-urban interface.”

As I look out my patio window at the smoky blanket overlaying the landscape, I’m reminded of a Cormac McCarthy book I read several years ago called The Road.

The book was about a man and his son seeking to escape the effects of a nuclear holocaust.

The world was devastated and food was scare because the earth was coated with dark clouds of ash and debris. The earth had plunged into a cold, perpetual twilight affecting all living things, including our food source: plants and animals. Again, the root cause of such a horrific scenario was human behavior.

Can we change our behaviors? How much? Sometimes I wonder. Our basic needs are for air, water, food, and security. What if these needs come in conflict? Our need for clean air battles with our need to feel secure. We want to feel safe living in a natural setting like the forests far away from city crime and ironically, city smog.

Fortunately, Forbes Magazine (5/24/2019) reported on the path to behavior change and two of the three steps are already happening.

More and more people are recognizing that western wild fires are the new normal and need to be addressed.

Secondly, solutions are being developed, cities are starting to zone more cautiously, and homes are beginning to be built with the environment in mind. The third step is harder: making behavior change desirable. To that end we’re all looking to the future, which doesn’t have to be doom and gloom, but can be exciting and new. Though climate change, the problem behind western wild fires, is ongoing, we’re slowly innovating our way to a carbon-free future. My husband, maybe in an effort to redeem his reputation, offered this comment: “You know Tesla? Their electric car division is now worth four times the stock value of gas-powered vehicles. Imagine that?”

 

Image Credit: Dale Hooley, wearing his respirator      Image Credit: The Road