Rats!

I’m sitting at my supper table, eating a tasty, almost-vegetarian home-cooked meal, and reading a book. A big book. One that’s making me think.

And I’m thinking that this isn’t what I’d really like to be reading. I’d love to be deep into a novel, something that takes place in a location I’d love to learn more about, with a bit of romance, maybe a bit of mystery, some great characterization…. 

But no. I’m actually ploughing through three books (at each meal I choose one), and all of them are non-fiction. What I would have called ‘heavy’ reading, when I was in school.

One is about rats. Yep, rats. The rodent. In New York City. Actually it’s a fascinating exploration of the animal, the city, and our psyche. I would never have picked it up if my son hadn’t pushed it across the table at me and said I needed to read it. He was right.

One is about money. Actually, about economics. So not me! Money is a necessary evil, something we need but don’t want to need. How did money start? Did we always have it? (No.) What is its role in our society? When Alex told me about that one, I replied, “Who cares? Give me a good novel!” But like the rat book, it’s turning out to be fascinating. It’s making me think. And think. Not necessarily what I’d like to do over supper, but still, I’m going places, mentally, where I’d never go otherwise. Which is always a good thing.

The third one that I’m shuffling over supper-times is about climbing. I always enjoy those. Chris’ book (see below for book info) is part technical, part philosophy, and really delves into the head part of climbing, which is the part of climbing that stymies me the most. 

But still, with a good meal, a novel just….

Well, I haven’t read a novel in a long, long time, and I’m not missing it. I do look forward to getting back to that; but the books that were recommended to me by my kids are taking me places I never would have thought of going myself. Isn’t that the definition of adventure?

At my daughter’s suggestion, I’m reading poetry. When I was in high school, Robert Frost was one of my favorite writers. He still is, I’ve learned, but it took being pushed into it to re-discover that. Thanks, Stasia!

So my recommendation to you: Ask your friends what they’re reading. Ask your kids. Ask your kids’ friends. It just might open doors for you that you’d never even realized were closed.

What I’m having fun reading right now (but wouldn’t have been, if left to my own devices):

Rats, by Robert Sullivan. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2004.

Sacred Economics, by Charles Eisenstein. Evolver Editions, North Atlantic Books, 2011.

Why We Climb, by Chris Noble. Falcon Publishers, 2017.

Have you read a good book lately??

Go Visit your Mother

or, Painting the Past

I ran into an old friend a few weeks ago, for the first time in many years. While we chatted, catching up, he mentioned a painting that hangs in his living room. I painted it, back in another lifetime, and gave it to him as a wedding present in 1979.

That time of my life was turbulent, stressful and completely overwhelming. I had no recollection either of the painting or the wedding. Not his fault; memories from that time in my life were eclipsed by my new marriage, new home, moving to a new part of the country, a new job, new family… then a new country. The whole decade (or more) is a blur. 

Since I keep an archive of my work, but didn’t have that one, he  sent me a photo of it. Here it is:

If you’ve been to Yosemite, you recognize Half Dome, one of the national park’s iconic rocks. That year, 1979, my husband took me there for the first time. It was one of my his favorite places. 

Clearly, it made an indelible impression on me then, and still does, each time I drive into Yosemite Valley. My husband passed away in 2004, and just a few years later I began learning to climb rocks. Not quite like my son Alex; no one will ever give me awards for the kind of climbing I do! But the first year that  I began going outdoors to climb real rocks (as opposed to just climbing in a gym), I climbed Half Dome with my son. It terrified me, exhilarated me — and it took me until this high (the third pitch) to muster the courage to turn around and check out the view:

But once you’ve hung on the side of a wall of those dimensions, fingered each hand-hold (of which there aren’t many, on that smooth slab of rock!), dug in with your toes to keep from succumbing to gravity, it becomes something much more. The day we climbed it, Alex and I, was an education. I learned to dig deep to find resources I didn’t know I had, and to ignore the fear that clamored for my attention. Well, maybe not “learned,” exactly, but at least, started to learn. First steps. Baby steps.

When I did that painting for my friend, I didn’t know Half Dome. It was just a pretty rock that looms over Yosemite Valley — as it is, I suppose, for most people. Worthy of the brush strokes I granted it, impressive for sure, but just… pretty. 

We are so much more than we often give ourselves credit for! So much more than we allow ourselves to be! 

So here’s your rallying cry:  

Feel alive! — Go visit your mother, Nature! She knows what you need, like any loving mother. Turn off the screens, the devices, and go visit, even if it’s just a little green park in your neighborhood. Nature holds the key to your well-being, wherever you seek Her out. 

Let Her take care of you. You deserve it. And She’ll teach you  things about yourself that you need to learn. 

Driving a Marathon

Marathon:

a : an endurance contest 

b : something (such as an event, activity, or session) characterized by great length or concentrated effort  — Merriam Webster Dictionary

When I was young, a marathon was a mythical thing. Something other people did. Running a marathon ranked right up there with climbing Everest, or flying to the moon.

Now, I’ve done 4 marathons, and I’ve climbed El Capitan several times, which is sort of like an Everest of California. But ‘marathon’ has another meaning besides the running event: any activity “characterized by great concentrated effort.” 

Last week, I did one of those. Again.

I packed the front passenger’s seat of my little Honda Fit with food — sandwiches, snacks, bananas, nuts, some dried fruit. And this time, a cupcake & some cookies, a reward for my feat. I filled 3 travel mugs with various coffees or teas that would keep me going. I placed my favorite CDs (old car!) where they’d be accessible to me while driving. I set my GPS, just in case I got distracted or dozy or wasn’t paying attention to my route. And I drove from Sacramento to my son’s home in Las Vegas. About 564 miles. About 10 or 11 hours non-stop. Like driving from NYC to Detroit, or Indianapolis, but in 2 straight lines.

I stop only for gas / bathroom. Everything I need is in the car. 

Color, drama… but not much life.

This wasn’t my first driving marathon, nor will it be the last. When my daughter settled in Portland, Oregon, years ago, I began learning to do trips like this (580 miles from Sacramento, where I live, straight north on I-5). Over the years, I refined the contents of my ‘car kitchen’, to better satisfy the various hungers or thirsts or just boredom cravings that happen while driving that far. 

I could fly, of course; but then I couldn’t bring the box of books I always have for one kid or the other, or the plants (for my daughter), several pairs of shoes (we hike, we climb, we walk, we bike, etc, and older feet require more options). I wouldn’t have an assortment of outerwear & helmets for our various activities. I couldn’t take my bike, which I use in Portland, or all my climbing gear that I use outside of Vegas. 

My brother lives in southern California, about 480 miles straight south on I-5. Less distance than to the kids’, but far more traffic once I cross the Tehachapi Mountains and reach the southland!

So I’m the geographic family hub. 

I could, of course, forget the plants, the gear, the shoes, the bike & helmet — which would make it a very different visit — but there’s another reason I don’t just fly.

Everything that grows is prickly; look but don’t touch!

I love to know. To understand. To experience. 

Barstow. Borax. Boron. The Mojave Desert. Tehachapi (the town, not the mountains). Great distances. My own limits. An airplane skims it all; you get there fast but experience nothing.

The desert in bloom (partly), in November.

You can’t understand California’s Central Valley without driving it. Stopping in it. Talking with its people. (I talk with everybody!) 

Up close & personal with a young Joshua Tree.

The Mojave Desert is a mythical thing, like a marathon. But not to me any more. I’ve become familiar with its flora & fauna — like the millions of jackrabbits that sleep on the warm roads all night, dashing in all directions in sudden headlights!  I know its climate intimately. Each time I drive across it, my hands are numb by the time I reach Barstow, from gripping the wheel to hold my little car in its lane despite the wind slapping it hard, left or right. Fierce, howling wind, almost every time. “Desert” means many different things, and I’ve experienced a lot of them. 

The Tehachapi Mountains are the southern end of the north-south cordillera of the Sierra Nevada; one must drive up from the mostly-sea-level Central Valley to about 4,000 feet and back down, to reach southern California. But the town of Tehachapi sits to the east, in those foothills between the Central Valley and the Mojave, up above 4,000 feet. I don’t think I’ve ever driven through it in friendly weather. The last few times (never in winter) were a gauntlet of driven snow, wheel-gripping wind, sleet, black sodden clouds down to the ground, no visibility. Not the highlight of the trip.

Black clouds & an occasional Joshua Tree…and not much else.
The bottom (southern tip) of the Sierra Nevada, where it blends into the Tehachapis.

I’ve seen where old airliners go to die. The sight of hundreds of them parked in what I assume is an airplane cemetery, as the road winds through the eastern foothills past the town of Mojave, is as bizarre as it gets. 

But not nearly as bizarre as this sign, which indicates a city about 10 miles off Hwy 58 that was planned, decades ago, but never got built:

City limit??

I know vaguely that borax has something to do with the bleach we use to do our laundry. (Never studied chemistry.) Now I know first-hand the vast, empty, god-forsaken place it comes from. 

For decades, as I drove north-south in California between its two distinct worlds (SoCal & NorCal), I passed signs along I-5 for Arvin – Edison. Now I know the foothills where they each nestle, and what grows there. Where the winter is fierce and snowy, and the spring is soft, velvety green despite its proximity to the vast Mojave Desert.

I’’m not a desert person; its aridity does bad things to various parts of my body. I suffer physically for being there, and my mind, my whole being craves the green I knew as a child. But knowledge and understanding often come from suffering. The vast, high deserts of southern California and southern Nevada are amazing teachers. I look forward to my next drive across their unique classroom. 

And now, I have even more reason to drive to Vegas — my first  granddaughter!

Presidents’ Day — both of them!

When I was in grammar school (we called it that because we learned grammar in every year of school back then), we never had to go to school on February 22. We all knew it was George Washington’s birthday. We all celebrated it. He was the first elected president of an amazing democratic experiment; it was worth celebrating.

And we never went to school on February 16, because it was Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. Everyone knew this.

Then, someone had the bright idea to no longer celebrate their birthdays. Instead we’d celebrate on some nebulous, vague date that would give people a long, work-free weekend in a dreary month. Unlike in Sacramento, where February is beautiful, blossoming springtime, it’s the most awful, wintry month in temperate climates like the northeast. So I guess that change sounded like a good idea at the time.

The results, of course, have been predictable: No one knows the birth dates of our most famous presidents anymore. 

Today I saw a clip online about how confused people are across the country — some states call it President’s Day (celebrating only one unnamed president), some Presidents’ Day (more than one), some celebrate it in February, some in December, some not at all, etc etc…. No one knows anymore why it’s a holiday, or when. All because a long weekend sounded like a good idea.

I believe in honoring a person, especially a revered, famous person, on the day they were born. No other day or date has that meaning for the person. 

A long weekend is nice, too. But let’s not pretend it’s in honor of someone who was born weeks before, or later. It’s a simple sign of selfishness. We don’t want to have to get up for work on Monday. Let’s acknowledge that for what it is. 

If I ever become president, and the country decides to honor me, I hope they do it on my birthday. And don’t forget to mention my name.

Covid 19 Remakes our Lives, Pt 12 — Culture Shock

For more than a quarter of a century, I spoke French almost exclusively — all day long with all my students at the college (I taught by immersion & used only French), then back home with my kids, with whom I’d never used English. With no time to go out and be with friends (being a mostly-single parent, professor, business owner, etc), my life happened only in French, all day, every day. For years.

And then my kids grew up and moved away, and I retired. Suddenly, the few interactions I had each day — the handyman, the bagger at the supermarket, the clerk in the Post Office — were in English. 

One of the proverbs that adorned my classroom for many years. (“Little by little, the bird makes its nest.”)

And now there’s Covid, and I have practically no interactions at all. In any language.

Culture shock. Like when you move to another country and everything’s suddenly different — including how you express yourself. It just doesn’t feel right anymore. 

Covid has certainly produced its own type of culture shock. Habits that have always been firmly, societally ingrained have become foreign. It no longer feels right to shake someone’s hand. To hug anyone. To speak face to face, unmasked — especially in English. 

Another proverb my kids can quote. (“To want is to be able”, or “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”)

They say that retirement can be one of the biggest stressors in an adult’s life. One of the biggest changes. Maybe. I’m sure that a pandemic ranks right up there, too — along with changing which language you use with your kids. Your friends. Your students. 

Maybe someday they’ll learn that, aside from the well-documented benefits to the brain, being multi-lingual makes you more able to handle the unknowns of a pandemic with aplomb. I hope so. That would be a nice gift to have given my kids. 

This one was true in my house for decades. It’s still true…sometimes.

Grandmotherhood

I never knew my grandparents could speak English. They never did, when the families got together. Nor did I ever know a white-haired person who spoke English without a thick foreign accent. In New York City after World War II, they were all from ‘the old country’.

Babci, my mother’s mother, with my mother.

But after the interminable War ended, no one in the US wanted to speak — or wanted their kids to speak — anything but English, the language of victory, of peace. Of success. So I could never talk with any of my grandparents, other than to say (in Polish) “Please pass the butter” or “It’s cold outside!”

To me as a kid, ‘Grandmother’ or ‘Grandfather’ were just words. Those old people didn’t talk to me, and they lived far away — no Interstates back then, so going from NYC to eastern Pennsylvania was a massive, difficult trip. Their vague, distant figures meant nothing real to me. They were just the dark-clad old people who populated the background of our family get-togethers. They had special names — Babci and Dziadziu in Polish — but other than that, were not special to me in any way.

Dziadziu, my mother’s father, with my mother.

Now, I’m about to become a Babci. 

How does one learn any new skill? Normally, by repetition. Practice. Hours spent on the piano bench or at the basketball court. So I imagine most people learn to be grandparents by interacting with their own grandparents for many years. But I couldn’t interact with mine. The language barrier was complete. 

So a brand-new learning experience awaits! On-the-job training, as it were. One involving cuddling, and cooing, and smiling (and  crying, I’m sure), and lots of learning. And more importantly, lots of making up for lost opportunities. 

I can’t wait!

Portrait of my father’s mother, done by me.
Portrait of my mother’s mother, done by my mother.

Both grandmothers, with my brother.

Homo Sapiens, All

Can you imagine trying to do your job while hanging over the side of a steep mountain on a rope? Not only is the work incredibly strenuous, grueling & dangerous — carving out a flat railway through an impossible mountain pass — but you’re expected to do it while hanging from ropes, with only wooden or metal tools and your bare hands.

The straight line across the mountainside is the rail line covered by a snow-shed that keeps snow off the railway, built mostly by Chinese laborers.

No computers.

And no rights.

The snowshed as it snakes through the Sierra at about 7,000ft elevation.

The railroad that finally snaked its way through the dramatic Sierra Nevada opened the west to development and communication. And most of the hard hand labor that made it possible was done by Chinese men. Later, after the west began to flourish, those same Chinese were denied the right to buy land in the US. (Chinese Exclusion Act) Which was just as horribly unfair as considering an enslaved black person to be worth 3/5 of a white person in congressional representation (3/5 clause). And just as legal, while both laws existed.

We’ve come a long way in terms of rights! Not so long ago, women (of any color) couldn’t vote, couldn’t buy a house, couldn’t have a credit card in their name (and that’s in my time, even though I’m not that terribly old!). Black people couldn’t sit at counters in white-owned restaurants. Chinese couldn’t own the land they lived on. But we still have a long way to go in terms of equality.

Here and there, across the country, one finds signs of progress — like this acknowledgment I discovered this week as I drove over the Sierra Nevada from Sacramento to Reno:

As I pulled up in the rest area at Donner Lake, where the plaque sits, and saw it in front of my car, my first thought was, “It’s about time!”

When are we going to realize that there’s only one race of humans on this planet? — the human race! 

How many sub-sets of canines are there? Poodles and chihuahuas and setters and doberman pinschers and terriers…. But they’re all canines. Every feline knows this. Cats don’t just fear big dogs, or hairy dogs, or sleek dogs, or slobbery dogs… they know that all dogs are canines, canis lupus, equally to be avoided.

All people on this planet are humans. Homo sapiens. There’s only one race of us, and that race, like canines, comes with lots of different sub-sets, different shades and tints of colors, of textures, of hair types & nose types & body types…. 

All of us are the same genus and species, homo sapiens. So why do so many of us insist on dividing it up into sub-sets that we then look down on with hatred? Where does such hatred come from? Is hatred a Christian or moral value, something we want to teach our children? 

Kudos for whoever put up that plaque at Donner Lake. And for everyone out there who believes in the worth of every human on the planet. 

Spread the word! 

This human, climbing above Donner Lake, in the Sierra Nevada 20 miles northwest of Lake Tahoe.

Technical (Non-)Advances (I never wanted to be a secretary!)

What was your dream job when you were young? Did you dream of piloting a huge airliner? Writing a book? Starring in a movie? Discovering a cure for some dread disease? 

Being a secretary?

I have the greatest respect for secretaries. I’ve worked in offices or departments that would never have functioned if not for the secretaries. They knew where everything was, who was responsible for what, the protocols in place for everything that needed to happen. Secretaries make the world go around, for sure. But I never wanted to be one.

But I am. Because of computers.

In the past, when I needed to sign a document, a secretary would mail it to me, I’d sign it, and send it back. Done. Simple. All I needed was a stamp.

Now, someone e-mails it to me. Then I have to supply my own ink and my own paper (both expensive), I have to fight with the combination printer / scanner / copier that follows its own mysterious rules and sometimes works the way the online instructions say it should. 

There is no manual to refer to. I’m on my own. That doesn’t always go well.

This week, I spent an entire morning — 4 hours! — trying to print one insurance policy page. Blinking lights indicated that ink was low — and then that it wasn’t. (No, not that ink; the other one.) Another blinking light told me some other conflicting information I didn’t need and couldn’t do anything about. Somewhere along the procession of alerts, I discovered that something was amiss with the cartridge. But, unable to find a way to open the recessed gateway to said cartridge, there was nothing I could do about it.

Online, after much searching, I found information about similar printers, and then — after more searching — finally about mine…but in a language I couldn’t decipher. English, it said, but most of the words meant nothing to me. And I’m a linguist. I can get by in 8 or 9 languages. But not in this one.

All this so I could sign it, then scan it back into my computer with my signature, then e-mail it back. Instead of simply signing it and mailing it back.

My ink (very costly!..more so each year.). My paper (not cheap). My machine. My time (hours of it!). My new job — secretary. For everyone I have dealings with.

I never wanted to be a secretary. 

Computers have made our lives simpler, they tell us. They save us time. That’s what they tell us. But I’m old enough to remember otherwise. 

I’ve wasted hour after frustrating hour trying to second-guess a computer or a printer or a scanner or a “smart” phone, trying to fool it into doing what I need it to do despite the fact that it’s clearly telling me it doesn’t want to or can’t. 

It’s not a question of competence. I can follow basic instructions in an instruction manual just fine — but there are none anymore. One must go online. Where? Not always clear. To look up…what, exactly? I often call things by a different name than the one that some tech nerd gave it. Often, when I see my issue in some forum or online discussion board (what a waste of time!!), I don’t recognize it because I don’t call it that

It often seems that all of the time I ‘save’ by using computers to do my work is then spent trying to find answers online. 

Life is frustrating enough. 

Yes, computers can diagnose diseases and design a work station or a financial spreadsheet that will, indeed, improve our lives in the long term. But the cost is far, far higher than we recognize. Some of us who remember do recognize it. But we can’t do anything about it. We don’t have time.

The Next Generation — or, What Would I Have Asked?

Cleaning up Christmas is a chore! I love Christmas, love the once-a-year decorations, the colors, the musical scores that sit on the piano for a month or so — the specialness of it. Putting it away seems like slamming a door too hard. 

Putting away the Christmas cards often makes me stop, go make a cup of tea and think — about the ones I sent, the ones I never had time to send, the stamps, the special paper for inserts, the photos I meant to include. The lists. And the address books.

Remember those? Not the digital kind, not a ‘Contacts list’. The kind where we used to actually write stuff. Longhand. In script.

My mother’s address book was a small red leather book with gold lines around the edges, and its pages were edged in gold, so if you held it up in the light, it glittered. And it was a wonder of organization! Family names were written in blue ink, friends in black. Foreign names were in a special section toward the back. Little notes of special information were printed in tiny letters in the margins: (“Rosie’s stepdaughter,” or “house in the Poconos,” other cryptic words to help her remember who they were). And those who were no longer with us were crossed out.

Crossed out. Nullified. X’ed out. Gone. No longer part of the Christmas list.

My own Christmas mailing list has dwindled. I used to have scores of relatives who all wanted to be acknowledged at least once a year. Great-aunts and second or third cousins and children of those. Now, when I pull out my address book (yes, I’ve had one forever), and my printed list (from my computer), I find lines everywhere. Crossing outs. X’es. 

My maternal grandmother and grandfather both died in their 70s. My father’s father was gone before I was old enough to know him, and Nanny was buried on my third birthday, when she was in her 70s.

I’m 70 now. This year, I summited El Capitan. Several times. 

The only thing I remember my grandmother doing was sitting in her rocking chair in the huge kitchen, shelling peas, cutting beans, peeling potatoes. Watering her plants. Rubbing my back as I watched TV. Making dinner. 

Next year, I’ll have a granddaughter. What will she remember of me? I’m the Next Generation. Many of my relatives are gone. Some of my friends, too. I’m the only connection she’ll have to What Came Before. What will she want to ask me?

So MANY things I wish I’d asked my mother, before it was too late! I couldn’t talk with my grandmothers, since neither of them spoke much English, and after WWII we kids spoke only English. I was too young to care. But my mother could have answered anything. 

But as they say, ‘Education is wasted on the young.’ We don’t know what to ask, when we’re young. Or we don’t care enough to ask it. And then we’re old, they’re gone, and it’s too late. 

But then Christmas will come around again, and I’ll delight in putting up the red, green and gold decorations, and I’ll pull out the cards and address books and my Contacts list. And I’ll wonder, again, what I would have asked, had we had the time….

Fungus & Critters & Birds, Oh My!

On Sauvie Island, north of Portland, lots and lots of critters were out looking for yummy things to eat. As on most fall days in the northwest, the sky was close and heavy, allowing a glimmer of lighter sky now and then. And the wetlands were filled with life!

Oops! Almost stepped on this guy, a banana slug.

And I’m not sure what this nutria eats, but there was lots of it where he was bouncing around, and he seemed pretty content.

As we walked the muddy trails, birds stole the landscape! So many ducks & other water birds of so many species, colors and personalities! So many geese! Their honks would begin so softly, from so far away, or rise from a far-off field, and as the long, erratic V-formations got closer, or turned, or came in for a landing, the noise grew and grew until we couldn’t ignore it or talk over it. 

This enormous flock covered the entire field, but as I approached — ever so softly and quietly! — they raised the alarm and blackened the sky as they all rose at once. 

This snowy egret is intent on whatever lives at the water’s edge…

The stars of our day, though, were the sandhill cranes. Their warbly call is distinct from all the other birds wading, swimming, or foraging in the wetland fields. Tall, stately, they bob and stroll slowly, almost imperceptibly, poking their long, pointed beaks into the reeds and grasses in search of food. Occasionally, they would spread their long wings and burst into a frenzied dance, just for a few seconds. Probably practicing for the mating dances soon to come.  

If you’ve never seen this many birds in the wild, never heard them take over a wetland, never seen them dance their frenzied mating dance, I recommend it heartily. You might find yourself changed in ways you never expected.

The graceful cranes inspired a monument:

But as I said, not only the critters were looking for yummies! My daughter knows her funghi…

She’s off on the hunt…and I’m learning what to look for, too….

I’ve always wished I knew more about my planet, so that if I ever found myself in the middle of nowhere, I’d know what I could eat, what might make good soup or salad. We’ve lost that skill, as a society; nature is a foreign land to many of us — most? — filled with danger and fear and all things unknown. It shouldn’t be. Mother Nature is our home.

Some of Nature’s fungus — mushroom — bounty that day:

It thrills me that my daughter is not one of us, that way. She could feed us from nature’s bounty. In fact, she did; by the end of the day, we had enough fungus — mushrooms — to make a remarkably yummy supper of chanterelles, a mushroom de luxe that’s as delicious as it is beautiful!