Monthly Archives: June 2013

Whistle a Happy Tune

Do you still whistle? I just tried a Swedish song about whistling & failed. Any fellow Swedes probably know the folk song “Kan du vissla Johanna?” The interlocutor asks Johanna if she can whistle, to which she replies that she certainly can, and then trills away.

So I tried to sing and whistle the song. The singing part went well, but as for the whistling…clearly I need practice! It may have been ten or more years since I whistled last. The first try was just whispery nothings. On the second I hit a few notes. On the third a few more, but the result was still unremarkable at best.

My younger son–not the one who sings so beautifully that friends ask why he is “wasting his time” in law school–has whistled from a young age. He doesn’t reply to many of my random texts, but when I texted “Do you still whistle?”, he immediately texted back that he loves to whistle and does so every day.

When I had my “OMG, I don’t remember how to whistle!” moment, their father, standing right there, whistled a clear and sweet tune. He claims to do so often. Sorry, husbands of the world: mothers of the world are more closely attuned to their sons. But in this case I had failed to tune in to simple joys provided by father or son.

One of my favorite moments of the year is spotting my first firefly. When I excitedly report this, I am inevitably met with “Oh, I saw one a week ago.” This does nothing to dampen my enthusiasm for fireflies.

Mosquitos or not, ninety degrees and humid or not, I insist on dining al fresco. During that time not only fireflies, but also bats flit about, sometimes audibly squeaking. I wonder where they sleep during the day. We make sure to leave the clover patches intact to attract the bunny-of-the-evening. One day a larger bunny may stop, sniff, and nibble, quite confidently, barely out of reach. The next evening the bunny may be smaller, and more skittish, as young creatures are. All of this is my version of “taking time to smell the roses,” a gift my father had cultivated well, and attempted to instill in me as a child.

Why was I particularly attuned to the fleeting gifts around me yesterday? First I brought some lettuce, a whole freshly picked bag full, straight from my garden to my mother, brother, sister-in-law, and niece who had all converged just around the corner. Many of the Golden Globe cherry tomatoes will be ripe by the end of the day today, but there was only ripe yesterday, so it was for mom, naturally. They were all impressed, as though I had performed a great miracle. It is nothing, I thought. But really, it is the product of several years work. First building the garden boxes, then amending the soil, then planting and tending, shading and watering. Watering was crucial when the seedlings first sprouted. hand-watered them then, to conserve water. Now when there has been intense heat and no rain for a few days, I water early in the morning before the sun’s rays hit the leaves of sunflowers, tomatoes, summer squash, pepper plants, carrot tops, herbs, and lettuce. If we did not live on a busy corner at which every large truck or van speeds by, or worse yet, makes a u-turn, and the background noise was only birds, not construction and traffic and the annoying hum of weed whackers, this would be truly idyllic.

But life remains imperfect. Yesterday I learned over and over again of acquaintances, family friends, teachers and students–most in middle years, full of responsibilities for children, spouses, and work–who were struggling with, or have succumbed to the contemporary plague of cancer. The news was so overwhelming that the best response seemed to be that of the victims themselves, to enjoy the day as I was able.

I may whistle a mournful tune as well when I have recaptured the ability, but for now, I am going to work on once again learning how to whistle a happy tune.

Graduation Day! Mixed Emotions

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Today is graduation day for the high school students in our district. Some years ago, Michelle Campbell (2007) wrote an article about the students who didn’t graduate, and were held back for summer school or worse yet, another year. Not surprisingly, most of these students were African-American men. My young man upstairs is a bit of an iconoclast, and gave us some (a lot!) of worry about whether he really would graduate. He is a stubborn one, and he is done: it would either be high school
diploma today or GED another day. Nothing, neither powers, nor principalities, nor parents would convince this independent-minded young man to attend summer school. My daughter nailed it when she said that the phrase “summer school” is an oxymoron.
From one end of the spectrum to the other: Some children attend summer school at local private schools, taking classes (presumably not PE) they will take the following year. Why do they do this? To be sure they will get As and into the right college. The culture of overachievement is just as depressing as the culture of underachievement. What kind of childhood is that?!
The boy (technically a man now, at 18) asleep upstairs spent part of his summers running around barefoot in Vermont at a camp that allowed no access to cell phones or computers. Meanwhile, these super-achievers spent their summers in classrooms staring at computer screens or enrolled in Kaplan or Princeton Review classes.
Our school system is singularly ill-equipped for the “average” student. This boy is far above average intelligence, but has adopted a fairly strict policy of not studying for exams or doing much homework. (Calculus was the exception to that rule.) He is not in it to prove a thing to anybody except, perhaps, that he won’t be programmed, scared, threatened or bribed into thinking that straight As and an Ivy League education are the path to happiness in life.
Many of the classes at our College Town, NJ high school are only offered at the accelerated or AP level. AP classes have proven to be little better than the Kaplan courses my sons refused to take for personal and political reasons. The exception to this was both sons’ wonderful experience in environmental science. This class includes field trips and a highly intelligent, disorganized, Canadian science teacher. I confess to never personally noticing that Mr. Anderson is disorganized and his classroom messy. This I was told by others. Shouldn’t a science classroom be full of interesting, touchable things? What I do know is that the ten minutes in Mr. A’s classroom at back-to-school night did not make me want to fall asleep or weep for the poor children in his class. I’m sorry I never took the class myself. There was only “earth science” when I was in high school, and that, sadly, meant that you were on the “slow” unacademic track, heaven forbid! So however interesting that class may have been, my friends and I never found out.
This is not a call for schools to cater to the “average” in the sense of lowering their standards, but to become more engaging, and get the kids out from behind their desks as often as possible.
The literary curriculum makes the skin of this former English major–who took accelerated English with an engaging curriculum & teachers–crawl. Please revise! Why on earth should my son, or any other high school student, read The Girl with the Pearl Earring? It is a fine book for book group or a light summer read, but offers nothing more. Did the local school board or state select this light novel because it is uncontroversial in content? I am appalled. This is but one example of a curriculum from middle school on, which has been gender inequitable, forcing books far more likely to appeal to young women than young men. I loved Jane Eyre, but my son refused to read it. He would not even stoop to read the Spark Notes or Wiki summary. Both his male guidance counselor and his male teacher agreed that they, too, would not read Jane Eyre for love or money. My son reads books on his own, as we all do in this family, independently and for interest. He goes to the place known as the “media center” to borrow books. Why not provide an option more likely to appeal to young men?
College will bring some of the same challenges, but more choices. A major in agriculture will certainly involve writing research papers, and writing up labs, but also, literally, time in the field.
God Speed, my idealistic and stubborn young son. I will miss you terribly and daily. Tears fall as I write. There will be no one around to drink a quart of milk and eat a daily box of cereal. The soccer field has already been rejected in favor of hiking and backpacking–outdoor adventure–but the tiny mudroom is littered with keeper paraphernalia and soccer cleats. I don’t think I will put them away any time soon. The saxophone, keyboard, and drum set are somehow crowded along with camping gear into a small and extremely messy room. Part of me itches to crawl under that bed and dig out some mysterious items, but mostly, I will miss him. But it is time. The University of Vermont, agriculture, environmental science, and ceramics await. This is not to mention friends, hiking, backpacking, skiing, and possibly club soccer. Fare thee well, my boy, my young son.

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Dear San Antonio Spurs

Dear San Antonio Spurs,

Can you please, please finish this tonight?

We have a son graduating from high school at 5:30 pm on Thursday, and a party for about 35 people at our home immediately thereafter. We need this to be settled tonight, or there will be conflicting allegiances in this home on Thursday. If we manage to wallow through the mud to get to chairs and bleachers on the high school lawn, we and our guests should be released by 7:30. We will not be watching game 7 at 9 pm, so though I feel disloyal, I have to wish for a Spurs Cinderella finish tonight.

During NBA halftime, I am back to watching the US versus Honduras qualifying match. The starter-missing Honduran players are acquitting themselves beautifully. It’s all about the goalkeeper, says keeper mom (me!) The young Honduran keeper saved a PK and its rebound. Altidore did just score an offsides goal, but the official score is still 0-0 “at the hour mark.” And the controversial hand ball call. The US beginning, unsurprisingly, to dominate, its back to the Spurs versus Heat.

In case anyone wonders why someone so apparently concerned with climate change, ethics, social justice, and world hunger cares about soccer and basketball so much, it is not only because my children played, and played very well. True, I am in mourning over my lost boy (lost only to soccer.) But I worry about world hunger, gun control, human rights, Syria, and my partially-written dissertation, and have to turn it off somehow. Fast-paced sports does it. I just want good soccer, so I can’t be thrilled at all the wealthiest nations back again. US versus Germany? Zzzz!!!

Now back to basketball! The game could not be closer. Closing now with Miller’s four fouls, as the game turns back to San Antonio. I have to confess that I am sometimes a little hazy on names and their associated places. I was really enjoying the fact that a city like Seattle was playing a team from Miami. Oh. those are the Seattle Sonics, and I confess to not knowing which players are on that team. San Antonio versus Miami, two sunbelt teams contending for the title, is a bit less dissonant.

Back to the game!

Black Gold: The Feel Good Gold

Home compost pile by Circespeaks

Home compost pile by Circespeaks

 

Black gold. Lovely, rich, dark, valuable stuff. Apparently Mayor Michael Bloomberg agrees with me.

Black diamonds are also beautiful and a product of the earth. The calculus about whether or not to purchase and wear black or yellow diamonds is not as complex as the calculus that goes into many decisions. It is not as though I pop into Tiffany’s on a regular basis. Tiffany’s is probably the last place I’d go, even if I were tempted to make a purchase for my next red carpet experience. No, the thought of little Congolese children and larger Congolese adults crawling around in mines has put me off diamonds that I can’t even afford. So my claim is a mere rationalization? I haven’t been sorely tempted.

Today I am not going to dwell on concerns, but on a specific joy. Unitarians might recognize the oblique reference to “joys and concerns.” I have listened to many at the “side microphone,” most of which were meandering as this blog, but I won’t know, and you won’t feel rude, if you walk away in the midst of my digression. Back to compost.

Compost is simply organic matter–uncooked plant matter in the case of home composting–that is mixed and turned, with a shovel or pitchfork, or implement of some kind. In time–not long if you turn it daily–the compost turns back into earth from which the plants grew. Compost is the ultimate in reuse: earth to earth, as all carbon-based life goes. Earth to landfill is a perversion of the natural order of life.

Earth from compost is suitable for potting plants, filling garden boxes, and borders. Depending on how sophisticated a gardener, other amendments can be added to the soil. Some soil amendments mixes contain oyster and other shells for calcium. We purchased some this year, but probably won’t do so again unless we radically expand our garden. I wondered whether this would be safe around people with shellfish allergies and concluded that it probably would not, but maybe the plants grown in it would be. Normally, rather than purchasing soil amendment for our compost pile, we just rinse out our egg shells in dirty dish water, let them dry on the counter, & grind them up with a mortar and pestle, and toss on our otherwise vegan home compost. Eggs can also be an allergen, so skip that if you have any concerns. This sounds like far more work & mess than it is. The shells dry quickly, are ground easily, & transported to the pile a few steps from our front door.

To be honest, now that we have a community compost program, such as the one now being implemented by Mayor Bloomberg of New York, and a small, convenient pail under the sink, egg shells sometimes land there. So does any spoiled food, cooked food, and bones or other organic material not of plant origin. We are, we think, exceptionally careful not to waste food, but surprisingly enough, fill the pail often. Orange peels and banana peels, for instance, do not compost well outdoors in New Jersey, nor do large pits of stone fruits, and more. Corn cobs do eventually, but are quite a challenge that I am willing to forgo.

People are often concerned that compost under the sink is smelly. Our compost bucket has a lid on it, & contains stuff that would otherwise end up under the same sink in a trash can. Does your trash smell good after a few days in the heat of summer? Not mine!

On top of the simple elegance of returning nitrogen to the earth in the form of organic materials instead of chemical fertilizers, composting saves communities money, as land fill fees grow exorbitant. This is the only possible way of the future, so embrace it if you are able.

One other benefit of the imperfect home compost pile is that volunteer plants will spring up from it. Those most likely to do so in our experience have been tomatoes, butternut & acorn squashes, pumpkins, & potatoes. We used most of our compost this year, but I include a photo of the formerly glorious pile. You might notice the wood pile next to it, or the squash plant bursting into bloom behind it. Lots of trees came down this year, taking part of the simple structure with them, so it is simple in the extreme. The compost pile does not need to be contained, but can be, if that might be more pleasing to your neighbors. I think it is better-looking than a big plastic trash can.

You can compost at home under the sink, or in a garage, or basement, even if you do not have a community compost program. Vermicomposting, composting with the help of red worms, takes place in a small bin, and is ideal for those with smaller properties. This I have not tried, though it is most efficient. Those worms love banana peels and even the newspaper with which you might attempt to line your bin!

Happy Composting! This and all future generations thank you.

Father’s Day

CSA Farm in New Jersey by Circespeaks

CSA Farm in New Jersey by Circespeaks

 

Holidays are not always happy.

Father’s Day, like all other holidays, brings with it expectations, often unmet. This year is my first without my father. Last year’s Father’s Day was a black day I would rather not remember, but I do. Though he was not diagnosed with dementia, & I don’t think he had it, he certainly had cranky old man syndrome. The insufficiently meek daughter–neither the adored wife, nor the ever pleasant son–was the target, of his ire last year & things didn’t work out well.
Last Father’s Day was also some sort of Swedish family reunion, with every nook & cranny of my parents’ place filled with talkative Swedes and their offspring. Most speak English, but my father understood Swedish unless spoken very quickly. He was, however, losing his hearing, and stubbornly refused to try hearing aids. Stubborn and probably vain: a normal, flawed human. So social situations were probably frustrating too him. Really, he had no interest in large gatherings, and just wanted my mother to himself. So sharing her with her large family was never much fun for him. He was an introvert.
My brother happened to be away last year on Father’s Day, so my father was pleased that his only other child appeared with a carefully chosen card. Father’s Day followed hard upon his birthday and our parents’ wedding anniversary, for which I produced gifts and baked a coconut cake, but a card may have been my only tangible offering that night.
We all had dinner together, and sat in a quiet area for a while, talking with one or two others.
Then I got up to play ping pong, which ended, boom! crash!, with my aunt’s husband falling down and hurting his foot. A few of us left to attend to his injuries and provide first aid. Never mind that Oskar was head of surgery at a large hospital before his retirement: his cuts were going to be scrubbed out & thoroughly cleaned. My cousin, Maja, and I, in pitiless nurse style, insisted.
After medical duties were performed, I started conversing with my Uncle Erik, sitting at the small kitchen table. There may have been a few Swedes around who had enjoyed the festivities overmuch, but Erik has touched no alcohol for many years, so we were having a sensible conversation. Suddenly my father flung open the cottage door and yelled at me: “Circe! It is time for you to take your family and go home!” This was odd since about fifteen guests would be spending the night, so our presence or absence was immaterial. Or so I thought. No one was going back to CA, Florida, Mass, Sweden, or New Hampshire that evening. Only to other communities north and south in New Jersey. I was shocked.
Here follows the part I wish I could rewind: I did not say “What do you mean, Papa?” nor did I say “Why do you say that, Papa?” I became upset, really enraged; I gathered my belongings, stood at my car waiting for my immediate family members, & said things I wish I could retract. I can be hot-tempered & cantankerous. Is it obvious from from whom I inherited those generally unproductive traits? Though not too useful in modern life, my “fight or flight” response is strong, and when cornered with no immediate avenue of escape, I tend to fight back, if only verbally.
Back to expectations: It turned out, according to my father’s later, revised version of the event, that he had been sitting in the chair where he was left. Rather than engaging in something else, he had been waiting for me to return and converse more with him.
Most years, I did not disappoint. I am sorry that I am left with this memory, but now that I have processed and written about last year’s incident, I hope I can relive happier memories.

Do any of you live with similar regrets? Though I wish all fathers, and their children, a “Happy Father’s Day,” life is imperfect and even tragic. These are often empty words.

On a more pleasant note, our boys helped their father plant a late-blooming native dogwood tree yesterday. Both are here today, & we are all about to go to our CSA farm to pick peas & strawberries & more. Their father seems pleasantly surprised, and presumably pleased, at all this attention. Maybe he managed his expectations well.

The Architecture of Oppression

The Pentagon, US Dept of Defense Building (Wiki commons)

The Pentagon, US Dept of Defense Building (Wiki commons)

Fascinatingly, NSA leaker Edward Snowden, about whose actions many people feel highly conflicted, has a GED–a General Education Diploma, commonly known as a General Equivalency Diploma–not a high school diploma. Why is that such a big issue? Are our high schools so wonderful? If so, why the extremely high dropout rates and failures in literacy? Retrospectively, it may not have been the best decision I ever made, but I finished high school in three years, merely by taking two accelerated English classes instead of one in my junior year. High school seniors are still typically marking time, kept in a holding tank where they will (hopefully) stay out of trouble as they mature. The unusual high school keeps the rare senior engaged and interested throughout the entire senior year. This is uncommon, or the phrase “senioritis” would not be a much-used phrase in the U.S. I earned a diploma from a well-respected high school, but I was never a high school senior.

Edward Snowden probably never had great respect for so-called authority figures because he did not complete high school in the traditional manner, nor did he complete college, goes the argument. Edward Snowden has, by this argument–like many home-schooled children and college drop-out, Bill Gates–been insufficiently indoctrinated. Alice has stepped through the looking glass again: If we do not want to live in a police state, should we not all question authority all of the time?

A less elegant phrase for “architecture of oppression” might be “entrenched, abusive structures of authority.” Why should we not openly know what many of us have suspected, that there is constant surveillance of private citizens’ every spoken or written word.

We were informed that every Tweet would be stored in the LOC (Library of Congress) archives. Fair enough. We know full well that Facebook and other social media sites will continue, like the Dementors of Harry Potter novels, to suck every possible bit of information about us, and store it in its data bases. The rules of social media will constantly change, so that we can never keep our privacy settings up-to-date. We can, however, eschew social media. But few of us can take a year, or even a week, at Walden Pond and forgo emailing or conversing with our colleagues, family, and friends. So the government’s illegal snooping affects us all, no matter how innocent. No, I am no Libertarian: far from it. But I do think our military-industrialist Capitalist State has gone too far.

The government exists to serve us. It is a “government for the people.” So what is this all about? Fear. Irrational fear, unlike the perfectly rational knowledge of gun control advocates. The First Amendment appears to be written fairly well, but is blithely disregarded. The Second Amendment appears to be written, as it was, for the post-Colonial era–the British might come back!–and is interpreted to and beyond the letter, in an absurd and harmful fashion, resulting in deaths of innocent civilian Americans every day.

Let us all reread the great, thought-provoking novel about social conditioning 1984 written by Aldous Huxley in 1931, and published in 1932. The government’s attacks on the improperly conditioned, the slightly freer thinkers, is merciless in 1984, just as we can be certain that our government’s actions against Edward Snowden will be. In the meantime, let us not, like sheep follow the herd. Let us not castigate, but rather thank, Edward Snowden for revealing half-suspected truths that we have every right to know.

Embodied Religion

By Jule_Berlin (originally posted to Flickr as [1]) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Ponte Maceira on El Camino by Jule Berlin (via Wiki Commons) Share Alike

I continue writing about pilgrimage: embodied religion in nature. Serenity itself? Yes. There is beauty in nature, and oneness with nature that those who don’t hunt or fish or climb mountains might not otherwise access. There is beauty and peace in nature, and even fear, in nature that those who go on an evening stroll might wish to deepen or face. In deepening one’s connection to the land, one may deepen one’s connection to a transcendental God, or to the immanental god within.

And all those pilgrim symbols, from staff to cross, and pilgrim paths, within European borders do other, less obvious work. They provide a moving tableaux, a visual demonstration of Christianity as a physical presence. European pilgrimages connect European nation to nation, not undermining the all-important nationalism or nationhood, but reinforcing pan-Europeanism. There is also, surprisingly, something dark that bubbles up in pilgrimage. Pilgrimage is not only a simple and age-old act of putting one foot in front of the other, and circumnavigating a region by foot. It is also often a political act. In some cases it is, and has been, a political act for the good. Sometimes a political act against gender constraints keeping women at home. At others a political act of defiance against circumscription by Vatican authority, commanding the laity at what place, and how, they must worship.

Pilgrimage in Europe, meditative walking, may be broadening, ecumenical, and inviting. It may also be exclusive. Going on European Christian pilgrimage generally does not exclude atheists, agnostics, and seekers. In most cases, however, pilgrimage in Europe is Christian pilgrimage and excludes those of other faiths.

Today, as in ages past, it is the pluralism of Christians and Muslims living together in Europe that is being worked out. Is walking an act of territorial inscription? Probably in part, yet it is much more, and adds much that is positive to the individual and communal good. Pilgrims are certainly more than border control
agents.