Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Fountain

What I remember most is the fountain. A column of sparkling particles rose in the bright sunlight and gracefully spread in a shower of glittering splendor before delicately falling back to earth.

It was a beautiful day--clear, warm, calm, a good day for lazy pursuits. I was on my way to visit my grandfather in Western New York, enjoying the scenic ride along Rt. 20. Suddenly, as a reflex, I started to shout an obscenity as my hand pounded the horn and my foot stomped on the brake--the idiot in front of me was stopping abruptly. But almost as soon as I had reacted, I froze--a car from the oncoming lane had swerved into the path of the car in front of me, causing the abrupt stop. Everything changed in that instant. I could no longer hear my voice, still shouting my obscenity, now in mid-word. I couldn't hear the horn blaring, I couldn't hear the tires screaming, and I didn't hear the two cars hit as I watched them crumple in slow motion. My car was skidding to an eventual stop, but I knew I'd never be able to stop in time. I watched the glass fountain slowly rise, catching the sunlight, spreading its misty brilliance, and float back to the ground. The cars continued their dance, slowly bounced apart, and I skidded through the space they created.

I thought my car would never finally stop; it seemed to skid for hundreds of feet for a few minutes, even though I hadn't been traveling fast. My instant impulse after finally reaching the roadside was to jump out and run to help the accident victims. But “jump and run” had a new definition. People performing in underwater ballets move faster. All my strength went into every stride, but every stride seemed to take minutes.

Still, I was the first on the scene, and time returned to its normal pace. The car that had swerved held a college age woman, unconscious, her lip hanging from the half still attached, half her face coated with blood. "I'm drowning" she repeated, barely audible. The other car held a family of four, Mom, Dad, and two children, probably two and four years old. None of them had been wearing seat belts; Mom and Dad were trapped under the dash, and the children had been thrown from the car.

Other people started to arrive on the scene, and Mom woke, "My babies! Where are my babies?" Two of the new arrivals surrounded the children lying motionless on the ground. "People are looking after them," I fudged, not knowing if the children were even alive. "Try to remain calm while the ambulance comes, OK?," I lamely attempted. She agreed, calmed down for just a few moments, and started screaming again. I repeated my attempts to keep her calm, and we continued this cycle for several minutes until the paramedics finally arrived. I walked over to the grass to wait my turn to talk to the Sheriff, sat down, and finally fell apart, shaking violently for several minutes.

Everyone did survive the collision, I finally visited my grandfather, and except for occasional calls from the two parties' lawyers looking for court evidence, I had largely forgotten the incident after a time--except for the fountain--until a few summers ago.

Early one Sunday morning, a rabbit darted into the road just a few feet in front of my car. Again reacting, I slammed on the brakes, instantly spinning the car. Used to years of winter driving, I turned into the spin, but the car was already traveling sideways off the road. Although I wasn't driving fast, I knew I'd never be able to stop before I hit the tree in front of me; I never saw the tree my car hit sideways, just inches behind the driver's seat.

No slow motion this time--everything happened too quickly to follow. Just a second or too passed before an onlooker called 911 and kept me from trying to leave my car, pointing out that my arm was torn open, something I hadn't realized. The paramedics seemed to arrive in under a minute, and insisted, foolishly, I thought at the time, on cutting me out of my car. I calmly answered questions and even joked a little, until finally, in the ambulance, I went into shock. Worried medics hurriedly started IV drips and draped every blanket available over my still shivering body as I turned pale white. Radio conversations with the emergency room staff heralded our imminent arrival. But, several X-rays and a little surgery later, I was on my way home.

It took weeks to fully absorb what had happened. I thought the insurance company too hastily wrote off my car as totaled. I described the event to friends almost as a fender bender. I wondered why I had nightmares, something I hadn't experienced for years. It was three or four weeks before I realized that with a few inches difference, the tree that crushed my back seat would have crushed my skull. I guess that explains why I could barely move--or breathe--for a few months. My sister had taken pictures of my former car the day of the accident and mailed me a set. I finally opened the envelope.

Denial is easy, and human capacity for indulging it is staggering. The clear facts steadily stare, but they're so often invisible. Fountains are like that. They appear solid and still, despite their actual constant motion and nebulous, liquid state. Like fountains, focused will can propel us for a fair distance, but inevitably that originally climbing column will reach its zenith and dissipate in a shower of disintegrated droplets. Obviously life will end for all of us, but we manage to act in daily life as if we will never lose power. But control is an illusion. The fountain is beautiful, but the water supply can be shut off at any moment.


Monday, May 28, 2007

Memorial Moment

Twice a year, in November and May, the U.S. officially celebrates its men and women in uniform. Veterans Day can slide by quickly with a speech and a raised flag, given its midweek status in late fall, but Memorial Day, a three day weekend and the unofficial start to summer, is more likely to inspire a parade—along with a party, a barbeque, and a fair amount of beer.

As a kid, I biked all over our suburb’s streets, and consequently, some vigilant porch sitters and I noticed each other, spoke to each other, and began to look forward to our visits. What I remember most is talking about World War II. I can’t say I learned a lot about the war itself, but I clearly saw that something about this was a really big deal. I listened respectfully and intently, tried to understand the period novels I read, and when the subject came up in social studies, I paid attention.

Growing up in the sixties, I was to learn a lot more about armed conflict. As one speaker put it, “List four people you know between the ages of 18 and 24. Now cross off the first name on your list. That’s what war in Vietnam meant.” Ironically, President Johnson made Memorial Day an official U.S. Holiday, in 1966.

Today, the cry is constant—support the troops. God, I hate that word. Sounds better when “troops” are killed rather than “people”? But why the animosity often associated with the cry? Where are the groups crying, “Oppose the troops!”? Oh yeah—no such groups. Who doesn’t support the troops? And frankly, maybe that support shouldn’t be so blind. The massacre at My Lai? Prisoner abuse at Abu Grahab? The “retaliatory” murder of an innocent Iraqi citizen? One of my acquaintances, a Navy veteran, insists that we must support all of the troops no matter what.

I can’t agree. Such myopic reasoning allows troops to become little more than political pawns—any opposition brings the cry “Support the Troops!” Take Rumsfeld’s insistence—against the advice of the Pentagon—to run the Iraq war on the cheap. Friends, families and neighbors chip in to help buy the body armor the government neglected to supply. Soldiers raid junk yards to protect their vehicles from road side bombs. Where’s the support for the troops there? And when the Bush administration’s policies have clearly failed, the President grasps for a magical solution—more troops, with no clear plan, but clearly ready to sacrifice more lives on the chance he can still save face. So Congress finally tries to use the only real weapon it has to stop this nonsense—cut funding. Time for the cry—“Support the Troops!”

I’m quite ready to honor the troops, to remember those who gave so much to their country. But I’m not happy about it, especially now. I’m not naïve—as former President Carter noted when awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, war is sometimes a necessary evil. At the same time, however, “it is always an evil,” and not a course of action a country should so rashly follow.

So today we honor fallen troops. I am grateful to them, but I’d rather we were honoring them as the parents, spouses, doctors, lawyers, scientists, teachers, businessmen, mayors, and citizens they should have been.


Sunday, May 27, 2007

Hawks and Handsaws

An acquaintance of mine thinks maybe people have just seen too many episodes of “Doctor Quinn, Medicine Woman,” but the phenomenon certainly predates that show’s 1993 release—Native Americans and others alike romanticize that culture, benefiting no one.

Let me be clear—I have great respect for Native American tradition. I’ve dated Native American women. I have close Native American friends. I even have an Indian name—it means “When the Warm Winds of the South have Returned,” and once, one of a group of Native friends raised the question of my totem animal—they all immediately agreed on the red-tail hawk. Let me also clarify that I certainly don’t dispute that Native Americans have historically faced significant injustice. All the more reason not to make a mockery of that history with distorted stereotypes. Note that I am not addressing the matter of using Indian names or mascots for sports teams—that’s another issue entirely. No, I’m addressing our joint cultural insistence on blindly replacing truth with fantasy.

Let’s start with the most prevalent view—Native Americans have a special, close connection to nature, even to the point of almost magical powers. What bullshit. One afternoon I sat chatting at length with a few friends and a few strangers in the Oneida cultural center about exactly this “connection.” At one point, we heard a bird call: “Whoo….whoo whoo….whoooooooo.” The director of the center, an Oneida Indian with a Ph.D., noted, “Oh, an owl!” I looked at him incredulously, and pointed out that no, that was a mourning dove—a VERY common bird [An owl’s call, unlikely in mid-afternoon, would sound “Hoot-hoot, Hoot Whoooooooooo]. My other Oneida friends at the same gathering, including a Turtle Clan elder, are about as citified as possible, even though they live in the country. They know virtually nothing about animals, plants, climate, the land—things even the children of any farmer, even a poor farmer, would know. They gave me a red-tailed hawk feather as a gift, warning me not to tell anyone. Certainly illegal animal parts show up sometimes on Native lands, eagle feathers for example, but red-tailed hawks are common here—I once picked up a feather in my driveway.

Then there’s the illusion that any Native American craft is art. Want cash? Build dream catchers. Want to sell paintings? Paint eagles and wolves—easy as Elvis on black velvet, or dogs playing poker. The only difference is which cliché we buy. Why? Certainly we have excellent Native American artists, but as one Native artist friend said after deciding to go to art school, “I thought I knew everything. I found out I knew nothing.” Today, her art is MUCH more interesting, varied provocative, and less predictable than it was. Likewise, certainly my students study Native American writers—N. Scott Momaday, for example, but not because he’s native, but because his command of metaphor and imagery is exceptional. We’d study him even is he were only another dead white guy.

Here’s the problem—such a naïve, widespread and economically viable misperception of reality can only lead to someone realizing this means political power.

It starts with the land claims. The Oneidas, for example, argue that two hundred years ago, their ancestors reached a land agreement with the State of New York, but since that agreement was never ratified by the U. S. Congress, the transfer was illegal. Why they want to argue their ancestors were foolish, I can’t imagine, especially since they’ve stamped themselves as “The Oneida Nation” and love to insist on “government to government relations” with the cities, counties, and states—by which they mean they refuse to pay taxes, to collect taxes on sales to non-natives, or to follow any of those annoying little laws—like weights and measures, or health inspections. And people love it, lured by the chance to same a dime, fairness or health be damned, oblivious to the reality that services cost money, and if the funds don’t come from one source, they must come from another. Native Americans enjoy, without taxes, the benefits of roads, legal systems, and military protection. Why? Hardly the role of “government to government relations.” That’s because the “nation” is legally a “ward of the state”—as in children protected by their superiors. Who would embrace that? People ready to abuse it for power and wealth.

Enter the casinos. Under the guise of “economic development,” ignoring that (1) gambling just moves money around instead of creating production and that (2) casinos suck business away from the (tax-paying) establishments that formerly provided those services, politicians and native business men play the native fantasy to the hilt to line their pockets. Anyone who disagrees is labeled a “racist.” Convenient—and ignores the reality that the Wisconsin Oneidas and Thames Oneidas oppose the New York “Oneida Nation.” New York Oneidas also oppose Corporate Oneida, and for that opposition, have their houses condemned and their voices shunned. The Oneida Cultural Center, for example, features none of Diane Shenandoah’s beautiful art, and neither will you find any trace of Grammy Award winner Joanne Shenandoah—so much for promoting Native American culture.

Hamlet tells us “I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw.” But the wind is from the north, not a trace of the south winds, and industry has replaced the hawk.


Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Rabbits and Seals

I like rabbits. I really do. My sister had a white rabbit as a pet for years. People a few miles down the road keep rabbits to comb for Angora—something I’ve considered myself. When a careless driver hit but didn’t kill a wild rabbit, I stopped and even took it to the vet (it had to be euthanized—severed spinal cord).

My rabbit adventures, though, really started when a former irresponsible neighbor, after keeping rabbits for a bit, changed his mind and set them loose. [Where do people get these ideas about animals? Most animals in the wild never live to see age two—let alone abandoned pets. That puppy you let loose to enjoy its freedom? The one with the cute kerchief around its neck? It’s now dead.] Now that the rabbits were no longer his responsibility, at least one of them became mine—chewing its way through the skirting of my home, ruining my winterizing efforts. Eventually, the rabbit disappeared (probably dead), and when the weather warmed, I ripped out all the damaged skirting and replaced it with aluminum flashing, burying it a foot deep (to keep out mice, rats and voles as well). Whether by cause and effect or by chance, however, wild rabbits took up residence across the grounds, to stay.

To a point, I didn’t really mind. Hey, if they eat the grass—terrific! Once in a while one would get hit in the road—sad, and I’d have to do something with the carcass. My old shepherd mix caught one—I have no idea how, since she was almost 16, tired and very ill. Perhaps she fell on it. Dunno. I let her have it—bunny was half gone as it was, and I was going nuts trying to get my poor old dog to eat protein anyway.

Rabbits were evident from time to time. One year I planted 50 black cherry seedlings around the borders of the property (black cherry is native here, and the wood is valuable). By spring, every one was gone. Rabbits were the main suspects, of course, but without any hard evidence, no court would ever convict them.

I didn’t notice them much. My husky mix puppy caught one while on her lead, but since she’s essentially lightening with fur, no big surprise. We walk around the property sometimes, she on her 26’ retractable leash, and yes, she often explodes into a run after game, ripping my arm from its socket, but here in the country, that could be almost anything; she loves to chase birds, and we have lots of them.

She especially loved “helping” to plant my fruit trees. She didn’t understand what all this was about, but she quickly learned that first, playing with those strange sticks was verboten, and second, whatever we were doing, it involved a lot of walking and digging. Gotta love that! With gusto, she “helped” dig holes for the trees, and when I walked back to my shed to get each tree, she carefully guarded each hole (I don’t know what we’re doing, or why, but this is OUR hole, so just back off!). Four varieties of apple, two kinds of pear, a few cherry trees—a week of hard work and a summer of watering yielded my own orchard. Despite a few problems—beetles, for example—the orchard was healthy and progressing well.

Then, over the winter, the rabbits reduced it to dead twigs. Hundreds of dollars worth destroyed.

My electrician, a friend, over to replace a leaky meter, noted during conversation that his fruit trees had suffered a similar fate. An acquaintance of his at the Ag/Tech college suggested protecting the trees with black PVC tubing cut at an angle. Seemed worth trying. As soon as the school year closed, I bought an assortment of apple, pear, peach and plum trees. I mentioned my circumstances to the clerk. “Rabbits,” she said, shaking her head.

I headed for the hardware store for PVC tubing. I explained what I wanted, and long since accustomed to my quirky ways, the staff listened patiently. For what I wanted, they explained, I could use waterline. Comes in inch and a quarter. Fine. They’ll sell it by the foot—just need to cut it first. OK.

I sat in the car. And waited. And waited. I drank my coffee. I was glad I had bought the paper. I read it. Finally, the yard guy arrives with a large roll of tubing. “We had trouble cutting it,” he explains. I can see that—one end is squashed flat for a few inches.

“How am I going to cut it, then?” I asked.

“Oh, no problem—we just didn’t have a good saw. You’ll be fine.” Unconvinced, I stuffed the roll in my car and headed home. I backed down the driveway and leaned back, relaxing for a moment. A rabbit peaked out of the evergreen trees, then hopped about with impunity.

A friend suggested I cut the tubing in a spiral to wrap around the tree. I soon learned I’d be lucky to cut it at all, let alone get it around the trees. I soon settled for just cutting a slit, but just as soon realized (1) that would be difficult with a circular saw and (2) I was already lucky to still have my hand as the saw kicked back. So, I just cut the stuff in half, and took 3-4 halves and taped them around the trunk. That was going to take quite a bit a tape for several trees. Back to the store. The rabbits could easily reach past the first branches, so I also grabbed some 4’ chicken wire to circle the trees—along with black plastic sheeting to control the grass inside the fenced circle. And so, after a lot of trial and error, after a day’s labor, I had planted—a tree.

I managed a few more before dark, each in its own little concentration camp, acutely aware that for all the effort I was investing in cottontail prevention, the critters had ipso facto the entire year (or two or three) to breach security.

For reasons I can’t quite explain, I’m reminded of the end of the first chapter of Joyce’s “Ulysses”:

"A voice, sweettoned and sustained, called to him from the sea. Turning the curve he waved his hand. It called again. a sleek brown head, a seal’s far out on the water, round.



Friday, May 18, 2007


Scrunch. Scrrunch. Scarrrunth.

“Just great,” I thought, awakened by the sound of tractor-trailer tires on gravel. “Here I’ve hiked into the mountains to escape into nature, and I STILL can’t get away from the noise of traffic.” Then I realized I was at least 5-6 miles from the nearest highway. I had driven five hours to the High Peaks, then down the long road to the Adirondack Log, then hiked an hour up to a lean-to by Marcy Dam, the first leg of a two week backpacking trip with my shepherd mix, Sasha.

Scrunch. Scrrunth. I sat up.

Sasha was sitting as erect as could be, her back pressed against me, stiff as possible while every part of her body trembled slightly, her attention focused intently ahead.

Scrrunch. Scarrunthh!

The night was cloudy, no light at all. Still, through the complete dark of the forest, the sky was lighter above the trees where the land sloped down toward the dam. Against that backdrop, bit by bit, I watched a large, dark shape slowly pull itself up one of the trees suspending my food. [Backpackers bag their food and tie it suspended between two trees, at least 15 feet from the ground and from either tree, to protect it from persistent woodland creatures, like raccoons and—bears.]

Scrunch. With every pull of the bear, my dog’s alert, staring head abruptly inched up another angle. Scrunth—another inch. Scrunth—another head adjustment. Scrunch. Scarrunthh!

The bear had reached the line suspending the food. A moment passed while the bear realized it couldn’t reach the bag, and let out a low grumble.

Scrunch. Scrrunth.

The bear headed down, my dog’s attention fixed, her head abruptly adjusting to each change in the bear’s position.

Scrunch. Scrunthh.

Lower and lower—bear and dog’s head.

Scrunch. Scrunthh.

Having reached the bottom of the tree, the bear placed its back feet on the ground. My dog responded. So softly I could barely hear her, throat just two feet from my ears, Sasha let out a long, low “grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrruff.” There. I barked. Now YOU do something.

I did. Looking around for a few pots to bang together to startle bear, I reminded myself that startled bears take off in whatever direction they’re pointed, so be careful before startling. But how was I going to manage that in the dark, when I could see little more than a large, ominous shape?
I needn’t have worried, since knowing it wasn’t going to get our food, the bear simply walked away, down the path toward Marcy Dam. Once the adrenaline finally settled, I settled down to sleep—my dog still sharply on the watch.

The next morning, I packed our gear (including Sasha’s doggie backpack—hey, why should I carry HER food for two weeks?), and we set off on the first full day of our trip, climbing Mt. Marcy. To do so, we first had to head down past Marcy Dam. The previous day, while filling water bottles at the spring there, I noticed three college age hikers in the dam-side lean-to, their food hung in bags from the edge of the lean-to. After making small talk, I suggested they might want to hang the food suspended between two trees, according to custom, and explained why. “Nah,” they confidently responded. “The bear isn’t going to come up to us here in the lean-to, with the fire going.” This morning, apparently they were wrong—bits of paper, plastic, food wrappers and similar debris littered the ground surrounding the lean-to for a few hundred feet in every direction. The hikers had vacated the premises.

The forest rangers report that bears learn very quickly—a single experience is enough. Around Eighth Lake State Park, bears cruise campers’ cars, looking inside for coolers, peeling open promising prospects like opening a can. of Spam.

A former housemate and I at the time looked into hiking in Montana, and consequently requested information about hiking in bear country. The brochure did, indeed, share grizzly facts. “Do not run from a grizzly—you have no chance of outrunning a grizzly.” “Do not try to climb a tree to escape a grizzly—grizzly bears are excellent climbers.” “Do not try to swim from a grizzly—grizzly bears are excellent swimmers.” Sobering, no? Reminds me of a Gary Larson cartoon showing two bears polishing off the bones of a few hikers. “I love it when they play dead,” reads the caption. “No running or nothing!”

Bears go out of their way to avoid humans. One nature show claimed that hikers probably frequently came close to bears but never saw them. To prove the point, a camera watched a trail while indeed, bears crossed the hikers’ path, unnoticed. After hundreds and hundreds of hours hiking in the mountains, I’ve only once seen a bear cross my path—and then only briefly as it vanished before my eyes, like ball players walking into the corn in “Field of Dreams.” [Luckily I saw the bear before Sasha did, and quickly called her safely to my side.]

Hikers in grizzly country are asked to store food in bear proof canisters. The issue is that just one careless hiker teaches bears that backpack equals dinner—not a happy situation for hikers (or, ultimately, the bears). The same nature show featured footage of a grizzly bating around such a container, knowing it held food, unable to reach it. My housemate and I didn’t go hiking in Montana after all. He met the woman who would become his wife. They went. I went on this backpacking trip with Sasha.

Hikers in the high peaks joke that the raccoons and the bears are in cahoots—the bears through the raccoons up into the air at the food, and the raccoons untie the bag and throw it to the ground. Some days, it’s a tempting explanation.

On the other side of Marcy, at the base of Mt. Colden, lies a relatively large flat piece of ground, an attractive and popular place for backpackers to camp. The trees are scored with claw marks, as the bears have learned to claw through the ropes suspending the food bags.


Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Weasel Piss

We called it weasel piss--I’m not sure why. In those days, we didn’t pay much attention to our metaphors, so I don’t think we had much of a reason. We just did.

Nonetheless, Old Milwaukee and Milwaukee’s Best were awarded the title of “weasel piss,” cheap beer college students consume not for its questionable quality, but because its price allows it to be consumed in quantity. [When I was a store manager in a college town, we sold it on sale for as little as $6.99 a case, and sold 50-100 cases a week.]

My housemates and I, of course, felt we were above this. That’s largely because one of our housemates had an uncle or cousin or something who worked at a Miller plant, so we could purchase through him cases of beer we saw as better at a discount. I had a stash of 4-6 cases of Löwenbräu dark piled up in the corner of my closet. [The same housemate had a teacher who farmed potatoes on the side. We purchased grocery bags full of red potatoes (which we also believed were better) for 80¢ a bag. Life was good.]

I thought those days were behind me. Guess not. Although my days of drinking weasel piss are far behind me, I still see my share of Old Milwaukee--on my lawn. I live out in the country, a good six miles from the nearest college (which even then is in a small town), yet there they are--can after can, day after day.

Perhaps this is because drinking drivers and riders need to get rid of the evidence. OK--that’s at least prudent behavior. And probably not limited to students--I find a fair number of Bud Lite cans on my lawn too. But I also find soda cans, juice boxes, ice tea bottles, cigarette cartons, potato chip bags--no damning evidence here. True, we get a lot of wind up in the hills, and trash blows around sometimes--plastic grocery bags full of household trash, milk jugs and such--but clearly much of the debris comes from cars.

I was driving behind a pickup truck when the driver stopped at an intersection and unceremoniously dumped an empty donut box, coffee cup and cigarette carton out the driver’s window. His back window featured a bumper sticker announcing “Osama bin Laden can kiss my American ass.” Apparently, so can everyone else. And why not? If you want to identify yourself as an asshole, might as well get people in there close to the action.

This behavior isn’t limited to drivers. Campers at Stony Pond, where I daily walk my dog, leave behind beer cans and broken bottles along with their still smoldering fires. Fishermen cut loose their lines and just leave them on the ground. One morning a gosling trying to flee my dog and I along with its parents and siblings got tangled in such a line just at the water’s edge. I spent half an hour working to free the struggling chick from the line, which cut deeply into its leg, while juggling an excited dog and upset, honking geese. The story ended happily, but it easily could have ended in an unnecessarily slaughtered goose.

“A weasel is wild. Who knows what he thinks?” begins Annie Dillard’s essay “Living Like Weasels.” “He does not let go.” She describes one naturalist’s encounter with a weasel “dangling from his palm,” “socketed…deeply as a rattlesnake.” In another instance, “a man shot an eagle out of the sky…and found the dry skull of a weasel fixed by the jaws to his throat.” Tenacious little buggers.

wea·sel (wē'zəl) noun 1. a carnivorous, burrowing mammal of the genus Mustela. 2. a sneaky or treacherous person. 3. one who behaves in a stealthy, furtive way. verb 1. to use deliberately vague language. 2. to be evasive.

Seems about right.


Monday, May 14, 2007

The Great Green Whale

Ahab had it easy. At least once you kill the whale, it stays dead.

Twenty years ago, with little or no money in my purse, I turned not to the sea, but to the land—my land. After watching my rents continually climb until I could no longer afford them, and since I always wanted to live in the country anyway, I maxed out what credit I had and purchased what I could afford—three and a half acres of rolling meadow nestled in the hills, and a forty year old single wide. I was ecstatic—I was a landowner! I walked the grounds, singing “This land is my land, this land is my land, this land is my land, this land is my land…” It was a lot of land to manage on my own, without machinery (I couldn’t yet afford to drill a well at the time)—an acre was originally the amount of land a team of oxen could plow in a day—but I made a deal with a local farmer: you cut it, the hay is yours (nice hay, too, almost all timothy grass). [And to give Ishmael his due, a drainage ditch does bisect the plot, so technically, he’s still correct.]

This was the last year mowing would be so easy. [Loomings, indeed!] I wasn’t worried, though. First, I had no intention of cutting all that grass, just a half acre or so around the single wide, and second, I planned to plant trees, and they would keep the grass (and the winter wind) down. And plant I did—over two thousand trees, one year old seedlings available inexpensively from the state through Cooperative Extension: Norway spruce mostly, 8-10 feet apart, but also blue spruce, black walnut, black cherry, maples, red oak, Austrian pine, all with just a shovel in soil of heavy clay. These trees needed water during dry spells, hauled with a five gallon bucket with water from my newly drilled well. I also had to keep the grass cut at first around the trees, but quickly found I simply couldn’t keep up with what little time I had while working long hours at multiple jobs to cover all the credit I had tapped. Once established after that first year, I figured, the trees would survive on their own.

I was used to grass growing around my parents’ house in the suburbs—I wasn’t used to how grass grows in a meadow. In just a few weeks from mid-April to mid-May, the grass can shoot up to unmowable lengths—a few weeks more, and it’s waist high. Some weeds will reach six feet—makes for slow going with just a push lawn mower. The task was hopeless. But, my trees were surviving, and would one day grow about the meadow. Further, I was happy to just let nature go about her business, well, naturally.

I learned a lot about nature those first few years. I had grown up believing the “survival of the fittest” model, and at first I thought it true—one grass would flourish for 3-4 weeks, crowded out by the next grass, which would be crowded out by the next. The timothy grass field was gone. But the next year, I realized my error—rather than a continuous conquering by new species, the meadow is a ballet: the same grasses reappeared, coming and going according to their seasons, yielding to the next grasses in their seasons. I noticed something similar about insects—they would l leave my garden in peace, even into harvest—unless I didn’t harvest promptly. Then, they ravished the slightly too ripe vegetables.

I also learned just how naïve my views were about nature. When my dog and I took possession of the meadow, the ground hogs and deer decided they could find more hospitable loggings, but oblivious to my argument that the meadow and surrounding lands offered more than enough for all creatures, the mice took up residence. So did the rats. I got a cat. Then another cat. I trapped dozens of them, then finally turned to poison—which worked for a while. Rabbits chewed through the particle board skirting. I replaced it with aluminum flashing buried 18 inches, but this was a deterrent, not unbreachable. I got the message—the land must be kept mowed.

Easier said than done. Trying to balance this task with other chores and career obligations, I decided to cut grass for an hour or so each day, working my way across the land. The problem, though, is the grass just cut a week ago is already eight inches high, so I had to continually turn back and start over. I altered my goal to just reach the drainage ditch at least once each summer (singing Talking Heads' "Take Me to the River"--another point for Ishmael).

Then nature helped—one very dry summer, the grass simply behaved, growing much more slowly. I reached the far border, not once by twice. The whale had been conquered. And, the evergreens have thrived on the fertile ground, growing dense, bushy, and rivaling the telephone poles. In many places, they completely prevent grass, in others severely slowing it, and in still others, grass has been supplanted by moss. All welcome developments. Then the next summer, wet weather created such a lush jungle that I could only cut a third of the grass.

So this year, as soon as I could near the end of the term, I devoted several hours on consecutive days to cut, cut, cut, determined to get ahead of the resurrected whale before the grass becomes unmowable again. Or at least survive the encounter. If I can’t match Ahab, I’ll settle for Jonah.

I watched the teenager next door while I was moving away. His mom moved in last year, after the house had been vacant two years, so attacking their lawn (roughly an acre and a half) falls at last to them, instead of the realtor.

They’ve got a riding mower (they don’t have all the trees I do), but I’ve never seen anyone do such an incredibly poor job with one. I didn’t even know it was possible. The lawn looked like someone had attacked it with a weed whacker. His pattern of attack seemed almost arbitrary, and every 10-15 minutes or so, exhausted from his heavy labor astride the mower, he needed a break.

This went on for hours, with no better results. Finally, Mom came out. A conversation ensued. Mom took the mower herself, running the perimeter of the property, calmly smoking a cigarette while the grass took notice and lay behind her in neatly trimmed, golf course quality turf. She dismounted. Another conversation. Junior took the wheel again. He started mowing this time in back, and, while certainly no golf course, doing a credible job. He lifted his eyes, waved. I gave him a thumbs up. Then he took a break. By dark, he had finished cutting 1/3 of the plot.

He finished the next morning, again, a credible if not stellar job, and I continued pushing my aching muscles to strive to stay ahead of the rising tide of green.


Saturday, May 12, 2007

Why "Can’t" (Doesn’t/Won’t) Johnny Write Well?

I’ve been listening to complaints about student writing for a few decades now. Professors complain that students can’t compose sentences, can’t construct paragraphs, can’t even demonstrate a command of seventh grade English grammar, and eschew anything resembling critical thinking or revision. Employers complain that colleges award degrees to functionally illiterate graduates. Students complain that high school doesn’t prepare them for college writing, and at the same time, complain that their courses require too much writing. High school teachers frantically try to teach writing while mostly teaching to the New York State Regents exams, all while handling large classes and behavior problems.

The usual culprits are the Internet, Instant Messaging and cell phone text messaging. Students are used to short, abbreviated language (lol, btw, and so forth), runs the argument, thereby atrophying written language skills.

I don’t buy it.

“I can design an assignment to interest and involve any student,” boasted a colleague, a student teacher supervisor, at a recent small group meeting for the National Writing Project (designed to bring high school teachers together with college professors to address the quality of student writing). “It’s just not that hard.” But this is the problem. Sure, engaging students is important, but often their entire high school education is nothing more than assignments such as these. Students write little more than agree/disagree statements, personal reflections, and other self-indulgent writing that dances along the surface of real issues, repeating stereotypes and generalities, rather than broaching any true analysis.

High school students then bring these habits to college, convinced that every article by a Native American is about getting kicked off the land, that every article about women is about how the media forces them to live their lives as bulimic Barbie dolls, that poverty exists because some people are lazy, that all the world’s problems would vanish if everyone would just support the President. The textbooks reinforce such superficial thinking, organized in pro/con fashion, promoting the simplistic view that every issue has two sides instead of delving into the multiple positions reflected in true debates.

Perhaps even worse is the commitment to the “Self Esteem Movement,” the idea that education should continually reinforce students’ self image. Who invented this nonsense? Granted, attacking students would be counterproductive, just shutting them down, but how does THIS help: “That’s OK, dear. I understand that you’re doing the best you can, so we’ll just lower the standards to your level so that you will then be doing well. Feel better?” That’s not encouragement. That’s not building self-esteem. That’s patronizing. That’s telling students, “I know you just aren't good enough to learn this material, so just never mind—it doesn’t really matter anyway.” It’s an insult, and a horrible thing to do to a child—or to a college student. Yet, SAT scoring was revised for exactly this reason.

So students learn to play the victim—and get rewarded for doing so. “I don’t get it,” they claim. “What specifically?” I ask. “Any of it,” comes the answer. A college student can’t understand a single word of an article. “Well then—there’s no way I can help you,” I inform them. That’s the point, right? They’ve completely blocked any avenue except telling them what to write. You should see the look of shock on their faces. But it’s true—once they throw their hands up, game over.

They’ve been taught to play the angles. Got behind? You had “family problems” or “personal issues.” Got a test, or a paper due? You weren’t feeling well that morning—but you’re feeling better later in the day and can get the paper done then. Challenged too much? Turn to your parents, or the Chair, or the Dean. Log on to and warn your classmates that this instructor teaches for real, and try (as the site explicitly notes) to get such instructors fired.

Current college structures aggravate the problem. Administration leans heavily on student evaluation of courses to assess instructors, ignoring the obvious point that students don’t yet have the skills to effectively judge faculty. So, the predictable happens—the goal is keeping students happy, not education. Reading assignments address students’ preferences instead of challenging them. Writing assignments are predictable and avoid any real difficulties. Students are given specific step by step guidelines to follow, instead of organizing their thoughts themselves. One of my colleagues stresses that she doesn’t worry about specifics, teaching instead “the joy of writing.” Give me a break. If you need a friend, get a dog. Students have friends—they need teachers.

I’m all for building self-esteem, but REAL self-esteem. Set high standards. Help students learn the skills needed to reach those standards. Let them try. Gently redirect them when they fall short. Have them try again. Encourage them. Have them try again, and again, until, as one of my students noted on her final assessment of her writing in my course, they “earn the coveted ‘Good.’” THAT’S self-esteem, knowing they’ve faced challenges and successfully mastered them, not just told so. After all, in the “real world,” they need demonstrable skills, not platitudes. True education should provide those skills.

I’m all for models, too, but not “Here, just do it this way” formulas. What true music teacher would teach an instrument without demonstrating that instrument for the student? Writing teachers must do the same—write for students. Explain the process as it unfolds. Note that the “answer” isn’t to “do it this way” but rather to begin to understand the abstract principles involved. And once learned, those abstract principles won’t mean instant success. Can a piano student master scales just because the teacher explained how to play them? Obviously not—weeks and months and years (depending on how high the students wishes to rise) of practice lie ahead.

And finally, writing instructors must themselves write. Would you take guitar lessons from someone who never played? Then why writing? No wonder students decide that since they’ve had a writing course in the past, they’re all set. What musician doesn’t realize that continual improvement is mandatory, and that excellence just means “get in line with the other excellent players”? Writing instructors must recognize the same--and maybe they'd stop teaching such damaging misinformation as "put a comma where you want a pause" instead of looking at sentence sense, or "forecast the next paragraph by abruptly changing the subject in the last sentence, repeating it in the first sentence of the next paragraph" instead of composing writing with clear direction, or "write a bunch of general sentences to slowly get to a point, then go back to general statements" instead of clearly developing ideas. Reaching a minimum word count doesn't equal effective writing.

How else can we show students that writing is a process, that writing well involves thinking and analysis, that writing can always improve—and that the journey is worth the effort?


Tuesday, May 8, 2007

The Rewards of Rain

Everyday I take my dog down to the trails around Stony Pond for an hour or so, where I run or ski, depending on the weather. Much of the time we’re left to the geese, ducks and beavers, but now that the weather has turned sunny and warm, people regularly camp there, enjoying the peace and beauty of nature by building large fires, blaring radios and drinking lots of beer—often leaving the bottles and cans littered behind them the next morning, the remains of the fires still smoldering.

A family goes fishing, and crowds around the battery-powered TV they’ve brought, watching sitcoms. We pass a young woman on horseback, talking on her cell phone. Getting away from just some of it all, apparently.

During deer season, hunters park their campers here, choosing to hunt by walking the well-worn foot paths around the pond, waiting for the deer to give themselves up, rather than traveling into the woods where the deer live, coming out at night by the hundreds to graze in the fields. It’s just easier, I guess, near the comfort of the camper.

Leaving the comfort of the noise, the truck cabins, the telecommunications and the sunny weather has its rewards. One rainy spring morning, for instance, my dog found a fawn hiding just around a tree trunk (we apparently surprised the doe)—just about 18” long. When I investigated, the fawn bellowed (damn, those things have lungs!) and wobbled to its feet—it could just barely stand—and bellowed again. It was the cutest little creature—head far too large for its body, legs far too skinny—the usual “I’m small now but I’ll soon grow big” syndrome we recognize in puppies of large breeds. I quickly led my dog away, leaving the youngster to the unseen doe, but those few precious moments remain a happy memory.

Before I moved to the country, I regularly escaped on weekends to the Adirondacks, especially to hike in the High Peaks region—Giant, Marcy, Wright Peak, and other mountains in the Lake Placid/Keene Valley area. One Saturday, desperately needing to get away and clear my head, I decided to ignore the rainy weather and climb Algonquin Peak, the second highest point in New York State and doable within a day (the drive there and the climb). Of course, climbing in a drizzle means walking in a dense, gray fog, and today was no exception. I saw none of the spectacular views—I could barely see twenty feet ahead, just following the trail (and my dog) as trees continually emerged from the mist. This became a real problem when I reached the tree line, nervously trusting my dog’s nose to find the trail, now just rock, trees gone, using the occasional cairns as confirmation rather than guides as intended. I started to worry about finding the trail down again, when the fog started to clear a bit. As I climbed higher, I saw why, and scrambled to the summit—we had climbed above the clouds, and were now standing in bright sunshine on an island of rock surrounded by a fluffy white carpet stretching across the sky in every direction. It remains to this day perhaps the most beautiful sight I’ve ever seen.

Not that I’m recommending climbing the High Peaks alone in the rain—on another occasion, an excursion up Mt. Colden, I got turned around in the fog and wandered about for a few scary hours before finding the proper trail again. I forced myself to stop and change into fresh, dry polypropylene underwear and wool clothing. Freshly dressed, warm and dry, I started shivering nonstop—I had been in the initial phase of hypothermia, the first sign of which is poor judgment. (Ironically, I had stopped to change only to ensure that doing so would be a habit in case I ever did get hypothermia. “Ah,” I noted to myself, “THAT’S why I have that ‘make it a habit’ rule.”) I hurried down the mountain to a lean-to, built a fire, laid out my thermal pad and sleeping bag, and prepared a warm dinner. Crisis averted, but lesson learned—almost the very hard way.

Back home, away from the spectacular views and the dangers of the mountains, rain can certainly be a nuisance, turning the clay soil into a soggy, muddy mess for days at a time, making dry feet impossible unless I keep a pair of socks and shoes in the car. In the spring, I don't even try for clean clothes, as a single splash will muddy my pants. But at the same time, relaxing in a lawn chair, watching the birds dart through the tree branches, taking in the fresh scent, listening to the sound of rain on my shed’s aluminum roof, catching up on some reading–this is not a bad way to spend an afternoon.

Not counting when my wet, muddy dog rushes into my lap.


Thursday, May 3, 2007

When Patriots are Blind

Remember when George W. Bush invaded Iraq? How people lined up to insist Americans must line up behind the president? Now, thousands of deaths later, and with no end in sight, we still debate the issue, long after Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” bravado—bravado his administration still embraces while pointing to the flag and couching any debate in terms of winning or losing the war.

When will we decide that ego isn’t the way to conduct policy? That opponents to those polices serve an important function? Here’s what I wrote shortly after the second U.S. invasion of Iraq:

Imagine the U.S. and Iraq had made a deal: each country kills X number of their citizens, and in return, Iraq’s leaders step down.

Certainly no one would agree to such a horrific plan. Yet how is war essentially different? What comes from armed conflict that’s missing from a simple exchange of sacrificed lives?

The Bush administration wanted this badly--so much that to challenge Baghdad was worth killing Iraqis and losing American lives. And many Americans approve. Why?

The decision was hardly altruistic. America, self proclaimed defender of liberty, isn’t interested in helping the people of Burma, for example, despite their severely repressive regime. Rather, Americans seem motivated by a combination of poorly focused anger and a lack of foresight. Nobody defies America! Time to kick butt. Damn the logic.

The counter argument? “You unpatriotic bastard! This is the time to support our troops!” But this is a red herring. Everyone supports the troops--that was never in question. They’re doing a remarkable job in extremely trying circumstances. Back home, Americans aren’t doing so well. Apparently, it’s OK to protest a war as long as there isn’t a war. Right.

So blind patriotism rules the day, unblinking in the face of senseless rhetoric and obvious fallacies. “You’re either with us or against us.” False dilemma. “Iraq has to prove they don’t have these weapons.” Inappropriate burden of proof (can’t prove a negative). “Changing the regime in Baghdad will bring peace to Palestine.” Now THERE’S a non sequitur.

Consequently, instead of examining French and German reasons for their opposition to this war, Americans rename their deep fried potatoes. Instead of improving the search capacity of weapons inspectors, America takes on the job, with no better success. Can peace in Palestine be far behind?

The cost will be high. The Bush administration has made it clear that negotiating with the United States is useless--agree or move aside--and honors agreements only when convenient. America has invaded a country, ignoring United Nations objections, and is now viewed, quite understandably, as a threat to security. Since neither treaties nor refraining from aggressive actions will help against such an arrogant nation, the only solution is to acquire nuclear arms, the only thing that seems to get American attention.

Not much occasion for pride here.


Wednesday, May 2, 2007


Wouldn't it be great to work in a place where all of the people were excited about their jobs, enthusiastic about coming to work each day? It's a great vision, but few organizations reach it. Instead, managers are often frustrated in their search for motivated employees. At the same time,workers are often bored with their jobs, putting in far less effort than they could, generally because they've been frustrated in their attempts to change.

If neither managers or workers like the situation, how do organizations get demotivated people? All too frequently, they are unintentionally, but routinely, created.

It starts on the first day of work. New people arrive full of energy and ready to show what they can do. And those people are asked to wait. And watch. And get out of the way, because something more important came along. Don't worry, you'll catch on. OK, try this. No! Not that way! Try something else. No! You're doing it wrong. Here, just watch me. And so it goes.

Pretty quickly, the energetic new person learns (1) that he/she seems far less important to the organization than what's going on, and (2) do as little as possible, so that he/she won't get reprimanded. And a few months later, management notices that sure enough, another new person "decided" to just slide by doing very little. It's so hard to find good help...

Some people become good at their jobs despite the odds. Frequently, these promising leaders are never challenged, become bored, and eventually take new jobs--usually for a competitor in the same industry. Sure, the boss has a vision, and tries to get his/her people excited about it. But, while the boss was able to exercise some creativity, the people who work in the organization just had it sprinkled down from on high. Why would they feel excited?

Now add the clinchers. Avoid being clear with people; expect them to just somehow know exactly what you mean. Then, when they don't do what you expect, chew 'em out. They'll not only be careful never to take any initiative, they can also waste hours complaining about management when no one's around supervising. And they'll certainly avoid sharing any useful suggestions about how to improve the organization! Make sure the work environment is not conducive to accomplishing required tasks. Ask people to follow a lot of rules, but never let them understand the reasons for them. Better yet, just set policies, without clear reasons. Avoid any validity to job tasks.

And once a year, have a performance review, where people can be irritated by having a year's worth of stuff thrown in their faces all at once. (If any people have somehow stayed motivated up to this point, the performance review should kill it for sure!) Treat the newly demotivated people as intrinsically demotivated people, aggravating the situation further.

It's not that management isn't well meaning. Rather, our society has developed work related habits that just don't work well. And that applies to employees, too.


Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Clery in the Goat Line

During the 2004 U.S. presidential election, a group of Catholic bishops claimed that voting for John Kerry would be a sin. They cited his pro-choice stance on abortion in particular, along with his position on stem cell research.

The bishops’ stance was nothing more than voter intimidation and a thinly veiled foray into politics. The repercussions for both Americans and religion are, at the very least, troubling.

Start with the sheer arrogance. How is it that these particular bishops knew the mind of God when numerous other bishops felt these are matters of individual conscience (as Kerry stated his own view)? Why did this issue supposedly take precedence over all others, including the death penalty, war, and poverty?

It also took fantastic nerve to throw stones on top of the child sexual abuse scandal and the church’s cover up and enabling of the abusers. Hardly a strong position for children’s rights.

And what of the Bush Administration? Is it not a sin to lie to bring a nation to war, subsequently killing thousands of Americans and Iraqis, including innocent civilians?

Shouldn’t good Christians worry about clear moral problems, such as wrongfully executed citizens? Or that America is one of only three countries that executes children (the others are Iran and Pakistan)?

The bishops are trying to prevent thinking. No one is FOR abortion, only whether choice should be legislated. And the bishops don’t have a very good record obeying the law anyway. If the sanctity of life is truly important to them, how about saving newborns in China drowned because they’re female? How about saving thousands of innocent people from ethnic slaughter in Rwanda and the Sudan? How about saving millions of African children who die each year from diarrhea? Unfortunately, the key issue seems to be winning, ego, not the sanctity of life. Look at the rhetoric about Iraq--the Bush administration doesn't talk about peace or success, but winning and losing.

That Republicans embraced such end runs around thinking is also telling. The Republican National Convention stressed that “A vote for Bush is a vote for God,” perhaps the most sickening and baldly disingenuous statement to come from politics. Thankfully voters had enough and sent Republicans the message they deserved, that Americans think for themselves, and showed such outrageous Republicans the door. Maybe they should do the same for a few clergy.

If not, Americans won’t have to fear Islamic Fundamentalists--Christian Fundamentalists seem ready to do the job for them. After Osama bin Laden responded to the 9/11 attacks with “Not me, but thank Allah,” the Rev. Jerry Falwell added “I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the A.C.L.U., People for the American Way--all of them who have tried to secularize America--I point the finger in their face and say, ‘You helped this happen.’”

Matthew 25:31-46 explains that when the Son of Man comes in His glory, He will separate the sheep (those destined for heaven) from the goats, based on how each responded when the Lord was hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, or in prison. They will ask, “Lord, when did we see you hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, or in prison?” The Lord will reply, “Whenever you did this to (for) the least of my brothers, you did it to (for) me.”

Quite a few bishops may be in the goat line.