Sunday, December 2, 2007

Stark Winter Beauty

I just read that I can either spend 10.4 minutes deleting spam this week or I can spend the same time contacting all my old high school crushes.

I think I'll take the spam. I did everything I wanted to do with my high school crushes when I was in high school. I like my life now, and, even if I didn't, I don't think I'd want to go back to high school to find my future. My future is the other direction.

Driving into town last week, I was savoring the stark beauty of the winter night. The stars were bright and clear as only winter stars can be, and there was a comet cavorting in the sky. The maples have lost their leaves, and only the evergreens stand against the sky.

Turning onto the main road, I was assaulted by a new display of Christmas lights. A house that has been blessedly dark in previous years had its eaves outlined in colored lights. And not just small, twinkly colored lights, but big, heavy outdoor colored lights.

I thought of my father, stringing big, heavy outdoor colored lights along the eaves of our house when I was a child. I think he did it because he was supposed to, and not because he enjoyed making a show at Christmastime. I imagined the owner of this house on a stepladder, stringing his lights. I could see him: tense, badgered, joyless. No cheerful humming of Christmas carols as he artfully arranged lights around a scraggly bush in his front yard. Just a few mild expletives as he hung his lights, workman-like, from his eaves. Job done, he could retire to his armchair in the living room and watch tv.

I drove on into more stark winter beauty interspersed with holiday light displays.

"In January," I thought, "all of this will be gone and I'll be better able to enjoy the winter nights."

This struck me as odd. Most years, I have enjoyed Christmas light displays. They have cheered and warmed me and made me feel festive. I've enjoyed coming through the stark winter beauty into these oases of human care and comfort. This year, however, all the light displays seem tawdry and overdone, interfering with my enjoyment of the season.

I love winter. I love the cold and the rain, the wind and the bare trees. I love making soups and stoking the wood fire. I love the crisp, clear air and the winter skies. I especially love the winter stars, so clear and bright and cold in the deep darkness. The restraint in the winter landscape highlights everything I see. Every pool of light or splash of color seems more precious in the stark winter light.

Maybe this antipathy to holiday lights is telling me I need to get out more. Out into the winter forest to feel the cold, the damp, the resting heart of nature. Out into the winter night to see the dark trees and bright stars. Far enough into the cold and the darkness that the Christmas lights seem warm and welcoming.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Keeping Warm

A boy and his dog share a blanket by the fire.

40 Pounds Down!

I'm celebrating another milestone in my battle of the bulge.

I've lost 40 pounds over the past year!

Last month, I also crossed the border from obese to overweight.

As slow and stubborn as this process is, it's working. Over time, the calorie deficits add up.

Last week, I decided to wear a sweater with a pair of pants.

I put on my pants. They fell down. I got another pair. They fell down, too. After the third or fourth pair, I thought, "Hmm. I seem to be a size smaller than I was. I guess it's time to go down to the next size."

I excavated my pants cabinet, removing all the pants and shorts in the biggest size. Eventually, I got to the layer with pants that fit my body.

This stack of pants went in a bag to be given away. I'm very happy about this, even though those black jeans were my very favorite pants.

Monday, November 19, 2007

After a hiatus, Malcolm picked up his notebook with his Writing Strands work and started reading. He laughed at his story about the kitten and the ducklings and at his essay about Mr. Lin and his televisions. He decided to finish his essay on Sombrito, which I am sharing with his permission.


Sombrito is my pet poodle, who, being a dog, does not go to school. He lives with me at ***********, Boulder Creek, CA, USA, North America, Earth, the Solar System, the Milky Way, the Universe.

He is 1' 3" tall, the perfect size for a dog. He is large enough to not be in (much) danger of being stepped on, but small enough to not be scary. He weighs 21 pounds, so he still can be picked up easily. Picking him up is the only way to get him to take a bath.

He has light skin, but it's hard to see it. His black fur blocks it. It's so soft, and it's quite curly. It feels nice to pet him.

When he wants something, he looks at you with his sweet brown eyes and wags his tail. But when he defends his bone, those sweet caramel-colored eyes become fierce, and he shows his teeth and growls loudly. When he's hot, thirsty, or exhausted, he sticks out his tongue and pants. His favorite thing to do is to sleep by the fire or in a sunbeam. He's very cute.

The Writing Strands program works pretty well for Malcolm. He's working at level 3, which focuses on helping students organize their thoughts. It guides him through the process of writing an essay by having the student write the answers to a series of questions, then putting together their answers to make an essay.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Overclocking for Slackers

This weekend, I thought about the magic of taking an hour in the spring and moving it to autumn. I've never liked Daylight Savings Time much, but I should probably be grateful that it makes my allergy season one hour shorter.

As I was thinking about this game we play with the clocks, I thought of other ways we could rearrange time to suit ourselves. My favorite idea is Weekend Dark Savings Time.

Here's how it works: Every weekday at 3pm, the clocks would jump ahead to 4pm. This would shorten each workday by an hour. Then, on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday mornings at 2:40 am, the clocks would jump back to 1am. Thus, each weekend night would have an extra 1 hour and 40 minutes for sleep and other leisure activities.

Think I could be elected president on that platform?

Thursday, November 1, 2007

All Hallow's Eve

At our house yesterday, there was a strange poodle.

FuFu did tricks nicely and was quite a hit when we went trick-or-treating.

After trick-or-treating, FuFu joined some friends at the Babylon 5 casino for a quick drink.

Vir, the attache to the Centauri ambassador, and Lennier, who serves the Minbari ambassador, commiserated over the difficulties of their jobs.

There was a purple witch around somewhere, but all we were able to find was Lennier modeling her hat.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Fear of Food

Last Thursday, I took my eldest to dinner at a Japanese restaurant to celebrate her 19th birthday. We're the only two members of the family who like Japanese food, so it was a real treat for both of us.

On Saturday, I had a huge toothache in my hip. I was entertaining that day, so I tried to focus on walking without limping. On Sunday, my face exploded. My nose turned bright red and was covered with rosacea spots, and I had a huge red raspberry on one cheek.

My food allergies had come home to roost. Something I ate, either at the Japanese restaurant or some other time that week, led to the swelling in my hip and the rash on my face.

For years, I lived like this. I dragged a useless right leg around with me, enduring substantial pain in my hip and back as cheerfully as I could. My face was a series of rash explosions -- bright red, dark purplish red, or pink and scaly. Headaches came and went. I felt exhausted most of the time, barely able to get through the things I must do.

In 2005, I went through a series of tests for food allergies. Within 2 weeks of learning the results, my skin cleared up and my hip pain lessened considerably. After years of being partially disabled, I had days and even weeks without pain.

It was like magic. When people asked me whether I minded giving up dairy, eggs, almonds, soy, corn, green beans, or most other legumes, I told them that I didn't care what I had to eat if I could live without pain.

And I don't. I'll quite happily give up pizza, lasagne, green beans almondine, macaroni and cheese, almond tarts, banana cream pie, butter, mayonnaise, salad dressing, cornbread, refried beans, baked beans, tofu, and much else in exchange for clear skin, a strong body, and a clear head.

Sometimes, however, I wish that it didn't make me so afraid of food. I have to check the contents on everything I eat. If someone offers me something, I have to question them closely. Does it contain eggs or milk? What about mayonnaise or butter? Is there any corn starch or corn syrup in it?

People almost always say, "No, I don't think so." Most of the time, when I check the label, the food contains something that I can't eat.

These people don't wish me pain. They simply don't know what it's like to live with food allergies. I can't ever cheat, not even a little bit. A single tortilla chip makes my face explode. The slightest bit of butter on vegetables sets my hip off. A hint of egg triggers a migraine.

Quite often, people don't tell me the truth about the contents of the food. They don't mention the butter on the vegetables or the mayonnaise in the sauce. They must think that it can't possibly matter, but my body adds up the bill and exacts its toll. For a week or two, depending on how much of the offending food I ate, I move back into food allergy hell.

All this fussiness about food makes me something of a social pariah. I tend to avoid potlucks, dinner parties, and events at restaurants. I pack my own food and eat before gatherings.

Occasionally, someone will say, "No, Heather, I really want you to be able to join us for this event. I'll be happy to prepare food you can eat. Give me your list and I'll plan the menu around that."

I am incredibly touched when people do this. It leaves me free to be part of the group, to eat as freely as other people.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Stuff of Dreams

We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

In my life, sleep has often been the stuff of which dreams are made of. During the years of small children and sleepness nights, I dreamt of sleep even when my eyes were open. I fantasized ways I might score a nap, minutes I might steal from my days for a few blessed minutes of slumber.

Dreams, in those years, were hard to come by.

Before kids, I had an active dream life. I swapped stories of my dreams with friends. One friend was deeply envious of my frequent flying dreams, while I in turn envied her dream orgasms. We both practiced lucid dreaming, and each of us attempted to have the other's favorite dreams.

Lucid dreaming (the practice of knowing that you're dreaming and making conscious choices in the dream state) turned out to be fairly easy. Once I'd established the habit of knowing I was dreaming, my dreams were never the same. I didn't believe them the same way I had before. They no longer seemed mystical and special, but became another mundane part of my life. Although I could control the actions of my dream self in my lucid dreams, the dreamscape itself was beyond my control. As I went on with lucid dreaming, my dreamscapes got duller and duller.

My subconscious was clearly better at the business of designing and implementing dreams than I was. Eventually, I realized this and ceded control of my dreams back to the part of me who knew what I was doing.

In recent months, my dreams have been especially lively and interesting. The characters and settings have been pleasantly varied and the plots have left me smiling.

I've never completely shaken the lucid dreaming, though. I am almost always aware that I am dreaming, and I often catch my subconscious self arranging the scenes and characters. I can almost hear the gears grinding when my subconscious self reaches into the grab bag for a random plot element or character. I can identify the points where my subconscious self changes the dreamscape on the fly to improve some aspect of the dream experience.

Take last night for example. I was driving a small car home through Ben Lomond. I parked outside the video store. The car immediately decided to run off without me. (Cars in my dreams have always had free agency. The cars in my husband's dreams behave like real life cars, but mine tend to act more like naughty puppies.) It drove around the block and crashed into a tree. At that point, my subconscious mind said "Whoa! That's too intense, so let's turn this car into a bicycle."

The car became a bicycle. Then, because my subconscious obviously saw the problem with a bicycle driving around on its own, it pulled a random person out of the grab bag and put him on the back of the bicycle. Asleep, because the bicycle still had to act out the free agency element from the car version. Having achieved a logically consistent plot, my subconscious stopped tinkering and continued the dream.

Naturally, the bicycle had to go around the block and crash into the tree again. It did this without waking the sleeping passenger. The bicycle emerged from this sequence undamaged, so I climbed on again and continued north. The passenger, who had fulfilled his role, vanished.

Most of the people in my dreams are generic. They're not people I know in real life, although they sometimes explain themselves in relation to real people who don't appear in my dream. I find this especially convenient when the dream has sexual content; I am much more comfortable enacting a steamy scene with a generic stranger than with someone I might bump into at the grocery store.

When real people do appear in my dreams, the dream content tends to color my feelings for the person. I have sometimes gotten angry at my husband for the way he behaved in a dream. Once awake, the feeling is hard to shake. I know that he didn't actually do the thing that made me angry, but I still feel guarded and suspicious, just in case.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Fads Are Now, Wisdom Eternal

I've seen a lot of buzz recently about the Death Clock. People apparently keep these clocks on their desktops, reminding themselves how long they have to live.

I was struck by how arbitrary and inexact such clocks are. Even the terminally ill don't know their exact day of death. The leanest, healthiest, most cautious person might be hit by a truck tomorrow. People who are old and ill often live on for years beyond medical expectations.

A death clock functions as a reminder of mortality. When human beings receive reminders of just how short life really is, they re-examine their priorities and resolve to live more meaningful lives.

We all receive reminders of mortality all the time. People die unexpectedly, and we can feel Death's breath on our own necks. Flowers bloom, soap bubbles pop, seasons change, children grow. There's no shortage of reminders that life is transitory, that we have a long long time to be gone and a short time to be here.

How long would a death day clock continue to prod us into living here and now? If I had a death clock on my desktop, it would soon fade into the background. Every once in a while, I'd glance at it and receive a faint reflection of its original impact. As time wore on, its effectiveness would diminish.

I suspect, however, that it wouldn't have much impact in the first place. I'd be far too busy thinking about how inaccurate it was and how it might be tuned to be more accurate to pay attention to it as a reminder of my own mortality.

In the 70s, popular culture was full of reminders to Be Here Now. Most of them skated on the surface of consciousness, but some went deeper, exploring the meaning of time and what it means to be human.

As I thought about this, I remembered Janis Joplin's crooning in the live version of Ball & Chain:

I don't understand how come you're gone, man. I don't understand why half the world is still crying, man, when the other half of the world is still crying too, man, I can't get it together.

I mean, if you got a cat for one day, man I mean, if you, say, say, if you want a cat for 365 days, right you ain't got him for 365 days, you got him for one day, man. Well I tell you that one day better be your life, man. Because, you know, you can say, oh man, you can cry about the other 364, man, but you're gonna lose that one day, man, and that's all you've got.

You gotta call that love, man. That's what it is, man. If you got it today, you don't want it tomorrow, man, 'cause you don't need it, 'cause, as a matter of fact, as we discovered in the train, tomorrow never happens, man. It's all the same fucking day, man.

Okay, it doesn't make total sense and the woman was drunk and pretty screwed up besides. In her voice, however, I can hear the naked pain of grief and the courage to face it. Maybe she only has one day, but she's going to live it for all it's worth.

I don't need a death clock to tick down the seconds until my scientifically-predicted-but-almost-certainly-wrong time of demise. What I need is a life clock, to remind me of the precious gift of the present day. I need a clock that is set to the eternal number 1.

This reminds me of Ehrenrang, in Ursula Leguin's Left Hand of Darkness, where it is always the Year 1. The past continues to recede and the future continues to advance, but next year never happens. It's all the same fucking year, man.

Wherever I go, there I am.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Elevator Algorithms and Progressive Parking

My parents' Manhattan apartment is on the ninth floor. To get there, you have to take an elevator and then thread your way through a labyrinthine hallway painted in several hideous shades of green. The hallway carpet is an Escherian print in gray-greens. The hallway floor is uneven, and the walls and ceiling are not quite square.

The combination of colors, floor waves, and tilted frame in the hallway never failed to make me seasick.

Perhaps this is why I paid so much attention to the movement of the elevators. The elevators displayed their current locations and direction of travel. Over the week, I was able to observe their operation many times.

Many years ago, we modeled the efficient movement of elevators in a computer class. Elevator algorithms are used for many problems in computer science (like the efficient movement of disk drive arms), and the ones used in actual elevators are often quite stupid.

The elevator algorithm in my parents' apartment building, however, was one of the smartest I've ever seen. It almost always sent the closest elevator to pick us up and it never, ever sent two elevators.

I salute those elevators.

In my parents' neighborhood, there's no parking for private automobiles. Commercial vehicles can park by purchasing time from machines along the street. The parking rates are $2 for one hour, $5 for two hours, and $9 for three hours.

I had never heard of progressive parking rates before, but it makes perfect sense in Manhattan.

Kissing New York Goodbye

I am a tree. I live in a small town with my family and seldom travel more than 10 miles from home.

Soy californio. I was born in San Francisco, raised in Berkeley, and have lived almost all of my adult life in the Santa Cruz mountains. I've never traveled to the East Coast before, never been further east than Chicago.

My parents, on the other hand, are globe-trotters. They travel much of the year, spending time in France, Italy, Britain, the Caribbean, and the South Pacific. They live in San Francisco, but they are often elsewhere.

Several years ago, they decided to become bi-coastal. They clubbed together with some friends and bought an apartment in Manhattan (27th & Madison), with the idea that they'd spend 3 months a year in New York.

My mom on approach to the Brooklyn Bridge

This is how I, a tree with roots on the West Coast, ended up spending a week in New York City.

I went there to visit my parents, who live in San Francisco.

My folks at the Brooklyn tower of the bridge

I went to build memories, to have one perfect week in New York with them while we're all healthy enough to enjoy it. My dad is battling brain cancer, and this might be his last time in New York City.

The dramatic emotional backdrop made it easier to give myself over to the city, to explore whatever it was New York had in store for me.

We had our perfect week, with moments of connection and intimacy, and a string of memories that shine like the lights on the bridges.

My dad and I on a boat tour of Manhattan

I put a crimp in my parents' gastronomic style while I was in New York. I have many food allergies, and I'm working on losing weight. We ate simply most of the time I was in NYC.

On the last night, however, my mom booked us at a fancy restaurant a couple of blocks from the apartment.

Throughout the week, we engaged in a fierce competition for the check. I can sometimes outmaneuver my mother and get to the check, but my dad's a real smoothie. He can nab the check before I realize it's there. Once he's got the check, he never lets go.

So at this fancy restaurant, I was trying to figure out how I'd get the check. The waiter would put it in front of my dad, naturally. This would greatly reduce my chances to pick it up.

As the waiter brought my tea, I got up, cupped my hand to his ear, and said, "Bring me the check. Don't let my dad get it."

My dad saw this and said, "Heather, you shouldn't have done that."

My mom looked delightfully scandalized.

"Heather kissed the waiter!" she squealed happily.

"In a manner of speaking," my dad said.

I asserted my innocence.

"I told him to bring me the check."

I wonder which version of the story my mother will remember.

My folks in Brooklyn

Such a long, long time to be gone and a short time to be there.

Sunday in New York

Today was, oddly enough, busy. I walked down to the 15th Street Meetinghouse (built in 1860) for Meeting. The Meetinghouse is huge, with a big square Meeting room with a balcony. These folks are hard-bench Quakers, with all benches facing center. There were several messages on the intimacy (or lack thereof) of the Meeting. There were lots of messages, separated by a New York minute. These Manhattan Quakers are quick on their feet. They were also thoughtful and Quakerly, and it was quite lovely to visit with them.

After Meeting, I chatted with a few Friends, most notably a fellow who is undertaking the Ramadan fast in solidarity with Moslems.

(Earlier this week, during Rosh Hashonah and Ramadan, a young woman wished me a happy new year. I did not know whether she was Moslem or Jewish, so I wished her a happy new year in return.)

The Empire State Building, through the tower of Manhattan Bridge, from the Brooklyn Bridge

I then trotted over to Union Square where my parents were brunching. I got a cup of tea (the tea in NYC is unusually good; most restaurants can make a decent cuppa) and some fruit.

The Pedestrian Approach to the Brooklyn Bridge

We caught the subway downtown and then transferred to the Brooklyn train. I liked
Brooklyn; it has some of the feel of Berkeley. When you finish packing up, you should address the boxes to Brooklyn.

We walked across the Brooklyn Bridge, which is an amazing piece of late 19th century engineering. The towers are stone, and the cables were spun in place. They first rigged a wire across the towers and sent workers over it on something like a breeches buoy. I wanted to bring the bridge home to show you, but I couldn't get it unstuck.

Manhattan from Brooklyn

The crowd of the week was at Trader Joe's today. There are two check-out lines, one for 12 items or less and one for more than 12 items. One line reached more than halfway around the outside track of the store and the other reached more than 3/4 around the inside of the store. Employees stand with signs indicating the ends of the lines. I stood in line while my mom shopped. It's the longest check-out line I've ever seen, but it moved fast.

My tootsies are tired.

Bites of the Big Apple

Snippets from email I sent home from Manhattan:

I'm here in my parents' (tiny) apartment in NYC.

The taxi drivers must think that they operate amusement park rides (or perhaps that they're racing horses). They race down the streets, run red lights, jockey for position, honk, and otherwise keep their passengers alert. I was not disappointed in my first NYC taxi ride. As we raced down 26th Street, I saw the Empire State Building in person. Very pretty, lit up at night. It gave me a thrill that I recognized it all on my own, looking much larger than it does in pictures.

It is a place of many beautiful buildings. After I got to my folks' place, I was quite ready to settle down and relax. My mother, as you might imagine, had different ideas. We went out for a walk about quarter to 11, and were out walking the city until 1am. It's true that they never roll up the sidewalks here. The streets were thronged at 1am. Since everyone lives in such tiny apartments, they spend their time out in the city.

NY Harbor from Brooklyn

As I was falling asleep, I heard a great wind. That surprised me, because I'm on an interior courtyard ("light well") and it's warm and humid (high 70s, day and night) and there was no breeze. I thought it was the sound of traffic (which is omnipresent in New York), but it turned out to be the neighbors' air conditioners.

New York seems strangely familiar to me. I realized that this is because I've seen it all before. New York is exactly like they portray it in the mooooveeees, wall-to-wall screaming taxis, park fences, fire hydrants, and picturesque buildings.

It makes me nervous to walk beneath the looming buildings. My mom is always pointing up at this or that interesting features, and I get vertigo at the sheer walls. The buildings are better from a distance. We sat in the park at 11:30 last night and looked at the Empire State Building and the Met Life tower. That was pretty. Later, we walked around the Met Life building and I couldn't look up. We also saw the Chrysler building from a distance, extremely lovely. I shall endeavor to be too busy to visit it close up.

My city girl ways have come back, but this city is on steroids compared to dear old Berkeley (or even SF). It's all like the taxis. My mom, naturally, can match speeds with the city. No wonder New Yorkers talk so fast. You'll have to wind me back down when I get home.

The Brooklyn Bridge and Manhattan from Brooklyn

Today, we walked a lot. We were going to take a Gray Line bus tour of the city. Jerry said he'd rather be hit by a garbage truck (New York is full of garbage trucks; they pick up the trash that is piled on the curb outside of the buildings every night -- it stinks). When we got to Times Square (think Las Vegas on crystal meth and growth hormones) and talked to the folks pushing the tours, I decided I agreed.

So we walked home by way of Rockefeller Center (worth seeing), Saint Patrick's Cathedral, the Palace Hotel, Grand Central Station (kinda close to the Chrysler building), the Algonquin, and the New York Public Library. All quite impressive. My favorite thing was Grand Central Station. A magnificent building teeming with human beings going places. You've seen pictures. Oh, and we went by J.P Morgan's house. Quite the architectural tour. I have some notion of the geography of NYC now.

An Archer Giving Me Lessons at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

My head is all gorged with New York. I'm longing for my own quiet life and my wonderful family. You guys give a person time to think and don't interrupt her every 2 minutes.

NYC is mobbed on Saturdays. Jerry and I walked through the farmer's market at Union Square. This huge city square was full of produce trucks and customers, absolutely jam packed. When we got to the movie theatre, it was also mobbed. We had to go up 4 escalators to get to our theatre, and weave our way through a lot of lobbies and the whole place was full of people. The theatre itself was also wall-to-wall people.

After the movie, we walked down to Washington Square (with a famous arch). There were lots of good musicians busking in the square, and tons of people sitting everywhere people can sit. We heard a good pianist (who somehow wheels his upright piano down to the square to play there) and a jazz band and some other groups of musicians. I could have spent more time just hanging out, but my mom was hungry.

Greenwich Village is not a village by any standards, but it is kind of like Berkeley.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

A Hand-Knit Poodle

Yesterday, someone celebrated being on the planet for 12 years:

In his own quiet style, he decided to commemorate his day.

By taking the dog to the park.

He graciously agreed to sit on my lap just like he used to do 12 years ago.

His siblings all enjoyed the beautiful day, too.

As did the dog.

I knitted him a poodle for his birthday, by his own special request.

Some of us spent our time just hanging around.

And some of us grinned like boolies.

Some of us raced with the dog.

And some of us preferred a bird's eye view.

And one of us climbed in his space ship and visited distant planets.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Art on the Side

After doing their math at piano lessons, the boys settled down to drawing.

Remus John drew a couple of scenes from the sea star circus:

And Malcolm drew a graphic comic about the unicorn Amilia and her disastrous experience with some potions:

Back to School

Morgayn started classes at the community college again today. Meanwhile, back at La Casa Madrona Technical Academy, the younger children are studying with Professor Sombrito:

Last week, Malcolm and Remus John did an intense read-loud of Winnie-the-Pooh in the big arm chair:

Malcolm read to Remus John for hours, both of them focused intently on the story.

Remus John finished Singapore Primary Math 1B Part II yesterday, so we celebrated his first Math Day with a succulent chocolate cake baked by Matisse:

We all sang him a very happy math day (to John McCutcheon's rollicking tune):

It makes me think of the good old days.
Happy Math Day to you!
You sure grew out of your baby problems.
Happy Math Day to you!
It's your Math Day and we wish you many more,
Fish balls and microwaves and mangoes by the score
Join Mr. Lin and we'll solve some more.
Happy Math Day to you!

Malcolm is about two weeks away from finishing Singapore Primary Math 5B and Matisse has almost finished Singapore New Elementary Mathematics 1, so we'll probably be celebrating more math days soon.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Illusions of Permanence

I never can tell what will last and what won't. Friends I think will be with me lifelong move away or divorce and remarry or drift into new interests that don't include me. Businesses that I think will prosper fail. Marriages that seem solid and healthy break apart. People in robust health develop cancer.

The Buddhists remind me that everything is impermanent, but I cling to my illusion that some things persist. I believe that the children I make breakfast for today are the same children I made breakfast for last week. I believe my husband is the same man I met in a computer lab in 1979. I believe, despite the evidence in the mirror, that I'm the same freckle-nosed dreamer with tousled hair that I was in 1969.

August is a time for moving. One friend, who I didn't expect to keep, is moving to Oregon tomorrow and another is moving to Pennsylvania. My daughters helped the first friend pack, and I'm watching the children of the second one so she can pack.

The children don't quite grasp the significance of their life changes. They ask whether we can do something again next time they visit. "Oh yes," I say, wondering whether they'll be interested in doing it when they're a year older.

For me, August is also a time of service. Last year, I helped two dear friends move. This year, I help two friends move, make supper for a friend who just had surgery for breast cancer, and try to support my parents as they deal with my father's terminal illness.

Some days, this is all a reminder to cherish the moment, to live for today, to enjoy what is before it shifts to what was. Other days, I'm caught in the realization that some things never are made right. Sometimes, things go horribly wrong and one nightmare succeeds another. I find the nightmares difficult to enjoy, and thoughts of "this too will pass" leaves me cold inside at the thought of what that means in this case.

This desk, solid under my hands. My hands themselves, solid and working the way my hands have always worked. My children, growing before my eyes, but too slowly to seem different than they were yesterday. A breeze ruffling the same leaves touched by other breezes. I can, I think, step in the same river twice.

If I glide over the surface, I can keep from popping the bubble a while longer.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

It's a Small Town

We had a busy night at water aerobics last night. Over the weekend, there'd been a big, hot house fire and a four-car pile-up on a straight stretch of the highway just south of Brookdale. The aerobics group swapped facts, experiences, rumors and suppositions as we worked our abdominal muscles.

Driving home, I felt considerably more cheerful. There's nothing like a dose of small-town gossip to get your mind off your own troubles. Other people's tragedies are more interesting and less depressing than my own.

At the natural foods store, I stopped to pick up a few necessities. There was a couple in the produce section buying fruit. She works in the deli, and I nodded my hello as I selected my own fruit. She's in her early twenties. The guy looked more like mid-forties, with a well-kept body and a hard-boiled attitude. They hassled back and forth about which pieces of fruit to buy. I escaped gratefully to the back of the store.

Delta V wasn't working in my favor, though, so I found myself at the check-out stand just after they'd concluded their fruit shopping. I listened to them bicker while I put my groceries on the conveyer belt and the cashier rang up their fruit. The guy wandered out of the store, leaving his lady friend to pay for and bag their fruit.

The cashier was a trainee. He had to identify the pieces of fruit and locate their codes on a list. The woman was helpful, pointing out the various fruits and volunteering some of the codes.

"That's an interesting looking plum," I commented, caught up in the game.

"It's an aprium," said the woman, "code 400."

"Probably a hybrid between a plum and apricot," I said.

Once she'd bagged the fruit, the woman looked around for her man friend.

"He's wandered off," she said, "Isn't that just like a man? So considerate."

"Probably needs training," I bantered, "Better do it before you have kids or it's hopeless."

(I have no idea why I said that. I sometimes think that I'm just reading the script from other people's dramas, saying what they need me to say to move the action along.)

The woman gave a short, harsh laugh and left.

The cashier at the next checkstand said, "He's my girlfriend's father. He already has kids. I don't think he wants any more."

"Who?" said my cashier, thoroughly confused.

"The guy who was with her."

"He seemed a lot older than she is."

"Oh, he is. He's got three teenagers, my friend and her brothers. That woman was hanging around all the time, pretty intense, and then they started having trouble and broke it off. I thought it was over, but now they're making fruit salad."

Suddenly, I had this image of fruit salad as an exotic sexual act, of kiwi and plums and Rio Ruby grapefruit spread out on the sheets next to oiled naked bodies.

"Have a great night," I waved to the cashiers before hefting my more prosaic groceries out into the night.

The moon was rising over the mountain as I drove home.

Monday, August 20, 2007

The Second Wind

As I was huffing my way through today's Turbo Jam workout, I got my second wind. Suddenly, I was in the groove, shining my way through the punches, kicks, and jams. I felt so cool.

Back when backpacking was my avocation, I noticed that 90% of the visitors to a state or national park were within a quarter mile of the parking lot. Once you got off the main loop trails, you could spend days hiking through the country with the trees all to yourself. I myself would get tired about a mile into a hike. My legs would complain, my wind would get short, and I'd feel hot and irritable.

At about the two-mile mark, something would change. My legs would hit their hiking rhythm, and my breath would flow in and out of me. Hiking seemed an integral part of living; my entire world consisted of my boots on the trail. Once I was in this zone, I could (and often did) go on all day.

I can't hike like that now. My hip won't take that kind of punishment anymore, and the rest of me isn't in top shape, either. Five or six miles a day is my limit, and even at that modest mileage, my hip moans and groans at me for the next several days. I still get my second wind, though, and I still get into the zone.

I've had that second wind experience in a lot of areas in my life. I start out with energy and motivation then I hit the wall. Going gets tough for a while, my energy flags, my enthusiasm evaporates. When I manage to keep going through that dead patch, however, I can get into the groove. Once I'm in the groove, it's easier to keep going than it is to stop.

How do I convince myself to keep going through the slow patches? More, how do I teach my children about the second wind and the need to keep on going through the wall?

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Pulp Faction

I have no idea how this picture got on my camera, but I kind of like it.

As I was taking my post-workout shower, I thought about an interesting article I read today. As I was reviewing the article in my mind, I thought, "It's right up My Favorite Geek List's alley. Why didn't I send them a link to it?"

Then it hit me. I read the article in a dead tree edition of a magazine at the dentist's office. The article would not show up in my browser history.

After a little brain-racking, I realized that the article was called something like "Why Intelligent People Make Stupid Mistakes" by a guy whose name I don't remember and it appeared in National Geographic Adventure magazine in some issue I didn't pay attention to.

It does not appear to be online.

Clearly, intelligent people make stupid mistakes because there is information that is not yet available online.

Adventure magazine is targeted to the adventure travel market. It contains incredible wilderness adventure/survival stories by folks who are willing to put themselves on the line. The article contained numerous examples of capable, experienced, intelligent people who made mistakes because they were focused on their internal map of reality instead of on the real external
reality they faced.

Any programmer can relate to that. The bug is always in the section of code that you aren't reading because you either know it can't be there or because you are too lazy or chicken to enter that particular thicket.

The article contained good advice to stop, look around, question your assumptions, and make a reality-based plan. When you're in a stressful situation, stop and reassess. Reconsider your goal in light of current information. Ask yourself what you're willing to risk to achieve your goal.

But I can't point you to the article. It might be in the February 2006 issue, but Google is inconclusive.

I did however end up at a web site that had photos of "majestic Mount Washington." I did a double-take and thought, "They call that a mountain? Out here, we'd call that a hill."

Thursday, August 9, 2007


The quintessential Malcolm: reading Muse magazine with Nell the cat on his lap.

And here's Remus John posing with a sparkly black shawl as the character Boot from Harry Potter 8:

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Never Trust Anyone Under 30

Despite the snazzy shoes, I can be slow sometimes.

Last week, one of my daughters was complaining that I don't understand what it's like to be 14.

Before I knew what I was saying, the following words popped out of my mouth, "I do. I do understand what it's like to be a teenager. I was a teenager myself. I thought that older people had forgotten what it was like, but I was wrong. They remembered. I just didn't know what it was like for them; I'd never been an adult."

I've been wondering recently what it must have been like to have been my mother when I was a teenager. I was so confident in my ignorance, so sure that my shiny new ideals were more than a match for her time-tested views.

There are cultures in which age and experience is valued and younger folks respect the wisdom of their elders. Ours is not one of them.

In our culture, we have a peculiar notion that the ignorant and inexperienced can do a better job than the educated and aged. We're suspicious of knowledge and expertise. We cheer when the brash young street rat challenges the steely-haired scientist.

I swallowed the cultural meme whole, without subjecting it to any kind of analysis.

Age has much to say that youth doesn't want to hear. "I ask you about the mysteries of the universe and you tell me about flossing my teeth?" Experience teaches lessons of fallibility and mortality, lessons that your average 18-year-old doesn't think she needs to learn. She'll be different; she'll soar above human frailties; she'll make something worthwhile of her life.

My mom was wise enough not to give me much advice (except about things like flossing). She was wise enough to listen and not to judge too much. She taught mostly by example, by living her life fully by her own lights, by changing what she could and accepting what she couldn't.

She was right about so many things I got wrong. She was right about vegetarianism, and about the wisdom of certain of my early relationships. She was right about moderation and compromise, and about not being too extreme or judgmental. She was right about the importance of human relationships, of family, of the value of good friends. She was right about the need to seize the precious moment, to live your life to the fullest while you can.

Right now, I admire her more than I ever have. My dad has brain cancer. My parents continue to travel, to visit with friends and family, and to do all the things they enjoy. They're fighting for my dad's life, but they're also living every day to the fullest.

So thanks, Mom, for teaching me your wisdom. I'll remember to floss.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Proof Positive

While I was waiting for my new stove to be installed, I read its manual. I've always enjoyed reading technical documentation and learning every little thing that a product can do for me.

The stove had several features that amazed me, like the meat probe and the fruit-drying setting. The one that grabbed my imagination, however, was the proofing feature. The oven can be set to maintain the temperature for rising and proofing bread dough.

I haven't made bread for a while. I told myself that I shouldn't make bread. Freshly baked bread is hard to resist. I don't need temptation to pull me off my weight loss discipline.

On Tuesday, however, the store was out of our normal bread. Yesterday morning, I kneaded the dough for a whole wheat oatmeal bread, full of healthful ingredients and positively delicious.

Here's the first loaf about 15 minutes after it came out of the oven:

Well, the remnants of the first loaf, anyway.

As the bread was baking, Malcolm came up to me and said, "I smell bread. It smells delicious."

The rest of the family agreed, and magically appeared in the kitchen as I was slicing the loaf. They reached for slices of bread while it was still hot enough to burn their fingers. They took their hot bread to the table and slathered it with butter and honey.

I took two small slices with tahini and apple butter. When I returned to the kitchen, the bread was gone. Fortunately, the second loaf was waiting in the wings.

The oven's proofing feature works pretty well, although it does dry the dough out some. I'll need to cover the bowl during the rises next time. I wet my hands and dampened the tops of the loaves as they were proofing to keep the top crust from getting too tough.

I confess to rushing the proof because I wanted bread for my afternoon meal before aerobics. The loaves would have risen higher if I'd given them the chance.

There were no complaints about the bread, however. I'm thinking of making sandwich buns next time. A loaf to eat hot out of the oven and 6-8 buns for later.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Salt Water

After reading about the fun Miranda's children had working with molecular models, I decided to order an inorganic teacher's (how do inorganic teachers teach, anyway?) set for my children.

One of the first things they did was to offer me a glass of water.

Quite refreshing.

The next glass they offered me was undrinkable.

When I looked closely at the molecules they'd included in the glass, I discovered water:

But they'd also included a generous helping of sodium chloride!

No wonder I couldn't drink that water!

For the most part, they've used the set to model simple chemicals. Malcolm likes to model the more dangerous and explosive chemicals. His sulfuric acid is quite lovely.

On the box, the MolyMod folks see fit to include the statement that this set is NOT A TOY, and is to be used only for educational purposes. I therefore have not included any photos of the spaceships that Remus John made with molecular parts.

Malcolm made up some molecules and asked Morgayn about them. Morgayn explained to him why one of his molecules wouldn't occur in nature. The two of them then talked about the numbers of bonds that different elements like to make, and about the various elements' attitudes towards electrons. Morgayn explained that some elements are greedier for electrons than others, and that other elements are easy-going. She also told him that some elements are really picky about the number of bonds they get.

They talked about various elements and their predilections. They spent a lot of time talking about oxygen, carbon, chlorine, fluorine, sodium, and hydrogen. Earlier this week, Malcolm asked me what sand was made of, and I told him it was silicon dioxide. This came up again when they were talking about carbon and oxygen, and the two of them had a lengthy discussion about the ways in which silicon is similar to carbon (and why).

Morgayn loaned Malcolm her high school level chemistry book so he could look up more compounds to concoct.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Market Value of Motherhood

A friend called with a job lead last week. It should be just perfect for me, he said. I'd be able to work from home, doing interesting work for which I would be paid very well.

Sounds great except for one teeny-tiny thing. I have a job, educating and raising my four children. This job involves a lot of shopping, cooking, and housework. It also involves a lot of time spent with various children, helping them learn all the things they need and want to know.

I don't get paid for this work. No one is interested in seeing this work on a resume. Most people seem to think that an imbecile could do this job with one arm tied behind her back.

And, y'know, a lot of it is just grunt work. It doesn't take a genius to chop vegetables, mop the floor, or remind the kids to practice their piano. If I want to do it well, though, it takes so much more than that. What does each child need, to bring out the best? How do I help this child learn how to handle this difficult personality trait? How do I teach them values like compassion, fairness, and a good work ethic? How do I teach them to balance their lives, take care of their bodies, and create good lives for themselves? What will it take to help them become happy, healthy, productive adults?

When I was new to parenting, I focused on learning to be a good mother. I read parenting books, hung out on parenting mailing lists, attended mothers' groups, and spent time with mothering mentors. In those days, I believed strongly that parenting was important work, worth doing well.

These past several years, I've moved with a different crowd. I've spent time with people whose children are grown and spent seven months working fulltime for a high tech company. During this time, I found that I had devalued mothering once again. Mothering no longer seemed like work that ought to take so much time and thought.

After quitting my job, it's taken me three months to get my household back together. The kids are, if anything, taking a little longer. I'm groping my way blindly back to a place where I believe parenting is important work, a place where I can value the work I'm doing.

My time at work showed clearly how much parenting my kids need, and what it costs them not to get it. The marketplace, however, says that the value of my work is 0.

Women face this question all the time: do the unpaid work that will lead to well-adjusted adults in the next generation or do the job that yields a paycheck and looks good on your resume?

So I'll consider the job, but I'll try to remember the value of the one I'm doing now.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Stringing Summer Days Like Pearls

We're in the full swing of summer now, that time when one gorgeously perfect day slips into another. My intense spate of floor rejuvenating and furniture rearranging is over. Garry has finished handling his father's estate. Morgayn's completed her summer Spanish course. It's time to relax and enjoy life.

Another reason to celebrate is that our dear house cleaner Gilly is working for us again. Gilly's had a rough year, working as a nurse and helping to take care of her terminally ill brother, and so we've been doing all the cleaning ourselves. Or, as was often the case, not doing it. We'd just decided to bite the bullet and hire a different cleaner when Gilly called to tell us that she wanted to work for us again. We were all glad to see her. The house sparkled for all of ten minutes after she finished, giving me the momentary illusion of having it all together.

I need these sparkling-house moments, just like I need the moments of peace, contentment, intimacy, laugher, and perfect harmony with my kids. The raven in my heart collects these moments and arranges them in her nest so they can sparkle in the light.

Our friend Charles had his annual pool party. We had a good time chatting with his sisters and their kids. Charles' pool has a low diving board, and Remus John plucked up the courage to try it:

Malcolm's a natural on the diving board, too.

The boys spend hours every day out in the yard, pacing around with sticks and talking ninety miles a minute. I've tried photographing them, but I never manage to capture their energy and intensity.

We're in stage one of a drought. Matisse has taken on the job of collecting bath water for the garden. She's convinced her siblings to leave the water after their baths and showers. She then buckets it outside to the flowers.

It hasn't been very hot this summer, but it's been warm enough for us to operate our green air conditioning. We open up the windows in the evening when the outside temperature dips below the inside temperature and close them in the morning when it gets hotter outside than in.

Garry's been having trouble with clogged ears. Among the things that he's tried have been ear candles. This amused me so much that I had to share: