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.