Six Sisters, three stories, one theme: Know Thyself.
A Gathering of One: Twins, Patrice and Danielle began battling in the womb. When hard-headed, 3-year old Danielle drinks Drano while Patrice watches in horror, unable to stop her, the battle becomes a war. Patrice triage’s the situation, making Danielle vomit to rid herself of the poison, but the damage is done and the blame squarely laid on Patrice’s shoulders, assuring the sisters remain on a lifelong collision course. Anger, jealousy, and indignation may have sparked their dysfunction, but duty and familial obligation keeps them tethered long after the bonds of childhood have morphed into the shackles of adult responsibilities. May the best sister win.
List of 55: Following her mother’s death, Belinda manages to survive childhood despite her sister-turned-caretaker, Simone’s long list of no’s: no money, no car, no electricity, no food, and ultimately, no Simone. Belinda’s abysmal treatment at the hands of the reckless and psychologically abusive Simone left layers of scar tissue so deep she needs an excavator to remove them. Poised to make a life-altering change on her 25th birthday, Belinda accidentally runs into her future ex-husband, Ted, who, because of his own complicated past draws to her like a shyster to a Ponzi scheme. Canny judgment and diamond-like determination may have gotten Belinda to adulthood, but can she survive the onslaught of attention from Ted who is both charming and abusive in equal amounts or will she succumb to the pattern begun in childhood?
The Quality of Light: Do the dead dream? Yes. They dream of living. Ellie finds this out too late and now her husband and daughter, her two best loves, are left to fight like the bitterest enemies. From her perch in the ethers and sometimes through the actual live body of her sister, Celia, Ellie watches their lives unfold, but Doc can’t see past his rage and the cruel fate that left him with Harley who even under the best of circumstances barely tolerated him. Before Ellie’s death, husband and daughter vied for her attention, dismantling each other with verbal fisticuffs. After her death, anyone could see that Doc was going to ditch and run, leaving Harley with Celia and Doc a free man, but fate, or perhaps Ellie intervenes through Twila Fuller, rancher, political activist, and self-taught expert on all things related to hydraulic fracturing. Everything about Twila is big: her ranch, her ideas, the level of contamination in her groundwater, even the cancer in her body. As Twila’s influence draws Doc into Ellie’s former world, he must make some tough moral decisions and perhaps even finish the work Ellie started. Will Doc’s newfound passion lead him back to Harley, to Celia, or to Ellie, the dead woman he loves more than life? The answer lies somewhere in the light.
Six Sisters reverberates with healing truths, reawakening us to our resilience, our reliance on each other, and the ancient wisdom rooted within our hearts.
With wry wit and a dose of philosophy, author Pam Lazos guides her characters through hardship and heartache. List of 55 is a story about the yearning to belong—a page-turner, juxtaposing tenderness of the soul with triumph of the human spirit. —Jan Groft, Author, As We Grieve
“Light travels at 186,000 miles per second, but what is the speed of love? Find out in this riveting novella by Pam Lazos. A page-turner told from four points of view, it explores how loss can fracture a family only to piece it back together. Lightning is not the only thing that strikes in this story: so does life as it hits a hapless husband and father and cracks his heart open to the love of his distant daughter. A must read!” — Duncan W. Alderson, author of the Harper’s Bazaar Must-Read MAGNOLIA CITY
Happy Hiking New Year
This New Year’s, my family and I had the good fortune to spend three wonderful days hanging out with great friends in the Pocono mountains in Bushkill Falls, Pennsylvania. While the husbands and kids took to the ski slopes, the wives took to the hills. Unfortunately, Bushkill Falls, known as “the Niagra of Pennsylvania” with its series of eight waterfalls and scenic hiking trails, was closed. Spraying, icy water makes for treacherous hiking conditions and a big fat liability so, disappointed though we were, we drove on, hoping to spot something out of the ordinary: a trailhead, a marker (we call them elf lights), a sign, anything. We pulled into the post office, probably because it was one of the few places open, although I didn’t hold out much hope for hiking advice. Turns out we didn’t even need to get out of the car. We asked a local headed in to mail some letters. He gave us directions, turned to go inside, and then came back and told us to wait, that he would show us. The best rule of thumb for finding spectacular trails is to always talk to the locals. Ten miles later and totally out of his way, our fabulous guide dropped us at the trailhead for Raymondskill Falls. We would have turned around miles before we got there. He also recommended the Milford Diner for lunch when we were through (delicious spanikopita). The hike was perfect, the waterfall spectacular, the last hike of 2014 a total success. You can go, too, if you’re in the area. Here’s a link: http://www.discoverpikepa.com/places/features/Raymondskill_Falls (And another great big telepathic thank you to our guide!)
New Year’s Day: time for a few resolutions and the first hike of 2015. It started when the kids said they wanted to take us to the “haunted fairground” which is really just a park-like gathering area with a few buildings, one housing a large kitchen, located within Saw Creek Estates subdivision in Bushkill Falls. The place was closed, not haunted, and we were trespassing, of course. The caretaker came out to kick us off, but seeing a group of 15 adventuresome kids and adults, instead indulged us all our questions about the area and then sent us on our way which was fine because across from the “haunted fairgrounds” we found a piece of paradise. The kids had dragged us unnecessarily over hill and dale to get to this waterfall which was only 100 yards off the road down a steep embankment (if we had gone a different direction). The way we went, there were some pretty spectacular butt slides, and fingers and toes gripping-the-ground-but-finding-no-purchase slides down steep embankments. Pretty exciting for a development, actually. The trail itself had some scary, difficult to maneuver sections — the bridge was icy and a few parts were rotted away — but it was still passable and we had three first rate Eagle Scouts among us so no worries. I spent several breathtaking minutes standing on the icy bridge, watching water thunder down after itself. The joy of standing in front of a riotously beautiful waterfall outshines the potential danger of a rotting bridge any day.
While we were experiencing all that outdoor awesomeness, my friend Gigi suggested a hike a week as a New Year’s Resolution. Since one of my resolutions is not to delude myself, I knew that wasn’t happening. And since another is to move more and sit less, I figured I could work with the idea. A hike every two weeks? Maybe, but still pushing it given the confines of my schedule. I settled on a hike a month. That doesn’t mean that I’ll be sitting out all the other weekends, just that 2015 is the year for realistic goals, ones that I actually intend to reach, ones that bring me some joy, some enrichment, a bit less stress. So here it is, the first hike of 2015, on a no-name trail in Saw Creek Estates, Bushkill Falls, Pennsylvania.
By all standards, the first hike of 2015 was a raging success. You can google Saw Creek and arrange for your own rental. It’s the only way you get to see the waterfalls that run through the development. It’s worth the price of admission.
Consider the honey bee. I never really thought much about bees other than to sip carefully my soda can while picnicking — a yellow jacket hiding in your soda can is definitely no picnic — and never had that warm fuzzy space in my heart for them the way I do for my felines. Face it, you can’t interact with bees the way you do with cats and dogs so it’s only logical that the emotion is missing. That all changed when I met my husband, Scott, who kept bees as a hobby, at one time having a gazillion of the noisy little buggers working for him. Now, it’s hard to reduce how I feel about bees to one emotion.
Scott had started with one hive in a densely populated area outside of Philadelphia, but upon moving to Central Pennsylvania, and having access to a nice sunny spot on an Amish horse farm, he quickly expanded operations. Within a few years, he had seven hives, approximately three-quarters of a million bees, buzzing their industrious days away. In those first years, the bees were happy, thriving, producing more honey than we ourselves could use. We sometimes sold it, but mostly we gave it away to friends and family as Christmas presents, hostess gifts, and teacher “thank you’s.” A few years later we began to develop all-natural products using the honey and beeswax. Then came the lean years: the bees were dying and no one knew why. The odd thing was there were very few dead bodies left behind, just a mass exodus as if the hive had swarmed.
Swarming is a phenomenon that occurs when there’s overcrowding in the hive, or the queen is no longer laying eggs. The queen is the bees knees, as it were, and since bees are a hierarchical group, if the latter occurs, the bees strike out in search of a new queen. The queen’s biggest job is to mate with a drone in flight; coincidentally, the drone’s sole purpose in life is to mate with the queen so it’s a match made in heaven. The average queen does 15 to 20 of these mating flights and thereafter, she’s good for laying about 1,500 eggs a day — with a slow down to a couple hundred a day during the winter — for her lifespan which is a period of about two years. Since the individual bees only have a life span of four to six weeks, the queen needs to keep cranking out the eggs as a means to ensure survival of the hive, and herself. Meanwhile, the worker bees, God bless their little hearts, do all the heavy lifting: making honey, making wax, making a cozy space for the baby bees (eggs), and cleaning out the hive. Unfortunately, as of late these hardy little insects have simply been disappearing and no one can conclusively figure out why.
I should point out that honey bees are different then yellow jackets and bumble bees, docile almost in comparison, and while they do sting, a series of stings would under most circumstances not send you racing for the Benadryl. The sting of the yellow jacket is high-powered venom. Too many and your histamine levels shoot through the roof and you’re kaput, but that’s not the M.O. of the less aggressive, more conservative honey bee which is probably why the honey bees are on the fly these days, metaphorically speaking, although the rest of the bee population may also be at risk.
Scott had an observatory hive, a glass box wide enough to accommodate a single frame from the larger hive. The box was portable, and through the glass, you can see the bees hard at work. Drone bees don’t sting if you clip their wings so Scott would take the observatory hive to our kids’ elementary school, clip a few wings and let the kids have at it: bees would be walking all over the kids’ classmates hands, and arms and legs. It was probably their first non-hostile, bees-are-our-friends type of encounter unless you knew at an early age you wanted to be an entomologist and were always outside mucking around. The observatory hive was a huge hit and I hope someday to learn that more than a few children went on to have natural history careers as a result.
So why are the bees now dying in record numbers? Researchers agreed on a name — Colony Collapse Disorder, CCD — and little else. Speculation abounded: perhaps pesticides such as Clothianidin were causing the bee version of Alzheimer’s, resulting in bees forgetting how to get home (the typical honeybee has a 6-mile flight-path radius); or maybe it was satellite transmissions, interrupting their homing capabilities; or perhaps over-medication. Honeybees have been completely domesticated and rely on humans to medicate them to prevent varroa mites, a nasty parasite and what a flea is to a dog, only it can kill a bee. Whatever the case, whole colonies were disappearing, and considering each bee does its day’s work in singular fashion, the scenario didn’t make any sense.
CCD is not a regional issue or a national issue, but a global issue. Bees are the earth’s pollinators responsible for 90% of the common foods we eat. Without them, about 70% of the food, flowers, fruits and nuts go by the wayside. Almonds are 100% pollinated by bees. Think about it — bees rock. The are one of nature’s most prolific workers, setting aside stores of honey to get them through each winter, pollinating up a storm, and what do we do? We steal their honey, year after year, and don’t utter a word of thanks for pollinating our crops, yet never do they organize a hostile takeover or send their stormtroopers out to sting the crap out of us. Einstein said that as the health of the honey bee goes, so do we. He predicted that man would be done, gone, finito about four years after honey bees left the planet. I for one do not want to see what a planet without bees would look like, something out of 12 Monkeys, perhaps.
There are educated guesses as to what is killing the bees. The German Company, Bayer CropScience developed Clothianidin which was approved based on the strength of a single, uncontrolled, two-week study performed by — guess who? — Bayer. Basically, Bayer created several two and a half-acre fields whose plants contained Clothianidin-treated seeds along with several control fields. Bee hives were placed at the center of each of the fields and the bees were left to their own devices, i.e., they flew unrestricted. Two issues of note: remember, the bees have a foraging area of up to six miles so they were supping on nectar outside of the test area whether they were in the test group or control group; and the test and control groups were within a thousand feet of each other thereby invalidating the very definition of test and control groups.
Unfortunately for the rest of us, the Bayer study didn’t even pretend to mimic or understand honey bee behavior. Plus there was no peer review or any type of independent analysis by a neutral third-party. Don’t these types of studies, especially ones that will ultimately effect the entire population, get peer-reviewed by other scientists in the field who have the scientific mojo to extrapolate and comment? That didn’t happen here, not even by the EPA. There was no push back on the results, no call for further study in a more controlled environment, nothing. It would be like a defendant going to trial and having no opposing counsel to cross-examine them. “Let’s just take the Defendant’s word for it when he says he didn’t do it, okay?” Seems a little risky, no, what with all that’s at stake?
Interestingly enough, the decline of the honey bee coincides with the introduction of Clothianidin into the market place. Conditionally approved by the EPA in 2003, Clothianidin received full approval in 2010 on the strength of that one flawed study. Worse, the pesticide isn’t up for review again until 2018. That’s five more years of feeding a product with more than a likelihood of toxicity to one of nature’s most prodigious pollinators who is already showing signs of not being able to survive the chemical. It’s not conclusive evidence, I know, but if we wait for conclusive evidence on issues like climate change, for instance, Manhattan will be the new Venice, and the polar bear will have gone the way of Elvis. Perhaps in matters of such gravity, inductive reasoning should hold a bit more sway? Better to err on the side of caution then end up with more problems than anticipated. In a bold, “let’s do the right thing” kind of move, a few European countries, including Germany where Bayer is located, France, and Italy have either banned or rejected the use of Clothianidin.
Clothianidin is from the neonicotinoid family of pesticides. It affects the immune systems and neurobehavior in the offending insect. Unfortunately, the bees appear to be having the same reaction as the pests. The pesticide is taken up by the plant’s vascular system — much like our circulatory system — and is released to become part of its pollen and nectar which the bees happily and unwittingly collect and take home to the hive to store for later use where it will be consumed by all their bee buddies. By failing to remove Clothianidin and other like pesticides from the market, we’re forcing the bees to drink the Koolaid. According to Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, the level of neonicotinoid pesticides occur in much greater quantities than originally thought, also something not accounted for in the Bayer study, and which probably points to why whole colonies of bees are just disappearing. After such continued exposure to pesticides, their little immune systems have been pushed to the brink. The tiny insect with a once photographic memory couldn’t find home with a GPS unit.
The extinction of the honey bee will be our collective burden to bear. It’s a failure of legislation, a failure of regulation, but most of all it’s a failure of corporations whose voracious appetite for profitability would leave the planet starved and barren. Yet it is also the fault of the rest of us who sit idly by, waiting for someone else to make the call, do the research, cast the vote, raise the public’s awareness. It’s the fault of those of us who would rather see our mutual funds earn higher yields then enact the environmental regulations that may slow profits, but assure a self-sustaining world for our children. Nature’s Bounty is our birth rite, and good stewardship of the earth and dominion over all living things means you have to care for what is yours or suffer its disappearance. At the end of the day (translation: your life), it won’t be your country club membership, the yields on your stock portfolio, or the kind of car you drove that mattered, but what you did in service, “to leave the world a bit better,” as Emerson said. Scorched earth will breed nothing more than ash. Consider your legacy. Consider the honey bee.
Personal development has been a keen pursuit for as long as I can remember. Long before I completed my college degrees, I dabbled. I remember the flash of awareness when I read Bernie Segals’ first book: Love, Medicine and Miracles. And then Wayne Dyer’s Your Erroneous Zones. After that I discovered Louise Hay and then the galaxy of enlightened beings that she published under her world-shifting project: Hay House Publishing. . .and then later, Hay House Radio dot com. With two college degrees under my belt, I certainly don’t need another sheepskin pedigree, but the yearning for development continues. The latest discovery is Margaret Lynch, a bona fide Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) practitioner, teacher, and new thought leader.
Tapping into Wealth is Lynch’s latest effort and is nothing short of magical. Tapping Into Wealth is all about zeroing in on the emotions that fuel our subconscious beliefs and patterns in relation to life in general, and wealth in particular.
Hey. I’ve been doing affirmations since I first got my hands on Hay’s You Can Heal Your Life. I can spin out affirmations with the best of them. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes results are instant and amazing, sometimes they are weak – and just like a great golf game that is just hope-inducing enough to keep me going. Over time, I’ve wondered why affirmations didn’t produce the promised results. I somehow assumed that was because of me, something I’d done wrong. Well, as it turns out, this is partly true. It is because of me – but it is not my fault. At least, it’s not the fault of my conscious mind. Rather, it is the programming that runs the show, the 90% of my brain that operates unconsciously, running those old tapes over and over on a cosmic loop that says things like: “oh, that might work for them, but it isn’t for me.” Or “I can have it all? Yeah, right.” Oh, she of the studiously un-cynical heart is thwarted by a cynical subconscious. It’s so not right!
But therein dwells the efficacy of regular EFT practice. So I, along with my coach and a group of women committed to working through Lynch’s text, started meeting last week to “tap” through our issues. Two nights before our little EFT coven met, I started reading Tapping Into Wealth and got very excited about the material. Yes! I told myself. I am ready to let go the demon beliefs that have held me back! Yes, I am ready to live a live heretofore unimagined! Okay, so if you’ve done any amount of therapy at all, you can predict what comes next. So, after reading the first three chapters and watching Margaret’s accompanying videos online and getting jazzed as hell about the changes that I wanted! Embraced! Yearned for! I awoke in the night and couldn’t catch my breath. It felt like an 800 pound Silverback was sitting on my chest and mining my lungs for bananas. As I recognized the panic attack for what it was, I started tapping through the points and allowing and forgiving myself for the little anxiety shit-storm I had engendered with my quest to free myself from old programing. Then, the still, small voice in my head asked a very important question: my darling, it said, what are you more afraid of: failure? Or success? Well, damn.
Sure, I’ve had measures of success, but only so much. I’ve experienced failures (as anyone who strives for success or a personal best is bound to) but sadly, one felt more familiar, and ultimately safer than the other, and I don’t have to tell you which one. The midnight anxiety bubbling up from the release work I had done earlier in the day was painful in its own way.
Our conscious mind is full of good intentions, jammed with good ideas, crammed with beautiful pictures and happy thoughts. The trouble is, our conscious mind is (conservatively) 10-15% of what operates the machine we call our lives. The rest is subconscious, that hidden subterranean depository of every thought, promise, pattern, emotion, family tradition, tribal agreement we were ever exposed to. Those thoughts, those ideas, drive the bus — no matter how earnestly we believe, how many time we affirm any idea to the contrary – if you spent an entire childhood watching the tribe swimming around in not-enough, not good enough, or just barely enough, guess what? That’s your programming too, sweetie. Regardless of whether you think you agree with it or not. You don’t get to choose. It’s the algorythm you were downloaded when your brain was soft and pliable, and now it’s wired good and deep. Does this make you sad? Depressed? Mad as hell? That’s okay, pookie. It’s the emotion we’re looking for, that feeling – the one you have so successfully stuffed so long an so deep you don’t even recognize it at work in your waking life, in your dreams, in the ideas you think are pure imagination. They are not.
As a culture, we’ve become expert at not feeling our feelings. Don’t like your boss? Take a pill. Going through a bad split up? Join a support group and project en masse. Can’t deal with the bad behavior of others? Spend hours zoning out in front of the mind-numbing television. We are nothing but a bundle of feelings, and the great irony is that we would rather do just about anything that actually feel them. Accept them. And love ourselves anyway. Or not. As our friend Abraham says, “That’s okay . . .just ignore [the condition/situation/drama]. It will just get bigger.”
If you want to change your relationship to money – or food or love or popcorn for that matter – you have to be brave enough to feel your feelings about it.
So when that gorilla was sitting on my chest in the middle of the night, I instinctively knew it doesn’t have to be this way and that if I was going to do this thing, I had to be brave. Because darling, here’s the catch: awakening isn’t for sissies. The world has been asleep for such a long time and the programming is pernicious and persistent. In order to override the collective consciousness and give myself permission to change my own consciousness (and hit the control-alt-delete button on limitation), I have to be a little bit crazy and a little bit brave. Fortunately, I have a finely developed sense of both of these qualities.
Margaret Lynch works with EFT in a truly remarkable fashion. Some people call tapping “woo-woo.” To that I say: a) au contraire, it’s very practical, and b) “some people” don’t know what they’re talking about. There are plenty of things we can’t see or explain, but that doesn’t make them any less true. You may not be able to explain how exactly it is that electricity shoots from the giant power plant to your toaster oven, but it does nonetheless, and produces perfectly browned bagels. Every. Single. Time.
So, I’m a tapper. We live in a crazed, wonderful, puzzling, ever-evolving world. I don’t claim to have all the answers – or even a rainbow variety of them – but I do believe in developing the odds in favor of as much happiness as possible. As a world culture, we are awakening to the fact that we are spiritual beings living in a material world – all evidence to the contrary. And even though there are a gazillion media messages pounding into our waxy brains every single day that would deny that enlightened perspective, it is not any less true. It’s time to wake up to the divinity within us. And this requires not just a little courage. That’s okay. We’re in good company – and we’re everywhere.
FORGET ABOUT THE LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS;
ARE THERE EVEN ANY WOODS LEFT?
When I was a kid, I spent a good deal of time, milling around in the woods in a little town called Willow Grove behind a horse pasture owned by close family friends. I grew up in Vineland, New Jersey, at one time known as The Home of the Egg, and still one of the premier Jersey tomato-growing spots in the state. Willow Grove was maybe ten miles down the road, around the bend, past the lake where we sometimes went ice skating, across the street from the graveyard. The house was old even then, hand built with not a plumb wall or even floor. Roll a marble starting in the kitchen and it might end up on the back porch. The lintels had been built so low that adults had to duck to enter a room and the upstairs bedrooms were cramped and haunted. An old harp, gorgeous and gold-plated, sat in the corner of one of the rooms, missing most of the strings, but willing to play along with anyone interested. Stroking it sounded as if the faded paintings on the walls — depictions of gods and goddesses — might come to life. Sometimes the harp quivered, maybe because of a passing street car, maybe not, and it always seemed ready to play at any moment. Don’t get me started on the cemetery across the street. It was annexed to a church, had a rusting iron post fence, about two feet high all around, the kind of ornate metal work that could impale a man. At night, I imagined the bodies coming out of those graves and jumping that little fence to climb the steps and devour me as I lay in bed in the harp room. Just before they’d kill me, the harp would stir to life: Ode to an Overactive Imagination. Had I known zombie stories would be so popular I would have channeled my childhood angst into a horror film.
To a young kid, this old farm house was magnificent and terrifying all at the same time. The nights were the blackest blacks. There were no street lights and no other houses within sight unless you counted the church and cemetery across the street, and nothing to stop the dead people from carrying me away because half the windows didn’t have locks on them. The stairs creaked, the floors groaned, even the air crackled, so a cat walking along the hallway was enough to make you think the ghosts were up having tea. And the stars, well, they were magnificent, brighter than anywhere because there was no diffuse incandescent light to intercept their glory. Do today’s kids even have a clue about what that’s like? Quiet and stars and nothing, but your own thoughts to keep you company because there were only five channels on TV and no youtube!
Even though this place was way out in the country, there always seemed to be kids around. We spent hours in the woods behind the house. Years before, somebody had put up a rope swing next to the creek so we commandeered it, and the creek as well, daring each other to swing higher and jump farther. Plus there were pine cones to collect and take back to the house and spray paint or make some other craft with, and bugs to catch, and bird calls to mimic, and critters of all kinds to chase. There was usually a horse and sometimes two in the pasture next to the house so I learned to ride there. Occasionally a dead mouse turned up in the detached garage, left as a present by the resident cat who felt it her duty to leave carcasses right where you wouldn’t see them until you stepped on them and screamed.
Fast forward to present. What do kids have today? Fewer patches of woods to begin with, and something worse, a menace of vast proportions. Turns out that a sedentary life is far more debilitating than an unexamined one. Americans spend too many hours indoors in front of computers, TVs, and cellphones, barely moving and breathing recirculated air, and it’s literally killing us. Heart disease, diabetes, attention disorders and depression are all on the rise while approximately one-third of all adult Americans are now obese. Collectively, we spend about $150 billion a year on fighting diseases. At the same time, we spend $50 billion a year on diets and diet products. I don’t remember my grandparents or my parents dieting. My grandmother made her own filo dough — an all day event — and did her laundry in a washing machine with a hand crank to ring the clothes dry. The things they did required a bit of torque, unlike today where everything we do is with the touch of a button. My mother who grew up in Philadelphia where you walked everywhere did the same with my sister and I in tow while living in Jersey. When I was 12, my mother finally got a driver’s license, but I inherited the walking gene. Today, people laugh when I tell them I walk the 13 blocks from the train station to work as if I’m somehow crazy.
In this millennium, we are fat, lazy, uncivil, and short on patience and I think it has everything to do with the fact that we don’t move around much. We lunch over our computer screens and walk while staring at our iPhones. Soon we’ll be wearing glasses with screens so we can watch a movie while driving. Our shoulders hurt, our necks hurt, our backs hurt, our breathing is shallow and sometimes we even get into accidents because of inattention to our surroundings. We can no longer tell a hedgehog from a groundhog, or a stratus cloud from a cirrus. So what’s going on? There’s a growing body of research that argues our disenfranchisement from nature will be our demise. The term for this condition, coined by writer Richard Louv, is nature deficit disorder. Nature deficit disorder describes the mental, emotional and spiritual void that develops when we sever our connection with nature. Unfortunately, more children are experiencing this disorder because of our technology-laden times. It gets worse: kids who don’t spend as much time outdoors get sick more often, are overweight, and have more behavioral problems. We simply can’t be without our gadgets and it’s eroding our health and getting in the way of, among other things, a good sunset.
Evidence suggests that gaming, the time you spend in front of the TV, playing video games, many of them violent and soulless, can induce cycles of hyperactivity, followed by fatigue and the inevitable crash which in turn can lead to insomnia if you’re lucky, and depression if not. To rebound, kids drink caffeine, not a cup of Jo, but an energy drink that’s got two or three times the amount of caffeine, followed by another intense burst of energy and another fall off the cliff of fatigue. Boom and bust, boom and bust in a cycle that usually ends in medication. Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t that how bipolar behavior is described?
The studies show that being outside in nature boosts our immune systems. Did you know that there are certain chemicals in dirt that when inhaled, trigger a hormonal response that induces a relaxed mood-elevating state? And everyone knows that exercise results in an influx of endorphins into the blood stream that wakes up your senses and gives you a boost of feel-goodness so amazing that you have no desire to sit around, eating bags of chips.
For those of you saying yes, but I don’t live near any woods or hiking trails, never you mind. A patch of dirt, a good park, or your backyard is just fine. As a child, I’d be outside playing with the kids in the neighborhood until our parents told us to come in. There was some kind of pick up game — softball, basketball, football — on any given night. You couldn’t keep me inside. Today, all our electronics are inside and when you throw “stranger danger” into the mix, scaring kids and parents alike, kids are staying indoors in epidemic proportions. There’s a neighborhood across the street from us, a lovely, tree-lined development with nice-sized back yards. Tons of kids live there, yet no one is ever outside, not to toss a ball, or jump rope, or ride their bikes. It’s like a deserted planet. Add that to the loss of our natural surroundings due to development and we’re sunk. If kids have no woods to play in, they’re certainly not going to have the opportunity to get lost in them.
Need more? Nature helps develop problem solving and critical thinking skills. Lost? You need to figure out a way out the woods. Building a tree fort? You need to calculate how many boards, hammers, nails. About to be eaten by a giant anaconda? Think, man, your life’s on the line. Actually, the last example is how it used to be, but even though immediate dangers are not that prevalent, the fight or flight response is still part of our DNA, it’s just napping until we need it.
Creativity is fostered outside in nature; alienation is fostered inside in front a screen (no matter what size, people, so put down your smartphones!). It’s time to kick our kids outside and maybe go out with them. They know what to do and so do you. We all just need a few opportunities to regroup and we’ll remember. It’s encoded in our cells.
STEAL LIKE AN ARTIST
An open love letter to Austin Kleon: dude, I looooooved your book. I took it to the gym with me to read on the elliptical as is my custom — don’t laugh; I manage to read two to three books a month this way — and was beyond delighted with the wit, wisdom, and elegant thought therein, not to mention the inspiring little drawings. The whole thing is like a how-to primer on creative shapeshifting. Whoever you originally stole from (thanks for the list, BTW, I will check it out) left you with a heaping load of divine ideas to transmogrify. In fact, your ten-step process to developing the most artistic version of yourself, whether you are an artist, a writer, a painter, or a car mechanic, should be made into, well, a ten-step program for artists, writers, painters and car mechanics, oh yeah, and even business executives. So many of the listed activities were things I already do — read, chase down info on my heroes, keep a swipe file, keep an awesome ideas file for later reference — but I thought it was really an eccentricity of mine to do a lot of these things. Now I find support for my eccentricities in a real live book which, I gotta tell you, is tough in this hardscrabble, often inhospitable-to-misfits kind of world. My one criticism: while I do take your point about obscurity being good, I often wonder if I’m destined to be stuck in the sea of anonymity or if that part of my life is soon a been there, done that. Don’t get me wrong; solitude is nice, but you sometimes get tired of the one-sided conversation. My fav quotes: “quit picking fights and go make something,” (thanks, M. Kleon), and “validation is for parking.” I liked “Steal Like an Artist” so much I’m going to make my kids read it because they don’t yet have [that m]any preconceived ideas about not being artistic enough and because they are already so creative that this little gem might just push them into the proverbial artistic zone. Plus you promote reading and lots of it if you want to improve yourself, your world and your horizons, so for me, it was like getting a fist bump from a real live artist. And now I don’t even have to say, “I told you so,” I can just hand them the book and give them that snarky, one-sided smile that basically says the same thing. So thanks for that, for the great read, and for giving me a big inspiring kick in the creative patoot today. Now I think I’ll go write a sequel to Atlas Shrugged — one where the 99% doesn’t get trampled to death.
As a preamble to this post and in my defense, I never set out to be a strident vegetarian. Rather, it bloomed in me like a random strain of algae, green and prolific, growing like chlorophyll in a shallow pond on a sunny day.
I just read an article on Salon dot com that reveals that the feds have approved a trade agreement that will enable US poultry producers to ship chicken carcasses to China for processing into chicken food products, before shipping them back to the USA for consumption.
Yay! Oh, wait. Can we review a few factoids? Forget about the carbon footprint of shipping dead chickens across the world and back. Just focus for a minute on the idea that China is not a country recognized for its humane treatment of people and animals, nor for its strict environmental regulations. This is a country, whose official response to 16,000 diseased pig carcasses floating down the Jiapingtang River into Shanghai was that the pigs were depressed and committed suicide by drowning. I’m not kidding. This a country that routinely serves up dog and cat for dinner, which is a matter of cultural, if not humanitarian, concern.
But to the point, the Salon article of which I speak outlines how the chicken version of “pink slime” is produced – that the bird body is “deboned” mechanically, and the resulting slush is cleaned with an ammonia solution to kill the ecoli bacteria that comes from feces contamination — before being cooked and shaped into something Americans blithely expect chicken or nuggets or happy animal by-products to look like before being deep-fried then smothered in ketchup and consumed while exiting the drive-through.
This isn’t a huge revelation to me. I already knew that chicken carcasses are de-feathered mechanically – that the “product” is introduced into a sort of centrifuge, where the corpse is whirled and thumped around at fantastic speeds and feathers are ripped out of the flesh most efficiently. Hey, it’s a fact of life. If you eat the bird, you should know the journey it takes from the play-yard to the plate.
I think my revulsion of meat began when I taught a class on critical thinking a few years back, using Fast Food Nation as the text. In that book, I learned how efficient our animal killing machines have become – in order to feed a country that has grown fat, diabetic, and hyper-tense on processed food products and creating a realm of nugget eaters who want their “food” fast and cheap and never mind the actual ingredients in the so-called meat. Never before has the phrase “You don’t want to see how the sausage is made” been more true.
Human or Humane
Then we have the issue of who makes the meat we eat. Somebody has to, right? Yes, and the picture is not pretty. But do you expect it to be? Do you want to butcher and grind your own quarter pounder? Au contraire, mon frère. The working conditions in massive centralized slaughter houses are appalling and a measure of socio-economic disparity. No sane person would choose to work in a death house if they actually felt like they had a choice. But jobs are scarce and pigs are plenty. No; the working conditions in meat factories are draconian – and inhumane – by any standard.
From People to the Planet
If you don’t care about the “lower” species (animals) or workers’ rights, maybe the planet matters. The environmental effects of our appetite for animal products is off the scary scale, too. I can’t speak for the rest of the nation, but if you’ve ever driven down I-5 between San Francisco and Los Angeles on a summer day – you know the smell of the massive cattle reaping plant in California’s Central Valley. You can smell it for miles. It isn’t just the perfume of manure and animal rendering – it is the odor of death. More specifically, it smells like the result of “hundreds [of cows] harvested daily,” requiring a super-efficient killing machine, and a heap of stinky remains, for sure.
What are some of the environmental costs of our appetite for meat, white meat, and the other white meat? The water runoff from hog processing farms – literally poisons the surrounding watershed. Cattle awaiting processing in gigantic centralized feedlots are given anabolic steroids – to swell their size – and steroids have been found in enormous quantities downstream –creating environmental havoc in the bio-system, and producing genetic mutations in fish and wildlife never dreamed of. But here’s the clincher, sweetie: we live in a closed system. The poisons don’t just vanish in a puff of pixie dust – they go round and round. How long before they show up in the water we drink, the water we bathe in, the water in which we cook our pasta? When do we reach critical mass?
The USDA is Not Your Friend
Expecting the USDA to show up and save the day? Don’t hold your breath, baby. Lobbies are big. Federal oversight resources are small. Where there are profits to be made, regulations are the enemy of economy.
I’m not saying don’t eat meat. I’m just saying that it pays to be an informed consumer. Plus, and call me Pollyanna, but it just seems that as the planet and the human race evolve, shouldn’t we endeavor to be more. . .humane?
To that end, I read recently that science is experimenting with creating meat in a petri dish. Which is a way better alternative to pink slime, right? Not only is it more efficient – after all, you don’t have to feed, warehouse, or dispose of a list of bothersome waste products from hair to hooves – and it could engender a whole segment of vegetarian consumers that heretofore resisted eating anything with a face on it. Yay! Lab meat: it’s the undead white meat. Bon appetit!
On the heels of an extremely successful project at work wherein we tripled projected revenues, I reported to my board of directors that the next project is already underway. . .witha few modifications. One board member was quick to go from happy to harried. “What if something goes wrong?” she asked. Suddenly other board members began to nod their heads and murmur. . .”Yes. . .what if something goes wrong?”
I was astonished to see how quickly the energy in the room began to deflate. I waited for a beat and then killed the insurrection of doom before it gained any speed. “All I know,” I said loudly, cutting through the buzz, “is that it’s going to be fabulous.” The murmuring stopped. “It’s going to work out. . .because it always does. It’s going to be okay.”
The group immediately settled down. The energy in the room shifted back to high voltage and hopefully expectant. I told them what they needed to hear. Isn’t that what anyone wants? To hear that it’s going to be okay, that it’s all going to work out. . . no matter what?
This is why they hired me. They wanted a leader, and she is me. To be perfectly honest, I never set out to be a leader. I didn’t seek it out; it sought me. I’m the original reluctant hero. At first, I rejected the call to leadership. Like Xena. Like Joan Wilder. Like Dorothy Gale. I resolutely said NO. I said, ‘ask someone else.’ As fourth-born of five children, I was perfectly happy to bring up the rear of the parade, and let someone else take the lead. But in this case, no one else appeared. No one else had a clear vision of what could be.
They say that when the first Europeans arrived on the shores of what would become the eastern seaboard of the United States, the local natives could not see the sailing ships. They could not see them. They had no point of reference. In their world-paradigm, such a thing had never been done. . .and so they could therefore not see the ships. Recently, I spent some time on the Oregon coast. The sunsets were spectacular. Naturally, I whipped out my cell phone to take a photo of the golden yellow sun melting in a puddle on the pulsing waves of the Pacific. What was interesting to me, is my eye saw only golden yellow across the horizon, but my camera picked up a canvas of blood-orange spilling across the sky. My eye did not see the orange that was there. It’s not our fault that we cannot see what is right under our proverbial noses. Sometimes, it takes a different kind of vision to see what’s possible.
In the case of my current professional mission, no one else was willing to step up with a belief in the process, with an innate belief in the goodness and the rightness of the mission. No one else could see the potential that I saw, that I knew was there all along. . .so I had to know enough for everyone. I had to be the one to lead the charge. Plus, I almost completely lack fear of risk. Well, that, and I have a few years of experience under my belt. This is not my first rodeo, darling. And all this is not to say that I’m not extremely pragmatic, either. I don’t expect the grand outcome to materialize without intention, a solid plan, and a fair amount of sweat equity, a willingness to arrive at that fundamental WOW. But neither am I going to assume the worst before I take step one.
On my trip to the Oregon Coast, I marveled at the abundance of life that teems along the shoreline. The waves come in, and they keep coming. They don’t just come in once and done. They just flow endlessly. The tide comes in; the tide goes out, and it brings with it millions of living creatures. All of life on the beach has enough. . .and more than enough to live, to thrive, to continue the pulse of life. I had a slow realization, watching the swarm of creatures in a tide pool that was being replenished by the dance of the water. There is enough, there will always be enough. It’s always going to be okay, no matter what. It’s how the program is written.
So, yippee-skippy – I’m a leader! I may not have all the answers, but I know for sure that it’s all going to be okay. It’s all going to work out. . .because no matter what, it always does. So here’s the vision I do my best to hold on a daily basis: don’t worry; be happy. . . and work relentlessly toward your vision of what’s possible. You can do it. I believe in you.
I saw my first concert when I was 14 and a sophomore in high school – ELO at the Spectrum, a one-time major, now demolished arena. Bruce Springsteen and YES followed. I went with friends, one of which was a Junior and had a license. My parents gave me a kiss goodbye and held the door for me. The other night, I held the door for my 13-year old daughter and her younger half-sisters as they walked into an “all ages” concert at the Chameleon Club, a small venue in downtown Lancaster. And then I followed them in.
It’s totally different today. Parents, myself included, escort their children to shows and then hang around the interstices, waiting to be called to action: a beverage; a choice spot along the railing in the balcony; standing around the back door waiting for the stage door to fly open and the singer of their respective dreams to walk out, sign a few autographs, take a few “selfies” with the fawning tween to teen set, and board the bus with a wave and a smile, off to the next show to do it all again.
The other night, the show at the Chameleon Club was headlined by Cody Simpson, a 16-year old Australian boy wonder, judging by his rabid fan base, and who I am well acquainted with given the extreme amount of attention paid to his comings and goings by said 13-year old who has already met him once at the “Meet and Greet” (more on that later), and seen him four times. Simpson may only be 16, but he’s been touring since he was 13 which, in my opinion, makes him a pro. He was preceded onstage by “Fifth Harmony” who I’d never heard of despite them being showcased on Simon Cowell’s “The X-Factor”, and “Midnight Red” who I really had never heard of, but who want to be the next “One Direction”, the newest boy band, created by Cowell and who are as popular now as “NSync” was in the 80’s. As you will likely agree, keeping up with all this “Pop-y-ness” requires stamina.
As a teen, I didn’t hang around the back door with the groupies, waiting to catch a glimpse of the band as they straggled onto the bus. Maybe I never thought of it, but more likely, who had time to be a groupie when we had the long drive back to Jersey as well as parking lot traffic to navigate? And yet, now, as an adult well into decades too numerous to count, I’ve done it twice with my kid for Cody Simpson. The show’s over and we should be, too. I want to go home and throw myself in bed. I’ve been up since the first blush of dawn, worked a full day and left work early to get to this concert. The prospect of working the next day looms large. I mention that we should just go, but my kid is already off and running around to the front of the building — the “back door” of this particular venue is on a busier street than the front door — and I have no choice, but to follow.
I think my daughter is fan obsessed until I see how desperate some of these girls are to rub elbows with Simpson. He sings AND dances, has blond hair and blue eyes AND an Australian accent. There are so many pheromones flying around I wonder if the air might not spontaneously combust. Crazy, youth-challenged parents, i.e., also with more than a few decades under their belt, skulk and hover at the back door, asking questions like, “Do you have all four of the posters?”, and “Did you hear the Security guy say he left right after the show, or do you think they’re trying to trick us?”
Kids talk about prior shows: “Mom, remember the show in Princeton when we were at the bus and he was walking onto it and I reached past the guard and brushed his shoulder? That was so awesome.” The show in Princeton?! Is it me or is the kid, like, 12? And isn’t that dish for your “bestie” when you’re on a sleepover and it’s 2 a.m.? The mom nods and smiles, obviously recalling the show, and walks past. Apparently, a pair of angel wings is missing and she’s on a mission to find them. Cody — aww, how cute; I’m calling him Cody now, too — calls his fan base, all of which appear to be female (except for the dads in the audience), his “Angels” and some wear wings to his shows, likely in the hopes that he’ll pull them up on stage. He picks someone each time, a plant, I’ve decided, since they either look downright bored or way too comfortable up there, not at all thrilled and beside themselves with unbridled enthusiasm which is the way I would have looked had Bruce Springsteen ever pulled me up on stage.
Confession: this is the third time I’ve seen Cody Simpson. That’s as many times as I’ve seen any band I’ve really loved. Bruce, the Stones, the Pretenders, Dave Matthews, Annie Lennox, you get it. Unless you’re a Deadhead or a Buffet fan, how many times do you really see a band? Two, maybe three, four if you really love them. My daughter has now seen this kid four times since last summer and met him once at a pre-concert meet and greet which entitled her to a picture with him and his signature on anything she wanted although she neglected to bring something and still bemoans the oversight. For just $100 extra dollars, you could have this moment with Simpson, too.
How does my child convince me to purchase concert tickets for her, drive her to the concert, and attend, to boot? When was my brain supplanted by a micro chip that allows her remote control of my wallet? Generally, her persuasion tactics consist of asking me again and again for days, weeks, sometimes months until I cave. At the show at the Tower in Philadelphia, I sat in the back with a couple dozen other parents, all of us on our phones, sitting alone, looking like creepers which is what we would have been called in another day and which is now just part of the backdrop, while my girls pushed their way to the front so they could scream until their lungs bled, one of hundreds of other girls. It was loud. For the record, I was playing “Words With Friends” and was totally content.
I wonder if I’m overindulging her with this concert business and who I’m really serving anyway, her or me. I mean, it’s all slick and choreographed and meant to hit the tween/teen hormone vein and while the music is catchy, I just can’t keep up. Bands are plastered all over Facebook and Youtube. Fans send Twitter feeds at lightning speed and create Fan Bases. The head of Simpson’s fan base in Pennsylvania has her own fan base simply because she has had lunch with him. At the concert, kids were asking her to pose with them for a picture, hoping for some of the magic to rub off, I presume. This is what celebrity has become: First Fan. I wonder if it gets you into the good restaurants? Or is it me, desperate to stay vibrant, young and relevant, hoping some of the magic will rub off on me, too.
My daughter went to her first concert at the age of 10: Justin Bieber at the Allentown Fairgrounds. I figured if she were mature enough to go to Africa with her grandparents, I could send her in to a concert with her 15-year old sister who at the time had not yet been to a concert. My heart was in my mouth, waiting for them until I saw all the other parents standing outside the exit at the Fairgrounds, waiting for their kids to emerge. This summer it was Taylor Swift (I took both my daughters — “cha-ching” — and it was in Philly which meant another drive); Cody Simpson (twice) and maybe someone else I’m forgetting or maybe it just seemed like more — oh, I remember, she begged me for “One Direction” tickets for a year, even wanted us to reschedule our vacation so she could go, but I held my ground and said no to $300 concert tickets; instead we went to Maine. One of her friends who had “One Direction” tickets came with us, voluntarily giving up her tickets in order to go to Maine for a week (this child has her priorities straight), leaving me to wonder whether the Child Dispensing Division of heaven had mixed up my order 13 years ago.
The 13-year old tells me at Simpson’s Tower show to go make friends with Cody’s dad. “You talk to everyone. Make friends with his dad. Then Cody and I can be BFF’s.” The bad thing is, I started thinking about the possibilities before deciding it was all too ridiculous.
Here’s what I said to my kid while standing on the sidewalk in Lancaster, waiting to call it a night: “If you don’t want to have a [insert non-alcholic beverage of choice] with the dude and talk about life and stuff, then, well, it’s just an infatuation and its only going to last until the next infatuation rolls around. Until you start talking politics and metaphysics, it’s all just hormones run amok. Not that you can’t have both, but it’s better if you do. Just sayin’.” She rolls her eyes and checks her Twitter feed to see if anyone’s spotted Cody.
So here we are, having run from the back to the front a second time, waiting, waiting with dozens of other girls and their moms, and watching the security guard looking on with a grin close to malevolent — he’ll never see this kind of action, at least not in this lifetime — wondering how much longer until I can get on the road, get a Frosty from Wendy’s to quench my parched throat and go home. The manager comes out and says, yes, it’s true, Cody’s gone, left without us in a white van. My kid says, “well that means they have to come back for them.” I say, “Let’s go.” A white van pulls up. There’s brief hysteria until everyone realizes the van’s empty. The driver gets out. A piece of equipment is loaded onto the van. Another Simpson cohort whose name escapes me even though my kid has told me a few times peeps out the back door. “Cody’s gone. Left without us,” he says. I come to my senses, pull rank, and tell the troops we’re heading home. Since we stood for the whole show, no one protests because secretly, they’re all as tired as I am. We pile in the car and stop at Wendy’s for Frostys and fries. The girls dunk their french fries into their shakes and Instagram each other on their phones and giggle. Pretty soon we’re all laughing hysterically. Why, I’m not sure, but it feels delicious. I’m thrilled because the drive home is ten to fifteen minutes instead of two to three hours. I decide that I can take another show at the Chameleon Club under such conditions, but don’t share that information with my daughter. Why encourage her when she does that so well herself? Now if I could only get this song out of my head…La Da Dee La Da Dee Doo….
THE SKIN GAME
I love my dermatologist. Is it okay to say that?
This is a woman with flawless skin and Danish-blond hair pulled into a sleek chignon. She studied skin at Yale University and is co-authoring medical school text on diseases of the skin. She is my hero, and is the only person to see me semi-nude in at least a year. (No comment.)
So, a couple of weeks ago, I discovered a mole on my scalp, one which I hadn’t noticed before and which I had subsequently scratched and irritated. When I finally took notice, that littel nodule of skin and hair was red and angry-looking. As well it might, if it contained squamous cell carcinoma. I know a thing or two about skin, so I got it. Looked at. Pronto.
With early detection, skin cancer has one of the highest survival rates of any flavor of cancer. I have a light complexion and mostly avoid direct sun exposure. I grew up in the wilds of suburban Seattle when the area was largely horse and cow pastures. (Which, yes, dates me. Again, no comment.)
However sheltered from the sun I was as a child, I have spent the better part of the last 30 or so years in California – which amounts to enough UV exposure to temp the gods. So I had it checked out.
In a former professional life, I was a licensed esthetician and I would sometimes examine women and find a troubling skin condition. “I don’t want to alarm you,” I would say. “But if you were my mom/sister/friend, I would encourage you to check it out. Just to be safe. Just to eliminate an unnecessary worry.”
Dr. D – told me that the mole in question was benign – but irritated, so she offered to freeze it off with liquid nitrogen. “Don’t worry,” she said. “It feels like a popsicle brain-freeze.” Cool!
“While you’re here,” she said after that procedure, “why don’t we do a full body scan?”
Since I haven’t actually had a body scan in, like, ever, I agreed. Who knows what all those misspent hours of my youth at Lake Sammamish might have done?
Afterward, she said, “You’re good. You’ve got great skin.” (I prudently ignored the part where, in her head she said, for your age.)
This isn’t the first time this year that I’ve subjected myself to the probing of a physician, and not by mistake. I am a terrible patient, and I tend to ignore medical advice. But earlier this year, I saw a physician for what turned out to be walking pneumonia, and not merely ‘a bad cold.’ I got on his radar, and he ordered up a full battery of blood tests. Yug. Mostly I’m healthy as peasant stock, but one test revealed high cholesterol. “I’m a vegetarian!” I wailed. As it turns out, that doesn’t matter, especially as I’m genetically predisposed.
So, I’m on a mission to lower my LDL ratings with dietary changes before the next blood test in six months. I really don’t want to have to live on meds for the rest of my life. And I really, really don’t want to get my sternum sawed in half and have cholesterol-crusted heart halves replaced anytime in the next thirty years. Major surgery is not part of my quality of life plan. If skipping sugar can really lower my LDL levels, as my brother claims, I will circumvent big pharma “intervention” which comes with steep and ugly side effects. Except of course for life expectancy. But here’s the thing: I want to keep my body as healthy as possible for the next, oh, 150 years or so. There are things I want to accomplish, places I want to see before I’m ready to go, and a little prevention is worth more than a pound of cure.
So, do yourself a favor. If you’ve fair-skinned and spent any time in the sun at all in your life, make an appointment. That troubling/scary/strange little growth on your skin that you never noticed before? Buy some piece of mind. . .and just get it checked out.
I Am Not Sure Yet
I’m standing in line at the ice cream parlor, 30 people deep. It’s me and seven kids. Three are mine, the rest a mix of nieces, nephews, and their friends. It’s the 4th of July in Bar Harbor, Maine. Minutes before we sat along the shore path with a few thousand of our closest friends, watching explosions of light pulsate across the summer sky before heading downtown with the rest of Bar Harbor for ice cream. In America, nothing screams freedom like a double dip on a sugar cone. I survey the flavors, but have already been told what I want: “I Am Not Sure Yet.” Arianna, my youngest has been bugging me for two days to get ice cream at this parlor so she can try this particular flavor, a mix of peanut butter cup, chocolate chip, cookie dough, and who knows what else. She’s an ice cream connoisseur, and I know she’s probably right when she’s says it will be delicious. But there’s a blueberry soft serve that looks yummier than ambrosia and two dozen flavors of gelato. I mull the possibilities over in my head, but as with most of my crucial decisions, I am not sure yet.
My uncertainty is reflected back to me in various life events. Two December’s ago we got Raul and Bella, two adorable kittens, from a Christmas tree farm. Arianna had fallen hard for Raul the week before when she visited the farm with her father. She texted me a picture to which I replied, “no cats.” Months before, we lost our beloved Chester — a distinguished member of the “Cat Special Forces”, so prodigious was he at taking out rodents — and I was still in mourning. When we showed up at the farm and this skinny runt of a kitten rubbed against my leg, it was tough to continue with my “no” mantra. We fell in love in a ray of sunlight, me and Raul, although he had no name at the time. My husband had reluctantly agreed to a cat if he could name it so we let him even though “Raul” sounded straight out of a Spaghetti Western or Quentin Tarantino movie. Then the farm wife showed us another fuzzball of a feline, and to prove she was serious, gave us the pair and a to-go carrier. Most likely from the same mother, but not the same litter, the kittens got along beautifully. Months later, after several visits to two separate vets, we took Raul and Bella to get spayed and neutered. Turns out that Raul had been faking it all along: he wasn’t a boy, but a girl, a fact that no one realized until Vet #2 went to do the deed. We got the call moments before the operation:
“Um, Raul is a girl. Do you still want her fixed? It’s a $100 more.” After a good laugh, I assured her that yes, we did still want the procedure. But what to do about the name? It had only been a few months, but changing now seemed like identity theft especially since Raul herself had gone to greats lengths to hide the truth. My husband pointed out that after the operation, titles wouldn’t matter since the relevant parts would be gone. He was right, of course. So Raul kept the name and now she’s our cross-gender cat which relieved her of the need to be sure; she gets to dabble in both.
If only my life choices were as easy. I never chose law school. It chose me, or rather, my old bosses told me it was the right thing to do. Three years out of college, working as a paralegal, I was bored. Up until then, I hadn’t been sure about any aspect of my career. I graduated with a major in criminal justice which qualified me for maybe social work or a job as a parole officer, neither of which seemed enticing. I went to a post-college 4-month paralegal school because my mother suggested it, likely because she couldn’t stand to see me moping around the house. I acquiesced, totally unsure whether it was the right thing to do, but without a plan in its stead. If I am honest with myself, twenty years later I am still not sure although working as an environmental lawyer allows me to show up at one job I know I was born to do: work in service to the environment. I doubt I’d still be a lawyer today if I were doing anything else. At least I’m sure of that.
Another day, another beach town. I’m standing in line for the roller coaster at Morey’s Pier in Wildwood when I get a text from Morgan, my oldest, about a conversation she’s having with her two friends concerning the prayer flags hanging between the trees in our back yard. Since prayer flags — or wash cloths as my mother-in-law calls them — aren’t abundant in Central Pennsylvania, an explanation is required. Morgan gives a brief history as she knows it, that the flags are made by Tibetan monks and blow blessings of peace, prosperity, good will and what not with each passing breeze. Morgan leaves for college in a few weeks so rather than join us at the beach, she opted for cleaning out closets and ridding herself of books and school papers she’s had since, like, kindergarten. When it comes to deciding what to throw away, she’s a dictionary entry for “I am not sure yet.”
Morgan’s one friend is befuddled; the prayer flag concept doesn’t register, while her best friend, Ashley, is thrilled, probably thinking about buying a few prayer flags of her own. Reactions to the explanation given in a kitchen in Pennsylvania are texted to me as I stand in line for the roller coaster in New Jersey. I relay the information to Arianna, and the friends we are with, and then because I happen to adore Ashley, I show my friends a recent video she posted on You Tube entitled: “Girl Almost Passes Out on Roller Coaster.” It’s a short short with over 133,000 “views” to date (check it out, but finish reading first!) and one that my family finds hysterical. Ashley wants to be a filmmaker, but the whole college versus strap on a “Go Pro” and go scene is confusing her — she’s definitely not sure yet. So check it: we’re at the beach in line for a roller coaster watching a video about a girl on a roller coaster all in the context of talking about blessings on the breeze (which is basically what prayer flags are) and which we’re going to feel in abundance once we get on the roller coaster. Before cellphones, no one would have had a clue what that sentence even meant. I pocket my cellphone, board the ride and scream so they can hear me in Pennsylvania. Of roller coasters, I am always sure. I haven’t yet met one I wouldn’t ride. At least Ashley won’t be videotaping it.
Some people, like my ex are master choosers. They don’t even worry about choosing unwisely; it’s more important to make a decision. My ex makes decisions swiftly and with precision, never looking back, and has no regrets or recriminations toward himself when things don’t pan out (at least that I know of). I am not sure how he does this. I am a master of regret, of wishing I would have taken the road not traveled because inevitably I want to travel down all of them. Overwhelmed by the full panoply of decisions to pick through, I have, at times, chosen none and walked away. If I were a being of light, I could experience all events simultaneously, never missing a one. That would ease my indecision, I’m sure. Alas, I am dense and 3-D bound, stuck in a never-ending cycle of “what ifs?”. Hell on earth if you want the truth of it.
But tonight is different; I can feel it. All of my charges have ordered. I’m the last to go. I hesitate, waver — the blueberry gelato looks divine, unlike any I’ve seen — but before I know it, I blurt out: “blueberry soft serve, please.” I already know it’s going to be delicious since I had a taste of my brother-in-law’s the day before. Yes I would have liked to try one of the other 200 hundred flavors they offered, but since I found something I’m pretty sure I could love, why mess with the uncertainty. For tonight, just this once, I am sure. And yet. . . .
YOUR ASSIMILATIVE CAPACITY HAS BEEN REACHED
On a recent excursion to Santa Fe, I was struck by how dry it was even in late fall. Yes, the climate ranges from arid to semi-arid, but should snow feel dry? For me, it accentuated what’s true of much of the western half of our nation: we’re running out of water.
The Ogallala aquifer, a ten million year old fluvial deposit, provides water to New Mexico and seven other High Plains states and is the most important water source in the region, covering an area of 174,000 miles. Eighty-two percent of the people living in the High Plains get their drinking water from this aquifer system yet most of the Ogallala is used for agriculture. About eighty percent of the food grown in the U.S. comes from this part of the country. No wonder the Ogallala is depleting at a rate fourteen times faster than it’s recharging. Factors such as population growth, and contaminants like pesticides and nitrates have contributed to its decline, and failure to recharge means not only less water but also degraded water quality. Recharge occurs through rainwater and snowmelt combined, a paltry one inch per year. With eight states utilizing one aquifer, at this rate of withdrawal and recharge the Ogallala will be depleted in a few decades and once gone there is no turning back.
The main barrier to more robust recharge is impermeability. Currently, the specific yield of the Ogallala — meaning what’s available for use — is 15%. The rest of the water is locked up in the unsaturated zone where it’s inaccessible due to impermeability. Until the technology is developed to move this water to the saturated zone, the high quality Ogallala, once used for drinking without either filtration or treatment, will continue to degrade. If a water body is unable to refresh, the water quality tanks, or to put it in scientific parlance, its assimilative capacity, the level at which the water can no longer cleanse itself, has been reached.
Here in the water abundant eastern states drought conditions last seasons, but in the higher elevation arid lands droughts can last for years, turning an acute issue into a chronic one. Without attention, chronic problems tend to become emergencies. While some inroads have been made regarding the impermeability puzzle, it’s only been achieved on a small scale. It’s time to focus our attention locally, in cities and towns alike, before our most valuable global natural resource is beyond recharging.
For this, we take our cue from some cliff dwelling conservationists. Frijoles Creek located in Frijoles Canyon, Bandelier National Monument, is about a forty-five minute drive from Santa Fe, New Mexico. The Ancestral Pueblo people made their home near Frijoles Creek, a perennial stream which provided water for drinking, cooking, bathing and agriculture. The Ancestral Puebloans were drawn to Frijoles Canyon by the wealth of resources created by the creek. Wildlife attracted to a water source within easy reach made for good hunting and the abundant plant life allowed for a diverse diet. Without the tools and other structures which are the hallmark of the 21st century (indoor plumbing!), prehistoric dwellers depended on their immediate surroundings to meet their needs. The availability of water was imperative to the quality of ancient life, and Frijoles Creek, a permanent stream in the arid Southwest, was a gold mine of a find. To preserve it, the Ancient Puebloans practiced water conservation. The first inhabitants of Bandelier didn’t have dams or reservoirs, but they had Frijoles Creek. They conserved water by growing staples such as squash, beans, and corn in shallow basins or sloped terraces which minimized runoff, evaporation and subsurface drainage and maximized water efficiency. The ancients recognized the value of water and thanked their gods daily for its blessings. Industrialized society has forgotten this. The ease by which we acquire water has blinded us to its value. Out of necessity, the Ancestral Puebloans developed water conservation methods. Out of reverence for that which gives life to this planet, we would be wise to do the same.
Our bodies are composed of 70% water which means we need it to survive. The average family of four uses about 400 gallons of water every day, approximately 70% of that indoors and most in the bathroom. A bathroom faucet puts out 2 gallons of water per minute, about 200 gallons a month if you brush with a wide-open tap. In industrialized nations, freshwater withdrawals have tripled over the last 50 years to keep up with our demand for food, goods, services, and hot showers. Compare the water usage of an industrialized nation to that of an ancient tribe and even accounting for population growth you have two entirely different scenarios.
Perhaps if we had to pay more for water. Despite its ubiquitous nature, less than 1% of water is available for human use. The rest is salt water (oceans), frozen water (polar ice caps), or inaccessible water (groundwater trapped in an impermeable state). We need water to grow or produce everything we eat or drink as well as the products we use. Here’s a few facts about how much water it takes: a slice of bread – 1 gallon; chicken – 10 gallons; a cup of coffee – 2 gallons; 1 pound of corn – 50 gallons; 1 pound of eggs – 20 gallons; 1 pound of hamburger – 450 gallons; 1 sheet of paper – 3 gallons; a cotton shirt – 100 gallons; 1 pound of wheat – 60-100 gallons.
Anyone with a checking account knows that if you bounce a check the bank charges you overdraft fees. What if we metered water usage and charged users overdraft fees in a tiered approach? Start with a flat amount for a particular class of user and as the usage goes beyond that amount, the price increases. First we need to account for the true cost of food on the environment. Even valuing water at pennies on a gallon, beef is 450 times more costly than bread. If you had to pay $30 for a hamburger to cover the water processing costs, would you still eat it? My guess is most people would switch back to more plant-based diets. The upside is less cancer, heart disease and a reduction of the general physical and emotional malaise that comes from eating an overabundance of processed foods. In a water rich world — one we are no longer privileged to be living in — perhaps these factors don’t matter, but in a water poor world, this concept makes sense. Further, simply conserving water will not be enough; it’s akin to using a bandaid when you need a tourniquet. We need both: a more sustainable attitude and additional water sources. The money collected from an overdraft tax could be poured into research and development to explore regional water solutions. This in combination with more sustainable watering practices such as drip irrigation, overhead irrigation, soaking hoses, the use of water efficient crops, water-wise planting and using your purchasing power to buy products that use less water during the manufacturing process would buy the time needed to solve the impending water shortage issues. The true cost of our lifestyle on the environment and the choices we make should be accounted for by each of us before our assimilative capacity is reached.
If given the choice, most people would not wash their hands with a pesticide even if it assured them a squeaky clean, bacteria-free experience. Yet every day in kitchens and bathrooms across America, people are unwittingly doing that very thing. Triclosan bears a chemical name too long to pronounce and while not as pervasive as say, air, it does seem to be everywhere. Since making its debut in 1972 as a surgical scrub in hospitals, it has gone viral, pardon the pun, showing up in an ever-expanding list of products such as hand soaps, shampoos, dishwashing detergents, toothpastes, underarm deodorants, cosmetics, toys, fabrics, utensils, bedding, trash bags and flooring, among other things. The ruse is if you’re healthy, Triclosan doesn’t boost your chances of staying that way; studies show no reduced risk of viral infection in an otherwise healthy household. Yet because of overuse, scientists worry that Triclosan’s effectiveness as an antiseptic agent in hospitals and in general may be significantly reduced.
Triclosan, also known as Microban, Lexel 300 and Biofresh, to name a few, is an antimicrobial agent — a/k/a a pesticide — demonstrating success in killing microorganisms like bacteria, fungi and viruses. Without getting too technical, Triclosan blocks certain enzymes necessary for bacteria to reproduce, effectively stopping its spread. Sounds great until you realize that not all bacteria are bad (think yogurt), and that a “bomb the house” mentality is not always the safest or smartest way to treat a few rogue invaders on host organism shores.
In order for Triclosan to work effectively, 20 to 30 seconds of hand-washing is required, or as we tell school children, about the time it takes to sing Happy Birthday. Without that time investment, the positive effects are literally washed down the drain. The FDA and the CDC agree that the best way to keep your hands clean is to wash with good old soap and water. Unfortunately, about 75% of liquid and 30% of bar soaps contain an anti-microbial (more expensive, of course) which means you have to read labels. The CDC says Triclosan is present in 75% of the U.S. population’s urine samples and in breast milk. Waste water treatment plants are unable to remove Triclosan so it’s passing through these systems and into our rivers and streams where it’s particularly toxic to the algae feeding the aquatic ecosystem. Many of the products containing the chemical compound are water-soluble and hence, washed down the drain which explains why out of 95 organic wastewater contaminants tested for by U.S.Geological Survey, Triclosan was one of the most frequently detected.
While touted as non-toxic to humans, the collateral effects still have not been quanitified. Triclosan is easily absorbed into the body where it bioaccumulates in fatty tissues. It’s a potential thyroid disruptor which means it interferes with your body’s metabolic processes, lowering temperature and demonstrating a depression of the central nervous system. In addition, dioxins are formed when Triclosan is heated during the manufacturing process, or when it reacts with sunlight which degrades it to form dioxin, chlorophenols and other compounds in surface water. Studies also suggest that when combined with tap water, Triclosan forms chloroform, another human carcinogen. This ubiquitous and persistent environmental toxin which, depending on length and level of exposure is a likely carcinogen, becomes more dangerous as it bioaccumulates. And here we are washing our hands and faces with it, shampooing our hair and eating from plates washed with it. I even found Triclosan as a listed ingredient in my husband’s deodorant. According to manufacturers, Triclosan’s active ingredient continues to work up to 12 hours which means 12 hours of continued dermal contact.
Triclosan is regulated by EPA when used as a pesticide, preservative, fungicide, or biocide in plastics, fabrics, flooring and the like, and by the FDA when used as a food or drug additive. One wonders why a compound so harmful as to require registration on the one hand is used freely in our cosmetics and toothpastes without being registered. What’s the big deal about registering? You do that at a conference, right? Well, registration requires a manufacturer to review a product for efficacy so EPA can determine whether the manufacturer’s claims are true. More than 5,000 products have been registered with EPA as a pesticide. Because of a loophole in the law, if it’s used in products like deodorant or hand soap, or added to processed foods and not added to the product itself for the sake of protecting the product, for example, flooring, bedding, or utensils, it’s not considered a pesticide. The FDA regulations simply don’t have the regulatory oomph that the EPA regs have (which begs the question as to why products need more safeguarding than people, but I digress). The extra level of review EPA employs through its regulatory authority is not present for products we use on our bodies until after they are on the market if and when a product is proven unsafe and even then, the most the FDA can do is ask for a voluntary recall.
I have long been a libertarian, pharmaceutically speaking. We eat organic food, generally refuse the flu shot, only use antibiotics when it’s clear they are needed (and as a result, antibiotics work like a miracle drug in our house), and never buy antimicrobial soaps unless it’s by accident. (Hey, it happens. Anymore, you’ve got to read every single label and even then, it’s not a slam dunk.) My feeling is that if I allow my immune system to become fat and lazy, living high on the hog while the antimicrobial does all the work, when I really need my immune system to work for me, I’m going to find the “out to lunch” sign hanging on the door. There’s a term for this condition: “hygiene hypothesis”, proposed by epidemiologist, David P. Stracher in 1989, and it links the overuse of antibacterial agents to an increase in asthma and allergies. Apparently, allowing your body to mingle with microbes gives it a chance to test its mettle and develop some ninja-like, disease fighting skills that keep all kinds of troublesome conditions away. In fact, studies show that kids raised on farms have fewer allergies and hay fever than those raised in more sterile environments.
Currently, scientists are warning us of a super virus that is immune to treatment as a result of our overuse of antibiotics. With all this microbe protection going on will there soon be super-microbes and will our immune systems be unable to handle them? Even more intriguing, is it possible that microbes can be our friends?
At one time, America was a society of risk-takers. We created the greatest democracy on the planet, settled the West, put a man on the moon, the list goes on and is awe-inspiring. Then we got a few bucks in our collective pockets, a cellphone and a satellite TV with a bazillion channels, and suddenly we’re protecting everything in sight. We worked hard to build it, yes, but in our mass hysteria to protect and preserve it we’ve forgotten how to enjoy it. What’s all this have to do with soap, you ask? Everything! We’ve become risk adverse, adopting a prophylactic mentality, and it’s weakened us. You can’t protect yourself, your things, your family and everything you’ve got with a miracle soap or drug any more than you can slipcover the world. We’ve isolated ourselves from immediate danger, yes — if microbes can be considered dangerous — but what of the future? With such of plethora of chemicals in our potions and lotions, can our immune systems even spot a hostile takeover in the offing?
So instead of hunkering down in the dark where we’ll most definitely become night blind, read labels, ask the hard questions, write to manufacturers and Congress and tell them what you don’t want in your household products: pesticide-laden soap standing guard on your kitchen counter. Skip the chemicals that would usurp your immune system’s authority. Let your body do the work.
Author’s Note: EPA took public comments on a petition to ban Triclosan under various statutes in 2010. 75 F.R. 76461 – Dec 8, 2010. Over 10,000 comments were received. As a result, EPA will undertake another comprehensive review of Triclosan in 2013, a full ten years before the scheduled review.
To read the vivid poetry of Sandra Giedeman click here and be transported.
FRIENDS + LOVERS
Don’t you love it when worlds collide?
This past weekend I was visiting with a writer friend who talked about the idea of community as a recurring theme in the novel he is writing. Something about that rang true for me, and since that time I keep bumping into the idea of community. Oh, sure, I read my share of spiritual texts that assert that we are all one. And I get that on a certain level, I do. But the concept remains mostly theoretical. At least it did, until recently.
Last week I had a dental procedure for which I wimped out and chose sedation rather than wearing myself down with anxiety and fear of the pain that would accompany the scraping, probing, and abuse of my mouth. I don’t usually opt for medication, and barely even take aspirin, but when it comes to my teeth, I go straight to the meds.
The thing is, the dental people told me repeatedly, ‘have someone drive you.’ Drive me? Feh. I am a fiercely independent, professionally successful person. I can bring home the (soy) chorizo and fry it up. I can change a car tire with a single call to AAA. Plus, I work two blocks from the dentist, so I thought I could hoof it there and back on my own. Before I left my office, I told a co-worker about the dentist’s warning and that I intended to walk back to the office. I said I would ask for a ride home and worry about getting my car later if I needed to. Then I took my pre-visit Halcion then walked over to Dr. Perio’s office and let him slide a needle into my hand and start an IV drip juiced up with Big Pharma.
Imagine my surprise, when I opened my eyes and floated back to the surface of consciousness in the dental chair, and the doctor’s assistant said, “your friend is here to pick you up.” Even in my muddled state, I was deeply touched. I really thought that I could walk on my own back to the office and wait around for the fog to clear so I could safely drive two miles to my home. As it turns out, Doc was heavy handed with the sedation and I could barely walk to my colleague’s car unassisted, let alone wobble the two long blocks back to the office. What a joke!
But what remains with me most poignantly from this little saga is that my colleague, whom I’ve known a short time, has clearly embraced me so generously as a part of her community that she did not wait for me to ask for help (goddess forbid), she did what she would do for a true member of her tribe; she showed up. She showed up and helped a drugged and drooling fool into her car without a second thought. Reflecting on it now makes me inordinately grateful to have this generous soul in my life.
So then, this has led me to wonder about the communities that make up my world. . .because they are broader and deeper than I have heretofore given them credit. Who are they? My family (yes, the crazies too). Dear friends (even when we don’t connect for months). Co-workers (the close and the strange). Roommates. Friends. Lovers (then and now). Fellow bloggers. Readers. Writers. The grocery check-out clerk.
You see how this goes? It doesn’t end. Anyone who has ever been in my life is my community, my tribe. All those connections; they all matter. We are all connected by virtue of a shared experience of (for lack of a better description): me. Or you. Or him. Or the guy you give a buck to, waiting for the light to change. The kid shoveling popcorn into paper bags at the movie theater. The neighbor who accidentally backs into your car in the night and who leaves a note so that she can pay for the damage to your car. The only ones who are not a part of your community are those who, by reason of egregious behavior, get evicted (rightly) from your community. Then, they become members of another community. The x-community.
So where does it end? It doesn’t. We are all responsible for each other. Period. Not long ago, I met a fellow at an oyster bar as we were sitting there slurping our respective dinners. We got to talking, and I shared with him that I am a fundraiser by profession. He expressed deep respect and reverence for my work, and I thanked him for it. Then a few minutes later, out of the blue he growled, “I guess you are one of those liberals.”
WTF? Well, I said, batting my eyes and smiling engagingly, “If believing that it is our responsibility to care for one another, then yes. I am one of those.” He clearly did not consider me a member of his community. That’s okay. He doesn’t know any better. I can know better enough for both of us. If I knew then what I know now I would say, Hello, my name is Cynthia. Welcome to my community.
EVOLVE OR REVOLVE
Perhaps if Congress jumps off the fiscal cliff the rest of us can have a shot at redemption. We’re mired waist deep in arguments about economic policy, gun control, and women’s reproductive rights, among others, and the level of divisiveness, at a new high, has left us feeling uncharacteristically low. Our elected officials behave like kindergarteners disagreeing on the playground, the difference being that in kindergarten they teach you kindness, truth, respect and forgiveness so there’s a good chance those same kids will play nice tomorrow. That’s not even a remote possibility where Congress is concerned and maybe where our kids are concerned as well. By the time they get through college, the stress of competing with each other for spots on the team, A’s in the classroom and the few jobs still left out there, all the kindness, truth and respect have been wrung from them and replaced by a need to win at any cost. And one day, some of them will be Congressmen.
While the American ideal of going for what you want no matter the cost settled this country, assuring our sense of individuality and a “can-do” spirit, the pendulum has swung too far. Witness Lance Armstrong who thought he was so above the fray that truth didn’t apply to him. Bernie Madoff. John Edwards. The Enron guys. Half of AIG. Even General Petraeus. We’ve become a nation of psychopathic egoists. If I could, I’d blame Ronald Reagan for most of it. Ronald Reagan, the actor turned President, who was lionized, romanticized, aggrandized and supersized. Ronald Reagan, who Republicans fondly remember as the greatest Republican President of all time — why is it the Democrats remember Lincoln as the greatest Republican President? — the “Way Shower” of the modern right who ended the Cold War and proved to the world America was still boss. I could, but I’d be wrong to blame him for everything.
Reagan did a lot of things that were antithetical to a democratic society. I’m a little fuzzy on all of them since 1984 was a year after I graduated college and I was busy celebrating my freedom and the fact that I had a few extra bucks in my pocket. However, I did notice a few things. One: For purely economic reasons, Reagan closed a lot of the mental health institutions, turning crazy people into crazy homeless people. America said little about this and since it was happening to the disenfranchised who had no voice, it all went through without guilt or remorse. Two: Reagan made popular the term “trickle down economics” which later became Reaganomics, a theory embraced by the rich and hardly anyone else. Yet the last thirty years have proven that the trickle down theory doesn’t work. Rather it has contributed to the huge dichotomy of wealth in this country. Decades later, the Tricklers are still trying to sell us the same piece of crap car, thinking we’re still not going to look under the hood. Currently, 1% of the people own 99% of the rest of us. Exaggeration? Perhaps, but what are we, the 99%, waiting for? The Messiah? Rush Limbaugh or Fox News to stop spewing hate? A good deal on Groupon?
Reagan’s policies set generations of people back. They just didn’t know it then because it’s only started happening now. Reagan knew trickle down would take years to catch up with him and when it did, chances are he’d be dead (surprise!). But now it’s arrived (surprise, surprise!) and people are borrowing against their 401(k) plans, the ones the government suggested they set up in lieu of their soon-to-be-extinct pension plans, because they can no longer meet their mortgage payments or pay their electric bills given the 30% cut in salary they’ve been forced to take to keep their jobs. It’s the new 60-hour-just-be-happy-you-still-have-a-job mentality rolled out by corporate we’re-people-too-America. “How did we get here?” we ask. The answer is karma — cause and effect. Unfortunately, because we don’t always immediately see the effect of our actions we irrationally assume that the two things are not related. Some effects, especially those of a policy nature, take years to manifest. A person involved in a car accident sustains immediate injuries and is rushed to the nearest hospital, but a person who eats pesticide-laden food every day for 30 years may take that long to develop cancer or an auto immune disease, or have their organs start breaking down. You don’t get lung cancer from smoking your first cigarette, and the economic s*** doesn’t hit the fan the first time a company lays off its American workforce and sends the whole shebang to China.
What do you have when you gut a company’s assets, do nothing to rehab or reconstruct the infrastructure, and give all the profits to the corporate shareholders? You have a shell. A shell by definition is “an outer form without substance,” an exterior whose interior consists of empty space — no heart, no brain, no guts and no soul. Without conscious intent and conscientious enterprise karma will get you every time. Reagan’s trickle down theory is why we’re in such a mess today. Our self-serving, purely economically motivated decisions are why so many live without health care. Republicans are bitching about the upfront cost, but do you know what the downwind cost of no health care is? What the societal cost is of one bipolar guy not on his meds because he needs a facility with trained health care professionals to make sure he takes them? More than what it costs to keep him in a facility, to his friends and family, his neighbors, the hospital that has to take him in every time he goes bonkers. In the end, somebody’s got to pick up the tab, perhaps amortized over the life of the problem. Front end or back, choose wisely. Typically, Congress chooses the back end so others can deal with it thirty years down the road, but that’s because they’re cowards.
In a wrongful death action, the court will valuate a life, i.e., put a value on the deceased’s earning capacity over his potential lifetime as a way to calculate the individual’s worth and make whole the loved ones left behind with cash (unfortunately, it’s the only way we know how to do it). But how can we even begin to assess the loss of the love light of a single one of those first-graders in Sandy Hook Elementary? Can you put a value on the sun? Impossible.
In Pennsylvania in 2011, we had no qualms about allocating $2.1 billion out of the General Fund to cover the cost of the state’s prison system, but in a less punitive, less primitive society — i.e., more heart-centered — most of those people wouldn’t even be on the prison track. They would have had an education, a job, people who care about them, a sense of self-worth. Hidden truths (cause) may take years to come to fruition (effect).
Despite all of that, I withhold judgment on Ronnie and here’s why: the uber-Republican Reagan supported a ban on assault rifles. Even with the Second Amendment’s hallowed place in our shared history, Reagan was against unfettered freedom when it came to owning assault rifles. True, he had a change of heart from his own presidency, but in 1994 he wrote to Congress, asking them to support the Clinton ban on assault weapons. Reagan himself, his press secretary, a cop, and a Secret Service agent had been victims of a deranged man’s shooting spree in 1986. Even so, calling for support for Clinton’s ban was a ballsy thing for a Republican to do, and for this I’m admire the guy. He lobbied specific members of Congress. The measure passed by two votes. Sometimes you have to do the right thing, make amends, say your sorry. Our current Congress never seems able to do this. Do they simply lack the moral fiber to legislate responsibly?
Recently. the NRA ran an ad calling Obama an elitist and a monarch because his kids go to school with armed guards protecting them while the rest of the country’s children do without. Last time I checked, there was only one POTUS and Secret Service protection for him and his family came with the job. It has to because it’s like the Wild West out there and without protection, some psycho would have taken the First Family out a long time ago. However, most of America’s children don’t have such high profile parents, and armed guards aren’t necessary although at times it seems like we’re trying our darnedest to make them so. Did twenty little school children give their lives in vain? How many more will it take to get people to put their murderous toys away, sit down at the table and talk to each other with respect? What kind of world do we live in when TSA pulls you out of line at the airport for a Swiss Army knife, yet people walk around freely carrying concealed weapons?
Here’s the difference in how a child and an adult deal with their stuff. It was the night before the first day of school and my daughter was nervous. I kissed her goodnight and left her to deal with her anxiousness. The next day she reported trouble sleeping, fear, circadian rhythms in disarray.
“I couldn’t sleep last night.”
“Did you hear the rain?”
“No, I didn’t hear anything.”
“Well, it poured so you must have slept.”
She actually did sleep, and what’s stellar about it all was her coping mechanism; she realized she needed to take action in order to be at peace. After an hour and a half where anxiety barred the gate, refusing to let her eyelids shut, she decided to have a “closing ceremony” a la the Olympics games, and wave a fond farewell to the summer she thoroughly enjoyed. She enjoys every summer, but this year she was on the cusp of something big, of going from child to adolescent and it was happening so fast she wasn’t quite ready for it.
My daughter recalled all the events of the summer, the vacations, the swim meets, the week-long sleepovers with cousins at our house, the friends, new and old. She thanked them all for their part in her amazing summer, blessed them and sent them on their way with nothing but well wishes. Moments later, relaxed and in a state of completion, she fell asleep. The endless summer was over; her new chapter had begun. What she did was to shift her awareness from fear to love. Instead of clinging to the old and fearing the new, she blessed the old and embraced the new. Here again the wisdom of a child surpasses.
I’m always amazed by how hard people fight evolution, how they argue for their limitations. Sometimes it’s only when they get to their deathbed, taking those last few remorseful breaths that they finally get their affairs in order. Some people cross over without ever changing their minds. I guarantee those people will be back to try again. Evolve or revolve — those are the only options. There are secrets waiting to be discovered in this vast and mysterious universe, but in order to do so we have to open our hands and let go of the past otherwise they’ll be too full to grasp what’s coming. Scientists say time is speeding up, faster and faster, and one day it will finally collapse. Then it’s bye-bye 3D, and hello to the 4th, 5th and beyond dimensions. So until time literally runs out, let’s shift our awareness before what’s left of it collapses and shifts it for us. Call it an evolution of the Spirit. Either we evolve or in ten years, or even ten minutes, we’re going to have a revolution on our hands — and some of us are going to be armed to the teeth.
There’s this game I like to play now and then to amuse myself. Sometimes, when I see people passing on the street or come across an old photo, I like to imagine them either as a child or a very old person. The people that I like to imagine as a children are often hooligans, troubled, homeless. I imagine them as someone’s baby and wonder what they looked like on their first day of school. When I see a photo of a child, I try to imagine how their features will changes as they travel through their 20s, 30s, and beyond.
A picture isn’t worth a thousand words; that is far too trivial an estimate. Or pictures bypass language altogether. They circumvent the brain and shoot straight for the heart. Either way, photographs are some powerful magic. I would not go so far as to say they have the power to capture your soul, but neither do I think they can capture your essence. More than anything, they are a moment, a whisper, a stop-motion shadow. What nuance is there in a compressed, two-dimensional image? We are far more juicy than that.
Recently, my cousin Wendie posted photos on her Facebook page of my parents when they were quite young. Seriously, they were babies. These are shots that my sisters and I have never seen. Photos my sisters’ kids and grandkids have never seen. I suspect Wendie’s mom, my aunt, took some of them; she was an amazing artist and you can see how she composed the fields like a painting. The photos Cousin Wendie has been posting would be taken from her family albums. My sister and I spoke on the phone and ciphered out that when shots were taken, the two young couples would have been in Spokane, the city where our parents met and married.
In one photo, (black and white, circa 1950), Wendie’s dad and my dad, young married brothers, are celebrating. They are sporting big grins, fat cigars clenched between their teeth; they are two long-legged young men leaning into one another, arms around shoulders, raising bottles of beer. In another photo, Dad has hoisted Mom up in his arms and she is blushing prettily over her shoulder at the camera. This picture just about stops my heart. As near as I can figure, Mom is not yet pregnant for the first time or at least not far along, so she must be 18. That would make Dad 27. They are young, they are in love. They have not yet been disillusioned, not yet bitch-slapped by the Great American Dream. They have not yet closed down their hearts and entered the marriage years of endurance. You know, that wilderness between drunk in love and surrendering to the tide. I don’t remember my parents like that. I don’t remember them young or giddy. Being born late in the order of things, I remember the cacophony of too many children, camping, catechism, chaos.
My mom’s generation was the last of the stay at home moms as a matter of cultural course. Their media icons were Donna Reid, Lucille Ball, Doris Day. Cultural programming finished the job that the nuns at Sacred Heart began, and my mother’s career was set. Dad worked construction. Weekends he mowed the lawn or cleaned out the roof gutters. Sometimes he took us skating or bowling.
My parents married in 1948, when Mom was 17 and Dad was 25. I’ve always known this and thought that they were shockingly young, but that is what people did then. Still, I don’t recall much evidence of their youth. By the time I began to develop a sense of self-awareness, my parents would have been in their 30s, somewhere in the early 1960s. Dad wore a buzz cut. Mom sported a perky little bubble do. They kept a photo on their bedroom bureau, a memento, a taken at a Canadian resort (sans the tribe of children), in which Dad is wearing a sports jacket and tie; Mom is smiling and shining her eyes into the camera. It appears they are at a dinner show, living it up.
Years after these collective, beautiful black and white photographs were taken, my younger brother, the last of the tribe to leave home, asked Mom if, given the chance to do it over, would she still have children. She did not hesitate. She said no.
I know it is somehow déclassé or sad or ambitious to admit that I like Facebook, but I do. Maybe that makes me hopelessly out of touch, standing in the shadow of the next great social media fetish, but I don’t care. Facebook has helped me connect with people that I thought had evolved out of my world a million years ago, never to return. The brother of a childhood friend who died heroically and tragically young. A girlfriend from my first marriage, a beautiful soul married to the best friend of my ex (we lost each other in the divorce). My parents.
In present time, Dad has what experts say is vascular dementia, which is a complicated way of saying that he has memory loss as a result of a series of small strokes. His lifelong companion and helpmeet, Mom, is at the train station waiting for the next ride out. But also in present time, Wendie’s photos have opened a door into a place I did not know existed, and that is nothing short of miraculous.
What I love about social media is that it has allowed us to connect with one another in a whole new way. And isn’t that what any of us really want? Sure, a lot of social media is just noise, but it also has this amazing capacity to bring us all a little closer to understanding what this crazy little ride is all about, and that is never a bad thing.
I am late. It’s a chronic trait of mine that needs some attention. I’ve worked on it for years, but the problem persists. It’s not like I’m looking to keep people waiting. It’s just that I always have a list of projects, backloaded to infinity, and being a list person, I’m always looking for the high that comes with checking something off of it. Just one more paragraph of the story I’m writing, one more towel in the basket of laundry I’m folding, whatever. I’m always racing off to catch the train as if they just changed the departure time to leave two minutes earlier even though I’ve been commuting on the same line since 1994. So it’s not surprising that on a recent trip to Santa Fe with my husband to celebrate our ten-year anniversary, I found myself across the aisle from where our flight was departing, arguing with customer service.
The flight was still there, sitting at the gate, and even though departure time was still eight or nine minutes away, ain’t no way we were getting on that plane. The employee boarding passengers had shut off the lighted sign indicating flight information.
“We’re on this flight,” I said, presenting my boarding pass. He fixed me with a “the hell you are,” stare and drew himself up to his full height. He may have even raised a hand, the international symbol for “stop right there.” He seemed to relish his fifteen seconds of authority.
“Doors are closed,” he said. “Go get yourselves rerouted.” My gaze followed as he pointed a craggy, Jacob Marley-esque finger across the hall.
“But the plane’s right there,” I said, pointing past him to where the plane was sitting, still at the gate, still going nowhere. Unfortunately, my finger didn’t carry the same weight.
The day had started out well enough. Up at 4 a.m. to make the drive to the Philadelphia airport, about to go off on holiday, sans kids, and with an hour and a half to spare, we arrived, giddy with joy and relief on our timely arrival, or maybe it was the lack of sleep, and after parking the car and taking the shuttle to the terminal, we still had an hour and change in our pockets.
There was a brief, hilarious pit stop in the women’s room where I overheard two Bubbies, sisters perhaps, talking:
“I don’t know why you couldn’t have waited.”
“I just needed to stop. I made a little pee. I have to go.”
“What does it matter? You’re wearing the diaper.”
“I know, but I made a little pee. I don’t want to sit in it all day. I gotta change it.”
“That’s what the diaper’s for.”
And so on. Being possessed of a Roman nose that can detect an “out-of-sorts” smell a mile out, it was heartening to hear that the diaper situation was under control.
Standing in the security line, I realized I had forgotten to remove my Swiss Army knife from the bottom of my purse, a big “no-no” in TSA parlance. I confess this to my husband as we move on, loading our bags and belts and shoes in the small grey plastic containers. He tells me to “ride it out. Maybe they won’t notice. Besides, what’s the worst that could happen? They take the knife?” I walk through the metal detector, trying to look innocent. For me, this never works. Apparently, nothing gets you pulled out of line faster than the weapon of mass destruction I’m carrying.
“Miss, is this your purse?”
“Yes,” I say, trying to hide the guilt. Getting away with things is not my forte.
“Can you get your things and step over here with me?” I do, and he opens my bag. I catch my husband’s eye, but the TSA guy gives me what for and tells me I have to watch him.
“Okay,” I say, but this means I’ll have to watch TSA toss my deluxe Swiss Army knife with the great scissors and handy cork screw into the trash — almost too much to bear at this hour. Of course, he finds the knife.
“Is this yours?” he asks. I nod, but really want to say, “like, who else would it belong to, dude.” Instead, I smile politely and say “you don’t know how many of these I’ve lost,” clearly the wrong thing to say to a TSA guy, but by my count, this is about numero quatro. Does anyone really believe that they have a trash can full of Swiss Army knives out back? Enough already.
“What do you use that thing for, anyway?”
“Well,” I offer, looking to make amends for my last crack and scrambling to find common ground, “it’s got a really handy cork screw.” And . . . no smile, no twinkle of understanding, no “I hate when you have a bottle of wine and no way to open it.” Nothing. The TSA guy is probably a Muslim or a Born Again Christian, neither of which drink alcohol. I take my foot out of my mouth, grab my stuff and back away as quickly as possible from the security check point.
Perhaps the heady feeling of being sprung from TSA was too much because my husband and I don’t realize the time and were strolling when we should have been racing to the gate. We dawdled, stopping briefly at the Dunkin’ Donuts where we almost bought a cup of coffee and then decided against it — a non-stop, really — and then the stop at the electric utility provider who flagged us down with the promise of a blanket and 12,000 frequent flyer miles just for signing up — I’m still not sure for what. The whole transaction took, literally, about three minutes and I got the miles and the cushy blanket, but it cost us the flight. We were standing at the gate at 8:04; the departure time was 8:15. The lawyer in me wanted to threaten, the child in me wanted to throw a tantrum — “I still have a minute. It’s only 8:04!” (apparently, US Air policy is to close the gate 10 minutes before scheduled take off) — but the employee responsible for loading passenger wasn’t having any of my shenanigans, hence the craggy finger pointing.
“The plane’s still here,” I say, to the sour-faced women behind the customer service counter who refused to look at us, opting for the computer screen instead.
“Once the doors are closed, they’re closed,” she said.
“But they closed them early. Plus departure time hasn’t even happened yet. And we got pulled out of line at TSA after waiting 45 minutes. I lost my Swiss Army knife.” I moan. Judiciously, I say nothing about the blanket.
“Gotta get here earlier next time. I’d say two hours.”
“But why reroute us when you can put us on the plane right there?” I gesticulate in the direction of the sleeping metal giant, soon to be roaring to life, but similar to getting caught taking pictures in a museum when you know you’re not allowed, I was steeped in guilt and out of words, the passion gone from my argument. I watched as she sat there, tap, tap, tapping away on her computer for a good three or so minutes before offering:
“You guys are gonna have a long day.”
To get us to Santa Fe, and perhaps to accentuate her point about the necessity of timeliness in airline travel, she sent us to San Francisco, then Phoenix, and then Albuquerque where we had another hour and a half drive after we secured our rental car. Our 5-hour flight had become a 3-stop, 3-city affair, like being on the tour bus without a single one of the perks of stardom.
Days later, we were at Bandolier National Monument. Because of a huge wildfire that destroyed thousands upon thousands of acres last year, you can only access the park on the government-sanctioned tour bus. When they dropped us off, the tour guide at Bandolier National Monument admonished those of us on the bus not to be late returning, that the last bus would be leaving the park at 4:30 p.m. sharp. You can damn well be sure we were on time, even foregoing the last 40-foot climb up into the larger cliff dwellings just to insure our timeliness even though there were dozens of people frolicking up in those caves as if they had all the time in the world.
Imagine that group of travelers, the stragglers. The park closes. Rather than leave them to the elements overnight in the park alone, the staff is forced to stay late, looking for the wayward scofflaws. The impatient bus driver sits, tapping the wheel, quelling his anger with some deep-breathing exercises, when finally they sidle up behind the tour guide, faces downcast, guilty as hell, forced to ride the bad bus back into town in silence.
But today, thank God, it’s not us. It took an unnecessary cross-country trip and the loss of an entire day of a 5-day excursion to cement it. Lesson learned. “I have time” is my new mantra and should I feel myself slipping, all I’ll have to do is pull out my blanket.
Jesus Mary Buddha
Helen Okabe stands in her living room in pajamas and stares across the Puget Sound and watches the first streaks of light hit the tips of Mt. Olympus. Light reflects off the steel blue water and refracts into waves of silver. After a long, wet winter, summer makes an audible exhalation across the city. A collective sigh of relief. The warm air is a soft kiss on bare skin. There is no cold shiver, no dash to avoid water streaking out of a gun metal sky.
She sips bancha tea, trying to cultivate her chi, trying to keep everything in balance so her Yang doesn’t overpower her Yin. She breathes in for six counts, thinks of Nick Taylor, whom she met on a blind date in a tapas bar. An aging hippie, Nick owns a construction company in Juanita and played in the Jimi Hendrix band briefly, in the heyday of Haight Ashbury. He is the father of a grown daughter. Nick has been married three times; widowed once.
“Don’t tell anyone about us,” he whispered one night over tuna roll and kappa maki. Helen nodded slowly, calculating. As a journalist, she was accustomed to lovers asking if they would be included in her narrative, not left out. This was a first. It occurred to her that he was worried that friends of his dead wife might think that he was somehow cheating on her, that somehow his image might be tarnished.
Over warm olives and crusty sourdough, Helen learns that Nick’s third wife parked her Range Rover at the edge of town on the banks of the Snohomish River and washed down a handful of pentobarbital with a bottle of flinty Oregon pinot gris. It was his first year of mourning and he still hated her and loved her in ways he hadn’t yet explored. “I don’t know how I can do better than that,” he told Helen one night. “I mean fucking look at her.” He gestured toward a framed photo of them on his living room mantle. “She’s gorgeous.”
On Earth Day they up-cycle a pair of antique windows and build a table out of them. Later, they eat salmon with their fingers, straight out of his backyard smoker. After dark, they sit in deck chairs in the garden and watch shooting stars.
Eight weeks into their affair, she drives home through the city streets late at night with the windows down, with air warm as a lover’s breath sliding up her arms, through her hair. The rhododendrons are in bloom. The azalea, lavender, chives, strawberries, raspberries, pear, five kinds of apple, chestnuts. Even at 11 pm, there are couples walking, cyclists peddling down the quiet evening streets in thin cotton dresses, short sleeves. It is evident that even in the dark, they are sucking the juice out of the first days of summer, taking shy steps toward the grilling season. Through the car windows, Helen Okabe breathes in the perfume of lilac.
For his birthday she gives Nick an anatomically correct chocolate heart spiced with habanero pepper. He makes his signature clams and beer. Afterward, he builds a fire in the backyard firepit and they recline on deck chairs, watching the sky. He talks about his men’s group, about getting in touch with his feelings.
“I’ve been wondering,” he begins. “What if I’ve been sabotaging relationships my whole life?”
Unlike so many middle aged men, Nick is messed up on love and he knows it. To his credit, he is actually trying to unpack that baggage. Helen sucks an ice cube and lets the water slide down her throat. “I was just wondering that myself,” she says.
She has. She has been doing her spiritual inventory and counting up the number of times that, when the going got tough, she got gone. She was up to four. It wasn’t pretty.
“I think I have intimacy issues,” he says.
“Wait,” she replies. “You said you and Reina were simpatico. You were married ten years. You renewed your vows every spring for God sake. That sounds awfully intimate to me.”
“Nah,” Nick waves the idea away. “That was only appearances. I checked out after two years, if I’m honest about it.”
Appearances, her Zen master said, not only fool, you they aren’t even real. Helen still hasn’t wrapped her head around that one.
She offers the only solace she has, something from a piece of research she is working on. “The top five fears of most people are public speaking, followed by flying, heights, fear of the dark, and intimacy.” She counts them off on the fingers of her hand and refrains from adding that following this list, the fears continue with death, failure, rejection, spiders, commitment.
“That can’t be right,” Nick says.
“It’s from a university study,” she replies.
“I would say fear of intimacy is number one,” he continues. “People are scared to death of intimacy. Just think what it means if you are right.”
“I am right.”
“If you are right, and I’m not saying you are, it means people would rather sleep with strangers than speak in front of a crowd of them.”
“It doesn’t mean that at all.”
“People are more afraid of emotional honesty than talking,” he says. “Look,” he says, pointing to a light moving across the night sky, “a satellite.” It is a clear spring night and the sky is shy of clouds and the moon is new so they have space to shine. “Anyway. That’s my story, and I’m sticking with it.”
The next day Helen’s roommate, Belinda, texts her: Speed dating! Looks fun. R U in?
Helen shares her Queen Anne loft with a program officer for a ridiculously well-funded relief agency. She has a bachelor’s degree in public policy and a master’s degree in fine art, which often makes her overqualified for everything except nonprofit work.
Helen is decidedly not in. She abhors the whole set up of the speed dating circuit, its smack of desperation. Twenty men in an hour! Good god, she could barely handle one in an hour, much less cycling through one every two minutes with an egg timer. Her favorite album cover art is from a crooner whose voice cuts her in two. He is shaggy-faced and platinum-tongued. The art on the front of his CD is of a devil dancing with a blindfolded woman. In Helen’s opinion that about sums it up.
But Belinda is philosophical. “You have to look out for yourself,” she says. “Men leave. They cheat. They die. You can’t plan on them being there forever. They come. They go.”
Belinda’s husband had died of soul-wrenching, gut-twisting leukemia, and she nursed him through it all, even wrestling him to the bed when in his delirium, he endeavored an escape. In reality, he was fighting to escape the body that had betrayed him. In his delirium, he just wanted to break out of that house, with its creeping stink of death. Once, Belinda confided to Helen that her husband was abusive and that if he hadn’t gotten sick, she would have left him. “But after the diagnosis,” she said, “How could I?” Instead, she traveled a path toward hell, kept company with guilt, flirted with desperation. It took her years to recover.
copyright 2012 cynthia gregory
thank you for reading this far.
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