Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Waiting for the Telecom Companies to Communicate

More and more in the past weeks, I've been thinking of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot.  Longtime readers of this blog know that I often view the workplace through a surrealistic lens.  And now, I view the customer service universe through a similar lens.

Another day, another few hours on the phone with telecom companies who don't seem to know me or their service technicians or their billing practices.  We've had Internet access for some time, but getting a phone # transferred seems to take an astonishing amount of effort.

Yesterday, when I called to find out where we were in the process--and I called because I got 2 contradictory messages from Comcast--the recording told me that I had a service appointment scheduled for August 5.

Why would that be?  I didn't make that appointment, and my spouse didn't either.  When I asked about it, the 4 people to whom I spoke didn't understand either.  Dizzying.

My spouse and I talked about how when AT&T was a monopoly, we all had better service.  I'm sure the equipment was less complicated, but I'm also sure when one company controls the variables, it all could run more smoothly--like the difference between a dictatorship and a democracy.

In the end, no one could tell me why a $60 visit was scheduled, but it was unscheduled.  And still, no one can tell me why it takes so long to transfer a phone #, but it does, and maybe next week our phone number will make its way to our new house.

But I won't be surprised if there are still some phone calls in my future.  And to amuse myself, I'll rewrite Beckett.  Maybe I'll even quote some Beckett to the hapless "customer service" people who pick up the phone.

What are we waiting for?

We're waiting for the telecom company to respond.

Why are we waiting?

Are there any carrots and radishes left?

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Poet Buys a Stove and Makes a Plan

I still have not done any writing in the new house--or any creating of any kind, except for creating order out of chaos.  I've put away seemingly endless boxes and bags of possessions.  I've sorted the possessions left behind at the old house.  I have a closet full of boxed stuff to be given away or sold at a yard sale.  At least with it in the closet, we can hopefully get the house on the market soon.

We were going to have a yard sale this past Saturday morning, until I decided I just couldn't manage that.  Thank goodness we made that decision.  Saturday was another day of torrential rain.  Of course, torrential rain was nowhere in the forecast.

So, I've been sorting and boxing and transporting (to the new house or to the yard sale closet).  My writing space will be wonderful very soon.  My goal is to be writing in it as August begins.

The other thing we did this week-end was to buy a stove.  You may or may not remember that we bought a house that the former owner was in the process of remodeling.  There wasn't much in the way of a kitchen, although the owner had a decent refrigerator with an even nicer refrigerator on order--but no stove.

I did some research and determined that the stove we wanted was at Lowe's.  My spouse and I had several times when we had planned to go get it--and then, he'd get another assignment in his capacity as a consultant.  The consultant's life down here is similar to a freelancer's life, so I told him to go ahead and take the work, since we're never sure when it's coming.  Make money while you can, I said.

You're probably wondering why I didn't just march off and buy the stove myself.  I really wanted us both to do it.  He does more cooking than I do these days.  We were deliberating between black and stainless.  And I wasn't in a huge hurry to spend the chunk of money a stove requires.

Finally, on Sunday, we made it to Lowe's.  The stove I'd chosen wasn't there, but a better version was there for only $40 more.  They didn't have any in stock, but I got the floor model for 10% off.  And I got a 6 months same as cash deal.*  Hopefully, by the end of January, the old house will be sold.  If not sold, it will be rented.  And I can pay for the stove, which frees up resources for other projects now--at some point, I'll write about the cottage in the back yard, but not now.  I don't want to risk getting overwhelmed.

So, although I haven't done much writing in the past few weeks, the puzzle pieces are coming together.  And it's not like I've done nothing.  I've done a blog piece for the Living Lutheran site.  I've continued to do some blogging.

I expect this move will be the last one we make until we go to the old folks' home, so hopefully, my writing life won't experience this kind of disruption again.  Of course, there will be other disruptions.  The important thing is to continue to plan for the time when the chaos recedes.

And I have plans!

*The stove was supposed to be delivered yesterday.  When I got home, I was surprised to find the wrong stove--how can this happen?  More phone calls, more weeping, more waiting.  This moving experience has been quite the combination of wonderful customer service and horrible customer service.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Three Month Anniversary

Three months ago today, I saw the listing for the house that would be our new house eventually.  Of course, I didn't know it would be our new house.  I wrote an e-mail with this subject line:  "I might have fallen in love with this one!"

I was looking at lots of listings online.  We were spending lots of time driving through the neighborhood where we wanted to buy.  We even went to an open house here and there.

On Monday, April 29, my friend and I were going to the Richard Blanco poetry reading.  I asked if she minded if we drove by the house that was the subject of the e-mail.  She was agreeable.

I recognized the house from the online picture, but there was no sign in the yard.  I thought it was curious, but the Zillow listing I stumbled across, it was a For Sale by Owner, so I didn't think much about it.  I thought it was priced a bit high.

But I was intrigued.  It was a good house on a good street, one of the wider streets in the historic district.  It had an undeniable charm.  I went back to the Zillow site again and again.

Finally, on Thursday, I called the owner.  I said, "Is your house for sale?  Because I've seen one Zillow site where it is, and then there's another one where it doesn't appear to be."

He had taken the house off the market because he wasn't getting any interest in it.  He had decided to do some repairs and upgrades and try again later in the summer.

I said, "What if you didn't have to do the upgrades?  What if you had a buyer who wanted it in an as-is condition, if the price could be lower?"

We talked a bit more.  He was leaving town, but he'd be back in 10 days.  We agreed to think about it and be in touch if we were still interested.

In those 10 days, we continued to look at other houses.  We made many trips through the neighborhood.  There was a morning of flooding rains, and I drove through various streets to see how they handled torrential rain.  I was more and more impressed with the house that would become our new house.

Finally, on May 23, we met the owner at the house.  By that point, in a way, it didn't matter.  I was a goner, head over heels in love with a house I hadn't ever seen inside.

Of course, if it had been dreadful, I have no doubt I'd have fallen right back out of love.  If we couldn't have come to a mutally acceptable price, I'd have stayed in love and mourned the house that got away.

Happily, we made offers and counter offers and came to an agreement and headed towards closing.  And not a day goes by that I don't shake my head in wonder at it all.  It's only strange luck that I stumbled across the Zillow listing at all--strange luck or an inscrutable algorithm.

I'm happy, whatever the reason:  luck, algorithm, God, destiny, or chance.  Let me take a moment to pause in gratitude.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Weary: The Word to Sum Up My Last Two Weeks

At times I ask myself, "Why am I tired?  It's not like I've been writing much.  Work hasn't been more onerous than usual.  We haven't had out of town visitors."  And then I think, oh right, I bought a house.

Two weeks ago, we'd have been signing paperwork.  What have I done since then?

--Sorted and sorted and sorted bookcases--not only my own, but the school library's books.

--Hauled books from place to place, both within the same place, and between locations.  I've done that with many of my possessions, come to think of it, moved them from room to room.

--Moved most of my possessions from one house that I've lived in since 1998 to my new house, 2 miles away.  Thank goodness we had friends who came to help.

--I've packed and unpacked.  I still have much to do.

--I've done some cleaning.  I still  have much to do.

--I've walked to the beach several times.  I've swum in the pool that's in the backyard of the new house.  I hope to continue to do these activities each day.

--I've spent far too many hours on the phone trying to get services transferred.

--My car started sounding sluggish when I started it--off to AutoZone for a new battery, as the old one was still under partial warranty.

--We did a major shopping trip for household items.  We still need to do a major grocery trip.  In the weeks leading up to the closing date, I tried not to spend too much money, in fear that the closing would cost more than I expected. 

--And did I mention how much packing and unpacking I've been doing?  Once I could fit all of my possessions into my '74 Monte Carlo.  What happened to that girl?

--And I've maintained a regular work schedule.

Yes, no wonder I'm tired.  But it's a good tired, the tired that comes from setting plans into motion and achieving goals.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Are We All the Woman Upstairs?

Yesterday's post talked about reading Meg Wolitzer's The Interestings.  It's fabulous in its analysis of gender and class.  Several of the characters are artists, and a group of them met at a summer camp for artsy kids, so the book also explores the role of the arts, both in the lives of teenagers, and as grown ups.

Yesterday morning, I also started the latest novel by Claire Messud, The Woman Upstairs.  So far, it's dovetailing nicely with the Wolitzer book.  Messud also explores the role of art in people's lives, especially women.  She's also doing some interesting analysis into the role of families, and I'm intrigued to see where this is going.

Lionel Shriver's latest, Big Brother, is also on my list.  I suspect that it will make an interesting counterpoint to Wolitzer and Messud.

Messud's novel also dissects the role of rage in modern women.  The first person narrator, whom I suspect is highly unreliable, argues that all modern women are angry, and that if we don't admit it, we're in a state of deep denial.  Is she right?

Messud also references madwomen in the attic, who are different than the ordinary women upstairs.  I'm only about 70 pages into the book, so I don't understand all the edges of her metaphor, but I like what she's doing with it so far. 

I must admit that it's a bit disconcerting to read these books about women at midlife and their realizations of all they are unlikely to accomplish.   All of the characters in the 2 books handle this realization differently.  For some, it leads to a rich appreciation of what they have.  For others, it leads to a last-ditch effort to accomplish grandness.  For others, well, I suspect the road ahead contains a lot of rage.

How delightful to have time to read.  How wonderful to have such good books.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

High Tech Failures, Low Tech Book Joys

I'm in a high tech bad mood today.  I have spent far too long on the phone with AT&T.  It used to be simple to transfer service.  Now it's not.

I try not to think about places with better connectivity and cheaper costs than we have in the U.S.  Eventually we'll get there.  We're a bigger country, and it will take longer to get the fiber optic (and better!) technology to everyone.

But in the meantime, could we please program our computers so that when I talk to one customer service rep it's clear what others have done?  Or so that the customer service rep can find me in the system, even if I don't have a reference # handy?  You should be able to type in my name and have a whole record come up.  And my last name is very unusual--it's not like there are 28000 Berkey-Abbotts in my zip code!  How hard is this?

I won't even go into the variety of tech troubles at work:  textbook companies that launch a whole new electronic curriculum (not the one we adopted and paid for) just before the quarter starts.  Fine if you want to do that, but get all the bugs out first.


No, let me focus on some old technology that's making me happy this week.  Let me return to the world of books.

Since we've had no Internet connection at the new house, and I have yet to move my computer over, I've been reading when I get up early in the morning.  I've been reading Meg Wolitzer's latest, The Interestings.  Wow!  What a great book.  It's funny, and I love the characters, and it's profound, and Wolitzer has the most astute societal observations.  I imagine students hundreds of years from now reading her books to glean what life was like during the beginning years of the 21st century.

She also has keen insights on the lives of people with artistic aspirations.  How do we express our creativity if the world isn't open to it?

It's a fabulous book; I had trouble putting it down.  Monday night, while I waited and waited and waited for the AT&T tech to be done (not done yet, alas), I settled in with that book, some cheese and crackers, and a glass of wine.  I felt supremely satisfied.

Unlike Tuesday morning, when I was bounced to 5 different people, none of whom could tell me when the tech might return to finish the job.  But I said I was going to focus on the book related events making me happy this week.  There's one more.

Our school library has been weeding books and putting the books weeded out of the collection on tables for anyone to take.  I've been adding rejected books from our personal collection too. 

On Monday, as I walked by the tables of books that need a new home, I heard a student gasp with happiness.  In her hand, she held The Journals of Lewis and Clark, a book that I had donated.  I saw the stack that she was creating:  lots of books from our history collection.  And many of the books from my spouse's Philosophy collection are gone too.

The nuclear war castaway books are still on the table.  Does that make me happy or sad?  Many of them are no longer relevant.  Alas, they've lost relevancy not because we're in a much safer world, but because the Cold War world they describe is no longer accurate.

It makes me SO happy to think that our students are taking these books away. May they enjoy them thoroughly.

And it makes me happy to know that I can still enjoy a book the old-fashioned way:  turning pages by lamplight, eating a snack, enjoying a libation. 

And it makes me supremely satisfied that I got the book from the library.  I love the Broward County Public Library.  I'm lucky to have this kind of system.

I'm lucky that I've always had access to good libraries--I'm very lucky.  And I'm happy that authors keep writing books which still find their way to the world.  I'm happy that there are still publishers that will deliver books to me in the old-fashioned way, on pages.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Moving Day Gratitude

We were so very lucky on moving day.  But I've been saying that during every step of our house buying adventure.  For example, I just stumbled across the listing for the house on Zillow, even though the owner was no longer thinking of the house as being for sale.  With each step of the way, it's felt like it was meant to be.

I know, I know:  I'm a rational person.  I know there could be 20 houses out there that would inspire similar feelings.  Actually, I know that I'm supposed to think that.  With this house and the last one, we looked at so many houses, but only one jumped out at me.

Anyway, back to moving day.  We went to the U-Haul place, and we were first in line.  And the truck was ready.  And the guy who was in charge was kind and encouraging, and he said as long as we had the truck back by Sunday morning, there would be no extra charge.

I'm lucky that I have a spouse who can drive a truck.  Once it seemed that every guy I knew, regardless of class or background, had spent some time on the job driving some kind of big truck.  I wonder if it's the same now.  I doubt it.

We loaded up the truck fairly quickly.  We had friends who came to help us; we are rich in friends these days, and in so many ways, it's the best wealth to have.  My spouse's back didn't explode.  We are rich in restored health, and I am grateful.

The weather was good.  We had a brief rain shower on the way between the old house and the new, but it was the kind of rain shower with the sun shining, so we knew we weren't in for another day of tropical downpours.  We've had a very wet summer here.

We made 3 trips.  My goal was to move everything that was big enough to need a truck:  bookcases, mattresses, the dining room set, the huge sofa, the gas grill.  We accomplished that and more.

On Sunday, more friends showed up to help.  We are now rich in refrigerators, so we moved the old one out to the back of the house and put the brand new one in place.  We don't have a stove yet, but we have two refrigerators and 2 wine chillers of different sizes.  We moved bookcases into place inside the house.  We thought about the best way for the dining room set to be arranged.  We ate our first real meal there:  hamburgers from the grill!

And then we spent Sunday afternoon sorting books.  Sure, some people would have gone out to buy a stove, but I wanted to get my books on my shelves, and only partly to get the boxes out of the way.  I've always unpacked books first.  I feel better with those old friends on the shelves.

You may be saying, "Weren't you getting rid of books?"  Yes, I was, but not every book.  It's good to cull occasionally.  Lots of books find their way to my house, but they don't all need to stay.

Now we have to make decisions about the rest of the possessions which are still at the old house.  There are the items that won't be coming:  to have a yard sale or just donate to a worthy cause?  There are the items for which we may not have room.  Try harder to find room or say, "If we only use a sewing machine 3 times in 10 years, it's clearly not important"?  The sewing machine may be an easy decision compared to some of the other items.

I want to move quickly because I want to get the old house clean and on the market.  Again, we're lucky that we could afford to do this house buying differently than most people.  We could buy the new house and then focus on selling the house we were living in when we found the new house.

I still don't know how most people have their current house on the market as they move towards a close date.  How do you get ready to close and ready to completely vacate?  Again, we've been lucky.  It's been stressful enough, taking smaller steps.

Of course, if we'd been traditional, we'd have it all done by now.  That would be one advantage.  I just want to settle in to the new space.  I don't want to have to deal with the old space.

But let me frame it another way.  I am extraordinarily lucky that in a time and in a location where many people can barely afford one space, I have two.

I think I will like my writing space.  It's the guest bedroom, but not in the way those words conjure a space.  I don't mind having the bed there, because it has the favorite quilt of mine that I've made.  There are 7 bookcases in the room with my books about creativity, writing, spirituality, and a smattering of other interests, plus the books I've carried with me since childhood (Laura Ingalls Wilder!  Trixie Belden!).

I've always loved my writing spaces.  Again, I know I'm lucky to have them.  So many people can't claim the corner of a table, let alone a whole room.

I hope our good fortune continues to hold in this process.  I'm ready to sell the old house. It's a great deal for a lucky person/family.  I'm ready for our paths to cross.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Demon Possession and House Blessings

I've had demon possession on the brain lately.  You might wonder why or you might say, "Of course.  We're approaching the 30th anniversary of the release of The Exorcist.  Time to turn our attention away from zombies and to demons."

A few weeks ago, I wrote this blog post about Mary Magdalene for the Living Lutheran site.  I wrote about her possession by 7 demons, even though in past posts about Mary Magdalene, I've been dismissive of the idea of demon possession.  I've assumed that her critics have accused her of demon possession to discredit her.

I was always taught that the ancient world used the idea of demon possession to explain mental illnesses that they couldn't otherwise understand.  That makes sense to me.  But down here, you meet people who truly believe.

Last week we were talking with our pastor about our move to the new house.  He asked if we wanted a house blessing.  The idea immediately appealed to me.

A Lutheran house blessing is different than what you'd find in other cultures.  Lutherans don't expel demons or other evil spirits, although my pastor says that he sometimes gets phone calls from people who want that kind of service.

Part of the reason for that request is the popular culture that surrounds all of us.  But part of it is the island culture that's part of the larger culture in South Florida.

I don't believe in evil spirits, although I have lived in houses that seemed determined to drive me away.  But my rational brain was firm in its insistence that shoddy upkeep of past owners led to the repair disasters, not evil spirits.

I walked into the house that we've just bought and immediately felt at home.  That doesn't always happen.  It was a welcoming vibe, but that's more about my mindset than it is about good spirits that inhabit the house.


In the summer of 2003, we had work done on the kitchen of our old house, which meant we had a variety of workers coming through.  A Jamaican carpenter said, "You live in a house of love and joy.  I can feel it when I come through the door."

At the time, I took it as a compliment.  I still do.  He may have been thinking of literal spirits, not just the spirits of me and my spouse.

I hope our new house will have that vibe.  And that's what  Lutheran house blessing will do.  It will ask God to bless the residents and visitors and to protect us all.  I'm looking forward to it.

Maybe my pastor could bless my office too while we're blessing the structures that we inhabit.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

A Sailing Ship of Nuns

Two weeks ago, we'd have been finishing up our sailing trip.  I've been remembering a scene that I don't want to forget--it's a scene that seems like it should be full of symbolic possibilities for my fiction and/or poetry writing.  Or is it too obvious?

As we sailed back towards the marina, we passed a boat going out.  At first, it looked like any other boat.  But as it passed us, we realized it was full of nuns--roughly 6-8 of them.

You might ask how we knew they were nuns.  They were dressed in full habit--the traditional habit that nuns used to wear.  So, on an afternoon that had highs in the mid-90's, they wore long robe-like, white garments with long sleeves and their hair was completely covered.

Still, they looked like they were having a good time.  Two of them reclined on seats with their faces turned up to the sun.  Some of them stood and surveyed the horizon.  Several men were also on the sailboat, but I couldn't tell if they wore collars or not.

I'm not sure why it seemed like such a disconnect.  I've known monastic communities and read about them, and I realize that they're as human as any of the rest of us.  But I've never seen anyone in full habit out on the Chesapeake Bay or any other place body of water.

So, if I was using this nugget in my creative writing, I wonder what kind of plot twist it would introduce.  What does a sailboat full of nuns in full habit signify?

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Moving Day and a Look Back

If all goes well today, tonight should be the first night we spend in the new house. We have yet to sell the old house, or even place it on the market, so our exit isn't as final as some of the moves we've made. Still, it seems like a good morning to look back and think about the creative developments that have happened while we've lived in this house.

--We moved to this house in December of 1998.  I was a writer then, and I'm a writer now.  I wasn't a blogger, but in some ways, my blogging is similar to the journaling that I used to do.  Back then, I wrote poems, short stories, and novels.  Since then, I've added creative non-fiction and other types of essays to my list.  I've written some academic essays, but that's much more infrequent.

--My first box of chapbooks was mailed to this house, as was the box of my second chapbook.

--When we first moved to this house, did I even know what a chapbook was?  I may have, but I wasn't assembling them the way I've been doing since.

--When we moved here, I had dreams of supporting myself through my writing.  I dreamed of a blockbuster novel, which of course would be made into a movie. 

--While I wouldn't mind if that happened, my dreams have shifted.  Now I dream of a memoir that provides comfort to those who try to achieve that balance between spirituality and other aspects of life.  I dream of being invited to a variety of gatherings as a noted speaker.

--While I can't yet support myself through my writing, I have gotten more projects that pay.  When we first moved here, that hadn't happened.  I'd be happy if more of those projects came my way.

--When we moved here in 1998, I had only done small quilting projects.  Now I've made several full-size quilts.

--I've also had other fun with fiber.  For a year, I created layered, quilted, beaded creations:

--When we first moved into this house, I painted more than I do now:

--But I didn't do much with creating sacred space or events.  In a good year, I'm in charge of several services, and I help create one or two sacred spaces:

--I've also done more with collage:

--And there are the variety of projects that my spouse and I have done.  Here's our fountain from a few summers ago:

--And now, for the next creative project:  creating a home out of our new house.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Celebrate Seneca Falls

Today in 1848, the first U.S. women's rights convention was held in Seneca Falls, New York. Those of you who are astute observers of history will note that even though the women at that conference called for voting rights, women would not be able to exercise their right to vote until 1920, long after black men were enfranchised. And yes, I am painfully aware that even though we have the right to vote, we may be intimidated enough to stay home or we may go out to vote, only to realize that our votes have never been counted.

What I love about this country is our long arc towards justice. We haven't always gotten it right. It's interesting to read the Declaration of Independence and to realize how many of those signers were wealthy white men. I'm always interested in the risks that those powerful, wealthy white men were willing to take to create the world that they envisioned, a world that was more in line with their values. Think about our current time and tell me how many wealthy, powerful folks are doing the same.

Too few of us live by the Scout motto: "Leave the campsite better than you found it." The Seneca Falls women did.

Those of us who are women owe the Seneca Falls women a debt of gratitude. Where would we be if they had not come together? They faced ridicule at the idea that women were people and should be granted full rights: the right to work, the right to own property, the right to control wealth, the right to vote. Now many of us in the first world enjoy those rights.

Alas, there are many women in the world who have no legal protections at all. Today is also the anniversary of the day that five women were put to death for witchcraft in Salem in 1692. Go here to The Writer's Almanac site and scroll down to read more about the issues that swirled around Salem in the late part of the 17th century--many of us probably had no idea.

It's an interesting juxtaposition of anniversaries, and it serves as a sobering reminder of the importance of securing legal rights--and the importance of creating a society that respects and honors those rights.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Thursday Threads: Demon Possession, Poetry Writing, and House Buying

--I wrote a poem this morning--hurrah! 

--I saw this call for poems for the upcoming issue of Hobble Creek Review:  poems that hinge on popular culture.  My first thought was that I have lots of poems which do that.  But as I looked at them, I realized that the popular culture that they reference is very old popular culture:  fairy tales, myth, and the Bible.  Hmm.  Could I write something else to go with my "The Lone Ranger at Midlife"?

--I've been writing about Mary Magdalene and her demon possession.  I thought about referencing The Exorcist, and thus, this morning's poem was even more interesting than it would have been otherwise.

--I'm still referencing older popular culture, but perhaps that's O.K.

--When I went to my poetry notebook, I was surprised to see how long it had been since I attempted a poem:  late June. 

--But I have been busy:  Vacation Bible School, our sailing trip, closing on a house.

--A week ago, I'd be heading to work, expecting that we would close on our house by late morning or early afternoon.  Oh what faith I have!

--You'd think in this age of electronic transmission, it would take less time to get everything (money, documents) where it needs to be.  I spent a lovely afternoon reading A Friend of the Family by Lauren Grodstein, a compelling book, so I wasn't sad when the closing continued to be postponed.

--Until the lawyer told us that we couldn't complete the deal until the money showed up in the account, it hadn't occurred to me that we were moving funds around on a literal level:  actual cash, how strange. 

--And then, finally, we owned another house!  It's all been very tiring, so I'm not surprised I haven't been writing.

--It seems to take longer to prepare for a move these days.  Sure, there's the issue of all the extra stuff we've accumulated.  But it also takes longer to transfer utilities and services.  I spent almost 90 minutes on the phone yesterday trying to arrange to have the phone service transferred.  AT&T handles our phone and our Internet, and the getting to a human took time, and then I had to hear about special deals.  Do I want cable?  How many TVs do I have?  I could watch 335 channels on 8 different televisions if I got a premium package.

--EIGHT TELEVISIONS?  Are there people who really have 8 televisions?

--And if I got the premium package, I could get a Kindle.  That struck me as hilarious and sad.  I'd have all these channels, and they'd give me a reading device.

--No, I kept it simple:  a land line and the Internet.

--Why do we need a land line?  I actually hear better on a land line.  I like the illusion that the land line is secure.

--So, this morning, although there is packing to do, I wrote down the poem that has been percolating in my head.

--And in the next days, I'll revise it, type it, and send it to Hobble Creek Review.  The deadline is August 1, which is not too far away.  Where has the summer gone?

--Soon, I'll be working out of a new house.  May it please be a place of quiet contemplation, of inspiration, of completion of worthy projects.  May it be a place of fun creativity of all sorts.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Exploding the Gender Binary

In the wake of the George Zimmerman trial and verdict, we've had a lot of discussion of race.  I'm not sure I have much to add to that.

We haven't had much discussion of gender.  I keep waiting.  I'm not sure I'm the right person to begin the discussion.  I'm not the person who followed every day of the trial.  I didn't watch the trial itself, and I confess to tuning out much of the coverage.  My outlook may be flawed.  But I'll launch some ideas anyway, and I'll encourage those of you who are done with this topic to go to the end of this post where I talk about an NPR story on gender that aired yesterday.

But first, the Zimmerman trial and gender.

Am I the only one who sees this trial through a gender lens as well as a race lens?  I first started thinking of this when I heard about a personal trainer who talked about Zimmerman's total lack of fitness when he first started working with the trainer.  The trainer used words like "soft."  He pointed out that Zimmerman looks like a big ox of a man, but he had no strength.  In short, the trainer was calling Zimmerman's masculinity into question--at least, that's how I heard it.

And then there's the jury.  I know some people are outraged about the self-defense angle, but I wondered if the female jurors understood that aspect of feeling threatened just by someone's existence more than a jury of males would have.

And yes, I know that there's the getting out of the car angle.  If I'm driving and I feel threatened by someone walking through the neighborhood, I check the car door locks and keep driving.

I've heard lots of outrage about Zimmerman feeling threatened by a guy in a hoodie ambling through the neighborhood.  I've heard lots of outrage that a teenager can't go buy snacks without the suspicion that he's up to no good.

But I'm that middle-aged, white woman who sees teenagers ambling through the neighborhood and wonders what they're up to.  If you're a man with a hood on your head and it's dark, a shiver of fear goes through me.  If I'm driving, I keep going.  If we're both on foot, I will swerve so that you can't grab me.  No matter what time of day, I will move out of arm's reach.

I'm not a man.  I know that my best bet is to avoid conflict.  George Zimmerman was socialized in a different way.  No, I will not bring up the macho aspect of various cultures, but a good social scientist would.

These ideas bring me to the NPR story on gender that aired yesterday.  It brings me back to an old question:  how much of our behavior is a function of biology and how much of it is the way that our society trains us to be?

Am I conflict-averse because I have a womb?  Am I conflict-averse because my society has told me that men can be dangerous and it's not a fair fight?  Is there something about my personality that wants to avoid conflict that's not tied to gender at all?  Am I simply tired in a way that Zimmerman was not?

Is it about the gun?  Is the gun the great equalizer?

Or is this binary thinking the problem?  Are there two genders or more?

Most of us would say, "Two."  We've been trained to think that.  Is it time to blow up the gender binary?

I've often said that gender is a spectrum.  I have a BA in Sociology, so I will also say that I think that where one lives on the spectrum is deeply affected by our society.  I will also admit that recent advances in various scientific fields make me think that our biology has as deep an effect on our gendered lives.

How would our lives be different if we saw gender as a spectrum?  How would our societies be different if we thought less rigidly about gender?

I've met transgendered people who say, "You just can't understand what it's like to feel like you have a body that doesn't fit, how it feels when your outside doesn't match your inside."

I'm a woman in the U.S. culture, a woman who's not living a life painted in frilly pastels, a woman who's larger than my culture would tell me I should be.  I think I have a glimmer of what it's like to inhabit a body that isn't what I feel it should be (I'd be happy to be 30 pounds lighter) or what my society tells me it should be.

The issue of gender, especially transgender issues, may come to be seen as one that's as important as the Civil Rights struggles of the 50's and 60's.  Here's a quote from the NPR piece that I found most interesting.  The reporter, Margot Adler, interviewed Carl Siciliano:  "So, he says to me, these college students you saw identifying with transgender people, the most marginalized group in our society, how different is that from you, when you were in college, identifying with the most marginalized and joining the black Civil Rights movement? He brought me up short. I had to think long and hard."

When it comes to gender issues, I suspect we've only just begun to think long and hard.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Atomic Anniversary: Spiritual and Poetic Connections

Today is an important nuclear anniversary.  On this day in 1945, scientists exploded the first nuclear bomb at the Trinity test site in New Mexico.

Robert Oppenheimer named the site, and when asked if he had named it as a name common to rivers and mountains in the west, he replied, "I did suggest it, but not on that ground... Why I chose the name is not clear, but I know what thoughts were in my mind. There is a poem of John Donne, written just before his death, which I know and love. From it a quotation: 'As West and East / In all flatt Maps—and I am one—are one, / So death doth touch the Resurrection.' That still does not make a Trinity, but in another, better known devotional poem Donne opens, 'Batter my heart, three person'd God;—.'"

I love a scientist who loves John Donne.  Metaphysical poetry and atomic weapons:  they do seem to go together in intriguing ways.

I am a poet who is always on the lookout for interesting intersections, and thus, I must note that at sunset last night, we began a Jewish holiday.  In a blog post yesterday, Rachel Barenblat, poet and rabbi, explains: 

"Tonight at sundown we enter into Tisha b'Av, a communal day of mourning. On Tisha b'Av we remember the fall of the First Temple in 586 BCE, and the fall of the Second Temple in 70 CE; we remember pogroms and tragedies throughout our history; we remember human suffering writ large; we recognize the brokenness in all creation; we enter into a process of communal teshuvah, repentance/return. For many of us this is a day of fasting and contemplation.

On the afternoon of Tisha b'Av, tradition tells us, Moshiach will be born -- our deepest hopes for redemption, entering our world at our moment of greatest mourning and sorrow. And beginning on the day after Tisha b'Av, we count forty-nine days -- seven weeks -- until Rosh Hashanah, the new year."

I'm most comfortable with the day of mourning aspect; on this day, we could mourn the atomic age and all the violence that has been leashed upon the world.  But my poet brain wants to explore that deep hope for redemption and the nuclear bomb. 

I hadn't remembered until doing some digging this morning that the explosion was scheduled for this date because Truman had an important meeting with Allied leaders in Potsdam on July 17.  Bomb as savior?

Oh, so many poetry possibilities!  There's the desert aspect, the prophets that so often emerge from wilderness areas.  There's the fact that this part of the country has become a detonation point for various immigration fights through the last four decades.

Those of you who have been reading this blog and/or my poems for awhile now will be saying, "Haven't you already explored this poetic terrain?"

Indeed, I have.  Yet I think there may be more to do. 

But for today, let's look back.

I wrote this one first, and it appeared in The Ledge:

Ash Wednesday at the Trinity Test Site

I didn’t develop a taste for locusts until later.
Instead I craved libraries, those crusted containers of all knowledge,
honey to fill the combs of my brain.

I didn’t see this university as a desert.
How could it be, with its cornucopia of classes,
colleagues who never tired of spirited conversations,
no point too arcane for hours of dissection.
I never foresaw that I might consume too many ideas,
that they might stick in the craw.

I never dreamed a day would come when I preferred
true deserts, far away from intellectual centers.
No young minds to be midwifed,
no hungry mouths draining my most vital juices,
no books with their reproachful, sad sighs, sitting
in the library, that daycare center of the intellect.

The desert doesn’t drown the voice
the way a city does. No drone
of machinery, no cacophony of crowing
scholars to consume my own creativity.
In the desert, the demand is to be still, to conserve
our strength for the trials that are to come.

Here, the earth, scorched by the fissile
testing of the greatest intellects of the last century, reminds
us of the ultimate futility of attempting to understand.
The desert dares us to drop our defenses.
In this place, scoured of all temptations, all distractions,
the sand demands we face our destiny.

I wrote this one a bit later, and I've often wondered if it is too similar to the first one. Is it a revision of the first one? But I've decided that although they share similar themes, they are distinctly different. It appeared in Sojourners.

Baptismo Sum

In this month of dehydration,
we keep our eyes skyward, both to watch
for rain and to avoid the scorn
of the scorched succulents who reproach
us silently, saying, “You promised to care.”

And so, although we thought we could stick
these seedlings in the ground and leave
them to their own devices, we haul
hoses and buckets of water to the outer edges
of the yard where the hose will not reach.

The idea of a desert seduces,
as it did the Desert Fathers, who fled
the corruption of the cities to contemplate
theology surrounded by sand
and stinging winds. My thoughts travel
to the Sanctuary Movement, contemporary Christians
who risked all to rescue illegal aliens.
I admire their faith, tested in that desert crucible.
I could create my own patch of desert in tribute.

Yet deserts do not always sanctify.
I think of the Atomic Fathers
who hauled equipment into the New Mexico
desert and littered the landscape with fallout
which litters all our lives, a new religion,
generations transformed in the light of the Trinity test site.

I back away from my Darwinian, desert dreams.
The three most popular religions
in the world emerged from their dry desert
roots, preaching the literal and symbolic primacy
of water, leaving the arid ranges behind
as they flowed towards temperance.

I cannot reject the religion of my ancestors,
who spent every day of their lives
remembering their baptism before heading to the fields
to make the dirt dream in colors.

The careful reader (or future grad student writing a dissertation) will notice the old familiar themes: apocalypse and the effort to live in hope, atomic issues, gardens, farm families, intellectual lives and a variety of spiritual connections.

I wrote these poems before I traveled to the desert Southwest.  When we were there at Christmas, I remember thinking about the poems I wrote and how I was pleased that I had gotten the details right.

Where will I go next?  What still seems relevant?  Stay tuned!

Monday, July 15, 2013

New House: Movin' On Up, Movin' On Over

I'm glad we decided not to move on Saturday.  Even though Tropical Storm Chantal fell apart, we still had an afternoon of tropical deluges and street flooding.  And we still have some packing to do.  I suspect that even as we approach the closing date of our old house (please let that be soon!), we'll be packing.

Over the week-end, my spouse and I had several interesting conversations about the new house.  First, a picture:

That's my spouse by the car.  The red spot at his belt is a measuring tape.  I suspect he'll be wearing that a good deal over the coming weeks.

Our new house is on Plat Map #1 for Broward county, which means it's one of the oldest houses in the county (built in 1928, although some records say 1938).  It's a historic house in a desirable district of Hollywood.

Our old house was also built some time during the late 1920's or 1930's.  But the neighborhood isn't as desirable.  We've lived there since 1998, and we've put a lot of time, effort, and money into it.  My spouse feels some amount of sadness that because of its location, it's not ever going to appreciate in value the way he feels it should.  It's ringed by streets with more transient populations and old hotels that have been turned into 1 room rentals.

I feel a strange sense of guilt about it all.  Part of it is my inner 19 year old, who is judgmental and sanctimonious.  She thinks about all the social justice work that could be done with the money that we're spending on the mortgage and the repairs to the new house.  I wrote this blog post about that.

I also feel a strange sense of guilt about all the people who aren't similarly situated to move to a different neighborhood.  While we've paid off our mortgage for our old house, I have many colleagues who are trapped in their houses, with mortgages that are more than the house is worth.  That's not my fault, but I feel a strange sense of guilt (survivor guilt?) about our mobility.

My spouse pointed out that just because I love the house and just because I feel that we're getting a great opportunity, not everyone will see it that way.  I tend to forget.

My spouse pointed out that if others were looking for a house, they might automatically rule out a smallish house in a historic neighborhood.   They might prefer a much larger house in a newer neighborhood.

My spouse has been feeling that the house is a step down in some ways.  For him, it's about the space.  We're losing about 600 square feet.  That may not sound like much, but it is.  We've got a whole closet of memorabilia which means that we'll have some tough decisions to make.

I like the pool and the proximity to the beach.  My spouse feels a bit of sadness that our lot size will be smaller, with much of it taken up by the pool and the pavers that make up the patio around the pool.

I like the quietness of the neighborhood.  I like feeling that I'll likely be able to walk around my neighborhood without being harassed.  I like that the people walking the neighborhood look stable.  In our old neighborhood, we see various people with mental issues ambling through, along with prostitutes and some homeless people.  Again, I feel that white, middle class guilt for feeling threatened by some of them--and yes, I feel this guilt, even though some of them are clearly threatening.  And because of the presence of prostitutes, if I take a walk by myself during daylight hours, I run the risk of unpleasant encounters with men who are looking for prostitutes--and it doesn't matter what I'm wearing or how I'm moving.  I've been approached by strange men in vans when I've been running, when I've looked sweaty and gross.  That's why I drive to the beach to run or go to spin class at the gym.

So, I'm looking forward to being in a better neighborhood.  My spouse feels anger about the downward spiral of our old neighborhood that precipitated the move.  But our old neighborhood has always been marginal; we bought a house hoping that the neighborhood might enjoy a renaissance. 

In the past year, we decided we were tired of waiting.  And in the past six months, we decided that the window was closing:  if we wanted to move to the historic district, house prices were about to move beyond our reach.

I've written some about how the journey from house offer to closing; it's been more arduous than I thought it would be.  I feel like I spent much of the month of June sending documents to various people; at times it felt quite endless.

And now, that part has ended.  On to the next part of the journey:  finishing the packing of what needs to move with us to the new house, moving on Saturday, and then the cleaning of the old house so that we can put it on the market in the next few weeks. 

But I also want to return to writing.  I want to write a poem, and I want to do some revision to my memoir.  By this time next week, I want to send a few submissions to journals that only read in the summer.  It's hard to believe that we're getting close to the end of summer.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Bastille Day and Woody Guthrie's Birthday

Today is Bastille Day.  If you're not ready to stop celebrating the human drive for freedom from tyranny, you're in luck!  Bastille Day is the French Fourth of July, and you could make a strong case that both revolutions should be celebrated in tandem.  The French began their revolution in the decade after the American colonies broke away, and for the next century, maybe 2, abusive leaders worried about the example set by these revolutions.

Today is also the birthday of Woody Guthrie, another player in the fight for freedom.  You may think you don't know his work, but you likely do.   Most schoolchildren learn his work early.  Let's take a minute and sing "This Land Is Your Land" together.

You likely never learned the most radical verses:

As I went walking, I saw a sign there,

And on the sign there, It said "no trespassing." [In another version, the sign reads "Private Property"]
But on the other side, it didn't say nothing!
That side was made for you and me.

In the squares of the city, In the shadow of a steeple;
By the relief office, I'd seen my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,
Is this land made for you and me?

I love Woody Guthrie not just for his songs that argue for freedom and justice.  I also love his example of living an artistic life.

Woody Guthrie came of age in the Great Depression, which means he didn't have basic advantages like a stable home or an education.  He didn't always have food.

Yet he was able to persevere.  He didn't have musical training, yet he was able to learn what he needed to know.  He couldn't write music to go with his lyrics, so he used the music that was out there and available.  Perhaps that's why his songs feel so immediately familiar.

Guthrie famously said that any song that needed more than 2 guitar chords was showing off.  I love this approach to song writing.  Guthrie took what could have been a major weakness and turned it into a powerful strength.

We can do this too. 

Here's a Woody Guthrie quote to remind you of your purpose as an artist, of what art can do, of the power of two chords and the truth.

"I hate a song that makes you think that you are not any good. I hate a song that makes you think that you are just born to lose. Bound to lose. No good to nobody. No good for nothing. Because you are too old or too young or too fat or too slim too ugly or too this or too that. Songs that run you down or poke fun at you on account of your bad luck or hard traveling.

I am out to fight those songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood. I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world and that if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter what color, what size you are, how you are built.

I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work."

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Buying a South Florida House in a Time of Sea Level Rise

We have  finally closed on our new house.  It was probably not the greatest week to read this article in "Rolling Stone" about what rising sea levels will do to South Florida, although it wasn't new information to me.  I love the way the article concludes: 

"Stuart compares Miami with Baiae, the ancient Roman resort town in the bay of Naples that was once a playground for Nero and Julius Ceasar. Today, because of volcanic activity, the ruins of Baiae are mostly under water. 'This is what humans do,' says Stuart. 'We inhabit cities, and then when something happens, we move on. The same thing will happen with Miami. The only question is, how long can we stick it out?" But for Stuart, who lives in Miami Beach, the fact that the city is doomed doesn't diminish his love for the place. 'That's the thing about Miami,' he says. 'You'll want to be here until the very end.'"

When I was first learning about sea level rise and its implications for South Florida, I wanted to move to higher ground.  Much higher ground, like, say, Asheville, North Carolina.  But then I had a friend in the NC mountains who had a worse hurricane season than we did.  A hurricane (Dennis?) came ashore in the Florida panhandle and zoomed on up to North Carolina, where it did enormous damage, with lots of rain and wind and trees crashing down.

I realized, not for the first time, how interconnected we all are, and how there will really be no place to hide. 

If you want to see how sea level rise might affect where you live or the coastal places you love, you could have fun/horror playing with this interactive map.  You can plug in your zip code, and you can zoom in on your street.

So, here's the thing.  My old house will be one of the last ones to be inundated by the seas.  We're in a high point, such as high points are, in Hollywood.

Our new house is less than a mile from the Atlantic Ocean (.65 miles to be exact).  There's a barrier island between the Atlantic and the mainland (Hollywood Beach, which shares similar geography to the Miami Beach described in the "Rolling Stone" article).  There have been days in the house buying process where I've wondered if we were making the right choice.

But our old neighborhood, which has always been an interesting mix of shady, marginal, funky, full of potential, has other issues which affect the property value more immediately.  Our new house, which is in a stable, historic neighborhood, will appreciate and prove to be a much better investment, barring catastrophe.

We're betting that we can get several decades of enjoyment out of the house before catastrophe.  I know that we're risking never getting our money back, because we may not be able to sell ahead of the coming sea level rise catastrophe.  Just as it's tough to time the stock market, it's tough to know exactly when to sell a house.

But it was clear that the time had come to buy, if we were going to make a move.  We locked in our interest rate before they rose too much.  We got a good deal on our house--not as good a deal as we could have gotten a year or two ago, but we weren't financially situated to do this a year or two ago.  Until January of 2012, we had a condo in a 55+ building that we'd had trouble selling and that we couldn't rent out because of building restrictions.  And once we sold it, we still couldn't have immediately bought something else.  You need a big chunk of money these days to buy a house, and we had to bring money to the closing where we sold the condo.  Yes, that's not the way that closings should work, but after years of unsuccessfully trying to sell the condo, we were relieved.

So, now we begin the process of moving to the new house, getting rid of the possessions that won't fit in the new house, and selling the old house.  I'm a bit spooked because of our condo experience, but I remind myself that even if we can't sell, we can rent it out.

Yes, I know that there are hassles with being a landlord; I've done it before when stuck with a house we couldn't sell when the Navy base pulled out of Charleston.  It was the easiest money I've ever made.  I know all the ways it could have gone terribly wrong but it didn't.

And if we have to keep this house and rent it out, then we'll still have a house in the highest point in Hollywood!

And it's probably time to start thinking about buying something outside the state of Florida, something on higher ground.  I still can't shake this dream of a big plot of land, even though I know I'd probably not enjoy the farming life that my relatives were happy to escape a few generations ago.  The idea of a retreat center or an artistic colony still calls to me. 

But for now, my job is here, and there are many days I think it may be the last traditional job (by which I mean a job with a steady paycheck and benefits) I'll ever have, as I've watched these kinds of jobs vanish.  While I have it, I'll make the most of it.

And I'll enjoy my new house, where I can walk to the beach and read by the pool that's in my new back yard.

A month ago this very day, the appraiser fell into that pool.  Yes, you read that correctly.  To get the mortgage, we needed the appraisal to come in at a certain price, and we knew it might be close.  And then, the appraiser falls in the pool.

Happily, she didn't hold it against us or the house.  And it could have been so much worse.  She wasn't hurt, just wet.

Yes, it's been a very strange journey.  Happily, it's been full of moments, like the appraiser falling into the pool, that could have been worse, but turned out OK.  Maybe later, I'll write a blog post or two about it.

But for now, there's packing to do and cleaning to do (the seller hasn't really been living at the house, so it has the dusty, unlived-in feel).  Should we paint the house before we move in?  We have the paint left over from a kitchen project.  If we're going to paint, it would be easier before we move the furniture over.

And in between, I'll take refreshing dips in the pool, and maybe a stroll down to the beach, where the seas stay offshore, for now.  And I'll say a prayer of thanks that Tropical Storm Chantal didn't develop into something larger, and I'll say a prayer of supplication that we enjoy a quiet period of hurricane seasons, years and years if possible.  I'll continue to live in hope that the planet can heal itself and that it won't involve drowning us all.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Quantum Physics, Poetry, and Theology: Weaving a Braid

In the past week, I've found myself coming across a variety of references to quantum physics, which has been an interest of mine, even though I can scarcely get my brain around most of the ideas that the science contains.  It seems worth considering these strands to see if they're just random coincidence, or if they weave together into an interesting braid.

--A week ago I was almost done reading Kate Atkinson's "Life After Life," which has a sci-fi, quantum physics aspect in that the main character lives all sorts of lives.  Is she really living these lives or is this novel more akin to a choose-your-own-adventure book?  I could make the case for either.  As I was reading, I was thinking that I wasn't finding the characters compelling, sine each scenario didn't let us spend much time with them.  And yet, in the week since I finished the book, my brain keeps returning to them.  It's interesting to watch how the lives of the characters remain essentially the same, regardless of what happens to them.  And yet, there are crucial turning points which determine the future, both historical events and individual encounters between characters.  There are 2 scenarios at either end of the spectrum of happy-unhappy endings which seem to hinge on one crucial scene; I won't say more, so as not to ruin it for those who have yet to read the book.

--When I returned, I was pleased to find this NPR piece on Physics and Poetry.  What happens when a professor of astrophysics returns to T. S. Eliot's "The Wasteland"?

He writes to a John Beer, professor of English, who  is also a poet, and they have an interesting exchange.  Here's a taste:

"For Beer a poem is a kind of living thing to be experienced, rather than an explanation to be unpacked:

'You can live somewhere new for a while and still not have a strong sense as to where the best restaurants are, or find yourself getting lost on a regular basis. Poems are likewise to be lived with.'

I liked Beer's metaphor about living uncomfortably in the midst of a poem you don't understand. That speaks to hidden similarities between physics (and all science) and poetry (and all the arts). In my own experience, for example, you do have to move in with a difficult piece of mathematical physics. It comes to you slowly. You read it, work out some details, get lost, come back again later."

--He's not the only one exploring the intersections of poetry and physics.  Rachel Barenblat has written an intriguing post on her study of quantum physics while at a Jewish renewal/retreat experience.  As they study physics and poetry, they also look at texts from the Hebrew scripture:

"One of my favorite parts of the first class was when we read some Ezekiel (the start of chapter 1, the vision of the fire with lightning sparking in it, and creatures who had the appearance of fire sparking with lightning, וְהַחַיּוֹת, רָצוֹא וָשׁוֹב / v'ha-chayot ratzo v'shov, and those creatures "ran and returned"), and then paused to learn about how lightning works. (Did you know that lightning involves an upward flow of ions / energy as well as a downward flow? That dovetails with some extraordinary metaphors for divinity -- I'm having Yom Kippur sermon ideas!)"

The whole post is full of these kinds of nuggets that make me want to capture notes for possible poems.

--And then there's this post by Bookgirl which explores friendship and communities of all kinds and which types of people seem more open to which kinds of exploration:

"I have been intrigued to discover a niche, a small group of us, mostly in academia, largely in English (or Quantum Physics), who are deeply involved in theological discovery and lay ministry, some of whom seem wholly satisfied in this sacred calling and some of whom continue–even in our 40s–to wonder about the lay/ordained divide, and what the Holy Spirit is calling in our lives: Kristin, Mary Beth, Jo(e), Michelle come to mind. The interweavings fascinate me. In California, the divide between academia and the church can be wide. To see other people negotiate the two (and also spouses and children and life) is reassuring and fascinating."

--Here, too, in South Florida the divide seems wide, but I begin to wonder if my perceptions are accurate.  I wonder if it's similar to college, where I assumed the gulf was wide between Greeks and non-Greeks, but in my last year of college, I got glimmerings that maybe we had more in common than I thought.

--And like Bookgirl, I see all sorts of interweavings, and as I see these strands braiding together, I, too, return to the idea of a call, which could take the form of a lighting spark or the form of a whisper.  Where will it all lead?

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Reflections on a Sailing Trip, with Photos

A week ago, we'd have been headed towards our sailing trip.  What a great trip it was.  Let me reflect back:

I've been sorting through pictures, and I'm surprised by how few I took this year.  What accounts for that?

Part of it is that we didn't sail anyplace new.  Last year we sailed to Annapolis, which offered many photo opportunities. 

This year we anchored out at a spot we revisit annually.  It didn't seem as new, so I didn't take as many pictures.

Part of it, too, is that we had a shorter trip. 

And part of it is that my nephew didn't create costumes the way he has done in past years.  It seems worth the effort to get the camera when he's dressed like Spiderman, but with a PFD strapped to him, or when he's dressed up in something we created together, like a Ninja pirate, but less so, when he's just being himself.

These reflections have made me think about what else has changed.  In the past, before he learned to read, we created books that were essentially collections of pictures.  At Thanksgiving, as he was just learning to read and write, we wrote stories into books that my nephew created by folding paper together.  This summer, we created word finds and puzzle books.

There may not be much meaning here.  But I am noticing that as he acquires linguistic skills, his play has changed. 

Maybe the reason why he's not dressing in costumes has more to do with the excessive heat this year than with anything else.  In the past, we've often arrived just as a cold front blew through and left cooler temperatures in its wake.  Not this year.

I do wonder if he's creating less costumes and make believe situations because he's doing more reading about them.

Or maybe it's simply that this sailing trip was one for sitting on the bow, having conversations, enjoying the hammock.  Below you see a picture of me and my sister; this one may go on to be one of my favorite pictures of all time.

In the end, I think the specific activities that we do with my nephew matter less than the fact that we're together, that we're showing interest in each other and each other's interests, that we're taking time out of our busy lives to reconnect: by talking or by writing stories or by drawing or by simply being together. 

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Season of Lost Libraries

If you've been reading my blog regularly these last few months, you know that I've been weeding books from my personal library.  Some people have asked why I don't donate these books to our school's library.

Alas, space is limited there, and soon to be more limited.  It's time to weed those books too.  Yesterday, I went to get an overview of what's there and what will need to go.

Some of the decisions will be easy.  There are old textbooks and old manuals about software that no one uses anymore.  There are books that haven't been checked out since the early years of this century.

Many of the items in the Literature section leave me shaking my head and wondering how we came to have these items.  The Complete Plays of Henry James?  Can you even name one play?  Me neither.

We have never been the kind of school that taught the classical works of literature.  We don't do survey courses.  How did we come to have these books?

I'm told that during an accreditation visit that happened before my time, we were told we needed more books in the General Education sections.  And so, we have many novels written by Dickens, even though no one reads them.  The Anne Rice novels haven't been checked out in years, so you know that students aren't turning to Dickens for consolation.

We will be losing roughly half of our library space in the building remodel and move.  It's hard to justify keeping many of the books in our Literature section.

I will even be arguing that we abandon the dictionaries and thesauruses.  It's easy enough to get these resources online.  Why devote precious shelf space to them?

As I've been sorting my own books, I've been struck by how many I bought because I wanted to make sure I had access to the knowledge.  Once I thought I could rely on public libraries and school libraries.  Now, I've seen what happens when space constricts and budgets tighten.

But still, I've let books leave my shelves because I have been assuming I have access to that knowledge online.  Why should I store it on paper on shelves?

I do wonder if 20 years from now I'll know the answer to that question.  Right now, I have fairly unrestricted access to the Internet--will that always be the case?  Right now, storage space feels unlimited online--will there come a time where we need to dump data to make room for more?

I feel sorrow over these books that will be lost and not just for the books, although I do love books as physical objects.  We've spent a lot of money on these books, on shelving, on all sorts of tangential items.  Someone chose these books, and while the reasons aren't always immediately obvious, the dismantling still makes me feel a deep grief.

I know that dismantling one dream often makes room for other dreams.  I'm losing books from my personal library, but it means I can move to a house that's closer to what I want.  When the school library moved to its current location, I mourned the loss of the old location, with its view of the Ft. Lauderdale skyline.  But the new library feels more spacious, even though it's smaller.  I feel a sense of well being expand with each breath every time I go to the library.  Maybe I'll come to feel an affection for the new library too.

Still, I'm aware of my history, aware that great civilizations have fallen as they've lost their libraries.  I'm trying not to read too much symbolism into what may simply be decisions about efficiency and space.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

First World Problems: the Tropical Storm Edition

I've been noting what's changed since the last time we moved in 1998 and/or bought property back in 1999.  Here's what feels major:  I made a U-Haul reservation online.

It's an interesting business model, since I didn't just make a reservation.  I had to go through several screens, where I had to unclick on choices to avoid renting a dolly or NOT to buy several hundred dollars worth of boxes.

Through the same website, I could hire movers to come help.  It's not as cheap as paying with pizza and beer, but not as expensive as I would have expected.  I'm not sure we need help, so I didn't reserve movers.

Now I'm contemplating cancelling the whole thing.  We may have a tropical storm in our vicinity.  I can put off moving for a week (or as long as I want, for that matter), so why move in tropical downpours?

That's another conversation I didn't have the last time I moved.  Hurricane season was safely behind us in December of 1998 when we moved into our current house.  Yesterday, my mortgage company (to be) rep had an e-mail exchange with my new insurance agent.  Should I pay to insure the property before the close?  If the tropical storm strengthens into a hurricane and we're in the cone of possibility, would we still be covered if we waited to pay until close? 

The answer:  yes, we would be covered.

Yes, we may be closing on a house with a hurricane bearing down on us--the irony (is it irony?) is not lost on me.  I find myself thinking about the trees around our new house.  I think the trees around our old house are bigger and thus capable of more damage if they come crashing down.

I am deeply aware of the fact that even a smaller tree can do an enormous amount of damage if it falls over.

Happily, I don't think Tropical Storm Chantal will strengthen into a hurricane.  I'm hopeful that this storm will be a rain event.  I wonder if my yet-to-be-purchased windstorm policy or my flood policy would apply?

I am trying not to stress about the money, especially not the money that having two properties in South Florida requires.  We're staying in the same city, but when I called about establishing an additional water account, I was told I'd need to pay a deposit.  I plan to call again; I'm hoping that the water department rep was mistaken.

After all, I'm not moving here from a different state.  I've been a water customer with my city since 1998 after all.  Why do I need to pay a deposit of several hundred (yes, several hundred) dollars?  It's not like I'm going to enjoy water for a month or two and then skip town without paying my bill.

In my city, our water service is bundled with garbage and recycling collection, and yes, I'll have to pay at both properties, another irony, since I hardly generate enough refuse to bother hauling the garbage can around to the street on a weekly basis. 

I realize that I'm lucky to enjoy these kinds of problems.  It's very first world, after all, to have more garbage collection than I need, to have running water that's dependable and clean.

And as Tropical Storm Chantal bears down on Haiti, again, I'm deeply conscious of my first world status.  My concerns swirl around a moving van and insurance coverage.  I have shelter that will keep out the rains unless something dreadful happens.  I'm so much luckier than those Haitians who are still living in tent cities, and I feel deeply the guilt that comes from knowing of my good fortune and the dire living conditions of those in less developed nations.

So, I'll continue to give to Lutheran World Relief, the arm of my church that attempts to redistribute resources towards a more just world.  I'll monitor the storm.  I'll make some decisions about moving vans and storm supplies.  I'll pray for the safety of us all.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Back from a Brief Sailing Trip

We are back from a brief sailing trip.  Those of you who have been reading this blog for a long time know that we often join my sister, her husband, and their son on their sailboat--by often, I mean once or twice a year.  For the past several years, we've gone on more of an expedition than just the afternoon sail.

When we planned this trip, I had no idea we'd be buying a house.  I had hopes, of course, but my timeline was much more vague when I bought the airline tickets.  But it worked out fine:  we left on July 4 and returned late last night.  In some ways, it's perfect, since I don't imagine we'd have been doing a lot of business on July 5, even if we had been home.

And now it's back to regular life, whatever that turns out to be.  Today is the first day of our summer quarter, and hopefully, we're just a few days away from our close date.  Dizzying.

Let me record a few memories from our trip before they slip away.

--Our plane left at 6:30 a.m. on July 4.  We had no problems at all.  The line at security was non-existent.

--What a difference compared to last night.  The security lines at BWI were long, and the TSA workers seemed irritable.  There had been flight delays, which meant our flight was delayed.  There weren't enough seats.  And we seemed to be travelling with every teenage team playing every sport--where were all these teenagers headed?  I never figured it out.

--In between flights, we had a great trip.  We sailed to anchor out for 2 nights (the night of July 4 was too choppy to anchor out).  We had great food.  We had wonderful winds.  We swam in the Chesapeake Bay, braving the jellyfish and the strange smells because it was so good to cool off.  We remembered how little we need, in terms of what society has to offer, to make us truly happy.

--I loved seeing different landscapes:  the Chesapeake Bay, the different trees, the clumps of hydrangeas everywhere.  I loved the various small towns of Maryland that we drove through to get to the boat.  I loved the variety of boats.  It's all so different from my coastal life down here in South Florida.

--I was off the grid for several days--ahhhh.  I got a chance to read a whole book!  Several of them.

--Kate Atkinson's "Life after Life" is as wonderful as reviewers have said.  I've continued to think about it for days.  Michael Pollan's "Cooked" is not as good as "The Omnivore's Dilemma," but still quite fascinating.  More on these books later perhaps. 

--We played Monopoly, which was a bit too close to what I've been doing in terms of real estate for the past several months.  It was better to play Blackjack and Uno or games that we made up.

--Unlike past years, we didn't color as much.  We did create books of puzzles.

--My nephew loves Slurpees, so we had several of them in a long week-end.  I haven't had one since I was about 9 years old.  I remember them being tastier.

--On July 4, I heard the strains of "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," sung by a folksinger at a restaurant at the marina.  I wondered about the wisdom of singing about a massive sinking surrounded by so many boats.

--I didn't hear much traditional 4th of July music.  But everywhere I went, I heard all sorts of music that reminded me of what's out there, available for just a few mouse clicks.  It's an amazing time we live in.

--And yes, like some people, I mourn what is passing away.  And then, I'm reminded I might have been mourning too early.  Throughout the airport yesterday, amidst the data charging centers, I saw people reading.  I saw a book on the control panel that moves the door to the airplane--clearly, the controller chooses to read during downtimes.

--For me, today will not be one of those downtimes, alas.  But I'm glad I had some time away, time to reconnect with family, time to see different landscapes, time to relax and remember that life is good despite the challenges.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Enjoy Summer's Pleasures Now, While We Have Them

Now we have passed what many of us think of as the midpoint of summer.  Once the next 6 weeks zoom by, many of us will have to begin thinking of back-to-school issues, regardless of what the weather tells us.

So, now, before summer slips away, let us think of the summer pleasures we want to make sure we enjoy, if we haven't already.

Here are some suggestions:

--Many communities show movies outdoor, after dark, on a huge screen or a sheet or against the side of a building.  They're usually fun, family events.

--Some of the fruits and vegetables that we can get right now are at their peak and won't taste this good again until next summer.  Add tomatoes to your shopping list.  Add melons.  Add corn on the cob.

--Put some of this bounty away for later.  Most fruits and veggies are easy to freeze.  Or explore canning.  It's easy to make jams and chutneys, with little risk of food poisoning.

--It's too hot to cook.  Explore what your grill can do.  Explore the world of salads.  Enjoy fruit for dinner.

--Since it's hot, enjoy water.  Go to the beach.  Explore the water parks in your community.  If you have kids in your life, let them loose with a water hose and remember what joy can come from a simple water hose.

--As I think about summers of my youth, I think about hiding in the air conditioning, spending whole days reading.  Now is the time to lose yourself in a good book.  Go to your public library and check out a huge stack.  Enjoy the knowledge that comes with having lots of good books around you; if one turns out to be a mistake, you've got others.

--A movie festival in your own living room is a great idea, especially when we hit a rainy patch.  We've been enjoying all the Robin Williams movies from the late 80's and early 90's.  It's fun to revisit them, and intriguing to see them all at once.

--If summer is getting on your last nerve, listen to Christmas music or watch a Halloween movie.  Cook a meal that's not associated with summer:  a Thanksgiving dinner or a pot roast.

Friday, July 5, 2013

"Scatter, Adapt, and Remember": a Good Read (even if your tastes don't run to apocalypse)

I keep a list of books I want to read.  I used to jot down titles on sticky notes as I read book reviews, but that became unmanageable.  So now I have a little notebook.  I also keep a list of books that are coming at some point that I want to remember to look up.  Annalee Newitz's Scatter, Adapt, and Remember:  How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction has been on that list for over a year, but I can't remember where I first heard of it.

It's a great book, even if you're not crazy about the subject of apocalypse.  It's a book that comes at the subject from a variety of angles.

There's the science angle, of course.  And there's the history angle:  in the first part of the book, Newitz chronicles the mass extinctions that the earth has survived.  She also explores events, like the Bubonic Plague of 1348, which came close to wiping out humanity.  And then, she looks at the lessons learned from those extinctions and how we could use them.

In a move that's unusual for this kind of book, we even get a bit of literary criticism.  Newitz explores the works of Octavia Butler, who is an amazing writer in all sorts of ways.  Butler has a lot to teach us, on this subject and so many others.

What I find intriguing is that Scatter, Adapt, and Remember does not descend into gloom.  It's an oddly hopeful book, for a book that explores mass extinction.  Part IV is a wonderful look at how to build a better city.  And much of the technology we have right now.

She ends the book by looking at how we might survive on other planets.  Once we get to the end of the book, we realize that one of the ways to survive a mass extinction is to run away (the scatter of the title).  How will we get to other planets?  Spaceships?  A giant tube?  There are so many possibilities!

Newitz has done her homework.  She's talked to the experts and read the research.  There are endnotes for nerds like me who want to read more.  There are photos and charts.  And yet it's a highly readable book.  The research side doesn't sink the story aspects.

I like that it's smart:  my brain gets a lot to chew on.  I like that it's not overwhelming, even though it's smart.  The danger with these kind of books is that my lack of formal science training will keep me from understanding and lead to frustration and tears.  This book does not have that effect.  It reminds me of reading science fiction in high school and having my brain expand in ways that didn't happen in formal science classes.

What's also a plus for this book is that the sections could stand on their own, as could the individual chapters.  What that means for readers with busy lives:  you can read a chunk of this book, return to the book a month later, and not have to reread the whole book to remember where you were.  You can dip in and out.  Or you can just read the chunks that interest you.

Being the apocalypse gal that I am, I found it hard to put down, although I didn't read it in one big gulp.  Alas, I'm not having that kind of summer, the kind with huge vistas of reading time.  But I'm happy that this book works so beautifully in this summer of fractured reading time.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

A Festival of Flags for the Fourth

Soon the sun will rise again on another Independence Day.  I'm guessing that most of us will not do anything momentous, nothing along the lines of founding a country.  It's a good day to think about how the country came into being, the incredible risk that our founders took, the amazing odds that a tiny group of people overcame.

Or maybe, given the Supreme Court rulings of the past several years, you're in more of a mind to think about the role of individual states and their relation to the larger country.  That seems like a good Fourth of July meditation too.

I've not been to many other countries. Do individual houses fly the flag the way we so often see here? Do seemingly random flagpoles dot the landscape? I confess to finding it a comfort sometimes to see that flag floating undisturbed above it all.

I like seeing flags flying on boats too. When we're with my sister, sailing the Chesapeake, we don't see many foreign flags. Would that be different if we did much boating in South Florida? I suspect it would.

I don't have many Independence Day traditions.  Some years, we see fireworks, but some years we don't.  Some years we have a cook out, but often we don't.  There aren't foods I need to make my Fourth of July.

But I do try to think about the formational documents of the United States.  My one tradition has been to hear the reading of the Declaration of Independence on NPR's Morning Edition.  It almost always moves me to tears to hear it read out loud.  If you go here, you can listen to last year's broadcast, or you can read the Declaration of Independence for yourself.

Those signers of the Declaration pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor, so great was their belief in what they were doing.  It's a good day to think about our commitments, our values, what we hold most true.