Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Another New Year

As I slide into antiquity, I'm becoming more and more aware of shortcomings that wouldn't have bothered me a few years back: things like starting stuff and not finishing it. Like blogging.

When I first began this enterprise, some seven years ago, give or take a few months, I never thought I'd have the energy to keep it up.  But I did for quite some time, and even spun off a couple of other efforts when it seemed as though not everything I was talking about had to do with concerns that matched those of the nineteenth-century Medievalist utopians who inspired my work.  I'm not sure now how I found the time, because each of the essays took considerable effort to write, and were frequently prompted by readings on other peoples' blogs, or news items, or articles of interest in sympathetic books and magazines.

Nowadays I struggle to keep up with work, and seldom manage to scrape together the moments I need for sheer reflection.  Recent encounters with the monumental aspects of age--enrollment in Social Security and Medicate primarily--have drained my spirit further, and I'm now realizing in earnest that I have to make the time; it's not simply going to appear magically as the due reward of a life well spent.

It is also the sad state of things these days that most of us will not enjoy any sort of leisurely retirement.  My Beloved Spouse and I are planning to wrap up our working careers within the next ten years, but will keep slogging for now in order to pay off our mortgage and tuck away a bit of cash to augment rather meager retirement funds.  Some of my even more elderly friends (five or more years older than I am) are still at it, and don't foresee quitting as soon as they would like. 

The good news is that many of us are also in decent health, having been careful to avoid being naughty about food and smoking and such.  I've probably been repaired and Borged up enough to survive longer than my genes would indicate I have any right to expect.  With the right drugs and reasonable dietary and exercise habits, we should abide on this earth longer than we might have done in earlier times.  When my Grandmother was my age, she had already been a widow for six years, but had another thirty-eight years left to her. She also worked well into her eighties, as a receptionist in the local hospital, but was fond of good clean living, sans meat or alcohol.  Since I indulge in both, I'll have to take my chances, but moderation should help. 

One challenge of the new year is to find some balance between what I would like my students to accomplish, and what I have any right to expect of them.  I'm tempted to roll over, belly-up and give in to the ravages of modernity, admitting defeat and just muddling through.  But I do think these kids are worth some effort, so for as long as I can I'll keep searching for ways of engaging them, hoping that something will emerge from research or practice that will help bridge the temporal and experiential gaps that keep emerging like crevasses in a glacier.

My few reflections over the last year seem somewhat maudlin to me now, but I'm not as pessimistic or self-absorbed as I probably come off.  Most of us wouldn't be able to get up in the morning if we really thought that this is as good as it gets.  Every now and then, some small gleam comes wafting in, like Tinker Bell into the nursery, whether in the form of an interested student, a terrific book or film, or a good conversation with a colleague or child.  The Beloved Spouse builds a fire (of wood that didn't hit the house during the recent ice storm because we'd had the foresight to have the trees trimmed), the dogs snore on the hearth, and we enjoy the company of a sister or a new nephew or folks we haven't seen in some time. Life many not be superb, but it's certainly okay.

So, happy New Year to all. Be well, and be good to each other. May 2014 be somewhat better than just okay.

Image credit: January, from Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry by the Brothers Limbourg. Ca. 1412. This is one of the liveliest of the Calendar pages from this most famous of the Books of Hours painted by the brothers for the Duke.  Via Wikipedia.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Reaching The Season

Last night I played hooky, sort of, by meeting with my visual anthropology students only long enough to make sure they were working on projects due next week. Then I lit out for home in order to get there before sunset.  As ambivalent as I am about the notion of "home" in Texas, I wanted to be there to see in the new year.

Mind you, we are not a terribly celebratory family. Not only are we not religious, but we don't even mark many secular occasions.  For example, Tuesday was the twenty-second anniversary of my marriage to the Beloved Spouse.  We were married at the Cook County courthouse in Chicago, the day after Labor Day in 1991.  We had decided only the previous Thursday that we should make honest people of ourselves after three years of co-habitation, so we applied on Friday for a license; by law we needed a two-day cooling-off period, and the following Monday was a holiday, so we had to wait for the Tuesday.  So, on September 3rd, we got hitched by a lady judge who miss-heard my intended's name as "Ronnie" (later on we did wonder if we were legally married, since his name isn't "Ronnie"--but the certificate listed him correctly, so we decided we were actually wed in the eyes of the law). She also seemed disappointed that we didn't have a camera with us, but sent us on our way when it was all over. We had lunch at a really bad steak house that showed soap operas (coincidentally, "Ronnie's"), and I went back to work at the Terra on Michigan Avenue. The newly-minted Beloved Spouse went home to write a paper.

In the intervening years, he's finished his Ph.D., I've abandoned mine, we've moved back to Texas, and come to miss Chicago terribly.  The Terra Museum of Art is no more, and most of the bookstores we loved are no longer in business. The Cubs are still doing badly (except for that one blip a few years back), and the skyline has changed dramatically. So, when my daughter reminded me on Sunday that the anniversary was coming up, we reminisced about old times. But we didn't do anything else to commemorate the day.

Nor do we celebrate holidays much. Birthdays get noticed more than any other occasion, and we do try to get whatever family is available for Thanksgiving. But religious holidays, whether Jewish or Christian, tend to go by without much fanfare. So there are no big family Seders any more (my daughter goes to Minneapolis for Passover most years, to celebrate with her much more religious father), and I'm the only one who even notices when the High Holy Days arrive in fall--not because they're holy, in particular, but because they mark the passage from year to year.  I like the idea of an autumn (or, in this case, late summer) new year, at the New Moon, with the season changing from hot to less hot, late tomatoes, the last of the hatch chili crop, Mexican avocados, and pomegranates.  The garden is spent, wilted, and sadly neglected except for an occasional (and often illegal, due to drought restrictions) watering of the potager.

I arrived home in time to watch the sun sink and tint the sky pinkish.  I poured myself a glass of pomegranate juice and San Pellegrino and went out to catch the end of the year. The dogs loved going out after having been cooped up all day, and we spent a few minutes enjoying the cooling temperatures (it had gotten up to 100 F, but was down in the low 90s) and the dropping humidity before we went back indoors. The rest of my evening was spent being nostalgic about Philadelphia, because the current issue of my alumni magazine had arrived in the mail.  I was happy to note that nobody I'd known had died since the last issue. Another (non) event to celebrate.

Sometimes I wonder about my basic optimism.  As cranky an old bitch as I pretend to be, I really like the fact that I'm still alive. I don't have many friends, but my spouse and my children count, along with my first husband (or, as I think I've referred to him in the past, The Initial Spouse--who recently sent me photos of our wedding in honor of its 45th anniversary) and an old chum from Taiwan days, both of whom still keep in touch. Work keeps the TBS and I from socializing much, but I really do enjoy just thinking and reflecting when I have time--things I'm not sure I appreciated when I was younger.  Whenever I say anything about wanting to live as long as I'd like to (I'm hoping to beat my grandmother's record and make it to 105 or so), folks ask me why--and I just say something about wanting to see how things turn out.  Maybe I'm waiting to see if the flying cars ever get here. But I'm not pessimistic enough to expect Armageddon--just realistic enough to think that we might somehow muddle through without killing ourselves off by being too stupid. 

The potential for improvement keeps seeping into the conversation:  ways to produce energy without smothering the planet, ways to make peace possible, ways to explore the universe, ways to feed the hungry, ways to stabilize global population and sustainably raise the standard of living for the severely impoverished.  I'm not terribly sanguine about the public will it would take to do any of this, but I am hopeful.

So perhaps its the utopian impulse that kicks in when seasonal milestones take place: why I celebrate (by at least noticing) solstices, equinoxes, and seasonal changes.  They remind me that I've made it through one more cycle.  I could have been dead twenty years ago, or five years ago, but I'm not. I'm still here. I still have students who remind me that what I do for a living has some meaning, I have children I'm glad I brought into the world, and I ended up married to a tennis-coaching philosopher who makes me laugh and who's terribly fun to be around.

Who knows. Maybe before this time next year someone will start working on the idea of smaller energy grids (when enough people vote down huge high tension wires in their neighborhoods), or a blight will wipe out all the GMO corn crops, or somebody will invent a space drive that makes travel to other planets or solar systems possible before I'm 105. There's always hope for tikkun olam: healing of the world.

Jews mark most transitions with a blessing: "Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has granted us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this season." It's my favorite brucha (blessing), in part because it's not a prayer in the sense of a petition. It's an acknowledgment, an expression of gratitude, that can be addressed to the universe as a whole, even if one isn't a believer. At Rosh Hashana, it's generally said upon eating a fruit for the first time since the previous new year. I say it over figs in the spring, and sometimes over pomegranates in the fall.

To anyone who still reads this blog, Jewish or not, l'shana tova--I wish you a good year, happy, peaceful, and with many years to come.

Image credit: Pomegranates are rife with symbolism in ancient cultures. Their multitudinous seeds can represent fertility, fecundity, wealth--all appropriate concepts at the passing of seasons. This painting, Still-Life with Fruit and a Crystal Vase is by the Baroque Dutch artist, Willem van Aelst (ca. 1650), via Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Life (and Death) in Tornado Alley

This time of year, folks around here are somewhat obsessed with weather: justifiably so, especially in view of what happened in Moore, Oklahoma yesterday.

One reason why I've always considered Texas as a place of exile is that the region scares the crap out of me on a regular basis.  I can handle the heat, humidity, and bugs, but the tornadoes are another story.  I spent an entire day in a bathtub in April of 1979, seven and a half months pregnant, and with a toddler who thought the whole thing was a lot of fun.  That day, an F4 tornado hit Wichita Falls, and the weather forecasts for Richardson, where we had moved from Long Island, were threatening the same conditions.  I was used to hurricanes and typhoons, but they give you plenty of warning.  Tornadoes, on the other hand, can quite literally drop out of the sky with little advanced warning at all.  A vintage television broadcast, featuring my favorite weather caster, the late Harold Taft, suggests that at the time people were rather more blasé about the possibilities than they are now. Nothing happened in Richardson, but I've been thinking about building a tornado shelter ever since.

The aftermath of that storm made many people more conscious of the danger, and over the last thirty years, the news channels have fed us regularly with dramatic forecasts every time a front comes through.  The F4 or (some were suggesting) F5 storm that hit Moore and killed at least 24 people was far more devastating than any previous, so even those who've been accusing the weather-folk of fear-mongering will be paying attention, at least for this season--which is only beginning. I'm really hoping that the outcome of yesterday's devastation is that people start building shelters in schools; it seems unconscionable that a town that had already suffered a massive tornado would build schools that relied on students' huddling in hallways.

There seems to be no solid evidence that the intensity of recent storms is an outcome of global warning, but I do feel a frequent compulsion to smack the deniers upside the head.  Even if bigger tornadoes are caused by something else, there is so much change occurring everywhere that even to most entrenched non-believers ought to be rethinking how they're living in the world.

What prompted this post in the first place was a picture in the Daily Poop of a peach farmer walking through a depleted grove. The accompanying article  ("Texas peach crop is the pits; wild swings of weather to blame"--apparently not available online) noted that crops were diminished or ruined by our warm winter and late frosts. The weary-looking farmer remarked that "We wish the weather would go back to normal."

Fat chance.  Even small crops in backyard gardens are being affected.  Whereas ten years ago when I moved to McKinney, I'd get two crops of figs, lately I've only had one.  And this year, because the frosts nipped the buds, I've only been able to find two little tiny figlets, low on one of the two trees, in a relatively sheltered spot.  There's a chance I'll get a late summer crop, but I'm not counting on fig jam.  I'll nab what the mockingbirds don't steal, and eat them right there.  On the other hand, my two remaining peach trees (one volunteer, the other a remnant of a tree the previous owner planted) are loaded, and I may actually get a few now that the side yard is fenced. Somebody (not mockingbirds, I think) used to make a foray into the open side yard when we weren't looking.  Again, the spot where these are growing is relatively protected, and so that may have helped.  But we also garden organically, and preserve soil moisture with mulch; that probably contributes to peach survival.  When we had the work done on the house last year, we installed two rain barrels on the north side of the house to help irrigate the potager, and the peaches and anything else we decide to grow back there.  Three more barrels cover other sections of the property,  and the recent rains have filled them all up to overflowing--so much so that I've had to plop mosquito dunks in them to help stave off West Nile virus.

As I write this, I'm just in from mowing the back, and the Beloved Spouse has finished the front and south sides of the house--as the skies darken and neighbors warn of whopping storms moving in by 1 pm.  The news channels and TV crawls are abuzz with another tornado watch. However, I've checked my NOAA and HD Radar apps, and it looks like we're in for rain but not much else.

That doesn't mean I'm not going to heed Harold Taft's advice on the linked video clip. I will be keeping my eyes on the skies. And we will be working on a shelter this summer.

Note: Anyone interested in helping with disaster relief in Oklahoma should probably donate directly to the American Red Cross. These good folks are better attuned to what's really needed, and are situated to put funds to use quickly and efficiently.

Image credit: Photo of the Binger, Oklahoma F4 tornado in May 1981, courtesy NOAA's National Severe Storms Laboratory.