Monday, April 21, 2014

Earth Day 2014: Getting By

Despite the fact that I haven't posted in rather a long spell, I couldn't let Earth Day go by without at least a small mention. I do have plans afoot for renewing my commitment to this blog as soon as I've finished up the latest MOOC, especially since TBS and I are heading west in late June to visit family and the Auld Sod.  I suspect that adventures will ensue, since we're taking the puppies (who are now ten) and driving--although what kind of a vehicle will be involved is far from certain.  Traveling with dogs requires all manner of prior arrangements, and since these guys have only ever been to the vet and to Tyler and San Antonio, they're essentially an unknown factor in the equation.

The "Getting By" subtitle refers to our continuing ambivalence about this place. While we still love the house, the neighbors are problematic (see the fence in the opening photo for one source of angst), and somebody ratted us to the local feds on account of the overabundance of plant life in the Carbon Sink a few weeks ago.  As a result, I've spent days off mowing and whacking, and have even fired up the little electric chain saw a couple of times.  The Sink itself is now mostly mowed down, except for a patch I left because it's a ladybug nursery.  By Wednesday they'll have metamorphosed and flown (I hope to the new raised bed, where there are zucchinis and bush beans growing), and I can finish whacking with impunity.  

We currently plan to have a new wire and cedar fence erected, with gates to accommodate the lusted-after vintage travel trailer (or one of the newer, even cooler ones from Canada) we want to buy before we retire.  Since we have no guest room in the house, I'd like to do what my grandmother did in Lone Pine, and park the Shasta in the back yard for visitors.  Just in case. But the existing fence is really kind of ugly (though not as ugly as the new wooden job on the north, which was damaged in the winter ice storm and badly repaired; I get to look at it while I wash dishes), and a nice new one will provide a support for berries and climbing plants.

The good news is that after the nastiness of the winter, and an evening hiding in the closet with the dogs when a tornado hit about five miles away, we've had some welcome rain, and the plants damaged by the late freeze(s) have started to come back.  This year's Earth Day photo is, alas, a fake. Well, not so much a fake as a lie. Or at least somewhat inauthentic.  It represents what the herb garden looked like last year about this time, with the wild gladiolus fully abloom, and the delphiniums and pincushions and lavender up.  The lavender is now gone, and the pincushions just now beginning to emerge. The rosemary has been hacked back, delphiniums replanted, lavender still to come.  But I also have a rain lily (wonderful surprise, that), and some wild geraniums mixed among the primroses I'm letting grow along the fence on the east. 

There is still much more work to be done, especially in front, but the iris border is blooming better than it has since we moved in, and I think that might be a good sign.  My one hope is that if things do get colder here (who knows how the changing climate is going to affect us in the long run), maybe I can grow some lilacs.

Happy Earth Day, People. I've got a poster in my kitchen to remind me of the first celebration in 1970, when folks first acknowledged the need. That need is even more evident today, so the moment is very much worth noting.


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.