Thursday, June 26, 2014

Summer Is Icumen In

Rather than celebrating the coming of this particular season with Medieval rapture, I'm tempted to substitute Ezra Pound's snitty little salute to winter ("Lhud sing goddam!") in place of "Lhud sing cuccu!" This is, after all, Texas, and it's only by the grace of some current climatic weirdness that we're not slow-cooking in our own juices already.

I'm generally a bit ambivalent about summer anyway, because I fully realize that what's actually happening is that the daylight hours are now beginning their long decline toward the winter solstice,  the "darkest evening of the year," and the end of my 67th--even though I'm "only" 66 (and a half) at the moment.

Until I read Akiko Busch's op-ed post in the New York Times last Friday (The Solstice Blues), I thought I was alone in not necessarily seeing this moment as some grand seasonal celebratory event:

The moment the sun reaches its farthest point north of the Equator today is the moment the light starts to fade, waning more each day for the following six months. If the summer solstice doesn’t signal the arrival of winter, surely it heralds the gradual lessening of light, and with that, often, an incremental decline in disposition. 

In North Texas, the end of June is usually marked by the onset of 100-degree days; but this year we've been treated to a bit of rain and temperatures hovering around 90 during daylight hours and low enough at night to sleep without air conditioning. Even the dogs don't seem all that uncomfortable with the humidity--although we do tend to hole up in a small room with a window unit to watch TV in the late afternoon/evening, by which time the house has heated up enough to make the humid air a bit heavy.  Still, by bedtime, it's tolerable again; with a breeze it's even better, because the bedroom has windows on three sides.

When I was looking for an image to illustrate this post, I had wheat in mind for several reasons. For one, a search for "summer" on Wikimedia Commons inevitably produces photos of wheat. In addition, I'm working on a new philosophical perspectives course called "Food and Culture," and my first lecture involves the early history of human victuals--inevitably involving the ancestors of modern wheat. Since a later topic in the course will consider food and art (or food in art), I snapped up the Carl Larsson painting (which I've probably used before) because it touches on both, and because his stuff always makes me think of utopia.

The Food and Culture course has been (ahem) cooking in my brain for several years, but it was only recently that I realized I could teach it without having to go through the bureaucratic effort involved in getting a new course accepted.  Years ago, when I helped design the general studies offerings for our baccalaureate program, I pinched an idea from SUNY Stony Brook and crafted a course called "Philosophical Perspectives," thinking that whatever philosophical types we might hire could then teach what they knew, from within whatever intellectual context they were trained.  I've taught several topics under this catch-all rubric (The Arts and Crafts Movement, Pioneers of Modern Design, and Technology and Utopia), and it finally occurred to me last quarter that Food and Culture could easily fit under the umbrella.

As it turns out, I'm only catching up with a trend that's been evolving since the '90s, and even in the immediate region there's a Philosophy of Food project developing out of the University of North Texas. What this means is that although I'm not exactly on the cutting edge of things, I can take advantage of the work people are already doing in order to locate resources for my students (30 as of the last time I checked). It also means that thinking about food and its cultural meanings is being taken more seriously than it was at first. In a Chronicle of Higher Education article I had saved from 1999, it was clear that the scholarly value of food-studies was somewhat suspect. Since then, however, a looming variety of food crises (scarcity, waste, obesity, malnutrition, and myriad others) has forced folks to start talking about the many ramifications of food consumption, including the effects of global climate change on the future of food.

William Morris's effort to move the education of desire into the center of our consciousness about how we live (and how we might live) fits squarely into the aims of my course: to get students to start thinking about the difference between need and want, and how understanding that difference can inform sustainable futures.  I'm not sure how this lot will respond to having to read and write and think about something most of them don't consider except at mealtime. But there's some potential here to poke a stick into complacency.  Since most of those enrolled are in a culinary management program, the results could be quite interesting.

We will, of course, be suffering through the worst part of this region's summer weather. But we'll be doing so within an overly air-conditioned classroom, sucking down cold bottled water, iced tea, diet sodas, and energy drinks--matters I'll have to design another course to deal with.

Image credit: Carl Larsson (1853-1919),  Summer (date unknown). Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by Niklas Nordblad.

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.