Saturday, November 11, 2017

Looking Backward, Going Forward



As I begin to transform my old website Owldroppings into a more complete exploration of the concerns that show up in this blog (which will become a component of a newly realized Owl’s Farm: The Website), I keep running into questions about what I really want to think and write about.

After all, I’m about to turn seventy, an age I never thought I’d reach. So what does a seventy year-old former academic, wannabe political economist, sometime philosopher of technology, lapsed archaeologist, retired art and design history teacher, and compulsive writer do with what remains of her life?

Early on in my musings I realized that I want to stop being so grumpy. Even though I don’t have grandchildren, my siblings do, and so I do have a small genetic investment in the future. It might behoove me, therefore, to begin to consider better alternatives than seem to be available in the present political moment.

Owl’s Farm: The Blog has always been about utopia. It was inspired by two of the best utopian thinkers I ever ran across: William Morris and Yi-Fu Tuan. Morris was a celebrated designer and an early socialist, and Tuan is a humanistic geographer with a profound understanding of place. Both developed creative visions of the notion of home, which led to my explorations into its many meanings.

As I searched for a focus for the new iteration of the website, I realized that it still had to be about education, and should still embody the “teaching philosophy” I was required to articulate for my annual evaluations as a college instructor.  But it also needs to spend less time on the current state of education and more on locating what could improve it—especially since there are good models available.

In addition, instead of just complaining about current economic conditions, perhaps I should focus on locating bright spots on the horizon, like alternative energy solutions or promising community developments.

The website should also continue to provide resources for the curious, since former students still occasionally use it for the links. I’ll also archive my topical essays for courses I taught (not just art and design history, but philosophical perspectives on food, anthropology, culture, and the Arts and Crafts movement), and see if I can stay on top of issues relevant to them.   

All along this blog was meant to be an adjunct to my novel, More News From Nowhere. That, too, is in the process of being revised somewhat—now that I have the time to revisit its reason for being.  As a lifelong interdisciplinarian, I want to use the novel (and others in various stages of development) and the blog(s) as outlets for the results of curiosity. It’s often difficult to compartmentalize my many interests, but occasionally I can focus on a single aspect (museums, for example) and develop lines of inquiry that can be labeled. Hence: Owl’s Cabinet of Wonders. Other attempts (like The Owl of Athena, a blog on educational concerns) kept leaking into The Farm, and so were abandoned (although they, too, will be archived on the revised site). 

The ultimate aim now is fun—as much as is possible in this moment. I’m too old to keep wasting time being a complete curmudgeon. I can’t promise that I won’t ever go off on another grumpy rant again, or that sarcasm won’t sneak into my commentary on life, the universe, and everything. I am by nature a cynic, in its original sense. I’m dog-like: suspicious, reluctant to trust without reason (see my post from The Owl of Athena on the topic). But also both faithful and curious, and willing to explore new ideas and approaches.  

And yes, I can be a cranky old bitch. But I’ll try to do more Frisbee chasing and romping around in the garden, and less grousing. I hope what I’ll have to offer is interesting, entertaining (in a very broad sense of the word), thoughtful, and educational. I also hope it will provide a sense of hope for the future, and tools for building more of a eu-topia than an ou-topia. I’d rather that we move toward a good place than continue to imagine what can only be a no-place, a place possible only in the imagination.

Wish me luck.

PS: owlfarmer.com is “live” but practically devoid of contact. Design work will progress as I have time, depending on concurrent pursuits.

Image note: The photo is of Mount Whitney, taken in the Alabama Hills outside of Lone Pine, California, during our winter trip in 2015/16. Whenever I stayed with my Grandmother, I could see a more distant version of this image from her living room window.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Twenty Years


Having anxiously awaited Cassini's last moments for the previous week, I spent last Friday morning glued to the iPad, eavesdropping on the operations room at JPL where the folks who'd been working on the project monitored its End of Mission. As I watched the room erupt in hugs and tears after Cassini's final signal was called, I marveled at the idea of spending twenty years (as some of them had) working on a project that contributed so significantly to the sum of human knowledge. If you missed the live feed, NASA's flickr page features collection of photos that can provide a hint of the moment's emotional power. 

The combined sadness and joy expressed during the television coverage was both moving and enviable to an old space groupie like me. Ending one month shy of the twentieth anniversary of its launch, the project went out quite literally in a blaze of glory--which we'll never see because there wasn't anyone there to shoot the video. After having accomplished far more than anyone had expected when the Cassini-Huygens mission began, many more years will be required to digest all of the data gathered.

From its inception, the mission that took the probe Huygens to Titan in 2004 and enabled Cassini to continue on for several added missions made possible by a good battery and international cooperation presented us with almost incalculable benefits (partially enumerated on the nifty poster included below). But its ending also reminded me that quite a number of things have changed since the 1997 launch.


It's hard to believe that in those twenty years communications technologies have moved us from dialup computer service to wireless, from bulky mobile telephones to smartphones, and from clunky desktop computers to sleek Macs and ever skinnier, ever more powerful laptops and tablets. It was also in 1997 that I purchased my owlfarmer.com web domain from Network Solutions and developed the first faculty web pages for the use of my students--because The Institution (which had programs in web development, computer graphics, and animation) hadn't yet caught on to the value of online education. But even this cranky old technophobe saw the potential of being able to put instructional materials where they could be easily accessed at any time. And so, "Owldroppings" came into being, and served me well for the remainder of my teaching career. In honor of its twentieth anniversary, in fact, the domain is in the process of being transformed into a more complex version of Owl's Farm, where the Owldroppings materials will be archived and other concerns developed.

As rewarding as my experience with digital enhancements was, the general tenor of higher education had declined so badly by the time I retired that I found myself truly envying the level of accomplishment in evidence at the end of the Cassini mission. How good it must feel to have been a part of such an enormously rewarding experience! The emotions were obviously mixed, but even those members of the team who will themselves soon retire will have all that glory to bask in and all that experience to contribute to yet other endeavors.

So, yeah, I was jealous. But then, one of my former students texted to check up on me, and I invited her and another of those few but significant grads who are both memorable and have kept in touch to come to lunch on Saturday so we could all reconnect. Later, yet another student (who had recently texted to announce her pregnancy) stopped by. We had a lovely afternoon and a romp down Memory Lane (even though not all of those memories were pleasant), and as they were leaving I began to realize that rewarding experiences don't all have to be big, spectacular accomplishments like Cassini.

Seeing these bright, affable, creative young women again, moving toward their own futures (much as my own children have done--taking their own time, but leading rewarding lives), and realizing that I played a small part in how they've turned out, is well worth the effort that went into a teaching career that didn't always seem particularly meaningful.

In the end, my disappointment in not having the proper education to become an astronaut or a rocket scientist can be assuaged by the knowledge that there are some terrific people out there that I would never have met (or children I would never have borne) if I had made it to the space program.

Image credits: One of my favorite of Cassini's gazillion shots of Saturn and its moons (Epimetheus, Rings, and Titan, from April 2006), I pinched this from Wikimedia Commons. Many more can be found through NASA/JPL's pages, including the chart of Cassini's accomplishments (which I originally found in Wikipedia's rather nice article on the mission).

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Skywatch Friday: An Afternoon in the Sun


Several months ago I realized that we were nearing what would come to be called (in our ever more hyperbolic media outlets) The Great American Eclipse, but didn't get terribly excited because we wouldn't be experiencing much of it here in Texas. I thought about driving north to Kansas to catch totality, but wasn't thinking far enough ahead to actually make plans. By the time the event was upon us, I had actually missed the window for obtaining glasses, and was facing the probability of a pinhole projection experience.

Fortunately for us, an old friend, boss, and fellow astronomy buff invited us to his place to watch through his appropriately filtered telescope, and he had glasses. So, I whipped up some thematically appropriate snacks (chile con queso and black bean dip), found round yellow and blue corn chips, and located well-named wine (Moon X and Honey Moon) and beer (Luna y Sol), and we headed a bit south to an amazing refuge from suburban life, bordered by a forest and a meadow. I was so mesmerized by the green space that it almost distracted me from the business at hand. But not quite.


We spent the day observing through the telescope, the glasses, and a nifty little pinhole setup. The Beloved Spouse discovered that he could take photos through the telescope lens with our Canon Eos, and we got a variety of shots that recorded the 75% of totality available in the Dallas area. One of the later photos even shows the sunspots visible through the telescope (using a telephoto lens).


In all, we had a splendid day, enjoying the company of my friend (whom I hadn't seen for a couple of years) and his wife, catching up with news, and enjoying the terrific view from their back porch. I even swapped photos with my kids, one of whom was rather closer to the action, in Seattle, and sent me wonderful shadow pictures.

In another seven years Dallas will be in the path of totality when the next total eclipse passes over a small portion of the southern US (in 2024), so we're already planning another soiree. By then we'll have acquired filters for both our telescope and the camera, and will be much better prepared.

I have to admit that I was caught completely off guard by the enthusiasm that greeted Monday's event. A generally scientifically apathetic public was swept into a kind of frenzy, most likely because we were all so eager to find something uplifting to distract us from depressing political news. But the eclipse is over, and within a day the fever had abated--or was, rather, deflected to the latest lottery jackpot.

So I doubt that all that many of the people who were so engaged by Monday's hoopla will care a whit that September 5 marks the fortieth anniversary of Voyager 1's launch (the anniversary of Voyager 2's launch occurred the day before the eclipse). Some of us, however, are currently awaiting the arrival of our copies of The Golden Record, at which time we'll be able to geek out on the contents of the box it comes in, with all the rewards for having backed the Kickstarter campaign. Folks who missed the initial campaign can buy a copy from Ozma Records when it becomes available to the general public.

So, happy Skywatch Friday. I had a bit of fun getting the Beloved Spouse to reproduce approximate 75% totality with corn chips, but the photo was taken of the sky, so it counts.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Fake History


Seventeen years ago, when we were looking for a house of our own to buy, we were attracted to this town and this neighborhood by the fact that ordinances prevented buyers from tearing down little old bungalows to build big, new, characterless monstrosities. Both house-hunters and builders had recently discovered east Dallas, and prices had begun to rise precipitously just when we were entering the market. So our cute little neighborhood in “Lakewood Borders” as I called it (officially “Lakewood Heights,” on the fringes of the posh and pricey neighborhood surrounding White Rock Lake) was almost immediately out of our range—and almost as quickly began to change character in the absence of any kind of historic designation. When The Beloved Spouse decided one day to drive up to McKinney and look around, he found The House almost at once, and within months it was ours.

It wasn’t perfect, with its AstroTurf on the front porch and gold shag carpet in most of the living areas, but the “bones” were most certainly solid, especially for a house built only a year after my father was born (1922). The neighborhood itself was a mixed bag of little scruffy bungalows (like ours) and large elaborate Tudor and Georgian revivals, along with Texas Victorians both large and small. The wooden bits of our house had been clad with white aluminum siding that hid some of its Craftsman details, which probably contributed to its affordability, and it would be years before we accumulated the wherewithal to begin to restore it. 

In the meantime, we stripped the floors of the carpet and managed to get up most of the goop that had held it down, and over the next ten years we refinished bits and painted other bits. The lovely quarter-sawn planks that had been hidden under the gold shag have been stripped but are still unfinished; we’ll get it done eventually. Most of our effort has been spent tearing down badly thrown-up sheetrock and ancient stained and worn wallpaper to expose the ship-lap underneath. Before it was trendy to do so, we removed sagging beaverboard ceilings and left the wood open to god and everybody, and later painted some of the walls and stained and sealed others.  What we have not done is to “update” the kitchen and downstairs bath, opting instead to keep as much of them intact as possible, even if they’re not quite period-correct. We’ve bucked the trend to enlarge the kitchen, replace the tile, put in stainless steel and granite and replace cupboards, even though the kitchen’s rather tiny and the bathroom is neither appropriate to the ’twenties nor particularly stylish.  Nonetheless, visitors seem to like the place, proclaiming it comfortable and homey. It seems to remind folks of their grandparents’ houses.

When we finally mustered the funds to get the siding removed, we painstakingly researched historically appropriate colors to paint the new hardie board sections (sturdier and less expensive than wood, and much more authentic-looking than the aluminum stuff). We chose four: a barn red for the major fields, "Dard Hunter Green" for the larger segments of trim, "Roycroft Adobe" and "Roycroft Rose" for smaller bits of accent. These all came from the Sherman Williams Craftsman palette, and were chosen to match the multiple shades of red and green on the brick. The comments were immediately favorable, with neighbors stopping buy to tell us how good they thought it all looked.

Unlike many bungalow-owners, we gave no desire to turn our home into a museum of the Craftsman style, in part because we could never afford to. Most of what our place is furnished with is old and well loved, but not period specific. So while I admire and respect the aesthetic sensibilities of Morris and his heirs, what decorates our home is useful and beautiful to us, but is unlikely to fit the criteria of the more religious of the American Bungalow faithful.

I’m not quite sure why it is that so many people rely so heavily on shelter magazines and home improvement/house-hunting television shows to determine how their interiors should look.  It’s as if they need permission to do something adventurous or out-of-the-ordinary, and so wait until they see someone do it in a magazine before they take a chance. And as much as I love my house porn, by far my most beloved of magazines is the British edition of Country Living. I no longer get it in print because I haven’t the room to hoard any more back issues, but the many I already have stashed reflect something intriguing. Even though I have issues dating back to the ‘80s, none of them seem out of date today. Open any issue and the rooms seem just as fresh and current as they did then.  Perhaps this stems from the fact that Brits don’t seem to need anyone’s permission to relish their history and traditional country life. But in the US, our history is so recent and such a hodgepodge of influences that we have very little in the way of deeply held aesthetic traditions. Some pockets of “native” design exist (the Southwestern adobe houses in Arizona and New Mexico, the Spanish Mission influence in California, for example), but these reflect the traditions and tastes of early inhabitants or conquerors rather than anything deeply American (whatever that would look like).

The recent housing boom has hit this town like a tornado, however, and the small bungalow interiors that make houses like ours so cozy will be disappearing even more quickly than they already had been. Buyers can’t do much to the exteriors because restrictions regarding architectural style are in place for older houses (sound structures can’t be torn down, but can be added to—considerably—and must retain one of the approved vernacular vocabularies), but they can gut interiors to match the modern, "open plan," country-ish interior they saw on Houzz. In addition, our city council seems to be rather lenient with new homes on vacant lots. The preferred new construction these days is a sort of Faux Texas Farmhouse Modern Rustic, clearly inspired by what’s been going on down in Waco for the past three years or so. I’m not quite sure what to think of all this, because it’s not true to the spirit of the town’s traditional structures, but it’s a damned sight better than the Middle American Texas Tudor Ranch Baroque crap that’s always being built on the other side of McKinney, outside of the historic district.

Anyone who spends as much time as I do fantasizing about land and old houses on Zillow will notice  the death of the genuine old house interior. Even when people buy one of the standard two- or three-bedroom bungalows built in the twenties and thirties, and even though they can’t really change the exterior of the house significantly (except to put up fake shutters, usually in a totally inappropriate size), they immediately start knocking down interior walls to “open up the space,” covering all horizontal surfaces in kitchens and baths with granite or marble, and jamming in the largest stainless steel fridge and range that will fit. They also tear out perfectly good tile and cover the vertical surfaces with too-narrow “subway” tile or some other hot choice-of-the-moment. Then they paint the walls and woodwork white.  And although a few on-the-market houses have adopted the  “Fixer-Upper” nouveau-rustic aesthetic so popular on HGTV now have chucked the sheetrock and tile for ship-lap and bead boarding—they then paint that white.

Since I’ve gotten a bit cute with my bathroom (topping the four-inch yellow tile with a frieze of varied hand-painted Mexican tile framed with some of the ship-lap salvaged from a beyond-rescue ceiling), I can’t comfortably wear the mantle of true historicity. But at least what we’ve done is to jazz up the old, staid, American Standard bathroom without tearing the whole thing down or enlarging it to hold a Roman bath complex. I’d be practically ecstatic if that’s what more people decided to do around here: look to their southwestern neighbors for inspiration that doesn’t come from a single source, or, better yet, delve into their own families’ backgrounds for ideas that evoke history and memory.




But the demand for houses in this area is exploding, and the asking prices are rising astronomically, and people seem to be “investing” now in “updated” kitchens and baths so they can get top dollar when they sell out. Which is what they’re really doing—although one can hardly blame them, since already ridiculous property taxes will only rise in respond to the boom. 

Oddly enough, this new fever has dampened our own ardor a little, and we're feeling less inclined to move away. We had already begun to seriously consider sheltering in place, rather than selling out and running west to the high desert. And now, with houses like ours being marketed with asking prices nearly twice what they should be, our anti-exploitive convictions are taking over and we’re much more reluctant to go through the angst of sorting through books and the clearing out that it would take be able to move. It’s probably more evidence of nostalgia on our part, but we’d feel as if we’d abandoned this well-loved house if we sold it just to make a buck. Or several hundred thousand bucks.

We came here because this is one of several towns in Texas that has maintained ties with its history. Many north Texas towns like McKinney and Waxahachie have taken steps to preserve older neighborhoods, and even Dallas has tried to stem the growth of McMansions and the destruction of its older bits by using historical designations as a means of turning back the tides of rampant “progress.” But if the nod to history is only superficial, we’re really not going to be much better than the old western facade movie sets. The small rooms that made bungalows cozy are giving way to “open plan” entertainment spaces that reflect lives at odds with what old-fashioned family values seem to require: intimate dining spaces, rooms for quiet reading, conversations around the hearth. Our house suits us much better than a much bigger one would—but then we’re empty-nesters on the verge of full retirement, without grandchildren or all that much family nearby.

I guess I just wish that before folks start telling their builders to tear down walls and put in the trendiest new accoutrements (and don't get me started on "distressed" furniture and phony "aged" paint jobs), perhaps they could spend a little time looking through an issue of American Bungalow or the British edition of Country Living for ideas about how to mesh the new with the old, in order not to remove the patina of history from houses that still have stories to tell.  Instead of watching "Fixer Upper," check out "Rehab Addict" for ideas about how to do less damage to a house’s original character. And if they want a new house, build a new house. Don’t try to turn an old, weathered, seasoned dowager into something that will never quite fit comfortably into heavy makeup and mod new clothes. 

Monday, May 29, 2017

Memorial Day Memories

Families have a variety of ways of acknowledging their dead, many of which involve rituals taught to the young and fondly remembered after the instructors themselves are gone. My grandmother--whose husband was a veteran of World War I, and whose eldest son (my father) served during three different conflicts (World War II, Korea, and Viet Nam)--firmly adhered to a Memorial Day tradition of gathering up all of the flowers blooming in the yard into a bucket and taking them up to the Big Pine Cemetery, where a large number of our forebears and their offspring now rest.

The old galvanized bucket was filled with lilacs, coreopsis, honeysuckle, Rose of Sharon, trumpet vine, and anything else that might be in bud or bloom around her little plot in my home town, where she lived after my grandfather died. While I lived with her and whenever I was visiting at the appropriate time, I'd tag along, and be told the stories associated with the different names and graves.  And although I seldom make it home for Memorial Day any more, I never return to the Owens River Valley without visiting those graves, which now include hers and my father's.



Nowadays, I gather flowers in her memory--although I try to keep the number low, because she preferred that blooms be left where they belong (except when being toted up to the cemetery). This year Mother Nature has given me a very large thistle plant, growing just off the lawn in front. I let it be until it began to blossom, picked one stem, and left the rest. But since they were likely to be lopped down by some overzealous "lawn boy" from next door, yesterday I cut them all for this year's bouquet--and have used a photo of them at the beginning of this post.

Like my grandmother, I try to let things grow where they want to, and am often rewarded for being patient with mystery plants. I encountered my first example of this flower not long after we moved here, and I've had them sporadically ever since. I'm hoping to save some seeds this time, and to plant a more permanent "crop," even though they're painfully prickly. But they're so strange and lovely that they look almost like cartoon flowers, or some sort of alien life. The Beloved Spouse thinks they look like Dr. Seuss flowers.  At any rate, they're rewarding, fragrant and long-lasting, and much prettier than the common thistles that grow along the margins of Texas highways. It doesn't really match any of the descriptions in the Lady Bird Johnson database, but I'll do some more research anon.

Meanwhile, I'm enjoying another pleasant day (after several sticky, seasonably hot ones) and am ready to retire to the back quarter-acre with a glass of vinho verde to while away the early evening, remembering good stories and good people.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Habit Forming

This post may ramble a bit--more so even than usual--because I'm trying to knit together a number of thoughts that have occurred to me over the last few days. Earlier this year I posted about ways to get by under the current regime in Washington and its (as promised) ensuing idiocy. The idea was to cultivate habits that might help one survive the almost overwhelming deluge of anti-intellectual diatribe issuing from the White House and Congress. I focused on several centers of effort (eat real food, get real exercise, make stuff, write more, read even more; see Sunrise, Sunset from 19 January), all of which I fully intended (and still do) to establish as habits. This intent has since led to ruminations on the word habit itself, and all it entails--including words like inhabit, habitat, habitable, and the like. There's probably no better word to describe my basic materialistic view of life, because it comes from the Latin habeo: to have, hold. Bundled in this one little word is a universe of ideas encompassing carrying, wearing, possessing, holding, wealth, inhabiting, ruling, conversing, using, managing, keeping oneself, and disposition. Thus, it also contains within it many of the basic themes considered on The Farm. And so, as often happens, my simple curiosity about the nature of habits has led my back to my usual philosophical playground: economics in the form of home-keeping.

Due to my diminishing ability to remember stuff consistently, I have been thinking lately of seeking a technological solution: something to help me perform the tasks I mean to do but don't necessarily remember to get done. As many of you already know, my relationship with technology is ambivalent at best, and although I've succumbed to many aspects of digital culture (computers, smart phones, and the internet), I have avoided many social media outlets even as I embrace others. I eschew the more egregious offenders, but find others useful--such as Blogger, which has enabled me these past ten years to get thoughts into the universe, whether anybody's interested or not. It took me many years to adopt my iPhone, and now it's become part of my life. Too much, in fact, because when I decided to use a movement tracker to help keep me from becoming a total blob, I found myself practically welded to the device. I quite literally could go nowhere without my phone if I wanted to keep track of my activity level. This entails always wearing pants or jackets with pockets. Given my rather limited wardrobe, I found myself needing to stuff the phone into my knickers or brassiere if my trousers were missing something to carry it in; retrieving it in the checkout line at Whole Foods caused double-takes all around.  The solution became obvious, but involved another technological concession: either a fitness tracker or a smart watch.

In the end I opted for the Apple Watch because it so easily wedded itself to my phone, iPad, and computer. The Beloved Spouse and I headed for the Buy More last weekend and got a deal on an out-of-box Series One in basic black. I haven't worn a watch in years, and used to prefer the face on the back of my wrist so I wasn't constantly looking at the time. This one has to be worn on top, but it only activates when I tell it to. It does nudge me to get off my keester and move around every now and then, and I have told it to prompt me to breathe several times a day (other than reflexively). Now, as if by magic, my intention to get real exercise is well on its way to becoming a well-established habit. In addition, my phone doesn't have to follow me around and I don't always have to have pockets, even though I prefer them to purses and such.

When I was looking up habeo in my Cassells Latin Dictionary, I anticipated only a handful of the definitions attached. The notions of wearing, carrying, managing hadn't really occurred to me, and yet here they are, all bound up with this new habit of walking around purposefully, noting my range of activity, and nudging myself toward better health. Coincidentally enough, the Beloved Spouse informs me that some of our Continental philosophy colleagues are thinking and writing about the relationships among habit, habitation, and Heideggerian "dwelling." Of this I was unaware, but will certainly pay more attention to in future.

Some habits have evolved more naturally over the length of my retirement, and require little technological assistance. I find myself getting into the garden on most clear mornings, to drink my coffee, read, write a little, hang out with my animal companions, and enjoy the natural wonders that reveal themselves when one isn't consumed with time tables and administrative obligations. I have, for example, spent an afternoon watching a Black Swallowtail butterfly flirting with my dill and fennel plants, and later discovered that she'd laid an egg (and then several others), which then hatched into a quickly-evolving larval form (all of the photos below are of the same wee beastie).


Alas, this little critter and its later siblings have all disappeared, perhaps victims of a wasp-like creature I noticed hanging about the fronds after they were all gone. Nevertheless, it's quite wonderful to be able to observe all this, even if it's a bit "nature red in tooth and claw."

The ability to grow at least some of my own food has finally become a reality, as the habit of daily tending to the garden has made timely planting and appropriate husbandry possible. The tomatoes and butternut squashes are on their way to edibility, peppers are almost ripe, lettuces and even a couple of radishes (which need re-seeding) have made their way into salads. The pods of Anasazi beans are bulging, but I need to let them be a bit longer. The bush beans I planted on the previous compost bin site (which I moved over and re-started after I harvested the compost) have already borne fruit, even though the spot doesn't get much sun. New projects include beginning a h├╝gelkultur on the north side of the house to take advantage of the sun next spring, and trying to tame the herb garden enough so that everything has room to grow--not just mints and garlic chives. [Edit 05.18: just this morning the Daily Poop included an article on Bokashi composting--prompting me to restart mine. I have two bins and used to alternate them, and will reinstate the practice anon.]

The rest of the sanity-saving habits list doesn't really need electronic enhancement, and I'm actually using pencil and paper for some of the writing. I've collected a massive number of notebooks over the years (many are abandoned sketchbooks from former students, who turned in a couple of completed pages and then gave up), so I'm assigning separate tasks to some of them, and they accompany me into the garden, or are housed on the table next to my reading chair in the living room. I need one upstairs, too, next to the bed, for remembering stuff that occurs to me during occasional bouts of sleeplessness. As I sort through accumulated "collections" of materials from my past, I often find old notebooks used for similar purposes, indicating that this is a long-established habit that's simply being resumed after a hiatus.

Thus, this ramble comes to an end. My little digital watch has just told me that it's time to get up and move around, so I think I'll go out and look for caterpillars. After having exceeded all of my goals yesterday, I'll need to mow the front lawn in order to keep up the good work. But that's also a habit worth cultivating.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Learning To Love The Prairie


The last few days have been unexpectedly pleasant, and I've enjoyed myself more in the last two weeks (after the all the home-keeping effort that went into preparation for our post-conference convivium on the 29th of April) than I can remember having done in recent years.

It's probably truly ironic that the changing climate is at the root of the decent weather and the delayed onset of sweltering heat. Never mind that the days leading up to the Heidegger Symposium, and our first entertainment effort in several years, caused untold angst because of decisions that had to be made about where to cook and where to eat and where everyone was going to sit. The humidity was high enough that we expected thunderstorms nearly ever day, but as the event itself unfolded we were able to get out to the back yard for schmoozing and trailer touring, and even some eating--even though there was some rain. Everyone found a place to converse, and the dining room had became a sort of bar by the end of the evening. It was good to have convivial company and pleasant conversation--and it looks like we may do it all again next year.

One thing that makes our life here tolerable is the fact that McKinney, despite its being nestled in the heart of one of the most right-wing counties in the US, is surprisingly progressive in some ways. We have good recycling, the city encourages water conservation, and the downtown area around the old Courthouse square boasts numerous terrific restaurants, wine bars, pubs, and pleasant places to shop. There's even an antiquarian bookstore right off the square, complete with a bookstore dog. Antique stores and local food sources abound, and there's a nearby farmer's market on Saturday mornings. The conference was held in the Courthouse building itself, which has been converted into public spaces for all manner of community activities. We rented a pleasant room for the talks, had coffee brought in by the non-profit cafe across the street, and many of the attendees were able to stay at a nifty old hotel only steps from the conference venue. The ability to walk everywhere was one reason for holding the conference here, and it drove home to us the wisdom of our decision to move here in the first place.

So, even though it's taken a good sixteen years to realize it, staying put may be the smartest way for us to spend our retirement years. We can travel (in the Shasta, of course) when we want to get away, but putting time and creative energy into the house and property is becoming more and more attractive as a life-goal. This prospect occurred to us this last Saturday as we walked up to City Hall to vote in local elections for mayor, city council, school board, and trustees for the college district for which the Beloved Spouse teaches. We had lunch in a lovely new restaurant, bought a hand-grinder for coffee beans at my favorite store (Etienne Market), and walked home for a bit of a rest before dinner. We were thus able to really enjoy the last lazy weekend before all hell breaks loose: final paper grading and the NJCAA Men's National tennis championships for him, and cataract surgery for me.

Dealing with geezer eye issues is relatively simple these days, and Medicare covers the basic operations (two, a week apart). Chances of problems are slim, and the reward should be improved eyesight and less reliance on glasses (although I won't be able to give them up entirely). Even so, I'm spending my mornings in the back yard with the animals and visiting wildlife, enjoying the view and noticing everything I can--just in case.

Mornings out in cool weather, attended by amusing pets and rambunctious birds and squirrels are certainly worth putting up with occasional scary weather and cranky neighbors--as long as tornadoes, heat, and mosquitoes don't conspire to counter the pleasantness. Enough nice folk and community aspects are beginning to make permanent exile a more attractive option than it has seemed in the past.

We shall see. But for the moment staying put may actually be a viable option, and feels much less like simple inertia. Years ago I started writing an essay about the process of learning to love the prairie; I never finished it because events and interruptions kept getting in the way. I'm not sure that I'll ever truly love this area with the kind of affection the eastern California desert inspires, but perhaps I can learn to accept the gift of good land (to borrow from Wendell Berry) and a good house, and a life far more filled with contentment than I might ever have hoped for this far away from home.

Also, I won't have to move all my books.

Image note: Because I don't have any recent prairie photos, I'm borrowing this from George Catlin: Expedition Encamped on a Texas Prairie. April 1686, via Wikimedia Commons


Friday, April 21, 2017

Earth Day 2017: And So It Goes



This blog will celebrate its tenth anniversary on June 22, and from year two on, the one consistent activity has been an annual Earth Day message. This year's opening illustration is of one of our resident green anoles, posing nattily within a wisteria wreath.

I'm of two minds about this year's post, because on the one hand the State of the Earth (or at least of the Nation, which is inordinately responsible for the planet's health) is about as dismal as it's been in some time; on the other hand, however, my garden is (because of the changing climate and its consequent early spring) presently lusher and much more promising than usual.

Oddly enough, according to an article yesterday in the Daily Poop, "Earth day Texas drew a record attendance of more than 130,000 last year and boasts of being the world's largest Earth Day Celebration." Texas. Really. The Texas part will be dropped next year, however, to become EARTHx and more global. Pardon me while I put on my skeptic's hat and spend the day in my verdant back yard.

At the moment, the wild gladiolus volunteers, which have proliferated far beyond expectations, are already past full bloom, the air is redolent of honeysuckle, catalpa, and the last of the Chinaberry blossoms--along with the musty scent of privet flowers. I have my first poppy ever (I purchased two plants this year and tucked them into the pepper/parsley raised bed. Bergamot and salvia are blooming in the potager, and the garlic chives I tried to hack off a few weeks ago are resurrecting themselves. The veg in "Woody"s Garden" (aka Stump Henge) are coming along; tomatoes are blooming--though whether or not they set fruit before the heat hits is yet to be seen. We're holding a convivium for a philosophy conference here in a week, and my job between now and then will be to tidy it all up and make it look at least slightly civilized. Not that I really want to. Although I do enjoy how orderly everything looks after I mow, I appreciate even more the shaggy growth of a few days later, when the clover is back in bloom after having been lopped off by a low setting on our environmentally correct electric mower. I do let things go in the North Meadow, the small strip of self-sown "weeds" (mallows mostly) and the perennial ajuga that came with the house, along with another variety I planted a few years ago. Ajuga likes the shade, and sends up pretty purpley spikes that make glancing out the dining room window a pleasure.


Of late I've been recording life both tame and wild in the garden. The cat frequently poses for amusing shots, but I've also been filming lizards (geckos and green anoles) and squirrels and butterflies and fireflies. I have some notion of putting together a "Slow Backyard Video" page on YouTube to house them. It will undoubtedly be private, though, and available to a select few who will promise not to say nasty things about why I would even bother to "film" ten minutes of a lizard climbing along a tomato frame. Or fifteen minutes of my cat at dusk, watching fireflies. A couple of days ago I was so intent on recording a squirrel's antics that without noticing, I stepped in an ant pile and was subsequently bitten so aggressively that my profane comments are clearly heard on the video. But when I'm not busy swearing, I often manage to catch a butterfly enjoying one of the gladioli, or bees buzzing around the blossoms that have been planted on their behalf. The idea is that they will all find the blooms and pesticide-free ambience attractive enough that they'll hang around and help pollinate the tomatoes and peppers and squash.

It occurs to me that in times of strife and stress such as ours, finding sanctuary in one's home and garden is for some of us about the only way to practice a life worth living. I'm just too old and too tired to march in the streets, and too busy home-keeping to join the festivities at Fair Park--as glad as I am that Dallas is at least paying lip service to sustainability--especially when they can attract loads of visitors and cash in on potential revenue.

So, to those who've visited this blog over the years, I hope you'll enjoy the day/week that's become much more widely celebrated than I'd ever have imagined back in 1970 when I did join the crowds in Philadelphia for my very first Earth Day. Tiny houses, electric cars, greener energy sources, backyard chickens, and myriad other signs that the apocalypse may not actually be upon us (at least not yet) give me some small hope that next year's post will be a little more sanguine.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Spring's Dubious Promise

For some odd reason I was under the impression that I faithfully posted every year on the first day of spring. But, looking back at the roll, I noticed that although I have been a devoted noticer of Earth Day, I seldom post on the vernal Equinox.

That will probably change as of now, because my blogging efforts may slow down even more than they already have as I shift into household management mode.  What writing I will be doing in the future may be of the fiction variety (despite my recent First Official Reject Notice). But I think it would be useful for my own memory to post at least seasonally--although I probably will keep up the Earth Day tradition as well.

So, in honor of the day, the image at left is of the House Clock--the appearance of sunrise in my dining room window on the first day of spring. [For the curious, a search for "house clock" on the blog will locate posts and photos about equinoxes both Vernal and Autumnal, with occasional photos.]

My questioning  spring's promise this year has to do with a couple of issues. For one thing, I don't find much of anything "promising" these days, as I wait for the other shoe to drop in D. C. It really does seem only a matter of time before something really scary or really stupid (or both) happens in the White House. Then there's the weather. It's hard to welcome spring when we've had no winter to speak of--although I realize that those in the northeast have had their share. But in Texas, no appreciable winter is usually followed by bloody hot summer, and what we saved on heating bills will be made up (and then some) by A/C bills beginning, probably, sometime in April. It's actually been warm enough lately (87F expected today) that our neighbors' heat pumps are already switching into cooling mode.

For the past couple of days I've been running around taking advantage of sun and breeze to dig up some garlic chives for transplanting, and getting some veg into the new Stump Henge garden (which is situated in the sunniest part of the yard). It was once a fire pit, but last fall we filled it up with soil and compost and started calling it Woody's Garden. Here's our sweet, now departed pup relaxing next to the Henge on the first day of spring last year:


The wisteria was in bloom then, as it is this year, although not as leafed-out as it is now (the blossoms will be gone within a week or so). A few days ago it had taken over the trees on the west side of the yard and looked quite lovely on a misty morning:


Another reason I'm somewhat doubtful about spring's promise this year stems from not remembering quite how much sun the Henge garden will get--and whether what does fall on it will be enough to provide at least a few tomatoes.  I haven't quite filled it in yet, but here's the preliminary view, taken last evening (Mrs. Peel appears in the center of the photo, lounging on a bit of stump):


The umbrella frame will support Anasazi beans (if they come up), and the two wire cages are for tomatoes. But there are sage  plants, thyme, rosemary, stevia, an eggplant and some butternut squash.  Not terribly ambitious, yet, but I'll go out to see what's available this week and let serendipity prevail. What I really need are nasturtiums, which always brighten up the garden and the landscape in general.

As I come to realize that our exile is probably permanent, I've been trying to "settle" here and acknowledge the enormous good fortune we actually enjoy. But if the summer turns out to be as brutal as the early spring weather portends, I may start spending more time watching "Escape To The Country" on Netflix, and pining for England's green and pleasant land--or at least for Owens Valley's granite-scented, clear, dry heat.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The View From Serendip


The importance of coincidence has always played a role in how I approach this blog. One newspaper item connects with a book or a film—or some other conjunction of media and/or events—and leads to musings that make their way into an essay that falls under the overall concerns of The Farm.

Serendipity is a kind of coincidence, but one with generally favorable connotations. The term comes from the old name for Ceylon (the colonial name for today’s Sri Lanka), and was (according to the OED) coined by Horace Walpole based on a fairy tale called “The Three Princes of Serendip.” According to Walpole, the heroes “were always making discoveries by accident and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.” Hence, its definition as “the faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident.” The title of the post is stolen brazenly from Arthur C. Clarke, who lived in Sri Lanka for most of his life (from 1956 until he died in 2008). He published The View From Serendip in 1977, in which he collected assorted essays, memoirs, and speculations.

As recently as 2014, an essay from the book was quoted by Michael Belfiore in his opinion piece for The Guardian, “When robots take our jobs, humans will be the new 1%. Here’s how to fight back.” But even though I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about the jobs our current president wants to “bring back” (like coal mining) and why it doesn’t make any sense to do so (in light of what the future probably holds, and the fact that a lot of these jobs kill people—especially when that same president wants to get rid of as much regulation as possible)—this doesn’t even count as one of the occasions that prompted this post. Nevertheless, I should note that Clarke’s predictions often turned out to come true, and the book is well worth reading.

The real impetus for writing came from two directions.  The first arrived in one of my feeds (Medium), and I sent it to my Pocket list for future reference: How to Turn Wikipedia Into a Bottomless Pit of Story Ideas. What intrigued me about the article is that it advocates using Wikipedia the way I used to use library reference indices, by looking “around” various topics, noticing adjacent topics that frequently led to unexpected enrichment of potential source material. As research became more and more focused on digital sources (especially search engines), I often reflected on the loss of that kind of serendipitous encounter, until I realized that Google often afforded similar opportunities. The author of the article (“Moonlighting Writer” for Student Voices) provides a number of tips for using Wikipedia's features for more than just a quick look-up.

This might be a good place to point out that Wikipedia's description of "The Three Princes of Serendip" (linked above) focuses on the princes' education in the arts and sciences, and how they use that education in their adventures.

The next event arrived completely out of left field when my phone lit up with the name of a former student, one of whom I’d been thinking recently but hadn’t heard from for some time. I’d forgotten that she’s on my phone's contact list, else I’d probably have texted her before now. But she was driving through the neighborhood and decided to call me. Since we’d last spoken, she’d gone to grad school to earn a master’s in art education after discovering that working in the gaming industry wasn’t really what she wanted to do. And now she’s teaching high school, thinking about getting a PhD and also about starting a family—at just about the same age I was when I started out on similar path(s).

At the very moment I received her call, I had been wondering what to do with several years’ worth of Archaeology magazines, and realizing that if I wanted to donate them to a school, I’d have to sort through and arrange them by year, and bundle them accordingly—at least a day’s worth of slog.  But as my student and I were talking I connected “art teacher” and “archaeology magazines” and popped the question: Do you have any use for these? And indeed she did. So we got to enjoy a nice catch-up conversation, and I got to unload a slew of old periodicals and art-related stuff I’d been saving for who knows what. And I didn't have to sort through them because they'll be used for mixed media art projects.

In the end, it was particularly rewarding to realize that I don’t really need to abandon hope just because we’ve got an anti-intellectual in the White House, who has no regard for the arts or the sciences. There are young folk out there who have learned to love learning, and have decided to act on their curiosity and creativity and share it with yet another generation or two. One can only imagine what one of her students might do when he or she connects one event with another in the history of archaeology, or juxtaposes one culture’s artistic input with that of another. The possibilities are limited only by their imaginations, which I hope haven't been too stunted by the current cultural climate.

Image note: Mrs. Peel during one of her evening sojourns in the back yard, with serendipitous sunset back-lighting.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

100 Words for a Children's Endangered-Language Dictionary


Once again I’d like to remind readers that language and education have both long been preoccupations here on the Farm. In an era of political unrest brought on in part by cultural differences intensified by lack of understanding one another’ languages, it seems particularly important to endorse projects designed to demonstrate the power of language as a vehicle for identity and knowledge.

To this end, I’d like to draw your attention to another Kickstarter campaign to create a 100-word illustrated children’s dictionary in the endangered languages of the Chittagong Hills Tracts of Bangladesh. The goal is relatively modest (10,000 USD), and the funds will go toward the design, illustration, and publication of a dictionary of one hundred basic, important words in four indigenous  languages (Mro, Marma, Chakma, Tripura) as well as the official national language of Bangladesh (Bangla) and English.

I’ll let Tim Brookes (creator of the Endangered Alphabets and related campaigns) tell the basic story:
As you probably know, in countries all over the world members of indigenous cultures have their own spoken and written languages—languages they have developed to express their own beliefs, their own experiences, their understanding of their world. What they have collectively written in those languages is the record of their cultural identity: spiritual texts, historical documents, letters between family members, knowledge about medicinal plants, poems.  
In scores of countries, though, even in the West, those minority languages are unofficial, suppressed, ignored, even illegal. Children sit through classes listening to teachers they can barely understand; adults have to speak a second or even a third language to get social services or deal with the law.  
Denying members of a minority culture the right to read, write and speak in their mother tongue defines them as inferior and unimportant, and leaves them vulnerable, marginalized, and open to abuse. The extent and quality of education go down, while levels of homelessness and incarceration, and even suicide go up. 
On the far side of the world from me is the nation of Bangladesh, and in the southeast of Bangladesh is a region called the Chittagong Hill Tracts. This upland, forested area is home to 13 different indigenous peoples, each of which has its own genetic identity, its history and cultural traditions, and its own language. Some even have their own alphabets.  
All these languages and scripts are endangered. Government schools mandate the use of Bangla, the official national language, so entire generations are growing up without any sense of their own cultural history and identity—very much the kind of situation that has led to the endangerment or eradication of hundreds of Aboriginal languages in Australia and Native American languages in the U.S.  
We want to give those kids their own dictionary, in their own languages. Decades of research show that children learn best when they start in the language they speak at home.
I urge you to go to the Kickstarter page for a complete description and for a list of nifty rewards for various levels of pledges. Since its launch on January 27, the project has raised 2,758 USD, but there’s still a long way to go to ensure success (the deadline is February 26). If you’re looking for something to help you feel a little better about this world, the 100 Word Dictionary might help.

For a list of previous posts on related topics, use the "Search This Blog" feature at the top of the side bar, using "endangered alphabets" as key terms. As you'll be able to tell, I think that preventing the demise of the world's endangered languages and alphabets is vitally important to the survival of human knowledge.

Image credit: this is the sample page from the Kickstarter site; the actual dictionary will feature six languages rather than the three depicted.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Sunrise, Sunset

Although I'm not terribly happy about this photo (I generally avoid power lines and try to frame photographs without stray house bits, like the corner of the gable on the upper right), it and its companion below represent this post rather nicely, and were taken on the same day about a week ago. The "Sunrise" shot (above) was taken from the front porch with my new iPhone 7.


The "sunset" shot, taken in the back yard, also includes power lines, so there's an additional aspect of symmetry; I usually stand atop chairs and other furniture to try and avoid them. However, I wanted to submit something to Skywatch Friday for the first time in ages [as usual, thanks to the crew--and do go see what folks from all over have posted], so here we are; what you see is what I got, and I'm making do.

As I am with all manner of things these days. I will not be viewing any of the inaugural festivities tomorrow, and since the weather should be warmer, will instead be doing some early garden prep, reading some Wendell Berry and Joseph Wood Krutch, and watching a couple of episodes of Netflix's wonderful adaptation of Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. I can't imagine anything more appropriate, given the state of the Union. Thus, the photos seem to hold out a little promise for a not completely bleak future, but I won't be holding my breath.

Despite my usual less-than-optimistic view of things, I've decided to find ways to muddle through the next four years. I'll be rethinking and redesigning my website (and changing the name from Owldroppings to Owl's Farm; this blog will be linked to it), clearing out the detritus in the garage and attic (in case we decide we just can't abide Texas any longer), and finding more ways to live more sustainable lives.

Inspiration for all this has come from several places, including my new subscription to Australia's Slow magazine, ecopoets like Krutch and Berry, and even the latest issue of American Craft. The editor, Monica Moses, has written a wonderful little essay on the role of craft in keeping one's sanity in uncertain times: "The Tough Make Art," in which she describes her own plan:
 
Like a lot of us, I’m looking for ways to cope with the discord, to feel hopeful again. I’m returning to the basics: eating well, exercising, trying to sleep, spending time with loved ones. But I’m also doubling down (as the pundits would say) on art. (American Craft, Feb/Mar 17, p. 10)

My own map of the next few months includes efforts to accomplish much the same sorts of things, including the art part. Her sentiments are in tune with much of what I read among the thoughtful writers whose works I frequent, now that I find myself sticking to the Arts & Life section and the funnies in the Daily Poop,  and the Books and Trilobites sections of the New York Times. Never have I felt more grateful for the library we've amassed, because it should prove most valuable over the next four years, reminding me that sanity might well prevail.

So, for what it's worth, here's what I have in mind:

Eat Real Food. I stole this designation from my Whole Foods Market newsletter, which offered its customers meal plans in several categories. But it's really what I've been trying to do for years, with the help of Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman and others. I've become rather more serious about it since my retirement awarded me with more time for contemplating and planning. We also recently invested in a smaller refrigerator, which facilitates consciousness of how much we buy and where we have to store it. It's also a terrific deterrent to food waste. The Beloved Spouse gave me Lidia Bastianich's new book, Mastering the Art of Italian Cuisine, and The Big Book of Kombucha for the holidays (plus Cooking With Loula, a lovely Greek cookbook I noticed while shopping for other people's gifts). I have always loved cookbooks that are more about history, philosophy, and culture than technique, and these are all inspirational additions to the "food" segment of our aforementioned library. Over the last two weeks I've spent more time planning meals and enjoying the process than I'd been able to do for several years.

Get Real Exercise. The realization that the new, pricey drug I'm taking is likely to prolong my life significantly (and my favorite cardiologist's reminding me that exercise won't do squat for my cholesterol but will do massive amounts of good for my brain and overall well being) has made me more conscious than ever of movement. What finally got me perambulating the neighborhood was the death of our sweet dog Woody last summer. His brother Arlo no longer had a reliable source of exercise, so I started walking him, dropping him off at the house when he got tired, and then continued on my own several times a week. TBS would join me on weekends and holidays, and we've gotten to know the topography of the neighborhood better than we had in the previous sixteen years. Over his winter break from teaching we kept up the dog walking, but neighborhood exploration slacked off due to weather and family obligations.  But a movement-tracking app on my phone has helped keep me from being completely sedentary, and as the weather warms up and I get into the garden more (as I plan to this afternoon), I should hit the "active" category much more frequently (now "lightly active" rescues me from couch potatohood). The goal is to use my body better, get stronger, and get out much more.

Make Stuff.  Some time ago I bought a lovely journal with a William Morris design on it (actually, a sketch for a wallpaper design) in which I've been writing down and sketching out ideas for art books and other little projects. I'll try to get some of these done--including the redesign of my web pages. But I've been wanting to go back to painting and "making" things,  which I haven't done since my children were small. This includes working on the house and garden--painting and plastering and staining and the like, along with general homekeeping, mending, knitting, and quilting. Using one's creative juices seems to be a particularly satisfying way to make it through trying times.

Write More. Having received my first rejection slip (for a story in a science fiction anthology), you'd think I'd have sworn off any desire to publish more than for myself  (and my one or two faithful readers). But I've decided to do what I used to urge my students to do: take the criticism to heart, and use it well. I'm not sure I agree with all of the comments, but I'll have them in mind when I revise the story and submit it somewhere else. I also need to work on More News From Nowhere, and to go back to the old-bats-in-space novel I started working on a couple of years ago. I actually posted on the Cabinet recently, and have lots of ideas for more entries. Letters to friends are on the list, too.

Read Even More. I probably read more than I do anything else, but now that I've made it through the entire run of Midsomer Murders twice on Netflix, I've got no afternoon distractions from the telly. TBS and I have stuff we watch when he gets home (because he's too brain dead after teaching to accomplish anything more impressive), but when I'm not out moving and growing things, I have a huge stack of books to begin or to finish. And then there's always Cat-watching time in the garden, which will need to be extended as the weather improves. Emma likes company when she's out, and I can't leave her entirely unsupervised. In  addition, there's nothing quite as peaceful as watching a cat and a dog snoozing away in the afternoon sun.

This is all very ambitious, I know. But since I'm too old and tired to be politically active any more, if I get even a little of it done, I'll have accomplished something. And so, Dear Reader(s), may the future be better than we have any right, at this moment, to expect.