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