Friday, August 30, 2013

Speaking Engagement

The week flew by again, even though it wasn't particularly eventful.  Classes started, so I'm back to the regimen I enjoy of teaching and reading and thinking.  Life as usual for a thinking prof.

My cat barfed on the windowsill at 4:00 a.m.  Other than that, a pretty uneventful week.

It was, however, marked by irony.  Apparently, I am no longer used to wearing pants.

I was home the other day and the phone rang, so I dashed to get it.  In my dash, I somehow caught the toes of my left foot in the cuff of my right pant leg, and I went flying across the living room.

I totally bashed my knee.  But yes, I answered the phone, and no, I wasn't howling in pain, although it did hurt quite a bit.  Today, it hurts a bit more than it did yesterday, actually, and I've finally given up and taken some Advil so I'm not limping.

I've decided that I need to make peace with the fact that 1) I am a klutz, and 2) a broken hip WILL happen to me someday, it's just a question of when.

The irony in all of this is that I rarely talk on the phone anymore, unless it's to gab with my best friend.  And this may be part of the reason why I have started going incommunicado on my blog for a week at a time.  (That, and the fact that I'm just busy with a whole bunch of other writing projects and committee-work.)

Because I find I've also seriously curtailed the amount of time and energy I'm willing to spend on email.

A couple of years ago, I read a book by William Powers, Hamlet's Blackberry (2010).  In it, Powers looks at how technology has changed the world we live in, and how in some ways it has not: we have trends that are analogous to those of Shakespeare's time--hence, the title, "Hamlet's Blackberry."

In particular, Powers thinks about the way that what we have defined as "a good life" has changed in the wake of digital technology and hyper-connectedness, and how we have to begin thinking of ways to carve out time that doesn't entail such hyper-connectedness.

Powers' book is an easy read, but it also offers much food for thought, and I found that, months after I'd read it, I was making minor changes in my methods of interacting with others that have, in the long run, changed the way I connect with others.

I used to like the phone as a way of staying in touch with friends.  I still do, but I've also noticed that many of my friends don't use the phone all that much anymore or, if they do, they screen calls and revert to text messages instead.

I don't text people.  I'll text someone only if it's an I'm-on-the-road-and-this-is-an-important-little-piece-of-information-you-have-to-have text that isn't worth a phone call.  To me, to use it otherwise is like chit-chatting when you can't be bothered to even be in the same room with the person you're chit-chatting with.  I find it kind of annoying, actually.

I think texting hits a nerve in my introverted psyche.  I like meaningful conversation, although I'm obviously aware of the need for chit-chat as a way of maintaining relationships on a daily basis.  Not all conversations can be meaningful, but they should still be conversations.   

Texting isn't a conversation, really.  It's a way to avoid an actual conversation, for whatever reason--because you don't have time to call or talk or because what you have to say isn't all that important or because you aren't really all that interested in talking to the person on the other end.

I also don't tweet.  I'm just not a sound-byte kinda girl, I guess.  I like somewhat meatier fare when I'm interacting with people.

Quite frankly, I tend to feel that texting and tweeting are two of the most enormous and pointless wastes of time a person can indulge in.  And if I'm going to waste time, I'm going to waste it on something I enjoy doing.

It particularly bothers me that people no longer have any qualms about sitting right across from you, texting someone else, when you've made plans to spend time with them.

It's NEVER that important.  If a person is ill, injured or dying, you'd better not be texting.  Go to them, or call, and I assure you, I'll understand.

If it's chit-chat, it can wait, and meanwhile, you're letting the actual, living, breathing human being across from you know that anything and anyone is currently more important than they are.

Personally, I end up not wanting to sit across from that person anymore, and I generally act accordingly.

After the friend-fiasco I endured a couple of years ago, I realized that many of the dramas and dilemmas that occurred in that situation stemmed from the way in which email and social media were used-- on all sides of the table.

No one ever wanted to just sit down, talk it through, and settle it, once and for all.  Instead, things were left vague, suspended on casual behind-the-scene emails or odd Facebook exchanges, and never actually dealt with openly and honestly, so that all the people involved knew where they stood and what was going on.

I found myself engaged in exchanges I didn't want to have, that I had never wanted to have and that I never expected to have, but lo and behold, I opened my Facebook or my blog or my email and ... BAM.  There they were.  And I was expected to respond, somehow.  When I tried to actually talk to people--because yes, I did pick up the phone and give it a whirl--there was, in the words of the immortal Phil Collins, "no reply at all."

I felt compelled to resort to similar kinds of electronic communications, which resolved nothing, and when the stress and anger built up about all of it, I finally just exploded and blogged.  And raged.  And blogged.

I had to say it all to someone, and no one who was involved would talk it through and work toward a resolution.  "Talk" had to take place over email, and I was not supposed to "talk" on my blog.  At the end of the day, I ended up feeling like it was just a huge power-play: you'll talk when and how we decide you'll "talk," and then you'd better not say anything. 

I think this often happens, because I've since seen many, many other people do similar things on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media.  They talk into the void, because they have something to say about an emotional need, and they need to say it.  They hope someone will hear.  But when the people they've repeatedly tried to actually talk to "hear" it by opening social media and seeing the words, they're angry.

They feel their trust has been betrayed.  But trust can't happen over email.  Or on Twitter.  Or Facebook.  Two people have to be in a room together and talk, if trust is going to be established and maintained.  Technology was never meant to be used as a means of establishing something so important.

In my own case, things just went in circles until I was beyond sick of it all.  I woke up one morning and said, "OK.  That's it.  Done.  Gone.  See ya.   Buh-bye."  I walked out and never looked back.  I was thrilled to know that no one was ever going to actually try to talk to me, so if I simply announced I was unplugging from it all, no longer willing to communicate via email, and then stuck to my guns, that would end it.

And I made sure I told people exactly how I felt, using the only medium they had left available to me.  Be careful what you wish for.

I had realized, I think, that I was the only one seriously bothered by this whole way of (not) "communicating" and that others were actually benefiting from the situation.  They never had to actually confront (or be confronted about) the things they were saying and doing. 

Other people I know are more casual about such things.  They just shake it off, acknowledge that the people who behave that way are "assholes," but they maintain a polite exterior, even though they don't trust them and don't care about them at all.

They're not the person's friend either, but they don't care if the other person knows it or not. 

I think bad experiences should teach you something about yourself.  Your mistakes should be one-time affairs, if at all possible.  I left that situation with a very clear sense that it had been a bad experience all around, for everyone involved, and that personally, I wasn't going to make those same mistakes again.  Or let any of it change what I value and look for in other people. 

In that situation, trust was gone.  The willingness to communicate was gone.  Never in my life have I had a pair of "friendships" implode in such ugly, ugly ways, with so much anger and mess. 

When I look back now, I'm just glad I got out.  That's all I have left of that brief period of my life: a wondering feeling of "what the HELL happened there?" and a sense of sheer relief.  I'm out.  Thank god.  Never again.

When the dust settled, I began to take stock of the role I had played in all of the mess, because I had played a role, obviously, and I wanted to make sure I knew exactly what I wouldn't ever do again and why.  And as I took stock, one of the things I realized was that I had actually adjusted my life so that I wouldn't be drawn into a situation like that again.

I've never again felt the need to blog about a personal relationship gone wrong.  And I've had personal relationships go wrong since that time--as had happened before that time.  But I realized that none of these were conducted over email or Facebook, either while they were ongoing or while they were unraveling, so I never felt that I hadn't talked to and been listened to by the people involved.

And that made a huge, HUGE difference in the outcome, I think.

As a result, our friendships didn't end.  This was really eye-opening to me. As time went on, I found myself using Facebook less and less.  I finally just decided, when I got the new "privacy policies," that it's ridiculous.  There's no "privacy" on Facebook: they don't even enforce their own supposed "security" policies, I've found.   So I deleted my account.

I did this once before, in 2010, when I found myself dealing with all kinds of drama and chaos stemming from my presence there, but I went back.  But since that time, several of my friends have left Facebook themselves, and I started wondering why I was on it.

Many of the people I care about and have stayed in touch with for years don't use it.  They don't have Facebook accounts at all.  This says a lot.

In the end, I think that Powers is right when he concludes,
Technology makes the world feel smaller than it really is.  There are all kinds of rooms in all kinds of places.  Every space is what you make it.  But in the end, building a good life isn't about where you live.  It's about how you decide to think and live. (240)

Friday, August 23, 2013

Summer's End

This summer has been coming to a close in a way that has been just as wonderful as the summer itself.  Classes start next week, and I've been getting ready for them with a clear sense of just how productive I've been this year.

A friend of mine recently posted a quote from Margaret Thatcher on Facebook.  It sums up my mindset: "Look at a day when you are supremely satisfied at the end. It's not a day when you lounge around doing nothing; it's when you've had everything to do, and you've done it."

Although I do have to say that personally, I feel pretty happy after lounging around for a day, I totally see Maggie's point here.

For example, this week, I took a day to head to the beach.  It was perfect weather.  But I packed my bag full of books for school, and wouldn't you know it, I managed to get quite a bit of reading done.

So that was a Summer Satisfaction Two-Fer.  I spent a day at the beach AND got a whole bunch of work done.  And when I came home, I was so happy I had spent my time at the beach, I didn't mind sitting down at my desk and working for four hours straight.

I then celebrated that accomplishment by having a little barbecue that night.  It really was a wonderful day.

Yesterday, I went to the pool for my workout, and the two guys sharing the lane really challenged me to pick up my pace.  This was not what I had wanted to do: quite frankly, I had started the morning thinking about a repeat of my Perfect Beach Day.

But it was cloudy, so I opted not to go.  I just had a feeling.  

So there I was, in the pool, gasping and thinking, "This is NOT the morning I had envisioned."  Because when you're being outswum (that's a word, I'm sure), all you can do is try your best not to look like you're foolishly flailing because you start to worry that the lifeguards will actually try to rescue you, even though you're (technically) not drowning.  

That would be embarrassing.  Personally, I would probably gasp and cough and go limp and just see it through, at that point. 

Anyway, I spent my entire swim-time thinking, "Ima swimmin' one more lap here and THAT'S IT."  It's a testimony to the power of perseverance that I said this to myself for 72 laps, which means that in the end, I swam my usual mile, at a faster pace.

Score one for me.  That's definitely how I felt when I emerged from the pool.  And when I subsequently emerged from the building, lo and behold the sky was black and a storm was on the horizon.  It rained for the rest of the day.

Good thing I didn't go to the beach, because it would have arrived about an hour after I did.

I was hoping to get back to my house before the storm actually hit so I could close my windows, but I ended up in a line of cars behind a single car who was, for some reason, averaging a speed of about 14 mph.

To his credit (or not), the guy driving the building materials flatbed immediately behind said car laid on his horn pretty good at one point, but it did nothing to motivate the Slowpoke.  When the storm broke and it began to pour, His Slowness slowed to about 4 mph.

I had to chuckle when I heard the horn, though.  It reminded me of a conversation a friend and I once had.  Her boyfriend used to come pick her up, and he'd beep the horn when he arrived.  She told him to knock it off; he told her he didn't see what the problem was.

They asked my opinion.  I told them that I thought we were all poised on the cusp of a significant cultural shift in horn usage.

My first car was a 1978 Ford Fairmont.  It had the kind of horn characteristic of cars of the 60's and 70's.  You did not "beep" as a form of greeting.  

Horns in those days were designed to indicate that you were about to a) plow into the back of the person immediately in front of you or an oncoming storefront, or b) plow into the back of the person immediately in front of you and then shoot them with an Uzi.

The sound vibrations from the horn on my Fairmont could have crumpled the fender of a Hyundai.  (Or at least opened its trunk and dislodged some of its contents.)

Back in the day, car horns blared; they did not beep.

If someone pulled into your driveway and used that kind of horn to let you know they had arrived, they were basically saying, "Get your ass out here and into this car NOW.  Oh, and by the way, I'm in a shitty mood."

Sometime in the mid-80's, however, car horns became a way of saying, "hey, how are you?"  They now communicate something along the lines of, "Gosh... you almost bumped into me!"   If you want to make a significant statement of protest with such a horn, you have to fling your entire body across the steering wheel and lay on the horn for approximately 3-4 minutes.  And even then, it just isn't the same.

For many of us who came of age in the 1970's and 80's, the old horn-conventions are simply embedded in our psyche (this was the case with my friend, but not with her boyfriend).  In such cases, pulling into the driveway and hitting the horn automatically activates a fight-or-flight response in the amygdala. 

A similar thing happened with phones.  If you remember using an older, landline phone (back when it used to just be referred to as "the phone" and the word "landline" didn't even exist), you've experienced the emotional release that comes from hanging up on someone with a phone that literally had to be hung up. 

As one friend said, "If you got the jump on the person before they realized you were going to hang up, you could really CLANG 'em."  

With today's phone, they may just think it's a dropped call and call you back.  Or respond by pulling up into your driveway and beeping the horn.  No wonder relationships have become so complicated and confusing.

As for the drive home at 2 mph., I did what I always do in such situations.  I imagined the various scenarios that might compel someone to drive that slowly.  Because maybe there's a reason for it and I really shouldn't be all judgmental, when I don't actually know all the ins and outs of the situation. 

Perhaps they have a sneaking sensation they are coming down with the flu and they're swallowing repeatedly to see if their throat really hurts or if it was just a one-time thing.  Perhaps they read a really good book and they're thinking about it, but don't realize they're thinking about it so much that they're driving at a snail's pace.  Perhaps they are bleeding from their carotid artery, so they know they need to focus on applying pressure to that, and can't worry about applying pressure to the accelerator right now.  

Perhaps a contact lens fell out.  They can't stop to look for it, because you can't park with only one contact lens in, so really, it's safer just to stay the course.

My personal favorite is to imagine that their speedometer is malfunctioning, so they think they're actually going 70 mph down Main Street or around a winding, woodsy road and they can't imagine why the rest of us want to go even faster than that. 

Or maybe it's an elderly person who is thinking, "Shit.  I really need to turn in my license.  I swear when I make it home this time, that's it for me with this driving-thing."  If so, I'm totally willing to cut them slack, because that's a huge decision to reach and they deserve credit for achieving that level of self-awareness.

The possibilities are endless, so when the drive seems to be, this is what I do to pass the time as pleasantly as possible.

If only the summer itself could be equally slow and equally endless. 

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Parking Lot

It's been a wonderful week of pizza and ice cream and hotdogs and the beach.

FYI, sunburned lips are very painful.  Avoid them at all costs.

Now it's back to house cleaning and home maintenance and getting ready for school.  

And blogging, of course.

I stopped by the grocery store this morning, and as I was walking back to my car, I saw a woman sitting in the passenger's seat of a car, sobbing and saying, "Please help me."

I wasn't sure quite what to do, because she seemed to be just sitting there, not attempting to get out of the car and seek help, and everyone was basically walking by and ignoring her.

Like anyone faced with such a situation, I weighed what was best to do.  What might I be getting myself into?

I put my groceries in the back of my car and then decided I couldn't leave without making sure she was okay.  I approached the car (cautiously) and said, "Excuse me--are you all right?"

It turns out she had just dropped her cat off at the vet.  She said, "I'm just so sad."  I think when I heard her saying "please help me," she was praying.

Well.  You can imagine.  I doubt she could have found a more sympathetic listener if she had surveyed the entire parking lot beforehand.

I told her that my cat had died a year earlier, and that I loved cats, so I definitely understood her sadness.  She said her cat had to be at the vet for a couple of days, and maybe they could fix the problem.

So I told her, "When you're sad, you just need to cry it out.  That's just how it is.  But don't be too sad right now and don't cry too much, because you don't really know how things are going to turn out.  Things may be okay in a couple of days."

She said she was sad and worried because she kept thinking about how the cat was all alone and so frightened, being left at the vet like that.  In retrospect, it's a miracle I didn't start to cry too, at that point, but I just did my best to reassure her that the cat was in the best possible place for now, that vets love animals and want them to be safe and well, and that this was just what had to happen.  And that it might get better.

I actually got her to smile a little bit, so I told her she'd be in my thoughts today.  I told her I'd be sending out good wishes for her kitty and hoping it would all turn out okay.

This incident reminded me of something that happened a few weeks ago.  I haven't blogged about it, for fear of bringing another bout of long-lost lunacy down on my head.  But I decided this morning that I will, because it's a similar kind of thing.

I was out for a bike ride one morning when someone pulled up behind me and asked if I'd seen a golden retriever puppy.  I turned around and... it was one of the ex-girlfriends of a guy I used to know--one of the ones who caused me so much trouble a couple of years ago.  

She clearly didn't realize it was me she was pulling up to ask (she pulled up behind me, and I was wearing a bike helmet).

As I looked at her, I became nearly 100% certain it was her.  I recognized the voice.  It slowly dawned on me that it might very well be the guy's dog she was looking for.

I'm not going to lie: I felt nothing but sheer fury in that moment.  I was boiling inside.  

I'm pretty sure it showed on my face, because she started to look a bit frightened, actually.  

But I simply said, "No, I haven't," and rode off.

My first reaction was, "Yeah, karma's a real bitch, isn't it?"  Because that was what was running through my mind the entire time I was looking at her: how all of them used to keep warning me I'd better watch out for karma, that I shouldn't ever be angry or upset or speak my mind--I should just put up with their... well, crap, actually.

But then, as I kept riding along (averaging about 100 mph, uphill), I started to think about the poor dog, who was just out there, lost.  

Because as it turned out, the guy was out of town, so if it was his dog, he wasn't even looking for him at that point.  I started to realize that, if it was his, he probably didn't even know the dog was missing.

So, I mulled it over and then decided that, no matter how repulsive their behavior to me had been, no matter how much stress and anxiety they had caused me and despite all the problems and the mess they had created and then left for me to clean up, I was going to do the right thing.

I decided this was the way to prove to myself once and for all that I hadn't let them change me.  

Anyone can do the right thing when it's easy.  The test is, do you do the right thing when it isn't comfortable?  When you'd really rather not?  When you know for a fact that the people involved would never in a million years do the same for you?

The easiest thing in the world would have been to shrug and say, "Sucks for you.  Not my problem."  And I knew that no one on the planet would ever blame me for that.

But that's not who I am.

And anyway, I don't believe in karma.  To anyone who does, I suggest the following: walk through a pediatric intensive care unit some day.  When you come out, take a minute and tell me exactly what it is that those children did to "deserve" what's happening to them.

I subscribe to Emerson's claim: "What you are comes to you."  Be a good, kind, honest person and friend, and the good, kind, honest people of the world will gravitate towards you.  Tell lies and act like an immature jerk, and be prepared to have a life full of liars and immature jerks.

So, in the end, I sent a message to the guy and told him, "I think I saw your friend and she's looking for a dog--on the off chance that it's yours, I'm telling you, because I see you're out of town."

My best friend was worried that he'd try to get back in touch, but I told her no, I was quite certain he wouldn't.  It's done.

And I'm back.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Company's Coming!

It has been a whirlwind weekend.

My best friend and her two (not-so-little-anymore) guys arrive tomorrow, and I can't wait.  I spent the weekend getting everything ship-shape, because we are gonna play, play, play for an entire week!

I love hosting house-guests and dinner-guests.  I don't know why, I just do.  I like cooking and I don't even mind the cleaning involved in getting ready to host someone (or two).

It's a chance to spruce things up and get rid of all the crappy looking fix-it jobs you need to do, but won't do unless company's coming.  Like the window shade in my office that was basically kind of broken: I took the initial step and bought the shade to replace it... about two weeks ago.  It was sitting there in the box, under the window, waiting.

It's up.

The lawn is mowed, the house is vacuumed, the fridge is stocked with food that doesn't suck.  (It will be inspected by a ten-year-old, so I needed to get my game-face on.)

In other news, I checked out the Yarn Harlot's blog, as I often do, only it was maybe a mistake this time around because she's making washcloths, and for some reason, I decided I had to do that too.  It was a classic case of monkey-see, monkey do, and the only thing that might have slowed me up was if I couldn't find a good yarn.

I found a good yarn.  And it was on sale.  So I couldn't not do it.  Besides, where in the world can you find washcloths--100% cotton, hand-knit washcloths-- for about 50 cents apiece?  Because that is what this will break down to cost-wise when I'm done.

It would be foolish not to do it.

I've also discovered that my living room mantle is perhaps the best place on earth to dry herbs.  They're done, they're dried, so I took them down and bagged them.  I spent a fair amount of time thinking that something must be wrong, that it couldn't really be that easy, but it seems to have been.

I'll need a lot in order to do anything noteworthy: right now, my plan is to order a batch of plain green tea and mix my own flavored herbal teas.  Seems simple enough.  I could actually do the same thing with black tea as well, I do believe.  So I may.

I also started another book, because I need to get back to my Classics Club list and blogging about that.  I'm reading Monique Truong's The Book of Salt (2004), and so far, I like it.

And yes, I still have a bunch of other books in progress, and no, I haven't finished those yet either.  This is the book-equivalent of the knitted-washcloth-thing.  I'll finish them all: I just like having many irons in the fire.

I also stumbled upon a TED talk by Atul Gawande, and now I'm looking into his other work.

Saturday, August 10, 2013


Today is the 3-year anniversary of my blog.  I've been thinking for the past week of what I would post to celebrate. 

I found this quotation by Audrey Hepburn earlier in the week, and I think it says everything I might want to say.  Have a wonderful day, everyone!

"I believe in pink. I believe that laughing is the best calorie burner. I believe in kissing, kissing a lot. I believe in being strong when everything seems to be going wrong. I believe that happy girls are the prettiest girls. I believe that tomorrow is another day and I believe in miracles." 
-- Audrey Hepburn

Friday, August 9, 2013

By Virtue of Profanity

If the amount of time I spent cussin' is used as our index of measurement, it would seem that yesterday was not as "beautiful" as the two previous days had been.

I confess, I envy people who don't curse.  People who can just say "oh, drat!" and move on with their day.

Meanwhile I'm over there spewing out some kind of visceral verbiage that might well make a sailor blush and that leaves friends wondering, "Where on earth did you learn that, Dr. English Professor?"

I've gone through phases in my life where I cursed far less--when I was a nanny, for example.

There's nothing cute to me about small children--or children in general--who have picked up a foul mouth from their elders.  Not cool, parents.  We should all spend at least a decade to a decade-and-a-half of our lives not using words like that.

So I go through phases where I long to return to a simpler time. 

I become aware of myself on days like yesterday, because although I was cussin' a blue streak right and left, in the end, things turned out pretty well.  So perhaps there's no need to curse after all?

It all started because I tried to make pasta using my pasta machine, and it clogged.

I don't know if you've ever dealt with a clogged pasta machine, but if you have, you'll know that "oh, drat!" and "well, gosh darn it all!" just isn't going to cut it.  I opened with, "Oh my god, you filthy little..." and it went downhill from there.

When I finally got the machine cleaned out, I started over, only to have the dough I was working with fight me constantly.  I couldn't get the pasta sheets wide enough and thin enough to work with my ravioli press, and the dough itself was too sticky.

And then, when I finally, finally, finally got a sheet that was wide enough and thin enough, I put it in the ravioli maker and the dough ripped.  It was too thin.

At this point, whole wheat pasta dough was thrown out the door of my kitchen and into the sunroom.  I won't say by whom (since that's probably a bit obvious), but I will say that foul language came spewing out of my mouth until I realized that the windows were open and the neighbors could probably hear me.

I was beside myself.

I haven't been so enraged since the day several years ago when I made an awesome bundt cake using my fancy Williams Sonoma cake pan--greased and floured it, just like they said--and the cake wouldn't come out of the pan when it was done.  There was no way to get it out, and when I finally dislodged it, the cake broke into a million pieces.

So much for fancy and pretty. The bundt pan almost went flying out the back door on that occasion, but again, the thought of what the neighbors might think stopped me.

The pasta-making episode wasn't quite that bad, but it was a close second.  I had really just wanted to use the machine to make the whole process faster, and that was clearly not happening.

So yes, I flung dough and yes, I SHRIEKED--I won't tell you what.  It was not the kind of commentary that reflected well on the character of the dough or myself.

But then, I got determined, and I made a new batch, and by golly, I got that blessed pasta machine to work for me.

My first step on the road to recovery was to seek out the wisdom of Lidia Bastianich.

Whenever I have a cooking-based meltdown, I run to Lidia.  She has never steered me wrong.  To this day, I can work with fillo dough only because of Lidia.  And of course, Lidia had a recipe for whole-wheat pasta dough that worked far, far better with my pasta machine than the recipe I had been using (when you work with whole-grain flour, you have to add more water, because the grain absorbs it, but too much water in a pasta dough will make it sticky--and clog your pasta machine, bless its wee rollers).

So that ended well, because I eventually ended up with a couple of pounds of fettucine that looks great (better than any I've made before) and I got my ravioli after all.

I conquered the pasta machine.

Yesterday, I also discovered what has been ailing my garden this year.  It began to look like my tomatoes had the same "blight" that they came down with last year, but then I thought, "This doesn't seem right..." (insert profanity in and around this observation).

It turns out, the black walnut tree in my neighbor's yard is the culprit.  Black walnuts release "juglone" into the soil, and this is toxic to all kinds of plants.  Over the past year, we've had a TON of black walnuts--more than in previous years--and the squirrels, drat their bushy little tails, have taken to burying them in my raised beds over the winter. 

So, once I realized this, I came up with a gardening plan for next year.  It's too late for this year, but we'll see how things do--I haven't lost all hope--and at least now I know.

I also managed to write up the syllabus for the totally new course I'll be teaching in the fall, and then I began grappling with the new course software I need to learn in order to put everything online.  So there was some cursing involved in that process.

But the syllabus is up and the course is ready to go, and it doesn't look all that terrible, which was my fear.  Of course, it may all collapse like an electronic house of cards on the first (or, more likely, the second) day, but we'll hope not.

I then tried to work on the sleeve for the sweater I'm currently knitting (okay, I mean for one of the sweaters I'm currently knitting because, let's face it, there's never just one), and I forgot to decrease the stitches on one side.

Luckily, I discovered this before I got too far along, so I was able to rip it out and fix it.  But once again, words were spoken. 

I also discovered that the latest batch of deodorant I made was grainy.  This might not seem like a big deal, but it won't spread evenly on your underarm if it's grainy.  It will clump.  It makes a mess, actually, and that could provoke even the most even-tempered, honey-tongued girl you've ever known to speak her mind in terms that are less than endearing.

I discovered that this happens because, when you melt shea butter, it needs to cool down relatively quickly, or else the fat in it will begin to crystallize.  This is what makes it grainy and why those grains don't spread once they've formed.

So I ended up re-melting my batch of deodorant.  This time, after it was melted, I poured it into the container and popped it into the freezer for about a half-hour or so.

No grains.  Success.  Again.

So yesterday was a day of stumbles and false starts and do-overs and do-over do-overs.  But in the end, by virtue of profanity--or in spite of it--it turned out to be a pretty good day after all.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Another Beautiful Day

I didn't think it was possible for today to be as nice as yesterday was, but it is.  And I've done what any sensible woman would do on a day as nice as today: I went blackberry-picking.

If you're wondering what that was like (and of course, you must be, or you wouldn't be reading this), here's what I posted as my Facebook status when I returned:

To the dude in the picking field who kept walking up and down the rows, gasping at the sight of ripe blackberries and moaning, "Oh my god... oh wow... god... they're beautiful.  God, these are good," while he was picking:  I think maybe you should... 

Actually, on second thought, never mind. I really don't know what to say to that.

I guess you need to see them on a well-hung bush to get the full effect.

Suffice to say, I spent the morning in the berry-field wondering whether they should implement something analogous to the "quiet car" on trains.  Along these rows, you must pick in silence.  

I mean, I love berries too, and I'm happy to find a nice crop of them.   But I'm not that happy.  I shouldn't spend my berry-picking time resisting the temptation to yell, "Get a room!"

On my way home, I bought two bottles of cheap vodka.  I'm making blueberry (yes, I got some more of those too) and blackberry liqueur.  It's so easy, it's unbelievable.  

It just takes time.  And I've got time.  My dream is to be sipping this, curled up with my kitties in front of a roaring fire while it snows like the dickens outside. 

Of course, after I made the blueberry liqueur with fresh blueberries, I found all kinds of recipes that said I should really use frozen, not fresh.  

Sigh.  If you had told me that in the first place...

So I did what any sensible person would do: I put the two jars of blueberry liqueur in the freezer for a bit, to see if that "fixes" it.  I have plenty of frozen blueberries, actually, so I can dump some of those in, if it comes right down to it.  But I wish someone had just said, you know?

Even so, it can't touch this beautiful day.

Monday, August 5, 2013

A Beautiful Day in the Life

Today was a perfect day.

I recently decided that, when I'm in RI, I'm going to check out all of the really nice bike paths and figure out which ones are best.  Because really, if I can bike to Point Judith and Bristol whenever I want, I can probably die a happy woman.

A few weeks ago, I harvested a bunch of lavender from my garden and hung it up to dry.  Today, I made "lavender sugar."  It's exactly what it sounds like: you take a cup of sugar, add two tablespoons of dried lavender buds and pulverize them until there's no sign of the buds anymore.

You can use lavender sugar in lemonade or in baking.  It also smells amazing, so I suppose you can just sniff it when you're sad.  (Supposedly, lavender is good for relieving headaches.)  It's certainly safer than sniffing glue and far better smelling than pot, in my humble opinion.

As an aside, I would just like to say that personally, I can't stand the smell of pot.  I don't know how anyone can light that stuff up and inhale.  It REEKS.  Truly.  No high can be worth that.  No way I'm bringing that smell closer to my nose.

And let's just say, I learned early on not to wear handmade wool sweaters to a rock concert.  Trying to get the pot-smell out of a sweater you spent months knitting is NOT fun.

But I digress.

I also added a few tablespoons of lavender to some sweet almond oil, and I'm letting that sit for a bit and hoping I'll have lavender oil in a week or two.  It's supposed to be a good insect repellent--and with this rainy year we've had, we can all use a good insect repellent.

Meanwhile, I already have homemade apple cider vinegar (with homemade mother, so I'll be able to make more), mint extract, and limoncello.

Tomorrow, I'm going blackberry picking and, if they're still available, I'll try to get some more blueberries.  The farmers told me they had both now, so I am totally there.

I'm also going to harvest my peppermint, pineapple sage, citrus mint, and lemon balm.  I'll dry them in bunches, hope my cats don't attack said bunches while they're drying and, if all goes well, add the dried herbs to some green tea and have homemade herbal tea this winter.

fingers crossed...

Because the sad news is, my garden is not doing as well this year as it has in years past.  I have some onions.  I have eggplants.  I will have carrots, and I think I'll have leeks (eventually).

But the truth is, my tomatoes are making me nervous, as are my cucumbers.  I'm not sure what happened.  I think it's the soil, the bugs, the rain, the temperature changes from hot to cold... you name it.  All I know is, I haven't been this worried about my tomatoes since I started growing my own a couple of years ago.

The nice thing is, if my tomatoes crap out (and it's looking like they very well might), I can always support my local farmers and buy tomatoes and cucumbers elsewhere.  So, it'll be okay, ultimately.  A bit frustrating, but okay.

And I do have an herb garden that I planted just this year, and after a bit of a bug-struggle, it's doing pretty well.  I planted geraniums and chives and that really helped ward off the brown beetles that were initially making a feast of my herbs.  My basil and sage suffered mightily, but they're coming back.  More or less.

And FYI, chopped-up banana peels really do ward off aphids (and nourish the soil).  My roses have come back from being stripped this spring, and they're doing just fine now, thank you.  I've read that cucumbers also like potassium-rich soil, so they're getting some banana-peels as well right now, in the hopes that this will convince them that life is, in fact, good.

Next year I'll plant catnip at strategic points.  It will be an excellent two-fer for me, because my cats will be thrilled, and catnip supposedly keeps all kinds of pests away.  By the time I realized that this is what I needed to do, it was too late to find catnip seeds.  And really, catnip is a glorified weed.  I've grown it before and it isn't hard to do.

So in the end, this year has been a mixed bag in terms of the garden.

But on a day like today, it's hard to care. 

Saturday, August 3, 2013

A Mean Macarena

I've been reading the work of Bella DePaulo, a psychologist who researches "singlism" (the negative stereotyping of single people) and I came upon a really good essay by Kay Trimberger.

Trimberger is the author of The New Single Woman (2006) (which I haven't actually read, I suspect because I'm busy being that woman), and her essay is entitled "Single Women over Forty Create the Good Life."

FYI, if you read that last sentence and thought, "Oh, okay, HERE WE GO.  More depressed and lonely women trying to claim they're 'happy,'" then you are participating in what DePaulo labels "singlism."

Because actually, research shows that there are quite a few happy single women over forty who are living the good life.  We get no airtime or media attention, of course, but we're out there.

I think in many ways, I was always lucky.  My mom and dad never "expected" me to get married: if it happened, great, if not, great.  My mom used to say, "There's more than one way of being happy.  I'd rather die knowing that you'll always be single than see you married to a bum who can't hold down a job or who cheats on you and treats you badly.  Faced with that option, you're much better off being single."

I also met a great person when I was in graduate school.  Her name was Helen, and she was in her mid-70's.  She and I became friends and stayed in touch for the next 15 or so years, until her death in 2006.  She had been married, but divorced--as she put it, "back in the day when you weren't supposed to do that."

When I met her, she had stopped heading to Colorado to ski in the winter because she had "recently hurt her knee."  She was about 75 years old.  She would still drive to Maine to visit friends in the summer, and she built furniture and taught woodworking.  She had a lathe in her garage.  She donated to a local shelter for victims of domestic abuse, and she gardened.

She had traveled the world.  She read prolifically and she loved classical music.  She owned her own home, which she had purchased with a friend some years before.  When her friend died, she bought out the friend's heirs and owned the home herself.

She took care of family members in poor health, and helped friends in good health.

Throughout my 20's, I always said, "When I grow up, I want to be like Helen."  She was a model of a single woman--an elderly single woman--who wasn't bitter or alone or bored or unhappy.

She eventually moved into a retirement community, and I used to drop by for dinner about once a month.   One night, a 20-something-year-old waiter gestured to me and asked Helen, "Is this your granddaughter?" and Helen said, "Oh, no, she's a friend."

The waiter turned to me and said, "I'll have you know, your friend dances a mean macarena."

Turns out, there had been a talent show the night before, and Helen had danced the macarena for everyone.

As the years passed, Helen faced some health issues.  She broke her hip at one point, and had to have major surgery on her thumb at another, and she had had breast cancer years earlier, long before I met her.  What always impressed me was, she was never caught off-guard by any of these things.  She took them all in stride.  She had clearly thought about the life she wanted to make for herself and decided how it could unfold calmly and happily.

In fact, Helen had implemented what Trimberger identifies as the "Six Pillars of a Satisfying Single Life."
  1. She had made a home for herself.  It isn't about whether you rent or you buy, it's about what you create with the space you occupy.  Many women defer finding "a home" because they think that this is what they're supposed to "get" when they get married.  So they're always kind of... ready to go elsewhere.  Keeping things portable.  Unwilling to "settle down" in a space that isn't shared with "the One."  They see the decision to call a place "home" (again, not legally, but emotionally) as an admission of defeat.  It isn't. Follow the advice of May Sarton in her collection of essays by the same name: "Plant dreaming deep."
  2. She had had a fulfilling job.  Helen was retired when I met her, obviously, but she still spoke fondly of the years that she had worked full-time.  But--and this is key--she wasn't a workaholic.  Too often, employers and co-workers have no qualms about dumping an unequal burden of the workload on their single coworkers or employees, because really, what else could single people possibly have to do all day but work?  Set limits on your workload and the demands on your time early and often.
  3. She created networks of friends and family.  Helen knew a lot of people and she was always open to meeting new people and making new friends (like myself). 
  4. She developed a community for herself.  When Helen moved into the retirement community, she reluctantly agreed to run for the Board of Trustees.  She was soon elected President of the Board.  She chuckled privately about the fact that she had "beat out some old man who used to be the CEO of a major airline.  He wasn't happy.  He couldn't believe he'd lost to a woman."
  5. She had connections to younger people.  When I first met her, Helen lived in a house that was surrounded by off-campus student housing (although it hadn't necessarily been that way when she first bought her home).  Helen always said she liked the change in the neighborhood, actually: she said it "kept her young."  She didn't mind living in the midst of people in their late teens.
  6. She had accepted her sexuality.  Helen and I never really talked a lot about this, but she used to comment that she didn't quite know what people were thinking sometimes.  She said, "I understand sex, I've enjoyed it myself quite a few times, but really... it isn't the most important thing in the world and in some cases, it's really just a bad idea."   As a divorcee in a generation when women didn't get divorced, she had had to parry a lot of very unwelcome offers when she was younger, and I think it helped her to see through some of the... what was really going on.  She said, "Men tended to think that once a woman had been married, well, she couldn't go back to not getting any, so she was... hot to trot, let's say.  You wondered whether these guys had ever looked in a mirror, the way they flattered themselves."  She also said that the wives or girlfriends of cheaters always knew what was going on, and that they would always blame the other woman.  She said, "My wife just doesn't understand me.  What a crock.  The two of them have been playing that little game for years and they understand each other quite well, actually.  It's something you want no part of, my dear."
As Trimberger points out, once she began disseminating her research findings, many married women chimed in to say that they needed these pillars in their lives as well.

Because really, if you look at each of the "pillars," they apply equally well to anyone, whether married or single, male or female.  They're applicable to anyone who is looking to have an active, engaged, and fulfilling life.

Most happily married people will tell you that they too have all of the things Trimberger identifies.

The key to happiness is not the sheer fact of marriage, but the way in which we live our lives in conjunction with others.

And yet, in the media, in Hollywood and practically everywhere you look,  marriage itself and the myth of "finding the One"(what DePaulo will call "matrimania") is presented as conferring automatic happiness.

It doesn't: the astronomically high divorce rate in the US testifies to that.

There really is more than one path to happiness, and even more importantly, there isn't just one kind of happiness to be found in life itself.

I think of what another mentor of mine once said: "Don't ever get so fixed on looking at one path that you can't see all of the other paths that are open in front of you.  Some of them may end up taking you exactly where you want to go, and some of them may end up taking you somewhere even better than you could have imagined."

Have the courage to dance a mean macarena.