Tuesday, December 30, 2008

getting out of a rut

In the late-1970's, while I was in graduate school, I began a tradition of recording all the "first" things in my life over the previous year. In the beginning those lists were quite long. I was traveling to and living in new places, doing new things, meeting new people, experiencing new relationships, learning new skills.

Then at some point in the mid-1990's I stopped. I don't remember why -- although it wasn't because of a lack of new things in my life. In the mid-1990's I got married (and acquired a dog as well as a husband), was denied tenure, got a very different type of new teaching job, moved to a different state, became a co-author of a textbook, bought a house, went from having 3 cats to having 15 cats. Thinking about it in retrospect, I suspect that what happened was that my attitude about new things changed. While most of the changes in my life were positive, I began to crave stability and routine. I stopped experiencing change as an adventure, and started experiencing it as disruption.

So now I find myself, more than a decade later, in a rut. It's not that new things don't happen -- quite a few new things have happened (many of them in the form of challenges to health and well-being), but I've lost some of my mental and emotional flexibility for accommodating and adapting to change. I find that it much too easy to slip into mind numbing, addictive activities (simplistic computer games, watching familiar, formulaic television), rather than engage in the kinds of human interaction, and creative activities that once absorbed me. [Blogging has been one of the few exceptions to this -- thank goodness].

My concern about breaking free of this rut has grown, over the past six months, as I have observed (through daily phone calls) my mother's descent into senility. She has growing difficulty retrieving the names of common place things (the other day she could not remember "TV") and familiar people; she is unable to remember huge chunks of her past (and has constructed odd stories to replace what she has forgotten); she has lost skills and knowledge about things like food and cooking that were once her primary area of expertise (she will ask me how to prepare a common food, and I find myself telling her the things I originally learned from her); but most troubling of all she cannot cope with new situations and new people, cannot remember new information; so she becomes paralyzed in the face of the health and daily life crises that now beset she and my father on a weekly basis, then, angry and frightened of people who need her to make decisions -- yet refuses to relinquish any decision-making power to her children or doctors.

However, avoiding change, being intimidated by the new and different, retreating to a life of routine is nothing new for my mother. She has always been the kind of person who avoided challenges, and clung to the familiar. When faced with the necessity of travel, she dealt with the experience by obsessive planning, rigid schedules, and carefully mapped itineraries.

I have read that keeping the mind active, experiencing new things, accepting challenges, engaging in social interaction and creative activity are ways to slow, if not completely prevent, the loss of cognitive function. So this is my resolution -- to get out of my rut. I vow to do new things as often as I can (even if its just to drive through unfamiliar neighborhoods); to spend my evenings on creative tasks (and if I must watch TV, then let it be with a crochet hook in hand as I did when I was younger); to turn away from the computer when possible to interact with humans face to face; and when at the computer, to use the time for creative writing, exploration, and interaction rather than mindless game playing; and to go back to chronicling my new experiences (both positive and negative) accepting them as adventures and challenges rather than obstacles and trials.

I've already made a good start in the past four days: I took a road I've eyed for 12 years and discovered the county golf course (beautiful!), cooked eggplant for the first time (was always intimidated by the instructions), contacted a neighbor to borrow a pot and took time to chat, crocheted a nice cap for a friend, called a friend I don't talk to nearly enough, and wrote a poem to post.

sycamores in winter 2

white limbed advance guard
emerging from winter's dull forest;
ghostly army
of twisted branches
fingering grey skies.

poem and photographs ©sgreerpitt, December 30, 2008

"garden of cosmos"

A wonderful poem by Tumblewords for this weeks OSI prompt "stardust" reminded me of a painting I did more than 30 years ago. The painting is entitled "the sun and the cosmos." It was inspired by my mother's garden, just outside my bedroom window, and a rather fumbling attempt at combining realistic observation with fanciful imagination. So I retrieved it from a dusty corner and took a photo (right).

stardust -- literally

I received a nice gift today from OSI participant Jim -- a link about star creation that lead me to image gallery of the Spitzer Space Telescope which uses infrared imaging to capture objects that have not yet passed into the visible spectrum of light. One astounding example is RCW49 a stellar nursery pictured to the right.

I'm just going to quote from the website: "Located 13,700 light-years away in the southern constellation Centaurus, RCW 49 is a dark and dusty stellar nursery that houses more than 2,200 stars. Because many of the stars in RCW 49 are deeply embedded in plumes of dust, they cannot be seen at visible wavelengths. When viewed with Spitzer's infrared eyes, however, RCW 49 becomes transparent. Like cracking open a quartz rock to discover its jewels inside, the nebula's newborn stars have been dramatically exposed.

This image taken by Spitzer's infrared array camera highlights the nebula's older stars (blue stars in center pocket), its gas filaments (green) and dusty tendrils (pink). Speckled throughout the murky clouds are more than 300 never-before-seen newborn stars....This image was taken on Dec. 23, 2003, and is composed of photographs obtained at four wavelengths: 3.6 microns (blue), 4.5 microns (green), 5.8 microns (orange) and 8 microns (red)."

Sunday, December 28, 2008

One Single Impression -- Stardust


initial instant
incomprehensible light
--everything stardust.


universe explodes into being
blinding brilliance,
every molecule birthed
from starry furnaces,
driven ‘cross space and time.
we are but the dust of stars.

December 27, 2008

As I thought about this prompt during the week, the only thing that occurred to me were snatches of songs (particularly Joni Mitchell's "we are stardust, we are golden.."). Finally I realized that it had been a very long time since I'd looked at the stars. So last night (the night of the new moon -- darkest night of the lunar cycle) I bundled up and took a sleeping bag outside to spend an hour or so just watching the stars.

Even though I live in a rural area there were street lights, house lights, and passing vehicle lights that dimmed my view of the stars. Modern society seems to be doing its damnedest to blot the stars from view. Who sleeps beneath the stars today? Who lies awake and finds pictures in the stars and makes up stories about them? We hide inside caves of light, making mirrors of our windows. What are we hiding from?

For other poems on the theme of "stardust" see One Single Impression.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

One Single Impression -- A Winter's Day

Today is the beginning of winter, the winter solstice, shortest, darkest day of the year in the northern Hemisphere. This evening at sunset is also the beginning of Chanukah, the Jewish festival of lights.
"The lights of Chanukah are a symbol of our joy, in time of darkness, our ancestors had the courage to struggle for freedom: freedom to be themselves, freedom to worship in their own way. Theirs was a victory of the weak over the strong, the few over the many, and the righteous over the arrogant. It was a victory for all ages and all peoples." (Gates of Prayer: The New Union Prayerbook, Central Conference of American Rabbis)

against winter’s dark-
Baruch ata Adonai
-we light the first light

light of triumph, light of life

in the cold, a sacred light,
-lazeman hazeh.


against the winter’s dark-
Blessed art thou, oh Lord
-we light the first light

who has given us life-
light of triumph, light of life,
-and has sustained us

and enabled us-
in the cold, a sacred light
-to reach this season.

Photo of first night Chanukah menorah from Wikipedia

For more poems on the theme "A Winter's Day" see One Single Impression.

a winter's day

Today is the beginning of winter, the winter solstice, shortest, darkest day of the year in the northern Hemisphere. It is also the day my father, Carroll Lee Greer, was born, 97 years ago in 1911. He was born in a small town called Troutdale, "the highest incorporated town" in Virginia, at a time when the town had a booming economy based on timbering and furniture factories. His father, my grandfather, Charlie, was mayor of Troutdale at that time, and a small entrepreneur with a farm implement store and a sawmill.

My father had the misfortune of being a senior in high school in 1929-1930. The stock market crash meant that instead of going to college like his brother and sisters, he stayed home to work in Charlie's sawmill. He drove logging trucks, and dreamed of a day when he would learn to fly. His hero was Charles Lindbergh. He did eventually learn to fly, and to repair airplanes, and earned his living as a gypsy mechanic moving from airfield to airfield. In the 1930's he found work through the Civilian Conservation Corps (like lots of young men in Appalachia), and enlisted in the army air corps, to pursue his dream of flying. Unfortunately, within months of enlisting he dislocated his shoulder and was given a medical discharge. So instead he turned to the Boeing School in the San Francisco Bay Area and learned to be a machinist. When the war came in 1941, he tried to enlist again, but the propensity for his shoulder to dislocate caused him to be declared 4F -- highly stigmatic in the 1940's. He worked as a machinist manufacturing planes for war instead.

My favorite story: In one of the airplane factories that Dad worked was an inspector with the last name of Kilroy. When Kilroy signed off on a plane or a part as okay, he wrote "Kilroy was here" in chalk on the part. To poke fun at him, some of the guys started adding a little sketch over his name. When the parts and planes were shipped to the war zone, the sketch and the phrase "Kilroy was here" went with them. [From the Internet, I've learned that most people attribute the origin of the phrase and sketch to an inspector in a shipyard, rather than plane manufacturing plant.]

After the war, he returned to the life of a gypsy mechanic until he met my mother in Virginia 1949. After a brief fling with work in Florida, fatherhood compelled him to accept a steady job in 1951 as a machinist with United Air Lines at their maintenance base in south of San Francisco. He remained with United for twenty-five years. Through completing his Associate of Arts degree, he worked his way into the position of engineering technician where he turned the engineers' conceptualizations into real prototypes.

He has now been retired for more years than he worked for United. [Photo of my dad in his late 80's taken by my cousin Scott Crittenden.]

Saturday, December 20, 2008

my first winter

The current president of my alma mater, Oberlin College in Ohio, sent out a nice holiday e-mail today to all the alumni who've registered e-mail addresses. The e-mail was lined with little thumbnail photos which linked to the college website and a wonderful slideshow of winter images. The most beautiful, magical photo (below) caught my eye because it brought back intense memories of my first winter.

I grew up in California, in the San Francisco Bay area, where it does not snow at sea-level (or more properly Bay-level) where we lived. One spring break in high school my family went up to the ski areas of the Sierra Mountains, but although there was snow on the ground, it was warm in the sun and we ran around in shirt sleeves making snowmen for a day. Not exactly "winter."

One of the reasons that I went away to college in Ohio was because I wanted to experience four real seasons. My freshman year (1969-70) the first snow flurries appeared in late October, but the first real snow that accumulated was in mid-November. I remember so clearly walking across Tappan Square (a huge open tree filled area at the edge of campus) towards the buildings in the picture (above), it was not late, but after dark, a light snow was still falling, and snow covered the ground and trees just as they do in this photograph. At night, with building and street lights shining on the snow, it was magic, a fairytale kingdom.

I also remember, four days later, when the snow was still six inches on the ground, the cold wind stung my cheeks, and my feet were wet in shoes unsuitable for snow that it had never occurred to me that there was more to snow than just the beautiful fresh falling moment. I'd never thought about the unpleasant realities of having to go to work and classes in snow (and in college to slog through snow just to get something to eat in the dining hall). My first winter was a very snowy, and very cold winter, and I had plenty of opportunity to learn the realities of life with snow.

To this day, I still am overcome with wonder at the first real snow. But am glad I live further south, and can expect it to disappear again with in a few days most of the time.

The beautiful photo is by Dale Preston, Oberlin Class of 1983.

seven pounds

A new multi-screen theatre with comfortable reclining seats and excellent sound systems opened in Norton, Virginia replacing two much older shabbier theatres in the region. This places more movies within a reasonable driving distance for us (40-45 minutes depending upon whether or not you hit all the red-lights as I did today). We celebrated the end of term and the holidays by taking in a film this afternoon.

The ads for Seven Pounds starring Will Smith had been intriguing me for a week. This is one of those movies (like The Sixth Sense) that you really do not want to know what the secret is before you see it. So I won't spoil it. But I will say that the movie is not scary, that there is sadness and anger in it, but also great joy, love and hope. It is a 'feel good' movie, which features good people, doing good things. Will Smith is exceptional. I highly recommend it. Just be sure to have sufficient tissues with you.

Friday, December 19, 2008

sycamores in winter

John's car is on the temporarily disabled list; a rock or piece of coal made mincemeat of the driver's side of the windshield. So I volunteered to drive him to Whitesburg so that he could run in comfort on the track instead of having to slog through the mud running around the neighborhood. Gave me an excuse to go on a quest for sycamores to photograph.

The rest of the year, the sycamore is a nondescript tree, but in winter it becomes the light of the forest. Found mostly on the edges of the woods near streams and rivers, one sees thousands of sycamores as one drives around eastern Kentucky. Unfortunately today's quest was interrupted by rain, so didn't get all the shots I wanted, but here are a few.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

the human eye -- additional thoughts

Opponents to the theory of evolution frequently use the human eye to suggest that it is simply not plausible that such a complex structure could evolve through random mutation and natural selection. One of the many Internet sites that puts forth this argument against evolution begins thus:
The human eye is enormously complicated - a perfect and interrelated system of about 40 individual subsystems, including the retina, pupil, iris, cornea, lens and optic nerve.

And in this one sentence lies the key problem with the anti-evolution argument. Because, as billions of people on earth are aware every day, the human eye is far from perfect. For example, in the U.S. and western Europe myopia (nearsightedness) affects between 30 to 40 percent of adults (and approximately 20 percent of young primary school children), but in some Asian nations, myopia among young school age children is between 35 and 45 percent, and among adults is from 70 to 90 percent. (Reference: http://www.laser-eye-surgery-statistics.com/page/page/5961885.htm).

As for the farsightedness (hyperopia), the rate for young children ranges between about 6 percent to 15 percent around the world, and increases with age, so that the over 65 population, suffers from farsightedness from fifty to 60 percent depending upon ethnicity.

In addition to myopia and hyperopia there are (as one medical site states) "a vast array of hereditary eye disorders." Among the more common are congenital cataracts (one out of 250 infants is born with a cataract) and retinal degenerations which includes retinitis pigmentosa (RP), which affects one in 5,000 in the United States. Glaucoma and strabismus, or crossed eyes, are two other commonly inherited conditions.

Given the wide array of congenital problems with eyes, and the extent to which those problems are found in the human population, it would seem to me that an evolutionary explanation makes more sense than design guided directly by some omnipotent being.

I do believe with an implacable, unswerving faith, in G-d, divine power, transcendent power, unknowable power, infinite power, incomprehensible power (to us finite humans) and in the role of that divine power in the initiation of the universe and the processes through which it has unfolded for billions of years. But it seems to me, that if there was a direct, conscious, hands-on designer of the human eye, he/she/it could have done a much better job.

On the other hand, as a consequence of billions of years of accidental mutations and fortuitous benefits for enhancing survival, the human eye is pretty damn miraculous.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


So many meanings contained in one little word "vision." We may use it to refer to the act of seeing, the physical quality of sight ("does she have good vision?"). We may also mean the things one sees, both the manifest which we see with our eyes ("she was a vision in white") and the not yet manifest, which we see in our minds ("he had a vision that foretold the future"). Too, we may mean a quality of character possessed by a person ("he has vision"), that they have insight, greater perceptiveness, lofty goals, and a clear mission.

We use the words related to vision in so many different ways as well. "I see" may mean that we perceive some physical thing in front of us, or that we believe we understand or comprehend something.

When I was young and very silly, I romanticized physical blindness. The play/movie "The Miracle Worker" (Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke) was so dramatic and inspiring. I mistakenly believed that what made Helen Keller special was her blindness and deafness, not recognizing that many people have been blind and deaf, who did not share in the special spirit that made Helen Keller the hero that she is. Helen Keller's specialness came from her vision (insight, perceptiveness, goals and mission), not her lack of seeing.

Even as I romanticized blindness (learning Braille for example), I took the physical ability to see for granted. True, I had poor eye sight, and had to get glasses by the age of 10. But I always assumed that technology could compensate for any vision problems I had. My cavalier attitude towards my vision ended abruptly four and a half years ago, when I got a tear in my left retina, and learned how fragile the human eye and human sight really is. Now the same thing is threatening to happen again, and there is very little to do but wait and watch, and seek help immediately if a tear or detachment occur.

Human eyes are far from perfect mechanisms. Some human eyeballs are too short, resulting in far sightedness, and other human eyeballs are too long, resulting in nearsightedness (myopia). Most people know these basics, and know that both nearsightedness and farsightedness can be corrected with glasses or contact lenses, or even with surgery like Lasik.

What few people realize is that extreme myopia or nearsightedness places one at greater risk for blindness from retinal detachment. Here is what the Mayo Clinic has to say on the subject:
If you're significantly nearsighted, it's possible that the retina of your eye is thin. The thinner your retina, the higher your risk of developing a retinal tear or retinal detachment. If you experience a sudden onset of flashes, floaters or a dark curtain or shadow across part of your eye, seek medical assistance immediately. Retinal detachment is a medical emergency, and time is critical. Unless the detached retina is promptly surgically reattached, this condition can cause permanent loss of vision in the affected eye.

The greatest risk for retinal tear and retinal detachment among the severely myopic comes in the fifties and sixties. Part of the normal process of aging causes the interior vitreous jell that fills the eye to contract and shrink away from the outer edges. This by itself has little impact on our sight, but for those with thin retinas, the pulling away of this interior fluid can have just enough force to cause a tear or hole in the retina. The tear or hole becomes a place where the fluid of the eye can seep between the retina and the wall of the eye, pushing the retina loose, causing it to detach.

Warning signs of a retinal tear or hole that almost always precede retinal detachment include:
  • The sudden appearance of many floaters — small bits of debris in your field of vision that look like spots, hairs or strings and seem to float before your eyes
  • Sudden flashes of light in one or both eyes.
Retinal detachment itself has very obvious symptoms:
  • A shadow or curtain over a portion of your visual field
  • A sudden blur in your vision

So take heed. Although the greatest risk is to people with severe myopia (nearsightedness) who are in middle age, retinal tears and retinal detachment can occur to anyone at any age. Immediate, emergency eye surgery can repair both retinal tear (making retinal detachment less likely), and can usually (but not always) reattach a detached retina especially if caught within hours.

Monday, December 15, 2008

One Single Impression -- Distraction

This week's post is "distraction" which according to Wikipedia is:
"the diversion of attention of an individual or group from the chosen object of attention onto the source of distraction. Distraction is caused by one of the following: lack of ability to pay attention; lack of interest in the object of attention; greater interest in something other than the object of attention; or the great intensity, novelty or attractiveness of something other than the object of attention."
This weekend was the end of the semester, and was filled to the brim with papers to grade, and student phone calls and e-mails to field and answer. [Why is it when students read the phrase "The deadline is X. No exceptions!" at least three or four of them always conclude that certainly an exception will be made for them].
So my "object of attention" was suppose to be grading, in which, unfortunately I had a considerable lack of interest, and the world outside brilliant with snow provided an object of much greater intensity and attractiveness.


brilliant frozen hill,
branches shimmering silver,
enticing the mind.

Monday December 15, 2008

One Single Impression: Prompt 42: Distractions#links

Saturday, December 13, 2008

fauna in the yard

A pileated woodpecker just landed on my dying American elm looking for lunch. It is rare for us to see them down from the deep woods this time of year. Normally we only see them in early spring. However, over the last few years, strip mining and mountain top removal has deforested most of the nearby mountains -- not as much deep woods are left in this area. Unfortunately, for me, by the time I got my camera and got the front door open, Mr. Woodpecker decided to fly across the holler to the opposite hillside looking for better eating.

Here's an image of a pileated woodpecker from Associated Press used by FoxNews.com

winter morning in the holler

Froze my tuchus running around in my nightgown to get these. Totally worth it! This is what I see from my yard -- you can see why I love living here (most of the time).

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

dogs, marvelous creatures

Albert Einstein is said to have defined insanity as "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." I would submit, however, that this is also the definition of "dog."

As usual this morning, Rosie dog, woke me just before seven to be let outside. As usual I got up, put on socks and Crocs, and sleepily led her through the still dark house to the back door. I opened the door, commanded Rosie to sit, then opened the storm door to let her out. She stuck her nose about six inches out of the door, discovered it was pouring rain, and backed up looking at me as if to say "are you nuts who in their right mind would go out in that?"

So I closed the door and settled into my big chair in the living room to await what I knew was coming. Within two minutes, Rosie began to scratch urgently at the back door, looking at me, begging to be let out. I got up, opened the door, commanded her to sit, then opened the storm door. Rosie's nose got about six inches out, felt the rain, and then she backed into the house.

Over the next twenty minutes we went through this little dance a total of five times. Each time, Rosie dog hoped that the door would open and there would be no rain. Each time she was disappointed. Finally on the sixth try biological necessity overcame reluctance to get wet, and slowly she exited the house to relieve herself. She was, of course, back within seconds, to get out of the rain.

Dogs are also extremely obsessive and compulsive. If human, we would probably diagnose them as having OCD. There is a spot in the kitchen where the floor is slightly raised and has new floor tile, that Rosie must walk over (she can't walk around it), but when she does, she must stop briefly each time and stretch and sniff before moving on. My theory is that she slipped on that once on one of those rare occasions that I mop the kitchen floor, and now goes through this obsessive little routine to avoid slipping again. A human would simply walk around the spot, as the kitchen is plenty wide enough to avoid it entirely, but Rosie never does that.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

One Single Impression -- Doodles

reformed perfectionist

when young, each task
a masterpiece must be;
no master, my path was strewn
with half-filled canvases,
till lesson learned,
in life as well as art,
sometimes a doodle
will suffice.

Sunday December 7, 2008

For other poems on the theme of "Doodles" see One Single Impression.

Friday, December 5, 2008

over the mountains and through the woods...

...to faculty meetings we go one Friday a month. Most of the time faculty meetings are held via interactive television, but once a semester all five campuses must converge on one location, this Friday was the one. The goal not neither fun nor interesting merely obligatory, but the trip was stunning.

The route from Whitesburg in Letcher County to Cumberland in Harlan County, goes up over Pine Mountain ridge, a elevation rise of more than 1700 feet. A warning sign sits at the bottom of the mountain, telling motorists that the weather on the mountain may be significantly different. Today, that difference was clearly visible in the snow frosted trees above 2500 feet. The mountains looked like chocolate treats that had been dipped in powdered sugar.

Because the sun warmed air was slightly warmer than the snow, wisps of mist clung to the snowy woods on the mountain top.

Pine Mountain marks the very edge of a major change in geology and geography. North and west of Pine Mountain -- looking back towards Whitesburg -- one can see fifty to a hundred miles, across low rolling mountains. But when one achieves the summit, and looks out east and south one can only see the next, much higher mountain ridge marching off in the distance. I always have the sense of leaving one world and entering another one every time I go over Pine Mountain.

small stones

By way of Four Winds Haiga a poetry and photography blog that is always beautiful and inspiring, I learned about a poetry/prose concept called "small stones" developed by Fiona Robin and gathered into a lovely blogzine called "a handful of small stones."

The idea behind "small stones" is to create more mindfulness (a wonderful Buddhist concept) of the world around us, to make us more aware and more attentive to life, and then to attempt to distill insights and observances into small verbal packages of poetry or prose.

Something to try for in the future.