Saturday, November 3, 2018

Peaceful People

"There is only as much peace as there are peaceful people." 

         I first encountered these words by by A. J. Muste (Abraham Johannes Muste) in the spring of 1972 in long poem "Staying Alive" by Denise Levertov a British born American poet. It was only decades later with the advent of the internet and Google that I finally learned about A. J. Muste a Dutch born American clergyman and activist.  
[Both Levertov and Muste were immigrants who contributed much to the development of this country - it should never be forgotten that so much of what we are as a country comes from immigrants and their descendants.]
         Muste began his work for peace and justice as a young clergyman in protests against U.S. involvement in World War I  in 1916 and 1917.  Two years later in 1919, Muste with two other clergyman helped the mostly immigrant textile workers many of whom spoke no English in Lawrence, Massachusetts organize a strike for better wages and better working conditions. For the rest of his life until he died in 1967 Muste was engaged in social justice and anti-war/peace causes. It was A. J. Muste who introduced a young college student and seminarian named Martin Luther King, Jr. to the notion of nonviolent activism.

         Recently I came across another quote from Muste that reflects my own evolving sense of what it means to be an activist for peace:
"In a world built on violence, one must be a revolutionary before one can be a pacifist."
         Muste did not mean "revolutionary" in the sense of engaging in violence against violence, but rather one must focus on ending social injustices first.  In the same essay as the above quote, Muste went on to say:
“There is a certain indolence in us, a wish not to be disturbed, which tempts us to think that when things are quiet, all is well. Subconsciously, we tend to give the preference to ‘social peace,’ though it be only apparent, because our lives and possessions seem then secure. Actually, human beings acquiesce too easily in evil conditions; they rebel far too little and too seldom. There is nothing noble about acquiescence in a cramped life or mere submission to superior force.” 
        This hits home strongly to me. I think of all the people I know who don't want to talk about or think about "politics."  Because it is contentious and disturbing and hardly "peaceful." Moreover thinking and talking about politics includes risks of disagreement with people we care about, family members and friends. Many people want to vote in elections and then turn their minds off and let someone else (elected officials, etc.) take care of everything.  There are times when I find this appealing, to just turn off to politics and power. But that is not the way to peace, because genuine peace is not "social peace" as Muste said. 

According to Muste, the foremost task of pacifists:

 “is to denounce the violence on which the present system is based, and all the evil — material and spiritual — this entails for the masses of men throughout the world…. So long as we are not dealing honestly and adequately with this ninety percent of our problem, there is something ludicrous, and perhaps hypocritical, about our concern over the ten percent of violence employed by the rebels against oppression.” 
Muste concludes with:
"Those who can bring themselves to renounce wealth, position and power accruing from a social system based on violence and putting a premium on acquisitiveness, and to identify themselves in some real fashion with the struggle of the masses toward the light, may help in a measure — more, doubtless, by life than by words — to devise a more excellent way, a technique of social progress less crude, brutal, costly and slow than mankind has yet evolved."

        When I read this I think of Colin Kaepernick, who did not know when he first took a knee that he would end up with a Nike contract, he took a risk to identify with victims of police violence, to condemn a system that does violence to minorities. 

          Working for peace requires risks. May we all be willing to take some risks in the year to come in the cause of peace. 

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Beautiful, Useful Things

            My father made beautiful, useful things with his hands and his tools. As far back as I can remember he had a well-equipped workshop in the garage which included a 1949 Shopsmith, an amazing multiple purpose woodworking tool that could saw, drill, sand, and best of all be a lathe on which he turned many intricate smooth objects like the posts and spindles on my brothers’ bunk beds, table legs, chair legs, candlesticks, and other decorative but useful items for our home.  I liked spending time with him while he worked, especially when he turned some blocky 4 x 4 post into a smoothly rounded, fluted, curving piece of beauty. I loved the smell of sawdust mingled with oil and the faint burning smell as his chisel cut into the swiftly turning block of wood.  I enjoyed the task of using fine sandpaper to further smooth the objects he turned on his lathe, luxuriating in the feel of the wood.

            After thirty years of knowing my father, I should have realized when I asked him drill 9 holes in a block of wood as a makeshift Chanukkiah* for my first Chanukah that he would not pay attention to my instructions, but instead create something incredibly beautiful that violated all traditional Jewish rules for a Chanukkiah.  A Baptist turned Methodist by marriage, my father knew nothing about my adopted religion. I think he wanted me to know that he supported me as I made this major change in my life, unlike my mother who took my conversion as a rejection of her and my childhood.

            I sent my dad (in California) a sketch of a plain, flat, block of wood with nine holes in a row. A few weeks later, I received (in Kentucky) a large box in return. Carefully wrapped in layers of tissue paper and newspaper was a work of art.

My first discovery was that he had chosen to use some of his precious chestnut wood instead of a scrap as I had suggested. The wood had been scavenged in the late 1970’s from his childhood home in Virginia. In the late 19th century before the blight destroyed most of the American chestnut trees, my grandfather had built the family home with chestnut paneling, stairs, railings, doors, molding, and other adornments.

Within the box was a block of wood, but unlike my sketch it had been carefully laminated in half inch layers of decreasing size, creating a double staircase effect with four steps on each side and a ninth platform at the top.  There were nine holes drilled, one in each step.  However, those holes were not for candles, for in the box, individually wrapped were nine perfect wooden cups, each with a stem to sit in the stair-stepped holes. Each cup had been turned separately on the lathe to perfect smoothness. They were all the same size, same diameter, same depth. The bottom of each cup had been curved like fat brandy snifters.  Each of those little wooden cups had to be turned on the lathe separately; checked and rechecked to make sure they were the same diameter, the same height, the same, length stem, so that when set in the stair-step block they would form a perfectly graduated holder for candles rising on both sides to a point in the middle.  I lifted each cup, turned them in my hands feeling the smoothness of the fine wood grain and placed them in the block one by one.

My father had carefully cut green felt and glued it to the bottom of the main block of wood, so that the bottom of it would not scratch or scar any surface it was place on. Then in the center of the bottom, he had left an opening in the felt, and in it he had burnt the words:  To SUE/from DAD/DEC 1981.
Thirty-seven Chanukahs have come and gone. Sometimes I consider getting a “proper” Chanukkiah. Jewish law and tradition say that all the candles in a Menorah or a Chanukkiah should be at the same height, because no day, and no person is more important than another. Also, Jewish law and tradition call for a new candles every night or a total of 44 candles, so most Chanukkiah are designed for small candles less than ¼ inch in diameter and only about 4 inches high. My father designed his candle holder for regular sized candle tapers - 2/3 of an inch in diameter and eight to ten inches in height. The cost of 44 regular sized candles is getting to be a little prohibitive these days even at Walmart.
But in the end, every year I use this cherished gift from my father. It may not meet the standards of Jewish law, but it is still beautiful and a product of love.
*Most people refer to these as Menorahs. However, a Menorah is a seven branched candle stick used in synagogues and homes on the Sabbath. A Chanukkiah is a nine branched or holed candle holders used only for the eight days of Chanukah.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Bureaucracy and Crying

I was having difficulty sleeping last night, something that seems to occur fairly often to me, and started thinking about something that happened a little over eight years ago.  Here's the story:

            We were getting a new house. I was 60 years old and buying my first new house, taking on my first conventional mortgage. The whole situation was fraught with anxiety from the start. My husband was terrified of taking on a mortgage, but our current house – a thirty-year-old, improperly installed double wide - which we owned outright through a completed land contract, was falling apart. There were gaping holes in the floor covered with a patchwork of boards and other places where the particle board sub-floor was so damp that it sagged in great wallows. The roof leaked in six different places. The stove top and oven had all died, and the dishwasher had never worked. Only one of the two toilets functioned. Renovations were out of the question. So we bought another, new, shiny, double wide manufactured home, to locate on another part of our property from the original falling down double wide trailer. This is important to the story: we were moving into a new house, but it was only 10 feet away from the original at the same 911 street address.

            The new house was delivered two days before Thanksgiving 2010. It took three weeks more weeks before it was properly installed, tied down, underpinned, skirted, with steps and stoops front and back. The next week the plumbing was begun and the electric utility arrived, on exactly the date and time scheduled. The electric utility was a marvel. Our utility company had a centralized office which coordinated all the activity on the job and we had one contact with a single person who managed all aspects of the job – and it was a big job. They had to run a new line from a completely different direction, get right-of-way permissions from other homeowners, have trees cut down, and install a new pole and transformer. Everything worked like clockwork. The electricity was turned on. The house warmed up, the heat pump company came and installed the heat pump. Then with heat in the house the plumbers came back and connected the water line and finished the septic connection. The old house was disconnected and the new house had functioning water and sewage in less than 6 hours. We only had to use the porta-potties twice. It was breathtaking how smoothly everything went, until we got to the telephone service.

            We had a land line from AT&T. Because we live in the mountains with some pretty harsh weather both winter and summer, electrical outages are fairly common. We averaged five to ten power outages a year (varying from an hour to ten days) and not even one land line outage. Phone lines can come down without shorting out, unlike power lines.  I didn’t want to trust our lives to an internet connection for phone. Those mountains also made (and still make) our property a dead-zone for cell phone service.

            I contacted AT&T several weeks in advance of our move. The problem began with that first conversation. I told the person in customer service that we were “moving” from one building to a new building on the same property at the same address. The service rep typed “moving” into the computer and started taking information. That’s when the trouble began. He needed two addresses one for service to be terminated and a second address for new service to be started. No matter how many times I explained it, he couldn’t understand why I didn’t have a different address for the new service. I couldn’t just ask for a stop/restart, because work crews were going to have to come out and string entirely new line in a different direction for the new house. The service rep’s bright idea was to use our current address 136 and then change it by 1 number making it 135. The computer would accept that when it wouldn’t accept the same number. Then it turned out that the earliest that we could get this service change would be January 21, almost a month after we moved into the new house.

            On our own we came up with a brilliant solution for that month. The houses were so close together that we bought new wireless phones, plugged the based phone into the still working old house phone lines, and set up the wireless extensions inside the new house. It worked like a charm, until January 21st when AT&T cut off the old service, but no one showed up to hook up the new service. They’d told us the guy would be there in a window between 8 AM and 5 PM (you know how that goes). I took off work, on a bitter cold day with snow and ice on the ground to wait for the truck to show up. It didn’t. The next day, during customer service hours, I drove two miles from my home where I have no cell service and sat in the car to call AT&T. They could not explain why we had not received a service visit, but rescheduled one for the next week. The next scheduled visit came and went without anyone showing up. The next day, I needed to call customer service but it was 10 degrees above zero Fahrenheit and with two feet of snow on the ground. I wasn’t going anywhere in my car. I walked around outside and finally found a spot where I could get 2 bars on my cell phone it was in the middle of snow covered road where I, bundled up three or four layers with hats and gloves and scarves, dialed customer service. 

            If you’re not an AT&T customer or have never called their customer service, you probably don’t know that AT&T has dozens of customer call centers in widely separated geographic locations. Every time you place a call you end up with another call center and another customer service agent. It is never possible to call back to someone you’ve talked to before. Each time you call you have to explain the entire story from the beginning all over again. On that day, I talked to six different customer service agents in at least five different call centers. I would explain my story and get put on hold and then after holding for 10 to 20 null the phone would go dead. They kept asking me for a number for a call back later that day or the next day. And I would explain once again, that I had no phone at which they could call me back, because I had no phone service in my home, and my cell phone only worked in the middle of the road, and I was not going to sit outside in 10 degree weather on the off chance that someone might call me back in a few hours or “sometime tomorrow.”

On the fifth call I was in the middle of a call out there in the road in 10 null weather, with someone who actually seemed to be sympathetic and helpful, and I slipped on the ice, fell in a snow bank, losing hold of the cell phone in a snow bank. By the time I recovered it the connection was gone. With my hands increasingly numb I dialed the service number again. Of course, I got yet another call center and another service rep, and had to begin my explanation all over again.  She too wanted to know if she could “check into it and call you back later today.”  At that point, 3 PM with the sun and the temperature dropping, having been without phone service for 10 days, I began weeping hysterically. I sobbed uncontrollably. Suddenly, the service rep entire manner changed, and she immediately transferred me to some supervisory person, who stayed on the phone and talked me down from my hysteria until I was able to able to choke out my story one more time with some degree of coherence. 

        This supervisor, without putting me on hold, contacted to work crews in my area.  She was able to ascertain that 99% of the problem was that the address of 135 (that the initial pencil pusher put in the system) was “not a legitimate 911 address”. The supervisor then directly linked me to the field workers so that I could give them directions to my home, and guaranteed that they would be there within the hour (they were there in 50 minutes) and that I would have telephone service before the day was over. Over a period of 10 days, I had talked reasonably, clearly, and respectfully to at least 8 different customer service agents. None of whom had been able to tell me why we weren’t getting the scheduled service visits, none of whom was able to solve my problem. But with one totally unplanned, spontaneous, break down into hysteria and tears got me hooked up with someone who had all my telephone problems solved within 8 hours.

            The workmen who showed up at 4:00 PM as twilight was falling, who had to climb poles and crawl under my house in temperatures hovering just above zero degrees Fahrenheit, were not at all happy about the situation.  They grumbled a lot, but they got the job done. 

            There was one really odd note in the evening. Not long after it got dark, one of the workmen came to the door to ask me if I knew whether my neighbor’s “German shepherd dog” was friendly or not. He said the dog was sitting up on the hillside and staring at them, and it made them nervous. I told him that he must be mistaken. No one in our neighborhood had a German shepherd. One neighbor had an old coon hound that spent a lot of time in the hills above our house, and another had a black lab, but there were no German shepherds. I told him all the neighborhood dogs were friendly. He did not seem to be fully reassured but went back to work, and nothing more was said about the dog. They finished the work and left about 11 PM that night. It was two or three days later that I realized that the unfriendly “dog” they had seen on the hill was probably a coyote because quite a number of coyotes live on the old strip jobs in the hills above us. They come down into the neighborhoods looking for stray cats and other small animals to kill for food. I was really glad that they had not realized they were being scrutinized by a coyote! 

I am still astounded by how quickly I got service and assistance after my breakdown into tears and hysteria. Why couldn't I have gotten that kind of service long before things things reached such a state?

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

The turning of the leaves: Ohio buckeyes

The changing climate affects our forests in many ways. One particular effect that I've been following now for about 25 years, is the seasonal color change that affects most of the deciduous trees in our central Appalachian forest.  In particular I've been interested in the Ohio Buckeye, a tree that turns a brilliant pumpkin orange in fall - or at least it used to be autumn.

July 5, 2013
When I first moved to central Appalachia (living in Wise, VA), the Ohio Buckeye changed color at the beginning of the normal autumn season in late September or early October. Between 1989 and 2005 I observed the Ohio Buckeye beginning to show it's brilliant color earlier and earlier. The first time I wrote about this in a different blog in September of 2005, the first signs of color appeared in early August. I wrote about it again in 2013 noting that the Ohio Buckeye color change had shifted even earlier to the first week in July and included a photograph showing the beginnings of color change. 

June 14, 2018
This year first signs of color in the Ohio Buckeye appeared in mid-June, which I noted while attending a week-long watercolor class at Cowan Community Center.  

I have been unable to find anyone who knows why the Ohio Buckeye would be shifting to increasingly earlier displays of seasonal color. It is particularly puzzling since most of the other trees in the region are developing and holding color later in the autumn due to warmer temperatures. Last autumn (2017) we saw one of the latest peak-color dates ever recorded in the region, with the most brilliant color occurring here in late October into early November.

July 23, 2018
This week I caught a picture of at least one Ohio buckeye (at the left of the picture) in our neighborhood that was nearly in full color even though July is not yet over.  You can see two other Buckeye trees that have substantial color, but that none of the other trees in the forest are showing any sign of color - as one would expect in July. 

One day I really hope that I encounter a botanist or naturalist who can explain to me what is happening to the Ohio buckeye. 
Ohio Buckeye July 15, 2017, Whitesburg

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

mind of the universe

It came to me in the early morning hours as I lie there trying to decide whether to go back to sleep or to get up, that it was an enormous human conceit not to believe in god* or at least not to believe in the existence of a mind/an intelligence greater than our own encompassing the universe. Moreover, that it is a western human conceit to believe that foraging humans like the Mbuti (pygmies) are wrong when they believe in the Forest as a living entity with mind/consciousness to whom they give thanks and offer prayer. 

We rational, scientific, folks of industrial societies don’t actually know why we ourselves have a mind (as opposed to just a brain), so how can we discount the idea that other organized systems (bees, dolphins, forests, planets, universes) composed of organic and inorganic materials just as we are, could not also produce minds and thought. 

Since we aren’t particularly good at understanding other human beings, why should we expect to understand the working of the mind of the universe/god? 

*this is not to imply that any particular human conception of god is necessarily correct.
Color view of M31 (The Andromeda Galaxy), with M32 (a satellite galaxy) shown to the lower left. Credit and copyright: Terry Hancock.

Saturday, June 9, 2018


Retirement is not going the way I intended. I feel lost, often sad, and fighting through a fog much of the time.

I am not writing novels or poetry, not doing new research, not getting articles published, not blogging regularly,  not painting dozens of paintings, nor drawing every day (not even every month). I'm not even cleaning my house every week, not planting a big garden, not walking every day, not doing yoga regularly, and instead of losing weight I have gained 20 pounds. I'm not volunteering at a dozen worthy causes - or even one. I'm not even sitting and reading all the serious non-fiction books that I bought over the last 20 years with the idea that someday I'd find the time to get to them. But I've played lots of Candy Crush Jelly, spent lots of hours on Facebook, and watched a lot of hours of Netflix and Hulu. Sure I like doing those things, but they're not productive, not what I promised myself to do with retirement.

Every time I start to write about this I end up stopping before I get very far. It feels like whining, and I hate whining. And again, I almost stopped and tossed this post out too. I have so much to be grateful for, so many things that many of the people living here in my community, my county do not have, and I am indeed grateful for them. I practice gratitude every day for all my many blessings. But I still feel lost, and often very alone.

I do not regret retiring - the last several years of my job were so stressful and I was anxious all the time. The stress and the anxiety are gone, but they've left this huge open space in my life that I that struggle with daily. There are many days, maybe even most days when I don't want to get out of bed at all. I feel tired in the morning - even after being on nighttime oxygen for two months. I do get up every morning for one simple reason, no one else will remember to feed my outdoor kitty, Jake. John's good about feeding the dogs and the indoor cats, but he doesn't remember about Jake, and I know Jake depends on me. Some days other things help motivate me, but I feel sad that some days the only thing getting me out of bed is this one little orange and white cat that would go hungry without me.

I haven't spoken or written about this to anyone. As I write this, I have to keep stopping and browsing elsewhere on the internet because it is so difficult to think about, much less write about. Yet the fact that I am writing, despite having to walk away and do other things to deal with the intensity, says to me that I'm a little better at this moment than I was during the past winter.

Sometimes the obstacles to the life I think I should be living in retirement seem insurmountable. The days when I feel like I've done the most worthwhile things - when I've been physically active, taken care of my house and garden, done things out in the world where I'm with people, or am artistically creative, are also the days that I find myself in the most pain at the end of the day. This past ten days I did a number of things (either with my husband or alone) that make my heart sing - attending outdoor music events, going to the farmers market, being with and talking to people, planting a rose bush, caring for my tomato plants. But by the end of each of those active days, I could bearly walk, just picking up my feet for one more step, much less getting up and down the steps to my home was overwhelming. I fell into bed in exhaustion not even feeling up to my usual evening reading before sleep. It's like the words of Shannon McNally's song Banshee Moan: "well you're damned if you do/damned if you don't/trouble if you will/double if you won't/so you watch you say/watch what you do/" (we heard Shannon McNally on Thursday night in Whitesburg at the Levitt AMP concert). Now that really feels like whining. I know so many people who have so much more pain than I do, people who've actually had to have surgery on their backs, hips, and/or knees.

Then there's the problem of friends, or rather the lack of them. My yoga teacher suggested to me a month or so ago that I should get together a group of friends for a morning yoga class. Only I don't have any friends to ask to do a weekday morning yoga class with me.  I do have two best friends that I talk to often and can tell just about anything (except this, I haven't talked about all this with anyone) but one is in Nevada and the other is in Oregon.  I love them and they love me, but they aren't here, I can't ask them to join me in a yoga class as much as they might like to do so. We can't just go to a movie together or out for coffee - and with the time difference and their busy lives I can't even just pick up a phone and know they'll be there.  My husband is wonderful, there are lots of things we like to do together, and we talk all the time. But one person can't be your whole world - it's too hard on them - and my husband is sad and lonely too. There are many people here locally that I like and admire, most of whom I think like me too. But there's no one that I feel like I can call to do things with or just sit around and hang out.

When I was teaching I felt so busy all the time between work and home life that I didn't make any real effort to "make friends" the way I did when I was single. Almost everyone I know is so connected to this region, they all have families, their children and grandchildren, parents, cousins, aunts, and uncles, and this fills up their lives as it should. There was a colleague who retired when I did that I think of as a friend, and we said we'd have lunch often and stay in touch.  I've tried three or four times in the first six months of retirement to get together for lunch, and every time she had things she had to do with her family, so I gave up.

Boy, this really feels like whining. I'm not saying "poor me, nobody likes me."  I'm saying that I didn't make much of an effort for the first 20 years I lived here to be an active friend to the people around me, and now that I have the time most of the people that I know have their own lives and families, and I'm clueless as to how to become more connected to others.  This is why I spend so much time on Facebook - at least that way I feel a little bit connected to other people and a little less isolated. But it's a catch 22 because time spent at the computer is not spent trying to be out in the world where people are.

So I go on struggling, feeling lost and sad. It feels a little like the identity crisis of my early twenties. I got started on this today because of reading something that someone I know shared on Facebook:
"Living in this skin is hard and painful, most of the time, because I never volunteered to take this on. The daily sacrifice of heart over mind, the forever ongoing task of explaining this and that, and why I don’t want to look like this and be like that but still here I am and if this is the body I’ve been given, I’m sure as hell gonna make it work."  ~Charlotte Eriksson
I'd never heard of Charlotte Eriksson before this morning, so of course, I googled her (disclaimer I didn't actually use "Google" but rather a search engine called Ecosia that plants trees for so many searches). I read some bits and pieces of Eriksson's work and thought - yes! But I also thought this is how young people feel who are just starting out, trying to find themselves. How can I be feeling all this at sixty-seven, I'm not supposed to be having an identity crisis at my age, yet here I am.

This is what linguist Deborah Tannen called "troubles talk" that thing that women (and many men too) do when they just want to let something out. I'm not looking for someone to give me solutions, I'm just finally getting it out there, talking about it for the first time, putting some light on the darker thoughts that have been going around my brain for the past year. Maybe to feel a little more connected.

I have ideas, know the things I should be doing. So I will go on trying to find a way.

Monday, May 21, 2018

My Past Year's Reading

Someone recently asked me about what I was reading now that I had more time as a retired person, and I could only think of the one book that I read in paper format during the daytime – Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. But I read every night for anywhere from an hour to four hours from my Kindle, because I can’t hold a paper book for long without my hands going completely numb and becoming too painful to bear.  So I was curious and looked at my Amazon Kindle content list to see what I really had read in the last 12 months. I may have missed one or two. In addition to reading new books, I also have reread books for several reasons – such as wanting to reread a book read years ago before seeing a movie or TV version, or seeing an article about a previously read book that reminds me of something I liked about it, or just wanting to savor really good writing (like that of Patrick Rothfuss and Laurie King) again. The list has lots of mysteries and science fiction and some fantasy. At this particular moment in time I am rereading Greg Bear’s Moving Mars a science fiction book that has a lot to do with cutting-edge theoretical physics.

New reads (not in order of reading)

The Road, Cormac McCarthy
Traitor Born (Secondborn Series Book 2) Amy A. Bartol
Secondborn (Secondborn Series Book 1) Amy A. Bartol
Extinct (Extracted Trilogy Book 3) RR Haywood
Executed (Extracted Trilogy Book 2)  RR Haywood
Look for Me (D. D. Warren) Lisa Gardner
Take Out, Margaret Maron
Fugitive Colors (A Sigrid Harald Mystery Book 8) Margaret Maron
Past Imperfect (A Sigrid Harald Mystery Book 7) Margaret Maron
Corpus Christmas (A Sigrid Harald Mystery Book 6) Margaret Maron
Baby Doll Games (A Sigrid Harald Mystery Book 5) Margaret Maron
The Right Jack (A Sigrid Harald Mystery Book 4) Margaret Maron
Roar of the Storm (The Fracture Worlds Book 2) Adam Burch
Song of Edmon (The Fracture Worlds Book 1) Adam Burch
Only the Rain, Randall Silvis
The Birthday of the World: And Other Stories, Ursula Le Guin
Before We Were Yours: A Novel, Lisa Wingate
Duel to the Death (Ali Reynolds Book 13) J.A. Jance
Still Dead: A J.P. Beaumont Novella, J. A. Jance
Proof of Life: A J. P. Beaumont Novel (J. P. Beaumont Mysteries) J. A. Jance
Man Overboard: An Ali Reynolds Novel (Ali Reynolds Series Book 12) J.A. Jance
Glass Houses: A Novel (Chief Inspector Gamache Novel) Louise Penny
Y is for Yesterday (A Kinsey Millhone Novel) Sue Grafton
Excise (Dr. Schwartzman Series Book 2) Danielle Girard
Fast Falls the Night: A Bell Elkins Novel (Bell Elkins Novels) Julia Keller
Sh*t My President Says: The Illustrated Tweets of Donald J. Trump Shannon Wheeler
The Color of Fear (A Sharon McCone Mystery) Marcia Muller
All the Little Children, Jo Furniss
Our Roots Run Deep as Ironweed: Appalachian Women and the Fight for Environmental Justice, Shannon Elizabeth Bell
Death in Blue Folders (A Sigrid Harald Mystery Book 3)  Margaret Maron
Death of a Butterfly (A Sigrid Harald Mystery Book 2)  Margaret Maron
One Coffee With (A Sigrid Harald Mystery Book 1) Margaret Maron          
The Sparrow: A Novel (The Sparrow series) Mary Doria Russell
The Star (The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke Book 3)  Arthur C. Clarke
The Perfect Girl: A Novel  Gilly Macmillan
Lockdown: A Novel of Suspense  Laurie R. King
What She Knew: A Novel  Gilly Macmillan
The Wiregrass: A Novel,  Pam Webber
Lost in Arcadia: A Novel,  Sean Gandert
The Fall: A Dark Victorian Crime Novel (Anna Kronberg Mysteries) Annelie Wendeberg
The Lion's Courtship: A Dark Victorian Crime Novel (Anna Kronberg Mysteries Book 1) Annelie Wendeberg
Silent Witnesses: A Dark Victorian Crime Novel (Anna Kronberg Mysteries) Annelie Wendeberg
The Devil's Grin: A Dark Victorian Crime Novel (Anna Kronberg Mysteries) Annelie Wendeberg
Into the Forest Jean Hegland
The Good Samaritan John Marrs
Collapse Annelie Wendeberg
Ice (The 1/2986 Series Book 3) Annelie Wendeberg
Fog (1/2986) Annelie Wendeberg
Cut (1/2986)  Annelie Wendeberg
Terminal Event, Robert Vaughan
A Tangled Mercy: A Novel Joy Jordan-Lake
Into the Still Blue (Under the Never Sky Book 3)  Veronica Rossi
Through the Ever Night (Under the Never Sky Book 2) Veronica Rossi
Cold Days (The Dresden Files, Book 14)  Jim Butcher
Ghost Story (The Dresden Files, Book 13) Jim Butcher
All the Lies We Tell (Quarry Book 1)  Megan Hart
The Last Chance Olive Ranch (China Bayles Mystery)  Susan Wittig Albert
The Last Chance Matinee: A Book Club Recommendation! (The Hudson Sisters Series 1) Mariah Stewart
The Mutual Admiration Society: A Novel, Lesley Kagen
Ocean of Storms, Christopher Mari

The Name of the Wind, Patrick Rothfuss
The Wise Man’s Fear, Patrick Rothfuss
The Slow Regard of Silent Things, Patrick Rothfuss
Three-Day Town (A Deborah Knott Mystery Book 17) Margaret Maron
A Wrinkle in Time (A Wrinkle in Time Quintet Book 1) Madeleine L'Engle
B is for Burglar: A Kinsey Millhone Mystery Sue Grafton
A is for Alibi: A Kinsey Millhone Mystery Sue Grafton (after Grafton died it seemed necessary to go through the series again)
Glory Season, David Brin
Keeping Watch, Laurie R. King
Moving Mars, Greg Bear
Lord Peter Views the Body: A Collection of Mysteries (The Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries Book 4) Dorothy L. Sayers
Folly, Laurie R. King
The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood
The Sound of Broken Absolutes (Heaven's Vault Book 2), Peter Orullian
Trial of Intentions (Vault of Heaven Book 2), Peter Orullian
The Unremembered (Vault of Heaven Book 1) Peter Orullian

Thursday, May 10, 2018

The Secret Language of Families

I was in college when Patty Hearst was kidnapped - she and I were about the same age. I vividly remember an opinion piece in a newspaper commenting on the fact that when she had a chance to communicate with her family Hearst had no secret family phrases to use to indicate she was okay or not okay. The writer seemed to think that this indicated an impoverished family life among the Hearsts. At the time I thought that the writer was being absurd - my family didn't have any private language, any unique and secret phrases with which to communicate to each other, and my family life was just fine.  

I realized many years later that I was wrong. My assessment that my family was "just fine" may have glossed over many issues, and my family did have its own secret language. First, my mother taught us to use many expressions and phrases from her rural Virginia childhood that were not known to the families around us. If we asked a question about something that she thought was none of our business, she told us it was a "larose". We would respond "What's a larose?" and my mother would reply "Laroses catch meddlers make fiddlers bite."   Also my brothers and I created extensive store of idiosyncratic phrases and terms we used among ourselves. 

One of the first things that I noticed about both of my husbands' families was the language quirks and unique phrases that they used. Often trivial things like everyone in Russell's family referring to the local grocery chain as the "Giant Beagle" rather than "Giant Eagle" that helped build a secret family language code that bolstered family cohesion, or John's family using phrases like "round by Rheinhart's" (Rheinhart's was a store in a remote area of Greene County, TN where John grew up) to indicate going out of one's way.  

In the nearly 25 years that John and I have been together as a couple, we have developed our own family language. Each of us has brought things from our own childhood - John understands the "larose" call and response pattern, and when I have to take a round about route I call it going "round by Rheinhart's".  We've also built a huge store of unique words and phrases out of our own experience as a couple. 

Some of these come from absurd things said or done by our students. John had student many years ago who persistently misspelled abdominal crunches as "churches", so we both now refer to that exercise activity as doing churches. My first year at Southeast, I had a student from Seco - a very small town I drove past every day on the way to work - who turned a class essay into a misogynist rant against the young ladies of his town who wore dresses that were so scanty as "might as well have not bothered to wear".  From that day forward, John and I refer to any dress that leaves a lot of bare skin as a "Seco dress". 

Early in our relationship John and I were talking about accents, and how neither of us grew up speaking a "standard" English dialect.  We were joked about whether anyone in real life grew up speaking like network newscasters speak, and I said: "yeah, some guys I know who grew up in Columbus, Ohio talk like that!"  From that moment on we started calling that bland newscaster accent "Columbian" in contrast to "English" which John swears is only spoken by folks in northeast Tennessee (where he's from) or neighboring southwest Virginia (where my dad is from). 

I don't know if this habit of coining unique words and phrases used only within the family is universal, but it is certainly quite common. 

June 19, 2018

I'm so excited.  I finally found several references to my mother's favorite phrase to deflect our inquiries as children: "larovers to catch medlers" and "layovers for meddlers"  are varients of what my mother would say.
 I'd never found anything before because I always included her full phrase which included "make fiddlers bite." But for once I thought, let's just look for the initial phrase and viola - many articles appeared! 

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

How my life has been enriched by "mansplaining"

These days one frequently finds complaints by women about "mansplaining" - especially those truly annoying experiences where a man with little knowledge explains (often inaccurately) something to a woman who is a verified, recognized authority and expert in that very subject.  This is especially likely to happen to women who are authorities and experts in fields viewed by the backward among us as "masculine" like technology, science, medicine, engineering, politics, and many others. Women are also understandably and reasonably annoyed when men start to lecture them about the nature of women, women's biology, psychology or life experiences, especially when the man's ideas are contradicted by women's lived experiences. So just to be clear, I'm not denying the reality of the problem of "mansplaining" as experienced by all too many women today.

However, an enormous amount of the knowledge and skill I have today comes from being a willing listener to many men, who over the years liked telling women about some interest or passion they had. Sometimes the things men told me were things I already knew, but if I hadn't sat through that part of the explanation I never would have gained the additional knowledge or skill that they had to impart that I did not already know.

It started with my father. Sometimes I would take one of my math homework problems to him, even though I already knew how to work the problem because after he had explained my assignment to me, he would go on and show me something from his college homework. As a result, I learned about powers, roots, and logs at an age when my peers had just learned long division. If I went to him with a question about geography he might start telling me things about air travel and aircraft and the airline industry.

In school, I quickly figured out that boys and later men liked to show off to girls, to explain things to them, and that this became even more important in college with men explaining things to women. I only took one science in college - general biology - but I learned a lot about chemistry and physics from getting young men to explain and show things to me. I also learned about wine, gourmet food, about classical music, folk music, foreign films, motorcycles, race car driving, ten-speed bicycles, sports cars, fencing, the printing industry, modern art, audio equipment, electronics, broadcasting, existential philosophy, psychology, British culture, and a hell of a lot of other things. Many of the things that I learned from all these men eager to explain things to women helped me get and advance in jobs after college.

I became a safer, more skilled, driver because one of my boyfriends in college had been a race car driver, and I was a willing listener and student. I can get into and out of tight parking spots that flummox other drivers. I still, to this day, can out drive most people on windy mountain roads because of those lessons.

I'm not saying that everything a man every explained to me held information of value. Nor am I saying that I did not also learn much from women. What I am saying is that my life and my career as a sociologist and college professor, has been richer and held greater depth, because of many things I learned from men - boyfriends, friends, friends fathers, acquaintances, strangers at parties and many other places - who wanted to explain something to me.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Giving myself a C+ on Retirement

I wake up in the middle of the night and start thinking about things, things that seem important to me and that I wish I could write down – instead of just thinking around in circles about them – but to get up and go to the computer would probably disrupt the dogs and that would mean that John’s sleep would be disrupted so I just lie there and think and think and think. Then I wake up in the morning and I can’t remember anything that I thought about.  I suspect that those thoughts I have in the middle of the night are not as deep or relevant or worthy as I imagine them to be at 3 AM.

I am not doing as well with retirement as I am telling everyone. I tell everyone that I love retirement – and that is true, but it is not the whole story. I think I’ve been suffering from some depression – especially since the weather turned colder and I haven’t wanted to go outside as much.

 I have no desire to go back to work. Retiring was absolutely the right decision. I do not miss the anxiety, fear, and stress that were a part of my work life for the past three or four years. After B__ A___ retired as president of the college, things just went to hell-in-a-handbasket. But truthfully things had started going downhill even before that. The budgetary situation and the enrollment declines made things iffy. I never knew for certain that I would have enough students to make a full-load, and I was always anxious about what would happen if I didn’t. It always worked out, but not necessarily easily – often with a great deal of extra work for me. The lack of proper leadership on assessment was always a stressor.

My personal situation with my weight and my health (rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes 2, asthma) needed more time and attention than I had to give while teaching full-time (and often overloads). It’s very hard to be properly active when your work requires 10 hours a day at a computer. Even when it didn’t require 10 hours a day, the stress was such that instead of getting up and doing something active when I took a break I just slid into Facebook and online games. I am so happy to be rid of the stress and anxiety. 

My life feels so much more peaceful and calm. During the last four years, it felt like I was angry all the time. Fear makes me react with anger. I didn’t like the person that I was becoming: someone who was hateful and suspicious and fearful and angry.

Most of that is gone, just a few anxieties now about money, but nothing really bad. I had a moment of sheer panic this morning when it seemed that my husband’s health insurance had not been properly processed for 2018. But things seem to have worked out and the knot in my stomach went away pretty quickly. Anxiety and tension are no longer my default setting like it was for the last few years. I feel so much more relaxed and comfortable and actually happy most of the time. It shows up in the photos that people have taken of me in the last six months – I’m smiling like an idiot in all of them, because well – life is pretty good on a personal level. I also find myself singing – something I did all the time when I was younger but hadn’t done in years. Of course, on a not so personal level, on the level of my community, my state, my country, my planet life is shit and getting shittier with each passing day. But that is a post for a different day.

My problem is that I’m still spending a lot of time killing time on Facebook and with computer games, and not doing all the creative things that I’ve waited years to be able to do. Yes, I did one painting – which I’m less than satisfied with, so I can’t seem to move on to a new painting. Also while the weather was still nice (in late September and October) I started doing ink sketches outdoors. But I really haven’t done any writing: a smattering of letters, little journaling, fewer blog posts, no poetry, I’ve not touched the novels, nor started any short stories, and as for the academic writing, it sits languishing unattended. You can’t be a writer if you don’t write. This is my beginning on that. I have to stop waiting until I have something really significant to say and just start writing. I may never have anything significant to say, but not writing gives is like having soul constipation. I need to write to keep the spirit flowing.

Another area where my retirement is not going the way I had hoped is with exercise and activity, diet and other healthy behaviors. I was doing much better with exercise and activity, moving more, walking more, and taking yoga class – until cold weather started. I can’t even get myself to get in the car and go to the gym to walk on the track when the outside temperature never gets about 25 degrees all day. Not sure what that is about because I can make myself go outdoors to take the trash, recycling or garbage out. Of course, sitting in a car waiting for it to warm up is a little different. My eating behavior is not the worst it’s ever been, but it is far from the best I can do.

At this point, I would give myself a C+ or maybe B- on retirement activity. I know this is really weird – people don’t earn grades on life. But I’m this achievement-oriented person and I somehow feel I owe the world more than I’m giving it. That I owe myself more than I’m doing. There are so many people that need to retire but cannot afford to do so. I feel like having had a career that allowed me to save adequately for retirement means that I have responsibilities to the universe to do more with my retirement than wash dishes, feed the animals, do housework and grocery shopping, pay bills, play Candy Crush Jelly on Facebook and watch Netflix. But so far I’m having trouble getting a handle on how to do that.

My plan is to write my way out of this. Writing has always worked in the past, so here’s hoping it will help me now. 

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Some thoughts on exercise/step monitors

A little over two years ago my primary physician read me the riot act. She told me to start moving more or die. I was 307 pounds, had type 2 diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis.  I knew she was right in principle, but knew her blithe pronouncement that I should just start walking 20 minutes a day, at a time when I couldn't walk 5 minutes without getting out of breath, was unrealistic.

I already had a Fitbit One, though my use of it was irregularly and without much focus. I used the incomplete data I had to see roughly where I stood in terms of daily steps.  On the days I was using the Fitbit I was averaging about 900 steps a day. So I gave myself the goal of 1100 steps a day - a manageable goal.  Once I was doing that consistently (within a few weeks), I upped it to 1300 steps a day. Within another month I increased the goal again. Before long I was consistently recording 2000 or more steps a day. 

I lost 60 pounds. Which was great. And I felt so much better.  But a year and a half later I was a little frustrated. I didn't feel like the Fitbit One was accurately assessing the amount of effort that I put in.  I increased my overall activity level - both the intensity of my "exercise" but also my NEAT (Non-exercise activity thermogenesis) and it just wasn't showing up in my Fitbit record. I would struggle to add steps, but it didn't seem to make a difference in calories burned. Not to mention that activities that I did like house cleaning or yard work that made me sweat, pant and left me exhausted, were barely a blip in the record because not that many "steps" were taken in doing them. 

I can only speak for myself, but I suspect that others have the same experience: having rheumatoid arthritis and substantial osteoarthritis in back, knees, ankles, and feet makes movement challenging.  While pain is reduced by keeping moving, getting moving takes more effort. And when one is moving an obese body with painful joints the level of effort is even greater.  

When I retired this spring, I decided to try something else.  I got a Fitbit Alta HR which has a heart rate monitor in it, and that changed the way Fitbit recorded my exercise. My simple walks had the same number of steps (in the beginning) but the Fitbit now recognized that my effort was "cardio" and "peak" heart rates. When I added up and downhill on my walks the increased effort was noted. Calorie burn recorded increased. 

Having what I felt was a more accurate record of the effort that I was expending actually encouraged me to do more. I started in May with a 3,000 a day step goal and now have (and meet) a 7,000 a day step goal. Before May 2017, I had only 1 day with 10,000 steps a few years ago.  Now I have at least one day a week with 10,000 steps and hope that by spring 2018 I'll achieve a daily goal of 10,000 steps. 

This may not work for everyone, but for me, having what I feel is a more accurate record of the effort that I put into activity is rewarding and encourages me to set and achieve higher goals. 

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

I suck at Yoga and that's a wonderful feeling!

This is not bragging just a realistic assessment: I am a person with multiple intellectual and artistic talents. There are not many things that I have tried in life that I could not learn to do moderately well with a modicum of effort. 

There were two negative consequences to that: First, because I could do many things pretty well with a little bit of practice (like playing piano, or  understanding mathematics) with a few exceptions I rarely put in the kind of concerted, long term effort it takes to get really outstanding. I've been content with being above average on many things but not really excellent at anything.  Second, on the rare occasions that I encountered something at which I truly sucked (like playing guitar), I very quickly gave up. 

So yoga is a whole new experience for me.  I'm over Medicare age, morbidly obese, with extensive osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis; my disks are deteriorating, my rotator cuffs in both shoulders scarred from multiple injuries, and while my knees and hips aren't ready for surgery yet, it may not be long before they are. I haven't tried any exercise beyond walking since 1989. So I truly suck at yoga.  

My first yoga lesson (four weeks ago) was nearly my last. By the end of the first lesson, when I couldn't come near doing any of the exercises or postures - except for the breathing - I felt I had no right to take up space in a yoga class or the time of the yoga instructor. At the end of the class feeling depressed and humiliated I went up to the instructor to apologize for my miserable existence and say that I would not be back. But before I could get the first word out, the instructor (a truly amazing young woman) put her finger over my mouth and said "NO! Stop! You are NOT allowed to criticize yourself here." I don't remember everything she said next, but I left that room knowing that I would keep coming back and that it didn't matter if I continued to suck at yoga for years to come, as long as I got some benefit out of it. 

The incredible thing is that even though I still can't do anything at all the way it's suppose to be done, I can see tiny improvements and I feel so good at the end of each lesson, despite sucking so completely. It feels like a huge life victory to keep doing something even though I'm terrible at it.  

Saturday, June 3, 2017


As an academic, retirement has been a process, a series of "last" milestones.

April 25th was my last honors night, giving awards to my awesome, outstanding students...and getting a "standing ovation" from my colleagues.  April 27 was my last classroom day, and at the suggestion of the students we had a little party (after I crammed in one more 30 minutes of lecture!) - they gave me a lovely picture frame as a gift.  May 5th was my last graduation ceremony. Time to say good-bye to most of my teaching colleagues as well as this years' graduates. Then the last weekend of grading, and turning in my final set of grades on May 8th.

The rest of May was a mix of vacation days and days working in emptying out my office. I had 35 years of files - from previous teaching jobs as well as my current one - to sort through. A few things to keep, a lot to toss in recycling and even more that had to be run through a shredder (student confidentiality). There were lots of memories in there, lots of wonderful students, and some lousy experiences as well. On the days I wasn't in the office I was working on organizing my home office space so that there would be room for the few things I wanted to save. A lot of vacation days were also spent dealing with retirement paperwork..."who knew" there was so much paperwork involved with retirement?!

There were things that needed to be given away:  a huge treasure trove of craft materials were donated to a local Headstart program; my microwave went to Wendy in the office on one side of me, the refrigerator to Ariel in the office on the other side of me; Pricie in the office got huge piles of file folders, pens, pencils, scissors, tape, and other sundry office supplies; my multi-colored dry erase markers went to John; the Respiratory Therapy program gratefully accepted drawer organizers for their new classroom, and the Adult Ed program was glad to have all my stacking in/out boxes; books were donated to a variety of sources; the faculty secretary got my collection of coffee mugs, and sugar containers.

There was paperwork involved with tying up the committee I'd chaired for 2 years and making sure all the documents were available to be passed on to the next chairs.

This past Wednesday, May 31st was my very last day in that office. Everything (except two telephone books left for the next occupant) was gone except for the college's furnishings and college computer. My diplomas and awards and paintings had been taken down from the walls and carried home. At the end of the day, I took all the office keys - keys to the office door, the building front and back, the other building, and all the desk, cabinet and file keys - off my key ring and left them on the desk, leaving the door unlocked.

I had not realized how final that would feel. This is the first time in 42 years (since I started graduate school in January 1975) that I do not have a huge bundle of office keys and access to an office space away from my home.  I actually feel "retired" now (although my official retirement date is June 30 and last pay check two weeks after that).

Suddenly I'm not entirely sure how I feel about that. The earlier stuff, the end of actual teaching and grading and going to graduation felt good, felt like letting go of a huge burden. Letting go of my own personal office space and all that entails is much more sobering and scary.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The best moment of the year

It's the middle of May in eastern Kentucky and white blossoms are everywhere. Wild roses (rosa multiflora) and blackberries spill from banks and hillsides perfuming the warm air, while field daisies and daisy fleabane (erigeron strigosus) march gaily along the roadsides and adorn the unmown yards and meadows.

Driving this week car windows down to smell the roses and blackberries, I found myself saying "now is my favorite moment of the year." Then I laughed to remember that just four weeks ago, when the purple redbud and lacy dogwood were in bloom, I had said the same thing: "my favorite moment of the year."  Moreover, a few weeks before that in mid-March I was sighing over the splashes of yellow daffodils, and exuberant forsythia everywhere, also thinking "best moment of the year."

Not long from now in June I'll be thinking the same thing when the first local blueberries come to the Letcher County Farmer's Market and the day lilies turn my hillside orange. The thought will come again in July when my first tomatoes get ripe and I eat them warm off the vine. I will also be thinking it when the jewel weed blooms its millions of tiny orange flowers that attract the hummingbirds to sup in September - also the moment when the Virgin's bower vines burst into delicate white blooms.

Then comes October and all the maples go scarlet and rose. Once again, I'm thinking "my favorite moment of the year."  One might think that was the end of it, but in November when all the leaves are gone the stately majesty of white limbed sycamores stand tall as the guardians of the winter forest causing me to once again think "this is it."

So it turns out that every moment in the mountains of eastern Kentucky is the best moment of the year.