Monday, August 31, 2015

You're gonna need an ocean

Once, in my halcyon college days, I took a botany class. 

Everything was interesting to me then.  Kind of like now, except I was 24. 

Following a long-standing habit of late bloomers, I enrolled in my first college courses in Santa Barbara a full six years after graduating from high school. 

And, due at least in part to my ho hum high school experience, every course was a wonder.  Sociology!  History!  Psychology!!

And botany!  The scientific study of plants!  Man!

"Plants," I learned, as though a true revelation, include a wide range of living organisms from the smallest bacteria to the largest living things – the giant sequoia trees.  By this definition the classification comprises algae, fungi, lichens, mosses, ferns, conifers and flowering plants.  

Big wow.

And California botany at that!  This would be ‘way different from Oklahoma botany.

Oklahoma botany, to my childhood recollection, included mainly waving wheat, like in that song; assorted grasses dominated by the crab and Bermuda varieties; and the occasional tumbling tumbleweed, if you found yourself out in the Panhandle drifting along – like in that other song. 

Oh, we had trees, but not like California!  We had elm trees and maples just like everyone else in the continental US.  Big deal.  The most exotic tree I encountered as a child was a mimosa. 

Once I got caught in the cross-fire of a whipping my grandma gave my cousin with a “switch” from her willow tree.  There’s a lesson in botany.

But California has redwoods!  And ice plant and bougainvillea and, and…

Poison oak.

Now in Oklahoma, I encountered poison ivy often enough to know my way around a bottle of calamine lotion – like in that song!  I learned by way of miserable nights not to scratch because fingers were conspirators in poison ivy’s plot to take over a skinny girl’s body.

I knew to let the pink stuff dry and curl up and flake away like so much sun-beaten paint. 

And, like a cut-rate pre-pubescent  contractor, I slathered on second and third creamy coats of that cool substance to fields of blisters without sanding, so that I wound up with a thick paste caked on my ankles and wrists and the insides of my elbows and the backsides of my knees. 

Sumac could raise a field of bubbles too.  So I learned to identify and cut a wide perimeter around both those sinister plants.

That was my plan with the poison oak my botany instructor spoke about prior to our field trip freshman year.  We were going to trek along the Santa Barbara hills and document our botanical finds.  Turns out, we didn’t see any poison oak that day.  But I got it.

I repeat:  We never found a single poison oak plant – but I broke out with an impressive cluster of itchy bubbles. 

All these botanical bad dreams resurfaced this week after Mr. Plath cleared the hillside below our house of cacti – to the tune of 30 truck-loads of prickly arms, joints, ribs and barrels – along with wild fennel, palm debris, scrub plants of unknown varieties…and you guessed it…poison oak.

I should mention that Mr. Plath is among those happily oblivious folks who wander the jungles and deserts and tangled woodlands of the world without fear.  He is not allergic to the virulent plant.  Isn’t that just great?

But he took extreme precautions at my urging:  long sleeves and pant legs, gloves, glasses.  When the task was complete, he tiptoed into the laundry room like a burglar touching no surface, leaving no trace.  He stripped down and put his radioactive clothing straight into the washing machine on hot, with bleach.

We circumnavigated each other in the hallway with arms overhead like two crabs vying for the same stretch of sand.  Hey!  Hey!  Hey!

He didn’t even chance to give me a peck on the cheek, which he ALWAYS does when he passes within range.  Directly into a decontaminating shower he went and scrubbed down as though for surgery. 

All the while, I stood by in my own hermetically sealed hazardous waste jumpsuit.

And I still got a nice big dose of the nasty stuff. 

Oh the irony!  Oh the chagrin!  Oh the recriminations!

Oh darn.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Senior sleigh ride

After a couple of weeks of being obliged to deal with minor – but extremely annoying, persistent and impossible to ignore – physical nuisances, I am put in mind of Zeus, the father of the Gods, and the shenanigans of King Sisyphus.

You know the punchline in the story of Sisyphus:  He’s the guy Zeus condemned to roll an immense boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down, repeating this frustrating and meaningless action forever. 

His days at stone rolling can be likened to those of unnamed persons, working at the futile task of staving off the siege of years.

The truth of it is Zeus got sick of Sisyphus’s scheming and deceitfulness.  So, he designed that particular punishment for King Sisyphus to match the hubristic belief that he could outsmart Zeus himself.  

Yeah.  Ole Mr. S. was a tricky and slippery dude.  Back in the day.  But not that clever: So far as we know, he’s still rolling the rock. 

And I was wondering if there are any parallels in the real world today.  Like for other people who try to deceive – not Zeus, or God or Morgan Freeman – but themselves. 

Not that I know anyone like that.

But let’s say there is a person who has taken up residence in Denialtown, right down the road from Who-do-you-think-you’re-kidding.  Around the corner from  Maybe you’ve visited that neighborhood.

Let’s pretend that such a person could never admit to herself certain things that she does not want to admit.  Why should she?  What is the value?  Who benefits from such confessions? 

No one that I can think of except maybe the I-told-you-so crowd that insists on being right all the time and gloating.  Who needs ‘em?

You can speculate on what such a person might be pressured to acknowledge if you want to.  Go ahead.  What could it be?  That she’s been coloring her hair since 1998 not because it’s the cool thing to do, but because it would be white – white! – without her steady commitment to color and chicanery.

She dyes her eyebrows. 

She wears athletic shoes!  O.M.G.  And skinny jeans!  Hahaha!

She maintains a Facebook account and even Instagram in what some might call feeble and grasping efforts to be ‘with it,’ though it’s fairly certain that she doesn’t know what ‘it’ is. 

She tweets for goodness sake.

(She has the niggling feeling that all those followers are perfunctory.  Most likely they are following her just in case she has something they might want some day.  They will say they knew her when.)

She’s rolling her own rock up the mountain of inevitability!  She thinks she’s fooling Father Christmas.  Or someone.

But let’s say Sisyphus overcomes.  Yes!  Let’s say he reaches his goal and pushes that boulder up to the top of the incline.  Then what? 

He finds himself at the top with that big ole rock under his arm by his side, like a pal.  He surveys the landscape with a sense of accomplishment and exhilaration.  He inhales deeply.  Cool at last!

Here’s what our protagonist fears:  She fears that just then, when she, er, Sisyphus has had only a moment of glory, when he’s only just begun to take in the panorama before him, he will feel a tremor.  A faint wobble.  Was that a tiny earthquake?  Maybe it was a gust of wind.

Poor King Sisyphus doesn’t know that Zeus employed his fiendish wit by enchanting the boulder to perpetually roll away.  File it under You Can’t Win, old Buddy! 

That rock will lean; then it will strain in place, pause for the briefest moment, perhaps drawing a breath before lurching and throwing itself down the other side. 

It’s all over now for Sisyphus, right?  He can never catch up to that rock.  And what if he could?  Is he going run around in front and stop it in place midway down that slippery slope?  Spoiler alert – no, he’s not.

And even if he did, what could he do but start trying to push it back up the hill! 

I’m beginning to see as I near the crest of the mountain, I need to outfit myself with a toboggan.

It’s downhill from there and I want to enjoy the ride.    

Friday, August 14, 2015

How to write a newspaper column

 Having never timed how long it takes to write one of these columns, I cannot say for sure. 

Generally, I write each one over a couple of days.  Three if you count the first day of thrashing about, gnashing teeth, pacing, procrastinating, punching pillows and the like. 

That’s how I get my ideas.

Second day I commune with the blank screen.  Sometimes, I ‘free write.’  That means I allow my mind to meander and my Spirit Guide Ethel to direct my fingers on the keys. 

Ethel’s quite a character.  A prankster really.  She goes on and on about ‘the other side’ and how Will Rogers and Nora Ephron never need any prodding.  They let it flow and write volumes!  Well, you know.

Then, third day, I’m like the Mighty Casey after strikes one and two:  the sneer is gone from my arrogant lip; my teeth are clenched in hate.  I pound with cruel violence the keys upon … OK.  I can’t make it rhyme right now.  That’s part of the problem. 

Also, there’s no pitcher winding up and ready to throw.  But now that I think of it, this is a good thing.  We don’t want to end up with a big ‘K,’ now do we?

So today, day three, I sit at my computer and call the Social SecurityAdministration first thing. 

I’ll get this little detail out of the way before I write.  It won’t be niggling in the back of my mind like a hole in the roof where the rain gets in and stops my mind from wandering where it will go.


I’m new to all this government assistance, but I’m no dummy.  After receiving two letters that said I would be paying either 1) $272 or 2) $167 to supplement Medicare, I would rather pay one of those than the amount on this newly received Statement of Premium Due - $981.

Here’s the plan then:  Call and speak to a customer service rep, Asia, who is 1) alone on her first day because her trainer ran screaming into oncoming traffic, or 2) a thoroughly unpleasant person who knows only what the screen says - $981 – period. 

When I asked to speak to her supervisor, Asia put me on hold without comment.  Fine!  said I.  I’ll write while I wait!  Ha ha!

I had already waited 35 minutes for the Social Security Administration to return my initial call.  No worries!  Now, in the After Asia era, another 42 minutes pass and from the receiver set on “speaker” next to my keyboard, interspersed with some sort of clanging, a pleasant male voice intones:

Thank you for holding.  Someone will assist you shortly.  Please be sure to have your SSN and any mail we may have sent you.  This will help us serve you better in the unlikely event we stop this infuriatingly lurid 70’s psychedelic “music” and take your call.

Then – We regret that you have waited so long.  The Social Security Administration provides services for over 50 million people so we get a little backed up, particularly on a day like today when you have called with your paltry concern.

Thank you for holding.  We appreciate your patience.  We are helping someone else who’s really, really long-winded.  I mean yadda yadda yadda!  Get to the point, wouldja?!  YOU won’t be like this guy, will you?

We apologize for this delay.  Here’s an idea:  Why don’t you go to our website and leave us alone?  Maybe you can answer your own stupid questions from the comfort of your home.  We’re here in cubicles like so many eggs in crates, and it’s hard to muster much interest.  We can’t see into the future except to say that it’s looking pretty dim for you and your query. 

In fact, why don’t you just shut up and pay the bill?  So what if it’s three times more than our letter said it would be?  It’s worth it, wouldn’t you say?  Better than this purgatory! 

If we had known you were such hairsplitter, we would have taken you off the mailing list altogether.  Of course, we would have stopped your coverage too. 

Click, click – Please stay on the line for our customer satisfaction survey.

And that’s how columns are written.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Dog / Cat meditation

As I sat licking my wounds and fingering my checkbook this week, I happened upon this profound quote from naturalist and Thoreau wannabe Henry Beston, author of The Outermost House: A Year ofLife on the Great Beach of Cape Cod. 

“We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. 

Remote from universal nature and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion.

We patronize animals for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves.  And therein do we err.  For the animal shall not be measured by man.  In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with the extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. 

They are not brethren; they are not underlings: they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.”

OK, he uses the uppity ‘our’ spelling of splendor.  You know what that means – it’s certifiably deep thinking about cats and dogs. 

And I subscribe.

Having said that, I am immediately faced with my contradictory and hypocritical nature.  But let’s not talk about that right now.  Let’s talk about the wise and mystical part. 

That’s why we get dogs, right?  Sure, they are goofy and sloppy and primitive in their habits, but because they love us so well and without question, we know they are pure and wise.

It’s hard to deny.  If you are conjuring arguments against a dog’s depth and faultlessness, then you have not known a dog.  Humans can never overtake the goodness of dogs. 

Even for those who feel squeamish about slobber, dogs will win them over with the unadulterated perfection of their being.  To resist a dog is to deny your humanity.

The things dogs learn from us are learned from a place of tolerance and patience – on their part.  Sit.  Stay.  Fetch.

Or, they learn to sacrifice themselves in our place in scenes of man-made disasters and explosions of nature.  They do this from the exquisite selflessness that is the essence of dogdom.  They learn this from us only to teach us what loving and giving can be.

For cats, we must go to the mystical.  A cat has nothing to learn from us and teaches us by inscrutable example.  We are grasshoppers to the cats’ senseiWax on, wax off.

Cats understand and accept their own flawlessness and model for us by case in point that effort is unnecessary and futile.  As they have, we must simply learn to be.

Beston’s words apply most clearly to cats: “They move finished and complete, gifted with the extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.”

Those who are puzzled by cats or uncomfortable under a cat’s enigmatic gaze squirm out of uneasy internal recognition that they have misjudged and thereby underestimated the cat.  Because a cat responds, or not, from her own will, not that of a human, the human sees himself as lacking.  He doesn’t like to be reminded of his own perceived weaknesses and he blames the cat for his discomfort, though the cat has said nothing, of course.

With a dog, you don’t have to try.  With a cat, you must not try.  Both are Zen masters.  In both cases, we are to learn from our association with them.  They have nothing to learn from us.

Some of us claim to be “cat people” or “dog people” when no such distinction exists.  Cats and dogs are the yin and yang of life and living.  We cannot have one without the other.  Only when we learn the rhythm of the pendulum swinging between the two, will we have arrived.

And that, Dear Readers, is how I justified paying the vet bill this week.