Saturday, December 12, 2009

Nothing Happened

Willa Cather wrote:

"I sat down in the middle of the garden, where snakes could scarcely approach unseen, and leaned my back against a warm yellow pumpkin....The earth was warm under me, and warm as I crumbled it through my fingers. Queer little red bugs came out and moved in slow squadrons around me. Their backs were polished vermilion, with black spots. I kept as still as I could. Nothing happened. I did not expect anything to happen. I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy."

The plots of Cather's books are not what I remember.  I remember her sentences.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Turkey by Any Other Name


I drove to Michigan to spend Thanksgiving with my son and daughter-in-law. She was born in Chile and though she grew up in Canada, culinary traditions (like a mother tongue) seem to stay with us. So for Thanksgiving instead of the usual stuffed turkey, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole and after-dinner somnolence, we had delicious empanadas--stuffed with turkey. Empanadas are hand-made pastries (flour, butter, milk) filled with all manner of flavors--turkey, onion, raisins, hard-boiled eggs and spices such as cardamom.

The result is a light but filling treat, great with spinach salad and a Spanish red wine.

My contribution to the meal was cupcakes--yellow batter, chocolate icing made with Hershey's cocoa--like the ones I used to make for my son when he was a boy. Not fancy, but enjoyed by all.

There are pleasures and surprises when one is old enough to have children who are grown-ups, capable in their own right. I am a visitor now; but they are hospitable and endlessly interesting, opening new worlds to me.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Over My Head

"The best way to graduate from beginner is to get in way over your head. Nothing makes you better faster."
--37 signals

I saw this quotation on a web site, The American Entrepreneur, and felt a spark of encouragement. I had recently jumped into a learning experience that was reminding me what it feels like to be a beginner again.

As a teacher at Point Park University, I can take an undergraduate course once in a while. On-line Journalism sounded like just what I wanted to learn--creating blogs, making web sites look nice, and writing for the web. We gather twice a week in a sunny computer classroom equipped with the latest and greatest Apples. I'm in heaven, because at home I have a computer that is so old HP won't support it anymore and no Internet. Here in the classroom, I can go anywhere in the world.

The "we" of this course is made up mostly of undergraduate students who are younger than my children. They are nice to me, very accepting of the gray-haired lady in their midst. I try to keep up, and I try not to ask too many questions; but at times they are many steps ahead of me following the directions of the professor, Heather Starr-Fiedler, while I am scribbling notes and wondering "what did she say?" In taking this course, I am learning not only new moves on the keyboard but also a new vocabulary.

On the first day, I learned what "RSS" stands for, where it is and what it can do for me! I was thrilled. Now I get daily updates from The Wall Street Journal, as well as local news outlets. I can embed an HTML code, add a slide show to my blog, play around however awkwardly with "Audacity," and create audio interviews. Our teacher is not only a professor but also a practitioner--the founder and managing director of the web site Pittsburgh Mom. I may be a beat or two behind the nimble minds of my classmates, but I am learning things that I never would have discovered if I had not gotten in way over my head.

Scattered Parcels in Pittsburgh

Courtesy of the Aldo Leopold Foundation

Aldo Leopold was an American conservationist who believed that the land is more than mere property. It is part of a biotic community, of which we too are members. He wrote his most revered book, The Sand County Almanac, while living on an old farm in Wisconsin. The land had been worn out, and he set about to restore it to health and productivity.

Leopold died the year I was born, 1948. His book is a treasured companion of mine--sometimes reading it restores me to health and productivity.

I like Leopold's thinking partly, too, because he does not believe that the government can solve all of our problems or relieve individuals and corporations of the responsibility to care for the land on which we depend. In his essay, "The Land Ethic," he explains that there are many scattered parcels of land that have virtually no economic value, such as marshes, bogs, dunes and deserts. Yet they need our stewardship as much as prime real estate or valuable farm land does. "The difficulty," he says, "is that these communities are usually interspersed with more valuable private lands; the government cannot possibly own or control such scattered parcels."

While there are no bogs or dunes in downtown Pittsburgh, I went in search of "scattered parcels," little pieces of land interspersed with more valuable property. With the help of my younger son and his photographic skills, we found that some pretty impressive little parcels are tucked here and there between the towering financial services and mixed-use office buildings in our compact golden triangle.

How much these lovely little parks and parcels signal a greater concern for the environment by large corporations, I do not know. However, I am grateful that large companies and smaller property owners think that it is important and valuable to plant trees and dig winding paths (PNC First Avenue Park) or plant a fountain of water spouts in the ground (PPG Plaza) that little kids can run through on a summer day.

It is worthwhile to take a walk around the city and see how many of these quirky havens you can find. Rest your eyes, or rest your feet. Aldo Leopold's words do apply: "If the private owner were ecologically minded, he would be proud to be the custodian of a reasonable proportion of such areas, which add diversity and beauty to his farm and to his community." It may not appear in a corporate mission statement, but Pittsburgh apparently has several custodians of beauty.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Wild Things

My seven-year-old grandson and I went to see the new movie Where the Wild Things Are, based on the children's book by Maurice Sendak. We had read the book together before, so I thought that this would be a nice thing for just the two of us to do.

We got our popcorn trays with small drink and little bag of gummy fruit candy, and went to our seats. I had to use my Swiss Army Knife to open the bag of fruity candy, but other than that we settled in for a great show.

The film starts out in Max's neighborhood. Max, for me, was a little too tall and a bit too angst-ridden for the character in the book. He loses snowball fights with the other kids and seems out of place in his own home. But eventually he does get to cross the water to where the wild things are. Now, things will get interesting, I thought.

Well, the Wild Things were great. They looked like they had just walked off the pages of the book. But then they started to talk. Such morose musings.

I glanced at my grandson who seemed more interested in his popcorn than the movie. Usually he laughs and thoroughly enjoys children's movies, but not this time. The little children behind us were getting squirmy. The whole theater seemed let down. Perhaps the problem is that the film was written more for the amusement of the writers than for children. It was their imagination that we got to see, what they imagined went on where the wild things are. In the book, the child gets to make up the story of what happens once the wild rumpus begins.

Even with children's literature, sometimes the book is better than the movie.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

A Matter of Life and Death

When I was expecting the birth of my first son thirty some years ago, I took Lamaze classes to learn what to expect. I was facing my fears about this unknown passage. My kind then-husband agreed to be my coach, and he sat on the floor with all of the huffing and puffing pregnant women. The classes helped to allay my fears by teaching stage by stage what would happen during a healthy labor—including “transition” when my coach claims that I growled at him and said, “Don’t you Lamaze me.” He backed away from the labor bed and handed me off to the anesthesiologist with the epidural.

All was well and our beautiful son was born, scoring a 10 on the Apgar Scale.

Now death is the unknown passage that I am facing. Not imminently, so far as I know, but for sure. At age 61, it is becoming clearer to me that it will happen to me, too, and to people I love. No one gets out alive. Yet, there haven’t been any classes to teach me what to expect.

Until this morning. A series started in the adult Sunday school at my church devoted to “A Matter of Life and Death;” and the speaker today was The Rev. Dan Hall, M. D., who is an ordained minister and a surgeon. He has seen dying up close. I have never been with anyone going through that passage. My experience of the death of a loved one is that it occurred out of sight, neatly hospitalized.

He talked about matters such as palliative and hospice care and the importance of a health care power-of-attorney. Then he not so much segued but leaped to the question on my mind, “so what happens?” In compassionate but clear terms, he described a typical death, a death with some notice. He described the somnolence and confusion that often occurs as one is dying. Then he both described and demonstrated the labored breathing, pausing for an alarmingly long time after a series of shallow breaths. These Cheyne-Stokes breaths have been identified by and named for two doctors. I was learning a new vocabulary for a part of life that in my circle is rarely discussed. I learned about the Apgar scale and mucous plugs back in my childbearing years; I can begin to learn this lexicon of death now.

Dr. Hall answered questions from the audience about feeding tubes and electrolyte abnormalities, as well as a query about biblical guidance and the disposition of the body. However, my mind lingered back there on the breaths. Though the course of dying would vary widely, there is apparently a breathing pattern that is predictable enough to have a name. I am looking forward to learning more about this discourse of dying. That is not as maudlin as it may sound. There is something comforting in being able to come to terms with death.

Though I thanked him after church, I doubt that the good doctor had any idea how he had evoked a private sigh, an internal small step forward in me.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Blossom and Wood

"Praise and Thanksgiving" is an old hymn, sung to the tune of "Morning Has Broken" by Cat Stevens:

Praise and thanksgiving, Father we offer, for all things living, created and good:

Harvest of sown fields,
Fruits of the orchard,
Hay from the mown fields,
Blossom and wood.

Text: Albert F. Bayly b. 1901
Tune: Gaelic

I sat in church debating how to spend a beautiful October afternoon. There were student papers to grade, and a chicken that was nearing its expiration date that needed to be cooked. Yet, there was also the Wildflower Reserve at Raccoon Creek State Park. I let the hymn tip the scale.

I wanted to rest my eyes on something far away--not a computer screen, or the page of a book, or my apartment walls.

Driving and dragging my mental feet, I kept thinking of all the reasons that I should not take the time to look at wildflowers. About a third of the way there, I took a deep breath, a sigh really. I don't know where it came from, but from then on things got better.

Along Route 30, Janoski's Farm Market was busy with families bent on picking their own pumpkins. On down the road, familiar turns and hills led up to the wooden sign telling where to turn in for the Wildflower Reserve.

It was pretty quiet. Once in a while an airplane flew high overhead, reminding me that the airport is not far away. But then the peace settled in again and I was alone with the stalks of dried flowers swaying in the breeze.

October is an odd time to visit the Wildflower trails. The Queen Anne's Lace was turning beige and crinkling around the edges. A reed bent down, looking the way I feel sometimes. The underbrush provided some yellow leaves, traces of green not entirely gone for good. It is a quiet time of year: not summer anymore, not winter yet.

There is a sense of just being, for the time being.  Autumn is enough, and it's beautiful.

I walked around and around the same trail, the one I knew, not wanting to get isolated on an unfamiliar path. A few people came, grandparents with two small children. I followed them a while.  Maybe next time, I'll take a new trail.

A few hundred feet down the road is the entrance to Raccoon Creek State Park. I drove through the park under a canopy of gold.  

Take the time.

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Sunday, September 20, 2009

Chic at Every Age

I took the new People Magazine to a quiet chair in the library and began leafing through, stopping to read the article about actor and dancer Patrick Swayze, who passed away showing courage and love in the face of cancer. He was 57 years old. Anyone in his or her sixties can stop for a minute and think about the gift of life that we have been given.

I did not linger there, though, because the colors and silhouettes of beautiful dresses on the next pages caught my eye, followed by a layout with the upbeat title, “Chic at Every Age.” The young women’s style—the 20’s—didn’t interest me much. Yes, they are pretty and thin and unselfconsciously chic on the runway or walking out of Starbucks (as they always seem to have coffee or a cell phone in hand). I started paying attention around the age of Kate Winslet—someone who looks like she has a little history to go with the good looks and designer clothes. The ladies in their fifties were fabulous. I could hardly wait to see what beautiful women would grace the page called “sixties”—but it wasn’t there. I flipped back and forth, to see if the pages had stuck together, but they had not. The article ended with “Sigourney Weaver, 59.” Wait a minute. Where are the 60’s, the women of accomplishment and style who give me something to celebrate? They are not there.

Invisible! I’m not ready to believe that. Where are the beauties who grew up in the sixties? What do they look like now? Who wears her hair long and flowing and gray? Which ones look even better now, with rounded corners where hipbones used to protrude? Where are the CEO’s and grandmothers and community powerhouses?

I think we need to redress this blank page.

What is your idea of a chic woman in her sixties? Show the magazine editors what they are missing.


Monday, September 14, 2009

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

The beautiful PPG Place in downtown Pittsburgh