Welcome, welcome, welcome! and a hearty huzzah! for Scientopia's newest blogger(s)! Go check them out over at Portrait of the Scientist as a Young Woman. They are spectacular!
Formica is not just a made up word for a substitute material for mica insulation that eventually became countertop material because corporate monopolies in the early 20th century forced it out of the insulation biz. (Btw, the new Jonathan Adler collection patterns are very hip! Also Aqua Dotscreen is retro-funky. But I digress.) No, formica is first and foremost the Latin word for ant.
As in: ants, who make the foul smelling formic acid. Which, when they bite you, they will inject into the bite, because they are tiny, and how else is an ant going to defend itself and the colony? And you, stupid gardener, blithely ripping out tired pansies from late April to replace them with sunnier summer annuals, you who disturb the colony and look at all the teeny tiny ants swarming madly - so very small! - and think it's nothing to do with you, and brush them off as they start crawling over your gloves - so fast! - you are a fool. They will crawl right inside your glove cuff where you cannot get at them - they are tiny, but crafty! - and they will bite, Bite, BITE! Tiny, sting-y, ant bites. Hastily you finish planting, swiftly you rush to clean up, lavishly you apply cortisone cream. Alas! It is no use. You will have swarms of unsightly swollen itchy red bumps all over your wrists for days.
Do not fuck with the tiny little black ants.
They will acid-lace your sorry-ass wrists.
For the ant-lovers in the reading audience, these ants were making their home and their living in the ground near the top edge of a rock wall in the garden - nice loamy well-drained soil, shade in morning and evening but sun from about ten a.m. to two p.m., near plantings of annuals, some perennials (dianthus, heuchera, wild strawberry vine, wild violets, day lilies) and a witch hazel shrub. They were very, very small - maybe 3-4 mm - and all black. And bitey. And fast. Beyond that I didn't stick around to get much more information about them. I have tried to figure out who they are using Alex Wild's website, the School of Ants, and other web resources, and guess they may be Little Black Ants, Monomorium mimimum. But it really is just that, a guess.
In case they (whoever they may be) or their designated representative(s) are reading, I herewith respectfully apologize for the disturbance I caused.
Please enjoy that patch of the garden - it's all yours!
In the olden days we wrote our manuscripts after working in the data mines and spending time refining the raw ores, maybe even going back for another shift or two after the smelting and reading up on the Manufacture and Uses of Various Ores. But that was back in the olden days, when you discovered things after walking uphill to the lab in the snow, both ways. I hear now you can just sit at a computer and write and send a postdoc out to fetch all the cheap industrial processed ores you need ready-made from the store. Modern life is so full of astonishing time-saving conveniences! Truly we live in wondrous times.
Three things happen when they are in the lab. You fall in love with science, they sexually harass you, and when you criticize them, they cry! (And issue rape and death threats.)
I don't want to stand in the way of men. I'm a feminist - keep sexist asshats 'single' labs.
Separate but equal labs with no funding or prestigious awards for the sexist asshats, and real labs for the rest of humanity is the way to go!
These are light-hearted, ironic comments. I cannot help it if my audience interprets them as deadly serious.
I do mean the part about having trouble with boys. It's true I have fallen in love with science and that boys in the lab have sexually harassed me. It's very disruptive to science, because it's terribly important in the lab that people are on a level playing field, and I've found that these emotional entanglements have made life difficult. Not to say dangerous, at times.
I'm really sorry that I caused any offense, that's awful. I just meant to be honest, actually.
h/t @virginiahughes for alerting me to this latest outbreak of Nobelinania. Look out Jim Watson, you've got competition!
Once upon a time, there was a digital garden eastward in Eden. There a group diverse in academic background, gender, and religion (though not so much in race or ethnicity or class) were put, to dress it and keep it. They gave names to all that had been previously unspoken, and were a helpmeet unto each other. And every one among them did speak, the tenured and the grad students, the men and the women, and they were not ashamed. Of the Tree of Life they ate and of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil they did nosh, even of the humorous branches of both, without fear that they would be trolled.
But within this Garden of Eden grew a third tree, the Tree of Inciting the Spirit of Judgment and Fighting, which did harbor a serpent more subtle than any beast the rightwing nutjobs had made. And it came to pass one day that someone did mention yoga, and someone else offered up a transparent pun about downward dog, and others did virtually laugh. And the serpent saw its opportunity and didst strike. The serpent said unto the one most under siege IRL “eat thereof, and your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, judging all before ye.” And she did eat, and her eyes were opened, and she did judge that white privilege and cultural appropriation and disrespect for a thousands-year old religious practice were on display before her. And fighting did commence. And the Tree of Inciting the Spirit of Judgment and Fighting flourished and grew large, and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil did succumb to blight and cankers, and the Tree of Life also sickened.
And lo, it came to pass many years later that on Fresh Air, Terry Gross did interview Michelle Goldberg about her recent book The Goddess Pose: The Audacious Life of Indra Devi, the Woman Who Helped Bring Yoga to the West. Wherein: a Russian woman reads a self-help book written by an American about Indian wisdom; travels to India to study yoga under a yogi sponsored by a progressive nationalist intent on uniting “the best of the East and the best of the West”; the yogi develops his own system incorporating elements that he felt captured the “animal” energy of 8 to 10 year old boys, which we today know as vinyasa; and this system is brought back to the West by the Russian woman with the new definition of “self” not to be obliterated, but to be developed to have greater efficacy in the world. The moral of the story being: your sun salutation has no connection to ancient texts; stop worrying about authenticity; embrace the modern mashup, and adapt it for your own needs. Maybe take your non-authentic yoga mat outdoors, for example to the Morris Arboretum for ten weeks of vinyasa this summer. Just stay away from the serpents in the trees.
A very wise woman of long acquaintance recently advised me that “part of being part of a professional community is the need to be extremely careful not to criticize anyone, which – to say the least – isn’t consistent with scholarly objectivity.” That plum came from the cultivar 'Life Knowledge'. Here's another: "If you don't open your mouth, no one will know you are wrong." The sagacious Dr. Richard Gallagher, now professor emeritus of electrical engineering at Kansas State University, fed me that one.
Members of oppressed groups are injured in many ways, including the silencing of their voices about those injuries. To break that silence one must open the mouth. And then comes the serpent to offer up the succulent, sweet, instant gratification fruit of Judgment and Fighting. There is a bliss in the certainty of the high, though it be short-lived and followed by a headache. And when our better natures call unto us and say, where art thou? Who told thee that thou art persecuted? we reply I heard their voices in the garden, and I was angry and ashamed, and I felt silenced, and the serpent beguiled me.
The flaming sword now turns every way. Eden is protected. Behold, we are become as one of them.
When my siblings and I were young, my parents frequently took us to the cemetery to visit the grave of my mother's mother. I never knew her, but I knew how much my mother and Pappap had loved her. I could see how sad it made my mother each time we went. As a small child, I felt bad for my mother, but it had nothing to do with me. I did not imagine myself one day standing there as she did, at the place where we had cast her underground, lost and weeping.
One may visit a cemetery at any time, but certain proper times impel one's presence graveside: the days of a loved one's birth and death; Christmas and Easter; Memorial Day. Unhappily for me, my mother's birth and death dates are in December and February. The six-hour drive to the cemetery at these times is a dicey proposition.
This past Sunday, February 15th, was the second anniversary of my mother's death. We are in the middle of an arctic freeze, with frequent bouts of snow, freezing rain, 40 mph winds, and sub-zero wind chills. With the anniversary occurring on a Sunday, it seemed attendance at Mass would be a good form of remembrance. I would recite the familiar prayers, and at the end of the service, I would light a candle for mom - near a statue of Mary, if possible.
My mother, a devout Catholic, was very devoted to the rosary and the Virgin Mary. She was always "bending Mary's ear" about a cause in need of Mary's succor, whether it be restoration of the health of a sick grandchild or a conversion of non-recyclers to less earth-ruinous ways of living. It grieved my mother deeply that I had fallen away from church-going. For my part I found it simultaneously amusing, annoying, and touching to learn she had taken to lighting three candles whenever she went to a church. Whether at weekly Mass at her home church, or in other churches while traveling or visiting, the votive candles were regularly lit for my father, my brother, and me. My father was dead, so his candle was to help him get out of purgatory and into heaven. My brother was confined to a nursing home ever since a botched surgery at age 17, so his candle was for his health (and a miracle, if God would so please). My candle was to bring me back to the faith.
When I was very young, I believed that the lighting of votive candles had a magic power. The very candle itself sent up a mystic message via flame and smoke straight to God, who would see the burning candle and think favorably upon its associated prayer. You didn't burn a candle for trivial things, like winning a ballgame, or evil things, like causing harm to one's enemy. You burned them to ask for intercession in someone's misery. Heal the sick and suffering. Lift the souls in Purgatory into Heaven. Guide the lost sheep back into the fold. That sort of thing.
I don't know if my mother believed literally in the power of the candles but she did believe that in some way lighting one focused and amplified her prayer. She always, if possible, chose to light her candles on the side of the church where the statue of Mary was. Mary had been a mother. Mary understood the sufferings and special sorrows of a mother's heart. Mary was the right one to chat with, when you wanted something important relayed to God, to make sure He would get it. You know, really get it.
People without religious faith can still benefit from ritual. Since I have not yet managed to create my own set of deeply meaningful memorial rituals, and couldn't make it to the cemetery, I thought it was worth giving the Mass and the votive candle a chance.
I found a local Catholic church that seemed perfect. Catholic churches usually bear a saint's name. My hometown church was St. Ignatius of Antioch. St. Peter, St. Michael the Archangel, St Patrick's are all common; there are a lot of Sacred Hearts and Holy Family parishes, too. But the one I found was called Queen of Peace. It was a church dedicated to Mary! It was a good sign! I planned to go.
Then the butt-chappingly cold weather got even more butt-chapping, and it snowed again, and the dire newscasters warned against going out lest ye be frostbitten and die, and the winds blew a steeple off a church in a town nearby.
I stayed home.
But I didn't feel good about it.
My dear friend and neighbor then suggested, why not burn a Yahrzeit candle at home? Better than trundling off to church to light a candle I wouldn't see again after I left the building anyway! Great idea!
Scrounging around the house, I could not find any nice pillar candles, and for sure nothing that would burn 24 hours. What I did have, though, were "purification candles". These I had found and brought home with me during one of the marathon sessions of cleaning out mom's house. Purification candles are blessed (and sometimes lit) on Candlemas, the 40th day after Christmas. On that day Mary took Jesus to be presented at the temple (and to be purified for her birth-giving uncleanliness, bla bla, patriarchal religion, bla bla). All good Catholics keep some blessed purification candles on hand at home for when the priest comes by to bless and anoint a dying person. Blessed candles can be lit when someone is sick, in a sort of bedside vigil and prayer for returned health. Or, as in olden days, they can be lit as protection against the (literal) wolves in the forest. They are quite versatile.
I had a candle, noow I needed a holder. DIYers on the internet suggested using a small jar filled with sand. No appropriate-sized jar was to be found, but I did have the perfect mug - a plain white mug my father used to drink his coffee. (My younger sister remembers once as she watched him drink it black, before going out on midnight shift at the coal mine, asking him if he didn't want milk. "The first cup's purely medicinal" came the reply from a man who could not truly be called "awake" at that point.)
Candle, mug - but I had no sand. Searching my cupboard I ran across some years-out-of-date Minute Tapioca. Kinda sandy-like texture. I lit the candle, dripped some wax in the bottom of the mug, and held the candle in the wax till it was steady. Then I filled the cup halfway with Minute Tapioca around the candle, to catch the dripping wax. For some decoration, I taped the remains of a refrigerator magnet (sans magnet) on the side of the mug. It was a miniature straw hat with pink roses I had bought for my mother when we went to a ramp festival in western Pennsylvania. She had liked the little hat, and pink roses were her favorite. It was perfect.
It was early afternoon when I lit the candle (not sundown, as one more properly does). The ersatz Yahrzeit burned quite a long time. I carried it around the house with me wherever I went. I felt very happy about it. At one point while walking up the stairs and shielding the flame, I though of my mother very intensely. It felt to my non-spiritual self like her spirit was with me in some sense.
Later on I noticed that the flame was now level with the rim of the cup. What was of course obvious from the beginning of this candle venture now hit me with all the force of a grief born anew: the flame would burn out. Stricken, I turned to Mr. Z with this obvious and tragic observation, and I wept.
We talked for a little while about my mother and her life, how much we loved her, how much we miss her, and the examples of her life we wish to embrace. It was good to have those moments to feel and share the sadness, and to speak affectionately of mom.
The candle lasted awhile longer. I kept it near me. Eventually the little hat fell off the side of the cup, and though I tried once or twice to press it back on its sticky tape, it just wouldn't stay. Soon the flame was down to a mere wisp which licked at the wax that had earlier dripped onto the Minute Tapioca. As this wax burned and flared, some of the tapioca burned, too, giving off a scent of burnt marshmallow, and leaving a burnt-marshmallow-type ring around the guttering flame.
The aroma reminded me of family camping trips when we were all young, roasting marshmallows around the campfire, mom at the wooden picnic table laying out the graham crackers and Hershey's squares in readiness for our burnt sugar fluff sagging off our campfire forks.
Even in those last few moments when the little flame was almost nothing to be seen, it gave me something.
And then it just...went out.
I looked at the clock and by pure accident, the flame had gone out at just about the time in early evening when mom drew her last breath.
This past April I wrote the following post but never published it for some reason. It's very ironic to me that I came across it again today. Mr. Z and I will be going on a long-planned vacation in a few weeks. The place where we are going offers tours to various locations nearby. One is to a beautiful nature site. I looked into it online and saw pictures of this nature site crawling with tourists, posing for the camera. It is indeed a truly beautiful place but I thought maybe it didn't need my footsteps all over it; there would be plenty of others. I recognize that tourism is a source of income to the place where we are going, and the place where we will stay was once some unspoiled natural site that has been thoroughly pre-trampled for our vacationing pleasure. I guess that will just be enough trampling for my guilty soul for one vacation.
The Morris Arboretum is in my backyard, so to speak, and it is easy for me to zip over for a quick visit any day the mood strikes and the migraines don't. This time of year I want to be there all the time. From around the end of March through April you can practically hear plants growing. Every day at the arboretum there is a new look. Something has just come into bloom or budbreak; some other bloom has just finished its show. A week ago the walk from the parking lot down along the open south-facing hillside was littered with little purple crocus. Yesterday not a one was to be seen. Only their green shoots remained, and will soon be mowed with the grass. But I've been keeping my eye on the katsura tree and yesterday was the day to be there!
I have been watching it closely since the last week of March, going to the arboretum as often possible. Yesterday it was in the flush of budbreak, the deep red buds on the tips of branches still tightly shut but further down unfurling in delicate imitation of blossom. Yet they are leaves, and will soon turn green, and the show of color will disappear. But not yet. Come around the corner of the arboretum path where the giant tree once hidden is now revealed, and yes, it takes the breath. It is so immense, its little rosy buds so delicate and so numerous. It says come closer, absorb this feeling of color, linger in this moment.
The arboretum is a managed and manicured place, and I do no harm by walking its paved pathways. It is a museum of flora from around the world, and sometimes I crave to wander among something more native. The arboretum sponsors garden trips, and several years ago there was one to Shenk's Ferry Wildflower Preserve. It is famous for its richness of spring ephemerals. I was not able to go, but I promised myself that someday I would. This year was shaping up to be the year.
I was poking around online for some information about Shenk's Ferry and I came across this blog post. It is a beautiful travelogue of a trip to Shenk's Ferry, with many photos, and I was so excited. Then near the end I read this:
On this small path we encountered a disturbing scene. An infestation of Euonymous alatus, the exotic invasive burning bush, overtaking the Trilliums along the path...This infestation reminded us that we cannot escape the invasives, and that the problems we face in Morris Park are everywhere. In a way, we can clearly see that Shenks Ferry Wildflower Preserve is not a fantasy escape of happy wildflowers growing in a rich ravine, but a place just like many others: A happy place of diverse species and some invasives, at risk of becoming degraded.
I felt grief when I read this, and yet what had I expected? I realized that in some way I thought of Shenk's Ferry as a pure place I could find the unspoiled woodland I wished I could recreate in my backyard, bordering as it does on a small wooded area. But if I can go to Shenk's Ferry, and Shenk's Ferry has a walking trail and a Port-o-Potty, it is not unspoiled and certainly not pure. Visitors trample the plants in the quest for great photos, despite signs and brochure warnings. People steal the plants. People, apparently, go hunting in this area. The brochure notes that "shooting of firearms is permitted only during hunting seasons." Otherwise, please stay on the trails folks - this is a fragile area.
Commenters on that blog post complained about the poor state of the dirt road leading to the trail head at Shenk's Ferry. Why, some people couldn't make it down the road and had to turn back! Why not pave it? That would make it more accessible! More people could walk the paths! Maybe they could put in a little building with a real toilet! And I'm just saying, it wouldn't hurt to have a real parking lot! Do it up Yellowstone style! Hey - where have all the flowers gone?
I don't know how we can continue to have "wild" places if at the same time we all want to go and see the lovely wild places, for ourselves, close up. Somebody has to not go. I volunteer me this year.
It was not a good year for blogging. But what the heck, according to Drugmonkey's meme, here's the year in review.
January So, this is not the way I imagined breaking my writer's block.
February Not you, I bet!
March It struck me the other day that I now have a small and growing elder care section in my personal library.
May I see the Google doodle today is in honor of Dorothy Hodgkin's birthday.
June My theory, which is mine: it shows why Einstein was wrong!
August So thanks, guys.
September Last night was it.
And...that was it for the year. Prophetic, that last line, no?
I had envisioned this year as the time when I would nurture the withered stalk that had been my writing life and watch it come to blossom again, in whatever so small and self-satisfying a world it exists. But this year people I loved were in need, and/or ill, and some of them died, and then it came winter and year's end.
The days are short now and it's the time of year when the lack of light makes me gloomy but I'm going to resist that as much as possible. This week I got my basement waterproofed and as crazy as it may seem, that one unglamorous household improvement has buoyed my spirits. It's a dreary rainy day but I can tell myself: there won't be any water in the basement! So I don't care if it rains! (sorry, all you other folks who are still getting water in your basements. I know you still suffer. May waterproofing come your way soon.)
I've been through two and a half years of near continual worry and stress and grief and loss. It's no good waiting for everything to clear up in life to spare some attention for mundane happiness. And it does need attention. The good and the bad are all mixed up together. If I don't look carefully I will miss the good bits because the bad is always eager to overshadow. I will try to focus on good things when they come along. Whether it is a water-proofed basement or a bowl of chocolate yogurt or an entire day without migraine, I'll give myself permission to enjoy. Maybe this will help with the writing, who knows? We'll see!
Last night was it. After an attempt to file but dimly viewed nails, I asked Mr. Z for a pair of his reading glasses. Donning them I saw the world anew. Oh yes, the nails came into sharper focus; it was a delight to see them clearly, and a surprise at just how much I'd not been seeing. What I really saw, however, was my future of increasing disability.
I've been in denial about how difficult it's become to read my iPhone, how often and how much I have to blow up the screen, how very preferable the iPad has become. No more. My near vision sucks. It's going to get worse. I will one day be as my elders are now: happy youngsters will show me blurry screens of what they say are pictures of their cat; I will nod, smile, say yes I see. The youngsters will know my vision is bad, but they won't know it, not really. I'll know they mean well and want to include me, and that's why I'll smile. That is, if there are any youngsters who come around when I'm elder. I don't kid myself. I don't have kids. No kidding. The youngsters, if there are any, will be full of well-meant advice, and I will tell them I don't hear that.
We know what's coming, even as we work out at the gym, we aren't stupid. Unless there's an accident or a terrible illness like cancer, death creeps our way slowly. We make jokes about the reading glass harbinger at restaurants with our friends. We ask our partner to crank the volume on Alex Trebek - and wonder why everyone is mumbling. We dutifully remove treacherous throw rugs, install night lights all over the house, grab a cane for outdoor strolls (and then indoor ones too). We put in grab bars, high-seat toilets, convert to walk-in showers with shower chairs, all on the first floor.
We sell the house and move into a two-bedroom one story condo with a patio and outside maintenance provided, become best friends with the nurses at the clinic and the ER and the technicians at Quest, and upgrade to a walker. We become fond of ramps, acquire a handicap parking pass, complain about the lighting and noise in restaurants. (But not at Eat-n-Park, where the coffee is always just right.) We upgrade to a better walker, add in a transfer chair, and turn in the car keys (some of us more some of us less reluctantly). We depend increasingly upon our children or the kindness of strangers and home health aides to supply us with Turkey Hill Lemonade Tea. Glasses and dishes and silverware grow so heavy, but we don't have much of an appetite anymore anyway. Our pillbox metastasizes from a discreet manageable one-compartment per day to a giant gargoyle garishly color-coded for morning/noon/dinner/night, permanently perched on the kitchen counter, filled (more or less accurately) by the visiting nurse.
We stay home/move in with a child/go to assisted living and we fall and break a bone/we bleed out from coumadin/we get recurrent resistant UTIs and we get pneumonia/have a stroke/become dehydrated and we die.
Mix and match as preferred, feel free to combine as you like, all permutations are allowed. Eventually, all roads this side of the Rubicon will lead to Rome.
The way that you can know all of this, know it casually from reading or intensely from up-close personal experience, and go on living, the reason you don't start haunting the Hemlock Society website, is cognitive dissonance. You think "eh, there's no good way to go, but I can make it another year, plenty of time for that, and maybe I'll go out with a heart attack in the middle of the night when I'm 80 and still kinda strong" and THEN you fall and break your hip. Now you aren't strong and well enough to do anything about it. Welcome to the rehab hospital. The rehab hospital is where you go to be helped to be a little less debilitated before you die.
A few weeks ago we were visiting one of our elders at a rehab hospital. At one point I took a break to sit outside - there were some lovely rockers on the "porch", the covered front entrance area, and the sun was shining. A woman older than me, younger than rehab, sat in an adjacent rocker. She was visiting with her friend who sat in a wheelchair bemoaning her condition. The visiting woman offered up the following in a very soothing voice: "Well it comes to everyone eventually, though we never think it will, we think we'll always be young and strong, but it comes to all of us, it will come to me too one day. I think 'I'm always going to be just like this' but I won't, it will come to me too." But the older lady in the wheelchair was not much consoled. Because she doesn't have access to the cognitive dissonance anymore.
Of course, there are plenty of examples of people who live into a ripe old age retaining their wits and vigor, caring for themselves at home, until they die peacefully in their sleep. You could be one of them. Or you could be poor, in which case you will probably die sooner and younger, because you won't have access to as much elaborate health care to prop up your failing body.
If you are not poor, if you are blessed with the resources, I suggest using some of them not for elaborate healthcare but to talk with a doctor or someone trained in elder care about end-of-life planning. I mean a serious and sustained conversation, not a brief chat. In another post I will talk about some things you might like to discuss during such a conversation.
Do not despair! You are young and likely don't even need reading glasses yet! Possibly you even hope to have your oceanfront home drowned by the rising oceans before any of this stuff I'm talking about comes to you!
The fear of death and disability, and the fear of talking about them, is not helpful. Not thinking about these things now means it's much more likely that you could end up in a situation you don't want to be in - experiencing poor quality of life that goes on for years long after you can have any real say over what is done to and for you. I do not mean just in the case of being kept alive by machines. This is what I'll talk about in another post.