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Crazy Genes

I’ve come to concur with my late friend, Peter Matthiessen’s dying observation about people (and he didn’t even live to see the current election) “We are a crazed species, destroying our habitat,” he said. And we must be crazy, to do the things we do. But here’s an interesting tidbit–our craziness could be genetic.

Recently, I watched a PBS show on Neanderthals. The Neanderthal species (whose DNA we all have, except for a tiny sliver of population in sub-Saharan Africa) were a peaceable, home-loving type, who kept to the turf they found most comfortable, eschewing adventurous exploration. A concurrent species–Homo sapiens–weren’t such homebodies. They were, well, wacky. They would set off to sea on some lashed-together log raft, with no land in sight, just to see if there was anything out there. That’s strange, destructive behavior for a species. But sometimes they got lucky, and there was something out there. The raft would lurch up on a foreign shore, and if it were a pleasant climate, generally someone else would be already living there and that someone may have been a Neanderthal. Birds and bees and DNA later…

As we all know, Homo sapiens survived and flourished in the new lands they had stumbled onto by being crazy and so the crazy gene was, like Darwin’s finches, replicated.

We haven’t got any habitat left, but we still have the crazy gene, and perhaps that’s what’s preventing (some of) us from being able to process the end game of our destructive behavior.

When Al Gore started talking about climate change forty or so years ago, I remember thinking, what are we even arguing about? It’s not like we hold any of the aces in this game. There’s nowhere else to live. There is no Planet B. But we’re still arguing.


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What I Did Inauguration Day



Not a fan of the inauguration. Not a fan of whining, either. So here’s what I’ve done, to both help and help feel empowered.

I donated to three organizations that will most likely be negatively impacted by the incoming administration.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, for justice for minorities, the National Resources Defense Council, for the environment, and Planned Parenthood, for women’s rights.

Kindness is important.

Cherish the Ladies

Our cyclocross season began last weekend with Rochester. A Category 1 race on Saturday and a Category 2 on Sunday. From my non-racer perspective, a C1 race means that the officials are Very Attentive about UCI rules. Must be wearing pit pass. Must have right size tires. Must not feed. The first two rules are yadda-yadda. The last is more of a problem. The “No Feeding” rule states that the racers can carry water with them, but cannot be handed water. However, many ‘cross bikes don’t have water bottle cages on them and skinsuits don’t have pockets. Cyclocross is a cold weather sport (theoretically) and the race lasts an hour, so the whole hydration thing isn’t supposed to be an issue. But it is becoming one, due to climate change.

On Saturday, when the Elite Women raced, the heat index was 97 degrees Fahrenheit. After their hour of racing, the women crossed the line for the final time and fell over. Literally. One racer was taken to the hospital for heat stroke. The race organization, seeing the sprawl of bodies, brought over bottles of water and ice. Now it was the Elite Men’s turn to race (they race after the women) and Rochester, a race organization that Gets Things Done, set up a hose to spray the men as they raced by and had people waiting at the finish line, handing out bottles of cold water to the men as they finished. Great! You say.

Not so great, I say. The race organization should have known that the very high heat combined with no water combined with strenuous activity would lead to problems. Why did they wait to see the triage that was the women’s race before instituting adjustments? Why, in a nutshell, were the women the guinea pigs?

The Rochester race organization is superlative and they put on a great race. They would deny this implication of neglect. And I would believe them. Because this casual judgment that women are less valuable than men is insidious. It is certainly not limited to cyclocross racing.

But you have to start somewhere and call it out when you see it. So let’s start here. Women work just as hard as men during the race. Elite athletes are elite athletes. Enough with the casual neglect that speaks of a blind spot.

Let’s start giving women athletes the same respect, attention, and care that men athletes get.

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What’s at Stake

This creature, Trump, has a following and I, along with millions of others, struggle to understand why.

This is what I have come up with:

I think about Pope Francis and the thing that he exhibits so strongly—compassion. Having compassion means you’ve suffered some or more than some and you’ve come out the other side with a sense of humility, because you understand what suffering is and how it forges bonds with the rest of humanity. Because everyone suffers.

Compassion is a state of empathy. By developing compassion, you acknowledge the interconnectedness of all beings.

Non-compassion, or hate in the general vernacular, is the opposite of interconnectedness. It always arises from fear. Always. And fear is the state of feeling oneself alone, powerless, not connected. It is a primal emotion and it is part of our reptilian brain, the one that controls our fight or flight responses, our heartbeat, our breaths—the basic responses that keep us alive.

Our frontal cortex is our reasoning brain and the reason we can develop other traits beyond simply survival—like compassion. Everyone with a frontal cortex has the capacity to develop compassion, but it is a trait that will wither without nourishment.

When life becomes suffering, as it inevitably does at times, ask yourself: do you strive to learn from that suffering, thereby developing compassion and connectedness with others, or do you stay mucked about in the primal instinct of fear—blaming others and outside situations for your suffering?

Compassion unifies; fear divides. That’s pretty much it.

The Yoga Room at the Airport


Did you know that Chicago Midway airport has a Yoga Room? Flying back from Tucson on Wednesday, my layover in Chicago was extended due to the delayed departure of my next flight. What to do? I was tired from not sleeping well the night before and my lower back was sore from sitting and stress. Dejected about the delay, I walked around the airport and tried to get some exercise. Then, underneath a sign for Gates A through whatever, I saw “Yoga Room.” What? I followed the little sign to a hallway and then a door and opened it….

into another world. Now I am not one of those really devoted yogis, but I do like my five stretchy asanas as well as sun salutations and here I found myself in a quiet, clean room with a wood floor, a wall of mirrors, a flat screen TV playing soothing music and showing peaceful nature images, and a basket of yoga mats. This was wonderful! I selected a mat, and began to do my poses. I was the only one there. The airport noise faded, the quiet and calm took over, and my back eased into relaxation. After 20 minutes, I was ready to head to my gate, refreshed.

If you’ve got a layover at the Chicago Midway airport, I really recommend the Yoga Room, even if you don’t think you’re a yoga person. Because everyone can do the savasana pose—you lie on your back and close your eyes.

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Photography (Way) Before the iPhone

Say you’re with your friends and you see something interesting that you want to photograph. So you whip out your camera/phone and click, it’s done, easy-peasy. It’s hard to believe that photography was once difficult and dangerous. But it was.

Before the late 1830’s, there was no such thing as photography. If you wanted a picture of your friend you hired a miniature portrait painter to paint one for you. If you went somewhere on a vacation or holiday and you didn’t sketch, you would just have to describe your experience in words to your friends back home.

But then, in 1835, in Britain, William Henry Fox Talbot invented a process he called the “calotype”, or “talbotype” (after guess who) that could imprint a photographic image on a piece of specially prepared paper.

Using light to reflect an image onto a surface is a very old idea—Renaissance artists knew about it and they used it to paint realistic paintings. What you do is build a light-tight room with white walls and leave a tiny little opening in one wall. The little opening lets in light that shows an upside image of the outside scene. It sounds like a giant camera, doesn’t it? And that’s exactly what it is. As a matter of fact, it was called a “camera obscura”. Getting light to reflect an image onto a surface was not a problem, getting it to stay there was.

In 1689, the philosopher John Locke wrote about the camera obscura in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding:

Methinks the understanding is not much unlike a closet wholly shut   from light with only some little opening left to let in external visible resemblances of ideas of things without…

And then Locke goes on to predict the invention of photography—150 years before.

…would that the pictures coming into a dark room but stay there, and lie so   orderly as to be found upon occasion…”

What Talbot did was find a way to “fix” the image onto the paper, so it “could lie so orderly”. He did this by soaking a piece of writing paper in a table salt (sodium chloride) solution, drying it, then dipping it in a silver nitrate solution. The silver nitrate and sodium chloride reacted together to form silver chloride, a chemical compound that turns dark—tarnishes—when exposed to light. Once the paper was dry, Talbot placed it into a small camera obscura—simply a light-tight box with a pinhole in it to let in the light that forms the image. He pointed the box towards what he wanted to photograph, undid the cover over the pinhole and let the light imprint the image on the light sensitive paper. Then he covered up the hole, and moved the box to a darkroom, took the paper out, developed it in water to remove the extra salt, and “fixed” it in another chemical (sodium thiosulfate) to prevent further tarnishing. The image he ended up with was a negative, so to make a positive print, he sandwiched the negative with another coated paper and exposed the whole thing to light and then developed the “positive” the same way as before.   And that’s how the first photograph was made.  It was a commercial flop.

Only a few years after Talbot invented his process, another, completely different photographic process was invented by a Frenchman named Louis Daguerre, and it was called the daguerreotype (I’m seeing a trend here). Using silver-plated polished copper metal sheets made light sensitive by iodine vapor, the daguerreotype produced a razor sharp positive image right off the bat. The fuzzy talbotype could not compete, and the daguerreotype became very popular for portraits. Although if you’ve ever wondered why our ancestors look so grim and tense in their portraits, it’s because of the long exposure time of the daguerreotype– 5 minutes or more–during which the sitter had to sit completely still or the portrait would blur.

The daguerreotype was popular, but it was expensive and the chemicals used were poisonous and explosive. And it wasn’t portable–you could only have your picture taken in a studio. This left the door open for the invention of a third process, the albumen print.

The albumen print was invented in 1850, in France, by Louis Blanquart-Evrard. It was actually a refined version of the talbotype.   Instead of soaking the paper in a table salt solution, a flat plate of glass was coated with a solution of table salt and egg white (albumen). This dried to a clear film, and then the silver nitrate solution was brushed over it. The glass was placed in the camera obscura, but by now, the pinhole had been refined with lenses for an even clearer image and shorter exposure time. The photograph was taken by opening the lens and allowing light in. The glass plate was then developed in the dark room. The resulting glass plate negative was placed against a sheet of albumen-coated sensitized paper and again exposed to light (this is called contact printing) to make the positive photograph.

Being less expensive than a daguerreotype, and with a shorter exposure time, the albumen print became a big commercial success. In fact, it was a sensation. All the fashionable people had albumen likenesses of themselves taken and mounted on a small card, called a “carte-de-visite”, literally “a visiting card”. They dropped one of these off at people’s houses when they stopped in to visit if the people weren’t home (or the maid said they weren’t home) perhaps with a little message scribbled on the back of it.   It was a sort of early Facebook. At the height of the albumen photo popularity, the Albumenizing Company in Dresden, Germany was using 60,000 eggs daily!

Although using large plate glass negatives was cumbersome, the relative ease of the albumen process sparked an interest in photographing—documenting—far away places and far away events. John K. Hillers (1843-1925) became the first person to photograph the Grand Canyon, and Frances Frith (1822-1898) photographed in Egypt and Jerusalem. It’s hard to believe now, but this was the first time most people in America had seen pictures of these exotic places. And during the Civil War, a photographer named Matthew Brady, along with his assistants, photographed the aftermath of battles, sometimes even moving corpses to make a better composition. These photographs shocked the public, and they helped people realize that war, instead of being glorious, was full of horror and destruction.

Today we don’t think twice about taking a photograph, and couldn’t imagine a world that didn’t include regular selfies and photo updates. But not so long ago, that world was just wishful thinking in the minds of a few.

With Humility and Insight: The Responsibility of Writing for Children

There is something in a story known as “the voice.” In times past, the voice of a story meant its narrative tone—its cadence, inflections, and rhythm. A story’s voice was a subtle permeating thing, created wholly by authenticity.

Today, however, the voice often becomes The Voice. Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with heightened voice. The Catcher in the Rye had voice in spades, but it also had more. Holden Caulfield’s sardonic and lonely narration worked in service to the story; it did not, like an understudy hogging the spotlight, take over.

Jason Epstein, in “Book Business,” outlines how publishing houses went from privately owned companies with backlists that supported editor/ author relationships and their shared passions for good writing, to being owned by conglomerates whose stockholders expected a profit. With today’s publishing industry’s disconnect from the creativity of books and their dependence instead on books as commodities, is it any wonder that a successful trend, that of the heightened voice, would not be exploited to its full extent for maximum profitability?

This collision of creativity and commodification is nothing new; as a matter of fact, commodification is pretty much the end product of any (commercially) successful creative endeavor. But what’s different, or rather, what should make a difference, is that this creation is for children.

Writing for children is a responsibility. The vast majority of children’s book authors are adults and adults are the stewards of children. In an article published in The Horn Book, John Green wrote, “I think books must do something more than just divert attention in order to be successful. And this brings us to morality…[w]hat we need, and what good stories provide, are better Encouragements.” (The Horn Book Magazine November/December 2014)

Writing books read by children is to inform a potential. Books influence children. Like making cuneiform marks on a soft clay tablet, a story impresses onto them. We all remember paths taken and inspirations initiated by what we read as children. Adults who write for children need to approach their task with the respect due the audience. Katherine Paterson wrote “we fail our children if all we give them are the platitudes, the clichés, the slogans of our society, which we throw out whole, to keep from having to think or feel deeply.” (A Sense of Wonder)

Responsible parents don’t feed their children dessert all the time just because the kids like it better than protein and veggies. They make them eat properly, because it’s good for their physical heath, and instills in them eating habits that will create healthy adults. So why would we undercut our children’s emotional and intellectual health by feeding them books that deliver entertainment only? Pushing these under the guise of “giving them what they want (dessert) because at least they’re reading” is lazy thinking and it sidesteps an inconvenient truth. Which is that adults make money from books for children. There’s a very fine line here between providing a service and exploitation.

Books for children should lead, inspire, challenge, and teach as well as entertain. “Moral” and “didactic” have become anathema in today’s world of children’s books. It was not always so. Nineteenth century children’s schoolbooks like Sheldon’s Modern Reader are filled with stories whose purpose was to deliver the mores and morals of the society into which the children were being educated. They taught patience, kindness, diligence and truthfulness. Their stories gave the children boundaries within which to live—a more illuminated meaning of “didactic.” Joseph Campbell has said that societies, to be viable, need to pass along their myths, which is another way of saying they need to teach the limitations that create freedom. Katherine Paterson explains this concept with her usual clarity and succinctness, “[f]reedom is quite different from the lack of limitations.” She says that it was the demands of her family that “were the very boundaries that gave form to my life.” (A Sense of Wonder)

Books for children and young adults ought to deliver a sense of purpose, of Encouragement (to borrow John Green’s capitalization), of inspiration, and yes, they should teach limits, so the poor child has a leg up on knowing those and can move right along to creating freedoms.

It is not enough to only entertain a child’s developing mind, just as dessert is not enough to sustain a child’s developing body. We know this because we’re the grownups; we’re the stewards.

Late Summer, Salem Witch Trials and Sex

Summer ended Wednesday in the northern hemisphere, with the autumnal equinox. Since I’m not looking forward to colder, darker days—not after the winter we had last year—I’m going to dwell on summer for a bit longer.

Late summer is a time of plenty. Whether it’s all those tomatoes dragging down the vines, or the drowsy nodding late blooms filled with the buzz of bees, the acorns rolling underfoot or the hummingbirds feeding single-mindedly from nectar-dripping flowers, it’s hard, if you just stop and look and feel for a moment, to not get a sense of the abundance.

One late summer, when I lived on a farm, this sense hit me in a strong and different way. I looked at the bursting seed heads on their smooth stalks, the fruit trees heavy, the swelling rosehips and thought, Whoa! It’s all about sex. Well, of course it is. The whole point of flora and fauna is to procreate and thereby insure the continuation of their species. Often, when people write about nature (I include myself) the tone is so holy and ethereal. But hang out in late summer for a bit and the ethereal becomes fecund (although to my way of thinking, the holy stays holy.)

I recently read an article in The New Yorker about the Salem witch trials. I am mildly curious about what happened back in those witch hunting days of the 1600’s. Times were tough, so was it mass hysteria brought on by unrelenting hardship and stress? Or was it, as I once read, hallucinogenic mold in the food? Could it possibly have been actual possession? Nobody knows, and this particular article made a point of underscoring the puritanical nature of these earliest settlers. “Puritan” has come to mean a person with censorious moral beliefs, especially about pleasure and sex, and the article also stressed the Puritan’s fear of the “wilderness”—it being the place, they believed, where the Devil hung out.

“New-Englanders are a people of God settled in those, which were once the Devil’s territories” wrote Cotton Mather, Puritan extraordinaire, in 1692.

So here’s an interesting extrapolation. Early New Englanders weren’t keen on pleasure and sex and they feared the wilderness (nature) as a place of “Devil’s territories.” I’m thinking their fear of nature and their censorship of pleasure and sex are connected. Nature: all about sex since that’s what keeps life going. Puritans: sex/pleasure bad.

Doesn’t it make sense that if you morally censor sex and pleasure; you’re not going to “get” nature? And is it possible that this puritanical belief passed down through the generations is why we are so exploitive of our environment? We see it as something to be feared and tamed (which, now that I am thinking about it, could also be the root cause of the oppression of women, who, after all, are the ones to continue the cycle of nature and the species.) Food for thought.


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Monday, September first, I took my spinning wheel outside on the deck and placed it so I could spin the merino I am working on and watch the pond, like I do almost every pleasant morning in summer. I have placed a thistle seed feeder near the deck (in defiance of bears) and I like to listen to the noises of the summer morning as the thread accumulates. This morning, though, seemed more than usually still—and then it hit me. The phoebes were gone. Those tail-wagging birds who perch on the canoe line or the dead branch, then swoop out in a rush over the water snatching at insects; those feisty April arrivals who build a nest under the eves on the light fixture of the cottage next door, and raise two, sometimes three nestfuls.

They were gone. Nary a one to perch and swoop and wag. I felt like a child whose summer friends—you know, that noisy family with kids your age who come every year—had left, taking with them the golden bubble of summer and signaling with their departure the sure and concrete message that summer is over.

Unwilling to take this in just yet, I strained my eyes and ears for summer sounds. Whew, I could still hear the catbird and was that two cedar waxwings flying by? I hoped they would stick around a bit longer since we’ve had a bumper crop of blueberries. And then I heard the chickadees, goldfinches and cardinals who are year-round residents. But so many had already quietly left. The kingbirds—when had they gone? The scarlet tanager, the orioles—gone. A few weeks back I had a glimpse of warblers—a blackburnian and a black-and-white—and I realize now they were migrating through.

No, they’re not all gone, the summer birds, but they will be, as their time comes. I was fond of those phoebes, dammit; it’s hard to let them go. But there, a plump hummingbird just careened by. Mary Oliver understood.

Of course.

To live in this world

you must be able

to do three things:

to love what is mortal;

to hold it

against your bones knowing

your own life depends on it;

and when the time comes to let it


to let it go.

phoebe fledglings


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Robin and Me

So saddened by Mr. Williams’ death. I met him once–he was as extraordinarily delightful as you would expect him to be.