Category Archives: Everyday Wonders

Last Day of Summer, Southern California

 

It’s been a summer with periods of brutal heat,
Mostly, it’s been brutally dry.
Futurists bandy about terms like “aridification,”
Though sudden downpours have carved
More gashes into wounded hillside landscapes.

This morning I awoke at first light to a thin film 
Of condensation on our bedroom’s window glass.
After a clear, cool sunrise, a gentle ocean-scented breeze.
I meandered uphill to our local community garden,
Where I spent a calming hour trimming back succulents.

Temporarily insulated from political punditry, 
I relished the quiet, the hummingbirds and
Butterflies and late-season blooms.
On a day like today, it does not seem entirely
Unrealistic to hope for more moderate media.

It does not seem unrealistic to hope and pray for drizzles 
Of autumn rain, nourishing the liquidambar trees
Whose colors have again come early and muted.
It is enough to concentrate on soil and a pleasant sun,
To consider instances of compassion here and there.

Of course there are wars and famines, 
A pandemic that wanes but is not entirely gone.
Of course there are hurricanes, floods, wildfires,
Erratic weather, ruined crops, but today,
The prospect of a peaceful harvest peeps through.

Punctuated Devolution

(Purloined and/or penned in memory of my doggerel-writing mother;
posted on what would have been her 105th birthday, August 22, 2022.)

Long ago, when I was a child
My parents said to memorize
A set of poems, some tame, some wild,
About the way time often flies.

I’ve never mastered, ’til today
The longest verse that they suggested–
About the “deacon’s one-hoss shay,”
In days when roads were less congested.

Per Wendell Holmes, the deacon tried
To craft a carriage with strengths so even
It never would just lose a side,
For years could remain fit for driving.

The shay survived through heat and storm,
Through varied owners, steeds, it roamed,
Providing rides in stellar form
‘Til at the last, per Mr. Holmes:

“There are traces of age in the one-hoss-shay, 

A general flavor of mild decay,

But nothing local, as one may say.

There couldn’t be,—for the Deacon’s art

Had made it so like in every part

That there wasn’t a chance for one to start.

For the wheels were just as strong as the thills—

And the floor was just as strong as the sills,

And the panels just as strong as the floor,

And the whippletree neither less nor more.

And the back-crossbar as strong as the fore,

And spring and axle and hub encore.

And yet, as a whole, it is past a doubt

In another hour it will be worn out!

. . . . . 

You see, of course, if you’re not a dunce,

How it went to pieces all at once,—

All at once, and nothing first,—

Just as bubbles do when they burst.

End of the wonderful one-hoss shay.  

Logic is logic. That’s all I say.” 

Some days my bones ache,
Other days they feel brittle.
Some days my head hurts,
Other days it’s my middle.

Some days I feel fine,
Other days I wither,
Some days I’ve a clear mind,
Other days I dither.

May specific ailments give punctuation
To my inevitable disintegration.
As age advances, I hope and pray
I won’t go like the one-hoss-shay.

I’m not sure which of my parts will break
I hope some may be left to harvest.
May no internist unbeckoned make
Repairs to keep me from my last rest.

 

Snail Season

Succulent-eating snails

This is the land of sun and surf,
A golden destination for outdoor buffs.
Having by now spent a first cycle of seasons
In southern California, I can attest to
The draw of the beach and the waves,
To the lure of canyons and hillsides.

What I hadn’t expected as much
Was a sort of lull between the cooler
Months and the dry warmth of high summer.
“Gray May and June gloom,” the locals intone.

Some mornings, there is fog, or low cloud.
It can take several hours before the sun peeks through.
Under the overcast, I cast my lot walking along
Nearby pathways and streets.

Across the sidewalks are narrow slicks of
Snail trails, sometimes even the snails themselves.
Gardeners tell me the shelled creatures are pests.
I haven’t noticed them eating my plants, not yet.
Still, their morning presence has become for
Me another marker of southern California life:

Snail season. 

Learned Helpfulness

Most of our recent news is bad: warfare in Ukraine, mass shootings in the U.S., wildfires, floods, tornados, hurricanes, the list seems endless. It helps me to remember that most news has always been bad. We tend to take for granted the generosity, kindness, humor, and loving that people bestow on each other much of the time. Pleasant weather is considered unremarkable. We rarely get headlines or breaking news about the nice people or the nice weather. It’s the bad examples, the exceptions, that get the bulk of the publicity. Through our increasingly interconnected global communications, we can more readily and extensively broadcast the negative aspects of reality. They are not the whole picture.  

Last week, after an overload of news about wars and mass shootings and refugees and climate crises and teen anxiety and so on, I was tempted to lapse into “learned helplessness, ” a psychological condition often linked with depression. Problems can seem just too overwhelming to deal with. 

Instead, I made a conscious attempt to find some good news. I started with a basic internet search on altruism, broadly defined as actions taken on behalf of others that provide little or no benefit to the altruist. I sat down with my husband to watch a “Kindness 101” segment created by CBS reporter Steve Hartman in 2020, early in the covid pandemic, when he and his children were stuck at home due to school closures and lockdowns. I marveled at the story of Eugene Youn, a 28-year-old adventurer who quit his job and embarked on a long-distance hike to fundraise the $80,000 needed for a set of prosthetic devices to help paraplegic Arthur Renawinsky, a man Youn had yet to meet, walk again.

Later, I honed in on experiments done with very young children to try to find out how altruism develops. Research at the University of Washington showed that toddlers as young as about a year and a half will help an experimenter they believe needs their assistance (https://www.washington.edu/news/2020/02/04/altruistic-babies-study-shows-infants-are-willing-to-give-up-food-help-others/). 

Much earlier in my own life, a son who was then studying psychology in college urged me to check out the relatively new field of “positive psychology,” focussing on what’s right with us, rather than just diagnosing and treating what’s wrong. At son Scott’s suggestion, I read a pioneering volume, Learned Optimism, by Martin Seligman. Later I studied some of the work of the Hungarian-American psychologist with the difficult name, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. I read one of his seminal works, Flow. One of my go-to internet sites, TED, has a subset of 15 positive psychology talks featuring experts in the field: https://positivepsychology.com/positive-psychology-ted-talks/. I recommend them.  

Even earlier in my life, one summer at a family church camp I enrolled Scott as my assistant in the infant nursery. As the “baby of the family,” our younger son had rarely gotten to care for children even younger than he was. His chance at about age 3 to be a “caring older brother” for a week was one of the highlights of his camp that year. It gave him a sense of power to be able to help care for the infants in the nursery. He was very caring, very careful.  

It’s important to me that the war in Ukraine end soon, with as little additional carnage and displacement as possible. It’s important to me that those whose lives and livelihoods were ruined by the war receive humanitarian assistance. It’s important to me that those responsible for conducting the war be held accountable. It’s important to me that we Americans find ways to reduce our epidemic of gun violence. It’s important to me that we take more individual and coilective actions to reduce the future impacts of ongoing climate change and resulting catastrophic weather events. However, if I attempt to “fix” any of these issues by myself, I’m likely to get discouraged. All are big problems. 

Instead of the “learned helplessness” of throwing up my hands or getting angry at slow-to-move officialdom or deciding that all these are somebody else’s problems, I can practice learned helpfulness. I can pick and choose where my individual skills and actions would most likely make a positive difference and then use my skills, do the actions. 

Like my three-year-old nursery assistant, I can engage in the “learned helpfulness” of altruism. I can make small but positive differences in the lives of those I interact with. I can continue to learn from my mistakes and improve. Learned helpfulness will glean better results than its opposite, I’m sure of it. 

La Pluie des Champignons?

Mushrooms after fall rain

more post-rain mushrooms

I’m pretty sure the earth’s climate is changing, and that human activity is a major cause. I’m not sure of everything I can or should be doing to reduce my personal impact, and/or to pressure relevant public and private officials to reduce our collective human impact. My direct observations of climate include having lived in many different parts of the globe.  

The weather and climate of southern California, where I recently moved, are still pretty much a mystery to me. Longer-term locals have told me, “it never rains between May and November.” Since I moved here in May 2021, we’ve had thunderstorms in July and two substantial rainfalls in October. It IS a lot drier than where I previously lived on the U.S. East Coast, but not as dry as the year I lived in far northwestern China. 

That year, there was a total of less than an inch of precipitation, including a smallish dusting of snow in late November that lingered well into February. I was teaching oral English to students at a “desert reclamation university.” In early spring, a team of agricultural experts from  the Texas A&M system in the U.S. came for a week to both teach and observe. At one of their feature presentations, held in lieu of regular classes, I sat at the back of the auditorium to watch. A professor of soil science was giving an illustrated talk about the use of native grasses in his part of Texas to reduce erosion during “extreme rain events.” I could tell that some of the students I taught were having difficulty with the English. Mostly they were having difficulty with the concept of extreme rain events. Finally, one student gathered his courage and raised his hand. The professor called on him. I don’t remember the student’s exact English, which was probably somewhat basic, but he got the point across: 

“Your slides and information are quite impressive,” the student began. “But they do not fit our situation here very well,” he continued. “You see, we do not have extreme rain events in this part of Xinjiang.” 

Perhaps the climate where I lived previously that most closely matched what I’ve experienced here so far was in a small city on the shores of Lake Tanganyika in east central Africa. The climate there was tropical, but with a “long dry season” that typically extended from early May until late September or October. By the time the “short rainy season” was about to begin, the ground had gotten parched. In some years, before the full set of rains began, there were a couple of intervals when we had brief showers—enough to get wet under the trees, but not enough to run off. Locals called these showers “la pluie des vaches” (“cow rains”). Historically, the majority of the population had been pastoralists. These early rains were just enough to begin greening up the pastures. The cattle would finally get some fresh grass, rather than the dry rations they’d been on before any rains. 

Our first October rain was sort of like a cow rain, though there are not any cows anywhere near the suburban enclave where I live. The following morning, I noticed land snails on the wettish sidewalks—a “pluie des escargots”? After a few hours, the sidewalks dried and the snails disappeared. A few days later, the nearby canyons did sport a stubble of greenery, maybe enough for a snack for the area’s wild deer.  

The second rain was more extensive, creating small gullies on some of the canyon trails, soaking into grassy street verges in ways that our paltry irrigation systems do not match.  This time, the deer-food stubble was somewhat more extensive, plus some of the street edges began showing a good growth of mushrooms, which lingered. I’ve christened this year’s second storm a mushroom rain, a southern California “pluie des champignons.” 

The Person in the Next Chair

Yesterday I decided it had been too long since my previous pedicure. My skills at trimming and polishing my toenails, never very good to begin with, have deteriorated as I age. The corns and bunions on my feet have gotten worse; some of my nails are often slightly ingrown. My feet really needed a good soak and trim. I decided to try a new-to-me nail salon, near the grocery store where I do most of my food shopping. 

On this late Friday morning, the place was not very busy. One of the pedicurists quickly got me into a chair and started the back massage with a few clicks of buttons that usually befuddle me. She had me sit comfortably side saddle at first, before testing the temperature in the basin of water with my toes—nicely warm, not too hot. She then started in, first on the more-distorted toes, working gently but firmly, readying me for the eventual application of the bright orange polish I’d picked out as this season’s color. I’m not good at small talk, so I mostly sat quiet. 

I heard the person in the next chair before I took a good look—a booming somewhat older-sounding voice, joking and flirting with the pedicurist who was working on his toes. His toes. In my prior experience, guys in nail salons are rare. Even rarer are guys with booming bass voices. And black guys with booming bass voices? No way. 

Because I never engaged him directly, I’ll never be sure whether his near-continual line of patter was partly from nervousness.  It seemed to me that he was a repeat customer—he knew the entire staff and, if I understood correctly, had a standing appointment about once every two weeks. 

When I briefly glanced his direction, I noticed that his ankles seemed a little swollen and discolored. I wondered whether he had circulatory problems, perhaps partly related to a diabetic condition? Whatever, he was enjoying his pedicure, and the pedicurist seemed to be enjoying his line of patter. Once his nails were trimmed and cleaned, I thought he’d be ready to leave. Instead, he asked that they be polished with bright pink polish. This seemed to be a first for him. 

“My daughter will fall out when she sees,” he chuckled. “She just started a new job, with the sheriff’s department. I’ll send her a picture on my phone, and she’ll probably respond right away, especially if she’s on her lunch hour.” 

“You’ll need to sit here for about 10 minutes to let the polish dry,” the nail tech told him. 

By that time, I’d finished. The jack-o-lantern colored polish on my toes was dry.

It wasn’t until I was leaving that I ventured another glance at the guy in the next chair, who could well have been a football linebacker in a prior career. 

Into the polish on each big toe, the guy had gotten the pedicurist to inscribe a small loop in a different shade of pink. Suddenly I remembered it was October 1, the beginning of breast cancer awareness month.Because I didn’t engage him directly, I can’t be sure, but my guess is that his daughter is a breast cancer survivor. If so, I hope she can feel the love emanating from her daddy’s bright pink toenails. 

Dragonfruit


A welcoming presence in this new locale—
A community garden an easy walk away.
Most mornings, a garden elder greets me,
Shares stories of other gardeners and of
The plants growing under her watchful eye.

Along a trellis just outside the garden
Gate sprawls a droopy set of greenery—
Half cactus, half vine, it shades the
Garden’s tool shed behind it.

droopy cactus?



“What’s that?” I ask the first time
I see this mystery plant, splaying pale
Cream-colored blossoms along
Its width. “A dragonfruit,”
Explains the elder. “It’s not officially
Part of the garden, but one of
Our gardeners asked to put it there.”

Most of the time, the blossoms are
Already spent by morning. The plant,
I learn online, usually blooms at night.
Bats and nocturnal insects pollinate it.

On subsequent visits, I find that spent
Blooms have fallen off, replaced by growing
Orbs, at first pale green, then pinkish,
Then red. As they get bigger, they
Sprout what look a bit like scales—
Hence the popular name.

My most recent trip reveals a new sign—
“Large fruit, $3; small $1; proceeds to
Help buy supplies for next spring’s planting.”
I remember having eaten some once in a fruit salad:
White inside, with black seeds and a mild flavor.

I think I’ll buy some and try to find creative
Uses for them. If nothing else, they can remind
Me, in this pivotal time, when so many
Preconceptions have been turned
Inside out, to nudge my inner dragons
Away from seedy black and white,
Toward a more scaled and colorful reality.

halved dragon fruit

pink-red dragon fruit

A Time to Gather Stones Together?

rocks for drainage control

rocks and shrubs for landscaping

rocks, gravel, mementos and cacti

Earlier this year, I moved from an area that gets about a meter of rain per year to a locale that rarely gets as much as a quarter of that. Per local weather data, this past year has been drier still, with only about 13 centimeters of rain during the most recent dozen months. Water rationing has not yet been fully imposed, but residents are required by local ordnance to limit any landscape watering to the periods of early morning, late evening, or nighttime. More and more areas that previously tried to be “lawns” have been converted to less water-thirsty designs. 

Because of pandemic restrictions, some of the in-person resources that had been available for teaching “water wisdom” have been curtailed. Still, there are online resources, such as https://www.watersmartsd.org/residential/landscape-resources/, and some visiting allowed at an area “water conservation garden (https://thegarden.org).”

While on neighborhood walks, I’ve also been surveying our vicinity for inspiration before making any further changes to our small yard. It’s pretty amazing what can be accomplished using varieties of mulch, stone, and other pavers, sometimes with a dollop of desert plants, sometimes using a broader set of shrubs and grasses. My guess is that “xeriscaping,” also know as “drought-tolerant landscaping” is also more erosion-resistant if and when the rains do come. A time for this newly minted southern Californian to gather more stones together?

Our Avocado Kitchen

 

The house where we mostly raised our children was an older two-story dwelling that had likely had several owners before us. We’d bought it pre-children, thrilled by its roominess and by its relatively low price. Its exterior stucco was a light green, with darker green trim on its porches and windows. The colors fit well with the shade trees lining our narrow, one-way street. What was less thrilling was the color of its interior paint. Nearly every room was a dull, sickly looking green. Perhaps that shade of paint had been on sale when the prior owners were preparing the house to sell, or maybe they had some leftover mixture after the exterior was painted? We never got to ask. 

We quickly set about redecorating to colors we found more pleasing. By the time our older child was born, we’d stripped both the paint and the wallpaper under it from most rooms in the house. The dining room became a shade of light blue, the living room even paler. A couple of the bedrooms got “photo walls” of spectacular scenery. The nursery had kid-themed wallpaper. I sewed curtains. 

The room we left most nearly “as is” was the kitchen, where counters, sink, moldings, and a walk-in pantry broke the lines of the drab green. Our refrigerator, though, was the “avocado green”  shade popular during the 1970’s and 80’s. I don’t remember whether the fridge had come with the house, or if we purchased it at an appliance store. Over time, it developed a slight list, so that to close its door securely you had to kick the bottom. (A habit we had to break when we eventually moved to a different house and bought a non-tilting fridge.)  

The children have long since grown and set up housekeeping on their own. Their decorating tastes differ from ours, but to my knowledge, neither has ever painted a room avocado green. In retirement, we live in a townhouse with muted colors inside and out. An older friend who’s lived in this area most of his life characterizes our suburban milieu as “beigeville.” 

Then, a few years ago, we succumbed to the dietary craze for avocados—on salads, on toast, as garnishes. The pits were nearly indestructible, as I found after they’d aged for months in our backyard compost bins. Curious for alternatives, I checked online for how to sprout an avocado pit. After several tries, I got one to put down a smallish root, then planted it in a ceramic pot, where it spent warm weather on our back deck, getting lots of sun, and enough water to keep it happy. We’d bring it indoors in cold weather, since our winter climate so far freezes too hard and too often for avocados. It was happiest in our south-facing kitchen window. By its third autumn, the avocado looked more like a small tree. It had grown so tall that we trimmed its main stem before bringing it indoors. We added a stake to its now-larger pot to encourage it to grow straight. Like the fridge we used to have, though, it too has developed a slight list. 

This winter, our avocado tree has sprouted lots of auxiliary branches, with a spread that is encroaching ever more severely into our person-and-a-half kitchen. We’re not sure how much longer we can keep it. Do any of you in central North Carolina hanker for your very own kitchen avocado, with the transport to move it and enough indoor space to keep it happy for cold seasons to come?

avocado reaching for the sun

Our crowded kitchen

Wear a Mask (to the tune of “Silver Bells”)

(can be sung to the tune of “Silver Bells,” perhaps a fitting tribute, or lament, for the year 2020) 

(Chorus 1): Wear a mask! Why, you ask?
It’s COVID time in our country.
Cases spike,
And though we’d like,
We can’t wish this virus away.

City sidewalks, parks and greenways
Offer welcome respite.
In the air there’s a chill now it’s winter.
Shuttered venues, take-out menus,
At the food banks long lines,
And until vaccinations are here…

(Repeat Chorus 1)

Pharma’s Pfizer and Moderna
Make vaccines at warp speed.
Health care workers get first dibs on doses.
Testing sites fill, more relief bills,
As the POTUS still fumes,
And in virtual choirs you’ll hear:

(Repeat Chorus 1)

(Chorus 2): Wear a mask! Must we ask?
It’s COVID time in our country.
Spring will come,
Outdoor fun–
Soon will be vaccination day!