Sunday, September 23, 2007

A Brief Balance of Light and Dark

Today is the autumnal equinox. The light of daytime and the dark of nighttime are balanced for a brief moment, with the dark poised to take the lead for the next 6 months.

And so the seasons pass.

I can feel the changes in the natural world outside. Although the temperatures are still summer-like, there is a sense of winding down. The daily locust chorus is growing quieter by the day. Trees are starting to lose their leaves, the monarchs are beginning to aim southward in their daily flights, and it's suddenly rare to find a germinating plant. The sunflowers are past their prime; each morning when I walk, I see a few more brown, rayless disks and a few less bright yellow, fresh blooms.

Everytime I go outdoors for the next few months, the increasingly less subtle message will be, "Winter will be here soon." The summer birds will be leaving, and the winter birds will be arriving. Green will be disappearing as the fall colors, and eventually winter brown, predominate. The temperatures will finally break, and cold autumn winds and rain begin.

Despite the foreshadowing of hard times ahead, I've always loved the fall, with its cool, crisp air and bright blue days. It's an invigorating time of year, with rich harvests yet a promise of quiet winter reflection.

I'm beginning to feel a correlation between this season and my time of life. Springtime is behind me. Summer is disappearing too. Now my life is full of rich harvests that are beginning to lead me towards quiet reflection. Family, friends, experiences, interests, memories - a potpourri of patches that I'm feeling the urge to stitch together into a velvety, idiosyncratic crazy quilt I can share with others. Hopefully it will help keep them warm during the cold times that return with seasonal regularity.

I know it will help me find the pattern to my days.

Light and dark, balanced.

And so the cycle of life goes on.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Is Our Democratic Experiment Failing?

I woke up this weekend feeling a need to share a growing concern of mine. Events conspired to keep me from writing the piece when it was dominating my thoughts, but this morning I have the time to try to capture it coherently enough to share it on this blog.

Is our country, our grand democratic experiment, failing? Increasingly, I'm afraid that it is.

At the risk of sounding paranoid, I feel like our country is under attack. Not from the usual bogeymen touted (if I hear Bush make about one more "fear-mongering speech"about terrorists, I'll scream), but from super-rich corporate moguls. Terrorists may kill a few of us, but we are systematically beginning to allow many of us to kill ourselves and each other.

Our country's government is one of the few entities left in this world that has the power and clout to restrain corporate greed and make the large corporations and super-rich individuals police themselves and watch out for the well-being of the average person. As a country, we've put regulations and restrictions in place because we've had to, after corporations or individuals have gotten so greedy that they put their own profit-making above other people's lives and health.

All of that is now in jeopardy. Regulations are under direct frontal attack, and have been for years.

Even more disturbingly to me, our country's government is being systematically weakened by being overburdened by debt, underfunded, and chronically maligned. Many branches of our government are now so poorly staffed and funded that they barely function, yet the mantra is always, "No new taxes," and "Make government smaller." After all of this time in Iraq, our military is almost broken too.

The government is nothing more than the citizenry itself, acting collectively, paying a few individuals to do jobs that need to be done but that don't generate money in and of themselves. WE, as citizens, ARE THE GOVERNMENT. It is acting on OUR behalf. If it is failing, it is because we are letting it fail.

Who will benefit from our government falling apart? Not us "average Joe citizens," for sure. But corporations will. They already are. They are becoming increasingly free to pay slave wages, thoughtlessly pollute, produce defective and deficient products, and make obscene profits. The elite who run the biggest of these corporations are rapidly becoming global citizens who are above any country's laws and who are so rich and powerful that they can literally control what people all over the world hear about and discuss.

What will it take to wake our country's citizens up enough to pay attention and take control of their own government again? It's time to quit listening to 30 second sound bites touting "moral values" and to pay attention to what our leaders are actually doing and who they are actually taking care of.

If we don't actually take the time and energy to act as citizens and hold our leaders accountable for their actions, we will end up losing our democracy. Most of us will become powerless, exploited and underpaid serfs whose labors will benefit the new economic aristocracy.

This is beginning to happen already. The time has come to act, if we want to nip this backslide in the bud. Let's live up to our country's ideals and take back the control of this country, putting it once again into the hands of an active, educated, democratic citizenry.

The World Moves On

I have to laugh. I was born in 1956 and most of the time I trundle along without thinking of my age very much. Like most of us, internally I feel pretty timeless, and if my body occasionally reminds me that I'm actually not...well, I can usually shrug that off pretty easily.

Over the past couple of days, though, I've noticed two news articles that have slapped me upside the head and let me know that the rest of society may not view me as quite as timelessly as I view myself.

The first was an internet piece, the annual Beloit College "Mindset Piece" (, which I saw posted on another blog. For the past several years, this piece has been written to help profs realize what this year's incoming college freshmen have and haven't experienced (based on their age) in their lives. It's always interesting, but for some reason it hit me this year that MY children would find this list interesting and, if they were teaching, might need to refer to it to be able to relate to that age group. After all, this year's incoming freshmen were born in 1989, by which time my kids were already 8 and 10!

The second item bursting my "timeless" bubble was in today's paper. Apparently American Girls is coming out with a new historical era doll this month, Julie, created as a 9 year old girl living in San Francisco during 1974. Ouch. In 1974 I was already 18; I was actually 9 in 1965. Evidently that makes me REALLY historical.

Oh, well, as they say, "It's better than the alternative."

Like so many people, I must say that I actually like being older. I generally feel much more self confident and comfortable with myself than I did when I was younger. Life has only gotten more interesting, too. When I can ignore our cultural bias against midlife and older individuals, I'm happy to be where I am.

So bring on the historical references, World. I wouldn't want to have missed my life's experiences for anything, and I'm proud to have survived this long.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Sunflower Season

It's sunflower season in Kansas.

Driving through the countryside, I see billows of bright yellow suns with chocolate centers nodding at me in the wind.

The golden disks and rich green foliage soften ugly chainlink fences, skirt the bottom of most telephone poles, lace the edges of fields, and drift in fencerows alongside the roads.

In the morning, they're straining eastward, drinking in the rising sun. By mid-day they're looking southward, sunny faces reflecting the noonday sun. In the evening, they're facing westward, bidding farewell as the sun sets.

I love the abundance and the cheerfulness of their extravagant display. I fantasize about gathering big bouquets of them for the kitchen table...but restrain myself when I think of all the bird seed that I'd be cutting out of existence. Then I fantasize again about the flocks of goldfinch that will be clinging to them later this fall, gorging on the nutritious seeds, enriching the roadsides yet again.

They say that Kansas is a drab state. "They" have obviously never been here during sunflower season.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Did I Miss a Timewarp to 1904?

The "humans vs. the rest of life" war had another skirmish in Logan County, Kansas, recently.

Logan County officials apparently used a 1904 state law to justify coming onto a rancher's land, over his protests, and using an extremely toxic gas to poison prairie dogs and all the other animals that live in their burrows. To add insult to injury, the law allows them to make the landowner pay for this assault against him and his property.

This is wrong on so many levels that I don't know where to begin.

Science has learned a little since 1904. We know now that prairie dogs are actually healthy for a prairie, a "keystone species" in fact. Their burrows not only aerate the soil and increase water penetration during rains, they provide habitat for countless other prairie animals whose numbers have declined precipitously since wholesale destruction of prairie dog colonies began. Ironically, some of those burrow co-inhabitants are also the predators that work to keep the prairie dog populations stable and under control.

Since 1904, we've learned that "playing God" and deciding to take out entire sections of the ecosystem often backfires on us and leaves us with a less stable, less productive, poorer piece of land on which to live and try to eke out a living. Ironically, since 1904, we've also become much better at destructively playing God. We can do a lot more damage in a much shorter period of time than we ever imagined back in 1904. Those of us who realize that it's not 1904 anymore are trying to be more careful in utilizing our destructive power.

Slowly we are learning that poisoning other living things poisons us too. If it's a "-cide" (pesticide, herbicide, insecticide, etc.), that means it's a life killer. That's what "-cide" means. Last time I checked, humans were alive...and we generally prefer to stay that way. When we use "-cide"s against other life forms, we are slowly killing ourselves too.

We like to think that we are smarter - and therefore better - than the rest of the animals. And I think that we can be...I just don't think that we act that way very often. We actually only transcend being animals when we use our brains to act smarter than a typical animal would act. If we've learned through scientific research that, longterm, prairie dogs are important to the health of our land and the animal community that lives on it (which we have), then we are acting like animals, not humans, when we ignore what we've learned and poison off prairie dogs for perceived short-term gain.

As humans, we have the capacity to look at longterm consequences and big pictures. To act like humans, we need to take those longterm consequences and big picture realizations into account in our actions. If , on a wholesale scale, we kill off the rest of life that is competing with us for food or water, we have learned that we will, sooner or later, kill off ourselves. A little killing is often necessary and a part of life; wholesale killing is stupid and short-sighted. Balance, as always, is the key.

It's time to realize that if we think of the natural world as the enemy to be vanquished, we will kill ourselves off too. The war isn't "humans vs. the rest of life." The war is "humans vs. human greed."

For our own sake, it's time to learn how to live in balance with the rest of nature.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Trying to Fathom Fate

By the time you get to my age (51), you realize that life is full of fate. Sometimes fate seems good to you, sometimes it seems bad, and most of the time you careen off it or around it, not really knowing whether it's your friend or your enemy until time and events can give you some perspective.

There are lots of sayings about fate and changing your fate. "When life hands you lemons, make lemonade," springs quickly to mind. Some people seems to be "born under a lucky star," while others "have a black cloud hanging over them." "I turned the corner, and there she was." Cliches abound, as they always do about such an important and universal subject.

Overall though, I guess I have to admit that, many times in my life, seemingly negative fateful events turn out to have been extremely positive when viewed in my "20/20 retroscope". I remember, for example, the first apartment Prairiewolf and I tried to rent just before we got married. It was a duplex whose "rent" included helping to care for the owner, an older woman who lived in the other half of the duplex and who, within the hour of receiving it, took my deposit check immediately to my bank to cash it. I was getting my paycheck at work later that same morning and so, at lunch, immediately took my pay over to the bank to cover the deposit check I'd written which time our landlady-to-be had already tried to cash my check and been told there were insufficient funds. I was devastated and embarrassed, and I called the woman up to try to explain the events to her, but she was adamant - we could not have the duplex. It felt like my world had dropped out from under me, as we were having a very hard time finding an affordable and decent place to live. I learned several useful lessons that day, but looking back I'm also very glad we started out our married life without a nosy, unforgiving woman who expected me to cook and clean for her living right next door.

So why am I focused on fate - and early events of PW's and my relationship - this morning? I just got news from our son about fate taking a definitive hand in his life. Like so many fateful events, it looks pretty black from his current perspective and my heart sinks for him, but I'm hoping that it will turn out to be a lemon event from which he can squeeze some form of lemonade. For better or for worse, only time will tell.

Rush Hour in the Country

During the hot weather, I've been trying to do my walking first thing in the morning, after Prairiewolf leaves. Not only does this start my day out productively and keep me from procrastinating exercise out of my daily schedule, it's also generally the coolest part of the day.

Before school started, only a few cars would pass me each morning. Now that the academic year has begun, there's been a marked increase in traffic.

That said, I sure am glad that I live in the country. (Visiting K.C. recently reaffirmed that.) This morning, my "busy rush hour" consisted of a bakers' dozen vehicles - 12 cars/pick-up trucks and 1 true truck - passing me during the course of my 35-40 minute walk. It doesn't seem like very many, but they are still amazingly distracting.

Given that I can hear each vehicle from well over a mile away, one of the main distractions they create is road noise. On the plus side, in between each vehicle's passing I get to listen to the sounds of the wind rustling through the grass and the birds and insects calling from the fields and hedgerows.

As I walked this morning, I wondered if it would be possible to locate the place and season of a recording just based upon the natural sounds of that location. I know that listening to certain songs can temporarily transport me back in time to a different time and place. Could I get good enough at hearing the sounds of nature that listening to a recording of those natural sounds would transport me mentally to where and when that recording was made?

It's funny: country life is considered so "quiet", but it can actually be quite noisy. Think of cicadas singing on a summer afternoon, or coyotes howling at night. There's a great little scene in My Cousin Vinny where city boy Vinny actually can't sleep in a cabin in the woods because of all the strange noises he hears. He doesn't get a good night's sleep until he finds a bed in the local jail, where bells, whistles and the sounds of people surround him all night long.

Out here, the natural noises usually relax me, but even the slightest human noise seems jarring and out of place: the neighbors' talking across the road, the car humming on the pavement a mile or more away, the plane flying overhead, the refrigerator motor kicking on in the kitchen as I write, the whir of the computer fan.

At the same time, through the open window I hear at least 3 different kinds of insects (grasshoppers? crickets? cicadas for sure) singing. If I concentrate on just those songs, my mind quiets and my entire body relaxes. I feel at peace.

I've set myself the task of learning to identify as many of these natural songs as I can. Maybe someday I truly will be able to locate myself solely through natural sounds, and meanwhile I'll enjoy picturing the singer as I listen peacefully to the song.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Waterfire and Reconnections

Prairiewolf and I just got back from a wonderful weekend in Kansas City, reconnecting with old friends and making new ones. It was PW's 25th class reunion and we had a "date" with one particular couple of good friends who live half a continent away. We had a great time with them and, as a bonus, we ended up reconnecting with several other old friends and acquaintances as well. There actually weren't very many of us that showed up altogether, but those of us who did seemed to have a great time.

My biggest regret, besides the fact that I don't look like I did 25 years ago, was that I didn't get to know some of these folks better back then.

The reunion, however, is only the backdrop for the main subject of this post.

Serendipitously, while we were there, Kansas City staged a new event called Waterfire. This was held Saturday night on Brush Creek as it winds through the Country Club Plaza.

Picture this:

Floating bonfires swaying down the center of the creek, stationed every 50 feet or so, their vivid orange flames reflecting boldly off the smooth dark water just below them. They form a brilliant living chain that twists down the backbone of the creek.

Smoke drifting through the air, cool breezes intermixing with sudden blasts of heat from the nearby fires.

Music filling the night, broadcast from large, well-placed (but unobtrusive) speakers. Classical arias are followed by African chants or celtic melodies, followed by chamber music or jazz. Every so often the recorded music is replaced by a spotlight shining on a classical singer, who sings from his or her heart, poised on the edge of one of the bridges traversing the creek.

The crowd meandering up and down the creek, some staying above on the roads and bridges, others venturing to walk along the creek, with still others resting on the steep, grassy slopes. Occasionally a member of the Vesuvius fire troupe performs amid the people, juggling blazing batons or breathing fire high into the air.

Sounds of laughter and talking interspersing with applause and sometimes just with awed pockets of silence.

It was a mystical evening, capping off a magical weekend.

A friendly stranger, leaning beside me on a bridge railing, avidly watching the fires and the crowd too, mentioned that they were repeating the event on October 13. I haven't verified that fact but if they do, I'd prescribe attendance for anyone who could use an evening's antidote to the humdrum ordinariness of everyday life.