In Praise of (not so) Small Things

This morning I was putting away the jam after breakfast and, as I grabbed the refrigerator door handle, I hesitated as I felt a tiny frisson of fear. That hesitation represented the surprisingly thorough adjustments in behavior I had made while our power was out for two days.

In the week between Christmas and the New Year, a winter storm, named Goliath by the Weather Channel, marched slowly across the continent. From blizzards in New Mexico and deadly tornadoes in Texas to icy conditions in the Great Lakes, the storm did a fearful amount of damage and killed more than 50 people. Rivers in Oklahoma and Missouri have flooded and continue to rise. Levees and flood gates along the mighty Mississippi are still straining to hold back flood water. Here in Illinois, winter storm Goliath dumped several inches of rain, iced up trees and power lines, and then, with high winds, blew those trees and power lines to the ground. In our part of the state, tens of thousands of people were without power for anywhere from mere hours to days.

Our power was out for nearly two days. I grew up in Oklahoma and I’ve lived in Illinois for decades, so being without power following storms is far from a new experience. But these two days were different. Perhaps my age is making me feel more vulnerable, or perhaps it is the unusual time of year for such weather that is so unsettling. I’ve never been so long without power in such cold weather—which was actually warmer than December in Illinois usually is. By Thursday morning around 3:30 when the power finally came on, the temperature in the house had fallen twenty degrees. Every surface in the house felt icy cold.

The refrigerator, which we did not open for two days, had gradually warmed inside, reaching a point where the insulation in its walls was probably keeping warm air in and cold air out.

Our old bones had had enough by bedtime on the second day, and we realized, as we piled coats on top of blankets when we got into bed, that we were going to have to look for a hotel to stay in if the power wasn’t restored by bedtime on the third day. Around 4:00 a.m. I woke up feeling too warm. I didn’t recognize the feeling at first. It’s strange how quickly one can accept a new “normal” and doubt the reality of the old normal.

I have often tried to put things into perspective by saying that something is relative. Certainly, what we were experiencing was mere inconvenience compared with what others have suffered in weather crises. But the intensity—and boredom—of those two cold, dark days made me think. After all, the comparison of what is relative is created by the world within the mind.

I am well aware that we live in a world structured by thought and unconscious assumptions. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead called this the “educated imagination,” although a more appropriate term might be “trained imagination.” We are trained by parents and others to see the world as they see it, to value what they value, to understand things as they have understood them before us. As we get older, our own experience may alter this to some degree, and, if we’re lucky, our education may offer alternatives that give us choices in how we understand the world.

For example, while the power was out, we chose to see some things as victories. The heavy rain let up by the end of the first day, so my poor husband’s effort to bail water from the rapidly refilling sump well in our basement gradually eased. By the middle of the second day, he could leave the basement for 2 or 3 hours at a time without worrying that the sump well would overflow and flood everything we had stored there. On that first day, when I went out searching for a place to recharge my cell phone, I discovered that, fortunately, the nearby shopping center had power. So, I plugged in my phone and ordered carry-out at Panda Express. It seems small now, but my appreciation at the time was profound. Small victories.

The worst frustration of the whole experience was the power company’s web site, which was supposed to keep us informed about the outage and give us an estimate of when it would be repaired. The idea was that we could enter our address so the web page’s database tool could tell us when the repair crew expected to have our house back online.

First, the web tool told us the repair would happen early in the afternoon of the first day, then later in the afternoon, and then later in the evening. When that deadline also passed, the site merely reported the estimated time of restored service was “not available.” We went through the same hope-building and frustration with the web site on the second day. By that evening, we were thoroughly discouraged.

The web site was intended by the company to keep us informed and give us reassurance, but instead it repeatedly offered false hope—and ultimately a sort of hopelessness. If they had told us it would be two days, we would have complained but prepared ourselves for that length of time, which would have been far better than having hope frustrated over and over again.

Pleasure, difficulty, gratitude, and frustration are all relative. Hot food from Panda Express looked mighty good relative to the cold electric stove and unopen-able refrigerator in our own kitchen four days ago. Today I am grateful for light and warmth, but in a few weeks—or probably a few days—I’ll forget the relative pleasure of something as simple as pulling open the refrigerator door with confidence.

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Like Any Other Day

                            The brain is wider than the sky.
                            For, put them side by side,
                            The one the other will include
                            With ease, and you beside.  —-Emily Dickinson

What is it about the holiday season that stirs up the mind? Memories are at the base of it, of course, that and the way memories are made. Like many people, my memories come to me in short or long flashes linked to emotional experience. Emotions intensify experience to imprint it on the brain. In our culture, the holiday season in particular generates emotion for children, and those memories return to us over and over, no matter whether the emotions were joy or disappointment. We’re likely to run through many of them again every year. Of course, as we get older those memories spin off thoughts and ideas inspired by the context of this moment in our lives.

Last week I was in Michael’s, a craft supply store, picking up yarn for a crochet project. As I was leaving, the glass doors slid open and the light inside struck the threshold and sidewalk outside just right, so that I saw a faint trail of multicolored glitter leading toward the parking lot. It made me think of a messy Christmas candlestick craft project we did in Girl Scouts when I was nine. I remember the project involved whipping warm wax and glitter to a froth and using it to frost candles.

Whatever sophisticated people might say about glitter, I had to smile at the sparkly trail, thinking about the hopeful craft projects, decorations, and gift wrappings that had crossed that threshold on the way to making someone happy. Of course, the someone made happy might only be the crafter or giver and not the recipient, but I like to believe the glittery something, whatever it was, made both the giver and receiver happy.

Inevitably, especially as I get older, happy thoughts like that are challenged by less happy thoughts during the holiday season. Perhaps that is simply because the longer one lives, the greater the number of both warm and cold memories and the closer we come to mortality.

During the eighteen months between when my grandfather died and when my grandmother followed him, she was often depressed. Prior to one of the Christmases in that period of time, my mother asked her what she wanted to do at Christmas. My grandmother replied with a shrug and said, “It doesn’t matter. It’s just a day like any other day.”
Technically, she is right of course. No one can actually say with certainty what day—or even what year—Jesus was born. Many people who, nevertheless, believe in Jesus’ message doubt that he was an actual person. So, my grandmother was right: December 25 is just a day like any day. But the ancient church leaders settled on that day, and they made it into the celebration that can move us so deeply today. Let me correct that. They initiated the celebration of Christmas, but we re-make it every year.

Sometimes how people make Christmas is appalling. Pushing, shoving, and fistfights at “Black Friday” sales (which now begin on Thanksgiving Thursday) to me represent the worst of what people make of Christmas. However, I did see one woman interviewed on the nightly news who said she found the exciting chaos and competitiveness of Black Friday to be necessary for her to “feel like it’s Christmas.” To each her own, I suppose.

Even if they don’t participate in the sales melee, parents must put real effort into making Christmas for their children. They buy gifts, yes, but they also wrap them, decorate the house, bake cookies, watch “A Charlie Brown Christmas” yet again, and attend Christmas plays and pageants at their churches to see their children participate in ritual and the many stories we have created to convey the meaning we find in this time of year. When their children are grown and the nest is empty, parents may lament that Christmas isn’t the same. They made Christmas for their children, but the children’s anticipation, excitement, and, one hopes, spiritual discovery (as well as their being delighted by gifts from Santa and Mom and Dad) made Christmas for the parents.

We string Christmas lights, decorate with tinsel and shiny ornaments, and light candles at this season to make the darkest time of year bright and hopeful, to sustain ourselves symbolically through the rest of the cold winter in anticipation of renewal, whether seasonal or spiritual. We make Christmas.

Although my grandmother found no meaning in that one lonely Christmas, she lived a long life in which she and my grandfather made many happy Christmases for themselves and others.

So, I hope you’re progressing through this holiday season leaving a trail of glitter. And I hope that someone you love gives you a strange candlestick made with Styrofoam, whipped wax, and glitter—or the symbolic equivalent in your own life. Whoever you are, wherever you are, whatever your faith or lack of it, I wish you joy.

Getting Back Up on the Hobby Horse

When I was about 5-years-old, my typical fashion statement consisted of scuffed tie-shoes, droopy anklets, skinned knees, a dress of the sort typically worn by little girls in the 1950s, a holster holding a cap gun, and a painted straw cowboy hat (red, with a chin string).  Not having access to a real horse, my steeds were either a stick horse for outdoors or a rocking horse in my bedroom.  The only cowgirl role model I had at the time was Dale Evans on the Roy Rogers Show.  She hardly ever had any fun, and I’m pretty sure I never saw her handle a pistol, much less carry one in a holster.  She rarely even got to ride a horse.  It was tough being an adventurous little girl in those days.

Those memories came to mind as I was looking online to see if I really understood the term to “ride a hobby horse” before I used it in a post.  I know how I’ve always used the term, but I wasn’t sure the rest of the English-speaking world used it the same way.  Definitions I found ranged from etymological references to an extinct Irish horse breed and tourney-horse costumes worn by English morris dancers, to the “particular obsessions” of Laurence Stern’s character Tristram Shandy, and, inevitably, to use of the phrase as a euphemism for sexual intercourse.  Of course, almost any word or phrase in human language can be or has been used as a euphemism for sex.  Sometimes I wonder if human beings developed language specifically to give themselves euphemisms for sex.  The definition that came up most often was that riding a hobby horse referred to pursuing a favorite activity or pastime: thus the word “hobby” as we hear it most often.  The implication is that a hobby, like a hobby horse, doesn’t get you anywhere.

The way I’ve used the term is to refer to my own particular obsessions (other than my hobbies) that don’t get me anywhere.  For contrast, one of my hobbies is crochet, which sometimes does produce a colorful afghan or throw, even though the results tend to go a bit off.  For the most part, the hobby horses I’m referring to are my opinions about politics and social issues.  Metaphorically, I have an attic full of well worn old hobby horses that never get me anywhere.

If you read my last post (thank you!), you saw a couple of paragraphs listing many of my hobby horses.  A few years ago, someone I know suggested I start a blog as an outlet, “because you’re certainly opinionated.”  Fortunately at the time, I fought down the impulse to protest, “I am not!”

So, I may sometimes warn you that I’m about to climb onto one of those hobby horses.  If my hobby horse riding annoys or bores you, then please feel free to go bacRide em cowgirl (3)k to researching the scholarly article you’re writing, checking Facebook, or googling old classmates to see how much less successful they are compared to you.

And, as you may have figured out from my opening paragraph, I may just get up on my feminist hobby horse once in awhile.  Sometimes my cap-gun trigger finger gets itchy.

[This post was originally published on my new blog, “Ten Minutes With a Friend.”  More of my future posts will appear only there.  I’m saving Wandering Hare for when I feel a serious rant coming on.]

Roaring for Our Humanity

Cecil
Cecil the Lion. Photo source credithttp://leftfootforward.org/images/2015/07/Cecil-the-Lion-BBC-800×450.jpg

The lion—alive—was magnificent. When I saw photographs and film clips of Cecil, the lion killed recently by an American trophy hunter, I was struck by the animal’s beauty and power. If I were the sort to look at the world as a matter of dominance and hierarchies, I could see why the man who killed Cecil wanted to do so. Taking the head of this glorious animal to stuff and hang on the wall is an assertion of power and dominance unlike any other. It is primal—and pointless.

Luring a lion out of an animal refuge to be killed in an arranged “hunt,” is the epitome of cowardice and weakness, no matter how “legal” it may be. It is offensive to our humanity and an offense, I believe, to the Divine. What we feel about the death of that beautiful African lion is unambiguous. In the Natural context, Cecil was an innocent, living his life according to the rules of his world. The human hunter unnecessarily intruded into and disrupted that world. That isn’t dominance, it’s violation.

The response on the Internet has been dramatic. Since the report of the killing, we have seen an amazing out-pouring of grief, from anger by vigilante-wannabes to a flood of charming photos of cats and kittens anthropomorphically asserting, “I roar for Cecil!”

All of this attention, unsurprisingly, has been followed with complaints from people who are outraged that so many “roar” for Cecil while appearing to ignore the horrifying police violence against African-Americans in the U.S. or the shameful neglect of U.S. veterans, too many of whom end their own lives. Indeed, we should feel outrage about deadly racism, ideologically driven violence of all kinds, and shameful neglect of our responsibilities to veterans. Humanity has no shortage of hideous behaviors that should be stopped. Now.

The fact is, we live in a new era of brutality. Perhaps I’m being unfair to call our actions brutality, since the word implies animals (brutes) are more savage than humans. We know this isn’t true, even though a definition of the word “brutal” is “inhuman.” Usually, we apply the word brutish to an insensitive or crude person, someone irrational, someone showing a lack of intelligence. We humans do consider ourselves intelligent. But, clearly, we merely have the capacity for intelligence, with less and less encouragement to use it. It is as though the characteristics we once assumed were human and those we assumed were animal have been reversed. This is not the trajectory or destiny humanity once believed it had.

Although some people tell us overt violence has decreased statistically, socially tolerated brutality has increased to the point that we must force ourselves to be aware of it. It’s “just business.” If we look, we can see it all around us. News outlets batter us with sensationalized stories that are more about attracting “market share” than about relaying important information. Vicious cyber-bullying is responsible for increasing anguish and child and teen suicides. Employers no longer have a sense of responsibility to the people they employ or to the country whose opportunities have made them rich.  Anti-intellectualism and financial self-interest have led to climate change denial and the gradual destruction of a liveable environment. The social safety net is being ripped to shreds by privatizing and a relentless demand for tax cuts and smaller government. Teachers are being humiliated by union-busting governors, and public education is being sold out to profiteers. Students trying to better themselves are crushed by debt. Higher education is being sold to donors and ideologues, who want to bend the truth to suit their own interests. More and more children are being cast into poverty with little hope of escape.  Soon-to-be senior citizens are being told they should work more years and receive less support from the Social Security insurance and Medicare they’ve paid into all their working lives.

Our politics and social allegiances are so polarized that even the way we talk to each other is brutish. And how often do we tacitly approve of ruthless business practices, admiring whatever rapaciousness it takes to get ahead, to win, or, better, to get rich? In our elections, we reward vicious personal attacks and slimy, misleading commercials by not taking our disgust with us into the voting booth. We brutalize each other and ourselves by not being serious about the responsibilities of citizenship and community.

This is why I hope more and more people are moved to roar for Cecil. When we deplore this killing, we confirm that we still know right from wrong. If the death of this beautiful lion breaks our hearts, then we know we still have hearts that can feel pain for other beings and righteous anger on their behalf.

If I could speak to those who are trying to shame the people that seem to feel more compassion for a lion than for fellow human beings, I would tell them we can’t allow compassion to be degraded into a contest, like the contrived, winner-take-all conflicts of “reality” tv . We don’t have to be that way.

To fulfill the potential of our humanity, shouldn’t we stop dividing up everything to create winners and losers? What if we let our grief for Cecil awaken us and inspire empathy for all God’s creatures? Our culture as a whole has been so dehumanized that it teaches us the only option in life is to establish superiority, to dominate, not just our enemies, but anyone or anything we can subjugate or force into inferiority. Grieving, even for a single murdered lion, is a tiny crack in the concrete built up and hardened around our hearts. Compassion is like love—or it is love—which increases as it is given.

I believe we should encourage people to roar for Cecil. We should all roar our hearts out for Cecil! And, at last, we can begin to return to feeling compassion for each other, as well as righting so, so many wrongs. This is within our power as human beings.

Roar for Cecil!

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I am publishing this post on both Wandering Hare (where I’m inclined to climb on a soap box) and on my new, more casual blog Ten Minutes With a Friend.

Nature’s Logic and God’s Dilemma

Wildfires encroach on Mannford, OK water towers.

Wildfires encroach on Mannford, OK water towers.

Sometimes I think it’s a pity the ancient Greeks weren’t right about the potential selectivity of god’s wrath.  A thunderbolt would be a useful item.

Judeo-Christian concepts of god allow for much too much collateral damage.  Think of the results of Eve’s transgression and what God did to test Job.  Both resulted in a whole lot of collateral damage.

If I could throw thunderbolts like Zeus, I know where I’d aim a couple of them.

I would smite the two Senators from Oklahoma, James Inhofe and Tom Coburn.  Coburn isn’t nearly the offender that Inhofe is.  But he does sing back-up to Inhofe’s climate-denial operatics.  He has also done petty things, like threatening to block bills honoring the 100th birthday of Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring.  Coburn said Carson’s work was “junk science” and complained that her very popular book “was the catalyst in the deadly worldwide stigmatization against insecticides, especially DDT.”

In case you are too young to remember, DDT, a chemical derived from petroleum, has been virtually banned worldwide.  Recent research has associated DDT with a wide range of negative effects on human health, from being implicated in type-2 diabetes to fertility problems, birth defects, and DNA mutation.  If Coburn weren’t so influential in Congress, I’d just pass him over as a screwball and let it go.

However, Inhofe is the real culprit.  He is ranking member on the Senate Environment and Public Works committee, and he published a book in 2012 titled The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future.  Inhofe takes button-busting pride in “exposing Climate-gate,” which turned out to be much ado about nothing.  He is also extremely proud of blocking or countering any pro-environment legislation.  He hates the EPA.

Even though the climate statistics brouhaha Inhofe was boasting about was cleared up by investigations conducted by the University of East Anglia, the British House of Commons, Penn State University, and the EPA, Inhofe still insists these institutions are trying to mislead the public because they have an interest in scaring people about climate change.  Sure they do.

Inhofe also refuses to accept the recent meta-study that analyzed thousands and thousands of research articles on climate from the past several years.  The authors of this meta-study found that about 97% of these articles agreed that humanity is largely responsible for the steep increase in global temperatures compared to periods of warming in the past.  Only about .07% of the scientific articles disagree with that conclusion.  Nevertheless, Inhofe said in an interview with Rachel Maddow that it was not true more scientists believe humans contribute to global warming.  Apparently, real numbers mean nothing to him.

Inhofe believes what he wants to believe.  And his major campaign donors—all in the fossil fuels industry–seem to get good return on their money.

He even believes God is on his side: “God’s still up there. The arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He is doing in the climate is to me outrageous.”

In other words, god will correct humanity’s mistakes—as well as compensate for the oil companies’ greed and gross negligence.  Without thunderbolts, god may decide to correct the damage with another Great Flood.  Or maybe he will just wait for us to destroy ourselves (with Inhofe’s help) and then restore the Earth to Eden.

That’s a whole lot of collateral damage just to punish the small percentage of people unwilling to follow Nature’s logic.

So, that’s why I’d like to smite Inhofe with a thunderbolt.  He and conservatives like him, who are more concerned about profits than the viability of the planet, block others’ efforts to mitigate global warming.

Unfortunately, Nature’s logic is cause-and-effect.  If we pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, sunlight will make the planet warmer.  We’ll have changing weather patterns, droughts in some areas and floods in others.

A serious drought dried out Oklahoma over the past few years.  Last summer, the heat topped 100 degrees day after day, week upon week.  The heat recorded in the state capitol reached historic levels, tying or exceeding temperatures last seen during the devastating Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

Wildfires burned thousands of acres and consumed well over 100 structures, most of them homes.  Whole towns as well as rural residents, including members of my own family, had to be evacuated to avoid the flames.

My sister and mother coping with having no electricity or running water after being allowed to return home.

My sister and mother coping with having no electricity or running water after returning home.

From the perspective of the Old Testament, this is god’s wrath.  If the hellish weather affected only James Inhofe, that would be fine.  Just desserts.  But it doesn’t affect just James Inhofe.  It affects my 87-year-old mother and my sister and her beloved horses and all the people of Oklahoma and on Earth, no matter what their political beliefs.

Nature’s logic will not be denied, which means god’s dilemma is the choice between a thunderbolt or what will very likely be our suffering and demise.  All of us.

My Strange Addiction

I am right

Although my “addiction” isn’t nearly as strange as that of a woman on tv who felt compelled to lick walls (or a particular wall, but I don’t remember the details), my addiction and its origins are still a bit odd.

I have become fascinated with cats and confess an addiction specifically to LOL Cats, those hilarious little feline madcaps on the Internet who communicate with such cute mispronunciations and misspellings.  What makes this especially strange is that I’ve never owned a cat, and my spouse’s allergies will likely prevent me from ever owning a cat.  So, how did this happen?

If the genes for becoming a cat lady come down through the maternal line, then genes don’t account for my new proclivity.  My mother doesn’t like cats; she considers them sneaky.  She prefers dogs, proving my theory that everyone would like to have at least one sycophant in his or her life.  I know I certainly would.  But that too is prevented by my spouse’s allergies.

My grandmother had little use for cats.  She was a pragmatist who grew up in hard times.  As far as she was concerned, an animal’s value was determined by its contribution to family survival.  She tolerated barn cats, but warned us kids not to play with them or feed them, because it would distract them from their work as rodent exterminators.  And she certainly didn’t want them showing up at the back door expecting to be fed.

So, my attraction to cats (or “kittehs” in LOL-speak) isn’t genetic, even though it hit me at roughly the same time as menopause—making it seem like my biology had somehow pulled a genetic trigger.  However, I’m not entirely giving up on biology as a culprit in my attraction to cats who say things like, “Wer owt ob parakeets. Yoo goan to teh stor?”

Since I believe my approach to life is somewhat intellectual (or I have that illusion), I have to consider the possibility that my cat-fascination is an age-related sign of cognitive decline.  How else to account for my emotional response to anthropomorphized cats?  On this point, I’m a little comforted by my related addiction to the Animal Planet series “My Cat From Hell.”

This is a “reality” show that follows the day job of a cat behaviorist named Jackson Galaxy.  As Mr. Galaxy’s name may indicate, he has a night job as a musician.  Based on his appearance, his music of choice might be funk, but I haven’t tried very hard to find out.Cat Daddy2

In each show Galaxy applies his vast knowledge of feline behavior to solve the problems of hellish cats on the verge of exhausting their owners’ patience and getting booted out the door or into an animal shelter.  Most of the time, the biggest problem in the situation isn’t the cat, but rather the humans’ assumptions about- and reactions to- the cat.  Galaxy spends as much time retraining the humans as he does working with the cats.  I tell myself this interest in the study of cat/human behavior is a viable balance to a fascination with LOL Cats, at least in terms of anthropomorphization.

Tell me I m cuteDepending on how you look at it, LOL Cats is a pretty light weight addiction.  I’ve had (or have) worse compulsions.  (I’m lookin’ at you, Sonic Cherry-Limeade.)

 

 

 

Images are from    http://jacksongalaxy.com/

and http://www.lolcats.com/

Be Very Afraid

Rolling Stone Illustration

The image you’re seeing with this post is from a Rolling Stone article, “The GOP’s Real Agenda.”  It was written by Tim Dickinson and published online March 13, 2013.  The subhead reads: “Since last fall, Republicans have pretended to be more moderate–but their politics are harsher and more destructive than ever.”

I strongly urge you to read it, if you are interested in the political future of the nation.  It is a succinct, well-written explanation of Republican intentions and activities at this time.  This piece articulates the issues far better than I can.  This is the url:

http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/the-gops-real-agenda-20130313

I might as well warn you–it’s depressing as hell.  But if you care, don’t look away.