Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Intelligent Design

Judge in Pennsylvania rules that biology teachers need not instruct students in "intelligent design." Here.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Please help stop this.

Dogs used as shark bait. A petition link can be found here. Click on "signez la petition en ligne" and you will be given an English option. Thank you.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Mommy Mania

Here is an excerpt from an article titled Mommy Madness(full piece here) which is itself excerpted from her book Perfect Madness about mothers driving themselves crazy trying to be supermoms:

"Women today mother in the excessive, control-freakish way that they do in part because they are psychologically conditioned to do so. But they also do it because, to a large extent, they have to. Because they are unsupported, because their children are not taken care of, in any meaningful way, by society at large. Because there is right now no widespread feeling of social responsibility—for children, for families, for anyone, really—and so they must take everything onto themselves. And because they can't, humanly, take everything onto themselves, they simply go nuts.

I see this all the time. It never seems to stop. So that, as I write this, I have an image fresh in my mind: the face of a friend, the mother of a first-grader, who I ran into one morning right before Christmas.

She was in the midst of organizing a class party. This meant shopping. Color-coordinating paper goods. Piecework, pre-gluing of arts-and-crafts projects. Uniformity of felt textures. Of buttons and beads. There were the phone calls, too. From other parents. With criticism and "constructive" comments that had her up at night, playing over conversations in her mind. "I can't take it anymore," she said to me. "I hate everyone and everything. I am going insane."

I looked at her face, saw her eyes fill with tears, and in that instant saw the faces of dozens of women I'd met—and, of course, I saw myself.

And I was reminded of the words of a French doctor I'd once seen. I'd come to him about headaches. They were violent. They were constant. And they would prove, over the next few years, to be chronic. He wrote me a prescription for a painkiller. But he looked skeptical as to whether it would really do me much good. "If you keep banging your head against the wall," he said, "you're going to have headaches."

I have thought of these words so many times since then. I have seen so many mothers banging their heads against a wall. And treating their pain—the chronic headache of their lives—with sleeping pills and antidepressants and anxiety meds and a more and more potent, more and more vicious self-and-other-attacking form of anxious perfectionism.

And I hope that somehow we will all find a way to stop. Because we are not doing ourselves any good. We are not doing our children—particularly our daughters—any good. We're not doing our marriages any good. And we're doing nothing at all for our society.

We are simply beating ourselves black and blue. So let's take a breather. Throw out the schedules, turn off the cell phone, cancel the tutors (fire the OT!). Let's spend some real quality time with our families, just talking, hanging out, not doing anything for once. And let ourselves be."

From PERFECT MADNESS by Judith Warner. To be published by Riverhead books, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. © 2005 by Judith Warner.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits

This book rocks! Not an extra word in it, and yet every word is essential. The characters are rendered with absolute clarity and sympathy. It's intensely moving without being sentimental, and it makes you think. What could be better?

Friday, October 07, 2005

Navy experiments risk the lives of marine mammals

The US Navy is experimenting with massive shock waves that will be used to destroy incoming torpedos. While this may be a great idea for protecting submariners, the Navy--yet again--fails to consider the effect of massive shock waves to marine mammals who rely on sonar. The testing alone could cause massive strandings of disoriented whales and dolphins. The military needs to put the health of the planet on a par with protecting troops and winning wars. If we win every war but destroy the environment in the process, what's the gain?

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Tobacco Road

An awesome essay by Myfanwy Collins that can be read at the AGNI website.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Three weeks

Well, my stipend check from Bread Loaf came yesterday. I wonder if they know I'd do it for free? Shh. Don't tell. Seriously, I love that place and it takes about three weeks for me to come down from the high of being there. And at about three weeks post-Bread Loaf I also begin to sorely miss my fellow writers and staff members. We had such an amazing staff this year. Here's a link to some of the pictures clickety

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Bread Loaf!

Well, I am off in the morning to start my stint as Social Staff at Bread Loaf and I am very excited. Last year, I sent my grandmother a postcard from there as she always supported my writing. She was a journalism major in college, and attended school with Eric Severeid (I think that's right). Maybe I'll write her another one this year and just leave it in a hollow tree in the woods somewhere.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005


I am home after nine days in the Adirondack High Peaks Wilderness Area. We spent three days backpacking in remote areas, where we met maybe ten people (and one huge black bear). The streams were beautiful and ice cold, the trees sang, and I worshiped at the altar of those huge boulders left behind when the ancient glaciers receded, huge, moss-covered boulders that only the Adirondacks can claim, wrapped by the encircling roots of trees that began their lives as seedlings way up high, not knowing that the real ground lay much farther below.

I love the mountains. They restore my soul.

At the summit of Whiteface Mountain (New York's 5th highest peak), sweaty and exultant, I found cell phone service and phoned to briefly check on my children (yes, I know, technology in nature and all of that horrible stuff, but we have five kids between us, one of whom is about to deliver a baby--we need to check-in occasionally). At that summit, on my first phone call out in days, I learned that my grandmother had died the day before. The news was not delivered gently, as family had been trying to reach me for a full day and my mother assumed I knew.

I didn't.

Mountain climbing and hiking require a certain amount of focus and attention to be done well. I am not sure how I managed to descend those 4,000 plus feet safely, wiping tears and snot and sweat on my bandanna every step of the way, but I did.

I lost a lot of salt that day.

My grandmother was 94. On August 28th, she would be 95, but on my last visit to her in July she told me she hoped she didn't live to see that birthday and some part of me knew then that she wouldn't. Still, it was hard. I loved that woman with a fierce, irrational, passionate love. She was cantankerous and outspoken and immovable. She was born in 1910, saw the end of WWI, WWII, and most of the 20th century. She lived in such places as India, Ethiopia, New Zealand and had friends all over the world. She took one of the first transatlantic flights ever, on a double-decker sleeper plane. She drove a VW bug across the African desert surrounded by extra jugs of petrol and water and floated the car across the Nile on a raft of sticks. She kept the home front going as a mother of two young children while my grandfather landed on Iwo Jima and wrote home to "My Beloved Minnow..." Minnow because she swam in Minnesota's frigid lakes year round, and was always the last to exit the water.

I will miss my grandmother more than I can articulate. I know there was a certain "rightness" to finding out about her death after I had scaled a massive mountain. I know that she lived a full life and didn't suffer and died on her own terms. I know all of that. But I still feel like that tree that started as a seedling on top of a rock, grew to a sapling and then found that there wasn't enough soil after all and so grabbed the rock with encircling roots trying desperately to hang on, to make it to the ground, to become a freestanding tree, a tree in its own right.

Friday, July 08, 2005


Here is an awesome short video of a crow using a tool--but not just using the tool, also shaping it to fit her use. Amazing.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Lions and tiger and bears

Okay. What gets me about the story below (where the lions saved the young girl from kidnappers and protected her until help arrived) is that the "experts" have to chime in and tell us that the lions probably mistook the child's cries for those of a lion cub. To which I say, bullshit. What lion mistakes a twelve-year-old human child for a cub? Adult lions have great eyesight, a superb sense of smell, excellent hearing... It's ludicrous. And anyway, if those lions really thought she was a cub they would have picked her up by the scruff of the neck and carried her off and nurtured her. They would not have stood guard over her. And if they were protecting her because they thought she was one of their own, they surely would not have just calmly walked back into the forest when more humans arrived. They would have continued to protect her. They would have fought the new humans off. Instead, they delivered her to safety and considered their job done.

Why are we humans always trying so hard to explain away the altruistic behavior of animals? We seem so absolutely convinced that humans are the only creatures capable of motives higher than obtaining food and sex (and some humans aren't).

It's specie-centrism and it's myopic thinking.

We need to bridge the gap that will let us acknowledge that animals are capable of love and of nurturing species that are not their own. How many thousands of pets have saved their owners? (I can just hear the rationalists: "If the house is burning down and the pet saves the owner, it is really just saving itself.") Not always. When I was a child, my dog got between me and an angry copperhead. She took the strike and almost died. (My dad and I dripped milk into her mouth from a turkey baster and walked her around the house all night until she was out of danger--it seemed like the least we could do.)

Sometimes an animal is alerting its human to danger so the human can take his magic opposable thumbs and fix the problem. When I was in my twenties, the pottery studio where I worked caught fire from a faulty kiln while the owner slept in a nearby trailer. Our studio cat (nicknamed "Dammit" because she always bumped into pots and dinged them when still wet or knocked them off to shatter on the floor when dry) alerted the owner, and he was more than 100 feet away in a trailer, plenty safe from the fire.

There are numerous accounts of dolphins rescuing drowning humans. At what benefit to the dolphin? None. The dolphin is not saving itself. It is saving a human. Another species. In fact, the dolphin puts itself in danger by assisting, yet its compassionate nature, its own understanding of the need to breathe air makes it save the human. What possible other reason could there be?

Understand me. I am not romanticizing animals and saying they are all altruistic and wonderful. Just as I would never say that all humans are altruistic and wonderful. But there are plenty of times when the only explanation for an animal's behavior is something like understanding. Something like compassion. Something like love.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Lions save young girl from kidnappers

In Ethiopia, three lions rescue a 12-year-old girl from kidnappers who would force her into marriage.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Would you rather?

I have a nine-year-old son and his latest obsession (we have many, frequently, at our house) is weighing decisions. He will be sitting, calmly eating breakfast, when a pensive look will come over his face and he'll say, "Would you rather..."

If one of his older sisters is anywhere around, this will immediately be interrupted with, "No! Oh, my God, not again!" or "Will you stop it??" or "You are such a freak!"

But me, I like his questions. I always take the time to consider them. He asks good questions. It's a special stage in his cognitive and moral development that I cherish.

The would-you-rather questions always involve some sort of tough dilemma. For instance, he might ask, "Would you rather burn to death, or freeze to death?"

Even though I hate the cold and love a good fire, I say, "Freeze, because I've heard you get really warm before you die." (I make a mental note to find him The Call of the Wild at our next library visit. He's familiar with The Little Match Girl and I mention that as proof.) Then I say, "But if I could die in my sleep from smoke inhalation first, I might choose fire. You know I want to be cremated anyway, and that would save a step in the process." He laughs.

"Would you rather be pretty or smart?"

"Smart," I say, in a voice that conveys duh! "Smart, because it never goes away."

"Yeah," he says, "and you just keep getting smarter."


"But some people get prettier, too."

"You think?"

"Yeah. Like you." (See why I like these discussions?)

"Thanks, honey. So do you. Handsome, I mean."

"Yeah." (We're still waiting for his modesty to develop.) "Would you rather be blind or deaf?"

When he asks this, I suddenly remember going through this stage myself. Asking these tough questions, and really thinking about making a choice between two difficult things.

"Deaf," I say. "You?"

"Deaf. Because you could still read and play sports and stuff."

"You can still read when you're blind."

"Yeah, I know. Braille. And you could listen to books on tape."

"And you'd still have music." Something we both love. We sit and think about this in silence for a minute.

"Would you still get a song stuck in your head if you were deaf?" he asks.

"I don't know. I guess. If you'd heard it before you went deaf. But Beethoven lost his hearing and he still made really beautiful new music. I bet it stays with you."

"Maybe if I could see and hear first and then lost it, it would be better."

"Maybe. But it might be worse. Then you would know what you were missing. I knew someone once who lost his sense of smell and he said he couldn't taste food after that unless it was really salty or sour. He didn't even really like to eat anymore, and when he did, it was because of the texture of food in his mouth, not the taste."

"I've heard people who lose one thing get better at another. Maybe if you were blind you would start to hear lots better."

"Maybe. I hope we never have to find out."

"Me, too. I guess we're pretty lucky."

"Yeah, buddy, we are." Thanks for reminding me.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Christianity—Lite: Fewer carbs for those who don't care to think

Privately, I consider myself a Christian, but I am embarrassed to admit it publicly. I am embarrassed because the modern face of Christianity has changed. Today, the most frequently seen Christians are the religious zealots who wave angry signs in the streets, who cry over burning candles at vigils for people they have never met while television cameras roll, who flock in droves to interfere in the very private, difficult, life-and-death decisions of individuals and who generally clamor for publicity and attention at every turn.

I consider myself a reasoned, thinking individual, and those Christians--with their angry certainty, with their lack of logic, with their holier-than-thou attitudes--alienate me from my faith.

I imagine this is somewhat like the feeling a moderate Muslim must have for the men who flew planes into the Twin Towers in New York City.

When I read about Christians who lie in wait for a doctor who performs abortions, with the scope of a rifle pointed toward the door of his family home, or who threaten the judge in the Terry Schaivo case with death for simply doing his job—upholding the law of the land—I feel as if I must not be a Christian, because I could not kill to advance the cause of my religion, my religion, whose highest tenet is “Thou shalt not kill.”

God gave us minds. He intended us to use them. Just why are so many Americans adopting issues with a black-and-white mentality that would shame the reasoned, thinking men who founded this great country of ours—founded it with religious freedom as one of its main goals?

More importantly, why are we moderates not speaking out and telling those extreme Christians that they do not follow the teachings of our God? Why are we letting them speak for us, letting them be the mutated faces of modern Christianity? We’ve decried the moderate Muslims who failed to publicly condemn the terrorists, yet we are doing the very same thing in our own country every time we say nothing when an abortion provider dies at the hands of a Christian extremist. These fundamentalist, extremist Christians are stealing my religion. They are taking it and twisting it to their purposes in exactly the same way the Muslim terrorists have twisted the gentle, peace-loving religion of Islam. And it is wrong.

Any time religion turns into war, it is wrong.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Thoughts on Government and Religion

I fear for the future of my country. And I mean this in a sincere, patriotic sense. I may be a die-hard liberal, but I can still love my country, even as I disagree with many of its policies. I can be grateful to the many men and women who have given their lives in service of our country. I, too, have served my country on the home front, as the spouse of a military member. I have seen and lived sacrifice. I believe in democracy.

In order for a true democracy to thrive, it cannot be static. It cannot afford to rest on its laurels, smug in the knowledge that all issues have been debated and solved. The very founding fathers we idolize were themselves questioning men. They were riddled with doubt and concern and knew full well that any document they created would need to be flexible and adaptable if it were to remain relevant.

The sense I get from the current administration, though, is that questioning and soul-searching are signs of weakness. Personally? I believe the opposite: that he who continually questions and seeks answers is strong. It is only the ill-informed, insecure bully who takes a position and then unwaveringly pushes it down the throats of others.

My current fear for my country comes mostly from living under leaders who insist--without question, or even room for discussion--that they are right. Leaders who believe that God has told them what the country needs. Yes, the founding fathers believed in God, but I do not believe that the founding fathers held the radical fundamental view that they could speak directly to God and receive a definitive answer. That requires a level of arrogance that I don't believe they possessed. For our current leadership to refer back to the founding fathers as an example of why God should be in government is faulty logic. It's not apples and apples.

George Bush's God--from whom he openly professes to seek guidance--is not an example of the same God:worshiper relationship that the founding fathers enjoyed. The "personal relationship with God" is a modern Christian construct, and one that I submit would not have gone over well with our Anglican/Episcopal forefathers. Can you imagine George Washington announcing, "I've spoken with God, and I believe I know what He wants me to do"? That is not the language of a statesman. That's the language of a demagogue. That comes from someone who has co-opted the notion of God for his own purposes. Who invokes an all-powerful entity to rationalize decisions that might otherwise prompt questions. It is a way to close discussion: God--via George Bush--has spoken. You are either with God or against Him. End of discussion.

Drawing that sort of politico-religious "line in the sand" demonstrates a level of passionate involvement and certainty of belief that can be very attractive. It can also be very dangerous. I worry every time I see another mammoth, evangelical church sending its scaffolding into the sky. I worry because such places--with their certainty of belief--have come to symbolize a passionate zeal and a lack of reasoned thinking. A "feed me" spiritual mentality that requires no work on the part of the individual, encouraging, instead, a childlike passivity wherein all decisions are made by praying or by rote.

Whatever happened to the dictum, "The Lord helps those who help themselves?" Is that no longer true? Must we pray before we take any action, no matter how trivial? Did the Lord not give us brains and a conscience to make a few decisions on our own? Omniscience aside, wouldn't you be more than a little annoyed if your grown children called home several times a day, every day, to ask you to tell them what they should do?

Perhaps I am simply too logical. No matter how I try, I cannot see the logic behind killing a doctor who performs abortions as a way to show respect for life. Neither can I understand the money, time, and energy expended to keep a feeding tube in a long-brain-dead woman when hundreds of children die every day in sub-Saharan Africa for want of food.

A recent article in my local paper showed a photo of 500+ worshipers in a newly constructed mega-church in my area. Worship there is piped from this vast arena into the homes of the faithful across Western New York and the world. A rock band at the altar plays inspirational music and the pastor struts back and forth, handsome, charismatic and CERTAIN and the congregants lift their faces heavenward, features screwed into grimaces of ecstasy--an intense, passionate pain.

And I wonder if this is not the appeal of such a worship service--the heady power of a cavernous space filled with communal zeal.

It is distinctly human to crave a purposeful life, to desire to lose oneself in feeling, to want to touch the divine. Until recently, such venues as art, sports, music, religion, and family served the purpose well enough, and the truly zealous held no more than a fringe appeal for society.

Suddenly, however (after the recent re-election of George Bush, especially) conservative, non-mainstream religious groups have emerged into the sunlight of full acceptance. This level of extreme Christian faith--the kind that launches death threats against a judge who simply follows the law of the land--is to me very much the same as militant Islamists who hold that non-believers must suffer in order to promote Islam, that infidels must die. It's ludicrous--all of it. And I have yet to see how we as a society will manage to work our way through the dogma into understanding, particularly under our current leadership.

And just why are We The People buying into this notion of extreme Christianity? Why do we crave such hollow, feel-good religious transcendence? Have we lost the desire to be transported through creativity? Intellectual stimulation? Philosophical discussion? Why are the higher pursuits of art, architecture, music, opera, literature, dance (and the like) not enough anymore?

Have we too fully embraced a lonely techno-society that serves to keep us from full human interaction under the misnomer of 'greater access'? I wonder. Perhaps the very fact that I am typing this into a computer, alone at my desk, for you, alone at your desk, to read and consider, is answer enough.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005


"What I like in a good author isn't what he says, but what he whispers."

-Logan Pearsall Smith, essayist (1865-1946)

Monday, February 21, 2005


"Too many parents make life hard for their children by trying, too
zealously, to make it easy for them."

-Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, poet,
dramatist, novelist, and philosopher (1749-1832)

Friday, February 11, 2005

Entitlement Rant

What are we entitled to in this world? Well, if American, our constitution entitles us to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and a few additional things added over the years, such as a fair trial (ostensibly), the right to vote (again, suspect after this past election), but I digress...

A recent event, broadcast in the local news has been eating at me for weeks. Here is a brief summary: A bus driver taking a busload of kids home from school, finds that he has a pair of exceptionally rowdy students on board. (Habitual offenders, as it turns out.) When he attempts to stop their fistfight, they turn on him, cursing and hitting, and creating extreme havoc. In response, the harried bus driver kicks them off the bus, leaving them to walk home through the snow, roughly half a mile. The children are aged 11 and 12.

As you may have guessed, the parents of the two children were incensed. They called the school. The principal then officially reprimanded the bus driver. (So far, so good.) The parents then called the television news. After the story aired, the bus driver was fired. Within a week, the firing was not enough, and the parents brought criminal charges of child endangerment against the bus driver. He now faces time in court and up to a year in jail if convicted.

Have you guessed where my loyalties lie by now? Bear in mind, I'm no card-carrying member of the Elmer Fudd Party--no Wight Wing Wadical tendencies here--I'm about as bleeding-heart as they come. And I have children of my own. But child endangerment?? Come on. Yes, he should have been reprimanded, but he didn't strip them naked and make them walk home through a blizzard. They had coats. Plenty of kids in my neighborhood walk a mile to school and back every day. And these kids were being wretched little shits--fighting, using extremely foul language, and threatening the bus driver. Where is their accountability?

Oh, right. I forgot. "Children are our future, Mary."

Well, duh! My point exactly! Who do you want taking care of your country's affairs in your old age? Foul-mouthed kids that think they rule the world and can do no wrong? Kids whose parents overreact and rise to their defense, bailing them out of trouble and crying "unfair!" even when the kids are clearly in the wrong? Have you ever driven a bus full of kids? Been in charge of all those kids, of getting them home safely every single day, being hyper alert at all times? Have you even ridden on such a bus? Well, I can tell you that children turn into wild little beasties on the bus, far away from teachers, restless after a long day of sitting and learning, all-too-aware of the one, lone adult (otherwise occupied) who is in charge of keeping control of 50+ kids--kids who often spit and curse and fight, yell at the top of their lungs and write grafitti on the seats, rip holes in them, press their used gum into them. (Bear in mind that if you are the driver, you are solely responsible for the condition of both the kids and the bus.)

What do you think these children learned from this experience? I think they've learned that they can fight and swear and be disrespectful, and if anyone tries to rein them in or make them accountable, they will get their story put on the television, they will get excessive sympathy that negates the issue of their own bad behavior, they will get a grown man fired (such power!), possibly even put in jail, and their parents will defend them and pick up the pieces, no matter what they do. What will these kids be doing with this knowledge five years from now? I wonder.

I have an ongoing struggle with our current society's attempts to foster a feel-good attitude among our nation's children. Posters throughout the schools promise: "YOU'RE SPECIAL! JUST BECAUSE YOU'RE YOU!" Well, I hate to break it to you, but you aren't. You may be special to your mom just because you're you, but you ain't special to the world just because you're you. You can become special, by leaving the world a better place than you found it, you can bring enlightenment, or peace, or understanding to people around you or the world, and thereby become special, but I'm sorry, you ain't special without at least a little effort on your part.

And all of us, every one of us, should think about that bus driver's side of the story. We should remind our children how to behave on a bus and how to be respectful to those in charge of their safety and security, and we should hold them to it when they fail. We should put ourselves in that bus driver's shoes, and we should walk a mile.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Wednesday, February 09, 2005


Nature can provide for the needs of people; she can't provide for the greed of people.

-Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869-1948)

Monday, February 07, 2005


The closing years of life are like the end of a masquerade party, when the masks are dropped.

-Arthur Schopenhauer, philosopher (1788-1860)

Sunday, February 06, 2005

More snow?

No, it isn't predicted. And today it was in the 50's--nice, but a little weird for Western New York in February. Nonetheless, I took a chair outside and sat in the sun to get my Vitamin D. I crave the sun, get SAD without it, have a light above my computer with a full-spectrum bulb in it. I also took out two pots of spring bulbs that I planted and brought inside to force. They sat at my feet, companionably absorbing sun for their own purposes. They have been getting leggy from lack of sun--even the best, sunniest window in my house only gets a few hours a day--and seemed to enjoy the sun as much as I did (one of the daffoldils is about to burst a tiny yellow bud). This lack of sunshine in my house may be good for the furniture and paintings, but it's something I will remember to check out in any future houses I may buy. ("The first time you buy a house you see how pretty the paint is and buy it. The second time you look to see if the basement has termites. It's the same with men." Lupe Velez)

Anyway, sun and warm weather aside, I find that I would like just a tad more snow. I'm not missing shoveling, mind you, but, well, here's a northern truth: snow is pretty for about the first two days. After that, it's like a flashy woman--it needs a little upkeep. Yesterday, when walking, I passed compressed, jaggedly evaporating piles of greying, blackish snow with streaks and drippy yellow spots at each corner where dogs relieved themselves, plus little piles of excrement (vividly dark against the snowy backdrop) that had sunk a few layers down before cooling. Ugh.

So just a thin dusting would be nice--an inch or two, no more. It would transform the neighborhood into a pristine fairyland once again. Yes, I know that underneath it all would still lurk the urine and feces and trash and other various and sundry post-winter lovelies, but I wouldn't have to see them. And, yes, eventually spring will come and reveal the piles of twisted, rusting shopping carts in the Wal-Mart parking lot, pushed there by careless late-night snowplows, and the discarded, curbside Christmas trees that got covered before the city could recycle them, but by then my yard will be full of real bulbs, bright and beautiful, waking from a long sleep, bursting forth in smiling color.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005


It's not the glass;
but the shattered world
and its elections
and the wars
and your father's suffering
and the long days of
waiting to grieve
and the way he reached up
with his shaking hands
after days of nothing
and said Thank you
to the nurse
for his morphine
and the way your face broke
in reply
and not these shards
at my feet.
They are just
what was once,
once a glass.

Mensa Invitational winners

The Washington Post's Mensa Invitational asks readers to take a word from the dictionary, alter it (by adding, subtracting, or changing a letter), and then supply a new definition.

This year's winners:

1. Intaxication: Euphoria at getting a tax refund, which lasts until
you realize it was your money to start with.

2. Reintarnation: Coming back to life as a hillbilly.

3. Bozone: The substance surrounding stupid people that stops
bright ideas from penetrating. The bozone layer, unfortunately, shows little
sign of breaking down in the near future.

4. Foreploy: Any misrepresentation about yourself for the purpose of
getting laid.

5. Cashtration: The act of buying a house, which renders the subject
financially impotent for an indefinite period.

6. Giraffiti: Vandalism spray-painted very, very high.

7. Sarchasm: The gulf between the author of sarcastic wit and the
person who doesn't get it.

8. Inoculatte: To take coffee intravenously when you are running late.

9. Hipatitis: Terminal coolness.

10. Osteopornosis: A degenerate disease. (This one got extra credit.)

11. Karmageddon: It's like, when everybody is sending off these bad vibes,
right? And then, like, the Earth explodes and it's like, a serious bummer.

12. Decafalon: The grueling event of getting through the day
consuming only things that are good for you.

13. Glibido: All talk and no action.

14. Dopeler effect: The tendency of stupid ideas to seem smarter when
they come at you rapidly.

15. Arachnoleptic fit: The frantic dance performed just after
you've accidentally walked through a spider web.

16. Beelzebug: Satan in the form of a mosquito, that gets into
your bedroom at three in the morning and cannot be cast out.

17. Caterpallor: The color you turn after finding half a worm in
the fruit you're eating.

18. Ignoranus: A person who's both stupid and an asshole.

Monday, January 31, 2005


"We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and wiser and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extentions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of earth."

--Henry Beston, The Outermost House

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

EPA relaxing standards

On Friday, while inaugural revelers were still shaking off their hangovers and tending to their square-dance-induced blisters, the Bush EPA officially unveiled a deal whereby factory farms can get more than two years of immunity from the Clean Air Act if they join a voluntary program to simply measure their emissions. The feds, who say they need the emissions data in order to develop a good enforcement program, tout their collaborative plan as far better than slapping factory farms with lawsuits one by one.
Environmentalists say the strategy stinks as bad as the huge piles of manure that are emitting toxic gases at factory farms around the country.

Friday, January 21, 2005

The Arts

Where would we be without them? Where indeed! Here is Maragaret Atwood's answer:

“The arts – as we have come to term them – are not a frill. They are at the heart of the matter. A society without the arts would have broken its mirror and cut out its heart. It would no longer be what we now recognize as human.”

I stole this from Katie Weekley's blog (Thanks Katie!) because I couldn't resist spreading the sentiment. It also speaks to me in terms of my fears for America under the current administration. Arts endowment has not been high on W's agenda and one gets the idea that he would just as soon eliminate all those pesky anti-war poets and such, bent on making their unpatriotic noise and clamor. As a nation we seem to not be so interested in introspection or of holding up a mirror to our society, unless perhaps it is the ever-flattering mirror of Snow White's evil stepmother.

Mirror, mirror on the wall...


The sun is out in upstate New York--a rare occurrence this time of year. With all the snow we've had, it's a bit dazzling following so many days of bleakness. And I'm feeling rather shell-shocked, actually, stepping out into all that glittery brightness. But despite the last few months of sadness and uncertainty, as well as the services still before us, it feels like a new day of hope, of an end to the suffering. So I am throwing myself back into the details of daily life and making the choice to keep moving forward.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Calvin Pratt 1925-2005

For those of you who have been going through this with me, I just wanted to let you know that my father-in-law passed peacefully this evening, around five o'clock. Thank you for your kindness and concern.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Hardening off

It's a gardening term that is used to describe the period of time during which tender indoor-grown plants are slowly acclimated to the harsher (windier, colder, sunnier) conditions they will face when they are transplanted into the great outdoors.

It's also a term that occurred to me today when thinking about how I am raising my children. If you asked my children, I'm sure they would tell you the ways in which their lives have been difficult: the many moves of a military family, a divorce, a new family to adjust to, and a cranky, often distracted mother who believes in the value of chores, discipline, telling the truth, and keeping your word.

But the truth of the matter is, my children's lives have been easy when measured against children in the rest of the world. They have never known real hunger, never been homeless or unwanted or unloved.

And yet, I don't shield them from the realities of life. We have had many discussions on many, varied topics--politics, abortion, gay marriage, women's rights, to name a few. They know I will never shy away from a question or give them a non-answer like, "I'll tell you when you're older." I don't believe in that. In fact, sometimes they have to stop me from giving Too Much Information ("T.M.I., Mom, T.M.I.!"), so strongly do I believe in being open and truthful with them. Granted, the answers vary according to age. The youngest can't begin to fathom the things I might tell the oldest, and so I answer accordingly.

Recently, though, I've been thinking about this attitude of mine. Reassessing, if you will. Mostly from an innocent comment made by a friend who suggested that children shouldn't have to be exposed to hospitals and sickness and death. That seems to be the prevailing feeling in America: Let them be children a little longer.

Here is where my gardener's knowledge kicks in. (Yes, I am far too prone to attributing the traits of the natural world to humans--a sort of reverse anthropomorphism, if you will, but bear with me.) Even the healthiest hothouse plant needs time to adjust to the natural world. Too much sun too suddenly will burn its tender leaves. Too much wind will flatten its fragile stems. Too much cold, too soon, will cause it to shrivel and suffer.

So it is for a child, raised in an idyllic cocoon, who is suddenly launched into the world alone. So, like the attentive gardener, nurturing and strengthening his prize plants, I am hardening off my children. Last week I took the children to the nursing home to visit my husband's ailing father. Before we got there we talked about what they would see and smell and hear: legless people in wheelchairs, people aimlessly wandering the halls, people talking to themselves or crying out, and a smell unlike any other smell. But we also told them that they had no reason to be afraid, that these were all just people, people who had lived long lives, had children and grandchildren, and even though they looked different on the outside, inside they were all just people. And we warned them that Grandpa would look very different from what they remembered, that he might moan or cough, but that it was okay, that he was still Grandpa underneath and he could hear them and if they talked to him or touched him, it would make him very happy.

The children were amazing. My youngest introduced himself to the legless man in the neighboring bed and the two of them ended up having quite a conversation and sharing a package of chocolate doughnut holes. All of the children spoke to Grandpa (no questions, only statements) and touched him in very tender ways, rubbing his feet or touching his hands. While we were there his blood pressure returned almost to normal and he slept peacefully without coughing, for the first time in days. It was obvious to everyone, especially the kids, how much they had helped. And when it was time to leave, every single one of them was reluctant to go and wanted to know when they could come back. I can't think of a better affirmation than that.


Here is an excellent review (from Pedestal Magazine) of Terri Brown-Davidson's Marie, Marie Hold on Tight

Monday, January 17, 2005


Okay, snow.

You can stop now.

We have over a foot of snow on the ground at this writing, and it's still falling. Collectively, we, as a family, have shoveled four times since yesterday and we're due for another any minute.

I know what those of you safely in the south are saying. "Why shovel? Why not just let it pile up and enjoy it?" Well, for those of you not in/from the snowbelt (I'm a southern girl myself, but learning fast), you can't just not shovel. Well, technically you can, but you'd better lay in supplies beforehand and cancel all activities until the spring thaw (read: late May). Up here, snow doesn't just go away in a few days. It accumulates.

And, if you don't own a snowblower, you have to shovel the driveway every three inches or so. Why? Well, think of the simple math: one inch of snow pushed one inch makes two inches of snow. My driveway is roughly twelve feet wide.

So I start by pushing a path all the way down the middle of the driveway.

"Pushing?" you say.

Yes, pushing. In the north, there is no logic such that, "A snowshovel is a snowshovel is a snowshovel." It is not. First there is the snow-pusher, which looks very much like the front end of a snowplow attached to a long handle. It does just what you would expect.

Then, after a path is cleared down the middle, I proceed--using the snow-pusher--to push snow to either side of the driveway. Over a five-foot span, three inches of snow becomes 180 inches. You physically can't push much more snow than that by hand. You can't. Not even Ah-nold could. Enter the snow-scooper. Its large, flat-edged scoop is employed for lifting the massive piles--made with the snow-pusher--and throwing them, scoop-by-scoop as far from the driveway as you can.

Then you stand back and admire your clean-scraped handiwork.

"Ahh," you think. "Snow!" It is beautiful. And you have conquered it yet again. You are happy.

And then, while your back is turned to the street, the snowplow passes. I don't know about snowplows in other parts of the world, but the Western New York snowplow is an amazing, efficient machine. It can push/throw massive amounts of snow, at great rates of speed, for miles, only to then casually toss a short-ton of it into each open driveway, roughly six feet in.

And after the snowplow passes, and you have lowered your shaking fists, you find you have a retaining wall of snow at the end of your spotless driveway. Don't even bother trying to utilize the snow-pusher for the snowplow pile. That snow is roughly the weight and consistency of ice cream. So, imagine, if you will, repeatedly lifting your large, ergonomically designed snow-scooper shovel with five gallons of ice cream at its end. Further imagine that you cannot merely drop your five gallons of ice cream off to one side. No, for off to one side is where you've thrown the rest of the driveway snow, on top of what was already there, for a height of roughly two feet.

So you must scoop your five gallons of ice cream, lift it--at the end of a long handle, thereby increasing the sensation of weight and strain--two feet off the ground, and sling it away from your body. Bear in mind that your ice cream is going to be slightly melted from road salts, and that it will often stick to the shovel, thereby requiring the extra-vigorous fling, the chiropractor-calling fling.

I should add that at the start of winter, this all comes as welcome exercise. The snow piles are still small, shoveling makes you feel vigorous and slightly macho, the sun occasionally shines, and a modicum of melting may even yet occur. But by mid-January, the reality of the task sets in, the walls of snow rise, and you come to feel a certain kinship to the prisoner-of-war. A kinship with that poor ragged fellow given the task of moving a massive rock pile from one side of the yard to another, and then back again.

Oh, that poor, poor fellow.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Lake Effect

It's here! The television said we are getting an inch an hour, but I just shoveled four inches, and by the time I was done, I turned around and there was another inch behind me.

We all went snow-hiking as a family today, found a cool lean-to, and had a winter cookout. Cold, but fun. My hands are still aching from having been so very cold. It was nice to do something cheery.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Feeling Fidgetty

With things so touch-and-go for my father-in-law, we've had a lot of trouble focusing around here. Each time the phone rings, my stomach drops. There's a sort of unsettledness that you feel when someone you love is slowly dying. Aside from the obvious emotional upheaval, there's a constant sense of unfinished business, of things left undone that should be done, of waiting to grieve. So I'm feeling (to borrow the word that my father-in-law kept using when asked how he was feeling) fidgetty. (Fortunately morphine has been administered for days now and now he is resting comfortably.)

To fight my own fidgets and yet keep the work coming (they don't offer morphine to the family), I've decided to write continually on a group of stories, one sentence at a time, advancing each one incrementally. I know a little bit about what I want them to be (they've been kicking around in my head for a while) and I'm not sure if this will be for another collection, or what, but at least it's helping to counteract my fidgets and giving me lots of things to focus on other than the dying.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Summer in January

I live roughly in the angle formed by Lake Erie and Lake Ontario in Western New York. But, okay, when I really want sympathy, I tell people that I live near Buffalo, city of infamy, when it comes to winter.

But today it's almost 65 degrees outside, a new record. The sun is shining, the birds are singing, the scent of newly exposed wet ground is in the air. It feels, for all the world, like spring. (Sigh.) I would that it were so, but it's a cruel trick. Tomorrow is forecasted to be 20 degrees and snowy.

Part of me wants to go out in this glorious weather and enjoy it to the fullest. The other part of me doesn't care to be tempted into happiness by that which is merely fleeting. Maybe that's my nature, always looking ahead, preparing for what's yet to come.

I am reminded of the times when my military husband was deployed and he would find a way to return home for a weekend. Deliriously happy at the sight of him, I would nonetheless begin immediately to fight the melancholy knowledge that he would be gone again in a matter of hours. At times, parting after so brief a visit was painful enough to make me wish he hadn't come at all. Better to be consistently lonely than to have this roller coaster of joy and sadness, or so my thinking went.

In time, I learned that if I were to enjoy his visits I had to force myself to live in the moment--each and every moment, the here and now, without thinking too far ahead. It's a good lesson for someone like me: a plotter, a planner. I need to be reminded that tomorrow is never assured, but today is here, right before me, here to be savored.

Time to go sit in the sun.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Million Writers Award

The deadline to nominate an on-line story (of more than 1,000 words) for the Million Writers Award is February 1st. If you are interested in nominating a story, but don't know where to begin, here are a few suggestions:

The Story of Her Breasts

Flood, 1978


Toggling the Switch

Second Encounter

Yerba Buena

One Way Or the Other

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

She's in the news again

Andrea Yates.

What to make of this woman?

A mother who methodically drowns her own children. Horrible. Inconceivable. She must be a terrible person. And yet for some reason, I can't reconcile that, can't quite get there in my mind. I want to hate her, but I just end up feeling confused. She has lost everything, everything a mother lives for. Five children, drowned at her own hand. Five children whom she nursed and clothed and fed and nurtured for so many years. I keep reiterating these things because her final act of mothering is so inconceivable. She must have loved them. So, how, then? And why?

Well, raising children is damn hard work. And I have three, not five. And I don't homeschool them. And mine are out of diapers, and were spaced two or more years apart. The fact is, when I think about her trying to keep everything together, with this smugly smiling, god-fearing husband who refuses to acknowlede anything but her many blessings, well, I have to say, I can almost go there. I adore my children. I can't imagine life without them. They delight and inspire me in so many ways--they are incredible individuals. And yet, there were times--when my husband was deployed, when we were stationed far from home, with no help, no family, and children 24 hours a day--well, let's just say I wasn't sure which ones of us would make it to adulthood.

I want so desperately to blame someone and move on, smug in my ability to categorize this, to "that-type-of-woman" this. And yet I can't. And when I try to place the blame squarely on her shoulders, I keep coming back to other questions, such as: Where was her husband when she was having post-partum depression and attempting suicide? Why did he continue to think it would be best to homeschool five children, to keep giving this troubled woman more and more children, rapid-fire? Where is his accountability? And what of the doctors, the medical professionals who treated her for her ailments? And what about religion? I'm talking about the sort of no-name, slightly off-kilter evangelical born-again religion that she and her husband practiced. A religion that tells a woman to be subservient, to be the longsuffering helpmeet, to put everyone's needs before her own, that preaches happiness and contentment in every aspect of motherhood, that it is a woman's godly duty, that she is blessed if she bears a multitude of children, that obedience, above all, is to be practiced.

Obedience is the cornerstone of such narrow religions. So much so that Andrea Yates told her attorney she wanted it clarified: Contrary to the news reports, her eldest son, Noah, did not have to be chased around the house when she was ready to drown him. She wanted it known that he came when she called.

And at her trial, Andrea Yates testified that a higher power had instructed her to drown her children. All she did was what she had been repeatedly taught. She obeyed.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Living and dying

"Live as if you were living a second time, and as though you had acted
wrongly the first time." -Viktor Frankl, author, neurologist,
psychiatrist, and Holocaust survivor (1905-1997)

Attending to the dying gives one a glimpse into the great retrospective of a life. As time winds down for my father-in-law, his life unfolds before us in a long, slow parade: cards, phone calls, pictures, visits from friends and loved ones, fond reminiscences all pass through his room to remind us how much he has accomplished in his 79 years, how many people he has touched.

Those of us attending to him find ourselves privately taking stock of our own lives and wondering at the process of our own eventual deaths. It is in our basic human make-up to have some form of empathy, especially as it relates to the suffering of others. But it is also basic human nature to study how we are different from the suffering ones--how that suffering could never be ours, how we will be immune to that particular fate.

Some, although horrified by the earthquake and tsunami images, take comfort in knowing they are not near a coastline or a faultline and so will not meet that sort of terrifying end. When my own father died from the effects of years of alcoholism, even as I grieved, I reassured myself that my death at least would not echo his. Why are we compelled to think this way? Is it the brain's own form of self-preservation? Is it a mechanism whereby we are able to manage our daily functions despite the myriad hazards that could at any moment randomly consume us? It seems cruel, on some level, to have such "at least I am safe" thoughts, but as biological creatures perhaps that is the best we are capable of instinctively. As sentient, spiritual beings, though, perhaps we can manage better. Perhaps we can find in ourselves some form of compassion, some grateful acceptance, some version of There, but for the grace of God, go I.

Friday, January 07, 2005


My college roommate had a serious David Bowie obsession. Today I've been thinking of his song "Changes." Turn and face the strange, ch-ch-changes.

Facing change is essential if we are to grow and strengthen in our art. That song, Changes, marked a pivotal time in Bowie's career, and became the first song of his to make the charts. He was discovering and embracing the things that made his art unique and it brought him critical and popular acclaim.

I'm currently experiencing a small writing biggie, and nothing that needs sympathy even, since I've learned by now to be patient; that these periods of doubt and struggle always precede a great growth spurt in my writing and an evolution of my "voice." I'm looking forward to that. A pivotal time. Time to embrace the changes.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Good rejections

I've been wondering lately if good rejections may have the power to paralyze a writer. Specifically, I'm referring to myself (of course) and the following lovely rejection from an editor who shall remain anonymous:

Dear Ms. Akers:

Thanks for sending your story to our magazine; sorry to be so delayed in our response. We like "Animo, Anima, Animus." It went to all our readers, even the out-of-towners, because everyone liked it so much--until the last page.

We appreciate the two different perspectives of the two very different women coming to the circus, who assess, misunderstand, and come to conclusions about each other. But there is a sense of violence (or something) unfulfilled at the end.

The discussion of this story was very interesting; I don't remember another like it. We only publish everything on which we can agree, but in your case people were saying, "Tell her we'll publish it if she changes the ending." Others: "We don't have any suggestions for the ending, and how do we know what she'll write?" "This could be wonderfully comic, tragic, etc." In brief, we think this is an excellent story. Hope you think about changing the ending. And if you do, we hope you'll send it back here.

Sincerely, etc.

This is a wonderful rejection, and an excellent glimpse into the editorial process. I'm very grateful for the time this editor took to write so much in explanation. And I'm happy to revise. But, as she said, there's no specific request as to how they wish to see it revised, no guidance. And, to make things worse, I actually like the ending I have, or at least the final sentence. I am having so much trouble re-envisioning this, and wondering, as I struggle, if it isn't the compliments, in part, that are making it so difficult? If they had said this sucks, change this, I would feel as if I have more "permission" to tear the story down and rebuild it. But here, the emphasis is on changing just the last page.

Maybe I'm creating too much conflicting mental work for myself. Maybe that's causing the paralysis. Maybe it really is just a matter of changing a few sentences--not so much the ending scene, but the language used...

I think I'll give that idea some time to percolate.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005


I've decided to welcome the new year in, wholeheartedly, in a way I can't remember doing before. 2004 was an extrememly trying year, and although 2005 has already had its rough spots (most notably my father-in-law's struggle with cancer of the liver) I remain optimistic. It just feels right, so I plan to go with the feeling and will it to be right.

And, amazingly, southern girl that I am, I am welcoming today's snowfall in upstate New York. These crazy days of post-Christmas 50 degree weather have been too incongruous and unsettling to appreciate, and have made me long for some soft white flakes to shovel. Today I got my wish.