Sunday, December 11, 2011


Erin posted this quote from an NPR story on Facebook, this morning.

“Not only will rats frantically work to free their trapped cage mate; they will do so even when there’s a tempting pile of chocolate chips nearby, the study reveals. Instead of leaving their pal in the trap and gobbling the candy all by themselves, rats will free their cage mate and share the chocolate.”

To which she added, “Rats can do this people. Come On!

Patty Mason designed this experiment to study the evolutionary roots of empathy and wrote up her conclusions in the journal, Science.

Maybe Patty Mason, the scientist at The University of Chicago watched the “Secret of NIHM” too many times when she was young. Maybe rats don’t have a vivid memory of what chocolate tastes like and it is easy for them to ignore a pile of chocolate. Maybe in fact that is a good and noble rat.

Most of my thinking has revolved around the question of how such an anthropomorphically despised animal could be so ethical, and we so apparently lacking. Maybe our folk lore is all wrong, the rat as noble beast, the human not so much. But wait a minute. If we humans saw another human being caught in a trap, surely we would work to extricate that person, before reaching for a snack. That is given a visible tangible trap that can be mechanically sprung. Heck yah! I would be there and working hard at getting any person out of it, not just my cage mate. Of course there is the odd time or two I have driven by an accident. Granted others had stopped and I reasoned that I was not a nurse, doctor or otherwise in any way skilled to assist. Rats can’t rationalize.

But, truly, people are often in much more complicated and even invisible traps. And that is where it gets tricky and time and chocolate are often very helpful. Helpful because it takes patience and understanding; first to even recognize the trap that another person is in and then to slowly, cautiously proceed. Chocolate needed just on general principles.

I remember giving a 13th birthday party for a young man who had just come out of one of Virginia’s mental institutions into therapeutic foster care… not because he was mentally ill, but that’s another story. He threw the presents in my face and stomped out of the room. My first lesson in how truly there is no simple or glib answer to complicated human traps. I offered to take him back to the store to return the presents and get whatever he wanted. No, that wouldn’t work, he wasn’t allowed in the store because he had been caught shoplifting there.

Five years later on his 18th birthday, he had learned how to be happy and I knew just what to get him for his birthday. I held my breath and sent him off on a train to New Mexico to visit his Mom. It was a journey of immense proportions. The trap was sprung. It took a lot of time, a lot of patience and mostly in Jerzy Kosinski’s words “being there.” He was lucky, he had the heart to make it, others did not. My daughter found his picture on Facebook. In the photo, the is sitting with his son, a huge and genuine smile on his face. I haven’t contacted him, it would only be one of those glib momentary things, how could it be otherwise after all these years. I think of him often and hope his life is what he wants it to be.

And then there is the question, what if you are the person in the trap. That’s a different puzzle, because first you have to see that it is there, or allow someone else to point it out to you. Not easy. Only then the hard work of finding a way out can begin. There are ways to get help, twelve step programs, psychoanalysts, good friends who will abide with you. The you tube video of a the cage mate frantically searching for the trap door, which is what these rats did, while a pile of chocolate chips waits to be shared puts the level of difficulty of the two separate tasks in stark perspective. A trap door is a relatively straightforward task. Still it is worth noting that these rats would free the captive, even if the rat was released into another cage and they did not get to do the rat dance of joy and play with their mate. It is also interesting that they learned how to free their mates and eventually became masters of quicker releases.

Many of us have that altruistic disposition. But just now, I think we have entered a world of sharp and nearly violent differences of opinion and some of us just don’t seem to care what happens to the less fortunate. Some of us just don’t get that we, here on this small and increasingly fragile planet, are all cage mates. This calloused attitude will inevitably affect the poor of the world first. They are undefended against the changes that will erupt in the climate, in food supplies, politics and the like. Sooner or later it will affect everyone. Even the rats will find their efforts in vain. What good does it do to spring a trap when the world you escape into is no longer habitable? The rats will hardly notice and carry on as long as there is air to breathe and something to eat. They do have that beautiful single-mindedness of purpose. They proceed without question with what is necessary for their survival. Nature does that, much like the ants that Congo-line into the kitchen directly without fail to the spot of raspberry jam on the counter. How do they do that?

Stephen Hawking has announced that we had better ready the space ships; he thinks we have maybe 100 years left on this planet. He wasn’t clear on what exactly would be the instrument of our demise, our aggressive nature perhaps, or a final despoiling of this planet. My question is not, how we are going to get to another planet. I am relatively certain humankind can find a technological answer to space travel. It is not a problem, for us humans, trap springing of a certain kind. After all, “no matter where you go, there you are.”

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Erin's Grateful 5 for 11/08

1. driving over a bridge in the morning so covered in fog it was like crossing a blank page.
2. coming back over the same bridge after the sun burned all the mist away and seeing the bay opening up toward the sea.
3. espresso & chai & avocado fudge with Sarah after work.
4. kittens! naps!
5. murmurations of starlings.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Why Essays

I want to write essays. That said, my knowledge of exactly what an essay is, is fairly undeveloped. I am a reader of essays. I am a fan of good essays. They talk to me when they are good. They take a subject, nearly any subject, and bring it to startling life. And I sit there reading, but feeling as if in a conversation, nodding and saying sometimes out loud, I get it. That’s why, that’s it, or I know exactly what you mean. However, this deductive understanding of what constitutes a good essay is not too helpful in the writing of them. Being a beginner, my mind is not yet agile enough to function as both reader and writer simultaneously.
So I have been reading essays and essays on essays and here is my favorite description from Louis Menand, editor of The Best American Essays of what an essay attempts to do and why, at least to me, it matters so much.
“Writing (essays) is a window. It opens onto vanished feelings and vanished worlds. Often it is the only window there is, the only access we will ever have to those things. It is more than a mere record, like a photograph, because it is also a sensibility, a point of view, a voice. It is a place where fifty or a hundred years from now, people will go to see – or to hear-- what it was like to be alive when we were alive.”
My father died when I was 16. He did not write essays or journals. He left me vivid memories. But those memories were captured in the mind of an adolescent. And even though as a child I instinctively knew this man loved me fiercely, and as I grew older that he was possibly the only person who really knew who I was, he died when I was an adolescent. That ability he had, to get me, was sometimes the source of angry exchanges. Never mind, that was ok too, as he was the only person in the family with whom it was ok to be angry. But he left in that complicated time in life, where it was easy to forget that he was my champion. I have revisited and amended those memories at times throughout my life; at the big steps, when I became an adult and when I had children. When I became older than he was when he died. I remember many of the things he said and did, I remember his intelligence and unerring moral compass, his tenderness, his lessons, but they are blurred and shaped and shifted by memory. So I fiercely wish I had that open window and that I could return to journals or essays and hear his voice. There are none.
I have a box of photo graphs. My father and uncle were amateur photographers, but serious about it. My father had a make-shift dark room in our kitchen and some days we would come to breakfast to find photos hanging on a laundry line there. I have dragged a big box of those photos with me every time I have moved. I study their faces for clues. Asking them, what are you thinking, are you happy on this day, in this moment, when my Dad pointed the camera at you?
They are mute; they smile back at me or look into his camera with a question rising to their faces. How they felt or thought or what they were talking about that day is left to my imagination, which on a good day, tells me yes, look they were happy. They were beautiful and talented. On a bad day, their photos just set me adrift.
My mother wrote two letters every week, one to her mother and one to her sister. My grandmother’s letters came on monogramed stationery in big looping script. Aunt Kitty was a private secretary and her letters came always neatly typed. Reading them disclosed little about what they thought about the big questions in life, but by their very presence they were reassuring. I don’t have my mother’s letters. I have no idea how she reported the news or particulars, the pains and triumphs of our family to these two important women in her life. I wish I had those letters in my hands. I am guessing that they were newsy, not particularly philosophical, but maybe I could read between the lines. These women stayed after the men were gone. They came closer and paid attention. They raised us. As for my mother, a reckless, fatherless teen was a challenge that she faced with dignity.

I have no illusions about my essay writing. It is for me, it is for my children and possibly, their children. I’m not sure I would have thought of doing this without having moved to Mexico. Writing to my daughters became the best way to stay aware of what was happening in their lives and so became something I did every day. MY children befriended me on Facebook, a brave act, because for them it was the easiest way to stay in touch. I could see their latest photos, their quips and comments and have some idea of what they were thinking that day. But for me posting on Facebook is a little like having a conversation in a station waiting for a train. Uncomfortable talk offered loudly over background noise, announcements in a public place, where there is way too much for the eye to see and ear to catch to actually pay close attention to anything. So we started a blog. And this blog feels like our private space. We are its only visitors and maybe a passerby stumbles upon it, fair enough. But it is one of the curiosities of modern communication that this blog can become a family letter to itself.
So I am searching for a voice, to leave some whiff of who I am behind and open a window on this time. It will most likely be an everyday voice, a summing up voice. I have lived much more than half of my life and there is a lot to summarize. And it is to this attempt to summarize that my mind naturally wanders. There are the big topics, the little topics and all the in- between. Big topics: what is a good life or a steady moral compass? How do you come to know yourself? What is that voice in your head? Or the little topics; this or that movie, book or quote, that I can’t live without, and maybe you will like too. Here’s why. Or, this morning in the garden, I saw… And then, there are the in-between topics, which for me could be the whole wide world of interesting things to look into just a little more. What is a cephalopod? What would we do without bees and bats? Why does Yoga work so well? At this past half-past point on the clock the world is chock full of topics to explore. So I hope to explore away and put thoughts into a voice. An honest voice that warns when a rant is brewing up ahead and that really tries to find the kernel of the thing beneath the rhetoric of deeply divided viewpoints. I want a voice that could become a sensibility coherent enough to open a window on this time of ours. Is it narcissistic, or a kindness, I can’t say yet, probably both. It is for my children and it is for me. And here again Louis Menand makes it clear to me…
“Inside your head, you’re yakking away to yourself all the time. What you are trying to do when you write is to transpose the yakking into verbal music; and the voice inside, when you find it, which can take hours or days or weeks, is not your speaking voice. It is your singing voice.”

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Stray Thoughts

The storm blew in with all the fury of the wounded, clearing away the last spider-thin strands of summer. Later, I came across a firefly who had lingered too long, unaware that he was flickering in vain at the city lights. Later still my life was unexpectedly dusted off and handed back to me, different than it was before. These are just a few of the infinite ways hearts can be broken and remade daily. Almost like they become fluid and fill the containers set before them, expanding and contracting with their surroundings. So when things shrink so small as to seem hollow, remember: Leave a light burning. Leave a window open. Things will change again.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Well, I Guess the Kid Doesn't Stay in the Picture if She's a Girl.

Oh, movies. How could you break my heart so? Don't you know how much I love you? I grew up loving you. Movie theater gift certificates were a standard Christmas gift in our household. I guess I've always known somewhere in my heart that you may not be doing right by me. Twice in one day, I was confronted with the fact that you most certainly aren't. I'm not really surprised. After all, the first woman to win an Oscar for best director was Kathryn Bigelow. IN 2009! For The Hurt Locker, a movie with an almost exclusively male cast. I'm hopeful that maybe once movies are more easily made outside of the studio system, with more female screenwriters, directors, etc. that this can change. I'm going to attempt to add the two videos that got me thinking about this today.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Bluish Skies

Last night a thunderstorm passed through just as the sun was setting. For about five minutes, the light was somewhere between purple and green and the sky above my neighborhood looked like a patchwork of about seven different kinds of weather. It faded so fast I almost couldn't believe it happened except I managed to snap one good picture before the clouds blew over and the light was gone. There is nothing like the sky to make you feel small and unknowing and grateful for it.

Thursday, August 4, 2011


I opened the compost bin today to spread some compost around a new tomato plant and there in the midst of it was a tiny frog. Not an inch long and perfect, it had probably caught a ride in on the squash plants I took out of the garden last week.

I took them out because I had guessed these mighty plants were the reason my dog was hiding under the bed, refusing to go outside. They covered everything and looked as if they were going to reach their whiskered face-like limbs right through the bedroom door. Or on a more practical note, maybe their spiny stems and leaves hurt her soft pink belly. At any rate, she would not go outside and that was a problem.

I think that is how it got there in the bin. But now in one week, the big fleshy leaves and juicy stems had changed to brown slippery sludge and the frog looked out of place. I am happy to say that this little tiny frog managed to jump a foot to the top of the barrel and out to find another shady leaf in the garden and the dog is out from under the bed, so order is restored, but those miles of squash vines are quickly melting, changing transforming into good earth.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

If Jellyfish Could Talk

What would they say. I got all fired up about this topic early in July, when stories surfaced, that blooms of jellyfish had shut down two nuclear power plants. One June 21st in western Japan and another in Torness, Scotland on the North Sea on June 30th. "Both plants were manually shut down due to high volumes of jellyfish fouling the cooling system water screens." Memorial Day weekend mauve stingers showed up on the coast of Florida, stinging over 1,000 people in one weekend. They had not been seen in Florida before.

I got curious. These swarms of jellyfish are called blooms, which seems appropriate as jellyfish bodies are radially symmetrical, a form more commonly associated with flowers. This symmetry allows them to swim or drift in a straight line in some fashion and apparently for great distances. They are the Medusozoa and number 2,770 different species in four different classes. They range in size from the Austrailian Irukundji, the size of a fingernail to the Lion's Mane that is 8 to 10 feet in diameter with tentacles 100 or more feet long. Some are beautiful, some are deadly and curiously the Portuguese Man of War is not one of them. It is actually a colony of four different critters. They sting to kill their lunch because they cannot afford to have a fish flopping around inside their soft bodies.

They are difficult to maintain in aquariums, but you can see them at Kure Beach at the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher and the Aquarium in Atlanta.

That's the fun stuff, now here is the scary bit.

Jellyfish have lived for over 600 million years, surviving five mass extinctions of plants and animals. They are 300 million years older than fish and insects and 3x older than dinosaurs.

We have 400 dead zones in our oceans. The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico was 5,200 square miles in 1985, this year it is estimated to have grown to 9,000 square miles. Most animals swim away from these dead zones or perish. Jellyfish don't mind this hostile environment. They can change the chemical makeup of the water shifting the entire food web. They remove more food energy from the seas than they put in. They gobble up plankton and small fish and in return they release sugary goo that only bacteria consume. But the story doesn't end there. The goo slows down the bacteria metabolism, because apparently they gorge on it and the only thing they release under these circumstances back into the water is, "ta dah" carbon dioxide. More acidic water, less oxygen, bigger dead zones. Reminiscent of the little old lady who swallowed the fly.

Most creatures do not like to eat jellyfish, those that do, loggerhead turtles for one, are in decline. We don't eat them for the most part as they have very little protein and an unappetizing texture. The Chinese go through 18 separate steps of preparation to make them somewhat edible.

So the jellyfish are creating a food web that is far more primitive and like one that existed 550 million years ago. Their blooms are thought to be a sign of a degraded environment and they are showing up in new places all over the world. So what would they say….maybe "Hi honey I'm home."

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Sarah & the little bean
This is the kitten Sarah and I rescued on Sunday. He is two weeks old and we have to bottle feed him every three hours. The vet said he's healthy and to bring him back for a check up in two weeks unless he seems sick. He is the cutest. I love him. We are trying to think of a name. Sarah calls him Grishnakh and I call him Atticus, so sometimes I end up calling him Grishnatticus. Once he's a little older and we can see more of his personality we'll probably decide for certain.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

panem et circenses

"… Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses" -Juvenal

 Bread and circuses. It seems like recently people care more about distractions from our problems than solutions to them. We look more and more like Rome before the fall, maybe because like Rome we think we can never fall. But I'm guessing the more people run out of bread, the less they will care about circuses.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Waiting for Rain


You would think that day after sunny day would be welcomed, but this is rainy season and every day we wait for rain.

Waiting in most cases involves resolution; the end of the line, the beginning of the movie. Waiting for rain, like waiting for true love, requires daily vigilance and dashed hopes. One watches the sky, looking for clouds. Where are they coming from, which way is the wind blowing, are the thunder heads building, are they headed this way? Sometimes the rain comes tantalizingly close and you can smell the earth. Certain that the next moment the drops will fall, you stand in the doorway, and then it passes you by…hopes dashed.

Rainy season should begin in mid-May. People who have lived here all their lives will tell you, May 15, Dia del Santa Cruz, it rained. By June, the rain would come every day to refresh the plants and wash the streets.

It is near the end of June and we have had only one big downpour. The weather in May was hotter and windier than usual. It is past the summer solstice and still the rains have not returned. The plants are confused, all these hours of daylight and no water at our feet. People all over the world are suffering from weather that is out of the ordinary. It leaves one wondering what to expect, restless, kind of itchy, sometimes despairing and waiting for the great relief of a rainy day.

Monday, June 20, 2011

A few favorite things about the beach, in no order...

1. How time stretches out and settles like a lazy cat.
2. Running on hot sand. The smell of salt & sunscreen.
3. How days hot & bright as a penny can dissolve into quiet and dream-like nights.
4. When an errant wave catches you by surprise & makes you shriek like you're six years old again.
5. The immensity of the backdrop makes the small moments happening in lives all around you stick out like a thousand sore thumbs.
6. the ocean.
7. the ocean
8. everything about the ocean.

pictures by myself & Boone Angel

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Becoming Real

Thanks for the intro, Mom! As I am in the midst of trying to find a new apartment and beginning to untangle the knot that is my student loan debt, I've been more than slightly stressed lately. In a near constant state of frazzle. So, I remind myself of my favorite quote from the Velveteen Rabbit. I try to convince myself that even though it may feel like I'm coming a little unhinged, maybe it's more true that I am becoming real. Not necessarily a comfortable process. But worthwhile things rarely are. Are they? Photo credit to the lovely Kathleen Moore.

“'It doesn't happen all at once,' said the Skin Horse. 'You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in your joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand.'” -Margery Williams


Perplexity ….


My daughters, Sarah and Erin, and I have decided to start a blog. Mostly for our own use, but whoever arrives at these pages is welcome to add their thoughts, opinions, rants or plain two cents. In the end it gives us the chance to have a long conversation with each other, and a place to put pictures, quotes, and links that we like.

In part it is a kindness to me, as I find Facebook a strange and public device. It seems to me to be like a highway with the old burma shave billboards; you drive by comments in big letters and keep moving on. I hesitate to put anything on it, especially my status, whatever that is; because it isn't a conversation, it is an announcement. A very public pronouncement and in fact it is all in the public domain. A blog seems to be, strangely, a more private communication. People have to make a purposeful detour to find it. It is available to friends who know you, but people can stumble upon it and like or vehemently disagree with what you have to say. It leaves room for musing and discussion, even argument

We talked about calling this blog, the blog for the perplexed. A good word, perplexity….for me it replaces ironic as a word to explain our times. We had googled "Maimonides Guide for the Perplexed" out of curiosity and because yes, we are perplexed. Oh great, a guide… What a work of sheer madness that was, the scope was enormous, the influence far reaching. Written in Arabic, it was translated into Hebrew and written in three parts to explain God, the law of the Torah and Jewish mysticism. It was used by Christian religious scholars and Rabbis and maintained that some principles of Jewish mysticism are so complex that they can only be taught to a few learned scholars and then only obliquely through "hints." Of course this great work did not settle the world down into meaningful law and order or useful mysticism. The perplexed are still here.

So every day new perplexities beg to be discussed.

Some personal perplexities……

  • How can we possibly be so worried about leaving our children debt and not in the least deeply concerned about what kind of water, air and dirt they will inherit. When that plane full of soccer players crashed in the Andes the only two expendables on the plane were the money, which they burned for heat and their dead friends, whom they ate. Survival makes for tough choices. Not a pretty picture.


  • I read a well thought out and informative article about roundup ready corn and soybeans. It was disheartening that most of the research quoted in the article had been done in Europe and that the person who wanted funds to summarize the research was denied funding in the US. The research from Europe pointed to serious hazards of both roundup and the genetically altered corn and soybeans. But the truly frightening stuff began falling on me when I read the comments, which were polarized and vitriolic to say the least. How do we ever get to the bottom of something when no one will stop shooting long enough to read the footnotes.


  • I have five blossoms on an orchid in my back yard. They are still closed buds. Every morning five beautiful furry bumblebees come to visit these buds and hover over them. It is not clear what mojo they are performing. But here is the perplexity. How do they know there are five buds and how do they form a small squadron of five bees to grace these buds. Are they communicating bee to bee and bud to bee? That is a pretty picture.