Saturday, May 31, 2014

On Call

The month of May ends in a similar state of mind with which it began: being on call, on call, waiting for phone messages, e-mails, texts.

On call started May 2 when my phone rang during a union delegate assembly meeting. It was my sister.

I silenced the phone, and sent her a text: "In a meeting. Is this urgent?"

My sisters and I don't usually just call each other out of the blue. We talk via e-mail and Facebook, and usually if we're going to talk, arrange for a convenient time to call.

"Nothing real urgent," my sister texted back. "Mom's in the hospital. Doctor sent her in."

That felt urgent. Our mother had had a planned surgery a couple of months earlier, which she was healing well from. But she had been suffering flu-like symptoms for the past week or so. Still, the flu is the flu. A hospital check-in seemed to create a state of high alert.

Of the three of us, this particular sister lived the closest to my parents. She could drive up in two and a half hours.

"Are you going up?"

"No, and I don't really know what to do," she replied. "I can drop everything and go with a moment's notice. But when do I do that? When do I make that choice?"

"I think when you're asked," I replied. "At their age, it seems to make sense of all of us to be on call."

And so the waiting began. The three of us called our parents repeatedly on Saturday and Sunday, and text-messaged each other, as well.

Things seemed stable but uncertain.

Early Monday morning, my sister called again. "I just spoke to mom. There's an infection that's spread to her stomach. She asked me to come. I'm leaving now."

My husband and I quickly made plans to go, as soon as we were asked. We did some hasty texting and made arrangements for someone to take care of our farm animals and house chickens, if necessary.

An emergency surgery took place, followed by a few days in intensive care. My sister and my father were there, as were several close friends of the family.

The phone calls, e-mails, and text-messages continued. "Would you like me to come?" "For how long?" "When?"

The answers were always affirmative and non-committal. "Yes, when she gets home." "She will need help." But when and what kind of help were unknown.

I canceled commitments, and then rescheduled them. I tried to continue with life, as normal. But I was "on call" now, and prepared to drop everything.

Friends and colleagues were solicitous, supportive, and kind. A whole universe of people -- some who were very close to my mother as well as some who had never met her because they barely knew me -- began sending her prayers, healing energies, and other well wishes for a speedy recovery.

Other friends set up cooking and visit schedules to ensure that both she and my father were cared for. They helped reassure my sisters and me that my father was holding up okay and was being taken care of, and that there wasn't much anyone outside of the medical team could do for my mother until she left the hospital. Their logic made sense, and as the days stretched into first one and then two and then nearly three weeks, the sense of alert eased. We were still on call, but with less urgency than before.

With the end of May looming and summer plans and decisions to make facing us, my sisters and I compared schedules and notes and made a plan. One of us would go around the time she was expected to be released from the hospital. I would go for eleven days in early June, in between a conference and a work commitment, and the third one -- the one who lived closest -- would fill in the gaps, as needed. Our plans ended up coinciding with my mother's recovery fairly well. She left the hospital on the second to last Thursday in May and the first sister arrived the next day.

Now, it is the last day of May, and I am on my way. I have come to realize that I am not traveling alone. I am traveling with the stress and tension of being on call, and I am realizing that that stress has been cutting into my energy reserves. While my sister was with my parents last week, I did not call home quite as often. I did not call on the day she left or the day after.

Last night, as I was preparing for bed, I saw that I had received a voice mail. From my father. He sounded tired. He wanted to know how I was doing.

I sent back a text saying I was find, had come home from the conference and would call in the morning.

Friday, May 30, 2014

2:15 p.m.

After two days of gray glum, the sun broke through the clouds. I was both elated and frustrated. Elated to finally feel warmth. Frustrated because this was the one day that I could not ride my bike. I was wearing a skirt, carrying my computer and phone with their attendant chargers in a shoulder bag, and after my 8:30 a.m. presentation, had a full morning of other talks to attend and a three and a half hour drive Ithaca to Saratoga.

In addition to these travails was the fact that my bike and I would be parting company the next day for a full 20 days. After a night at home, I was scheduled to fly out the next day for an 11-day trip to Indiana. I would fly back and leave again the morning after returning for Salt Lake City. I like traveling and I was looking forward to the trips, but I also was anxious about the toll that the travel would take on my training.

And, then, I devised a plan: I could leave Ithaca as early in the afternoon as possible and sneak back into Saratoga quietly. Quietly means arriving a couple of hours earlier than the official arrival time I would give my husband. I could sneak in a bike ride in Saratoga and a swim at the local Y, and then conveniently have him meet me at the laundromat with dirty clothes. He had to pick me up anyway because I had rented a car and after returning the vehicle I would need a ride home.

Now, don't get me wrong. I don't lie to my husband as a matter of practice. I just get a little frustrated at times when he throws up barriers to things like my training, usually with the entirely logical and truthful argument that there isn't enough time. The problem is, he and I tend to view time differently. He gets perplexed if there's more than one or two things on the day's agenda. I prefer it when the days are fairly loose and relaxed, but I also thrive on sandwiching seven or eight or even more tasks or errands into a compressed space. So, in my mind, it made perfect sense for me to wake up at 6 a.m., pack up my car and check out of the dorm room where I was staying, give my talk, support my peers, have lunch, drive three and a half hours home, sneak in a bike ride and swim, and then have him meet me at the laundromat. I envisioned the day even more elaborately, thinking that I could use the time that the clothes were in the wash to pick up a couple of prescription refills at the Rite-Aid and do my expense report. And I further believed that we could just bring the wet clothes home and put them in our dryer to save a few quarters since our dryer -- contrary to our worthless washer -- was working fine.

And, so at 2:15 p.m., I got in the car and began the drive home.

Quickly, fate conspired to foil my plans. First, the voice guidance for the GPS on my smart phone didn't work, which forced me to keep looking at the Google Maps app while driving in order to know where I was going. Trying to do this and not create an accident caused me to miss a key turn and, as a result, I ended up on a 15-minute detour on tight, windy country roads. Next, as I neared the Albany urban area, I missed another turn. Rebounding from this error put me into heavy rush-hour traffic that culminated with gridlock on yet another country road. As traffic slowed to a crawl, the skies opened and rain pelted down. I decided to call my husband. "I'm stuck in traffic and a thunderstorm," I said. "Do you still want to meet me at the laundromat?"

I still had hopes that I might be able to sneak in a bike ride, a short one, if it stopped raining. I figured that I could drop my bags at my office, drive to the rental car office, get my bike out, and after returning the car, bike to the laundromat, which is just around the corner from my office. Only, by this point, my wise husband had caught on apparently to my tricks.

"It's too late to do laundry," he said. "At some point we have to eat tonight."

I shrugged my shoulders and assented. He was right.

Traffic finally eased, and I managed to get to my office -- where we agreed that we would meet -- at about 6:45 p.m. I was worn out from the drive, the traffic, and the various mishaps, and he was frustrated because he was waiting for me before putting gas in the car. But the rain had ceased and the evening sun was once again warming things up. We returned the car, decided to go home and grill burgers and enjoy the evening on our deck.

We made it home a little before 8. I emptied out the car as he lit the grill.

And then the skies opened up once again.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Archives of the Ordinary

I have had the opportunity to return this week to the Hip Hop Special Collection at Cornell University. After spending time at the archive last fall and experiencing the collection of materials on hip-hop stored in the Rare Manuscripts Division at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, I was much better prepared for what I might encounter on this visit. I am in Ithaca this week for a few days attending a conference, and am using free spaces in between the various conference offerings to spend time in the archives.

Knowing that I would have a little more luxury of time, I decided that I would request access to materials donated to Cornell by Charlie Ahearn.

What I have found in my first day with the two big boxes of materials that Ahearn donated is mind-boggling, puzzling in some ways, and very touching. Even though I have never met the man and until my first encounter with his materials in the Hip Hop Special Collection knew very little about him and his contributions to hip hop's history and evolution as a global culture, my experience with his materials makes me feel as if I would like to get to know him. I am intrigued by what he took the time to save and chose to donate to Cornell, and I am eager to find out more.

Who is Charlie Ahearn? Most people in hip hop circles know him as the director of Wild Style, a 1983 documentary style film that is regarded as one of the classic films of the early beginnings of hip hop. What I learned from a quick Google search after poring through a series of images, media articles, photographs, handwritten notes, and postcards is that he has been a longtime film director, freelance writer, and radio host. He was born in 1951 in Binghamton, New York, and moved to New York City in 1973 to attend a studio arts program at the Whitney Museum of American Art. With his twin brother John, he became involved with an artists group known as Colab -- or Collaborative Artists.

His interest in hip hop was seeded when he began filming kids in the Smith projects neighborhood where he lived in the late 1970s who were dancing in the streets. "There was a gym at the Smith projects and kids would come there and dance," Ahearn said in an interview with JayQuan, available at" I distinctly remember hearing the DJ cutting up James Brown , and the kids would drop to one leg , and stick the other leg out in synchronous fashion like a line of guys at once. To this honky from upstate New York it looked like tribal dancing , I had never seen anything like it , and I didn’t know what Breakdancing was at the time. But I did have my camera and I would tape this even though I didn’t know what it was. I was very excited by this." Adding to the mix were giant-sized murals that renowned graffiti artist Lee Quinones was making at the time.

Intrigue with the arts escalated into professional practice as Ahearn began creating films to show in the area projects, interviewing the artists themselves, and then in 1980 meeting Fred Braithwaite ("Fab Five Freddy") who told Ahearn he wanted to talk to him about making movies. From there, he was in the middle of hip hop and his work on "Wild Style" began.

Some of Ahearn's Wild Style contributions were part of the "Now Scream" exhibit that the Cornell Rare Books and Manuscripts Collection (of which the Hip Hop Special Collection is a part) organized in 2013. What I went through at the Hip Hop Special Collection today, however, differed from what I remembered viewing in that exhibit last fall. While I still have several more folders and another big box to go through, what I saw today offered a variety of different perspectives on what hip-hop meant in its beginning years. Ahearn, for instance, saved flyers for a kung-fu school and a range of images featuring martial arts performances, often in publications in Asian languages. He himself described kung-fu movies as "the common bond for '70s street culture as kids from all boros poured into the 42nd Street theaters" in a pitch for a "Wild Style prequel" that he included in the collection. The multi-racial and multi-lingual dimensions of these works interested me as they seemed to speak to the hybridity of forces that cohered into the artistic and cultural practices that are associated today with hip hop. With this poly-cultural focus also came a sense that preparation for war and performance of dance were interdependent. This aspect of Ahearn's collections resonated with understandings of the practice of martial arts that I had picked up in my studies of tai chi in the 1990s as being simultaneously about promoting personal health and preparing one's self for battle and self-defense should the need arise.

Also built into Ahearn's contributions to the archive was a sense through his journalistic writings of living conditions in the New York City boroughs where hip hop thrived. They weren't pretty. Even after the early hip hop artists (Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa, and DJ Kool Herc, among others) began promoting their messages of self-discipline, knowledge, unity, enjoyment, and peace, life was violent. Ahearn's articles document a shooting at a jam where Grandmaster Flash was spinning as well as violence in the South Bronx neighborhood where his brother John was making plaster casts of individuals for an upcoming gallery show. These "tell it like it is, not how you'd like to imagine it to be" slices of hip hop life are instructive as I continue to try and build my knowledge of a past in which I was alive but did not (could not?) live as those who created hip hop did.

These insights were underscored by a review of "Wild Style" in the collection that described the film as follows: “Shot in the sturdy, no-frills manner of a 1950s industrial documentary, Wild Style rises above the cartoon cooning of feel-good bullshit like Breakin’ (1984) and Beat Street (1984) and Rappin’ (1985). Ahearn mixes into the narrative performances from true schoolers like the Cold Crush Brothers and the Rock Steady Crew, and reveals the roots of hardcore hip hop." The reviewer goes on to note that Wild Style also "takes a political view of the Downtown art scene, celebrating its racial diversity but also exposing its ‘voyeuristic fascination with the other.’ "

I left the collection when it closed at 4:30. Reflecting on the experience later, I thought about what it meant to save and what it meant to discard. One could make an argument that library archives house nothing that is outside the realm of the ordinary. What Charlie Ahearn offered were boxes of pictures, images, newspaper clippings, typewritten pages of manuscripts, posters, flyers, brochures, and materials of a similar nature. They were pieces of his life, and because he became a documentarian of hip hop, they have become valuable to those of us who seek to explore hip hop more. Within this ordinary past emerged something quite extraordinary that is likely to persist for generations to come.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Sleeping through time

A writer-friend posted on Facebook that a barking dog woke her up at 5 a.m. Unable to get back to sleep, she wrote a modern-day story of a Rip Van Winkle type who wakes up after sleeping for twenty-five years. The post led me to ponder what it might be like to have woken up this morning after having been asleep for twenty-five years. What follows is a reflection on what one would have missed.

So, twenty-five years ago would have been May 27, 1989. To fall asleep on May 26, 1989, and to awaken today, one would not know about:

* Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, and the Persian Gulf War that resulted from it.

* The crumbling of the Berlin Wall and the fall of the symbolic Iron Curtain.

* The creation of perhaps two dozen new nation-states, and untold violence that resulted from these changes.

* The complete revolution in how we communicate with each other via technology, whether we're talking about individuals sharing space in a single room or individuals living separately from each other on opposite ends of the globe.

* The election of the first African American president of the United States, and a new surge in democratic participation.

* The massive popularity of hip-hop and its evolution into a worldwide political and cultural movement.

* Electric cars.

* Rises in ocean water as a result of increasing heating of the planet.

* The Tea Party backlash to the election of the first African American president.

* Untold numbers of shootings in elementary, middle, and high schools and on college campuses.

* The increasing -- and logical -- decriminalization of marijuana.

* The validation -- and again logical -- of same sex marriages.

* The fact that people are living longer with such terminal illnesses as HIV/AIDS and cancer, and that treatments are creating conditions where their lives are healthier and fuller.

* The fact that income disparities in this country and across the world put the increasingly sophisticated technologies of health care out of reach for many.

* A revival of personal sustainability in the form of backyard farming, along with the revival of a local farms economy.

* The elevated prestige of cats in the middle class American householder's life.

* Facebook, Twitter, blogs, wikis, and other tools grouped into that category we call social media.

* The rebirth of the newspaper.

* The demise of the pay phone booth.

* ATM fees.

* Dot.coms, bubble economies, and reverse mortgages.

* The creation of the Rock Hall of Fame.

* Self-publishing.

* Cell phones, smart phones, and text messaging.

* Digital photos.

* Cameras embedded into cell phones.

* Fish nibbling treatments to rid the feet of dried skin.

* Compost.

* The efforts by the Bush family to forge a political dynasty.

* Hillary Clinton.


* Netflix

* Pay per view, rent on demand.

* September 11, 2001.

* "You're either with us or against us."

* Learning management software systems.

* Online learning.

* Adjunct professors.

* Contractual employment.

* Downsizing.

* Restructuring.

* Junk bonds.

* The global distribution of Starbucks.

* The demise of Frederick & Nelson in Seattle, and the loss of the local Woolworth all over the United States.

* laptop computers.

* Microsoft Word.

* The disappearance of the land line.

* And with it the loss of the dial phone.

* The disappearance of the local telephone book.

* The end of the factory town.

* The demise of job security.

* The gutting of social security.

* The passage of the first significantly progressive federal health care program for all peoples in the United States.

* The idea that one could write 750 words every day on a computer and earn "badges" of merit.

* Massive-open-online courses (or MOOCs).

* Flash mobs.

* Flash drives.

That's a partial list. I'm sure there's quite a bit more.

On a personal level, if I had slept through the past twenty-five years, I would not have bought a house in Seattle, moved to Hawai'i, earned a master's and doctoral degree, moved back to Seattle, and moved to New York. I would not have gotten married, and I would not have had the joy of the numerous cats who brought fur, purrs, and peace to my household post-1989. I would not have run ten marathons, and I would not have tried a triathlon. I would not have leapt out of one career as a journalist into another one as an academic. I often feel as if I do sleep walk through certain aspects of popular culture -- what's hot on TV or what's playing in the cinema, for instance -- but that is because life is busy and full. I do my best to sleep eight hours a night, in order to enjoy that busy-ness to its utmost.

Monday, May 26, 2014

The face behind the story

A funny thing happened today. I went to the Saratoga YMCA for a swim, and as I was in the locker room, I saw one of the staffers with whom I often chat. She asked me how I was doing and I told her that I was going to be traveling for the next twenty-four days, on a schedule where I would be gone for several days, back for one day and then gone again. I laughed and said that I had planned all of my swim workouts around the days that I would be in Saratoga.

As we spoke, a pleasant faced woman approached me. She asked me if I was training for a triathlon, and said she had seen me running the other day. I didn't think that I knew her, but she seemed nice enough so we started talking about triathlons.

She mentioned that a biathlon that she likes to do each year wasn't going to take place this year, and I said, "Oh, is that the one in August at Lake Desolation?"

She said, "Yeah, that one."

I said, "My neighbor does it, and was telling me about it. Her name is Kathy."

The pleasant woman laughed. "That's me. I'm your neighbor. I'm Kathy."

I was completely embarrassed and a bit surprised. In the world that I live, I interact sometimes with several dozen people a day, usually in specific contexts: work, professional and/or academic gatherings, the farmers markets, the Y, my neighborhood, and so forth. Often, I know people on the basis of the stories they tell me about their lives and their interests. I recognize their faces by putting those faces in particular places. It helps particularly when I'm in large gatherings to see name badges. Those badges -- annoying, perhaps -- are useful for matching faces, names, and places that helps me keep some of the different worlds with which I interact apart.

But what was odd with Kathy is that I associate her with not only my neighborhood but also with sports and with homesteading. Like me and my husband Jim, she and her husband Rich raise chickens and grow vegetables. Kathy in fact has gone a few steps further even by making her own soap and collecting honey from her own bees. The fact that she does these things and runs and swims regularly while also working full time and raising children infuses me with the sort of "I can do it, too," inspiration that energizes me day-in and day-out. The fact that I knew that she did the biathlon speaks to the fact that I did know her on the basis of part of her story. But to allude to my neighbor Kathy while actually speaking to Kathy left me shaking my head in puzzlement.

We chatted for a few more minutes, and as we parted, I apologized for not recognizing her.

She said, "It's okay. Your world is so different. It's not easy doing what you do. I work with kids and so when I see an adult, I know them right away. You're around adults all the time so when you see one you know, they're just another person."

"Actually," I replied with a laugh. "I am on the Internet all the time. It's when I actually I see people that I blank out. As long as they have name tags, or I see them on Facebook, I'm good."

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Writer or Hack?

The prompt today from is to write a piece as if you were preparing to submit it to a particular journal. It strikes me that last year this prompt would have worked for me marvelously because I was trying to get away from academic writing and experiment with creative work. A  year later, I find myself feeling more creatively pulled by academic work even as the academic milieu sometimes leaves me feeling put off.

A lot of people tell me that academic work is stifling and has to fit a particular formula. A lot of people used to tell me the same thing about journalism. As a journalist, I used to react to this commentary with a sense of humiliation and shame. Embedded in the comments was a line, it seemed, between the "real writers" and the "hacks", with the hacks being the journalists like myself who had to resort to formulas and editors in order to get published. As a result, it was interesting to discover when I finally summoned up the nerve -- after working for a decade as a daily newspaper journalist -- to take a creative writing class that so many of my classmates were envious of the fact that I had been "published." It was even more insightful to discover another decade or so later that creative writers would love to have had jobs as journalists and were mildly shocked when I divulged that I found academic writing more freeing and intellectually inspiring. They couldn't understand why I did not want to go back to work as a journalist. Whereas I was puzzled: why work as a journalist when one can work as a professor instead?

After three decades of writing for a living -- as a newspaper journalist, as an academician, and as a creative writer -- I just shrug when people make claims about what is and what is not creative writing. But I do continue to ponder the point myself, and wonder what it is that constitutes the writer. In short, I try to figure out: am I a writer or am I a hack?

By some definitions, I never should have taken up writing. I don't fit the profile for a number of reasons: I didn't keep a diary as a child; I didn't write poetry  late at night; I didn't worship famous writers; and I didn't want to spend all of my spare time curled up with a good book. I found used bookstores to be slightly eerie, though I have come to acknowledge that they can be exciting and innovative sites of discovery. And, well, if truth be told, I like reading, but I don't love it. I see it as a job, a job that's not unpleasant, but a job. So what do I do when I'm not reading or writing? Well, scores of other things: I garden. I cook. I eat. I work out. I train for marathons and triathlons. I volunteer with the local farmers and with a number of other community groups. I pet my cats, and dream about the endless number of ways that I can prolong the lives of my potted arugula and cilantro plants. I husk beans. I dehydrate garlic. And I write.

In the spirit of keeping with's prompt, I did search for a potential publication -- and happily I found one. Not for this story, but for another piece to come -- featuring tarot and poetry. The site reminded me of my fondness for reading tarot (God-fearing Christians cover your ears), and it also reminded me of where I first discovered my own skills with reading tarot: at the Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City, Iowa, during the Iowa Summer Writers Festival in 2003. A few months earlier, several psychics had suggested that I try acquiring a divination tool so when I found a kit at that bookstore, I decided to give it a try. I found that tarot stimulated my creative impulses in a number of ways, and I liked using it as a way to read into my heart and soul and to offer suggestions as to what might be going on in the lives of others, as well. The use of tarot seemed to pair well with a story that another participant at the summer writers festival shared, which was about her way of using dreams not to analyze reality but to round out the lives of her created characters and to make the real increasingly surreal. I look forward to creating a story about tarot that might find a home in this particular publication sometime in the future.

But for now, it seems that my mind, body, and spirit are traveling a different path. Life is full and it is cluttered. Writing is a practice in a sense of making sense of the mess. Whether that's creative, journalistic, academic, or merely the mark of being the hack, it's useful to remind one's self that one doesn't always write for the purposes of being published.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Drugs of choice

I am struggling to stay awake as I work through Day 24 of the National Short Story Month. Tonight's story prompt is to write a story evoked by the theme of the Beach Boys hit "Good Vibrations." As I have thought about the myriad possibilities that this prompt presents a writer, my mind has gone to the fact that my writing practice depends in part on being a night owl, and being willing to stay up until close to midnight -- and even later on some nights -- to get the story of the day. I could try and change the practice, but I also feel that there is a "good vibration" in doing the piece just before I drift off to sleep. It sort of lets me retire for the next with peace.

I really am tired tonight. I woke up at about 6:45 a.m. to make halwa for the farmers market. I was at the garden until about 1:30, and then swam 1,800 yards before coming home to weed. It was a good day, but a day that didn't give me much chance to sit down. It does mean that hopefully I will sleep long and deep tonight, and be refreshed. It's supposed to be sunny and warm tomorrow, a  perfect day to be outdoors.

Ever since I quit drinking, I have joked that sleep is my drug of choice. I always think that I can easily sleep nine hours a night, but the reality is that a day of nine hours of sleep followed by several days of eight hours of sleep usually does a lot to keep me alert and alive. It's the seven hours coupled with lots of time on my feet and good workouts that do me in. As for five hours, I can't believe I used to manage on that little sleep. When I only get five hours of sleep now, I feel like I begin the day with a round of the flu.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Leaving for a month

I'll be leaving the Squashville Farm on Tuesday for nearly a month. I'm driving first to Ithaca for a conference on instructional technologies and to spend some time in Cornell University's Hip-Hop Special Collection. I drive back Friday, and fly out Saturday for Indiana, where I'll spend eleven days with my parents. I fly back and fly out immediately the next morning for Salt Lake City, Utah, to serve as a reader of US Government and Politics exams, a seven-day work assignment in which I've participated for the past seven years.

I didn't exactly plan to leave for this much time during the peak planting season. But life rarely works out as one might hope. Fortunately, my husband Jim and I are in our fourth year of raising food in northeastern New York, and have gotten a slightly better handle as to when in the growing season we should get certain plants in the ground. Over the past week, we have transplanted tomato seedlings, peppers, and tomatillas. The next three days call for basil, stevia, eggplants, more pepper plants, and one of our new experiments this year: okra. From there, Jim will transplant squash and plant beans, and probably more peas, unless I can sneak in a few minutes between now and Tuesday to get another row and another trellis into the ground.

But planting isn't my only concern. There's also a matter of harvesting what's growing now. Here's where the dilemma lies. For the first time in two years, our potted cilantro is actually producing the kind of healthy abundance that makes me cheer. Same with the arugula. The problem, however, is this: If we don't keep clipping leaves from the two plants, they'll bolt -- code in gardening language for "go to seed". And as the days get hotter and hotter, I'm afraid that starting new seeds may mean that we'll get little more than spindly plants that wither and dry up in the heat. The quandary is especially acute for cilantro, which is one of our herbs of choice for seasoning the jars and jars of salsa that we like to make when the tomatoes are at their peak. Only issue is that while the cilantro is blossoming, the tomatoes are far from flowering. They're small healthy little upstarts at this point that show promise of maturing -- sometime in mid- to late July.

After pondering the problem, I've settled on a strategy. I'm going to buy hydroponic tomatoes at the farmers' market tomorrow and make fresh salsa. That will allow me to put the existing cilantro to good use and hopefully encourage the plant to keep producing for a week. When I'm back home next Friday, I'll clip off more cilantro. In the meantime, while the temperatures are still somewhat cool, we'll start the third of our five seeding disks. And we'll start the remaining two after that in intervals of two to three weeks. I'm hoping that these strategies will keep the cilantro fresh and pungent until our own tomato plants start producing, and allow for the production of coriander seeds once the plants begin to bolt.

As for the arugula, the plan is to make pesto. I had thought that I would leave the plant intact so that Jim could make himself salads, but he's clueless when it comes to making salads. Speaking of which, salad greens take twenty-one days to mature. So my hope is to plant a bed of salad greens on Monday, and if all goes as planned, start harvesting them when I am back home.

Dilemmas like these might seem trivial, but they underscore in a lot of ways the issues that one considers on the journey of grow-your-own. Sure, if the cilantro bolts and the arugula starts to flower and turn tough, we can buy replenishments from the farmers who sell at the farmers market or, gasp, purchase bunches for a couple dollars at the grocery store. But why do that? Why not try and make your own crop last? Food -- even herbs -- straight from the ground tastes so much better than even the fresh-picked offerings that local farmers make. And we ourselves have invested a fair amount already in getting the plants to grow: pots, potting soil, seeds, water, and fertilizer -- not to mention time and labor.

On a related note, I was doing an inventory of the refrigerator as part of the countdown to departure. Because we eat fresh, our refrigerator usually doesn't hold a whole lot of stuff. What's in there is meant to be eaten within a few days. But last Saturday we bought a four-pound chicken, raised by our friends Dave and Liza Porter of Homestead Artisans and processed (farmer code for taken to the butcher) just a few days before we bought it. We enjoyed an exquisite roast chicken dish, and a stir fry -- leftovers of which are among the items in the frij. I also made a broth with the carcass, and used about half the broth tonight in a risotto. The issue is that half the broth remains along with a jar of mushroom broth -- the liquid left from reconstituting dried mushrooms, which is quite flavorful.

I asked Jim if he would know to do something with the broths. He cooks -- pretty well -- almost all the time so this is not a situation where I'm foisting domestic culinary skills on a man with a hunt-and-gather type mentality. At first he said he would. Then he thought about it and said he probably wouldn't. I suggested that I make some soups, and asked him if he would know to eat them. Again, at first he said he would. Then he worried that he might forget they were there. So between now and Monday, my other task is to figure out what to do with these broths so they won't go to waste.

One answer is to freeze them, and use them when I return. The only issue with that is that we have several jars of broths past frozen solid in our freezer that indicate to me that freezing something that really is best fresh is a way of wasting it. And so it goes.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Lettuce, Basket, Happen

(Inspired by a prompt to use nine words -- lettuce, basket, happen, winter, sister, monster, supper, subject, and puppet -- in a story. I thought I'd try shorts themed around each one of these. Only made it through three before drifting off to sleep.)

For years, it used to be defined as a head, a head with a rigid core. To eat it, the core needed to be broken. To break the core, you seized the head on the top and banged it repeatedly on a chopping board or kitchen counter. Then, when the core had snapped, the most tender leaves around it were released, and you were good to go.
We stopped eating lettuce when we learned that it had less nutritional value than water. And then we discovered romaine, leafy greens and leafy reds, mesclun, spicy greens, arugula, and sprouts. Now, we struggle to plant the greens to create nightly salads. But the tender leaves lack a core, and without it, seem never quite able in our soil to stand up.

What would happen if you tried to grow all of the fruits and vegetables you ate? Would the local grocery go out of business? Would Wal-Mart be shamed into paying employees what their worth? Would big box retailers control our lives or would we control theirs?
There are myths about soil -- that it is infertile, toxic, incapable of supporting the seed life necessary to produce food.
I wonder if those myths are figments of the imagination, or the product of the vast right wing conspiracy -- remember that?
When we bought our home, it came with three acres, a barn, a milk shed, and a chicken coop. And a dirt-bike track.
You'll need to invest some significant money if you hope to have a garden, we were told. You'll need a landscaper to come in and make some serious re-adjustments to the soil.
A previous owner told us he had never been able to do a garden. All the pesticides and fertilizers in the world couldn't help.
We stopped mowing the lawn, and we planted thing, using natural fertilizers and no pesticides. Within weeks, we had food. Tonight is May 22. The carrots, green beans, and garlic from last year met arugula and tatsoi of this year in a savory stir fry. It all came from the land. Our land.

I miss the hand-woven basket. The baskets that I encounter today are plastic. Durable, cheap, and functional. For laundry, for freshly harvested garlic bulbs, for garden tools, eggs, salad spinning, more. As children, we wove baskets all the time. I still remember putting together the basic frame and gathering the materials to do the in-out motion. At some point in childhood, the weaving stopped. Today, it seems to be a lost art.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014



My cellphone whistle sounded, alerting me that I had received a text message.

It was my husband Jim.

"I'm here."

"Come on up," I text-messaged him back.

"Not at your office," he replied. "At the farmers market."

"Oh, hang on."


"Hang on," I replied. "Someone's in my office, giving me some advice."

"How much money should I give Liza?"

"Wait till I get there."


"Hold on, I'm en route. I was just negotiating a bergamot deal."


The back story behind this text-messaging exchange is all about the vivid world of a new economy, one that's based less on the commodified notions of late capitalism that have shaped almost every paradigm informing the social relationship of buying and selling goods and more on a twenty-first century understanding of the power of having suppliers and something to exchange.

Now, I realize that the declaration I just made will probably get me into a lot of trouble. Places like the farmers market are capitalistic, entrepreneurial, and based on making profits and dealing with losses through and through. The person in my office giving me advice was a professor of business with a specialization in personal finance. He was delivering his services informally -- meaning without any prior negotiation or discussion -- on the basis of being a colleague and friend whom I had helped out with my writing and editing expertise earlier.  As for the bergamot, it's growing wildly in the backyard of another friend and colleague. She wanted to know what to do with it. I suggested, jokingly, that she give some of it to me. "By all means," she replied. "Come on down, and take as much as you want." I owe this colleague, by the way, a piece of my husband's sourdough starter, but that's a separate story. And, as for Liza, she and her husband Dave raise pigs, goats, and chickens. They helped us get started with our practice of raising chickens two years ago, and we currently are planning a swap of meat birds, post-"processing". Their goats produce an excess of manure, which they gladly give us in exchange for a few hours of extra help a couple times a year when it's time to clean the barn. The money to which Jim was referring was for part of a down payment on a pig that they will raise and have butchered and "processed" into meat that we will then enjoy in the fall and winter.

Economics has never been my strongest or my favorite subject. I took it as a sort of honors class in high school, during which I failed miserably at making money (made-up money) on the stock market but learned for the first time that Karl Marx and communism weren't exactly quite as evil as the Cold War rhetoric of the late 1970s and early 1980s had proclaimed. In fact, to my surprise, Marx actually made a lot of sense. That's probably no surprise when one realizes -- as I came to do so a couple decades later in graduate school -- that Marx's work was really not a blueprint for a communist society as much as it was a critique of capitalism. It was only when capitalism had become the modus operandi of the entire planet, a development that would culminate in the planet's destruction, that communism could flower. Until then, workers would be oppressed and capitalists would control.

These days, in the rural community in which I live, capitalism seems as if it's reached its limit. Restaurants open that nobody can afford and go out of business. Boutique stores peddle useless items that seem to never leave the shelves. And in the meantime scores of people are engaged in what I'll define as practices of great giveaways: Since they can give no money, they give food or time, and accept more or less the same in return.

"We're settled."

I was fishing out a $10 bill to purchase two small basil plants and a pot of parsley as Charles spoke. A third generation farmer, he starts the farmers market season selling seedlings and later berries and tomatoes, and eventually Christmas trees and wreaths before taking a few months off from marketing for the winter.

I handed him the bill.

"Put that away," he said, with a twinkle in his eye. "We're settled."

"No," I protested.

"Yes," he replied. "We always have some extras. It's better to see them planted by people like you who'll help them thrive than try to get them back into the ground ourselves."

I could have protested further, but, as the Borg taught us via Star Trek, resistance in such cases is futile. I thanked him, and my husband -- who rarely restrains his reactions to such impulses of generosity -- hugged him. We went on our way, blessing the existence of a new supplier and plotting how we might not only grow the herbs successfully but pass on our own seedlings of the future to others.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Piano

A friend in Saratoga -- one of the first people my husband Jim and I met when we moved here a little more than four years ago -- asked us recently how we met. She said she'd heard us talk about Hawai'i, Minneapolis, Muncie, and Seattle but wasn't sure when we were tied to those places or if we were there together at the same time. Her query dovetailed really nicely with today's prompt from StoryADay, which was to write an epistolary story. What follows is not quite a love letter but a story of love and so here goes.

It was the last Monday in June, 2004, June 28, to be exact. (Thank goodness for the iPhone calendar, which can take one back to any date in time.) I was working on my doctorate and, at age forty-one, had decided it was time to get married. To whom? That was unknown. But time was ticking. I had lived out my life as a happy-go-lucky single woman and no longer wanted to be alone. For the past two or three years, I had dated a number of people and was having a good time. But I wanted to go past the good time. I wanted a partner, a spouse. To settle down.

The day before I had been in a personal development seminar where I had been asked to set a 90-day goal. The goal had to be SMART, meaning that it had to be specific, measurable, attainable, risky, and reached within the 90-day timeline. The facilitator of the seminar emphasized the word "risk" as an essential component of growth so I decided that setting a goal of finding the right person for me wasn't risky enough. The facilitator suggested I set a goal of being married within three months, but that was, well, too risky. So I decided I would be engaged.

I was writing the morning after in my favorite coffee shop. As I left, I wondered idly if the next man I saw would be The One. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Jim -- a rather good-looking guy who appeared to be physically fit and equipped with a MacIntosh laptop and a mountain bike. My type. Only I didn't give it a second thought. My mind was preoccupied with setting up an account on an Indian dating site called Given my experience of being the daughter of Indian immigrant parents who had long insisted I should have an arranged marriage, I figured that no one could understand the expediencies of meeting, liking and getting engaged in a 90-day time frame better than Indians.

En route to my apartment, about a block and a half from the coffee shop, I noticed that a storefront style Korean church had left a piano out on the curb. I had played piano in my childhood through high school and often fantasized about taking up the instrument again. But to be honest I wasn't really that interested in playing the piano. Yet, to leave one out on the curb, to be picked up and taken to the dump, that seemed inappropriate, somehow.

I found myself walking back to the coffee shop, where I asked one of the baristas who happened to be taking a break outside if he knew anyone who could help me move a piano down the block and across the street. He was shaking his head, as I had anticipated, but the good-looking man whom I had noticed earlier sprung to attention. "I can help you with that." He asked someone sitting with him if they'd watch his laptop and mountain bike and headed over.

He was quite strong, and managed to heave the piano the required distance, leaving it in my parking stall and refusing my offer to buy him lunch as a token of appreciation. Later, I learned that he thought I was slightly off my rocker and that he wanted to get away from me as fast as he could. He returned to the coffee shop with the intention of complaining about "that crazy woman" only to discover that everyone who worked at that coffee shop knew me and liked me quite a bit. So he modulated his actions, and as coincidence would have it we began running into each other periodically.

As for the piano, I found a mover who was willing to heave it up the four flights to my apartment, and as for, I almost immediately connected on that site with someone who seemed like the ideal match: same age as me, born in the U.S. of Indian parents, creative, athletic, hard-working, and fond of Hawai'i. Only, as it turned out, he was obsessed with the fact that I had been in a long-term relationship in the past and was a vegan. The latter point didn't particularly bother me, but the fact that I didn't have an issue with people who ate meat bothered him somehow.

Over about six or seven days, we spoke over the phone numerous times. Somewhere in the midst of that time span, the good looking man at the coffee shop asked me if I'd like to go running with him. He suggested the Tantalus loop, which is an 11-mile loop up and down a mountain through a tropical rainforest. Not exactly something I'd imagine to constitute a date.

I agreed to do the run with him on a Sunday morning. The Thursday before, I had a long conversation with the ideal man from The conversation ended with me feeling convinced that if I married this guy I would have to become a vegan, a fairly submissive woman who enacted Hindu rituals with humility and grace around his mother at least, and never see my ex-partner again. The latter point especially grieved me because my ex- had become one of my best friends. But I was resolved to get married, and decided that I could convince myself that these conditions of matrimony would not be so bad. Still, I had dinner alone at my favorite pasta restaurant and drank three glasses of wine.

Friday came with a hot blazing sun and a bit of a bleary feeling.

I sat in the coffee shop writing my morning pages, resolving to make my life plan.

My cell phone rang. Jim, the good looking man from the coffee shop, was calling to inform me that he had broken his foot while buying cigarettes and couldn't run Tantalus, as a result. He wanted to know if I wanted to go out for dinner and a movie instead.

I suddenly realized that he was asking me out on a date, and almost simultaneously I realized that I wanted to go. It would be a last chance to be single, I convinced myself, to live out my free-and-easy independent life before disappearing into a marriage with Mr. Indian Right.

To make a long story short, Jim and I had a great time on our first date, and went out again two days later. I had one more phone conversation with the man from during which I told him first politely and then later quite pointedly that his obsession with my prior romantic life, my dietary habits, and my attitude toward religion were just not conducive to a long-term relationship. Jim managed to propose to me informally within the 90-day time frame and we got married about a year and a half later.
As for the piano, it moved with us from Honolulu to Seattle. Something happened to the keys in transit, which caused most of them to stick. As a result, the piano served more as a prop for holding Christmas, birthday, and anniversary cards as well as family photographs than anything else. When I received an offer to take a professor position in upstate New York, we decided we would gift the piano to a neighborhood friend, Robert. He managed to repair the keyboard and played the piano sporadically before selling it to a family with children taking piano lessons following the death of his elderly mother. My mother had long promised me that I would inherit the family piano, but when the time came last fall for her and my father to downsize, I suggested that the piano would get more use and more value if it were given instead to her grandchild, who is showing real signs of musical talent.

Thinking about the story of how my husband and I met caused me to wonder why it took a piano -- an 800-pound monstrosity of an instrument -- to bring us together. Although I had enjoyed playing the piano as a teen, I had not touched one in about thirty years. Jim had no background or interest in playing the piano either. Yet, that was our bond, our connective thread, until we decided some five years into our marriage that we really needed no bond. We had each other. That was enough.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Multiple Perspectives

The twenty-ninth day of February 1996 -- the bonus day, if you will -- marked the first time I felt that I could hear a spirit speaking. The voice wafted over Diamond Head where doves flew in meditative circles telling me that if one wished to change the circumstances in which one was living and working, one could. The change that I put into motion that day was radical. It put me on a path of turbulence, chaos, doubt, uncertainty, joy, and utter freedom, lightening a load of obligation that I had imposed upon myself. But not everyone who knows me saw that moment of change in a similar way.

"You know you always wanted to be a professor," one friend said with a retort. "That's been your dream ever since I've known you."

"You've only known me since graduate school. How do you know that's always been what I wanted to do?"

"Well, look at your family, your father. How could you not be a professor?"

"All you ever talked about was being a journalist," replied an old friend who'd known me since the early 1980s, where we met in the smudged ink and manual typewriter era of the newsroom. "How can you give it all up for this?"

"I presume you're planning to teach," said another friend from the rapidly professionalizing newsroom of the dot-com epoch of the late 1990s.

When I replied that I had no plans beyond going to graduate school, a look of fear passed over his face. He looked at me as if I could no longer be trusted, and has not spoken to me since.

"You're pursuing your dream as a teacher," a colleague declared in a congratulatory e-mail when I announced that I had received a job offer as an assistant professor, some fourteen years after the spirit spoke.

"What dream?" I couldn't help wondering. "If it were such a great dream, why did it take so long to materialize?"

The truth of the matter is that spirits often don't speak in clear, rational terms. The dictates that they prescribe often put one on paths that feel less like paths and more like bewildering mazes. They have no reason nor logic. If one spirit led me out of the newsroom and into graduate school, another one took me away from the narrow lens of research libraries and into a wider world of talking again to real people and creating works with words that were not exactly, well, academic in nature. That then took me into a realm of freelance writing, where everyone longed for the kind of security that a staff writer position in a newsroom could promise.

"Can't you go back to journalism?" asked a relative who worried in the summer of 2007 about the family I supported and our seemingly deteriorating economic plight.

"That would be a step backward," I countered. "I went to graduate school to move away from that."

After walking the path to a doctorate and the path through freelance writing, creative non-fiction, and adjunct teaching, I thought I found my calling as a non-traditionalist. I could engage not only with classrooms, newsrooms, and libraries but also with the world. I could write with footnotes and with direct quotes. I could tell stories with pictures, and video. I could hold a class on Twitter, or I could arrange for students to meet me at a lake outdoors. It seemed like a perfect fit.

Only, as it turns out, spirits who call people to certain places like colleges also put their respondents on a complex circuitous path. Years of understanding the world in terms of what was possible evolved into a new mode of fighting to keep possibilities and options available amid an atmosphere of constriction.

I think back these days to the doves that circled Diamond Head and the voice of the spirit that spoke. I know I was right to heed the voice. And I think about the hawks that swoop gracefully over my farmhouse on their own paths deep in the woods. I thank the stars that they ignore the hens, the bellowing rooster and fast-growing cockerels that run free in a large space of the backyard and hope that the chaos and joy of freedom might continue.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Starting from scratch

It strikes me that the most common denominator in my various writings this month has been a sense of fatigue. Tonight is no exception. I slept badly and woke up early. I was on my feet literally from about 7 a.m. until now, and think that I shouldn't be surprised that at 10:15 p.m. I can barely keep my eyes open.

What is the source of the fatigue? One possible answer that occurs to me is history. Our pasts, our experiences, our great moments, our trials, our follies, our errors. It seems even though we invoke such phrases as beginning anew, reinventing ourselves, a fresh start, the history we sowed eventually comes back to bear fruit. Many times this isn't so bad. If we did certain things well, the past serves us nicely. But it seems that those difficult moments that we all experience never go away entirely. They waft back at the most inopportune moments, causing us to think about whether we've accomplished anything at all.

On the theme of Starting from Scratch, it's year four of the Squashville Farm Experience. My husband Jim and I hesitate to call ourselves experts, or even intermediates on this road to sustaining ourselves with as much food as we can manage to raise in our backyard. But looking out onto our fields tonight as we ate a meal that included potatoes, beets, carrots, chives, asparagus, and baby bok choi grown entirely by us, I did feel confident enough to refer to ourselves as "farmers".

"We are building a beautiful life," Jim said.

"We are," I replied, "and I think we're coming to a point where we're going to need to start thinking about getting some help."

The last words fell out of my mouth almost involuntarily. I never thought I would ever hear myself uttering such a thing. But there it was. This was no longer a hobby or a garden. It was a venture, a life, a cultural practice that the two of us now need to find a way not only to sustain but also to spread to others.

The idea of "getting some help" actually stems from a matter occurring in my immediate family. My mother had an emergency surgery on May 5, and has been in the hospital for about two weeks. She probably will remain there for at least another week, and while she is recovering well and is in good spirits, one possible reality has been sinking in. She might not ever go back to being her "old self" -- in the physical sense, at least. She might have difficulty moving about, walking and performing routine tasks, and she might not be able to do these things again at all. On one level, I think this situation is okay as long as she is okay with it because she will have an opportunity at age seventy-seven to build a beautiful life by living a different kind of life. On another level, I find myself feeling that I don't want her and my dad to be alone with this life. I want to be there with them, supporting them and living the life with them.

Fatigue kicks in as I consider the odds of being able to be there. What I would give up. The burden I would impose upon them because leaving the beautiful life that Jim describes would mean starting from scratch again.

"Is it easier to grow vegetables or raise animals?" I asked Jim.

He wondered what caused me to ask the question. The question itself also was of an involuntary nature. It came out before I realized the topic was even on my mind. So as I tried to explain I talked about the importance of continuing things that had been created from scratch alongside the value of anticipating more frequent and longer trips to the Midwest (where both of our parents live) in the future. I didn't make the connection then, but in reflection, I realized that in both cases I was talking about sustaining things that had been created from scratch: relationships between parents and their adult children, food grown on farms. Both are vital components of life, and both entail a starting over of some sort. But can we start over? Or do we always carry the traces of our past?

Friday, May 16, 2014

Making Your Miles Matter

The title of this piece is based on the title of a presentation I gave last month at my college's Student Wellness Retreat. The retreat, which made its first annual debut on the college calendar last year, is an example of a great thing that colleges and universities can do. For a full day, students and presenters had an opportunity to eat excellent, healthful meals; to receive short massages; and to attend a plethora of sessions that included information on stress relief, participatory dance, drawing and poetry, exercises on goal setting, and a chance to receive the powerful healing energy of reiki. Such a day is a much-needed antidote to the all-work and no-play mentality that seems to infuse the 24/7 work pace for so many people of the 99 percent crowd.

My session was aimed at encouraging participants to consider setting goals to complete big races: marathons, triathlons, half-marathons, or 10Ks. Even shorter distances such as 5Ks were on the table. The goal was to get the body moving and, in my mind at least, entering a running, walking or multi-sport event that was just out of the range of one's comfort zone was one way of doing so.

The session drew four participants. This didn't particularly bother me as it also was scheduled at 8:30 a.m. and was paired against Irish Dance, Reiki, and Humor. Not to mention free chair massages, or the fact that being in academia can make one accustomed to speaking to an audience of one.

The participants all were genuinely interested in getting in shape, and had set goals for themselves to do upcoming races. We talked about visualization, the logic of training plans, rest days, easy days, long runs, speed work, and tapering. They all seemed to enjoy the session, and were sincere in their thanks. But I left it feeling as if it had been slightly off-kilter, and wondered, of course, if the reason for that was that I might have felt off-kilter myself.

Training is an odd word. It connotes learning, self-discipline, and development. It also is a serious word, a word that seems to take fitness, exercise, and working out to an entirely different, somewhat agro level. I use the word often as a synonym for workouts or physical fitness, but in doing so, I wonder if I am really capable of living up to the expectations of what training connotes.

I do my best, but like everyone else, I have good days and bad days. I also go through spells of good weeks and bad. And it is during those latter times that I wonder if making your miles matter has an effect of taking the fun out of what you are doing.

Do your miles really matter? For what purpose? Why?

Right now, I feel like I am in great physical shape. I am slow, but my cardiovascular power is strong and my stamina is even better. I find myself enjoying the series of days like the past three where I biked 21 miles one day, swam 2,100 yards the next day, and biked 9 more miles and ran 5.2 miles on day three. The movement invigorates me, and fills me with joy. But it also fills me with doubt.

That is the reason why, I think, that you need to make your miles matter. In order to overcome self-doubts.

Because the rain began pouring down steadily around 4 p.m. and hadn't let up as of a few minutes before midnight, I ran indoors today on the Saratoga Springs' YMCA's wonderful track. The track is a bit smaller than what you would find on a school field, with nine laps equaling a mile. But it's a good social place where runners, walkers, kids, and a whole slew of others converge to work out. As I was running my miles, I found myself thinking that the Y was a pleasant place at least partly because you're surrounded with people who are "training". There's safety in numbers, it seems.

It's also a place where you can create private rivalries, vowing to outpace others. Sometimes, your "competitors" realize they're being chased, and step up their pace, making it beneficial for everyone in the long haul.

Today, I ran at the end of a day that felt a bit trying to put it mildly. A conflict had surfaced, and in my questioning of a particular decision, I felt as if I were being made to appear unyielding, incapable of what I was doing, and undeservedly angry. I began wondering if there was some sort of jealousy afoot, and as if people had liked me better when I wasn't in shape, when I was fat. I knew of course that that was a silly point because what mattered was how well I liked myself. And it was here that I realized that a spark could be kindled. Moving your body is really about moving yourself toward a new understanding, toward liking yourself.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Lapping it up

(The prompt for today is to write a story in the first person. I do that all the time, and pondered writing the story in a non-human voice, in, for instance, the voice of my cat. However, I had a really good swim so I decided to keep the triathlon thread rolling.)

I finally broke the 2,000 yard barrier today.

In the swimming pool, that is.

2,000 meters (or 2 kilometers) is the swim distance for a half-Ironman. The Olympic Distance triathlon is just slightly shorter at 1,500 meters so I feel that if I'm swimming 2,000 yards comfortably and consistently, I'm training well for the swim. Usually this is not a problem. Swimming and I are good friends. Swimming was the first sport I took up as a child and even though I think it took me about three years to learn how to float, once I got that basic skill down I was fearless in water. Swimming relaxes me, and loosens my muscles. When I'm swimming at the Saratoga Springs YMCA, I particularly like the little bout of self-pampering that swimming allows me to indulge in: five to ten minutes first of getting warm and toasty in the whirlpool, the swim, followed by a little more time in the whirlpool, the steam room and sauna.

This year, however, swimming has presented a bit of a challenge. I seem to have a pinched nerve in my left shoulder blade, which leaves my left arm feeling a bit achy around the deltoid. While swimming often eases the pain, I also seem to experience intensified bouts afterwards. As a result, I've been swimming a bit less and cycling and running more, hoping that rest, self-massages, and light stretching will help the problem take care of itself. Since mid-March, the strategy seems to have worked. I have been waking up without any pain and the sudden shoots of throbbing aches have eased considerably.

But it has felt that I'm lagging in my swim workouts.

On the surface, I've reasoned that it doesn't matter too much. A long-distance swimmer who has watched me swim at the Y has pronounced my stroke and my movements "smooth and fine", and a 60-year-old man who is a veteran of several half-Ironman events and is training for his first Ironman watched me swim in the pool and commended my strong stroke. He in particular encouraged me not to invest too much training time into the swimming since I already was strong in the category, and to work on my weaker events, particularly cycling.

Still, with all this good advice, I know my body better than others, and know that while I can bounce back from a respite in a particular sport, it does seem to be a bit harder to immediately regain speed and endurance loss in swimming than other sports. So I have tried to swim at least twice a week, and have tried to make my workouts a little bit longer each time.

I wasn't going to swim long today, but when I walked out of my office building and into the parking lot, I was hit by thick, warm, moisture-saturated spring air. It was about 75 degrees and muggy. Most people might consider those conditions unpleasant. I do, except when I'm contemplating yoga or swimming. In both cases, that kind of air seems to help warm my muscles and make them loose and flexible. As a result, feeling the thick humidity seep into my skin got me excited. It was a perfect day for a swim.

I spent my mandatory ten minutes in the whirlpool, then headed for the pool. Conditions were even more pleasant than usual there, too. Not only were there just three or four others in the pool but all eight lanes were open for lap swimming. That's a rare treat for those who share pool space with many other persons and purposes. I swam 700 yards, then added some kicking and pulling. At the 1,200 yard mark, I decided to try eight 100-yard sprints. Well, I should qualify the word sprint: I am enormously gentle on myself when it comes to speed work. It takes me about 2 minutes and 10 seconds to swim 100 yards. So I did these intervals in a way that was aimed at maintaining the same pace but decreasing the rest time with each interval. I got to rest for 50 seconds between the first and second interval, which means I did the interval on the 3 minute mark. For the next round, I reduced the rest time to 45 seconds, then 40, then, 35, 30 and finally 25. Interval number #7 seemed absolutely crazy. I stopped, shook the water out of my nose, glanced at the pace clock and gasped. I had go immediately. I did, but then took a good rest between intervals #7 and #8.

I ended the workout with an easy 100-yard cool down and climbed out of the water feeling satisfied. I was a little slower but not crazily so. I didn't feel any aches and I felt a great deal of pride. Two thousands yards, I found myself thinking. Just a day's work. Do-able to the nines.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

On the uphill

Of the three athletic disciplines associated with the triathlon, bicycling has traditionally been my least favorite and weakest. This is a bit unfortunate as the cycling leg typically is the longest part of the triathlon and the area where most athletes excel. The conventional wisdom is that one can always compensate for being a not-so-great swimmer by making up lost time on the bicycle. And, after the bicycle ride, the run is often more of a shuffle. You just need to get through it to finish. But bicycling is where it's at.

I resolved this year to work on this weak link, and accordingly I committed myself to going to cycling fitness classes at least once a week for about the eight grimmest weeks of winter. In early April, I rolled out my bike with hopes to commute to work on it at least three times a week. I haven't pulled off the three times a week, but I have managed to bike commute at least once a week, and usually have squeezed in an additional bike ride each week. With this new regimen has come a new-found joy: tackling the sometimes steep and still somewhat unknown rural hills that surround the area where I live and work.

In years past, I have avoided hills. They scared me. They were big and daunting, and the high-speeds that gravity would force onto me on the downhills made me fear falling. But hills, quite frankly, are all but unavoidable, especially if you live where I do -- in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains. The only solution was to conquer the hills.

And, so, in the cycling classes, I made that a goal.

I tried several different classes and teachers before I found one teacher whose style I particularly liked. He taught by RPM (which stands for revolutions per minute) and gave us ranges for what we should aim for depending on what kinds of "hills" we were riding in his simulated exercises. Quickly, from this, I learned that gear-shifting is not about showing off how tough of a gear you can handle. Rather, it's about knowing how to identify the gear most comfortable for you to ride in and maintain the desired RPM. The logic behind RPM training, as I came to understand it, is that if you keep cycling your legs at a regular pace, your muscles build up (much as they would in running), and gradually the gears you can ride in become tougher. Characterizing gears, incidentally, is a difficult exercise. Basically, bicycles have two chain rings: one in the back, usually with seven or eight rings, and one in the front with two or three rings. If you're bicycling on a flat stretch or a downhill, you're probably using one of the smaller rings in the back and the biggest ring in the front. If you're on a steep uphill, the opposite is true. Part of the learning curve is to know when to shift, especially if you're going uphill. It's very easy to get into the mode of acting heroic and letting yourself believe you can make it up the hill without shifting down to an easier gear, only to find yourself getting stuck mid-way up the hill and having to undergo the ego-bursting humiliation of dismounting the bike and walking.

The training in the cycling classes paid off when I did my first bike ride home from work. My bike commute is about eight and a half miles one way on what I'd describe as "rolling hills", with the main issue being that the hills tend to roll up more on the way home than they do on the way down. I strapped on my helmet and got on my bike. Because I'd done the route before, I had a sense of where I would encounter the hills. To my surprise, they weren't as daunting as I had remembered them from when I had last ridden home from the office, sometime in September. I attributed that discovery to the indoor class training as well as the fact that I wasn't starting the season on my heavier mountain bike but on a considerably faster and more lightweight road bike.

As April spun into May, I found myself taking on more and more hills. I knew my trepidation had evolved into eagerness two days ago when I was riding one of my usual neighborhood loops and on an impulse turned left off the loop onto a road called Ormsbree. I knew from walking that road that Ormsbree would climb steeply up a ridge and would then wind around a picturesque plateau before plunging downward onto a road known as Ballou. Walking that hill has made me break out into a sweat. I haven't yet tried running it, and cycling it seemed like a skier approaching a double-black-diamond run for the first time. But up I went, shifting down as I went, until I hit the top of the hill. Wow, I thought, as I coasted along the plateau. That was fun.

Unfortunately, I hadn't remembered the rolls of Ballou. I scooted down the hill with my hands gripping the brakes to help prevent me from going so fast that I would fall over the handlebars. And, then came the uphill. Breathlessly, I started cycling up, but I forgot to shift. About three-quarters of the way up, I realized I was working so hard to keep pedaling that if I tried to shift, I might lose my balance and fall. So carefully I slowed to a stop, unclipped my shoes from the pedals, and walked. That hill awaits.

My latest hill adventure occurred today. I tried a new route home, traveling along U.S. Route 9 to a road known as Daniels that spills into a country road called Locust Grove. Both are rife with rolling hills. I rode them well, but panted at times because they were new hills and I was still trying to figure out when I shifted. The panting, however, has benefits. A walker on the downhill saw me cycling the uphill and cheerfully gave me some great words of encouragement: "Way to go, you're doing it. That's one tough hill!" Her words fueled me for the rest of the way home.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Spring Planting

It's year four for our experiments in backyard farming, and my husband Jim and I are finally beginning to feel as if we can pull off the feat of growing out own food in a way that's not completely chaotic. For instance, we now know that we need to begin weeding the fields where onions, garlic, leeks, and shallots are planted as soon as we glimpse even a micro-weed because if we wait, those micro-weeds will morph into multiple weeds, grow tall, and choke out the real food that we wish to grow.

We also have attained a certain level of predictability in our understanding of when to expect certain vegetables, fruits, and herbs to be ripe for picking. This week, for instance, is "asparagus" week. We started our asparagus bed in 2012 by purchasing a set of what are called crowns. We placed these crowns into the ground, and whooped with delight last spring as we started to see small asparagus tips poking their way out of the soil. From May 2 through May 7, we savored the taste of sweet, freshly-picked baby asparagus shoots before the young shoots started to feather out, a sign that seeds were starting to sprout. We let the garden go and, well, unfortunately, the weed growth completely outpaced us. Still, this year, we have some slightly larger but still fresh and tender shoots climbing out of the ground. We ate asparagus on Saturday night, Monday night, and hope to do so at least three or four more times in the next couple of weeks before the shoots feather out.

The baby bok choy and tatsoi also have made a marvelous rebound after being transplanted on a beguilingly hot April afternoon a little too soon for their comfort. They didn't grow at all for about two weeks so I harvested several baby leaves from each of the transplants, figuring that if I did so, I would either encourage the plant to grow newer, bigger leaves and thrive or kill it off altogether. If the latter occurred, I reasoned, we should enjoy these tender greens while we could. We savored the sweet spring flavor and to my delight the plants rebounded.

Another lesson learned lies in the small pots of cilantro and arugula. I put some herb seedlings in the ground in 2011 shortly after we moved into our house, only to see the rampage of grass that used to grow wildly over all of the land's spent soil completely engulf the bewildered starts. In 2012, we decided to keep the herbs in large containers. That worked until we forgot to water the potted plants twice a day, and slowly they withered. We thought we had rectified the issue in 2013 by moving the potted herbs into the lawn near some of our other gardens, where they'd be sure to receive regular waterings. But then we forgot where we put the herbs, and when night fell and I was in a rush to cook, I didn't have the time and energy to search the lawn looking for these mystically savory enhancements. This year, Jim planted the herbs in smaller pots, and to my delight they have blossomed out beautifully. I am keeping them on the deck and making sure to eat from them regularly.

One of our favorite routines together is our garden walks. It is ideal if I can do the walk twice a day, but my work schedule often dictates that the garden walk occurs primarily in the evening, against a setting sun. Tonight I started with the asparagus patch. This was followed by a glimpse at the strawberry plants we started last spring, the just-beginning-to-sprout peas, and the luscious selection of leaves from the baby bok choy and tatsoi. From there, we walked over to two massive fields that appear empty at first glance but in reality are filled with potatoes planted yesterday and field corn planted today. The latter is our great 2014 experiment: we'd like to see if we can produce cornmeal and popcorn. The field corn when it springs forth will tower next to the garlic field that we began in November and, on schedule, is sporting about a dozen twenty-foot rows of languid green shoots, shoots that will grow taller and tougher as the pleasant breezes of spring give way to the heat of summer. Next to the garlic are rows of onions, leeks, and shallots along with rows of thickly sowed radishes, carrots, turnips, and more peas on the side.

We walked through an area that we're calling Our Mother's Garden to check out the new blueberry bushes, blackberry vines and raspberry canes we planted a week ago before making our final trek was to the garden that resides just south of our barn. It is filled with gradually growing brussels sprouts, fast-sprouting cabbage and a series of collards, kale, beets, spinach and celery seeds that have yet to make an appearance as plants.

Still to come are tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, squashes, beans and more and more peas and greens.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Deadlines and challenges

Today was another challenging day in a week of unexpected family trauma. It has caused me in this moment, when I am faced with trying to rush through the last of my grades and the requisite word count to meet the 750-word daily challenge as well as the story-a-day-for-May challenge, to realize that the word trauma rhymes with drama.

Drama is a key element of storytelling. It's also a word that has turned into slang for overly expressive, overly reactive, melodrama.

Over the past ten days, my mother has gone through a great deal of trauma. While I usually have little difficulty writing about personal events in my life, I have held off on this one. She went into the hospital on Friday, May 2, after a urine test uncovered a urinary tract infection and bloodwork uncovered extremely high white blood cell counts. She did not have an appetite and was suffering from symptoms of what seemed like a bronchial infection. Three days later, a cat scan had revealed a raging infection in her stomach and she was rushed into an emergency surgery. She was in an intensive care unit for two days, and is recovering very slowly.

My sisters and I experienced most of this from a distance. We were on alert to travel to Indiana at a moment's notice, but as the days passed and it looked like she would be in the hospital under a fair amount of close care for quite a few days, the planning for travel grew prolonged and somewhat tense. It escalated for me into what almost felt like drama over the weekend as I wrestled between the need to submit my final grades, the gnawing worries in my stomach, and anxiety over how and when I would get to Indiana.

Today, my drama gave way to tears. They rolled down my face from the time I woke up until sometime around Noon. The grades still needed to be submitted, and I still had a lot of student projects to go through. Somehow, I managed to get it done.

The students inspired me.

One of the insights I have gained from this round of crunch-time grading is that college students are brilliant. They are creative, innovative, thoughtful, insightful risk-takers who will do great things better often when left alone. Therein lies the trauma and drama of being a teacher. Conventional wisdom says that good teachers are no longer lecturers or guru-like deliverers of knowledge in the style of the sage on the stage but are instead facilitators of learning, the so-called guides on the side. Yet, being a guide means surrendering control. Surrendering control means trusting that the outcomes will be good but worrying that the students will think less of you for checking out. The trauma and drama of it all.

Challenges also remind me of the 28-day challenge that I assigned Digital Storytelling students. I proposed that they each pick an activity that was meaningful to them and do it every day for 28 days. They completed this challenge in the month of March, and as I am looking over the outcomes with the hindsight of a couple of months, I am surprised pleasantly by its effects. Students blogged more frequently and better. Some of them showed a marked improvement in writing skills. One young man looked up different vocabulary words and created an attractive wiki based on the meanings of those words. Another student wrote a 28-line song, and as a project set it to music, with his wife performing the lyrics. And, finally, a student who professed to hate Twitter with a passion resolved to create a story on Twitter and did so with interesting results.

I feel that life has been challenging for the past several months, but I am calm with this challenge. I feel that it is teaching me how to live as a person who is now in her fifties, where a third generation is being born and illness, inevitable death, restorations of health, war, peace, sanity, insanity, pain, fear, resilience, and strength are part of the daily bread of life.