Saturday, August 30, 2008

Growing with Trees

Earlham College has about 500 acres of land, and I think as much as 300 of that is open or undeveloped. This includes playing fields, a horse-riding ring and pasture, but a lot of it is left alone. The biology department has been doing some fun stuff with parts of it over the years; they planted a few acres to be a meadow, and just a few feet away is another area that has been turned into a prairie. I don't know how they manage to keep the areas separate and distinct, but somehow they do. Bluegrass will stand tall on one side, red clover will dominate just a few feet away... and never the twain shall meet.
The biologists also built two ponds during my time as a student there, a small one and a large one. They seem particularly miraculous to me, since practically the instant rain filled the freshly dug holes, all kinds of water life -frogs, fish, insects- simply showed up. Okay, frogs and insects, they could have marched over from the creek nearby (but it's not that near, and besides, why bother), but fish? Okay yes, bird guano, I know, but still, wow. The larger pond was designed to be attractive to geese and ducks, meaning it's long enough and has a clear gap in the trees to give them a good runway. It was less than a year old when a pair of Canada geese began showing up every year to raise a brood. Each Spring for the past 20 years I've gotten a report from the family when the geese show up, how many goslings they raise, how many survive the snapping turtles et al, and what day they all disappear. It's become an important marker in my year.

Most of these biology experiments started while or since I was a student there; only recently did I realize that another experiment has been going on for a much longer time. See the two photos flanking Fang ? I can remember a time when those trees were mere saplings. I could see over the top of them when I was a kid. And I was a short kid.
This region butts up against the Earlham and Robinson Woods which is where I created my private Narnia. There was Clear Creek to splash in (skater bugs! crayfish! minnows! abandoned grocery carts?) and enough density to the trees and foliage to give one a delightful sense of mystery, as well as a place to disappear into, if one wanted to avoid other people (the obnoxious kids always made enough racket to warn one well in advance).
This area right next to the woods? When I was a kid, it didn't interest me much. In the center of it there was (probably still is) some weird tower/silo thingy, and the trees were small enough that you could see it from every point. An older kid decided this was Sauron's tower, so the area got turned into Mordor on a regular basis. I loved Tolkien, but didn't like this kid, so I never participated. In general I rarely found my way here; there just wasn't much to interest me.
That changed somewhat in college, and I'd say over the last quarter century or so, I've been paying it regular visits. When I lived in Seattle I usually only saw it once a year, at Christmas, when everything was dormant, but for the last thirteen I've been getting back there more frequently, and seeing it in almost every season. I have appreciated the changes, and thought I was keeping up with them.
You know how kids will sometimes just suddenly double in height over-night, and spontaneously develop breasts or deep voices and facial hair and you swear you just saw this kid last WEEK and he or she was still an adorable pixie/hyperactive brat and now suddenly you're staring UP at a enormous teenager, or worse, an adult, and you wonder, were you in a coma for decades but you can't remember, because honestly, this hulking guy/bombshell can't be that kid? You know what I'm talking about?
Well, I had something similar happen to me with this forest. I couldn't tell you exactly when, but I swear one year it was still a just a big lot with lots of saplings in it, where I could easily see in every direction... and then suddenly boom, all the trees were twice their previous height, there was dense greenery everywhere that reduced my vision to little off the path, and what's weirder, it now felt like a forest. It was no longer a random collection of unrelated trees; somehow unified, single identity had formed. I've been watching it much more closely ever since, I'd say for at least the last five years. It occurred to me this visit that this little forest may actually be fairly close to my age. I don't know when the saplings were planted, nor how old they were when they were... but I bet there's not a huge gap. Six or eight years, I'm guessing. I like that.
During this recent visit I sensed another shift in the energy of the place, not as drastic or startling as the previous one, but still noticeable. I can't quite put my finger on it, but I felt like there was a greater vigor in evidence, or maybe maturity is the word. All the expressions I want to use - more grounded, more rooted- are funny in this context; what is usually a metaphor is here quite literal, but it's the metaphorical meaning I'm reaching for.
In the next few weeks there will be hordes of first year students and biology majors combing through all these places, collecting data to add to the pot. I've never asked any of the biology professors about this place, but I will next time I see one of them. I wonder if anything about its growth has startled them?
On an unrelated note, how cute are my folks? And isn't Mom's hat fabulous? Fang, by the way, is splashing about in Clear Creek, in the 'older' forest nearby. I just liked the photo.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Home Again, Home Again

I'm back. Did you miss me? I missed you. It was probably good for me to have an internet diet though; the computers at the college library started being harder to access once students showed up for school, acting like the resources were theirs or something. The temerity, I tell you. I have a lot of catching up to do with all of you, but am looking forward to doing a fair amount of that this weekend. Let the gluttony of blog-reading begin. Yum.

Since returning home I've been having a good time scaring the bejesus out of my new roommate by entering, or just occupying rooms he expects to be empty. I don't think he's especially skittish (though given the creakiness of our floors, I do wonder about his hearing), I think he just got used to having the place to himself for the last three weeks. I offered to wear a bell around my neck, but he didn't think that would be necessary. His cat is even more freaked out by me thus far, and has yet to let me get near her. Yesterday I began to wonder if she'd somehow gotten out of the apartment, since I couldn't find her anywhere. Fortunately she came running the minute Laird got home, so I didn't have to ask any awkward questions ("so, does kitty like to jump out open windows?"). She doesn't have a name, by the way. Laird (and his sister, who is co-owner) don't see the point in naming an animal that will never learn its name. I find this droll. I name EVERYTHING. I name things that just LOOK like animals, such as Bob, my drinky bird. I named my computer (Herm), simply because he occasionally exhibits behavior that suggests free will, or at least some strongly held opinions (we get along well though, don't we Herm? Right? RIGHT?). I come from a family whose members regularly name their cars. This is yet another thing that causes my brother-in-law to roll his eyes, though I'm pretty sure I heard him refer their new car by name (Sterling) at least once this past month. We'll see how long it is before I've named her.

Anyway, kitty is under my sole care this weekend as my roommate and his sister are visiting family in PA. I hope my feeding her for the next three days will inspire some good will. Seems like it can't hurt. Maybe she'll even have told mer her name before the weekend is through. If a name presents itself, Laird doesn't need to know, right? To be fair, I don't think he'll object, he just won't see the point. Right now the only thing springing to mind is 'Wussy Cat' but I realize this is based on insufficient evidence. Dogs tend to love me; occasionally one that was scared of strangers saw no need to change his/her policy on my behalf, but I've never had a dog actively dislike me (knock wood). Cats usually like me too, or remain largely indifferent if that is their tendency, but on at least one occasion (my sister's previous cat) I've had one take a passionate dislike to me. Hissing, spitting, running from the room at my approach, vomiting hairballs right outside my bedroom door (Mary believed this was not an accident, but a formal protest), these were some of the ways she registered her hatred of me. Okay, she didn't really like most people -Mary only half-jokingly opined that she was autistic- but everyone agreed she seemed to have special hatred for me. My family believed it was because I am at least half canine. It tells you something about my family that even my parents say this about my possible heritage, and neither of them means it as an insult. I think I've mentioned before that Dad was partly raised by an English Sheepdog, so if I'm a dog boy, I'm second generation. I have no reason to assume Kitty will take a dislike to me, but for now I'm giving her lots of space, and letting her make the first move. Laird says she's having a good time hunting bugs, an activity I fully support. Glad somebody wants to do it.

Changing subjects drastically, in my previous entry I said I'd share some photos from the 50th anniversary party. To my surprise, some of mine actually are in focus, but even so none really tell you anything interesting about the event. Pictures of people you've never heard of (and who might prefer I not post their images on the interweb) standing around in random groupings in one of the blandest rooms on the planet, yeah I think I'll spare you that. But here is one my brother-in-law Tony took, and I think it's rather nice.

From left to right: Mom, Dad, my new Uncle Paul, his wife, my Aunt Caroline, Uncle Costas and Aunt Evelyn. The three women are sisters. After losing her first husband to prostate cancer, Caroline married Paul in 2006. That's why I say he's 'new'. Judging from the direction most of them are looking, they're listening to a toast being made by one of Dad's two friends/co-workers from The American Friends Service Committee. Those two toasts, a lovely speech from Mary, and equally lovely ones from both Mom and Dad made up the impromptu 'program' that happened. Dad had asked me in a previous email if Mary and I would act as mistress/master of ceremony, should any ceremony had look like it was going to happen. I did not interpret this to mean he wanted me to plan a ceremony, which, I now fully acknowledge, was probably fairly thick of me. When I got to Indiana I learned he had said nothing about this to Mary (who had been much more privy to the planning of the event, for obvious reasons), and since there seemed to be no ceremony forming, I thought no more about it. Midway through the event he sidled up to me and asked if there was anything scheduled, ending by saying that it was fine with him if there wasn't, we could just keep doing what we were doing, which was mingling and chatting. As you may recall, Mom began to lose her nerve about this occasion this Spring and was now hoping that if it happened at all, it be as modest and unassuming as possible. A ceremony, therefore, seemed like the last thing she would want. Dad seemed to be okay with that too... but a few minutes later Mary came up to tell me that he'd just asked her the same question. This made clear to us both that despite his comment to the contrary, Dad very much DID want something to happen. So we sat everyone down at the tables, and while I frantically thought of something to say, Mary told the story of when Mom and Dad met. As you can imagine, each of them tells a slightly different version; Mary told Dad's, which is as follows:

They were at a Young Friends of North America Conference, I believe it was in 1956. Dad saw Mom approaching, attended as she generally was at the time with an entourage of adoring young men. He learned she was from What Cheer, Iowa and told her he had first heard of that town from a friend who had made his singing debut at the opera house there. Dad had assumed, until that very moment, that his friend had made the name of the town up as joke. At this, Mom harumphed, turned on her heel, left with her entourage... and refused to speak to Dad for the rest of the conference. (Mom's version differs in ways I can't fully recall, but have to do with what Dad actually said, how she reacted, and just how many men were attending her at the time. Dad usually claims it was fifteen or twenty; Mom says it was two, and she can name them. It's only fair to admit that Dad is a wee bit fond of hyperbole. I come by it honestly).

Mary didn't tell this part, but fortunately the following summer, they not only met again, but were responsible for running the conference, Mom as director, Dad as clerk. No, I don't really know that entailed exactly, but at the very least it meant they spent some concentrated time working on a project together, and not just any project, but one involving Quakers, which Dad once said is like trying to take 50 kangaroos for a walk. Seems like a pretty good way to test for compatibility, no? Clearly something got kindled, which led to a regular correspondence between them the next year. They got engaged by mail. This trip I asked Mom how many days they had actually been in one an other's physical presence when they got married. "About four," she said. I offer this as partial explanation for why I might have been more trusting of email romance than proved prudent. I will say that both Mom and Dad write fantastic letters.

Mary finished by talking about the example they had provided for a strong, healthy marriage, which she was glad to get to put to the test once her beloved showed up. At this point she got choked up, and couldn't speak for several seconds. Very touching, and what's more, it rendered anything I might have added as anti-climactic, so I was off the hook. Mary has always been great at rising to an occasion. I think I have some modest skills that way too, but they pale next to hers.

Dad's friends from the AFSC passed on their good wishes, and shared the same from many others who hadn't been able to attend, Dad teasingly acknowledged (with some truth, I think) that many of the out of town folks had come because they realized this was the only way they were going to get to know travel-shy Margie, and Mom responded by saying why leave Eden when you live there? Both expressed their gratitude for every one's love and good wishes... and that was the program. Dad told Mary later that it had been 'just perfect,' so it all turned out well.

Dinner that night for the out of towners and a few locals was, as I said, a more raucous affair, but fun in its own way too. I don't know if this was part of Mom's reasoning too, but I realized after it was all over that maybe the bulk of attendees have a lower tolerance for raucous than do the Lacey clan. Certainly dancing would have been of little interest to most of them, so it's just as well that part got the kibosh. I don't think Mom ever really enjoyed having a lot of people making a fuss all at once over her, but as long as she was able to chat with a handful of loved ones, she had a good time. Since that was most of what happened, it all worked out well. As I said in my previous entry, lots of relationships got renewed and celebrated throughout the day, not just Mom's and Dad's marriage. It's easy to forget, but that's a large part of why celebrations like this are so much fun.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Old Friends, New Friends: Quick Thoughts on a Great Weekend

I write briefly, not from lack of things to say, but because I am once again on a library computer with a keyboard that has definitely seen better days... so I'm sure I will want to expand more on both topics mentioned here when I can.

The 50th anniversary party went wonderfully on Saturday. It started at 2pm. At 2:30 a handful of people had arrived and Mom was wondering if the other 100 rsvps had changed their minds and wouldn't show. By 3pm she realized she was having a fantastic time with hordes of people who were thrilled to have been included and were having a wonderful time catching up with each other as well. The bulk of attendees were retired professors and spouses who had known one another for 20-40 years and didn't have as many chances to spend time together as they would like. Mom's imposter syndrome ("How DARE you plan a party for yourself") coupled with an austere Quaker upbringing ("keep low" was a common instruction for life) prevented her from seeing this in advance. She did have fun though. Dad did too. We all did. I did take some photos, but can't download them yet. Keep in mind too that the subject matter was exclusively human beings, which we've long established as not my forte when it comes to getting things in focus. The thumbnails look better than average though. Fingers crossed.

The dinner we held for out of towners was also fun, and much noisier. There's a difference of opinion as to whether that was a good thing or a bad thing. We were in a much smaller room of course, with lower ceilings rather than the single ugliest conference room one can find on the college campus. I think that had as much to do with the decibels as the alcohol. The low ceiling, I mean.

It was wonderful reconnecting with old friends and relatives on Saturday, then Sunday I had the joy of meeting Birdie in person. Her trip home took her right through Richmond, and she was kind enough to extend what sounds like an action-packed weekend to come meet me. We had gotten maybe less than an hour into a great conversation before she was forced to deal with my entire family plus two adopted relatives over a noisy Sunday dinner. It was such a wonderful feeling for me to have the blogging world and my family meet for the first time. I felt a sense of connection and belonging being strengthened and expanded. Everyone adored Birdie of course, and she didn't seem too overwhelmed by all of us. We never lacked for things to talk about.

She and I then got to talk after dinner, picking up where we left off and getting a good start on what I'm sure will be an extended conversation. What was that wonderful quotation from John Lennon, Joe? "What people really like to do is sit in living rooms and talk"? Or that general sentiment... well, he speaks for me, certainly. The mix of crowd and one-on-one, old and new friends, reminiscence and discovery... I can never get enough of this.

The librarian is giving me the hairy eyeball, so I need to close this now. More as opportunity allows.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

A Few Days In

Just a quick note to say howdy. This morning I felt like I had finally come out of what I call my Richmond Coma. Generally whenever I visit here, at least the first two days I have to fight the urge to sleep for 16 hours at a stretch, often being up for less than four hours at a time. Sometimes I don't fight said urge. I'm not sure what it is; maybe it's just as simple as being away from all the city noise and light pollution. Maybe it's knowing I am truly on vacation. Whatever it is, it knocks me out unless I know in advance that I won't be able to indulge it (I'm here for a short visit, where lots has to happen, say), in which case I just keep that internal hamster running on his little exercise wheel any way I can. Usually after two days I feel human again, but this time it took almost four. Of course Mary and I spent almost the entire morning drinking coffee and watching the various birdfeeders she and Tony have in the backyard (one can't see the three feeders in the front yard from the dining room table; one has to relocate to the living room for that), so it's not like I'm out running marathons now. Not that I ever do. But I no longer feel comatose.

Mary and Tony have seven feeders in the backyard, including a thistle-feeder (finches), one for mixed nuts (jays, starlings, grackles, woodpeckers), and a nectar feeder (hummingbirds). At one point there were three goldfinches, a blue jay, a red-bellied woodpecker (Dad, we think, there is also a female and a juvenile), a hummingbird and roughly about 493 sparrows. Heaven.

This isn't counting the family of raccoons, pair of possums or trio of skunks that show up to dine on birdy left-overs in the evening. Quite the wild kingdom here.

I've been going through photos of my folks, the family, all sorts of shots from the last 50-70 years. Mom asked me to create a display for the party on Saturday, and it's been fascinating and fun to go through them, but there's an odd melancholy that crops up sometimes too. The best I can describe it is feeling a nostalgia for something I never experienced. Something tells me I'll have more to say about the photos at some point. I was born on my mom's 30th birthday, and graduated from her alma mater also 30 years after her, again to the day, I believe. Periodically I'll compare (or rather, contrast) what I'm doing with what she was doing at the same point in her life. She got married at 22. Dad was 24. It was a different world in 1958, I don't regret where I am or what I'm doing... I just find it an interesting exercise.

Okay, I'm starting to write the post before I know what I want to say, so I'll stop here. Need to go put the finishing touches on the display.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Dragonflies II

I'm in Indiana right now, here for most of the month of August. This coming Saturday we're celebrating my parents' 50th Wedding anniversary. It's possible Mom may suddenly discover a pressing engagement in, oh, I don't know, Sri Lanka say, that will require her immediate attention, but barring that, it should be a nice event. People are coming in from all over the place. I think this is part of what freaks Mom out; why would people want to come from the West Coast to celebrate an event like this? Because they love you guys, Mom? That just doesn't compute?

No, apparently not.
I downloaded these images before I left New York, however. They're from a great hike I took while in British Columbia. I probably spent at least five hours a day walking while I was there. There was lots to explore, and lots to think about. Let's be honest, there were also lots of misgivings to silence, or try to. This was the first new-to-me place I had been since 2003, and the first place I'd been where I didn't know a soul since maybe 1986. Usually now on trips I'm either traveling with someone, or I'm going to visit friends. There was a lot of psychic space in this trip.
The photos are not in the order I wanted them, and I don't seem able to rearrange them on this college library computer the way I can when I'm writing at home. So the story and the images may not coincide much of the time. I ask your patience.
This particular hike is in a national park on the edge of town. I took a city bus up to the local university, which got me within walking distance of the trail. The university itself was pretty beautiful too, though none of my photos showed that enough to be worth sharing. Dee, the lovely, chatty woman at the tourist centre (it's Canada, so it's a centre) told me the architecture had won some international awards, the university itself is only about ten years old (making it the youngest in the Canadian system), and I would be able to find all sorts of hikes out there.

Did I mention that people in town were VERY friendly?

(Few of my wide vista shots ever really gave the sense of space I felt; don't know if that's a failure of my photography skills, or an indication that the space was more emotional than physical. This shot, overlooking one of the university's parking lots, came closest.)
I decided I wanted to find the small lake that often had beavers building in it. Dee told me about this as well. I find water in all its manifestations soothing, and I've never seen beavers in the wild. This sounded great.

I lived for seven years in Seattle, and spent a good amount of time in Vancouver, BC (which is only one of the reasons I love Canada; that predated Nicky by at least fifteen years), so this terrain is familiar and exotic in equal measure. I don't know what those red flowers are in the picture above, but it wouldn't surprise me if they were in the dandelion family. The flora in particular often looks both familiar and not when I'm in the Pacific Northwest. The most distinct change for me this trip was olefactory though; even in town there was the scent of clover and roses everywhere. I'd love to have been there in late May/early June, or whenever the lavender season is that far north, because it seemed like every other yard had a huge bush of it.
On the trail the scent was mostly clover, cedar, pine, all of them things that boost my mood. This was handy for its own sake, but also helped keep the journey pleasant when the complete lack of trail markers might have inclined me to a certain crankiness. I always knew how to get back to the trail head, I just wasn't getting much help actually finding the lake. As long as I was wandering with no desired destination, there was no problem. It was a beautiful day, cool (I think I'm almost fluent in celsius now; it was 21 degrees, and heavenly), so why not enjoy it?

Okay, I was, but see, I really wanted to see those beavers. Beavers crack me up. And I wanted to sit by the lake for a while. So crankiness did crop up a bit once in a while. Somewhere on the trail pictured above, I suddenly found myself shouting "are you fucking kidding me? What the hell am I doing in the middle of British Columbia?" (As a side note to Steven, believe me, my friend, I very much DO have a temper; I'm as surprised as anyone that it hasn't cropped up.)

Who was I yelling at, exactly? I'm not sure. Myself? Nicky? Jo? No, probably not Jo, I think I had my fears mostly silenced that day.
The minute I stopped bellowing though, a flock (gaggle? swarm?) of dragonflies began dancing around me. For whatever reason, they made me feel better. Not more hopeful necessarily, but better. I wondered if they would end up showing where the lake was. That would be a great story, wouldn't it?

Well, that isn't what happened. I ended going back almost to the beginning of the trail, and asking the next person I saw for directions. A helpful guy broke his run to give me very elaborate, detailed instructions (seriously, no one who wasn't already familiar with the way would have found it on his/her own), that proved to be accurate. I got to the lake and sat there for almost three hours, watching amazing electric blue damsel flies, and a mother duck with ten ducklings following in her wake; occasionally the ducklings did this funny scurry-on-top-the-water run that made me laugh. I think was them practicing their take-off moves. At one point a rainstorm moved through to pattern the water and sooth the last bit of my anger, at least for the day. I didn't have any more answers than before, (nor did I get to see any beavers, sadly), but for now things were fine. It was a beautiful day.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Some More Randomness

I went to the local cafe for breakfast this morning. On my way home an older woman with improbably jet-black hair stopped me.

"What beautiful red hair!"

"Thank you."

"I saw another woman with red hair a moment ago, but her skin was too dark, it just didn't look right."


"So who in your family had red hair?"

"Um, my grandmother on my dad's side."

"Yeah, there is it." Then she was on her way.

I neglected to mention that my grandmother, like me, colored her hair.

Sometimes I would joke with Nicky about my reverse midlife crisis. Most people do the family life thing first, then around age 40 they freak out and decide they simply must go be artists and live in a garret in the big city. At leastI was doing one thing right though; I was running off with a hot younger man.

I also explained to him more than once that most people who date older guys usually make a point of seeking out the ones with money.

"I'm getting exactly what I want," he'd usually say.


This incident happened about a year ago.

I'm getting off the subway at my stop and I see him. I recognize him immediately; I remember names and faces well. People comment on it all the time. He clearly doesn't remember me, but he makes a note of me. Whatever profile he uses for his marks, I must fit it perfectly.

He precedes me up the stairs. I follow along behind, watching him. When he turns around to make sure I haven't managed to slip past him, I stop and take a slow drink from my coffee. This happens twice on the short staircase. He doesn't seem to notice anything odd.

At the top of the stairs he stands just a bit too close to the rails. I consider simply asking him to move a bit, but instead, curious to see how this goes, I slide past him. He brushes one hand against my arm; the bag is dropped, the (already broken) glass makes a tinkly sound. Once he used a pair of reading glasses, but usually, like today, it's the mystery beverage in a paper bag.

"Damn, N****!"

He's a big guy. He's glaring at me. He's scary.

"I'm not falling for that, Man," I say quite calmly. He laughs. "Do you know how many times you've tried to pull this on me? I think this is the seventh, maybe eighth time. Hell, you were barely even trying this time. I've seen you do better."

The man keeps laughing, no hard feelings. Presumably he'll manage to fool someone else into 'reimbursing' him for the drink they just knocked out of his hand, but it won't be me. I wonder how many times he pulls it off, what kind of haul he gets on a good day.

I tell you what, I may look like I just fell off the turnip truck, but nobody cons me, man.