Archive for July, 2009

Quixotic

Quixotic: I ran across that word three times my reading last week and once on the radio. Unusual. The fist time I saw the word was in a general reference to cycling any distance further than a mile or two around the neighbourhood and I didn’t think too much about it. By the third time I saw the word it was describing women in their 40’s and said that it was “often in detriment to their health”. Well, I am a woman in her 40’s, and the health comment in particular puzzled me, so I looked it up just to make sure I actually remembered the definition of the odd stereotype with which this author was labelling me. According to Merriam Webster’s online dictionary it means “foolishly impractical especially in the pursuit of ideals ; especially : marked by rash lofty romantic ideas or extravagantly chivalrous action”…or like Don Quixote.

I suppose I can think of some ways that a pursuit of ideals might be detrimental to one’s health, but all of the ways I can imagine involve excess or enemies. I also remember that my Dad was in his 40’s when Mom nick-named him Don Quixote and teased him about jousting windmills. At the same time, I wonder if the pursuit of lofty ideals is indicative of an age based desire. True, when one is in their 40’s they usually have children who are old enough and parents who are young enough that they can turn interests toward something outside the home if they like. I agree that a quest is more possible for someone in their forties, but the desire for a quest? Well, I have had that since I was old enough to understand the concept and no one needs freedom of the sort that is afforded to men and women in their forties in order to dream the impossible dream.

I have seen many assessments and generalizations of what I, as a woman in her forties, want from life. I find some of them appallingly off the mark, even offensive. On the whole, I guess I’m fairly comfortable with this one. There is a little part of me that hums in synchronicity when I hear Man of La Mancha or Dulcinea. I heard the music in my 20s and 30s though and my plan is to still be humming when I am 50, 70 or 90.

Apollo 11: Looking Back, and Forward

Today I find myself remembering a particular visit home to grandma’s house. My grandmother, Mimi, we called her lived in Evergreen, Alabama and we lived in Nederland,Texas, so it had been a long drive for my small attention span. Are we there yet? My mother (in the wisdom that is ingrained in a mother’s DNA) told me to look for the big red clay hill and then I would know we were there. Magic, no more questions, but then jumping excitement when the big clay hill beside Baggett’s service station was spotted.

This was not my earliest memory, but it was the earliest memory that I can date specifically because it was the summer of Apollo 11. We had traveled all that distance in a white mustang to visit with my grandparents in their antebellum home with the high ceilings and the crystal chandeliers. These were the summers of homemade ice cream, watermelon seed fights and Papa’s dog Peanut howling at the horn when the freight train came through town.

Shortly after we arrived the lunar landing was aired on television. I remember the image of my grandfather and his reaction better than I remember the actual landing and my own reaction. It was many years before I understood the significance of the history that was taking place or to appreciate its place for him.

Papa sat on a round piano stool next to the upright piano. It was the kind of stool that had claw feet over glass casters and a wide wooden screw in the center underneath the seat allowing you to turn the seat to adjust the height. I rarely saw Papa without the business shirt he wore every day, but on this day he wore a sleeveless undershirt. When they landed, he scratched his head and said “Golee”, not nearly as exaggerated, but somewhat reminiscent of Gomer Pyle from the Andy Griffith show. I don’t remember that being a word he used often.

As I grew older I began to hear my grandfather speak about his life and the things that he had seen. One of the things Papa remembered was when the first person brought the first car to town. I was struck by how much technology had changed from the time he was a small boy until the time I was a small girl. I watched the lunar landing with a man who knew a life before automobiles came into his.

Changing technology is constant and I have seen my share. I remember large cell phones with larger batteries, life before the Internet and I also remember my daughter questioning me as though I had misspoken “What do you mean you didn’t have VCRs when you were a kid?” Still, I’ve never seen change like he saw change. Trying to put myself in my grandfather’s shoes is difficult. This person who often drove me to Sleepy’s Drive-In for a soft serve ice cream cone after dinner remembered when it was the cost of hay that fueled transportation rather than the cost of gas and I was with him while we watched men walking on the moon. He saw many more changes before he left us.

Today as we look back and marvel that many Americans carry more sophisticated technology in their pockets than the computing systems that took men to the moon, I can only wonder what changes I may see when I have seen as many years as my grandfather did. When my son was young, I subscribed to MIT Technology Review because I knew that he would read it if it was sitting around the house. Every once in a while I’d be half listening as he, who was also a Star Trek fan, would talk about something he had read and I would have to stop him to check and see if he was off in the imaginary world, or if it came out of MIT. I am reminded of Arthur C. Clark’s quotation “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” I look forward to seeing the magic that will be our future and I hope that we use it well.

A Day Away, Space Shuttle Launch…manatees!

I went on my first tour with A Day Away Kayak Tours almost three years ago. It was the bioluminescent tour review here and it was wonderful. This time Russ was coming and the plan was to take the Space Shuttle Tour around dawn. The route is the same as the bioluminescant tour, only the focus is on getting there to watch the space shuttle take off so we linger at the best vantage point. Neither of us had done something crazy like drive all night for anything in a very long time. Launches are notorious for being postponed or canceled. That made it even more questionable, but we already had plans to go to Disney World and there was a lift-off on the schedule, so we gave it a try.

I went to the library and checked out Rocket Boys an audiobook of the memoir that the movie October Sky was based on, so as soon as Russ finished work we started feeding the CD player and settled in for the entertainment while trading off driving. We calculated the time in Google Maps and had a time buffer of about two hours, but it was a long trip and we were nervous about whether Google Maps got the time right or whether something might go wrong. Leaving Atlanta didn’t help. There were some fairly intense thunder storms that hit as we left town. Traffic was very slow. We compensated a little in the rest of the trip and managed to arrive pretty much when Google said we would, around 3:45 AM.

Driving up to the landing in the dark was a little special. I was having trouble remembering the landing exactly. I said I thought it was somewhere near the sign in the distance. That was correct, but the sign was not a road sign, it was a “No Wake” sign and it was maybe 20 yards out in the water. Flat sand, flat water, glad we were driving slow enough for plenty of reaction time.

We had just reclined the car seats for as much of a nap as we could manage when the phone rang. The mission had been scrubbed and so had the tour, but we could go at 9:00 AM for a manatee encounter or in the evening for a bioluminescent tour. Russ wanted the manatees! This trip is the same route as the other tours, but you linger in a place where the manatees like to hang out. Manatees are protected by law, once on the Endangered Species list, they are now upgraded to the Threatened Species list, these rules apply. Because it is spring the manatees were particularly frolicsome. Manatees came up beside most kayaks at one time or another, awesome! It tended to be a little bit private when it happened in spite of the crowd because none of the paddlers would call out to neighbors for fear of startling the manatees.

At one point we paddled up to a flat shoreline and took a break from the Kayaks. One person picked up hermit crabs to look and show them around, then set them down beside each other. There was a fight between the two crabs. I’ve never seen this before. We guessed that the one crab wanted to trade up to the shell of the other and someone joked about “illegal hermit crab fighting”. We all laughed, but then someone took pity and decided to separate them.

If it hadn’t been for the scheduled launch we never would have timed the trip in a way that forced us to drive all night, but the manatees were worth a trip in their own right. We were tired, and still wanted to see the launch, but not disappointed. It was enough fun to turn around and go right back so we kept watching the schedule to see if things would work out for another attempt. The launch was rescheduled for a couple of days later. It would have been a pre-dawn launch this time and we were looking forward to what would amount to a night paddle and a spectacular launch in the dark, but this launch was also canceled. There are a few more launches scheduled before the Space Shuttle program is cancelled, who knows, maybe we’ll get another chance to visit Florida.

Canoeing the Hooch: An Elaborate Ruse

The time/money trade off is at the heart of the challenge in making it through a span of unemployment. There are things you would like to do, and there is time to do them because you can’t spend all of every day seeking that elusive next position, but making the emergency fund last as long as it needs to is the background stress making you wonder if it is really ok to take some time for fun. We thought a canoe trip would strike the balance. We already had the canoe, it was not motorized so no registration was required. It would cost parking fees and gas. We were going to canoe the Hooch, from Powers Island to the boat ramp Northridge Parkway Parking lot in West Palisades Recreation Area so gas would be minimal and parking would be $3 at each of two parking lots. This was the same route I had taken on an outing with the Georgia Conservancy in a raft with a friend from Missouri a few years back and I knew that it was a nice stretch. Russ had Monday off, so we had a plan.

It rained all evening Sunday and the forecast called for more on Monday. We talked about the effect on the river and and changed the alarm. Monday’s weather was looking better and about mid morning I said that I was tempted to go look at the river to see what it really looked like and Russ said that he thought we might as well take the canoe while we were at it. In for a penny… The river looked just as I expected it to, fast, muddy and high. I said I was 50/50 and he could push me either way. Russ wanted to go. We had taken separate rental kayaks on flat unchallenging water together, but had never floated together in a canoe. I had been out with my father as a child, but he always made all the decisions and did all of the paddling. There is only so much you can pick up through osmosis. So I said a little more, that I didn’t have the skill and couldn’t swim against the current, only at an angle with it, but I was happy to go if he felt that he had the skill to go alone and I would help as I could. He was confident. We dropped the car and headed up to Powers Island to put in. There was a put in on the narrower east side of the island with a course marked. We decided that was the least troublesome landing to use in high water and we were off.

Once you float underneath 285 there are a couple of apartment complexes and then things begin to look remote. There are hiking trails, but not much human activity until you near the take out ramp. Traffic sounds are quieted by the tree covered bluffs. Heron, ducks and other wildlife can be seen on the river and there is very little sense over this part of the river that you are in the middle of a large metropolitan area. We were having fun and getting used to paddling together. Russ was steering and giving me instruction the way we learned in previous raft trips. I was very comfortable. The things he was telling me to do were the things I would have chosen myself and we were working well together. We sailed through Devil’s Race Course and Russ decided we should pull out and look at the river ahead. We pulled out on the west side and there was a map posted on the trail along with a good view of the river ahead. We got back in and headed downstream again.

Things were going great until they weren’t. I’m not sure what turned us over or exactly where we were. I didn’t feel it when it passed underneath me so it must have been just a tiny unexpected bump as opposed to all the more seemingly risky things that we had passed through without incident. That little surprise and boom. As soon as we came up and both grabbed the boat and Russ said “This was all an elaborate ruse. I knew if I asked you to go swimming, you’d say no”. You’ve gotta love a sense of humor that is stronger than the current.

What we learned is that we work well together while wet and that we are actually able to right a pretty much sunken canoe and get back in it under less than ideal conditions. It took two attempts. During the first attempt I didn’t raise my end high enough and it didn’t quite empty. Russ’ Chapstick came out of his pocket. We both watched it float across the space between us and then away. Neither of us said a word. Neither of us was willing to let go of flotation, paddle or canoe to reach for it. It was a strangely quiet little pause as we both watched it pass.

I got to a higher rock. We righted and emptied the canoe. He held it steady while I stepped up still higher on the highest rock my feet could find, into the center of the canoe and then moved up to my seat. I knew that the canoe would begin to move downstream as soon as Russ tried to enter the boat. I looked straight forward and tried to be the best counter balance I could, but there was no need. I couldn’t believe it worked. I had prepared myself to take another dive. Not only was I surprised by the fact that we were under way and dryish, I was also surprised by the next thing I heard. Russ said “Ok, now this will really be a team building exercise because my glasses are at the bottom of the river. You need to be my eyes.” I hadn’t even noticed. We were also down to one paddle now.

I began to look for calm water and to direct him toward it. We used the standard clock type communication…”It’s at 10:00″ and so on. To make sure there were no hearing problems I began to confirm information with my arms like a cheerleader with big arm movements, left or right when he needed to go that way, then clapped together above my head for straight ahead. We looked for the paddle as we floated the remainder of the trip and never found it. Russ paddled alone for the duration. In a small tributary on the west there was a man with his dog. The man would throw float toys into the water and the dog was playing the happiest game of fetch that I think I’ve ever seen.

We got out at the boat ramp and both felt a little rush of gratitude for landing without further excitement. The trip was a good bit more expensive than planned with the loss of the glasses and the paddle, but all things considered we really weren’t too much the worse for the wear and we’re already talking about our next trip.

A Garrison Keillor 4th of July

Celebrating the 4th of July with fireworks is a part of what makes every summer whole. Last year we went to the beach. This year we stayed close to home and started the day in Marietta Square looking for a watermelon. We arrived in the late morning and were met by a dozen or more people on unicycles, possibly from the front end of the parade. We parked several blocks away and saw a bit of the end of the parade as we walked into the square. Some people were still enjoying it from atop the newly renovated Strand Theater. After the parade there was music on the bandstand and some of the regular farmer’s market vendors joined the food and craft vendors for the holiday, unfortunately, not those selling watermelon. It was good to see water in the fountain again, now that we are out of drought status. There was a bungee trampoline with tiny fearless humans flying through the air and home made style ice cream powered by a hit and miss engine. We ate at Marietta Pizza Company where Sweetwater Brewery was promoting their “Save the Hooch” campaign, got our watermelon at Harry’s Farmers Market and decided to see the fireworks in Alpharetta at Wills Park.

Wills Park is always a treat. We came early to have a picnic and enjoy the park filled with other families. There seemed to be a few more side attractions here than what I had noticed in years past, a bandstand, magician, face painter and food vendors. Stu Enloe was there with a hot air balloon inflated and on static display. As I watched families celebrate with football, frisbees, rice crispy treats and sparklers I had a sense of time standing still because this day was so much like every other 4th of July as far back as I can remember. When the fireworks began the crowd was alive with loud cheers and clapping.

It seemed doubly appropriate that PBS aired an American Masters episode featuring Garrison Keillor over the holiday weekend. It was not specifically a holiday program, but deeply American all the same, and no one else can pull you into his imagination to make you feel like you grew up in that same small town with him in quite the same way. During the program Mr. Keillor asked his audiences to join him in singing the Star Spangled Banner and it captured his intent precisely. He said that singing in that way brought people together. He talked about believing that our country was good and that he didn’t believe it was angry people who made it that way. He had given the example of angry talk show hosts. Mr. Keillor said something else that really reached me. He said that when he was young his deepest fear was to live an ordinary life. I remembered intensely wanting things to be bigger and more special when I was young. But, then he said he realized when his daughter was born, he had a sense that it was ordinary and that was when he realized that ordinary was good enough. I had been enjoying a very ordinary 4th of July while at the same time I was appreciating the extraordinary nature of it all when I heard this. Yes, Mr. Keillor, I agree. Ordinary is good enough.

This Schoolhouse Rocks!

This morning, July 2, the East Cobb Neighbor, a free local paper was delivered to my home. Back on page 6A there was an article Cobb jobless rate highest since ’76. Being among the 9% of Cobb County residents currently seeking employment keeps me from sleeping as well as I might these days, but experience also teaches me to be optimistic.

When I was in grade school I loved Schoolhouse Rock’s I’m Just a Bill up on Capitol Hill. It had personal meaning for me because my father made it come alive. He was the Chairman of the County Commission in rural, south Alabama, so government seemed reachable from an early age. Being a part of forming government came into my consciousness when a guest came over one evening. I was just young enough to be amused by the fact that his name was Rhodes Johnston and he was also a Rhodes Scholar; and I was just old enough to be impressed, both by the Rhodes Scholar status (mother explained that it was quite an accomplishment) and by his association with National Geographic. Mr. Johnston and my father were writing a bill for the state legislature. I think it had to do with one of the local rivers. I later learned that the bill passed. Of course it did, my daddy wrote it! Like most children I saw the world of the possible as being at least as large as my parent’s accomplishments and the lesson stuck.

Years later I joked with a political science professor about sitting down on the living room floor to write a bill (yes, they sat on the floor to write it). Her eyes widened and she said that it wasn’t that easy. I never explained why I made the comment, but I did eventually ask her for a recommendation to a study abroad program in Central America. I didn’t expect it to lead anywhere, but I asked the questions anyway. I asked my professors “Would you like to write a recommendation?”. I asked grandma “Would you like to keep the kids for the summer?”. I asked all my questions and filled out the application. Before long that fat envelope that means “yes” was delivered to my mailbox, my children were visiting Grandma for the summer and I experienced the tropical cloud forest. It was not legislation, but it was a dream. I was awed by the colors, textures and sounds that were the cloud forest. I came to believe that if something so beautiful could exist, there must be something right in the world and I was able to experience it because I kept moving toward something I thought was an impossible, or at least unlikely goal. The kids came down for a visit after the program and I was able to share it all with them. Like Woody Allen said “Eighty percent of success is showing up.”

This was not the first time I met with unexpected yes. The first time may have been when I was twenty. My brother-in law died in the service of his country and I was moved to write an op-ed piece. His brother, now my ex-husband, gave me the “Aren’t you adorable?” look when I showed him my work. The L. A. Times was more respectful. They printed it. Years later, I began to design clothing. I called my favorite magazine and asked if they would like to publish my work. They did. My favorite designer saw that work and used my design on her wedding dress. These are not world changing events, but they are life changing events. When your work, what ever it is, is appreciated by the people you admire it feeds the spirit. It gives you the audacity to keep seeing opportunity and to follow it even when you are certain that failure is likely.

When my supervisor recently called me into a private conference room, I knew the “no easy way to say…negative company growth…” was coming. People asked me what I would do next and I said two things. I gave the light-hearted “I’m going to Disney World” because the trip was already planned and it just happened to be true. Then, on a more serious note, I said that I would walk through the first door that opened. On second thought, I’m idealistic enough to amend that. I’ll walk through the best door that opens! I don’t know what lies ahead, but I do know that it has the potential to be more than what I left behind. I haven’t found the right questions to ask this go ’round, but I have learned that when I do, I will ask them because when the answer is yes, the dream is alive.