Wednesday, May 19, 2010


I remember, once, watching the front yard ripple like a wave heading for shore – except it was heading for the living room in which I stood. Then the earthquake met the leading edge of the house and the sound of a freight train filled my ears, and I could hear my mother’s dishes and my father’s cathode ray tube collection crashing to the floor in the dining room. I wanted to sprout wings and fly. Get away, get away!

It’s dangerous out there.

I felt almost the same way today, reading the New York Times. I quit watching the news years ago, when I realized just how incomplete and slanted and “watch the birdie!” it was. Besides, it was really depressing. And I may have to start spooning the print news out into more easily digestible portions, too. Really. Arizona’s new immigration laws, the Birthers, a far-right conservative who isn’t re-elected because he’s not conservative enough. They say that one of the ways to be most at risk to be manipulated by others is to be governed by fear and uncertainty. Well, a lot of us must be scared and uncertain, because a few noisy angry people are having an outsize effect on the rest of the country. Tea Partiers “taking back our country”? It’s my country too, and I don’t want you to have it.

I used to say to myself that when the Homeland Security Act and the far-right made my beautiful home too threatening to live in, that I might take a break and go live in Canada for awhile. Or Europe. But now we’re looking at the collapse of countries, and perhaps of whole regional economic systems. Global warming – yes, I know we like to call it climate change, but it’s global warming, folks – as well as unwatched aging nuclear stores and computer systems – threaten us all.

Jeez, it's not just dangerous out there -- the whole GLOBE is perilous.

And for most people, always has been and always will be. As I sit here, harrowed up with angst about Apocalypse Sometime Soon, I need to remember that for the majority of people on the planet, clean water is a hard-to-come-by luxury and one good meal a day is all you can hope for. That students are walking ten miles to get to a school with no books. They’re not living in a post-apocalyptic world. It’s just home.

It’s a beautiful day. I live in a neighborhood just south of Portland, Oregon, and my city sits down and across a little river, and I can walk to a bluff and admire it from afar. I planted spinach and carrots yesterday. I’ve got a fortune in leeks growing in one garden bed, and the garlic is coming on. The farmer’s market meets today, about five blocks from my house. Today is a good day to be alive.

But I see the earthquake rippling toward us. In times like these, when I see the ground rushing up toward us and I can no longer say, like the guy whose parachute didn’t open, “So far, so good,” it’s taking some mulling over – how do I continue to live with hope and purpose? J.R.R. Tolkien, author of the popular “Lord of the Rings” and a survivor of the First World War, once wrote that the English shared a common attitude – being essentially cheerful people, they can stay happy as long as despair can be postponed. (And, presumably, maintaining a stiff upper lip even when it can’t.)

Meanwhile, I plant my raspberries and asparagus and the new apple tree, teach my daughter how to drive a stick shift and my son how to write a five-paragraph essay – and prepare to enjoy the fruit of my labors for the next forty years or so.

Yes, it’s a dangerous planet, but it’s the only one we’ve got. And it’s home.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

World Warming

This just in: I'm fifty-three.

No, now, really, this is serious. I know I keep harping on it, but what a shock!

It happened suddenly, too -- kind of like a car accident, which also just happened last week. One minute you're driving at a steady pace down Southeast Ash and the next minute a van has crashed into you and your car doesn't look the same anymore.

I mean, one minute you're forty-three and going back to school and everyone tells you look thirty and the next you're fifty-three and you tell people so and they don't even bother to remonstrate politely. They just say, "Oh."

I know what happened. I was really fat for years and wouldn't look in the mirror or let anybody take a picture of me. So then I lost a lot of weight and I had to look in the mirror to buy clothes that fit and people started taking pictures again and jeez, the face I see in the mirror, well, SUDDENLY it's a -- middle-aged -- face. And you know the saying that fat plumps out your wrinkles and thin people wrinkle more than fat people? It's true.

Now, I wouldn't care if these outward changes weren't accompanied by some inward changes. Well, some things go along with the territory, like how many pairs of glasses do I need now? Readers, computer/piano/dicing onions glasses, distance glasses, bifocals, and then just accepting blurry for awhile because I read for two hours and it will take my eyes two hours to be able to focus on that tree, even with my new glasses on? If you're over fifty you're laughing ruefully, and you over there, yes you, just wait. You'll see!

Or not!

Anyway. Inward changes. The part that didn't change inside is the just-out-of-college part, the me who knows all the slang and is really cool and a little whacky and quirky and energetic and knows obscure topical references that only a few other cool people know, like Klaus Nomi and Eddie Izzard stand-up routines. (Yes, I know these are '80s references.) So this whacky quirky college student is where? Behind the fifty-three-year-old face.

My daughter says that my college-student self is shining through my fifty-three-year-old face and that's what makes me so cool. Aw.

What I notice most though, is that I don't want to set the world on fire anymore.

Big one. Because up to this last year, I wanted to change the world in a big way. Be a famous opera singer or do original research into the nature of sleep or stop global warming or nuclear proliferation or at least inspire classroom after classroom of kids to change the world for me.

But now?

Not so much.

Besides, I kinda feel like I've been changing the world all along. But in quiet, subtle ways.

There's a sidewalk between a middle school and a popular shopping center that's there purely because of my advocacy.

A church has an organ, in part because of my service on a committee.

Several of my friends have jobs they like because I connected some dots.

Dozens of kids are more confident and excited about themselves as learners because of me.

My son loves Star Trek, Mozart and Italian cooking because of me. My daughter is discovering herself as an actress because of me.

Oh, that's right, these two vital warmhearted people are in the world because of me!

But is that setting the world on fire?


Do I still have opportunities to try?

Yes! Yes, I do. And I see Hillarie Clinton and Gail Collins and Nancy Pelosi and I hear all about how we get a second wind in our fifties and you know, right now I'm using my second wind to garden and cook and take eight-mile walks and spend time with friends and sit and write and maybe read a book. Because it's more than 25 years since I've had time to do these things. I've been running for the train, catching hold by my fingertips and hoisting myself aboard since forever, and setting the world on fire looks like too much damn work. It's a big world.

I think I'll just warm it up a little.