The Season for Battle

Non Sequitur - np_c111108.jpg

Non Sequitur

Fall is the season of leaves turning red and gold, the season of school buses and frosty mornings, and the season for battle. In ancient times, when things got tense at home, men could prove themselves by putting on 80 pounds of armor and joining the Crusades. In early America, macho dudes could head West and battle Indians and look for gold. Today, restless guys strap on goggles and join the leaf blower battles, the manly sport of blowing air.

Neighbor A swaggers out of his garage sporting a Husqvarna 580 BTS backpack blower. He grins maniacally as it roars to life, drowning out howling dogs and fire sirens. Leaves and dirt swirl up from his grass and tumble into the street.

Later, when Neighbor A has settled in front of the TV with a root beer, chips, and guacamole, he is jolted out of his repose by the thunder of Neighbor B’s walk-behind Billy Goat Force 169cc blower. By the time he has his work boots back on, Neighbor A’s blower has not only blasted every leaf in the neighborhood back into his yard but has created a no-green zone between their two properties.

Rather than engage in open warfare, A decides to wait until B is out of town for the weekend to return the favor. And so it goes.

Fall used to be a time of walking through crunchy piles of leaves and listening to honking Canadian geese as they flew overhead on their way to warmer climes. Now, the sound of autumn is the roar of a machine louder than a chainsaw and more annoying than a roomful of old men snoring.

And for what? A lawn mower makes the grass shorter and a rototiller digs things up, but a leaf blower, like a political candidate, simply blows. The blasted thing sounds like it is doing some kind of useful work, but it merely moves things around.

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Road Trip Diplomacy

ambree in carWhen I went on a trip with my daughter’s family, I imagined teaching my grandchildren raucous songs, like “Booma Chicka Boom,” and playing cutthroat games of “Animal, Vegetable, Mineral.” But today’s kids are sadly lacking in the fine art of bonhomie developed when singing “99 Bottles of Pop on the Wall” and they seem less opportunistic than previous generations in using the prison-like confines of the family car to hone their sibling rivalry techniques, which in previous generations served as the training ground for politicians, lobbyists, and CEOs.

I came armed with snacks, travel Yahtze, and words to dozens of songs, but when I climbed in the car, the kids were already plugged into their devices. Five-year-old Genavae was playing Strawberry Shortcake Bake Shop on the Kindle, thirteen-year-old Russel was immersed in the world of Minecraft, and the other two were rigged out with headphones and separate screens for watching videos.

Today’s kids are going to be seriously lacking when it comes to elbowing out their colleagues at work and playing chicken on the highway. When I was a kid, traveling with siblings was boot camp for future Marines and car salesmen: we learned the intricacies of torturing our parents with incessant whining, how to rat on our siblings, and the art of delivering silent jabs while keeping a look of innocence on our faces.

When my own children weren’t arguing about who was encroaching on whose space, they delivered  torture without leaving a mark, created mock disasters, and simulated emergencies, like “I’ve got to go to the bathroom. Now!”

My grandchildren, on the other hand, are traveling zombies. The only time they regain consciousness is if the Kindle runs out of battery power or the movie comes to an end. Every hour or two their parents toss them a fruit snack or granola bar to keep them from becoming comatose.

I have to admit there is some advantage to traveling with sleepwalkers, but where will future stock traders and loan sharks learn their skills? I can see it now: when it’s time to negotiate a spending bill in Congress, everyone will spontaneously retreat to I-pad land and the government will default.

Can You See Me Now?

IMG_3814When I got up this morning I put on my cloak of invisibility: barely-60 face, short haircut, conservative skirt, t-shirt, no child at side. To complete my disguise, I jumped into my white Chevy Malibu and cruised down the street. Amazingly, I can go just about anywhere and not be remembered. I can walk around my town fully wholly incognito. At church, at the grocery store, on an airplane–I am the invisible woman.

Whereas I used to turn heads as I walked down the street or be the go-to person at church, now people stare right through me. At church, I might as well be a ghost. The 30 and 40-somethings look past me like I don’t exist. And the teenagers are worse: they actively avoid any eye contact or conversation. In the neighborhood, it’s pretty much the same story. No kids: no status.

It is a curiosity I never knew existed.  Why do people become invisible when their children move out? Do we purposely become invisible or is it some kind of cultural prank to pass over people older than 55? Is the rest of the culture trying to forget we exist—that pretty soon we’ll be sucking away all the reserves in the Social Security system and bleeding them dry to support Medicare? Or are we seen as irrelevant? Do not-yet-seniors sincerely believe that anyone born before 1962 cannot have a current thought or an interesting comment?

Do we middle agers need to throw tantrums to get noticed? No, we would just get committed to assisted living homes or sent to the psychiatrist.

Do we need to wear outrageous clothes? We are already accused of that.

Do we need to throw lavish parties? Dance in the street?

I discovered the secret to re-visibility in Sun Valley, Idaho:  get a dog and suddenly people notice you exist, or at least they notice your dog. Sun Valley is a place where there just might be a city ordinance requiring everyone to own a dog. I used to wonder if there was a connection between dogs and skiing, but now I think it is a connection between dogs and visibility. At the outdoor concerts in the summer, people spread out their picnics of canapés, caviar, and wine and the pampered poodle gets a Bow Wow Biscotti Dipidy Dawg treat. The next person over also has a dog so the two couples recount how they rescued their dogs from imminent death at the pound, spent all spring building a dog house complete with running water and a doggy monitor, and commiserate over the price of doggy daycare.

Since this discovery, I have been thinking about getting a sweet-natured golden retriever or a cute clever Papillon, but now I wonder if I really want to give up my inconspicuousness, which is starting to grow on me. After all, no one asks me to do the hard jobs at church, I can walk anonymously through my own neighborhood in the middle of the day, I can even go to a political rally and no one hits me up for a contribution.

Breaking Out of the Bathroom

With the kids back in school and a flotilla of SUV’s in the school parking lot, my mind naturally turns to . . . autumn leaves? Actually, I remember how happy I was to graduate from the poop patrol to driver-of-kids in the big blue suburban.

“My burp is bigger than yours!” my son Shane bragged one day en route to T-ball.

“Well, listen to this!” said his friend Matthew.

“Get ready. This one will be humongous,” Shane replied.

Believe it or not, this conversation was music to my ears after the weekend I had endured. Give me belching! Give me rock music! Give me braggadocio baseball teams to haul around! Just please, please don’t put me back on the poop patrol.

To tell you the truth, I had forgotten about the poop patrol, or at least I had mercifully relegated it to a dusty, forgotten corner of my mind. All that carpooling must have numbed my brain. Until . . . my four-year-old niece bounced through the front door with a flip of her long chocolate curls, looked up at me with eyes that can melt your heart quicker than a new puppy, and said, “Aunt Judy, where’s the bathroom?”

Those words were like a heavy finger on the rewind button of my life. My mind quickly reeled backwards through gymnastics meets, piano recitals, basketball games, and baseball practices until I landed in the bathroom with wet wipes in one hand and a bottle of Lysol spray in the other.

I was on patrol again—the poop patrol. In less than 24 hours, this little pixie needed a bath, a shower, and a thorough scrubbing in between. I cleaned poop off the tub, the toilet, the floor, and the carpet in the next room. Plus, I did two extra loads of laundry.

Yes, it was deja vu.

“How was your day, Honey?” my husband used to ask.

“Fine, if you like sitting in the bathroom all day.”

“Are you sick?”

“No, but it’s a miracle I’m not.”

Really, our bathroom was not a bad place, but sometimes I was sure there were bars on the windows. With two barely trained boys, ages two and three, and a new baby, it was probably the most-used room in the house.

First thing in the morning, I changed the baby and powdered her cute little bottom. Then I escaped to the couch to read the morning paper. Before I got past the headlines, the boys pranced out in their jammies.

“Potty, potty,” the two year old said.

Dutifully, I ran him to the bathroom and waited while he did his thing. A few minutes break and a whiff of the baby told me it was time to go back to the bathroom. Then it was the three year old’s turn. Of course, he was scared to stay in there all alone, so I was trapped for another ten minutes or so.

Do you get the picture? I escaped every now and then, but each respite was temporary. The bathroom was my office, my home, my life. I made phone calls sitting on the edge of the tub. I read magazines while perched on the counter. I longed to jump in the car and go for a ride.

Hah! I got my wish. I became their on-call taxi driver (without the pay). I drove kids to driver’s training and to work and to the store. “Mom, I have to have the poster board tonight.” And to their friends’ houses and to the library. “Mom, it’s important. I have to be there in five minutes.” And back to their friends’ house and to practice at the school and even home once in awhile.

It was enough to drive a person crazy. But don’t get me wrong. I didn’t complain (not much anyway) because it was a giant step up from the poop patrol!

Urban Wildflowers (aka weeds)

Those of you who spend your summers resolutely trying to eradicate every last weed in your carefully manicured lawns and gardens may be offended by this post and will accuse me of romanticizing the enemy. But even the most disregarded plants may have at least one quality we can admire.

As I was walking through some newly subdivided land last night I couldn’t help appreciating the sunflowers that had sprung up on bare, dry, sun-baked lots. It’s amazing that they can bloom in the heat of the summer after everything else has shriveled and wilted.

I must admit that I am also sentimental about dandelions. Don’t get me wrong—I don’t want a yardful of them. But when I see the first dandelions in the spring, I remember the dandelion bouquets my children brought to me in their baby hands with the words, “I picked these for you, Mommy.”

That’s not all. Even though we doggedly tried to rid our Boise garden of morning glory, if I can put myself in a child-like frame of mind (and momentarily forget that a morning glory seed can sprout after living dormant for twenty years), I  see the morning glory blossoms as fairy dresses scattered across the grass.

Then there’s tumble mustard, a plant that grows along the ditch banks and open areas.  It’s considered a pest, but it can be impressive with hundreds of tiny yellow blossoms on a circular plant that is sometimes four feet in diameter.

I am also partial to the deep reddish-purple blossoms of the burgundy hound’s tongue that seems to grow near every ditch and stream in Idaho. What a shame that it is poisonous, evil-smelling, and can cause rashes.

Like all of you, I’ll continue to dig dandelions and spray morning glory, but occasionally I would like to step back from this modern war on weeds and see whatever glory is there to behold.

Charmed by Wildflower Names

At first, I was interested in wildflowers themselves, but recently I have become captivated by their fascinating names. Some are descriptive, like dusty maiden and Indian paintbrush. Others have scientific names, like Hesperochiron californicus or microsteris. Then there are the cool-sounding ones, like puccoon and saxifrage. And the mystifying ones, including lupine and collomia. Just as knowing the names of people makes them more dear, learning the names of wildflowers makes them into familiar friends.

I was so excited to identify my first dusty maiden on the North Fork Trail near Ketchum, Idaho, last week. This sweet trailside find looks exactly like you would imagine with delicate pink flower clusters arising from dusty-colored, grayish green leaves. On the same hike, we also found a patch of horse mint, which has a decidedly unglamorous name. I was happy to learn that this pretty lavender flower is also called lemon bee balm, which sounds much more appealing to me. The flower is quite pretty (nothing horsy about it) and a whole hillside of them is definitely striking.

The name scarlet gilia always makes me think of Scarlet O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. And the funny thing is the flower looks like the floral embodiment of the girl with its slender tubular flowers that flare in showy petals at the ends. However, the origin of the name scarlet gilia was not that romantic. The flower was named after the 18th century Spanish botanist, Felipe Gil (dictionary.com). You might also know scarlet gilia by the names of sky rocket or fairy trumpet. I especially like the idea of fairies blowing little reveilles on these flowers.

My other favorite, both for its name and its looks, is the aptly named firecracker penstemon, which looks like the gilia from a distance, but the tube doesn’t fan out at the end. I was excited to find firecracker penstemon blooming this year on the Canyon Rim Trail above Shoshone Falls. Other penstemon varieties were in abundance on the North Fork Trail: showy penstemon, hotrock penstemon, and a variety of miniature penstemon. Allison, our guide, explained to us that penstemon comes from the Greek penta- meaning five and stemon meaning five stamens. Penstemon are also known as beardtongues because of the golden hairs in the throat of the floral tube.

Since lupinus means of wolves, I wondered how the lavender, pink, and white lupine covering whole mountainsides near Twin Falls and Sun Valley got a name associated with wolves. Ancient lore has it that people thought the lupine plants were wolf-like and robbed nutrients from the soil; in fact, quite the opposite is true, as the lupine adds nitrogen to the soil (livingartsoriginals.com).

Then there’s puccoon, also known as wayside gromwell. Now, if you ask me, wayside gromwell sounds like something you would want to avoid. Puccoon, on the other hand, has an intriguing ring to it. This flower is easy to miss because the light yellow flowers are partially hidden by a profusion of knife-shaped leaves. On the Third Fork Trail, I walked right by it on the way in but luckily spotted it on the way out.

The ballhead waterleaf has a name that is easy to remember, and it has unforgettable ball-shaped clusters of flowers that have numerous thread-like filaments extending from them. When we hiked the Wahlstrom Hollow trail in the South Hills, these flowers virtually carpeted the trail and I knew I would never forget the name after that.

I’m still hoping to see a smooth-stem blazing star, a parrot’s beak, or a Jacob’s ladder, but in the meantime I will keep asking and looking up names and enjoy the surprising variety of wildflowers and their intriguing names.

Idaho Origami

Andrew Christensen folds his B.A.S.E. jumping parachute with the same precision and concentration as an oriental origami master, each fold taken to a precise spot and carefully creased. Instead of a paper crane, his folded chute will whoosh out with a snap when he pulls the ripcord. The beauty of the folds will be in the safe and smooth ride they provide.

B.A.S.E. (short for bridge, antenna, span, and earth) jumping requires an odd melding of exactitude and derring-do. It is the same combination of skills possessed by the spymaster or the Navy Seal: patience, care, and preparation wedded to the desire for adrenaline-inducing, heart-pumping action.

The jumpers who fold their chutes on the lawn of the Visitor’s Center by the Perrine Bridge in Twin Falls, Idaho, spend 40 painstaking minutes folding their chutes before walking out to the middle of the bridge where they step over the railing, free fall for four seconds, and float for about 20 seconds under the canopy before landing on a grassy strip at the bottom of the Snake River Canyon.

Preparing to base jump is a little like cooking Thanksgiving dinner. The sumptuous turkey dinner requires three to four days of intense preparation and culminates in a 20-minute feeding frenzy, which is followed by an hour of cleanup. For the base jumper, folding is not the only investment. The jumper must also get to Twin Falls, a small farming community in southern Idaho,  the only place in the U.S. where it’s legal to jump any day of the year. And, of course, there’s always the chance that it will be too windy or too stormy to  jump. If all goes well, then he can enjoy a 20-second adrenaline high followed by a 30-minute hike out of the canyon, unless he is lucky enough to have a boat waiting in the river below.

The difference between base jumping and life is that base jumpers choose their poison, but in life we step off bridges unknowingly—sometimes it may seem that we are thrown off. Our careful preparation must be made daily because we do not know when we will need to act decisively in only four seconds or when we will need to trust our parachute of preparation.

Cultivating a Wildflower Disposition by Judy Grigg Hansen

Yellow-bellied marmots scurried among the rocks and western tanagers played hide-n-seek on the hill above us as my husband and I hiked around Dierkes Lake near Shoshone Falls on an evening in early June. Our real discoveries, however, at this small man-made lake that sits below the towering rock walls of the Snake River Canyon included parsley desert buckwheat, barestem biscuitroot, and hopsage.

In the natural world, audience seems not to matter. Flowers bloom and trees grow leaves regardless of whether anyone is aware of them or not. Why, then, are the ideas of audience and legacy so important to we humans? Why are we not content to merely be? Why, by the way, am I writing this blog? In humans, there is a yearning for audience and for creating a legacy. This may be the whole point of mid-life crises: we suddenly realize that our imagined audience is either shrinking or is never going to materialize; and, at the same time, we realize that we may end up as a yellow bell under a sagebrush blooming in isolation with nothing to leave for posterity.

Maybe in our quest for audience and legacy, we should step back and examine the virtues of having a wildflower disposition. No matter how long or short our lives, we could just be the beautiful persons we were meant to be, not worrying about whether or not anyone else is watching.

The Infinity of Smallness by Judy Grigg Hansen

“It doesn’t look like there are any wildflowers out there,” my husband said, surveying the meadows by the side of the road, as we drove into Idaho’s Castle Rocks State Park on May 14 for a wildflower walk. I had to agree that our chances of seeing wildflowers looked pretty dim as it had been unseasonably cold and there were no splashes of color in the meadows. However, when we gathered in a grassy area with the other walkers, Park Director Wallace Keck told us that 49 different wildflowers had been seen already that year.

Blue mustard being held (Photo by Judy Hansen)

In fact, Keck told us to look down by our feet and see how many wildflowers we could find before we started out. As we peered at the grass by our feet, our eyes magically opened to a miniature world of beauty in the grass at our feet. We found spring draba, a member of the mustard family that has eight miniscule white petals that Thumbelina princesses could use to decorate their hair. Slightly larger were the delicate lavender blossoms of the blue mustard.

Microsteris gracilis (Photo by Wallace Keck)

My favorites were the microsteris, the smallest of the phloxes at the park, and blue-eyed Marys, which sport two blue petals and two white petals. The ranger told us that tiny insects suck nectar from and pollinate these miniature flowers. Now I was hesitant to take a step, as I might crush some delicate little kingdom thriving in the grasses at my feet.

Blue-eyed Mary at Castle Rocks (photo by Wallace Keck)

A few days later, with my thoughts on mini-kingdoms, I imagined being a rabbit as I walked along the Shoshone Falls trail. The sagebrush became a forest of trees where shade was available, and the rocks were hills and lookout towers. When I got home, I imagined being an ant in my front flower garden, nesting under a fuchsia-colored lily or a bright orange poppy. I might think everyone lived underneath such a riot of color. I would probably be aware of the marigolds and petunias beyond the lilies and maybe even of the yard across the sidewalk and possibly of the neighborhood beyond. It gets harder to imagine the ant knowing about the world of the city or the fields of corn and sugar beets outside the city limits, to say nothing of other cities and oceans and deserts. Likewise, our universe might be a much larger and more diverse place than we currently imagine it.

When I was growing up, we were taught that the atom was the smallest type of matter in the universe. Now, scientists who study quantum mechanics have identified more than 200 subatomic particles, including bosons, baryons, and pentaquarks. I cannot help but wonder if these unimaginably small particles are also made up of even smaller particles, kind of like Russian matryoshka or nesting dolls, each holding a smaller and smaller kingdom.

What then are the limits of smallness, or largeness, for that matter? When do we get to the smallest small thing? How can we possibly perceive it? What are the limits of outer space or universes or worlds beyond our knowing? It somehow seems easier to imagine the infinity of space than to imagine infinitely smaller particles or kingdoms. Maybe our perspective is as limited as the ant’s only in an inverse way.

Copyright May 29, 2011