Author Archives: Kathleen Fox

Sugar Cubes, Syringes, and Sweet Relief

Mary Poppins was right: a spoonful of sugar does help the medicine go down. Even when it’s a sugar cube, decorated with a bright pink splotch of some suspicious substance.

I remember those sugar cubes in tiny paper cups, arrayed on tables in the Winner, South Dakota, city auditorium and handed out to a crowd of chattering children that included my sisters and me. It was the late 1950s or early 1960s, and we were among the many kids who received the much-welcome polio vaccine at immunization events all across the country.

I’m a little vague on the year, and I’m making an educated guess on the location. But I have no doubt about the bright pink color—or the awful taste. Even with the help of the sugar, it was bitter. Mary Poppins would have thought so, too.

In fact, without those vaccine-soaked sugar cubes, Julie Andrews might never have sung “A Spoonful of Sugar” in the 1964 Disney movie version of Mary Poppins. Robert Sherman, who with his brother Richard wrote the songs for the movie, came up with the lyrics for “A Spoonful of Sugar” after his son Jeffrey told him about getting the polio vaccine.

Back when I was dutifully crunching down my bittersweet pink cube, I didn’t know much about polio. I had seen photos of people in iron lungs. I knew of a handful of people in our community left handicapped by polio. I knew that my mother’s oldest brother, who died as a toddler decades before I was born, may have been a victim of polio. But as a child, I wasn’t really aware of the widespread fear of this disease or the deep relief that came with the polio vaccine.

Today, I know a lot more about our current pandemic. When, last week, I went to another vaccine clinic, it was with a feeling of relief that bordered on giddiness. This time, I wasn’t one of a crowd of fidgety children being herded into lines. I was one of a quiet group of adults, mostly over a certain age, respectfully masked and seated on folding chairs too far apart for chattering. If some of us felt fidgety during the brief wait for our turns, we kept it to our socially distanced selves.

There was no bright pink stuff on sugar cubes this time. Just a quick, painless jab in the arm from a nurse with beautiful warm eyes above her mask, who was friendly and gentle and clearly delighted with her pandemic-ending assignment.

I waited (patiently, since of course I had a book with me) in another folding chair for the required post-inoculation 15 minutes. During that time I developed a headache, which lasted for the rest of the day. It’s the only side effect I had, and it’s possible that part of it resulted from hearing Julie Andrews singing “A Spoonful of Sugar” in my head for several hours.

But this time, Mary Poppins notwithstanding, no sugar was needed to help the medicine go down. After this past year of isolation, fear, and sadness, the relief and joy of receiving a COVID vaccine was sweet enough all by itself.

Categories: Living Consciously, Remembering When | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

Skinny Jeans and Bernie’s Mittens

The polar vortex. Climate change. Infrequent but not unknown weather extremes, otherwise known as “it’s February, what do you expect?”.

None of that fully explains the extreme cold spell we’ve been having. Here is the real story:

The pandemic’s upending of our schedules and routines have left a lot of us calendar-challenged. “It’s Wednesday, right? No, Thursday? And the month? Um, just give me a minute.”

Obviously, the same thing has happened to Mother Nature. A couple of weeks ago she woke up and realized, “Oh, damn—it’s February already! Fall was supposed to be over three months ago. Now if I can just remember where I left all my winter stuff . . .”

Then she unloaded three months’ worth of winter weather all at once.

This is why some of us, who have been running blithely around in light jackets while our snowboots and heavy coats have been gathering dust in the hall closet, are feeling aggrieved by the cold. The daily high temperatures went from mid-fifties to below zero faster than you could say, “Where in the heck is my other mitten?” We were caught with our long johns—er, our guard down.

But we’re tough. We’re coping. We’re trying to remember that “There is no bad weather; only unsuitable clothing choices.”

Case in point—Bernie Sanders and his famous Inauguration Day coat and mittens. His choice of outerwear was neither a fashion statement nor a political statement. It was simply a practical statement from a guy old enough and wise enough to choose comfort over style on a cold day.

Anyone who lives above a certain latitude understands that if you need to be fashionable when it’s freezing, you have to make certain compromises. That’s why long underwear was invented. Wear it under your regular clothes, and you can stay warm but still look somewhat stylish.

Unless what’s currently stylish is skinny jeans. Long underwear does not fit comfortably under skinny jeans. This is true whether said underwear is lightweight silk or spandex tights. Trust me; I have verified it. Just don’t ask me exactly how.

If the Kardashians lived in Minnesota, the fashion world would do something about this problem.

Categories: Fashion | 2 Comments

That’s Outrageous!

Several weeks ago, reading “just one more” article in my news feed, I had a shocking revelation. There I sat, hunched over my computer, with my jaws clenched, my shoulders up past my ears, my heart racing, and my stomach knotted. And it dawned on me—I had become addicted to outrage.

Given the chaos we’ve been surrounded with these past months—the pandemic, the protests, the bitter partisanship around the election—there is plenty to be outraged about. Feeling outraged isn’t necessarily a bad thing. At times it is an appropriate response to behavior that violates accepted standards of behavior.

What I had done, though, was get caught up in a cycle of outrage that had me feeling anger laced with a satisfying sense of self-righteousness and topped off by a burst of adrenaline. The more I sought out outrageous tidbits to feed those emotions, the more I was perpetuating an addictive loop.

I did not appreciate realizing this about myself.

But I did appreciate, just a few days later, being given an opportunity to understand it. On December 13, the subject of NPR’s program “The Hidden Brain” was outrage. Here’s what I learned:

Researchers have found that feeling outrage stimulates pleasure receptors in our brains. No wonder I was enjoying my self-righteous anger. But why would we evolve to take pleasure in outrage? What purpose would it serve?

The value in feeling outrage would be to encourage us to punish those whose behavior violated the accepted standards and rules of our group. Those violations could threaten the well-being or even the survival of individuals or the group.

At the same time, expressing outrage in person has a built-in controller to keep us from overdoing it. Let’s say you and I are part of an Ice Age family group, and I’ve seen you take and hide more than your share of the meat from our mammoth kill. That behavior harms the rest of us by taking food out of our mouths. I am outraged; I need to confront you. But if I get right in your face, screaming and threatening to bash your head in with my stone hammer, you just might hit me first. The ensuing melee wouldn’t do our group any good, either. To protect us from your bad behavior, I need to find a more useful way to turn my outrage into action. (I suspect this is why humans developed polite manners.)

Fast forward to the 21st Century. We don’t have mammoths. We do have social media, where we can be anonymous and our outrage has no external brakes. We can do exactly what I was doing—wallow in “Oh my God!” and “Did they really?” and “What an idiot!” until we send ourselves into a spiral of escalating outrage and response and more outrage. The feeling of outrage still stimulates those pleasure centers in our brains, but it doesn’t compel any useful action. It just floods our bodies with stress.

This does not mean there is no value in outrage that is stirred up in social media. It has great value—to the media itself. The hosting platforms, news outlets, “influencers” and “opinionators” love it. Because outrage gives them views, shares, and attention. 

For me, this last piece of information was the key to backing away from my addiction to outrage. I hate being manipulated even more than I enjoy indulging in a nice stressful bout of self-righteous outrage. So I’ve started paying attention to the headlines and images before I ever click on an article. Once you look for them, it’s easy to pick out the inflammatory, sensational words: “shocking” “backlash” “erupts” “rips” “unbelievable.” These are meant to incite outrage and get attention. It’s very satisfying to refuse to take the bait.

I also remember that our pervasive, 24-hour infotainment media is an insatiable monster. It always has to take more in so it can spit more out. There is not nearly enough solid information to keep it fed. So it recycles, rehashes, and stretches out the actual news with tons of opinion, speculation, reactions, and just plain junk. It’s like making meatloaf with eight cups of stale breadcrumbs, a couple of half-spoiled onions, and only three ounces of hamburger.

I don’t have to consume the junk. I can choose just to read one or two articles from a reputable news outlet to get the basics. I don’t need to read or watch the fifth iteration of a commentator’s speculation on somebody’s reaction to somebody else’s response to a possible event hinted at by the assistant to somebody-or-other’s PR person.

When I do react with outrage, I can ask myself two questions. First: “Is this outrage artificially amped up, or is it my own?” Second: “Is there anything I can or should  do about it?”

Sometimes the answer is that my outrage is nothing more than a self-indulgent wallow in my own feelings. If so, the energy it creates just feeds toxic stress. It’s time to close my browser, back slowly away from the computer, and do something healthy like take a brisk walk.

Sometimes, though, the answer is “speak up.” Outrage is meant to energize us to take action to confront a threat, right a wrong, or solve a problem. Sometimes, if we fail to act, we are complicit in someone else’s outrageous behavior.

Originally, I intended this piece to end here. I thought I could discuss outrage in a general and explanatory way without mentioning anything that might actually be controversial. I planned to be careful, to not risk offending anyone. I meant to keep strong brakes on my own outrage.

But a few days ago, one especially outrageous act caused me to change my mind. The sitting president of the United States, in a recorded phone call, asked and urged Georgia’s secretary of state to falsify election results. I have read the transcript of this phone call. His own words show President Trump abusing the power of the presidency, violating his own oath of office, and violating the law by urging another elected official to do the same.

And today, as I’m writing this, the members of Congress who should be peacefully and ceremonially certifying the results of the presidential election are being evacuated from their chambers because of violent protests. Protests urged on by a dangerously petulant president.

Is my outrage over this my own? Absolutely. Is there anything I can or should do about it? Absolutely. I have a responsibility to confront the president’s behavior because it threatens the well-being of our shared group—the American people. I can choose to speak up, even if others might take offense. I can choose to use my sense of outrage to take my own action.

Because if I do not, I become one of those “good people” who, by doing nothing, allow evil to triumph. And that is outrageous.

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Can 2021 Come Out To Stay?

At last! It’s gone! Finally, we’re seeing 2020 in the rearview mirror.

Or at least, we would see it there if we were actually doing any driving. I got a new car—a fun red one!—early in March. By December 31, I had a whopping 1556 miles on it.

I think I put more miles than that on my hiking boots. Because among the things I’ve been grateful for this past year are the bike path just a block from my house and the many Black Hills hiking trails that are so easily accessible. In a year when it’s been so easy to slide into depression and stay there, socially distanced outdoor exercise has been a sanity saver.

A few other insights from 2020:

Thank goodness a lot of those new bakers who thought sourdough was the best discovery since sliced bread got tired of kneading. That leaves enough flour and yeast on the shelves for those of us who were making homemade bread before Covid made it cool.

Online grocery ordering is an exercise in trust and letting go. It’s no small thing to rely on someone else to pick out your bananas.

Group grocery buying supports healthier eating. I give my list to my daughter, who places our joint order online, where some brave soul fills it, so my son-in-law can pick it up, separate out my groceries, and drop them off at my house. With that many witnesses, there’s no way I’m buying any junk food. (Note: thankfully, dark chocolate is not junk food.)

A good friend will tell you which store has a new stock of toilet paper. A best friend will share her stash.

Talking to yourself is a sign of mental health. After about the eighty-seventeenth day of pandemic isolation, however, you’ve pretty much heard everything you have to say.

If you trim your own hair, describing the result as “asymmetrical” rather than “uneven” will help you pretend you meant it to come out that way.

Unless you outgrow your clothes, it is possible to stay decent, if perhaps not precisely fashionable, for an entire year with what’s in your closet. The downside is it doesn’t do much for the local economy if your clothing purchases for 12 months consist of two shirts, one pair of walking shoes, and a package of underwear.

Our 21st century technology is incredible. Texting, phone calls, social media, Zoom, and all its cousins are amazing ways to stay in touch. The e-reader is the best invention since contact lenses, and downloadable books are a gift from the gods and the local library board.

Some people have used pandemic isolation to clean out all their closets, master new languages or musical instruments, participate in online yoga classes, remodel their houses, keep daily journals, or write deep and thoughtful books. Some of us have used pandemic isolation to think about starting big projects like those. While we’ve been thinking, we read a lot of books.

Of course, turning our calendars to 2021 doesn’t mean the pandemic is over. That little New Year critter isn’t rushing in; it’s cautiously peeking out to see whether it’s safe to show up. But at least the fears and frustrations and grief that have been weighing us down are leavened with some hope and optimism.

May your 2021 include good health, vaccinations, in-person conversations, gatherings, hugs, and reconnections with those you love. Blessings and best wishes for a brighter year ahead.

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Who Moved Midnight?

Nobody moved midnight, really. It’s still where it’s always been, right there in the dark between 11:59 p.m. and 12:01 a.m. Just as noon is where it’s always been, right there in the middle of the day at lunchtime. (Or right after lunchtime, for those of us who wake up ready for breakfast at 5:00 a.m. and are consequently ready for lunch by 11:15. We’re the same people who have to take midnight on faith, because we haven’t seen it in person since New Year’s Eve at the beginning of the current millennium.)

But in recent years, somebody has been messing with 12:00 o’clock. Instead of the clear and simple designations of noon and midnight, I’m noticing more and more references to 12:00 a.m. or 12:00 p.m.

This usage is confusing. Does 12:00 a.m. mean noon and 12:00 p.m. mean midnight? Or is 12:00 a.m. midnight while 12:00 p.m. is noon? Depending on what you see as the starting point for the 12-hour clock, you could make a case for either one.

And in either case, you would be illogical and incorrect. For the same reason the weather app on my phone was illogical and incorrect the other morning when it informed me that the outside temperature was “minus zero” degrees.

No, it wasn’t. Zero is neither plus nor minus. It is the dividing line between plus and minus. Like an impartial referee, it doesn’t get to take sides.

When it comes to clocks, 12:00 is equivalent to zero. Noon and midnight cannot be a.m. or p.m.; they are the dividing lines between a.m. and p.m. The terms are abbreviations for ante meridiem, (before midday) and post meridiem (after midday). Midday—aka noon—cannot be before or after itself.

Who can we blame this misusage on? Computers, of course. Because digital devices, bless their little one-or-zero hearts, get confused by things that are neither one nor the other. They don’t want to have to deal with the neutral second in between a.m. and p.m. or the neutral zero in between minus and plus.

My phone and my computer claim that noon is 12:00 p.m. and midnight is 12:00 a.m. (So, by the way, does the style guide for the United States Printing Office.) My relatively ancient clock radio also believes midnight is 12:00 a.m., a fact of which I was unpleasantly reminded last night when the alarm that I believed I had set for 5:00 a.m. shrilled at midnight.

Both my microwave and my stove avoid the issue altogether. Possibly they assume users will be able to tell the difference between a.m. or p.m. based on whether they’re scrambling eggs, steaming broccoli, or making popcorn.

I don’t know what the clock in my new car thinks. According to the manual, I can set the clock to either a 12-hour or a 24-hour format and also set it to remind me of birthdays and anniversaries. As if I’m going to attempt that; I just barely know which of the numbers on the intimidating dashboard display is the time. Learning how to set the clock can wait until after I’ve managed to figure out how to adjust the heat, defrost the windshield, and unlock the passenger doors.  

Are noon and midnight lost to us forever? Are they, like sundials and clocks with hands and faces, to be inevitably ground to extinction by the relentless jaws of technology? Not necessarily. That same technology, at this point, is probably sophisticated enough to easily be programmed to show 12:00 as midnight and noon rather than a.m. and p.m. Or we could sidestep the whole issue by switching to the much more logical 24-hour clock. (Not a likely solution any time soon, given our country’s persistent resistance to the metric system used by much of the rest of the world.)

For now, we’re stuck between the midnight/noon logic of human beings and the a.m./p.m. logic of computers. When dealing with digital devices, it’s a good idea to mind their p’s and a’s and figure out which applies to the middle of the day and which to the middle of the night. When dealing with human beings, it’s an even better idea—no matter what your digital devices say—to be clear about whether you mean noon or midnight.

If, for example, you schedule a top-secret assignation in an unfrequented corner of the park for 12:00 p.m., you’d better specify that you mean noon, not midnight. Otherwise your clandestine compatriot could be left in the dark for hours, standing behind a tree clutching a fading pink carnation and a copy of War and Peace, waiting in vain for the secret code.

P.S. Remember to “fall back” this weekend, since Daylight Saving Time ends November 1. At 2:00 a.m., to be precise. (Years ago, my father joked to a group of friends that the thing he hated about DST was staying up till 2:00 a.m. to change the clocks. A woman apparently lacking a sense of humor assured him solemnly that it was perfectly okay to just change the clocks before he went to bed.) But whether you adjust your clocks on October 31 at bedtime or on November 1 either  at 2:00 a.m. or after you’ve realized why you’re at church an hour early, don’t worry too much about your digital devices. They can reset themselves.  

Categories: Just For Fun | Leave a comment

Civic Chickens and Backyard Weed

As a conscientious voter, I try to do my research before I fill in a single oval on my ballot. This year, the most challenging decisions for me were the two initiated measures for legalizing marijuana in South Dakota.

Full disclosure: I came of age during the Age of Aquarius. My hair was long and straight. I wore miniskirts, bell-bottom jeans, and a peace-sign necklace as big as a rodeo queen’s belt buckle. I knew at least four guitar chords in the key of C and all the words to “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

However, I never once used pot.

I still have no interest in using pot. At the same time, I think it’s idiotic to put people in jail for using it. At the same time, I think it probably has genuine medicinal value but tend to believe medicinal substances are best obtained through pharmacies. At the same time, I question the common sense of legalizing at the state level a substance that is still illegal under federal law.

You can see why I pondered so much over the pot proposals on the ballot. Until last week, when suddenly all became clear, and I made my decisions.

What happened was this: the city council approved the first reading of an ordinance to allow residents to raise chickens in their back yards.

There is a connection here. Really. Just stay with me for a minute.

Continue reading
Categories: Food and Drink, Just For Fun, Wild Things | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Helping Heroes

In a patient room at the Cancer Care Institute is this sign: “You are stronger than you think and braver than you know.”

This is a truth we each discover for ourselves, during those hard, painful times that life eventually throws at all of us. The COVID-19 pandemic is certainly one of those times.Heroes Work Here

Last week I read an editorial written for the Los Angeles Times by Fran Chalin, a hospice chaplain. In short, strong sentences that have the power of poetry, she describes the death in ICU of a man with COVID-19, the anguish of his family unable to be with him as he takes his final breaths, and the exhaustion of his caregivers. Then  she writes this:

“Outside the hospital there is a billboard.
‘HEROES WORK HERE.’ I want to scream.
Hero is just another word for better you than me.”

Think about that for a minute: Hero is just another word for “better you than me.”

This statement, written out of exhaustion and heartache, is certainly not the whole truth. But it does hold a great deal of truth—a truth that went straight to my heart because I have felt it myself. Continue reading

Categories: Living Consciously, Loss and Healing | 1 Comment

If the Early Robin Gets the Worm . . .

We all know that the early bird gets the worm. Actually, from years of research comprised of occasionally noticing the behavior of robins in my yard, I’m not sure this is really true. But “the bird who is out there listening for food just after a rain or while the sprinkler is running gets the worm” is too long to be a pithy aphorism.

Have you ever watched a robin getting a worm? They yank the hapless critter right out of the ground, and yes, it really does stretch just like the ones in cartoons, and sometimes it breaks in half, which is unfortunate for the worm but just makes it easier for the bird to gulp it down, still wriggling. I wonder if it tickles.

But never mind all that. I’m not here today to talk about worms or robins. I’m here to talk about buzzards.

Being an early bird myself, during the summer I like to take my daily walks early in the day while it’s still cool. Not before breakfast—early is good, but so is fuel. But while the sun is still low, which in June and July can be sixish a.m.

Sometimes I walk along the bike path near my house, which passes by several baseball fields. At one of them, the tall fence along one side is lined with buzzards. Continue reading

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Crinkle-Cut Carrots and Sawheaded Spoons

The average kitchen is full of potentially lethal sharp objects, including knives, graters, peelers, skewers, and jagged-edged boxes of plastic wrap. But the scariest implement in my mother’s kitchen was the carrot cutter.

This thing had a six-inch rippled blade, with a handle above it so the user could press down and whack carrots and other crisp veggies into attractive wavy-edged slices or sticks. Much like a guillotine, actually. Madame Defarge probably had one in her kitchen.

I don’t think my mother had hers when I was a child, but when I was a young adult it struck terror into my heart. Partly because my mother used it to cut carrots into halves and quarters—the long way. Which involved holding the round carrot with one hand so it wouldn’t roll out from under the blade she was wielding with her other hand.

Seeing her do this was bad enough. But even worse, my mother would allow my children—my small, precious children, with their dainty and vulnerable fingers—to use this dangerous object. I couldn’t bear to watch. Sometimes I would have to leave the kitchen, or at least turn my back and stir the gravy.

When my parents downsized, a cautious person might have seen clearing out the kitchen as a perfect opportunity to quietly get rid of the carrot cutter. Oh, no. Continue reading

Categories: Family, Food and Drink | Leave a comment

Seeing Red and Feeling Green

One of the many consequences of COVID-19, medical precautions, and self-quarantining is a shortage of blood donations. Some regular donors, bless them, are still giving. Like the man who made our local news this week for giving 20 gallons of blood over the past 33 years. He is 89.

I’ve been donating blood for more than three decades, too—just not quite as successfully.

It isn’t that I’m squeamish about the sight of blood. Really. As a kid, I could eat fried chicken with great pleasure even after watching my mother kill that same bird by chopping off its head with a hatchet. As an adult, I’ve dealt at least adequately with kids’ cuts, scrapes, and nosebleeds.

But things do get shaky if I’m faced with a combination of blood and needles. Especially when it’s my own blood. Whenever someone, even a trained medical professional, needs to take some of it by piercing me with a sharp object, I feel—uncomfortable.

I cope with routine blood draws at the doctor’s office by averting my eyes from what the technician is doing, gazing at some object elsewhere in the room, humming to myself, and thinking beautiful thoughts. Even with this approach, the world sometimes gets a little fuzzy around the edges. Especially if it’s one of those fasting blood tests where you have to show up before breakfast.

In spite of this little weakness, I am also a public-spirited person who wants to do the right thing. Which is why, years ago, I decided I should donate blood. Continue reading

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