Who I Think You Think I Am–I Think

A woman I know has raised horses and been a competitive barrel racer for close to 30 years. A few summers back, she won the barrel racing event at a major rodeo. At the next rodeo, a much smaller one, she didn’t even place.

As she and her son were in the pickup, headed home, she broke the disappointed silence with this: “Well! I guess those girls just didn’t know who I think I am.”

There are a bunch of reasons to appreciate that crack. It’s clever. It’s funny. It deflects the pain of a bad performance with humor that puts a single loss into perspective. You might even call it a classic example of how to “cowgirl up.”

But her smart remark is also true in a larger context. Nobody else can ever really know “who we think we are.” Or who we think they are, for that matter. It’s just one of the many factors that make it downright amazing that we can communicate with each other at all.

If we want people to know who we think we are, we have to let them know. Of course, before we can do that, we have to figure it out for ourselves. It’s one of those lifetime challenges—to be who we think we are instead of settling for being who we think other people think we are.

I think I’ll have to go think some more about what I think about that.

Categories: Living Consciously, Odds and Ends | 3 Comments

In Honor of Earth Day

Celebrating Earth Day in the Black Hills this week was a bit of a challenge. For one thing, we couldn’t see any actual earth, since it was covered by ten inches of fresh snow. Not that the snow was a bad thing. After last year’s hot, dry summer and this past mild, dry winter, the earth around here needs all the moisture it can get. We’ll take our April showers even if they have to be shoveled.

Snow shoveling may not be as traditional a way to observe Earth Day as, say, showing up at a rally in your Birkenstocks and “I Heart Mother Earth” tee shirt, but sometimes a woman’s got to do what a woman’s got to do. Especially if she wants to be able to get out of the driveway.

Besides, there are other ways to celebrate. Earth Day, like any other holiday or special observance from Easter to the Fourth of July, has come to be marked in that quintessentially American way.

With sales.

Apparently, in the spirit of enhancing our environment and protecting our planet, we’re supposed to drive to the mall and buy more stuff. Stuff to fill up our oversized houses. Stuff frequently made in Chinese factories that seem only moderately concerned about carbon emissions or pollution. Stuff that is transported halfway around the world in ships and trucks using fossil fuels.

But maybe I’m not being fair. The Earth Day sale ads in last weekend’s newspaper were full of things described as “organic,” “sustainable,” and “recycled.” These were Earth-friendly products, folks. Like the “pure and natural” disposable diapers with “fluff pulp from certified sustainably managed forests.” (Just try to say that fast while you’re changing a squirming baby.) I’m sure that fluff will sustain the diapers well through all the decades they will spend inside plastic bags at landfills.

Practically everything in the ads contained “naturally derived ingredients.” If it’s natural, of course, that has to mean it’s good for the environment and good for us. Just like some of nature’s finest substances: arsenic, mercury, and sulfuric acid.

Anything that wasn’t “natural” was “organic,” including yogurt and baby food. There was no mention of whether all the plastic in the single-serving containers was organic, though. The prepackaged macaroni and cheese wasn’t specifically labeled as organic, but it was “made with wheat using organic farming practices.” What the heck; that’s almost the same thing.

My favorite Earth-friendly item, however, was described as “a renewable resource.” The packaging was made from “up to 30% plant-based material.” That wasn’t the individual plastic containers, you understand; just the plastic wrap that held the 24-pack of containers together. The product, by the way, was a classic renewable substance. Water. Hey, it’s Earth Day! Let’s all go stock up on plastic bottles of water! What a great idea!

This deep and profound honoring of the true spirit of Earth Day reminds me of another naturally-derived product. A lot of that particular substance is produced by advertising copywriters. The rest of it comes from bulls.

Categories: Living Consciously | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Patience? You’ll Find That In Aisle Three.

When a snowstorm is looming, half the people in town immediately head for Safeway to stock up. (The other half head for Walmart to stock up.) Not me. I head for the library to stock up. If we have enough reading material, who cares whether we run out of milk?

On the other hand, I do care if we run out of carrots, bananas, or chocolate. On the day before our last snowstorm, it just so happened that our last banana was peeled at breakfast and we were down to one lonely carrot. Despite having an ample supply of chocolate, I ended up at Safeway with the rest of the pre-storm shoppers.

All those other people, of course, were over-reacting to the weather forecast. I merely was the victim of bad banana timing.

Getting close to the dairy case meant threading through an obstacle course of carts. Turning at the blind intersection at the end of an aisle meant risking life and limb—or at least the carton of eggs. I felt lucky to snag a decent bunch of bananas from the dwindling supply.

Then I got to the checkout. There were several carts crowded into each lane, spilling out into the aisle in ragged rows. People who were either still shopping or were looking with misplaced optimism for a shorter line were barely able to maneuver past the carts already waiting.

All this would seem like a sure formula for anger, flaring tempers, and disputes over who was in the uneven line ahead of whom.

I didn’t see any of that. I’m sure some people were feeling impatient and irritated. Some of them, like me, may have been annoyed with themselves for not making time for a trip to the store the day before. But the overall atmosphere was one of camaraderie. People smiled and said, “Excuse me,” after near-collisions in the aisles. They made room for each other. They seemed to feel a sense of unity in the face of a common threat—the snowstorm—rather than seeing the other shoppers as the competition.

The woman ahead of me in the checkout line was busy organizing all of us, moving her cart just here so I could park mine just there and make the best use of the limited space we had. While we were waiting, she talked to the baby in the cart ahead of her. When it was her turn at the cash register, she sympathized with the checker about her busy morning. I was so busy watching her no-nonsense kindness that I completely forgot to be irritated and was out of the store with my groceries before I knew it.

For a little while, that crowded supermarket became an oasis of cooperation and tolerance in a week that desperately needed both. It was a small reminder of the enormous value of practical kindness.

Categories: Living Consciously | 1 Comment

“Please, sir, may I have some more?”

It was a scene straight out of Charles Dickens. The unwed pregnant mother, abandoned by the father of her child, was out in the snowstorm. Cold and hungry, she waited outside the lighted windows of a house where people were eating, talking, and laughing. They saw her, but none of them gave her so much as a crust of bread.

Actually, the reality was even worse. It wasn’t just one unwed mother, but several. Heavy with this year’s fawns and with yearlings at their heels, they came through our back yard in the middle of last week’s snowstorm, looking for something to eat.

The snow was more than knee-deep, so no matter how energetically they dug with their slender front hooves, they couldn’t get to the bottom of it. First they explored the area that we pretend is our compost pile, where they often find delicacies like carrot peelings and orange rinds. Nothing. They pawed here and there in the yard. They shoved their noses into the snow in hopes of finding stray blades of grass. All they got for their trouble were white masks.

Finally most of them wandered off to the trees at the edge of the yard and started browsing on pine needles. One doe, however, stayed behind for quite a long time. She stood perfectly still, gazing up at our second-story deck. What had caught her attention was the bird feeder with its tantalizing sunflower seeds.

We could almost see her thinking. “If I just had something to stand on . . .” “If I got enough of a running start, maybe I could jump . . .”

Eventually she started off to join the others in the trees. Then she came back for one more speculative look. “If it snows another foot, I bet I can reach it.”

No such luck. The does nibbled a few pine needles and dry weeds, then moved on.

After the snow stopped falling, we dumped out a fresh batch of vegetable peelings and orange rinds that made a garish splotch on the white world of the back yard. Overnight, it disappeared, leaving nothing but tracks. Except for the onion skins. Even hungry unwed mothers have their standards.

Categories: Wild Things | 1 Comment

The Birds

Picture this idyllic scene of early spring in southeastern New Mexico: The western sky is streaked with the orange, gold, and pink of a glorious sunset. We are standing in a residential neighborhood on a calm evening, watching a flock of birds as they come in to settle in the treetops for the night. As they circle above us, the last rays of the sun touch the tips of their outspread wings with bronze.

Amid all this loveliness and serenity, why am I fidgeting so uneasily, wishing the garage beside me had broader eaves so I could move closer under its shelter?

Because the birds soaring over our heads are vultures. Dozens and dozens of them, circling in a holding pattern and then swooping down to land in a row of trees along the edge of a well-kept back yard.

The vultures settle onto the very tops of the trees, even though it would seem the branches there would be too slender to hold them. There are so many that the treetops are edged in black like an old-fashioned letter announcing bad news.

Each time a few new birds land, a ripple of grumbling goes through the flock. The ones already perching either resist the arrival of the newcomers, shift position to make room for them, or take off to rejoin the circle above the trees. Meanwhile, more birds keep coming, and coming, and coming. They seem to be auditioning for a remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. All that’s missing is the ominous background music.

And I’m getting increasingly nervous. We’re just standing there watching, for Pete’s sake. The obvious risk of hanging out underneath a large number of large birds is bad enough. But these are vultures. While we’re gaping at them, we are not moving. Staying that still, in this case, seems like a really, really bad idea. There are more than enough buzzards above us to carry off our carcasses like the winged monkeys from The Wizard of Oz.

(Which unfortunately reminds me of the joke about the buzzard who checks in at the airport, carrying a dead armadillo under each wing. “Sorry, sir,” the ticket agent tells him, “Only one carrion item per passenger.”)


But these buzzards are no joke. We were told that they aren’t permanent residents, but are only passing through. Their visits last two or three months, though, so they have become a serious nuisance. Not only are the birds big, bold, and plentiful; they are also protected by law. This makes getting rid of them a challenge.

Still, I can’t help but wonder. What would “chile con vulture” taste like? And would it be better with red or green?

Categories: Travel, Wild Things | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Paying Attention to What’s Behind the Curtain

In the interest of furthering the study of human behavior, here’s a scientific survey question for you:

Suppose you were traveling and had stopped in a small town for lunch. The restaurant was a pizza place/coffee shop/sandwich shop with knickknacks for sale in one corner, obviously doing its best to stay in business. Its home was an old building that had clearly seen various enterprises come and go in its lifetime.

Suppose, in this old building, the restroom was in the back. Way in the back. To use the facilities, you walked down a dim hallway, reassured that you were on the right track by a paper sign with a hand-drawn arrow. You turned right, crossed a corner of the kitchen, and found your destination.

It certainly didn’t look like a public facility, except for the “Restroom” sign on the door. Inside, it was much like the bathroom in someone’s home, with not only the basics of stool and sink but also a bathtub covered with a shower curtain.

With that necessary background, here’s the survey question:

Did you look behind the shower curtain?

I did. Of course. How could anyone not peek?

I was surprised then, when my traveling companion’s response to this query was, “What shower curtain?” In defense of his lack of curiosity—a failure to observe that was really quite shocking in a man who has devoted his career to science—he said, “I was a man on a mission.”

Obviously more research was and is required. So far I’ve asked one other person, who happens to be female. She said, “Of course I’d look.” She didn’t think her husband would look, though he wasn’t available to ask.

So all this did was raise another question: Is peeking or not peeking gender-related?

If it is, then is that due to psychological factors? Maybe women are more hyper-vigilant in unfamiliar surroundings and hence more likely to check potential hiding places. Maybe women are more observant, or more curious.

Or maybe the difference—if there is one—is physical. A man who is “on a mission” might be preoccupied with necessary details like aiming and accuracy. A woman who is sitting may have more chance to observe her surroundings and more time to look behind any curtains that happen to be at hand.

It’s also possible, I suppose, that a writer is just inherently nosier than a geologist.

But these are merely suppositions and can’t possibly be validated or disproven without much more data. So I need some input. Would you have looked behind the curtain?

Oh, you want to know what was back there? Sorry, no naked lady. No lurking criminal. No dead body. Just a bunch of paint cans and cleaning supplies.

But if I hadn’t looked, I would have never known.

Categories: Just For Fun, Travel | 4 Comments

Ernest, Black Beauty, and Louisa May

The other evening I was browsing through books at the library. In my robe and slippers.

No, I haven’t grown so sloppy in my work-at-home environment that I go trotting off to the public library in my jammies. I do realize that in some circles pajama pants are the latest in casual wear. Still, even college kids who think nothing of heading to class in flannel pants with little green aliens on them might raise their eyebrows at my cozy fleece bathrobe and ugly knitted slipper boots.

The library I was meandering through, of course, was online. I was sitting at my own computer in the privacy of my own home, looking for books to download to my e-reader.

Things have changed just a bit from the first library I remember browsing through. It wasn’t really a “library” at all, just a single bookshelf in a one-room school house. The school was the same one my mother and my aunts and uncles had attended, and most of the books had been there since before their time. Our teacher regularly got books from the “real” library, but in the dry spells when I had read all of those and was waiting for the next batch, I read and re-read the ones from the school bookshelf.

Some of the books had probably been castoffs donated to the school years earlier, and they had been wasting shelf space in well-deserved obscurity ever since. I remember wading through an Elsie Dinsmore book, one of a preachy Christian series from the late 1800s featuring a heroine so perfect that just reading about her made you want to go do something really naughty. It was so bad I only managed to read it a couple of times in eight years.

Fortunately, there were some classics, as well. I discovered Black Beauty there, reading it in first grade for the first time and at least once every year after that till I finished eighth grade. I read Louisa May Alcott’s Little Men long before I knew she had written an earlier book about those same characters, called Little Women. Books by naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton taught me about migrating bats, the terrible power of the wolverine, and the story of Lobo, the famous New Mexico wolf who outsmarted so many human trappers before he was finally captured.

I also remember a book full of true stories about the circus. One of them described an elephant, the well-behaved and intelligent star of a German circus, who had a terrible time after she was sold to an American circus. It took much too long, in my opinion, for the new owners to figure out that the elephant didn’t understand English. Once she learned it, she became a star in her new home. And, despite the belief that elephants never forget, she eventually lost all her German.

Years later, when I read another circus book called Water For Elephants, I knew why the Polish-speaking elephant was refusing to obey orders well before any of the books’ characters caught on.

Remembering odd stuff that you read years ago is part of the magic of a library. It doesn’t matter whether it’s one bookshelf at an old country school or the latest in electronic browsing. I still love browsing through actual library shelves. I also love the fact that now, if I want to look up Black Beauty or Ernest Thompson Seton, I can easily find them online. Elsie Dinsmore is probably there, too, but I don’t want to know. Not even the latest technology could make her anything but awful.

Categories: Remembering When | 2 Comments

Going for the Goal

For those of you who care about the significant international issues of the day, here is an update from my source in Istanbul and Amsterdam. Today’s report concerns an issue of great importance to the traveling public—the latest in sanitation technology.

In other words, they’ve been upgrading the urinals at the airports again.

We reported previously on the “imbedded fly” strategy that, by providing a target for precision aiming, supposedly increased the cleanliness of men’s rooms at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport by 80%.

Now, according to my source, flies are being replaced by golf holes. Not literal holes, just strategically placed images in the porcelain. The picture of the golf cup, complete with little flag, provides what presumably is a more appealing target than a fly. At least for certain users. It seems to me that the younger ones—from about age eight to, say, 35—might find the fly more fun.

In Turkey, however, the technology has been taken one step further. My source did not experience this personally. However, he saw it on Turkish television, where it was a featured news story for several days.

It’s the “soccer goal” strategy. This features a moving target—a little red soccer ball that a precisely-directed stream of, er, ammunition can actually push toward a fixed image of a goal so the shooter scores a point. Presumably the real goal is improved restroom sanitation. This could backfire, I suppose, if the scoring player throws both arms into the air and shouts “Goal!”

Not only is this a major technological breakthrough, but it could be a hit all over the world, especially in bars. “I need another beer—I haven’t scored a goal yet, and I’m out of ammunition.” Just imagine the impact on beer sales. There are even possibilities for competitions to supplement games of darts and pool. A reality show is just waiting to happen here, folks.

There is even a benefit here for women. For years we’ve been complaining about the inequities in public restrooms. Women always have to wait longer. At a concert, for example, when the lights come up for intermission she’d better be out of her seat and making a mad dash or she’s going to spend the whole interval waiting in line. Meanwhile, he has ample time to stroll about the lobby, get a drink, chat to friends, or lounge in his seat reading the fine print in the program.

If the whole soccer-ball thing catches on, that could be reversed. She might be the one waiting for him. “Sorry to take so long, honey. I just had to finish the game.”


Categories: Just For Fun, Travel | 1 Comment

It’s Another Peach Sunrise

A few observations at the end of a busy week:

A carpenter who shows up when he says he will, finishes on time, charges reasonable rates, and is a craftsman who takes pride in his work is a gift from God.

Painting a room is a meditative, stay-in-the-moment activity that, done in moderation, is satisfying to the soul. Painting the insides of kitchen cupboards is an activity that is a pain in the neck—not to mention the back, the wrists, and the knees. The only meditation involved is contemplating just why the original builders ever thought a kitchen needed so many cupboards.

Could it be considered overkill to spend half an hour scraping and peeling 40-year-old contact paper off the bottom of a shelf no one can even see, instead of merely painting over it? (In this case, no. The stuff was ragged, had bubbled loose in places, and had collected several decades worth of crud along the edges. It was gross.)

When old wallpaper has been painted over three or four times, don’t expect one more layer to hide the seams.

They may call a paint color “Peach Sunrise.” The little rectangle of it on the color sample sheet may look like very pale gold tinged with rose. Its darker cousin on the same sample sheet may match the copper trim in the kitchen perfectly. But after you spend three hours applying it to your kitchen walls, painting carefully around cupboards and doorways and the brand new countertops, and after it dries, it turns out to be—there is no other way to put this—pink.

After finishing the painting last night and taking my aching muscles to bed early, I woke up at 2:00 a.m. after my sleep was disturbed by a horrible thought. Did I subconsciously pick the Peach Sunrise color out of hidden guilt over getting rid of the old built-in oven? The original oven installed when the house was built in the 1950’s. The very same oven which was still the manufacturer’s original pink. Was it heartless of me to throw it out, instead of helping it apply for Social Security and taking tender care of it in its old age? After all, as a woman of a certain age myself, I could have been more sympathetic to the fluctuations of its temperature and the unreliability of its thermostat. Maybe my subconscious mind chose a pinkish color for the walls in homage to a poor old appliance that had been discarded without a second thought.

Nah. I feel no guilt, subconscious or otherwise. Our kitchen has new countertops and realigned cupboard doors. The place that housed the old cooktop with its two remaining working burners is now a lighted countertop area perfect for kneading bread. The space where the old pink oven lived is a well- crafted cabinet. The new stove not only has five burners that actually work, but it boasts a convection oven. The freshly painted cupboard interiors gleam as they wait for their rearranged contents. Even the Peach Sunrise walls, in the morning light, look more peach than pink.

It’s all so appealing, I just might have to cook something.

Categories: Odds and Ends | 3 Comments

Saving the Planet, One Pound at a Time

Ladies and gentlemen, you saw it here first! This is the beginning of a movement that just might save our planet.

There are a few long words involved, and even some numbers, so please bear with me while I explain.

First, the numbers. According to the March 2013 issue of National Geographic, some British scientists have calculated that the world’s overweight people add 3.9 million tons of weight to the planet. With her human population at 7 billion plus, the last thing poor old Mother Earth needs is millions of us, selfishly slurping our supersized sodas, adding weight to the load she already carries.

After all, she’s facing enough challenges. Global warming, for example. Some people believe that melting ice is going to raise sea levels and flood low-lying coastal areas all around the world.

Those two pieces of information may seem disheartening. Put them together, though, and what they add up to is not a crisis, but a wonderful opportunity.

The secret behind this opportunity is the little-known principle of isostasy. This term describes the way the Earth’s crust stays in equilibrium. When an area has a lot of weight on it, it sinks, just like your foam mattress pad or seat cushion does when you sit down on it. When that weight is removed, the area rises, the same way the foam cushion rises back to its former shape when you get up.

Isostasy explains what happens at the end of an Ice Age. All those heavy glaciers melt, and the ground where they used to be rises—no doubt with a great sigh of relief.

Here’s how this could save the planet. Just suppose all the obese people in the world went on diets and lost all those excess pounds. According to the principle of isostasy, the ground they inhabit would rise. This just might lift the coasts enough to keep them above the rising sea levels and save them from being flooded. Losing weight, then, wouldn’t just be good for each of us as individuals. It would also benefit our poor old overloaded planet.

As an added bonus, being slender would allow us not just to cope with global warming, but to even enjoy it. Just think how much better we would look in short shorts and bikinis.

The geologist who shares my life and my living space (which is safely in the middle of the country far about sea level, thank you) was unkind enough to point out that this plan isn’t supported by science. According to him, the theory doesn’t quite hold up.

To which I say, let’s not allow inconvenient facts to stand in the way of progress. When has the lack of scientific validity ever stopped a popular movement? We have slogans to create, websites to build, videos to make, and followers to tweet to. Above all, we have grants to apply for.

To start things off, here is my personal pledge: Starting today, I promise to lose the 8 extra pounds that make up my share of humanity’s 3.9 million tons of excess poundage.

Every great movement has to start somewhere.

Categories: Just For Fun | 2 Comments

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