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Haiku for…oh, I just can’t do it.

July 29, 2011

I am home after a commute back from Arlington that was four hours instead of the usual two because of a heinous accident on northbound I-95 involving an Office Depot truck which eventually closed all four lanes for about 30 minutes. Before I fell into bed tonight, I was going to dash off a pissy haiku about losing my grocery-shopping and car-vacuuming time this evening. I’d already composed it in my head while I was parked on the highway in my car, but it turns out I just couldn’t do it.

As I’ve mentioned before in these posts, there are not too many things that can make me cry spontaneously. One is nature films. Another is seeing the aftermath of car accidents: smashed front ends, glass confetti on the road, little cars crumpled like paper balls, brightly lit ambulances that I can look into from the open back end. The shock and the tears come on as spontaneously as nausea every time I see them.

I have been in accidents myself (thank god none as bad as the one I drove by tonight), I have ridden in ambulances, I know people whose bodies were permanently damaged in collisions, and I know a police officer who has responded to such accidents. I think of them all when I witness something like the Office Depot truck tonight. Its front end was folded up. There were boxes strewn on the highway, shoulder, and on the hillside next to the truck. Some were still falling out of the side of the truck when I went by like so much escaped stuffing. Earlier in the evening, from my vantage point a half mile away, I watched huge gray plumes of smoke billow up from the accident site. I don’t know where the driver was, but I assume he was in the ambulance or had already been taken away. I think of the Trauma team at the University of Maryland Medical Center that saved Marty’s life several times over, and I hope that the driver might have found his or her way into their hands if necessary.

It could have been me. It could have been someone I loved. These are humbling thoughts.

Haiku for the beetle at the end of a long hike in Shenandoah National Park

July 22, 2011

An Eyed Elater:
most excellent click beetle.
T.R. spotted one.

Probably(?) Alaus sp. Image from pbase.com.

Ad fail

July 15, 2011

Big brother is definitely watching me. Or at least, he’s tracking my typing and site visits online in an attempt to get me to buy what I seem to be interested in. But he doesn’t always get it right—either that or I’m sending some very strange signals out into cyberspace.

I am referring to the “targeted” ads that appear in the side panels of my e-mail client dashboard. How strange that right after I make a purchase at J.Jill, J.Jill ads suddenly appear in that space. I recently bought Cathy a ceramic pie plate, and tons of housewares ads started appearing. I have no idea why the debt solutions ads come up every once in a while, because I have no needs in that area. Nor do I need fibromyalgia drugs or school loans. I try hard to ignore these things, but once in a while something so strange comes up I can’t. The latest example is from an ineptly named men’s sportswear company:

I guess all men are bonobos at heart?

I’m not sure why hip young guys would want to be associated with chimps, but that was the association that came up for me immediately:

The real deal, sans madras shorts and aviator sunglasses. Can you see the resemblance?

I tried to find out some more information about the company, and apparently their claim to fame is the fit of their pants, but I have no other details. Perhaps their pants are shorter than most, have ultra-articulated knees, and are friendly to bowleggedness. Then the name would make sense…

Independence Day

July 8, 2011

Your author, in preferred habitat.

This is how I spent my Independence Day, 2011, in Congaree National Park in South Carolina (Thanks, T.R., for making it happen and for recording the moment). Cypress knees, cottonmouths, fishing spiders, tiger beetles, lots of birds I couldn’t identify. An embarrassment of riches, from a biochick standpoint. Hotter than hell, but too much to see to really notice. I knew it would be a day I wouldn’t forget when we watched an introductory film about the park before getting in the canoes. I started to get verklempt sitting in the back row of the theater in the visitor center listening to the narrators talk about what we can learn from snakes. There is no way I can sit through something like that without tearing up. Good thing it was dark; T.R.’s friend who was sitting next to me probably thought I was wiping sweat out of my eyes.

The United States has destroyed so much along the way in our climb to prominence in the world: cultures, ecosystems, livelihoods. Our influence is universal, welcome or not. But one of the greatest things about this country’s prosperity is the fact that our relative wealth makes it possible to set aside land of historical (and contemporary) significance to persist in a natural state without expecting tangible economic returns from it. Developing countries do not necessarily have this luxury.

Humility, though it is one of my favorite virtues, is not one usually associated with the American national character. But to me, the fact that our National Park System preserves places like Congaree is evidence of a degree of humility in the face of grandeur, even grandeur that does not have the soaring ego and presence of a hydroelectric dam or a skyscraper or an obelisk. Old cypress trees do not really need us, but I like to think that we need them. The National Park System is evidence that as a nation, we formally recognize the value of the diverse natural wonders within our borders. Reminding myself of this makes me proud to be an American, when I do not always feel that way.

Haiku for the @!^&%$ irony of my varied driving speeds

July 1, 2011

Rednecks tailgate me
down local streets—but who gets
speed camera tickets?

The importance of witnesses

June 24, 2011

I’ve been fortunate enough to have been the maid of honor at two weddings. At the second of the two, I was charged with writing a speech, something about which I felt truly humbled—because maid of honor speeches are different from best man speeches: they are not intended to elicit embarrassed laughter, but sincere tears.

At the time, the bride and groom and I and the rest of the wedding party were all young, in our early thirties. No one in the party was yet married, but a few of us, including me, had serious partners, although the stress of traveling together to a wedding in France was hastening the end of what I think my boyfriend and I both sensed was a dying relationship. At the time I composed the speech, I wasn’t feeling particularly optimistic about my own romantic future. I was chafing against my friend’s overblown expectations for my duties as maid of honor, as much as I wanted to please her. And I was acutely aware of the hype and posturing coming from all sides surrounding the wedding itself, a wedding that was an expensive indulgence of all my friend’s fantasies, from the setting to the dress to the food and beyond. Brides are traditionally supposed to be indulged; I knew that. But I also knew that whatever I wrote and read out loud to all her friends and family had to transcend the hype and be sincere, so I would need to reach past the mild distaste I was feeling for the way she was approaching her wedding, and also past my own dissatisfaction, to find something universal and true beyond the cliches.What I came up with is the importance of having witnesses in our lives.

We start our lives with brains incapable of remembering; our parents and guardians are our sole witnesses, and the stories they tell about us become our acquired memories as we hear them repeated over and over. Later we develop the capacity to experience the neurological phenomenon of memory, but still our lives as young children are largely circumscribed by our parents. Adolescence marks the first real break, when we make our own friends and have the autonomy for the first time to experience deviance to one degree or another; secrets become important, and so does the witnessing of our peers, complicit in our adventures. The very act of a wedding is a huge witnessing event, and the guests, by their presence, traditionally at least, also make an implicit vow to help the bride and groom remember the seriousness of their promises and the magnitude of their public commitment.

I spent a lot of time in college studying the Existentialists, who believed, among other things, that it is fundamentally impossible to know any truth beyond one’s own personal sensory experiences and psychology. I’m greatly oversimplifying, but they believed that humans are always alone, and that all morality can be reduced to the drive for self-preservation. Their theories fit nicely at the time with my study of evolutionary ecology, and I still believe in the Existentialists’ psychosocial ideas about choice and responsibility. But I also know emotionally, after 42 years on the planet, that all the isolation can’t be completely true, because the witnesses in my life have made beautiful things more beautiful, sorrow survivable, and mundane experiences into memories. The right companions—witnesses—create shared truths where there were none before. A simple idea, but one that I sometimes lose from day to day.

The Dress

June 17, 2011

I’ve written several times about my dysfunctional relationship with shoes, how I am as attracted as your average female to their strange, transformational power, their mystique, despite the tacit judgment they pass on my body each time I slide (wedge?) my foot into a pair with a heel higher than two inches.  I think it is no accident that Cinderella was known by her ability to fit into a shoe made of a substance so unforgiving, so unpliable as glass, her naked arch, toes, and heel visible to the prince. There are no blisters, no bloody toenails in Cinderella; she wins the prince not because of her humility and graciousness (which come to think of it, are not part of the Cinderella the prince sees), but because she effortlessly fits a rigid mold of feminine beauty.

High heels instantly change your walk, accenting hips and calves, making your stride roll, shorten, and slow down. The sound of heels clicking on a hard surface has always made me feel acutely female, and it’s not a feeling I’m entirely comfortable with, because it implies a very real vulnerability. Could I outrun anyone in heels? No way. Am I likely to fall on my face going down stairs while wearing them? Absolutely. But somehow they are still a badge to be earned, a test to be passed: you can do and be anything so long as you prove that you can walk in heels first. So many things about the female experience involve making the difficult and painful look effortless. Women are so, so much better at enduring physical pain without complaint than men. You will never convince me otherwise. Don’t even try.

But this is really not another lamentation about shoes. I’ve been thinking a lot about another highly charged feminine cultural object—the formal dress.

Most of the the major and minor female rites of passage I can think of (save childbirth) traditionally involve a dress: first communions and confirmations, quinceaneras, high school proms, debutante balls, weddings, and, finally, funeral viewings. Although casual dresses entered the mainstream in the 1970s and have never gone away, the formal dress still occupies a higher echelon, and I would argue that the choice of a formal dress is an expression not only of personality, but also of hope and aspiration. Which sounds strange, I know.

Even women (like myself) who generally shop for clothes alone (mostly via the Internet), often enlist the aid of other female friends and family in choosing a formal dress. It’s a bonding experience, and if you’ve got the right body it can be an affirming experience, but more often than not we bring our friends along to help console us when the dress we’ve fallen in love with doesn’t look right in that unforgiving three-way mirror in the dressing room. Friends have another one immediately ready to hand you in a different style, they somehow come up with the right thing to say on the spot to console you when long-buried physical anxieties erupt on the surface, and their patience is infinite, because they’ve been in the trenches themselves. Dresses judge you, but friends do not.

By the way, as a woman it’s no good to pretend you can just quietly pull out of the dress and shoes game altogether, scorning and rejecting the mythology. You might last for a while, but a combination of hubris and cultural expectations is usually right around the corner. Eventually you will go back to Neiman Marcus again, buoyant with confidence, convinced that this time will be different. Your dress is out there waiting to be discovered. Like love, we keep bouncing back for it, keep hoping, keep wandering with a drive intrepid and primal.