Saturday, August 8, 2009

Local Woman Saves the Planet

I don't want to toot my own horn, but I know a real, live superhero, or actually, a real, live superheroine. (Why does my spell checker not appreciate the word "superheroine" when it likes the word "superhero" well enough?)

She doesn't perform martial arts in high heels and a catsuit, but she does perform miracles in places where miracles are rare.

She doesn't have x-ray vision, but she does have vision and can see a world where all children are healthy, well-fed and educated.

She can't lift a 20-ton boulder over her head, but she can coax funding from tight-fisted foundations and governments which takes even greater strength (and patience.)

Who is this woman of superlative quality? I thought you would have guessed by now, it's Ms. Vicki Wilde.

Who's she and what's she done that's so great?

She is the Gender and Diversity director for CGIAR who had a beautifully simple idea for transforming rural Africa from places where diseases and famines rule to places where gardens and communities thrive. She's tapped into the vast, unused resource of African women. These women, who do 80% of the agricultural work in Africa to begin with, become highly skilled agricultural scientists through Vicki's AWARD program then return to their villages to combat potential crop failures with the power that is knowledge.

Her test program started small, like every miracle, it survived on a miniscule budget, pure hope, and unalloyed dedication. It's difficult to argue with success and now that the results are in, people, important people, people who can provide the means to make Vicki's little program into a world-wide answer to that question which every poor woman asks, the one that goes "How will I feed my children today?", stand up and take note.

Here's a pic of one person who recently realized the beauty of one small program. See if you can recognize her.

(Vicki is the one in orange and absolutely beaming. What you can't see is me jumping up and down in front of my computer, screaming, "That's Vicki! I know her! I know her!")

Some other fans of Vicki's are Bill and Melinda Gates, you may heard of them. They're out to save the world too.

For more information about Vicki Wilde, the AWARD program and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton's historic visit to Africa follow this link.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

A Gallon of Gas and a Pack of Matches

What would you do with a gallon of gas and a pack of matches? Or, more to the point, what did you do with them? Because you did, once when you were a kid, you did play with fire.

I love my job for a large variety of reasons, but one of greatest reasons are the others that populate my working existence. Some are young with little experience of the world, some are middle-aged parents like me, some are older and have seen it all, all have opinions. One of the subjects of this week's banter was the state of parenting and the inevitable results of too much protection for our children.

Are we raising a generation of humans who will be incapable of independent thought, cool-headed decisions in a crisis, or calculating the risks of doing something new?

I had never really thought about it until Dave brought it up at lunch. The difference between the relative freedom we experienced in our childhoods and the strictly-prescribed existence we have planned out for our kids. Our wrapped-in-cotton-batting progeny don't leave the house without full disclosure about where they are going, what they will be doing, who they will be doing it with and the very moment of their return (no more than 2 hours later.) They are laden down with extra water, hand-sanitizer, a cell phone with mom's number on speed dial, a 40-item list of important phone numbers, a protein bar, a GPS, helmets, pads, gloves and an extra pair of clean underwear. While out in the wide world they will not speak to strangers, always wear a seat belt, stay in the bike lane, look both ways while crossing the street, as well as strenuously avoiding trans-fats, high-fructose corn syrup, and gangsta rap. They will not smoke, drink, swear, spit, run, go online without parental supervision, discuss their parents' soft porn collection with their friends or point out that Grandma could use a shave. And they absolutely, positively will not play with fire.

All of which begs the question: Who taught you not to play with fire?

When Conor was learning to walk, he crawled under a low table and tried to stand up. He hit his head and sat back down with a bump. Then he did it again. And again. And then one more time again. Finally, he crawled out from under the table and stood up. I watched this process in tears, just knowing that I was the worst of all possible mothers. I knew that he would be permanently harmed by my lack of concern and protection. How could I be so uncaring? I never let him (or the girls for that matter) do that or anything like that again. But now I wonder if my first instinct of standing aside and letting them go through the learning process wasn't the right one. Maybe if I had stood aside more often my children would be less fearful of making mistakes and making decisions. Maybe they would be more independent and confident. Maybe they would know the real reason gasoline and matches don't mix, because all they know now are the rules in the academic sense. We (their parents) know the rules because we struck the match.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

My Personal Pensieve

Harry Potter makes me jealous. Yes, I'm jealous of a kid that regularly gets the tar beaten out of him by the forces of evil and still has to survive his godawful teen years. I'm jealous of a character created out of the imagination of a writer. Maybe it's J.K. Rowling who is the true target of my jealousy and not really for her fabulous success. (As far as that goes, she's done the writing world great service by growing a new generation of readers.) No, what I really covet is her Pensieve.

In the book (and subsequently, the movies), the Pensieve shows memories. I want that. I want the perfect retention of memories with all their subtle circumstances intact forever.

When I look at a photograph or image, I can recall the occasion but not what I was thinking or feeling at the time. The same goes for video. Only memory can retain part of the world. Over time that world fades, the details go away, maybe only an image remains, maybe not even that. I can't see the face of my first love anymore though I remember the yellow roses he gave me.

I remember a woman I met who was in the final stages of Alzheimer's disease. The look of panic on her face left an indelible impression on me. No minute was connected to another. No face was recognizable, not even her own. She had run screaming from the house one day when she saw her own reflection in the bathroom mirror. And although Alzheimer's is the most extreme case of memory loss, every day I sense some small but precious detail leaves my brain. When I go back for it, it's not there. Time faded the detail, it left unseen.

Last night we took the kids to the aquarium to have dinner with the sharks. There's a memory I would like to keep with all of its gorgeous detail. The kids all lined up against the tank, looking up at the sharks gliding by, mesmerized by each other. Light music, darkened room, graceful fish, thrilled children, new worlds overlapping.

I can't stand the thought of last night with the sharks swimming away with time. Me and the sharks need a Pensieve.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts

There are many people and things I love, but few more so than my children and learning to make more efficient use of available technology.

In the last few months, my children have been amusing themselves by creating videos of themselves being the goofy, silly, funny, and fabulous kids they are. When I come home from work at night there is invariably something new on my computer to make me smile.

In honor of Fathers' Day, I've strung together a few moments of light-hearted youth using iMovie from iLife '09. It's a simple program to master and the results have the kids practicing their autographs for their forthcoming hordes of adoring fans.

It's was a ton of fun to put together, enjoy...

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Cleansing the Palate

Do you have the same trouble I do reading anything after a really great book? It’s not that I can’t read after a fabulous book, but that I can’t read anything I like after a page-turner. My literary tastes are overwhelmed; everything to come after has all the potency of cold, congealed oatmeal.

This pretty much sums up the scenario of my current read, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. I almost feel sorry for her. Everyone else adored this book. They heaped accolades on it. It won the Orange Prize, the PEN/Faulkner Award, etc., etc., ad infinitum. All this and I still hate it. Well, maybe not HATE it, but I’m seriously not in love with it when by all accounts I should be. I’m tormented by the idea that the book is actually wonderful, but it happened to be in the wrong place in the queue. Bad luck of the draw, so to speak, because the book right before was fantastic.

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini was brilliant. Excellent writing married to a great (though grim) story. And it has made an ugly step-sister of Bel Canto. Maybe I should put it down right now and read something I know to be sucky, like anything by Dan Brown. That might get me out of the Thousand Splendid Suns shadow and I can read without prejudice. Maybe I’ll find out that Bel Canto is actually great or maybe I’ll find out that it sucked all along. Reading is a risky business.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Summer: Baseball, Hot Dogs and Smooshing Scorpions

In honor of my first kill (scorpion-wise) of the season, I'm reprinting an article I wrote a few years ago on our perennial and crunchy house guests. Enjoy.

Around 2am, my husband screamed. If there is anything in the world that will snap you out of a deep slumber it’s a 6’5” guy screaming. I leaped up, ready to meet the alien hordes.

“SOMETHING BIT ME!” he repeated, throwing off the pillows and bedclothes, flailing around looking for the fanged menace. On closer inspection, there was a large reddened area between his shoulder blades. Something had indeed nailed him, but there were no puncture wounds, nothing to indicate the relative size of the marauding predator. Whatever it was, it did not have fangs.

Forty minutes later, after completely dismantling the bed, we finally caught up with the perpetrator. It was a sandy-colored arthropod about two inches long, known as a bark scorpion (Centruroides exilicauda.)

As luck would have it, our surprise guest, the little bark scorpion, is the only variety in the United States whose venomous sting can kill a human in certain circumstances, and does so, with regularity, in the more remote parts of Mexico. As luck would further have it, the bark scorpion is found in abundance throughout Arizona, preferring rocky terrain, just like the topography where our house sits. They can also be found in lesser concentrations in parts of California, New Mexico, Utah, and Nevada. However, it’s the populations of scorpions roaming free within the walls of our home that will always get my undivided attention.

The folks at the Poison Control Center were very helpful. Apparently, we were not the only people in Arizona to have scorpions scuttling around under the covers. The specialist on the phone was heartily unimpressed with our bark scorpion encounter. They average 12,000 calls a year.

Through a yawn, she suggested ice water compresses for the sting area and some extra strength pain reliever for the big guy groaning in the background. She told me that the pain would subside in 4-6 hours, but that he should go to an emergency room if he starts to have any trouble breathing. I was okay with that. We have always had a standing rule in our house; anyone who turns blue gets a free trip to the hospital.

Major symptoms of a sting start within the hour and my husband’s did just that. First his eyes started fluttering. Under different circumstances, I would have thought he was being sexy. After that, the muscles in his arms and back started to twitch in a random pattern. We both watched with unabashed fascination, like a couple of mad scientists. He commented more than once that the pain in the sting area was the most intense he had ever experienced.

Even an unimaginably small amount of neurotoxin from the bark scorpion can lead to a large variety of symptoms. Some people experience numbness or tingling in their face and extremities. Others have problems with slurred speech or drooling. Kids often get irritable or hyperactive after a sting. The very worst-case scenarios, though, can have people on ventilators or heart complications. The vast majority recovers quickly and never has to see an emergency room.

It was almost anticlimactic. With all the fear of scorpions and their mythic sting, you’d think that my husband could do something more than make googly eyes at me. Remember James Bond in “Diamonds Are Forever?” One of the bad guys sticks a scorpion down the back of another guy’s shirt and he instantly keels over. Remember that? A scene like that can go a long way toward insuring the belief that once stung a person should immediately begin reviewing their last will and testament.

The lethal character of scorpions is so entrenched in the human imagination that even my daughter, after she heard that her father had been stung during the night, asked, in all her childish seriousness, “Did he die?” Since he was walking through the room when she wanted to know this, I had to direct her attention to his living, breathing person. It wasn’t true disappointment that crossed her face, but puzzlement. The stories that she had taken as gospel from her teachers and from her mother turned out not to be true.

I wonder how many ways that guy from Vermont thought that he was going to die when a stowaway scorpion made its way up one leg of his pants and down the other leg on a flight from Chicago to Burlington. The little critter stung him twice, once on the way in and once on the way out. He’s fortunate he got stung on the legs and not on a more vulnerable area. The airline fell all over themselves trying to make sure he wasn’t too unhappy about the incident. With so many people overly sensitive to the dangers of flying, they don’t need any more bases for phobias.

I don’t suppose we should have been too startled to find a scorpion getting cozy with us in our bed or on a jet taking off from Chicago. That little guy and his forebears have been hanging around this planet for 430 million years. They’re just reminding us who was here first. In the critter game of “Survivor”, scorpions win every time. Humans aren’t even a blip on the scorpion’s evolutionary radar.

They can survive years in stasis, without eating or drinking. They can be submerged in water for over two days and shake off the dunking. They can put off the birth of their babies for a year. They can live from 3 to 25 years, depending on the species. They can survive being frozen or broiled by desert temperatures. Our little bark scorpion friends can climb up a smooth wall and take a stroll on the ceiling. They, like Donna Summer, will survive.

In fact, any exterminator who says he can eliminate scorpions by spraying the baseboards of your home probably has a nice bridge he can sell you. Scorpions are impervious to poisons, for the most part. They don’t clean themselves like most insects do, so they don’t ingest the poison that is so cleverly designed to kill them. The smart exterminator won’t try to sell you ineffective poisons. He’s going to try to sell you something far, far more expensive and only a little bit more effective.

Home sealing is the darling of bug warriors in the desert. For between $2500 and $6000, they will come in and weather-strip your home against the eight-legged invasion. It’s all dandy for keeping out the millions of creepy crawlies living la vida loca outside, but doesn’t do a bit to stop the thriving critters inside or the hitchhikers that come in with us. After all, that’s where the party is.

The Extension Cooperative entomologists at the University of Arizona strongly urge people to use converted-lantern black lights for a periodic, thorough bug hunt. Scorpions fluoresce under black light and turn a prominent shade of blue when usually they are masters of camouflage. These well-meaning but undoubtedly socially challenged scientists suggest that these nocturnal safaris can be an entertaining source of family “fun.” I don’t know, but “fun” to me suggests a certain level of pleasure. Hunting insects that can deliver an excruciatingly painful sting doesn’t mesh with my definition of fun.

I have to hand it to these guys at the University of Arizona, though. They go full out when it comes to making scorpions mainstream. They close their webpage on scorpions with an impassioned plea to catch and release these “wonderful creatures” back into the environment. I may be playing Russian roulette with my spiritual karma here, but any scorpion found in my house is toast. I stop short of having them stuffed and mounted over the fireplace, but that’s about it.

Recent newspaper articles appearing in the Arizona Republic have mentioned the ubiquitous house cat as a meaningful line of defense against scorpions. Cats apparently are immune to the scorpion’s venom and are inclined to eat the little critters. All cats, that is, except for ours. Princess will go “on point” when she encounters a scorpion, maybe giving a half-hearted meow, but consuming them would be out of the question. It is for her minion (me) to rid the house of any creature with more than four legs.

Desert dwellers have come up with some clever responses to the eternal problem of scorpions. The Phoenix Zoo puts live chickens in the outdoor pens to keep the scorpions from harming the more fragile members of their zoo family. The chickens find the crusty bugs a tasty treat, and that makes them an extremely effective method of extermination, but I’m not sure I’m ready for scorpion hunting with poultry. Some folks put a barrier of diatomaceous earth around their homes. The ground glass-like substance scratches the exoskeleton of the scorpions as they scuttle over it. In about 3 days, the critters dry out and die. But three days is a long time in the battle to keep a home scorpion-free. One little scorpion could potentially wreak havoc on a family in three whole days.

We often apply a low-tech approach and put out sticky traps for the creepy-crawlies. I think they may be on to my plan though, since I once found one hiding under the trap on the part where there is no sticky stuff. In the last year, I’ve captured half a dozen spiders, a silverfish and about one million dust bunnies in my traps. As the old song goes, I think I better think this out again.

A lot of the desert fauna feasts on scorpions without fear of reprisal, although there are obvious drawbacks to inviting owls, mice, bats, the mighty tarantula or even less-menacing species of scorpion in your home to take care of your pest problems. If I could be sure that it wouldn’t bite my finger off or eat one of my children, I would consider bringing in a meerkat. Our cat, Princess, would find out the hard way that her residence here is conditional.

Amazingly, the little eight-legged cousins to the spider don’t just hang out in our bedroom, they exist in every type of habitat except for Antarctica. They have been uncovered at 12,000 feet altitude in the Himalayas. They have adapted to savannah and forest, from sea to shining sea.

All of the 1400 identified species are venomous, all are carnivorous, and all fluoresce under a black light, which is sort of cool. They all could certainly benefit from some better PR.

They are, for example, rather attentive mothers for the insect world. Their 25-35 offspring get a free ride on mama’s back until their first molt, and for 4 or 5 days after. With Mom’s constant protection and support while they are vulnerable, her young have a relatively better chance of survival. That’s very un-bug-like behavior. Some species may even congregate in social or extended family groups, sharing shelter and food. Their famous “courtship dances” with their locked pincers make for excellent documentary footage. It’s not often that mating gets a network G rating.

According to some paleontologists, scorpions were the first species to move from water to land, so they have had a long time to burrow into our mythologies and nightmares. The ancient Babylonians told of a race of scorpion men. These half man-half scorpion creatures shot arrows that never missed. Egyptians have revered the scorpion for ages. Serket is the goddess who appears with the scorpion sitting on her head. She and her creepy crawly friend protect the pharaohs and the dead. Her sister-goddess, Isis, has a bodyguard of seven scorpions. In ancient Greece, the mythic hunter Orion was killed by Scorpio the scorpion as punishment for being naughty in ways that only a demi-god can. He was placed in the heavens by Zeus 180 degrees away from his killer, Scorpio.

Folk tales also abound. In Egypt, the people believe scorpions are born from the corpses of dead crocodiles, that women are immune to a scorpion’s sting, and that only stings received in the morning are lethal. The English used to believe that they bred from bruised sweet bay leaves. My favorite story is the one that says a scorpion that is surrounded by a ring of fire will sting itself to death. Now there’s a dicey method of extermination. I wonder how often that theory was tested.

Legend has made the scorpion the fearsome creature that it is; but actually, only about 25 different species carry venom that can be troublesome to humans, with mostly small children and the elderly being in any jeopardy. With a little medical care and antivenin for the most extreme stings, the mortality rate from scorpion stings drops to zero. There have been no deaths from scorpions in Arizona for the last 40 years running. Places where medical care is uncommon or substandard have increased risk for humans succumbing to complications of a scorpion’s sting since their neurotoxin venom can interfere with breathing and heart beat.

Some pet providers even suggest that scorpions make an interesting and offbeat pet. Websites are springing up that deal with the care and breeding of these sincerely non-cuddly, venomous insects. I bet those guys from the entomology department at the University of Arizona were the first in line for the “beautiful creatures”. Conversely, the entomologists over at Kansas State University are a bit creeped out by trend of keeping stinging insects as pets and have posted warnings against doing so on their website. They must be dog people.

Scorpions are not just another pretty face. Science has found important uses for certain chemical compounds in scorpion venom. Medical researchers have parlayed the Giant Yellow Israeli Scorpion’s venom into an effective means of combating glioma, a fast-growing and terminal form of brain cancer. Results from human testing have been very positive.

So, scorpions aren’t all bad all the time. They have been victims of more bad press than Paris Hilton. I can almost find a bit of sympathy in my heart for their plight. But this isn’t the beginning of a beautiful friendship. If they continue sneaking into our house, I will continue smooshing them with my shoe, but now I will do so while respectfully acknowledging their extraordinary adaptability and lineage.

After exactly four hours, the pain in my husband’s back evaporated as quickly as it had come on. His body had conquered the neurotoxins poked into him on the end of the scorpion’s tail. Every sign that he had encountered a deadly poison vanished. He seemed pleased with his ability to overcome certain death.

My darling husband spent the next day marveling at the lack of any residual pain. I spent the next day making sure that little sandy-colored critters with eight legs and a nasty sting didn’t try to party with us while we slept.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Jobs I Have Had, Jobs That Have Had Me

I started working when I was 12 years old. My dad (and mom, I suspect) didn’t want his girls playing all summer, talking about, thinking about, dreaming about boys. So I rose at 5:45 in the morning, threw on a heavy polyester nurse’s uniform, and stumbled out the door four days a week. When your dad is your boss, an interesting dynamic is created. I never did learn how to relate him in the office and often had difficulty figuring out if I was talking to my dad or my employer. Twelve-year-olds need dads but they don’t have a lot of use for employers. I got it wrong, a lot.

For the last week, I’ve been an intern at a software company and I find myself in the same sort of predicament. Not that I’m working for my dad, wearing that god-awful polyester straight jacket, but because I operate in the space outside the typical employee-employer relationship, somewhere between a guest and employee. I feel that weird dynamic again.

I have a desk, a computer, a phone and I even have email accounts from the company. I start at 9 and try to leave by 5. There is someone to oversee my work, someone to fix my computer when it misbehaves, and someone to show me how to work the coffee machine, but they notice the difference. A grunt who’s not a salaried grunt, a quasi-person.

But I came to learn, to get experience, and to sharpen my mad writing skillz. So far it’s been like drinking off the end of a firehose. New people, new systems, new programs, I have had to hit the ground running. All my spiffy A’s didn’t prepare me for new product releases, crisis mode management, and manuals that need to be delivered by yesterday last month. My department head who had to approve my internship suggested that this environment requires a certainly amount of flexibility. What he didn’t know is that it’s very difficult to keep up with my leg wrapped around the back of my neck. Flexibility I got, speed is what I need.

Wish me luck…

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Mom Song

Every so often a song comes along so iconic, so thoroughly tuned in to universal truths, so valuable to human understanding it requires no explanation. We are given over to its genius simply by listening. Enjoy the trip.

May I present the Mom Song...

(Thanks Vicki :))

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Morning Bell

I'm just finishing up my first week of classes for the Spring semester and already my head is swimming.

I may have bitten off quite a large chunk of education this time with 15 semester hours, but I'm determined to conquer this mountain of papers (and the writing they require) before May.

My courses this semester are:

Europe and Africa
European Migrations
Principles of Visual Communication
Principles of Writing with Technology
Technical Editing

The 2 history courses will finish out my degree program for that degree. Geez, that only took 20 years. I guess I had to take some time off from learning about history to make a little personal history (and three other historically-accurate, history-making beings.)

4 of my 5 courses are online this semester. That doesn't mean I have to work less, that means I have to work more (but I can choose from more convenient hours of the day, like 1 am to 5 am when it's nice and quiet around here). The price to be paid for the convenience factor is a decidedly larger workload. Really, my theory is that online courses remove the possibility of collective student whining about the work/test load. Collective whining, like collective bargaining, is the 900 pound gorilla that will have his way. It should never be underestimated.

Another feature of this semester is "blogging for grades." In addition to my personal blog, Return Engagement, I'm required to create and maintain two more blogs. The first one will corral all my cleverness about the Atlantic slave trade and the colonial interactions between Europe and Africa. Take a peek at A Play of Dark and Light: Europe and Africa if you need something to help you sleep at night. Personally, I love this stuff but I'm aware that for most people history has an anesthetizing effect.

My other blog is equally narrow in scope. It is designed to follow the genesis of a semester-long design project for my Writing with Technology class (my inner techno-geek is so happy). It's named Projecting Success: Principles of Writing with Technology. I haven't determined what my project will be yet, but I'll be getting down with my geeky, bad self soon enough.

I linked both to this blog.

My hope is to keep all 3 blogs fresh with new ideas and new insights. But for right now, I gotta go, there's papers to write (30 of them by my count). Adios amigos.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Time Flies When the Sh*t Hits the Fan...

I'm so discomboobolated even my metaphors are cross-pollinating.

This past month has been pure mayhem. My 15 hours of courses this semester will be a relaxing day at the beach in comparison.

Here's the highlights:

We hosted DH's family for the holidays. Sister came in from Rome, Italy with her 2 children. Mom came in from OK with great-grandma.

My monkeys met their Italian cousins for the first time and it was love at first sight for everyone involved. At least until the comas set in. We learned Italian and they learned about near-lethal jet lag.

The guest house flooded on a cold and rainy day.

The washer imploded the next cold and rainy day.

Everyone learned that the flu is a cross-cultural event and brings people to their knees regardless of what their plans are.

We had pictures taken to commemorate the event 2 days after Christmas. The next day, illness and ambulances visited our house.

Cousins left amid great sadness.

Grandma and great Grandma still remain far from home, recovering.

Anyone who entertains the idea that life challenges only come in threes either can't count very well or else they indulge in some wildly over-optimistic thinking.

But don't think that I didn't have fun in the last month, because I had a blast in between life's little train wrecks and I even managed to finally finish Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union. I'll attach a review later but for now I'll leave you with this picture of one moment when we were all feeling the love...