Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Nature Bats Last

"But make no mistake: the weeds will win; nature bats last."
writer, naturalist, lepidopterist
There are two kinds of people in the world: those who love to garden and those who don't. 

Let's be clear: I'm no garden ho'. I wish I loved gardening, I really do. I truly appreciate a beautiful garden, and I love the idea of gardening. But actual gardening — not so much. My perennials perennially perish, my vegetable garden is fruitless, and my annuals barely take root.

My mom had a magnificent garden at her last house in Michigan, complete with herbs, flowering trees, bordering perennials, and even a koi pond (thanks to my husband) teeming with colorful fish and water plants. She assured me that gardening when you have young children is too much to ask of anyone, but that once my children were grown and gone, I, too, would love to garden. That was right before she and my dad moved to Florida — primarily to get away from any form of garden or lawn care.

I've been doing a lot of walking in my neighborhood this spring and summer (trying to convince myself that exercise, like gardening, is good for me — but that's another post). What passes for spring in Chicago came late this year, but by now the gardens have been painted into the landscape. While bulbs and lilacs may have faded, roses are gushing and peonies are panting to break loose from their confining rings.

Even the annuals are filling in nicely — in other people's gardens, thank you very much. My daughter and I planted a flat and a half of begonia's around the base of our "small" tree, and they still look puny and separated, not the lush pink area rug of blossoms I had envisioned.

Last summer, I ventured one cherry tomato plant in a pot. It cost me $2.48 and yielded about nine edible fruits, which would probably have run me about $2.48 at Dominick's, so it was basically a wash. This year, we tried two tomato plants (one has since passed away); herbs, including basil, rosemary and lemon balm (all doing quite nicely in their containers); and, at my daughter's insistence, a bell pepper plant. I have no idea how to grow peppers. Do I need to pinch? Prune? Deadhead? Oh, well, we bought the $1.98 version, so we won't be out that much when it bites the dust.

I kind of like the "container garden" thing. They're easy to plant, require little maintenance and look lovely on the porch steps. It almost appears as if a real gardener lives in our house — until you see my neighbor's garden, two doors north. 

Can you say obsessive-compulsive? The guy (and his gardener) are always tinkering (or is it puttering when you are in the garden?) — planting something new here, moving this plant over there. Sure it's beautiful, but who has that kind of time and energy? Self-employed people with no kids, who have enough money to hire a gardener, that's who.

I would garden if you could do it only three times a year: 
  1. that first perfect day in March, when you are so happy to be outside after the long winter that you kill yourself doing yard work and can't move for the next week; 
  2. one planting session sometime after Mother's day, when you are finally sure the last frost has passed, and you feel supremely satisfied about getting everything in the ground that you were tempted into buying at the local garden center;
  3. a single 1-to-2-hour weeding session in mid-to-late July, after you have sufficiently recovered from the May planting session, but while it still seems worthwhile to spend time on plants that are just going to die in the fall anyway.
I know to many of you this kind of thinking verges on sacrilege. I know I'm supposed to care about the inextricable relationship between humans and plants. I know this because I read Michael Pollan's fabulous treatise, The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World. I know I'm supposed to want to grow and eat my own vegetables, because Barbara Kingsolver made me feel guilty about it in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life.

But here's the thing — I'm allergic to insect bites. I've tried to find passion in the rich, brown soil of the garden, but all I've found is dirt under my fingernails. I've searched for satisfaction in a good day's worth of gardening, but all I have discovered are sore knees and screeching lower back pain.

Isn't it enough that I can appreciate the beauty and bounty that a well-tended garden yields — preferably through my picture window, or in a vase on my coffee table, or overflowing from the rich, brown depths of my wooden salad bowl? 

A book is a garden, an orchard, a storehouse, a party, a company by the way, a counselor, a multitude of counselors.
Charles Baudelaire, French Poet (1821-1867)

What's your gardening story — death or glory? Click here to tell us about it. And if you find your vegetable garden overfloweth, we will gratefully accept any and all surpluses.

See my latest Chicago Moms Blog post on the recent spate of celebrity deaths by clicking here

Photos: Tulips in Chicago and Pot Garden in Florida; 2kop.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Celebrity Passings Mark the Times of My Life — CMB Post

This was originally posted on the now defunct Chicago Moms Blog.

Elvis Presley, the King of Rock and Roll, died in 1977. I was a teenager at the time and his passing meant little to me. I had really only known the fat, drug-addicted, somewhat pathetic Elvis. Sure, I liked his music, but he was old (six years younger than I am now, yikes!)

In 1977, Michael Jackson, the King of Pop, was still flying high with his brothers, then known as the Jacksons, performing live at the Fourth Annual American Music Awards. He was about to launch his giant solo career. Everyone knew that Michael Jackson was way cooler than Donny Osmond, but not as cool as Led Zeppelin. Still, you never had to be embarrassed if you were caught dancing to a Jackson 5 record.

In 1977, Farrah Fawcett (then Farrah Fawcett-Majors) posed for her iconic poster, clad in nothing but a red bathing suit, big hair and an even bigger smile. Every boy of my generation hung that poster on his closet door or over his bed, and every girl spent hours in front of the mirror trying to get that hair.

In 1977, Ed McMahon was firmly ensconced as Johnny Carson's second banana on the Tonight Show. I wouldn't say I was a McMahon fan, or even a regular watcher of the Tonight Show. It's just that Ed and Johnny and Doc had always been there, my whole life, on NBC at 11:30, right after the news. It was a fact, something you could count on.

My grandmother used to say that celebrity deaths always come in threes. I guess that's true this week, unless you live in Chicago, where we are also mourning the loss of veteran newsman John Calloway. I was always bemused by my grandmother's addiction to the obituaries. "Oh, my, look who died. He was such a dreamboat," she'd say, pointing to the picture of some old movie star.

This week, I've heard myself calling my mom or my husband or my friends to say "Did you hear who died today?" My kids have asked "Who's Ed McMahon?" or "Who's Farrah Fawcett?" They all knew Michael Jackson, but only the weird, broken, somewhat pathetic Michael, not the beautiful young boy and man whose music we still like to dance to.

The gone-too-soon, tragic-story celebrity deaths, like Heath Ledger or River Phoenix are shocking to us, as we see young people eaten by fame. These recent deaths have been much more disconcerting to me in the sense that they are famous people who have died the way most of us will die: of cancer or cardiac arrest or the complicated combination of illnesses associated with old age. And no amount of money or fame will save you from it.

I find that I am feeling a bit hollow and sad in the wake of these deaths. In my head, I keep hearing that cheesy Paul Anka song of the '70s that served as Kodak's primary ad campaign. "Good morning, yesterday. You wake up and time has slipped away … ," Paul crooned as beautiful photos of idyllic families flashed across our television screens. It occurs to me now, that with each new passing, I will be ticking off the times of my life. Not my grandparents' lives, or my parents' lives, but my life. Do you remember? Remember the times of your life.

This is an original Chicago Moms Blog Post. When Susan Bearman isn't scanning obits, she can be found writing at Two Kinds of People and The Animal Store Blog.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Constructive Criticism

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who can accept constructive criticism and those who throw a screaming tantrum at the slightest suggestion can't. 

For some time now, my brother has been concerned that the brilliant content of Two Kinds of People has been obscured by the faded newsprint background (see photo). I believe his exact words were: "I can't read the damn thing."

read•a•bil•i•ty (noun) — accessibility of text: a measure of the ease with which a passage or text may be read.

Now, being the flexible, mature, stable adult that I am, I have completely ignored his comments in the months since the blog's redesign. Recently, however, he has become more persuasive ("I mean it. I can't read it at all."), so I have modified the design just a bit to accommodate his failing vision. (I'll let you in on a little family secret: he used to be younger than I am, but now he is older.)

As always, I'm interested in most all of your comments and feedback. Please vote in the poll below or leave a comment by clicking here

"Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. 
Design is how it works."
— Steve Jobs

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Saying Goodbye to Elementary School — CMB Post

This was originally posted on the now defunct Chicago Moms Blog.
On Friday, my youngest child completed fifth grade, which means it was our family's last day of elementary school after 12 long, mostly wonderful years.

This child has literally spent his entire life at this school, having been born same the year his twin siblings were in kindergarten. He has attended 12 years of school picnics, talent shows, and band concerts. He has met every teacher, joined every club, and climbed every inch of the school's two playgrounds. He's bored, well-prepared and more than ready to move on to the challenges of middle school.

But what about me?

I really don't think I'm ready to leave elementary school behind. No more crayons, no more playground bonding, no more room parenting. No more little kids with cute backpacks and silly winter hats. My house will now be completely taken over by smelly adolescents with attitude — some of them taller than me.

Elementary school has been a sweet time, a relatively leisurely time, a time when I had the opportunity to get to know my children's teachers, as well as their friends and their friends' parents. It's been a time when parental PDAs were not only acceptable, but welcome; when my kids waved goodbye from the bus windows or ran back to me for one more kiss and hug.

But all that's over. From now on, school is about moving up and out and away. It's about making new friends and trying new things. It's about moving from classroom to classroom with many different teachers and influences. I get that. I know the whole goal of parenting is to develop independent human beings.

I also know that the three years of middle school fly by, and that high school goes even faster. I know that their job between now and high school graduation is to pull away until they don't need me any more. Knowing it and accepting it are two different things.

I thought I would be weepier during this particular transition. After all, I sobbed for two days when my twins moved from preschool to elementary school.

Perhaps it's because, as the youngest of six, this particular child has the grace to recognize my angst as well as his own. He has always reached into adulthood with one hand while holding on white knuckled to his childhood with the other. He's wise enough to know that growing up isn't necessarily all it's cracked up to be; that the rewards and freedoms come with hard work and consequences. And he indulges me no end, holding my hand (even in front of his friends) and understanding that just because he'll always be my baby, doesn't mean that he still has to be a baby.

So, I was a little melancholy, but dry-eyed at the fifth grade recognition ceremony — until people started asking me if I was going to cry, which sent me over the edge. Good thing my son was there. "It's OK, mom," he reassured me, "you can still read stories to me." Maybe having only big kids won't be so bad after all.

This is an original Chicago Moms Blog post. When Susan isn't sobbing over baby pictures and wishing her kids would stay little forever, she can be found writing at Two Kinds of People and The Animal Store Blog.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Most of Us Have Gears We Never Use*

*"Life is like a 10-speed bicycle. 
Most of us have gears we never use."

— Charles M. Schulz
There are two kinds of people in the world: those who know how to ride a bike and those who don't.

I learned to ride my mom's bike when I was four. This is the single athletic feat of my life that I can claim as purely my own. I wanted it bad, so I taught myself. Standing on the pedals because I couldn't reach the seat, I pedaled and fell until I didn't fall anymore.

Riding a bike meant freedom. It also meant not having to walk every where. I come from the same genetic stock as Lech Walesa who once said: "I'm lazy. But it's the lazy people who invented the wheel and the bicycle because they didn't like walking or carrying things." (Hey, don't knock his philosophy of life; after all, he did win the Nobel Peace Prize.)

Lately, I'm a little freaked out by the wild packs of bikers that seem to be taking over the streets in their obscenely tight padded shorts and moisture-wicking jerseys. These Lance Armstrong wannabees are in a fight-to-the-death struggle with the internal-combustion engine. I was taught that cyclists are have the same rights and responsibilities as motorists when on public thoroughfares, but these road warriors are heedless of the rules. They know that when push comes to shove, the motorist will be blamed for any accident, so between March and November I live in fear that one of these
whack-jobs avid cyclists is going to jut in front of my car and be squashed like a bug.

Given the tension between bikers and drivers, it's no surprise that the history of the bicycle roughly parallels the development of the automobile. This may also explain why my love affair with the bike came to an abrupt halt on my sixteenth birthday, when I got my driver's license. (Now would be a good time to refer back to the Walesa quote.) Even so, I have never truly lost the joy of biking, although helmets have put a real damper on that whole wind in your hair thing.

Several years ago, my mother-in-law gave me her old bicycle, a comfort bike that lives up to its name, complete with a bell and the modern equivalent of a basket. Through no fault of her own, my bike and I have a fickle relationship. Sometimes she and I go steady, and other times I'll take her on a date and not call again until the next summer. 

Part of the problem is my kids. Only half of them know how to ride, so when it comes to getting the family from Point A to Point B, we've mostly relied on the minivan. 

At six, my daughter decided to learn to ride her bike, and after hours of tears and yelling, succeeded in forcing her body to master the machine — in one day. Her twin brother is still a non rider at 17. My middle boy is a cautious, by-the-book kind of guy who approached learning to ride a bike like a military general plans and executes a week-long siege. He strapped on all his safety gear every day, practiced for a reasonable length of time, then put the bike away, only to make a fresh start each morning until he had won the war.

My youngest, the "me too" of our family, really wanted to follow in By-the-book's footsteps, but wasn't quite ready. He gave up out of frustration or humiliation or both and hasn't wanted to try again for three summers. Yesterday he announced he was ready, so tonight after dinner, we gave it a shot. He has matured both physically and mentally over these three years, and after just a half hour or so of trying, he is so close he can practically taste it. He started getting skittish, though, so rather than risk another (perceived) failure, I told him he was doing great and that we would try again tomorrow. He was simultaneously a little proud of himself and relieved to pause his efforts. As he closed the shed, his parting shot echoed Mark Twain, who said:
"Get a bicycle. You will not regret it. If you live."
This summer, we (and by we, I mean me) are trying to be a little leaner and greener. We are trying to fool our bodies into fitness by doing "fun" physical activities without referring to them as exercise. The old minivan is less than 25 miles away from hitting the 100K-mile mark. The mom is less than 18 months away from hitting the big 5-0. We all have to make some sacrifices to keep things running. I'm hoping we'll find a few answers in our two wheelers.

When did you learn to ride a bike? Did it come naturally, or only after a struggle? Click here to tell me your story or to speak your peace about the Critical Mass movement.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Sensory Perceptions

"Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on the broken glass."
— Anton Chekov, 1860-1904
There are two kinds of people in the world: those who are visual thinkers and those who are not.

As writers, we are taught to use all our senses to describe the worlds we create. Show, don't tell. Readers want to see, hear, smell, taste and touch everything our characters experience, but how do we convey those rich sensory details with mere words?

In early critiques of the manuscript for my children's novel, readers commented that they liked my main character, but couldn't see him. I knew everything about this third grader — his thoughts, feelings, friends, passions, parents, siblings, and even his pet — but I had no idea what he looked like.

In my mind, he was an average-sized third grade boy with a pixellated face, like the blurred mugs of the world's dumbest criminals in those reality cop shows. But my readers would fill in the visage that I couldn't envision, right? Wrong. "What does he look like?" one young reader asked. Good question. 

We live in a visual world and the human eye is an astounding organ, processing up to 36,000 bits of information per hour and nearly 24 million images in a normal lifetime. We see as many 10 million colors and can distinguish 500 different shades of gray.  (On the other hand, the octopus does not have a blind spot, so maybe we should leave parallel parking to the cephalopods.)

But among humans, some of us are more visually oriented than others. I've started carrying my camera around to train my eye to capture visual details and then translate them to the written page. To keep from becoming distracted, I've focused mainly on color and have been pleased enough with my amateur efforts to have a little flickr set on the subject. Just when I was feeling good about these optical exercises, I clicked on a link to my friend Matt Dinnerstein's magnificent professional photos and was vividly reminded that my visual skills are rudimentary at best. 

Time for a new exercise. I stand in awe of visual artists, and thought maybe I could steal borrow some of their work to help me "see" my character. One of the instructors at Off Campus Writers Workshop advised us to "create a visual map — a poster with images of our characters and settings," so I took to perusing magazines. I tried, I really did, to find a photograph that would bring my character to life, but instead of pictures, I found myself cutting out descriptive words in interesting fonts. 

That's when I realized that I'm not a visual thinker. I rely on a sixth sense — my sense of language — to interpret my world. It all comes down to the meaning, rhythm, subtext, context and order of the words — and there is nothing "mere" about them. 

The roughly quarter million distinct words of the English language can be combined and recombined to create meaning, nuance, irony, description, poetry, humor, tragedy, drama, fantasy, romance … in other words, all the sights, sounds, scents, tastes and feelings our physical, emotional and imaginary worlds can generate. 

I recently sat down and removed the mask that was hiding my main character so I could take a good, long look at him. Turns out he's a real person after all, and it only took a couple dozen words to paint his picture:
  • wavy, chocolate brown hair
  • freckles sprinkled across a perfectly ordinary nose
  • long, thin fingers
  • hooded blue eyes
  • a shy, wide, close-lipped smile
  • and a mouthful of shiny new adult teeth, still a little too big for his face
Well, can you see him? Click here to let me know what's missing, or to discuss which sense you count on most navigate your world.

Ed. Note: 6/5/09 8:18 p.m. — I just found these great tidbits in some correspondence between F. Scott Fitzgerald and his editor, Max Perkins, on an early draft of The Great Gatsby.  Perkins wrote:

"Among a set of characters marvelously palpable and vital — I would know Tom Buchanan if I met him on the street and would avoid him — Gatsby is somewhat vague. The reader's eyes can never quite focus upon him, his outlines are dim."

After first claiming the vagueness was intentional, Fitzgerald responded:

"I myself didn't know what Gatsby looked like or was engaged in and you felt it."

It's nice to know that my initial vagueness about my main character puts me in good company. Read more about this fascinating relationship between author and editor here.

Photo credit: The Five Senses by Rob Nunn aka scalespeeder.