Thursday, February 26, 2015

Panhandler Guilt

I lived in a high poverty neighborhood for twenty years. I had lots of experience with panhandlers.

When we barbecued the aroma would draw the dumpster divers in our alley. They'd lean over the fence and ask if we "had anything we could give." We offered sandwiches instead of cash. 

When people came knocking at the door of an evening, we listened politely to the sad stories. Most of the time we just said "We can't help you."

About nine o-clock one night a woman begged cash for her infant's medicine. What if it were true? We offered to go with her to the pharmacy to pay. But then she insisted she just couldn't inconvenience us like that. 

Living in the boonies, poverty doesn't get in my face very often. I'm out of practice dealing with it.

photo from Nolan Dalla

I'm conflicted when a scammer accosts me. I don't want to pay for somebody's destructive habit--but what if they really do have a need? I vacillate. Sometimes I'll give a guy with a sign a couple of bucks if it's convenient. Usually, it's easier to pass right by.

Just last week I was at one of those looks-like-a-village shopping centers. Off to my left an African-American mom and three kids threaded between parked cars toward me. The kids were clean, dressed for the weather in good-looking jackets and hats, but Mom looked rough. The oldest son, about twelve, intercepted us and delivered a practiced spiel about the shelter, and so many hours before they could return, and the next check... I was lost. And very uncomfortable.

 I looked over his shoulder and told the mother I wouldn't give her cash.

 "Are you hungry?" I asked the boy standing in front of me.


I took them to Subway to buy sandwiches. She dropped back with the young kids, hung around the door, and made no show that they would sit down and eat. The boy was polite, ordered two sandwiches and I paid. He thanked me before I left. Mother did not. 

Yeah, I know Jesus would not have expected thanks, but I did.  

Ten minutes later I saw them walk past the restaurant window where we sat.  They weren't carrying a Subway bag, but were carrying a bag from the barbecue restaurant across the street. Had they even eaten the sandwiches I bought?  I bristled at the idea.

By the time we left, the mother had stopped a younger woman who engaged her in extended conversation. I hoped the new target was giving her a piece of my mind, since I'd been too timid to do it. 

I'm still puzzled by my response. Was I too gullible? Too judgmental? Too quick to buy my way out of feeling guilty? Did I see her as a victim or a victimizer? 

I am also doing a slow burn about the way she was using her son, teaching him to beg for her. 

I know poverty is complex. And our skewed societal priorities don't address the problem adequately. We can afford to fill a football stadium when seats cost over a thousand bucks each; but, we can't give this woman counseling, drug rehab, and job training so she can take care of her family? Perhaps she's not willing to take advantage of the help that is available.  Either way, she's fallen through some big cracks and taken her kids down with her.

Her behavior made me angry. Her kids left me sad. 

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Flower Jelly

Tortillas covered with mashed potatoes, lettuce, tomato and cheese.

I have an international trade agreement with a local woman. She "pays" me for tutoring her daughters with her cooking. We enjoy her rice and the entree above, unique to her region of Mexico. 

Her specialty, however, is the  "gelatina."  She laughed when I asked her where she bought the preserved blossom to go inside.  Her daughters told me she stays up late to make them, and they take a lot of time. I believe it!

Luz really enjoys creating this unusual edible art form.  I felt badly cutting into it to try a bite, it's too beautiful to destroy. 

The texture was more firm than Jello but not as chewy as gummy bears.  It felt unfamiliar in my mouth and tasted like nothing I'd eaten before. My brain was confused because it told my taste buds to expect a different flavor with each color. Actually it was coconut without the fiber.   

I marvel at the craftsmanship.  I appreciate the effort and time she put into it. Her part of our barter is exotic, like a mini-trip to a foreign country.

Wouldn't it be a pretty centerpiece on a cake? Or a little one as garnish on a plate? 

Thank you, Luz, for the gift of it.   

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Beach Ice

On the road again...this time to Nag's Head.

We crossed the third bridge onto the Outer Banks and I had to stop. 

I had never witnessed beach ice first hand. 

The wind draped brackish water onto the pilings where it quickly froze. 

Don't they look like 
four sisters swathed
 in pale starched tulle? Perhaps they wait 
for a sunset cotillion.

The rocks became

rare glass eggs from a
mystical sea creature.


Strange and beautiful. 

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

5 Myths about the Contemporary West

1. It's been tamed. 

Although at first glance my grandchildren are in danger, they aren't. The coyote is a statue. 

However, on my last visit to Colorado I saw a bushy fox run down a residential street, and jump over a 6' tall fence.  

In 1998 a hiker was attacked and killed by a cougar in Colorado. We've seen evidence of cougar kills while hiking there, and we were spooked! In 2013 a hiker's dog was stalked by one of the big cats but ran when confronted by the (bold, crazy) hiker. 

2. Denver rises like Oz out of the prairie.  Actually, it's disappointing when you see the Mile High City. It's not even on a hill. However, the front range of the Rocky Mountains does rise magnificently behind it. 

3. Winter there is terrible. This photo is from early February and it was 72 degrees. What's terrible is that their winter can happen in any 10 months of the year. We experienced snow in September and June, and every month in between. And if you want, you can drive up to the continental divide and get snowed on in July and August too.

4. It was America's last frontier. Nah, Americans are always on the move. In the last ten years, and in 2014, North Carolina was second for all inbound moves within the United States. (And we who live here get it. Why anybody would choose the wind-blown, nearly treeless states of the Great American Desert is beyond us.) 

5. It's big sky country and wide open spaces. 

Well, outside of the urban areas, that's true. But if you live in the megalopolis that stretches from Greeley to Colorado Springs, you won't experience it. Denver metro area's population currently ranks about 21st in the country. It is the 6th fastest growing city in the US. They have air pollution problems, not enough water, and rank among the top 25 cities in terms of traffic problems. But, hey, if your part of the 20% marijuana smoking/ingesting citizens, you won't mind.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

15,000 Tributes to Abraham Lincoln

On my recent trip to Washington D.C.  I was enchanted by the tower of books written about Abraham Lincoln.  Ford's Theater Center for Education and Leadership.  

The sculpture perfectly complements the space inside the spiral staircase, and I wonder which idea came first. 

Although they look like books, there are  7,000 covers of real books printed onto aluminum. 

Stacked this way and that, it's intriguing to walk up the staircase and spot children's books about our former president snuggled up to serious histories.  I recognized one or two I'd read, and it certainly made me curious about others.

Actually, there are over 15,000 titles written about Lincoln and his presidency. That averages out to about 100 books per year since his death. Imagine that, like 15,000 pieces of fan (and hate) mail. 

His life, and death, have had tremendous influence in people's lives. The Ford education center has video clips and exhibits that explore his legacy. 

Lincoln has become a champion for freedom. An encourager to the disenfranchised. Even if the motives behind the Emancipation Proclamation were not totally  altruistic the effect of giving legal precedent to end slavery was monumental.

While the Lincoln Memorial makes him a symbol, the books suggest we can know him in some way, observe the grand moments and small routines of his life. He becomes as much human as hero. 

The Ford house and Center, along with the theater, gave me a thrill of stepping back and a sense that I had just missed our most famous president  pass through the rooms.  

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Call buttons

I happened to need the restroom at the doctor's office. On the wall, next to the toilet was a call button. I hope I never need to push it.

There are call buttons and signals everywhere, except for where I need them. 

On my last flight the attendant told us not to push the call button, because it didn't work and she wouldn't come.

You can subscribe to a call for help bracelet or necklace to wear around the house. But it doesn't work for what I need.

The clothes drier beeps when finished. The iron signals when it's been on too long without being moved.

I need that same kind of switch with a motion sensor that shrieks when the room is empty but the lights are on.

 I need a freezer that loudly alerts me when someone opens the lid, digs around, then wanders off. 

I need a stove that sounds like a fire alarm when I forget to turn it off. Otherwise, I might hear the smoke detectors' annoying screech. 

WoW! I found a gadget I can buy to do just that. I'm sending off for it NOW, before we do serious damage. 

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Murmurations--Starling Legions

In the fall and through the winter, we see large flocks of starlings gather, fly, and then land together in trees or fields. 

Walter Baxter/Creative Commons 2.0

I'd never seen the phenomenon before I moved to North Carolina. And when I can, I stop and watch for as long as they're visible. 

Recently a medium sized group rose up out of a group of trees, headed off one direction, split, rejoined, then changed direction to circle around to the starting point. They did this a couple of times. I thought the birds were just aimless.

It reminded me of many Americans' lives--fast and busy, but without any apparent goal. 

I've since learned birds do have a purpose. They swarm and swirl to avoid a predator, to keep warm for the night, or find food.

More recently I stood at our bedroom window and looked out over the neighbor's trees. Flying over them came a huge flock of starlings, properly known as a murmuration heading west. The birds were a wide band that kept coming and coming.  I ran downstairs and out the front door to see where they were headed. They disappeared behind the tree tops of a closer grove, beyond my line of vision. The oncoming gaggle consolidated and formed a river of black bodies rising up on their wings' down stroke, and dropping slightly on the up stroke. Their chatter was like rocks rolling in with ocean waves and drug back out again, but higher pitched. 

 For three or four minutes the avian cloud flew past until they were gone. 
There must have been legions of them. 

I can't imagine there was any field nearby with enough gleanings for them all.  
I can't believe one hawk spooked the birds. Scientists have discovered that the birds are influenced by the seven others closest to them. They don't have to experience the threat directly, they just follow the crowd. 

Humans behave similarly sometimes. I remember seeing many people wear surgical masks after 9/11. Our small town is too far off the map to be hit by a bomb or targeted by poison except as an accident. We weren't dealing with ash, so there was no need. 

 We see the same mindless frenzy in the line-up to buy the next tech toy, wait for stores to open early on Black Friday, or to buy stock based on popularity rather than sound business principles. 

Many Germans followed Hitler with the same unthinking energy. 

Get enough of us headed off in one direction, and it may be impossible to turn the tide. 

The instinct may be natural, but it's not wise. 

At least in birds, it's beautiful

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Tree down! BYO Saw

For fourteen years we've been watching a tall pine in our yard lean further and further toward the ground. 

the leaner's on the far right
We've stood on the porch, hands on our hips, and I've said "Doesn't that tree look like it's leaning more?"

"Yeah," my husband answered, "but it's hard to be sure."

The tree held up one end of my double clothesline. The other end was attached to the swing set which appeared to be in line for a direct hit when the tree eventually fell. But would that be during our tenancy?

This summer the tree guy confirmed that ants had excavated the trunk. The 35' pine would topple sooner rather than later. But he prophesied that when the roots yanked out of the ground, they wouldn't effect my shed.  I removed the tree off of the "urgent" do-list.

We came back from a trip this week, and there it was.

the swing is the little red dot in the middle

Pass the word: Free firewood. Bring your own chain saw.