Wednesday, July 27, 2011

With Regret Still

I know that this post is hopelessly materialistic, and that it has little to do with diversity (but some relation to discomfort). But still. I came across this photo in a mish-mosh pile on my desk. And then it was a moment of Proustian remembrance of things past.

Oh, dear. Are they not wonderful? I don't think you can get the detail, nor appreciate the colors from this photo (black with pink stitching on the left; reddish/rust with chartreuse stitching on the right). But these are the shoes I did not buy when I was in London five or six years ago. The stitching says "cha-cha-cha," and the footprints show how to do the dance.
     I went back several times to this store to try on these shoes. My husband and daughter accompanied me without complaint. Why did I not buy? One size felt just a tiny bit too small, and the next size up felt just a tiny bit too large. And I couldn't decide which color to get, and I wanted both colors, but two pairs of shoes that I might not be able to wear? Discomfort.
     I have looked (without success) on line for these shoes several times since. But why? Would they fit differently now?

Thursday, July 21, 2011


I sometimes joke that the Town-Namers around here had only a few words to choose from--Oak, Park, Forest, River, and Lawn--so they did the best they could, rearranging them in as many combinations as they could think of. Ergo, Forest Park, Park Forest, River Forest, Oak Lawn, and Oak Park, where I live. These names suggest places with bounteous trees, which in this case, fortunately, is true. Unlike Crate & Barrel, which has neither crates nor barrels, or Pottery Barn, which is definitely not a barn and has only a minor focus on pottery.
     I am used to living in places with lots of trees, and I enjoy their many pleasures--watching them magically bud out in the spring, withdrawing into the cool of their shade in the summer, and marveling at their autumn color show. Even in the winter, their towering skeletons add definition to the landscape.
     Here in Oak Park, we do have a good number of large, impressive oaks. We used to have elms, but those are almost all gone now because of Dutch Elm disease. Currently, our local arborists are removing all the ash trees because of the Emerald Ash Borer invasion. Fortunately, the arborists are replacing these tress with other varieties, and we will all hope for the best.We have lots of other kinds of trees, too--honey locusts, maples. The Maples make the most magnificent show in the fall.

     I once had a friend visit from Belize, and she had never seen a maple before. She came running in the house to ask, "What is that?" The maple was as exotic to her as a frangipani or a baobab would be to me. Here's a baobab.

      Another time, I had a visitor from Arizona, and she was spooked by all the trees and canopy they created. She said she was used to being able to see exactly where she was all the time and what was around her, and all the trees made her feel claustrophobic and vulnerable. Another visitor from Arizona (who had grown up on the East Coast) delighted in being able to sit under a tree and rest her back on its trunk--something you definitely can't do with a saguaro (ouch).

     One of my favorite kind of tree is the Live Oak--the kind they have in New Orleans--which to me seem like some kind of plant animal hybrid, especially when they have all that moss hanging from them.
When I lived in Ann Arbor (originally, I think, named Ann's Arbor, because there was a person named Ann and there were lots of trees), I used to go to West Park. The park had a band shell, where sometimes they had rock concerts or poetry reading. This was around the time that my friends and I were all reading the Tolkein books, and there were a line of willow trees in West Park that I was convinced were the Ent Wives. Back then, and even a long time after, I found Willows to be the most romantic of trees.
When we bought our house in Oak Park, it had a large willow in the yard, and this was a very persuasive selling factor for me. The tree was, however, way too large for the yard, and its branches kept falling off and crashing through our garage roof or threatening to pull down all the power lines, or destroy our entire house, so we had it cut down. Instead, we put in a few maples, an oak, a honey locust, and some flowering crabs, so for a not-very-large property, we're pretty tree-rich.
     I've been thinking about trees because, as you all likely know, it's very, very hot outside, and while I was walking today, I was thinking that even though they're not moaning and groaning about it (at least not in a way we can hear), the heat is likely as stressful for trees as it is for the rest of us creatures.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011


A robot is defined, more or less, as a mechanical, intelligent agent that can perform functions on its own or with assistance. It is usually electro-mechanical and guided in "doing its thing" by a computer and/or programing. I'm sure we could quibble about this definition or about the borders between human and robot. As we all know, we can quibble about anything. 
     Robots can do almost anything these days.

Here's a familiar image of a robot.
We have a friend who runs a program at the local middle school in which students learn to build robots, and then they compete in competitions with these robots. This is a marvelously creative and intensely problem-solving-oriented activity, and these young people may very well be our future electro/engineering/mechanical problem solvers. The robots that these young people build are no so personified as some other robots that we are used to seeing.
My husband and I once saw a wonderful movie called Robot Stories. It was directed by a man named Greg Pak and consisted of four short stories about robots. In general, it explored the borders of human and robot, and how we are all somewhat robotic and how robots are all somewhat human. We enjoyed the film very much. Here is a photo from one of the stories, at the point when a young couple first meets and feeds their new, adopted robot baby.

See how happy they are. The baby is that egg-shaped pink thing in the lower corner, and the father is feeding it with that blue thing. I won't tell you what happens to these happy people. You'll have to find out for yourself.
      Here's why I'm thinking about robots today. I was on the way to the open mic the other night when I heard a story on the radio about robot beggars. The story is that in several places in the world, people have built robot beggars and placed them in shopping malls or on street corners (where real beggars are not allowed), and passersby have been receptive to the idea and given money to the robot, which is then supposedly given to charitable causes. Google "robot beggar" if you don't believe me (or maybe you already know about this, and I am the one behind the curve). There are several YouTube video of these robots in action.
     People are apparently more comfortable giving money to these mechanical beggars than to real ones. The robots are kind of cute, to start with.
Here's another one--more basic but still cuter than the homeless people you usually encounter on the streets.
I am extremely familiar with the discomfort of encountering people on the street who ask for money. Where I live, it happens all the time. I have written about this extensively in various forms in essays and in fiction. The experience, the discomfort. My husband is very generous with people who ask for money on the street, and this sometimes makes people who are with us (including me) uncomfortable.
     Just yesterday, in a parking lot, a man in a wheel chair (motorized, just to give the experience a little bit of robotic feel) came up to me to ask for money to get something to eat. I was just getting into my car with my groceries, and I was thinking about what my husband would do and the story I'd heard on the radio the night before about robotic beggars and the fact that when I got to the open mic, I'd looked in my wallet and found more money than I thought I had, so I gave him $5. I didn't really look him in the face though, and I left as quickly as I could.

Saturday, July 9, 2011


A river can wind.
So can a road.
A staircase.

The innards of a watch.
And so can a person's thoughts--the innards of the mind. It's not that I've had nothing to say. It's that I've had too much to say. And that I don't know how to compile it in a communicable form. But the thing (or one thing) about winding is that it's a continuous form, not a fragmented one. So here's one place I might begin.
     For my reading group, I've just finished a book called The Worst Hard Times, by Timothy Egan. Our group usually reads fiction, but this time the choosers chose nonfiction. And so this choice. It's the story of the Dust Bowl, the environmental disaster of the 1930s on the Great Plains of these United States. It's a horribly disturbing story (unrelentingly repetitive also, but that's another matter) of the human impact on the earth. The Great Plains area was once a perfectly adapted ecosystem--vast tracts of grass with deep taproots that could draw water from the earth during the endless droughts and hold on for dear life in the face of the endless winds. The bison who lived there, too, were perfectly adapted--able to withstand winters with temperatures of 40 below and summers of 110 above. No trees. Blasting sun. Continuous wind and drought. The Indians hunted the buffalo and used every single scrap.
     Then the land speculators came, and others looking for a place to settle and a way to earn a living, and they drove the Indians off and plowed up the grass, and train lines were built, and cities grew up--hotels and restaurants and stores and schools and hospitals. People who had lived in little sod houses built real houses--with windows and porches. They bought pianos, and their children took piano lessons. They had a few years of good rains and good crops. And then the drought years began, and with no grass to hold the earth down, it began to blow. 
     It's easy  to point fingers, or say whose fault it was. But the point is that people needed places to live, and they needed work, and they were interested in profits, in thriving, in getting ahead, for themselves and their families. And as we've seen in so many other cases, the means to these ends were shortsighted and disastrous. 
     This week, WBEZ ran a fascinating story about Canadian oil and the way it is boosting the Midwest economy. Of course, the Midwest economy, including Detroiters, who are benefiting from this Canadian oil industry, need the boost. One man who was interviewed has been out of work for three or four years. But the story also included the voices of people who live near the Kalamazoo River and suffered (and still do) from the oil spill last summer. I have written about these things before--the farmers versus the town folk when it comes to river flooding; the restaurant owner whose business is now doing better because people are eating a full lunch (including dessert) versus the obesity epidemic. It's not really "versus." We're all in it together. What do we do?