Category Archives: Science, Technology and the Environment

Vacations and Holidays

IMG_3739“What is the purpose of your visit?” the English customs officer asked as we approached his window 20 plus years ago on our first visit to Europe. “We’re on vacation,” we said.

“Oh, on holiday,” he corrected us. I’m not sure I know the difference between the two even now, but  these last couple of weeks I’ve definitely been away from my regular life. Traveling with my husband to several Scandinavian countries we’ve taken a cruise up the coast of Norway and into the fjords, and flown and driven to visit our grandson who is playing soccer this summer in Sweden. That reality was the inspiration for the whole trip.

It sounds easier than it is, to cease and desist working. My “To Do” lists are quite long and there are always multiple projects in various stages of development. When the clock and calendar indicate that I must let them go and pick them up when I return in two weeks, it’s definitely a challenge. I took some files with me, just in case there would be moments to mix some business with pleasure but it’s lucky I didn’t count on this happening. When I felt the energy to reconnect with my work life, the travel schedule or access to technology didn’t cooperate.

The travel brochures don’t mention it but with a six-hour time difference, jet lag is a real thing. We arrived in Copenhagen at 7 am their time, 2 am for us. We disembarked, and in our middle of the night stupor, found the train station, figured out how to buy tickets, where to get off, and which direction to walk to find our hotel. We had only one small mishap, leaving a borrowed tote bag in the overhead storage of the plane. We realized it just after going through customs but this mistake turned into one of the most memorable parts of the trip. We reported our difficulty to the information desk at the airport and they called the gate. The next thing we knew a young man from behind the information counter was on his bicycle traveling through the terminal on our behalf. He returned in lessthan 10 minutes with our reclaimed bag.

boy on bike

My visit to parts of Denmark, Norway and Sweden was greatly enhanced by intermittently dipping into a book recommended by a Pittsburgh friend who had just returned from the region. British author, Michael Booth’s “The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia” explored the notion that on multiple self report measures, people in these countries turn out to be the happiest in the world. As Booth paraphrased Lady Bracknell, “to win one happiness survey may be regarded as good fortune, to win virtually every one since 1973 is convincing grounds for a definitive anthropological thesis.”

Moving through small villages and medium and large towns I found evidence for much of what Booth was pointing out from his experiences living and interviewing people in each of the countries. In spite of punishing weather, extremely high taxes, and an uninspired diet of fish, sweet rolls, and beer, Scandinavians find happiness supporting one another socially and financially from cradle to grave, taking frequent time away from work, recreating on weekends with family members at summer cottages, respecting, protecting, and staying close to nature, and honoring and practicing ancient and modern art forms.

In visiting the historical amusement park, Tivoli in the center of Copenhagen, we found it outfitted with features for people of all ages. Besides the modern amusement rides for kids and teenagers, there were beautiful gardens, restaurants and an amusing, artfully costumed ballet performance of Cinderella that had me laughing out loud.

We visited the inland city of Orebro, the 115,000 person Swedish town where my grandson is living. Instead of finding a dull backwater town as I had expected, I was delighted by a vibrant city, awash in art instillations in every nook and cranny of the city as they celebrated their 6th annual OpenArt Festival. http://openart.se/2017/en/about-openart/

The primacy and beauty of design in modern architecture had me photographing container buildings, green roofs, and intricate tile surfaces – even the enormous waste composting plant on the waterfront in Copenhagen. Instead of being an eyesore on the riverbank, when completed it will be covered with green vines in the summer and an active ski slope in the winter.IMG_3719

As traveling often does, I found myself making comparisons to my home country. The nearly religious fervor for protecting the environment in the three Nordic countries we visited had me feeling embarrassed to say I live in the U.S. The large middle class, and the lack of extreme poverty in these counties reminded me of a former time in the U.S. when our country felt “great “ to more of our citizens. I’m betting that the state of happiness in these countries is affected by their emphasis on gender equality, consensus building, and looking out for the common good, all values that I personally hold dear. I’m not ready to move to Scandinavia, but I’d love it if we could imitate more of what they do.

 

Life Lessons From the Forest

IMG_3222This city girl, just back from my yearly spring visit to the Piney Woods of East Texas and my women’s spirituality group retreat, has been re-reminded of the wisdom and life lessons inherent in connecting with nature and the natural world. It’s helpful to re-appreciate the larger forces; some might call them spiritual that are inherent in the cycles of life of which we are a part. 

The natives call them “teaching trees.” On walks in the woods, elders use them as exhibits and examples of the unfathomable resilience of nature. They encourage children to notice how a tree’s trunks and branches adapt to what the wind, weather, time, and neighboring plants and insects send their way.

A storm breaks off a major parallel branch and the tree’s life force sprouts a new one rising in an upward direction. Not the original intention, but it works out fine. Two trees consistently pushed together by wind and rain eventually intertwine, growing together to become a symbol of how much stronger individuals are when holding on to one another.

Insects borrow underneath the giant trunk’s bark, eventually pulverizing it to saw dust, yet her wounds do not define her. The grandmother tree stands tall, continuing to put out glorious new leaves to the very top of her crowning glory.

Even disasters have positive consequences. The lightning strike that started the fire that took the life of the pecan tree left it standing mute in the center of the evergreens. Now it provides a useful climbing pole for some ground cover as it continually reaches toward the sun. The stepping aside of the larger trees consumed by the flames now provide new seedlings their time to grow in the sun, an opportunity to become the adults in the next generation of full-bodied trees.IMG_3225

In the woods, edible and poison berries grow side-by side leaving birds, butterflies, and humans the task of deciphering and selecting what to ingest that could be helpful and what to leave well enough alone. Ah, how I wish I were better at making that judgment in my personal pedestrian life. Perhaps as I give my prayers feet on my daily morning walks I should be treading more lightly on an earthen trail rather than on the harsh cement sidewalks of the cityscape of my Pittsburgh neighborhood.

A Grandmother Looks at Vaccinations

In 1945, during the only semester I attended kindergarten, I brought back to my family’s household of four younger siblings, the three most common childhood diseases of that time; measles, mumps, and chicken pox. Luckily my mother was a nurse and knew how to take care of a houseful of sick children. We all survived and since then, we’ve had immunity without being vaccinated. But survival had not been assumed, especially for my youngest sister Mary Jane, who was six to eight months old at the time and still recovering from being gravely ill at birth.

11973371-child-vaccination-2Part of how things turned out well during and after our house became an infectious disease ward, was that no pregnant woman visited us during that time. No person with a suppressed immune system came past the front door. We were able to completely quarantine ourselves so as not to become agents of illness and death to anyone else, especially someone who might not have the immune system strength to recover that we apparently did.

Flash-forward to 2015, and I’m watching the accounts on the evening news of the spread of measles in the United States – ten states, then twelve, then eighteen. I note the state where I live, Pennsylvania, is one of them as is California, the state where my unvaccinated 2½-year-old granddaughter lives. Her parents, concerned for her safety have not decided to have her vaccinated yet.

Am I worried? Yes. But my worries have changed as I’ve paid attention to the realities and the science behind vaccinations. Initially, I was worried about my granddaughter. Last fall, I didn’t want her flying through the DFW airport when I heard that some cases of Whooping Cough had been reported in Texas. Since she hadn’t been vaccinated, I reasoned, she might get the disease and die from it.

color-flu-vac-cat-webBut now I realize if my granddaughter, who is extremely healthy, contracted one of the diseases prevalent in my childhood, she most likely would survive it as I did.  My worry now moves to a concern for somebody she might infect, somebody not as fortunate as she is. Frail elderly people are at risk, as are children and adults whose immune systems are compromised, like someone in treatment from another disease or health challenge. My unvaccinated granddaughter could be an agent of serious illness and death for some one else. And in the manner that epidemics move, it would eventually become impossible to trace the trail of how many people had died from her particular linked series of exposures.

I wish I had the power and influence to make certain that my granddaughter will not be an agent of harm to someone else.  But apparently I do not. My own son, my granddaughters’ father, thinks as many of his friends do, that the government can not be trusted to tell the truth. They’ve heard stories of perfectly healthy children being harmed by vaccines as these stories are passed through the community where they live. They don’t watch television news or read the morning papers. They haven’t heard that the stories, even the study they are based on, have been scientifically refuted.

They think my advice is based on experiences from the olden days, not relevant to their generation. And it is true that, in my day, we had no choice but to take our chances with the diseases themselves, before there were vaccinations to prevent them. When vaccines became available, as they were when my three children were young, my family and most others gratefully followed the medical guidelines and had them administered to our children. Now as an elder, my own self care involves following the medical profession’s advice and getting shots to prevent the flu, pneumonia, and shingles.

But to this grandmother, as the opportunities to prevent illnesses are greater, so are the risks to humankind if such opportunities are not subscribed to. Modern life involves international travelers sharing oxygen in small cramped quarters of airplanes, newborn and young infants clustered together in daycare centers, families eating in restaurants and coming into contact with others at large shopping malls; none of this existed in my day. So my prayer for my granddaughter, and for us all, is that we not return to the days when most people were not vaccinated against highly contagious diseases. That we not return to the days when everyone knew someone who had died or been seriously impaired by diseases that, in the 21st century, are entirely preventable.

Tis the Season

IMG_1067The view from my window this December morning, just after first light, announces a foggy grey day. Streetlights and car headlights from across the river are the only signs of life in the stark landscape. The lawn and shrubbery are the clear winners as a steady rain swells the Allegheny River and thoroughly soaks the ground. The patter of the water hitting the roof and back deck seem to say, “stay where you are today if you can, inside by the fire.”

There is plenty to do inside this time of year, this season of completing 2014’s projects and preparing for the upcoming Christmas/New Year’s family celebrations. There’s the organizing and reorganizing, the putting away and throwing away of clutter accumulated during the way-too-busy fall. And whether it’s my dresser top or my closet’s shoe rack, my computer email box or my iphoto albums, finding a place for everything and putting everything in its place is my least favorite way to spend a day. clutter-affect-life-1

So I linger with my cup of green tea which is no longer warm, and think about the friend who gave me the holiday mug I’m drinking from. She is no longer able to take care of herself, according to a mutual friend who herself died this past year. Living in a memory care facility is one way to avoid the cumbersome, unpleasant tasks of keeping one’s life organized, and no longer living in this dimension is another. But I’m choosing today to clean up my own messes since I still have the capacity to do so, and to look for the beauty in each season’s landscape without comparisons to a more preferred one.

 

Staying Healthy

Mother was a nurse who fully subscribed to the principles of the medical model that surrounded her. Like many health professionals of her day, since she worked nights at a hospital helping to deliver babies, she took pills to get to sleep and other pills to help her wake up. In between her interrupted daytime sleep, she nursed her own six children and made house calls to neighbors dealing with sick children or needing her help in understanding what their doctor meant by what he told them. HEALTH-IMAGE-1

Dad didn’t believe in sick. Beginning the day with breakfast and ending it with a good night’s sleep were his ideas of the best medicine. He didn’t get sick often and the two or three times I remember him getting the flu, most likely from one of us kids, he’d pile the bed thick with covers, drink lots of fluids, and cocoon himself there till “he’d sweated it out.”

Our refrigerator was filled with medicines my mother bought at the local pharmacy, or got as samples from the physicians at the hospital. There might be a special baby formula for my sister who couldn’t digest cows’ milk, vials of vitamin B-12 for the shots mother gave herself, or other prescription medicines that would last longer if refrigerated. Dad complained that we were growing our own penicillin and he’d tease Mother in front of guests that when the pharmacy runs out of anything, they call our house before reordering.

I’ve tried to come down somewhere in the middle of my parents’ diverse views on health and illness. Like my father, I’ve felt it’s better to prevent an illness than to try and recover from one, and food and lifestyle are critical elements I have some control of. But like my mother, if I get ill, I want the best doctors and nurses on my team.healthy-living-web

I think both my parents would welcome the direction our culture is moving to help us care for our own health. Instruments like the Fitbit https://www.fitbit.com/cart?productId=114 and Apple’s new Watch  http://www.apple.com/watch/ can provide ongoing information on how our body’s actually doing while we go about our daily lives, and even feedback about how we’re sleeping.

A couple of weeks ago, while visiting my son in the high desert I experienced some lightheadedness, which seemed a bit odd and scary.  He suggested a late night trip to Walmart where we used a monitoring system to check my blood pressure, pulse, and weight. This, and the information on Google saved me a trip to an ER because I became reassured that my lightheadedness was due to dehydration, not uncommon in that part of the world in late summer.

Eggs

My focus on eggs started with the picture my daughter-in-law sent of my twenty month-old granddaughter, Kyra Joy. She’s outfitted in a pink princess-like dress and tiny white shoes.

kyraShe’s standing in a park in the high desert of California to participate in her first Easter Egg Hunt and she’s holding an empty basket. My daughter-in-law said the event started at 9 am and by 9:05 the older children had collected all the eggs in the field with help from some of the parents. The look on Kyra Joy’s face tells us she hasn’t yet figured out what the game is, let alone how to play it.

Now here is her grandmother in Pittsburgh, searching for eggs in my backyard, which contains the Allegheny River and its shoreline.  Having lived here for nearly ten years I noted this year the sea gulls were exceptionally numerous. They say it was due to the long winter freeze on Lake Erie. But they’re all gone now, except for one lone gull. We noticed him (or her) splashing in the water and swooping back and forth overhead, sometimes landing to perch on the pole at the entrance to the small harbor beside our home. I wondered what was keeping him here after all his buddies had flown home. gooseflight.images

Canadian Geese return each spring to the place of their birth to begin their new families and for a community of twenty-five or so, our waterfront is that home. Each spring we try to see if we can discern where some of the nests might be. Once we identified a nest in the rubble of an old dock, alerted to its presence by a male goose circling slowly in the water near the shoreline. This year a goose is stationed in an odd spot near the road, not necessary a place to hang out, so it’s clear he’s protecting some eggs nearby.  

egg imagesTwo day ago I went for a walk on the river trail just before dusk. I walked further than people usually do unless they’re intent on fishing. I followed the curving trail around to the harbor and was startled to see in plain sight, a large white egg. It sat not in a nest, but amidst twigs and brush, and seemed to be totally unprotected from predators. There were no papa or mama birds around, no geese or that single gull, though this could have been a reason for him to stay behind.

On line research ruled out the gull as the parent because their eggs are speckled. But the size and color of the egg is consistent with the photos I found of goose eggs. I learned the mother doesn’t sit on the eggs until she’s laid them all, usually one a day until she has five. I visited the spot again yesterday and the one egg was still there by itself.

goose-eggs-in nest-in-southern-wisconsinToday I found it again, still alone but this time a large goose circled over my head and landed in the water nearby. I got the message. He wanted to be sure my basket remained empty.

Sacred Water

228976_217256544990433_4221304_nWalking on the beach this morning on the Florida shore of the Gulf of Mexico my husband and I agreed that we’re both water people. For more than twenty years we’d walked the beach on Padre Island, three seasons of the year. Before that, in spring times we’d strolled the edge of a manmade lake in landlocked Lincoln Nebraska. Our present home backs up to the Allegheny River where the geese, ducks, sea gulls and an occasional hawk or eagle, provide entertainment and an education about our place in the web of life. 

 Perhaps we’re all water people, given how crowded the beach communities are this March. Or maybe people are just there to get away from the ice and snow of this particularly challenging winter, or like the students on spring break, needing a respite from the stress of how they usually spend their days. The waters of the bay and gulf provide recreation for many vacationers; fishing, boating, parasailing but I wonder if these people have the same respect for water as the commercial fisherman do. I liked their sign I saw in the fishing village of Cortez: “Don’t teach your trash to swim.”

 13GRANDMOTHERSWe certainly haven’t treated water as the precious element, most essential to life that it is. Between oil spills in the gulf and the elimination of wetlands to hold the rain we’re left with a cycle of draughts and floods in many parts of our country.  And our agricultural industries grow strains of plants that are wasteful of water our communities don’t have. The future for water and we people who need it doesn’t look good unless we change our ways.

 The International Council of the Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers who have taken the protection of the earth as their main mission suggest a spiritual solution. As was done with Earth Day many years ago, they are holding a World Water Day on Saturday March 22, 2014. As they go into ceremony they’re asking in the name of the Mother, that we join them in spirit from wherever we are.  Friends of mine will be most likely at the Point where the three rivers come together at Pittsburgh. What place in your community could you honor and bless water on this special Water Day?   

 http://inthenameofthemother.net/world-water-day-water-blessing-ceremony/

 

  

Dance of Destruction: A Response

A particular pleasure in the early morning hours, when I visit my family in the high desert of California, is to walk the labyrinth my son and daughter-in-law built in their desert-landscaped backyard. I didn’t see the space before they began what must have been a mammoth construction job – removing debris, pulling weeds,  relocating sand and rocks to create a smooth level surface.  Walking the curvilinear pathways of their version of this ancient ritual space this morning I marveled at the careful and painstakingly precise placement of rocks and solar lights directing my footsteps.

desertlabyrinth

This sense of order may have seemed particularly satisfying to me because a recent event had caused me to become extremely aware of its opposite. Text messages, emails and phone calls throughout the weekend were continually informing me of the details of the vandalism and destruction that had taken place in a condo that a group of us had recently remodeled in northern California. After the verbal descriptions came the images of towel racks ripped from the walls, a floor covered with broken glass, and blood splattered on furniture, fixtures and walls. Just viewing this senseless devastation brought visceral pain to my stomach and a taste of disgust to my mouth. A man who had done repair work on the place told me when he entered the room and saw the scene, he felt as though he had been raped. vandalism.IMG_3121

My mind darts about to understand why someone would do such a thing. What could be gained by destroying what others had so carefully and lovingly assembled? A woman who has stayed in the space while visiting her brother in a nearby hospital described it as a “quiet Oasis,” another guest used the words, “comfortable and elegant.” Where does the impulse come from to replace beauty and order with filth, ugliness and disarray?

Does the drug paraphernalia found at the scene of the crime hold the answer? Just as I walk the ordered space of the labyrinth to access my own inner peace, others use substances to change their brain chemistry in a different direction.  As a culture, we all pay the price for actions taken under the influence of recreational drugs gone awry.

297713_465971046766643_1940077911_nFortunately there are people willing to work to clean up the mess and reconstruct the space back to its previous orderly condition. If we use a wider lens to view the impact of drug use on families, communities and nations, reconstruction teams aren’t going to be short on assignments any time soon. But as one friend texted me in the midst of that day’s discouragement – “Remember, there is not enough darkness to overcome your light.”  

                         

Journey to a Shrinking Frontier

A trip to the Alaskan Glaciers is on many peoples’ bucket list of things to do before they die, and Rich and I were among that group. In 2009 we had a cruise to Alaska all planned and nearly paid for as a way to celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary. But 2009 was the year of the global economic meltdown and Rich, along with many other people, was downsized out of the job that had taken us across the country five years before. In spite of whatever concerns we had about global warming shrinking the glaciers we were hoping to see, we canceled our trip, and hit the ground running to re-imagine our work lives.

image.glacierI read somewhere during that time, “the loss of a job is similar to the death of a close family member.” The impact on us of this particular meltdown seemed particularly overwhelming as we had only recently arrived at some sense of equilibrium after the illness and death of our 42 year-old daughter, Corinne.

Now four years later, we stand on the balcony of our cabin in front of a tidewater glacier, observing its irregularly sculptured peaks and crevices, listening to the snaps, creaks, and pops of this gigantic frozen river of ice, in its constant movement towards the sea.  Yes, most of the glaciers are receding, and as Alaska warms more severe colder weather events come to the lower 48 states and Europe. As the permafrost melts huge amounts of methane are released, further fueling the rate of climate change.

imageforest.515We learn that after the meltdown, the land left bare beneath begins anew. Moss and lichen populate and create a covering that adds nitrogen, preparing soil for wildflowers and scrubby bushes, and finally, deciduous and evergreen trees join the dance, creating a forest.

Through all these changes, sea and land animals change their habitats, following their food, just as we humans relocate to find work and an environment where we, and our offspring can prosper and grow.   

What Was That Little Bird Trying To Say?

On a recent March afternoon, when the seemingly relentless winter took a brief respite, I was sitting at my computer by the window, grateful to finally see the sun.  A brilliant red male cardinal began tapping on the window and peering into the dining room. It seemed like he was trying to get my attention, flying back and fort swiftly between the windows in the sliding patio door and the window near where I was seated. I’d seen the fellow before, in fact most every day this winter as he and his mate, and other smaller birds took advantage of the generous cornucopia of birdseed my husband provided for them on our deck.

cardinal-med

Looking over at the bird feeder I discovered it was empty, and being the kind of mother I am, I thought the cardinal must be hungry. I felt a bit surprised that he would know enough to signal me to fill the feeder, but that seemed the only possible explanation.  I mentioned this to my husband and he said we were about out of birdseed but he found some and put it inside the feeder and around its edges as well.

In a few minutes the cardinal was back, but he paid no attention to the feeder. He went straight for the window, and looking directly inside he resumed pecking and waving his wings. Native Americans speak of animals as totems, teachers, who provide wisdom or what they call “medicine” to us humans if we only carefully observe their behavior. Frustrated by trying to figure out his message I Googled, “why is a cardinal pecking at my window?” An entire stream of comments was uncovered dealing with this exact situation. In 2009 someone wrote, “I have a bird feeder outside a large window facing south. This one particular cardinal keeps peeking into my house.”  It turns out this is a common problem caused by the fact that cardinals are quite territorial. In the reflection of himself in the window he perceives another bird and he is trying to frighten him off by this intimidating behavior.

So what is the wisdom to take from this cardinal’s behavior? What medicine does he offer for our life and times? Again a visit to the web produced some suggestions – “True to the fire of his color, the crimson cardinal has got some major spunk. He will aggressively defend his territory, and fight attackers with ferocity. Indeed, they have been known to fight ghost males (their reflections) in mirrors for hours on end.” http://www.whats-your-sign.com/animal-symbolism-cardinal.html

Perhaps the message for us humans in all this is that, though courage and tenacity are important virtues, we must be careful that the attacker we are fending off isn’t just part of ourselves. As that famous comic strip wise man Pogo once said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”pogo-31