Saturday, April 28, 2007

Wings in the Park


[A memory evoked by Sunday Scribblings.]

Next door to my childhood house was a park. The town may not have had much money but the public parks were well-kept and had a few playgrounds, including one right across the fence from my yard.

My brother and I spent a lot of time there. When young, we were not allowed to go out of sight of our house, but that space included swings, teeter-totter, slides, monkey bars (a.k.a. jungle gym), a merry-go-round and some other climbing things. Mom could look out the window and check on us.

It was largely an extension of our back yard. We played by ourselves and with the neighbor kids. And sometimes a car just passing through town would stop for a picnic and a chance to let their kids stretch their legs. We had vivid imaginations and our games of "lets pretend" turned the cage-like monkey bars into a spaceship, and the other playground equipment were places to be explored on the other planets we visited.

We spent a lot of time on the merry-go-round, taking turns pushing as fast as we could. It was just a simple wooden platform with some metal pipes bent into arms to hold onto, both as a pusher and also as a rider (so we weren't spun off). There was no grass on the ground in a foot-and-a-half-wide circle around it. Too many feet had tamped down the dirt there. When the weather was too wet, it was too hard to push - the dirt was a mucky moat. When the weather was too dry, it was hard for our cheap sneakers to get a grip on the dust. Best was when it had been wet, but dried leaving ground that was no longer mud, but not yet dusty. For all the times I got motion sick in cars or on carnival rides, I never remember getting sick on that merry-go-round.

The swings were for pure pleasure but to get any real height on them required an adult (or at least a teenager) to push us. Lying on a swing with arms outstretched was a little fun, but hard on the tummy - that never lasted long.

The slides (one really tall, one a bit shorter) were almost always used, no matter whether in a lets-pretend adventure or just for sheer movement. The tall one had been there longer and was best for speed. The slide wasn't quite as steep as the shorter one, but the metal was smoother. In the summer, it was tricky getting down without burning your skin on the hot metal. Knowing how to lean to keep only your shorts on the metal (not skin) was a skill learned the hard way. Sometimes the slide just didn't seem as fast anymore, but we had a fix for that. We asked Mom for some wax paper from the kitchen, just enough for our little kid butts to sit on. Over, and over, we'd fly down the slide on the wax paper. Not only were those slides fast, but we really were waxing the metal on the slide, leaving it faster for some time after.

On days when there weren't other people around, my brother and I spent time on the teeter-totters. They weren't anything special, just a horizontal metal support with long wooden boards balanced across it. I think the wood was painted green, with orange paint on the end where you were supposed to sit. I know they were repainted every few years, but it didn't take long for the plant to crack and start to peel. The humid summer weather was hard on them (and so were the kids, I guess). A small handle was in front of the seats, probably metal. And although the board was chained so it couldn't be removed from the horizontal support, I think it was done loosely so that you could re-position the board so that it balanced exactly or more to one end or the other with a kind of simple axle-thingy.

Trying to use the teeter-totters in the usual way only led to arguments. See-sawing back and forth was for babies. I was older and enough heavier that it was hard to balance without banging on the ground, then being blamed for the bump given my brother now up in the air. He wasn't heavy enough to retaliate.

Then we discovered another use for the teeter-totters. We didn't sit on the ends. No, instead we sat in the middle, one leg on either side of the horizontal metal bar, our seats planted on top of the long board where it balanced over the bar. And that was the key - balance.

We were pilots of our own solo airplanes, balanced in the air, banking to the left (leaning but trying not to bang the end of the board onto the ground), then banking to the right. Straightening out and flying in formation. Then breaking off to investigate, ignoring the lean of the pilot in front of you.

We saw all kinds of things looking down from our pilot seats on those teeter-totters. Sometimes we
were the first to see the soil of the planets we landed on in the space-ship. Sometimes we flew over the jungle, or the sea, or enemy territory, or through the mountains. We flew space pods, and old planes that had to be started by turning the propeller. We flew invisible planes, spying on people. We flew bombers where we knew we had a "hit" by the jarring noise of the end of the board hitting the ground. We chased wild animals across the African plains, getting pictures for nature films.

Sometimes the kid from across the street was a third pilot, but I don't think he spent as many hours logging air miles as my brother and I did. We were still in site of our house, but we went all over the world, all over the universe.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

My Roots Are Showing


[Inspired by Sunday Scribblings.]

In the dead of winter, when tree branches are bare, I used to think they looked more like roots than branches. And I used to think it would be cool if some world under the earth would see roots turn to leafy branches when we were looking at branches turned to roots.

Sometimes roots branch away and sometimes they entangle and enmesh. Some of my roots are still in the soil I came from, but new roots have pushed into new lands, seeking to support the new-and-older me.

I think that if I had stayed where I grew up, my roots would have become pot-bound, rotting away and stifling me. Instead, I physically moved from where I started and I pushed forward new roots in a new place. I sunk some roots into the soil of my college. My alma mater was definitely home to me for a while and I retain ties to it today.

Ask me where I live and I'll tell you where in New England my house is. But ask me where I'm from and I automatically say, "I'm originally from southern Illinois." I am rooted in the place of my past as well as the place of my now.

I am also rooted in the past of my family - through the recipes and pictures and hand-me-downs and stories of my mom's history. And her mother and aunt who were a large part of my life when I was little. I'm rooted to my dad's history through generations of family stories originally written in Yiddish by his maternal grandmother, and through the food traditions of eastern European Jews (what my dad showed me and what I have found on my own since then). And my roots have entangled with the roots of my wife, the stories and traditions of her family, now mine too.

But lately I've been thinking of the roots still sunk deep in Illinois. The same town where my mother was born and raised and lived most of her life. In the same county where my grandmother and great-aunts were born. I have no relatives living there any more; my great-aunt died in 1990 and within a couple of years my parents moved to another state. My siblings had moved out of state years before.

A couple years later my mom told me that she had sold the last land she had been holding onto there. It was some farmland that she finally sold to the fellow who had been farming it for us. I had no intention of moving back there. I have never been interested in farming the land - I know it is very hard work - too much for me. But still, there was a kind of pang inside me when I knew that link, that tie to the place, was gone.

Yet I am still rooted to the place that helped make me who I am. It shows in little things, like the way I almost always know which direction I'm facing (north, south, east, west). It shows in the way I think about how much rain is enough (or not enough, or too much) for crops, though it has been years and years since I planted anything outside.

And it shows in the appreciation I have for the distances between things. In a place where farms were measured in hundreds of acres, there are miles and miles of flatness between houses and towns. I like visiting cities, and I can even work in a small one. But I know I could never be happy living in a city. I guess some of my roots are trained that way; I have small-town roots.

If you are interested in another woman's take on roots, you might try the book called Horizontal World: Growing up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere by Debra Marquart. It is a memoir grounded in her childhood on a North Dakota farm along with her struggles concerning getting away and being drawn back to that place. She adds to the story by digging into her family's roots, and even the area's geographical history and the history of the plants that made up the wildlife in the area before it was farmed by her ancestors. (Thanks, S & T! I loved the book.)

Friday, April 20, 2007

Spring Haiku


Forsythia buds,
swelling with yellow sunshine,
warm the April day.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Invention of an Alter Ego


I think I was about 9 and my brother was 7. He was with his Little League baseball team.

The phone rang and Mom answered. It was someone doing market research, wanting to know if there were any children 8 or younger who would answer some questions. Mom volunteered my brother's name, but said he wasn't home then. The research person said she'd try another time.

Another day, the phone rang. It was the research people calling back. My brother was again playing baseball - not home. Mom teasingly said to me that, "If she calls again, I should have you talk to her!"

Days later, the phone rings and I happened to answer it. Yes, it is a woman from the research firm again. Asking for my brother by name - by the wrong name. Someone probably could not read the handwritten notes. So as long as they have the name wrong, why not correct it - sort of?

I tell the woman that I don't have a brother by that name, but that my sister's name is almost what they had written down. I "correct" the spelling, put the phone down, and walk across the room.

I take a deep breath, walk back across the kitchen and pick up the phone. With a higher voice - that of my newly-invented 7-year-old sister I say, "Hello?"

The researcher asks me questions about advertising - have I seen any TV commercials for this or that - what I remember from the ones I have seen - and more. When the survey is over, she asks to talk to my mother.

I go out to the back porch to get Mom and let her know what I had done. She went in and talked to the researcher. When she got back to the porch, she said, "The researcher told me how polite and mature my daughter was!"

We both laughed.

[A memory evoked by Sunday Scribblings.]

Monday, April 09, 2007

Panning for Gold


Reading the Sunday Scribblings of others, I am reminded that there are golden nuggets to be found among the muddy sand of our modern news options. The trick is to find them without losing your mind.

This is from a poster I made for a talk on e-mail spam that I gave at work. The idea is to find the real mail messages amid the vast amount of spam. Over 90% of the e-mail messages addressed to my business are marked by our systems as spam and viruses. My fellow professional computer geeks maintain a number of tools to automatically filter out as much of the garbage as possible.

I'm sure you have seen people who are incapable of putting down their cell phones. Those who can't seem to exist for more than a few minutes without needing to talk to someone, or at the very least check their voice mail to see what they may have missed. The ones who have nothing better to entertain themselves with on the commuter trains, although everyone else subject to the train-end of the conversation is aware that there is no real information being conveyed. "Hi, what's up? ... Oh, nothing. ... I don't know, what do you think? ... I didn't think so. ... Where is that? ... I'm loosing you. I'll call on the other side of the tunnel. ... Bye!"

And the people who have the television playing every single second of every single day, even if they aren't really watching it.

I think those actions are for comfort - filling what might otherwise be a quiet time.

But after a while I think it all becomes a kind of white noise. Possibly comforting, but otherwise meaningless.

I find most TV and radio and print newspapers to be the same - a kind of blur of white noise filling their minutes or pages. And I hear the budgets at the TV and radio and newspapers are being squeezed, with the reporters, those who generate the stories we want to hear, being lost at an alarming rate. Instead, ever more news outlets are buying their stories from ever fewer news gatherers.

And based on the results, I have to guess that ever more people making the decisions about what to air or print are influenced more by financial decisions and not from a desire to provide information to the public who will then have to make decisions based on that info.

And so, the TV is full of white noise, with little new information, with little difference between the stations (who are all telling the same "this outta be a good seller" stories). And the radio is full of white noise, with little new information, the same stories repeated every 15 minutes or half-hour for two or three days until newer stories take their place. And the newspaper is filled with ever more ads to keep the advertisers happy instead of actual news for the readers, with much of the news coming from the same shrinking pool of reporters working for the agencies that are still in the business of gathering news.

I am reminded by bloggers such as Tara at that there are still reporters gathering and reporting news they care about.

I am reminded by Miss Iyer at that some of the most cherished news is that which is personal.

A number of bloggers remind me that I am not alone in my frustration. That on too many days a number of us see only the dark, muddy, sand of not-really-important white noise, instead of the golden nuggets of honest information.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

We Interrupt this Broadcast . . .



ahem. excuse me.


my boss says that this can't wait


we can't tell you exactly who because we don't know yet


you never know - it could be your next-door neighbors


something you are likely to have in your own home right now


if we tell you now then you might be tempted to turn to another channel


in case it wasn't obvious


in case it wasn't obvious


sorry we made you miss the end of the previous program. guess you'll never find out how that mystery turned out. and there was supposed to be a twist. too bad. and you've also missed the "cold open" of the next program. heh-heh-heh.


And later in the indicated news broadcast I get the latest celebrity gossip (oh, excuse me, I meant news) since knowing who has secretly married, divorced, turned up pregnant, been arrested, changed their hairdo, wore old clothing as a disguise is ever-so important.

And then a teaser about the weather, but not the actual weather report - that comes at 20 minutes after the hour and no real details should be allowed to escape before that.

And a teaser about the local sports teams results, but no real details of that either because sports (unless a championship final) is not allowed to surface completely before 25 minutes after the hour.

And a teaser about what the mayor/governor/councillor/speaker did, but no details of that because that is for after the commercial break.

Oh, look, the first commercial break.

And after the commercial break is the chit-chat section. You know. Where the co-anchors catch up on how their day was or the new tie.

And the details are carefully doled out without going into too much background because those watching might actually learn something and then they wouldn't have to watch news the next time.

Eventually, after another part one of this week's five-part investigative report, and another round of teasers, and another commercial break, I finally hear the details of the story that was so important that they broke into the evening's "regularly-scheduled programs". I hear that a family of five in Lesser Nowheresville (which is a continent away from here), missed an old egg when cleaning out their refrigerator and it went rotten and the smell frightened them enough that they called the local authorities to investigate. This should be a warning to us that simple things can have a large impact on our lives.

And now for the weather and sports.

[The Sunday Scribblings prompt "In the news" brought this pet peeve to my mind and it woudn't let go. I think I feel better now. For a while.]