Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Happy Birthday Grandma

"At night when it was time to go to bed, Dorothy and Lana would make me go up the stairs first. They held the candles, and up the stairs I would go. As soon as I was halfway up, they would blow out the candles and start stomping their feet. "Phyddie there's a bear, run Phyddie there's a bear!" I would race up those stairs lickety split, scared out of my wits."

Grandma Barton and Dad

"Well, one day I was out to the barn with my Dad and I found a dead rat. I picked that thing up by the tail and asked Dad if I might have that old rat. Sure, he said. So I put that rat behind my back and found Dorothy. I walked up to my sister and pulled out that rat and chased her all around the barn and back again! She was a screaming and hollering, my sister, they never told me there was a bear again!"

"Another time, why I was just a young girl, my Dad told me to take the car and drive down to the creek to get us some water. I couldn't believe he would allow me to do that! So he put the old milk container, you know, those big metal milk cans? He put that can in the back of the car and I drove off down the lane to the creek. I filled up that milk can with water at the spring and drove back home. My Mother was beside herself! Dad said I could do anything I set my mind to. I never forgot that."

On July 26, 1918, Phyliss Hope Barton was born in Steuben County, Indiana. Phyddie, as she was called, was a blond haired, blue eyed beauty who loved cooking, bowling, shows in Chicago, Patsy Cline and Nat King Cole, Yahtzee, the Moose Lodge, and traveling with her girlfriends. But most of all she loved her family. All our gatherings were held at Grandma's house in the later years. The fire was lit in the basement fireplace, the player piano started, and the whole extended family would sit around Grandma's large dining room table eating foods that Grandma spent a week cooking. Or maybe pulled out of the freezer from our last meal together a year earlier. There was one particular fruit cake that came out of the freezer every holiday for three years. She threatened that it would continue to go back in the freezer until it was eaten up. She wasn't kidding. Those were great times.

Grandma Barton helped me through the darkest time in my life and gave me the love and security to reclaim a life almost lost to depression. She was my worst critic and my biggest fan. And my world hasn't been the same since she left us.

On this day, the day Phyliss Hope Barton was born, I honor her memory and feel so blessed to have had her in my life. She left some big shoes to fill.

Monday, July 23, 2012


Freedom. What a complex concept. Really, I mean think about it. Can anyone ever have complete freedom? I first thought, "Well yes, if one lived all by themselves." But even a solitary life would have restrictions on freedom simply due to the absence of other humans.

Freedom is fluid, ever changing. It depends on who is in power. It depends on what society values and accepts. As long as we have to live together, freedom for one may mean a restriction of rights for another. Case in point. Say Sally believes it is her right to spit on the sidewalk whenever and wherever she wants. However, she has a highly contagious disease that can be spread through spitting, sneezing, and coughing. Her community passed an ordinance that prohibits spitting on the sidewalk due to the threat of widespread illness. The right of society to be healthy results in the loss of Sally's personal freedom to spit on the sidewalk.

The bottom line is that sometimes your rights infringe on my rights. Yes, you have a right to blow up loud explosive fireworks for three months during the summer. And I have a right to live in peace and quiet if I choose. Yet we cannot have both. The best we can do is compromise, where we both lose a little bit, or gain a little bit, depending on whether you are a glass half full or half empty kind of person. You can light your fireworks between noon and 7 pm, I can have my peace and quiet before and after. That is the price of living together in a society.

I have heard many folks claim their freedom is being taken away because other have rights to birth control. This puzzles me, because one has nothing to do with the other. To take away the right to choose birth control certainly takes away freedom. Because one may disagree with birth control does not mean their freedom is affected by the fact others can and do use it. The no-birth control folks are still free to not use birth control. End of story.

Gun control is another area where the debate on what freedom means is alive and well. The Constitution guarantees the right to bear arms. This was ratified December 15, 1789 in our Bill of Rights. The population size of Europeans colonizers in the United States is estimated at 3.9 million in 1789. They did not have have assault weapons back then. Today, the US population is around 314 million. Today we have assault weapons. I wonder what the Second Amendment would look like if there were assault weapons like the Gatling gun in existence in 1789. Perhaps it wouldn't have changed a thing, I don't know. But this is another example of how freedom for one group can infringe on the rights of another. Again, it goes both ways. To restrict gun ownership restricts the freedom of gun owners. To not have restrictions on gun ownership (example, allowing anyone to own an automatic assault weapon) infringes on the freedom of others because they can be directly affected by gun violence (unlike our birth control example).

Another very complex example is that of energy companies. Do the few individuals that benefit from oil and gas drilling have the right to destroy our environment, make billions of dollars, and leave the rest of us to clean up their messes? Society benefits from the energy they produce. Society and Mother Earth and all the Beings we share the planet with suffer for it. Does their right to run a business supersede the right to have clean air and water? Where does freedom appear here? I would argue that society places freedom in the lap of the big energy companies, and restricts the rights of society. In other words, we value oil and gas over a clean planet. If we didn't, there would be restrictions on their freedom to explore and drill.

Many folks want less government regulation. They feel that this restricts their freedom. If each one of us were an honorable, respectful person, then we wouldn't need regulation. Additionally, we would all have to agree on everything. Example. Some folks think is just fine to dump their garbage in wetland. I disagree. So does the government. We have regulations to protect our environment because it is our home. It is our health. It is also where millions of other species live, processes go on, it is a gift to us from a higher Being. We wouldn't need environmental regulations if everyone respected Mother Earth. But not everyone does.

Another example. Some people are racist and bigots. They would practice their racism in ways that would negatively impact other people. So we have laws to protect minorities. We wouldn't need these laws if we respected each other regardless of the color of our skin, sexual orientation, religion, etc. But not everyone does.

We are always pushing the limits, just like children. The result? More regulations.

So you see, freedom is a very complex issue. Living together demands that we compromise. For us to have an exceptional quality of life we must respect our differences, understand that just because we disagree on an issue, it doesn't mean freedom is taken away. Or, it might mean one of us may lose a bit of freedom for the greater good of society. Or, we both may have to give a little and thus each lose a degree of freedom. But we also gain something.

It's called harmony.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Magic Chicken

Breakfast is my favorite meal. I eat the same thing every time. Scrambled eggs, bacon, salad. Every time. I stopped at my favorite breakfast joint today, still celebrating my new job. While waiting for my "usual", I read the city's alternative newspaper. In it was a story about the Tour de Coup, a bicycle tour of ten urban chicken coups. How cool was that! I have always wanted chickens, but didn't think my beagle and a flock of feathered intellectuals would play well together. Still, when I read that story, I secretly wished for a chicken.

Now you may find this very hard to believe, but I swear it is true. When I arrived home, I found a chicken in my backyard. I rubbed my eyes and looked again. Tiny, my beagle, was chasing a chicken! I grabbed the dog and put him in the house and went back outside. Sure enough, there was a Barred Rock hen, walking around like chickens do pecking at the ground. A magic chicken! The one I wished for!

I didn't know what to do! My heart was pounding. I have never known a chicken before, well that is not entirely true. Mr. Berry, my neighbor in Three Rivers, had two chickens that he carried around, one under each arm. Reddy and Whitey. I babysat, or chickensat, them once. But all I did was feed them. Anyway, I figured the chicken must have flown the coup somewhere, and it was up to me to find her humans.

I contacted the Allen Neighborhood Association, as they knew everyone in town who were weird enough to have chickens. I was connected to one of the staff members who herself has chickens. She put the word out and it spread like wildfire. "Did you lose a chicken?" was the email's subject line. Lots of LOL, hahahhah, etc.

I went back and reread the article. They mentioned several chicken tenders by name, so I started calling around. I finally reached Chicken Bob. I think Chicken Bob got his name from being the first person in Lansing to have chickens. He also just got a goat and has his bees on the garage roof. Anyway, Chicken Bob gave me some pointers about what to do with the chicken, who I am calling Henny Penny. He told me he would be happy to come over and build me a coup. Or, he could take the chicken and bring her into his flock. We agreed to talk later.

I went to the feed store to get some chicken feed. They were out, but said the chicken would eat cracked corn, so I bought a bag. I was really excited to feed Henny Penny. I watch Grandma do that on the Walton's. And I knew the chicken must be hungry, as the neighbors said Henny Penny had been running the streets since at least yesterday. So I stuck my hand in the bag, grabbed a handful of corn, and tossed it around the ground. Henny Penny came strutting over and started eating! What joy! After feasting on the corn, she went over to the dog bowl I had filled with water and she began to drink. OK. Alright. I can do this chicken thing.

Chicken Bob and I talked later. I told him no one had called yet claiming Henny Penny, although several neighbors said they would take that chicken, with drool running down their chin. He again offered to build me a coup. Chicken Bob said I needed to make a perch for Henny Penny, as she needed to be up off the ground at night to feel safe. We agreed to talk tomorrow and make a decision as to whether he will take Henny Penny or we will build a coup.

I went out to the garage and looked for a suitable perch. There, resting in a corner, was my favorite morel mushroom hiking stick. Perfect. I mounted the hiking stick between two pine patio chairs and secured it with zip strips. Would Henny Penny find it suitable?

The rain was falling, so I knew the chicken would be seeking shelter behind the garage where I have my grill and patio furniture, protected by a metal awning.  I waited an hour then snuck out. I peeked around the corner of the garage, and the magic chicken was sound asleep, perched on the hiking stick!

I am going to ask Chicken Bob if he will be a foster parent to Henny Penny until I figure out how much I will have to travel with my new job. If I think I can do it, I want Henny Penny to live with me and Tiny and the bees. She is the magic chicken that I wished for, after all. And I will get her some friends, because magic chickens should never live alone.

UPDATE: I awoke this morning to crowing. Henny Penny is actually Henry P. Penny. That complicates things. Roosters aren't allowed to live in the city of Lansing. Anyone know any rooster rescues? 

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

It's Finally Over.

On Tuesday, July 17, 2012, I received a phone call that will change my life.

"Hi Barb, this is Donna from MDOT. I am calling to offer you the position you interviewed for."

I was stunned. I was speechless. I said, "Really?"

"Really," she laughed.

"That's great, that's wonderful!" I said, trying to hide the three years of desperation that has aged me and worn me thin.

She told me all the pre-job things I needed to do, explained the drug test and physical. I said, "So this is when we discuss salary, right?"


My friend Julie told me to request a salary in the upper third of the range. So I did. She gave me the maximum. The maximum. I pinched myself. Was I dead? Did I get transported to a parallel universe? As professionally as I could, I said, "Wow."

The second the call ended I began to sob. And sob. And sob. Three years of stress, feeling like an outcast, less than, over the hill, unwanted, broke, it started to lift. I had no idea of the weight I was carrying. Rationally, I knew it was there and I wondered what the absence of stress would feel like if and when I got a job. And there it was. For twenty minutes I wailed. I let it all out. My unemployment was finally over.

I called everyone I knew, starting with my Beloved. I called my family, my friends, my old co-workers. I had a celebratory lunch with a friend. I told my neighbors and the chicken lady at the market, whom I celebrated with over a mango gellato. I sent emails. I wanted to stand on top of a mountain and cry and shout to the world, "It's over!"  I never celebrated an ending before. It feels great.

I can live again, I can be part of the world again. I can work for change, protect the waters, talk biology with my colleagues. I can get my drain fixed and my cupola repaired. I can fix the tiles in the bathroom that are falling down. I can pay off my debts and have a savings account. I can get my teeth cleaned. I can get a color printer cartridge. I can breathe.

After spreading my good news, I went to my backyard and gave thanks to Great Spirit for giving me the strength to endure the past three years. I gave thanks for the work that I am about to do, that I am honored to protect the waters. I thought of my Beloved, my family, and my friends, whose money, food, emotional support, and friendship carried me like a boat in a storm through this difficult time. I could not have kept my house without them. I could not have kept my car. I could not have my home and the things that make it so. I might not have been able to hold on emotionally if it wasn't for them.

I thought about all the people I don't really know who sent me prayers and well wishes from my sisters' Facebook pages when I interviewed for the job. I know their good energies helped.

I thought of the phone calls where I sobbed that I couldn't take it any more and my loved ones comforted me. They never judged me. They held my hand and told me it would be OK.

I will never forget the things I have learned or the love that was given to me. I will not forget the other people here in Michigan that don't have a job. I know many of them don't have the support that I do. I can't imagine what life is like for those folks. I know how much stress and desperation I felt and I have good friends and family behind me. I am humbled by the experience. And I hope to never go through it again.

So, dear friends, thank you for seeing me through one of the darkest times of my life. I hope that from reading my stories about what life is like being unemployed for a very long time, you have developed understanding and compassion for others in the same place as me and work for equality and fairness in our world. Everyone wants and needs a home and security.
And now I can proudly say I have mine once again. Blessed be.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Are Pigs Naturally Fat?

I was watching a rerun of Northern Exposure this morning, an episode about a mosquito festival and a truffle sniffing pig, when I suddenly wondered if pigs were naturally fat. I remembered some photos I had seen a long time ago of laboratory rats that had been fed so much food they looked liked grotesque hairy sausages. Seemed that they, like other animals, will eat and eat and eat if given an unlimited supply of food. For whatever reason, that truffle sniffing pig looked like a laboratory experiment to me. Grotesquely obese. What does a normal pig look like, one that is fit and trim?

According to Wikipedia, pig is any of the animals in the genus Sus, within the Suidae family of even-toed ungulates. Pigs include the domestic pig (Sus scrofa domestica), its ancestor the wild boar, and several other wild relatives. Pigs are omnivores and are highly social and intelligent animals. We are averse to eating other highly social and intelligent animals, so why do we put aside this aversion to gnaw on a pork chop? Pigs rank fourth in the list of most intelligent animals in the world, behind chimps, dolphins, and elephants. Who knew? They learn tricks faster than dogs and their grunts are a complex form of communication. The are very close to their mates. Pigs like to snuggle up with each other at night when they sleep, are very family oriented, and live in Tribes. Sounds like my kind of people.

Pigs don't have any sweat glands, so they don't like heat. That is why they have to roll around in the mud, to cool off. They are also fantastic swimmers. Whodda thunk?

To imagine what a healthy, fit pig would look like, I turn to the wild boar. Wild boars live a natural lifestyle, eat whatever they can find, and burn lots of calories doing so. They are lean and mean. Maybe that is it, domestic pigs don't get much exercise so they gain weight. I can relate to that. I learned a baby pig eats so much its first week it actually doubles in weight! But I wasn't satisfied with this crumb of information, I needed more.

So I searched Google and asked the question "why are pigs fat?". Turns out they aren't. Pigs are giant muscle bound animals with small legs, making them appear to be portly. Just shows you can't judge a book by its cover.

I learned many things today while researching Pig. Pigs and I, we're a lot like each other. And I am sure I will think twice before biting into the next piece of bacon.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Kitten in the Tree

I was unloading several boxes of canning jars from the back of my Jeep today when I heard a meow. Then another, then another. I looked around but didn't see anything. I heard a few more meows, took a last glance, and carried my load into the house.

After getting things put away, I sat down in my recliner for a rest, something Grandma taught me. I noticed a Pedestrian stop on the sidewalk and then look curiously up into a tree. He tilted his head this way and that, much like my beagle does. A step to the side, back again, forward two more steps. Finally shaking his head, Pedestrian walked on. OK, my curiosity was piqued.

I grabbed my cup of coffee and walked to where Pedestrian had stopped. "Meow, meow, meow," called the cat. I could not tell where the sound was coming from. I walked up and down the sidewalk, cocked my head to one side and listened. "Meow." I finally gave up and went to the neighbor's door.

Knock, knock, knock. Blondie answered.

"Do you hear a cat?" I asked.

"Yeah, it has been up there in that tree since nine this morning. I tried to get it to come down but it just went up higher," she said. It was 96 degrees F at that moment, which was precisely four o'clock in the afternoon. All day? The cat was in the tree all day? No water, no litter box, no food? What the hell was she thinking? This is precisely why I don't carry a concealed weapon.

I went home and fretted. The cat was obviously a teenager. And it was over forty feet up. I remembered seeing our mighty firefighters saving cats from trees on TV when I was a kid. So I called the Fire Department. I was greeted by an answering machine. I left a message, but no one returned my call. I then dialed the Humane Society. No, they don't rescue animals. Try Animal Control. I pushed the buttons. "Select one for English..." the phone tree started. I hate those things. Finally, I reached a Human. "We don't rescue cats out of trees. Neither does the Fire Department. You could call Trapper Man," the Human said. Trapper Man. Great.

So I called Trapper Man. Sure, he could come out and get the cat. Do I want to keep the cat or should he take it to Animal Control? "I don't know," I replied. I would need to do some research on that. He said he had another appointment and then would be over. Oh, and it would be $60. Ouch. I claimed hardship and he said I could have the senior citizen discount of $48. In some circles I am a senior citizen. I said OK. What else could I do?

I went back to Blondie's house and informed her brother that we would be attempting a cat rescue from their yard.

The two hours I had to wait were grueling. I imagined the cat shriveling up from heat exhaustion or exploding from holding it too long. I researched how to treat feline dehydration and learned I needed to get Pediolyte. But I couldn't leave! I kept looking at the grass under the tree, half expecting to see the cat impaled on the dead, dry, stems, having fallen to its death while trying to walk on swinging tree limbs in a dehydrated stupor.

Finally, Trapper Man came.  He brought his teenage daughter, and they attempted to get the cat down using an extension ladder, my 15 foot long push pole, and a nine foot extension pole with a noose at the end duct-taped on the push pole . A snare, he called it. It won't be pretty when the cat comes down, but it will survive. I cringed. I prayed. He told stories of snaring coyotes and raccoons and opossums. Gasp! He said the cat would be using one of its nine lives. Oh God. What if it already used eight!

Soon, the neighbors started to gather and we eventually had about a half dozen kids and adults meowing to the cat, calling to it, whistling to it. I got a very large blanket and had all the kids grab an edge. Remember playing parachute? Who knew how practical that game would be!  We positioned the kids directly under the cat, who had climbed another ten feet up. If the cat should fall, we were there to catch it. But it didn't. Cat made herself comfortable and just stared at us.

After two hours, we gave up. Cat kept climbing higher. We needed a bucket truck. Trapper Man didn't want any money but I gave him twenty bucks for his efforts.

The cat is still up in the tree. I am still watching the grass. Stay tuned.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Art of Snoring

My Grandma Aldrich was the world's greatest snorer. She could snore so loud that the walls of her house would vibrate. Literally! When I would visit Grandma for a weekend, she would sleep in her bedroom at one end of the house and I would sleep in the guest room at the other end. Both of our doors were shut. I could still hear her, loudly. How could such a proper woman put out such prehistoric noise?

Once I took Grandma on a trip to the UP. We had to share a hotel room everywhere we went. It is a wonder I didn't crash the van due to sleep deprivation. Grandma passed away in 1995. I swear sometimes at night I can hear a rumble in the sky.

Snoring is an art. My family is great at it, our tradition passed on from generation to generation. I have been told I share in this talent. Sadly, none of us mastered Grandma Aldrich's great snore. At the risk of being filleted by my family members, I am pleased to present to you my award winning docudrama, The Snoring Bartons! I hope you enjoy it.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Why Do They Have to Look So Gay?

I have heard it said many times by people observing other people who happen to be lesbian or gay. "Why do they have to make themselves look so gay?" To this day I never have been able to understand what that question means. I have never heard someone say "Why do they have to make themselves look so straight", or "Why do they have to make themselves look so Black". Or Asian, or Hispanic, or bi-lingual. I just don't get it. So let's talk about this. It is just as politically incorrect to call lesbians gay as it is marginalizing women under the all-encompassing "he", so for brevity I will hereto refer to gays and lesbians as G&Ls.

My hunch is that these are the folks that say "It is OK to be gay or lesbian," but think in the privacy of their own mind "Just don't flaunt it". It makes them uncomfortable. They can ignore the fact someone is G&L if that person looks just like them, act just like them, talks just like them. But if G&Ls dress different, gender bend, talk about the sexual parts they possess instead of the ones of the opposite sex, then the discomfort rolls in like a freight train.

It comes from an assumption in that individual that it is basically wrong or bad to be G&L, and that if you are, you should hide it, certainly don't flaunt it, don't let everyone around you KNOW that you are G&L. I especially like the don't flaunt it part. That has a special definition reserved only for G&Ls. Flaunting includes many things, some if which include holding hands or giving your sweetheart a peck on the cheek, dressing in ways that you feel comfortable. It may mean that you have one too many piercings or tattoos. Flaunting is in the eyes of the beholder. Most of these expressions are considered normal behavior in the straight world, but if you are G&L, you are flaunting your queerness. Interesting.

So it seems that "looking too gay" has nothing to do with what the G&Ls are wearing or acting like, but that the observer feels uncomfortable around G&Ls. Perhaps they fear guilt by association. I mean really, whose business is it what someone else is wearing? Who cares whether a male acts feminine, or a female masculine. What difference does it really make? Why is it anybody else's business anyway? And why does it evoke such hatred and anger in some people? I don't think these folks would want someone telling them what to look like.

I have no answers to any of these questions. I have heard theories and postulations. But I will follow Occam's Razor, a principle urging folks to "select from among competing hypotheses that which makes the fewest assumptions and thereby offers the simplest explanation of the effect." In other words, the simplest explanation. People don't like to feel uncomfortable and thus want others to change in order to relieve that discomfort.

When I moved to Pennsylvania, I thought there were more lesbians there than anywhere I had ever been. Many women had short hair, were masculine-looking, and dressed comfortably in plaid shirts and jeans. I stereotyped them. I was wrong. They were farm gals, straight farm gals. High society dress would not have suited their lifestyles one bit. I wonder what the "Why do they have to look so gay" folks would think about these women.

When I was working on my last CD, I had a good friend (at the time) look at the draft CD cover, which had a photo of me and my guitar in the woods. "Why do you have to look so lesbian?" she asked. I don't think I have to add she was straight, or so she claims. I was floored. I was speechless. What does a lesbian look like? And why would I want to avoid looking like one? I am one! How could I look any different?

Whenever I hear someone say, "Why do they have to look so [fill in the blank]", I want to say, "Why do you have to look so straight? or white? or fat? or skinny?" I mean really, come on, what kind of question is this?

I just don't get it.

Monday, July 9, 2012


I am melting, dissolving into the rainbow colored waters that run along the curb, making their way to the river. The world around me is changing, my neighborhood, my neighbors, my life, losing definition. Hours run into days which run into months. I wait. I try to move and melt in the heat of the summer.

I try to just Be. I am present. Then the melting stops. And I see clearly the stillness of my life.

God Help the Confederates - Diann's Coming

Diann, before she discovered Harley Davidsons
This week my sister Diann is on a vacation. She and four other women have hopped on their motorcycles and are driving to South Carolina for sight seeing, reveling, relaxing, and bike riding. I might add here that my sister is over 50.

Ever since learning about her trip, I have found myself worrying like a mother hen. I didn't tell her of my concerns, but I noticed my level of anxiety increasing daily up to the morning she left. What's worse is she didn't even call to say goodbye! Oh all right, it is true her biker buddies rode in Friday night and she had a house full of company, but geez! I am her big sister and she could have called to reassure me she was well prepared and didn't forget anything like her toothbrush and hand gun.. But noooooo, she chose to hang out with them and ignore my worries.

Now, Diann has gone on vacations before, traveling to Brazil on numerous occasions, all by herself. But this time it is different. She is on a Harley. All kinds of things could happen. Why, a bug could fly in her mouth and she could choke to death! Or maybe she and her friends stop somewhere in the mountains to get a drink and take a rest. Banjo music flows out of the hills, a familiar tune.  Dada da da da da da da da. A guitar answers. Oh god.

Of course Diann researched the political climate and informed me how dangerous it will be for five liberal women on motorcycles. After all, everyone down there will know they are liberals just by looking at them. I have seen Diann on Facebook. I know how she gets when a conservative says something stupid. God help the Confederates.

Since being involved in a motorcycle accident when I was a teenager, I have only rode on a motorcycle once. I will never ride one again. There are too many things that can go wrong, none of them under my control. And the consequences can be very bad. I know what it feels like to have asphalt cut out of my skin. I know what road rash feels like. I know what body trauma feels like. No thanks. If I need to feel the wind in my hair and the exhilaration of speed, I will take my six year old Jeep Liberty out on I-96 and put the pedal to the metal. I will role down my window and stick my head out. Need filled. And I will live to tell about it.

I remember Diann's driving habits when she was a teenager and they haven't changed much. She likes to go fast. Blame it on my Dad, who got us into hydroplane races when we were wee ones, graduated us to snowmobile racing in our teen years. Blame it on my Mom's beautiful, sleek Firebird, which ran like the wind. Or the very fast mini-bike we used to race up and down the street. The need for speed is in our blood. A dangerous thing when you are on a Harley.

I have tried calling Diann several times and her phone goes directly to voice mail. Is she in jail already, having punched a white ultra conservative Baptist with a southern drawl in some greasy diner because he made a disparaging comment about President Obama?

My hunch is Diann is having the time of her life, being with friends and motorcycles, exploring a brand new land and learning all she can about the people there, particularly those less fortunate. That is how my sister is. She used to tell me that her family would drive to Chicago and go to the slums, so that they could see for themselves the poverty they had heard about. She did the same thing in Brazil. She has a big heart.

I think I am worried about my sister this time because we have become so close over the past few years. She is my biggest fan, always has my back, keeps me entertained, and is one of the greatest inspirations in my life. We didn't always get along, but today we are the best of friends. I hope she is laughing with her buddies, bitching about the conservatives, eating southern cooking (the best!), absorbing the beauty of the Smokey Mountains, and learning many new things so she can come home and share her stories with us.

But until then, I will keep dialing.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Forgotten Ones

Soon after moving in to my house, my neighbor's brother came over. He wanted to let me know about his brother, who I will call John. John was riding on the back of a friend's motorcycle across a railroad trestle over a river when he was a teenager, and the train came. His friend drove the bike off the bridge, and landed in the river. John landed on the buttress of the bridge, breaking almost every bone in his body. He suffered a severe head injury, and his life was forever changed. His brother told me John acted "different" but was not harmful so I didn't need to be afraid of him.

It has been six years now that I have had a neighborly relationship with John. He stops by and asks if I have coffee, or three dollars for cigarettes, or to borrow a ladder. Sometimes he completely ignores me when I say hi to him from my side of the fence. Other times he will talk my ear off, going over and over the same questions, same answers. I have found him to be highly intelligent about many things.

John is also a gifted musician, and will sometimes set up his electric guitar and amp, or his drum kit, in the backyard and give a concert to an imaginary audience. Many nights I have heard him jamming away in his basement, playing along with CDs of bands from the 80's.  He has told me more than once that he wishes he could play music with other people. I wish he could, too.

John has no friends. His family never visits him, with the exception of his brother from up north who might stop by a few times a year, but never stays. His sister lives right around the corner, and I have never seen her there. Her husband had helped John get lumber twice. Other than that, he is alone eight hours a day, seven days a week, save the company of his two stray cats. Kitty and Cat, both white, showed up as two little kittens one summer day. He tells me how lonely he is.

John has dreams. He wants to travel around the country camping, seeing all the beautiful spots. His illness won't let him. It is hard to hear the longing in his voice.

I take John food sometimes, or buy him a big red jar of Maxwell House coffee. In the summer, I might take him fresh produce from the market. I give him honey from my hives, grapes from my vines, and apples from my trees. I watch out for him. And I keep my distance.

Sometimes John gets mad. Especially when he cleans his shed. He yells and hollers and swears, shouting the F word over and over. He throws things. He talks to imaginary people. I watch.

One day a couple months ago, John came over to borrow money for cigarettes. He seemed in a good mood. I loaned him the money, which he always pays back when he gets his disability check, and off he went to the One Stop, a local convenience store. But not long after he left I heard yelling. I peered out my front window to find John standing on the sidewalk in front of my house, cursing and making threatening gestures at the neighbors across the street (who were not there). He had a knife, which he was drawing across his throat as if threatening someone with death. He shouted and stabbed at things around him. There was no one there. No one.

I called the police because I was concerned about John. I had never seen this behavior before.

A neighbor told me that John is dangerous. John held his sister hostage in her own house for hours, screaming at her and threatening her with his fists. That is why they never visit, he never goes there. I became nervous.

Yesterday, I walked in the backyard and found John sitting in the hot sun, talking to himself. I said hi and asked how he was doing. He said not so good, then started ranting about things I didn't understand. He used the F word after every other non-F word. No kidding. The more he talked the angrier he became. Something about the world and computers, and people asking if he took his meds and what business of it was theirs. He was waving a piece of paper around, which may or may not have been the source of his agitation. He looked at me and asked, "What schizophrenic medicines do you take?"

"What?" I said.

"What schizophrenic medicines do you take?" he repeated, more agitated.

"I don't take any", I answered.

"You don't take any?"


"I DON'T WANT TO TALK TO YOU GET THE F%^ OUT OF HERE," he yelled. And he shouted and he shouted. He told me to leave and called me several very derogatory names. He yelled, "F&$@ OFF, GO BACK TO YOUR COMPUTER YOU F*(#& (#&%(#*!".  I could go on, but you get the point. I slowly walked back into my house, looking over my shoulder.

I felt afraid. I could hear him still cursing me for the next half hour as he sat in his yard or worked on his boat. I felt uneasy. He had never verbally attacked me before. I was his only friend, but that did not make me immune to his illness.

I didn't sleep well last night, I listened for sounds.

I know John is ill, but those abusive words still stung. I am even more sad, because this poor man, through no fault of his own, must live out his life literally alone. No one helps him. Society just ignores his existence, we give him some money every month but we don't give him help. No one checks on him, or visits him, or gives him counseling. Maybe someone did once upon a time, but perhaps his illness forced them away. There is no doubt that the extreme social isolation he experiences would drive anyone mad.

I feel afraid of John now. I don't know what he is capable of, or incapable of. It goes against my very nature to stop trying to be a good neighbor to him. But perhaps being a good neighbor means not giving him the opportunity to do something that could take away his freedom, for that seems to be all the poor man has.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

My Friend

I have an old wire fence around my backyard. Every few years I get ambitious and go after the "weeds" that start to grow in my raspberry patch, grape arbor, and lily of the valley garden. One time, while pulling up a plant, I noticed a snake skin. Upon further searching, I found several more. Seems Snake found the perfect spot to shed her skin.

It didn't take long before Snake showed herself to me, a beautiful Garter. I called her Elizabeth, and looked for her every time I worked in the yard. Sometimes she was by the compost pile, sometimes she draped herself on the stack of apple tree branches pruned during the winter. One day Elizabeth was sunning herself with a friend, a smaller Garter. They were beautiful.

A few years passed and Elizabeth moved on. I missed her.

This spring, a snake a bit smaller than Elizabeth showed up in the backyard. She loved to spend her time within the piles of straw blanketing the ground under the McIntosh apple tree. It was cool and damp there, desirable conditions for snakes such as she.

I had to be careful when walking in the yard because this little one loved to sun herself between the little white clovers that I leave growing for the bees. She also loved the shade of the holly trees, where sweet drips of water could be found at the faucet.

These past few weeks have had record setting temperatures here in my town, 90s to over 100 degrees.  A taste of what we have done to our atmosphere, a glimpse of what our summers will be like from now on. I see the animals struggling to find places of coolness. Squirrels in the bird bath. Robins in the sprinklers.

I have been diligent about keeping two sources of water filled for my animal and insect neighbors. I run the sprinkler for a little while, several times a day so the birds and squirrels can cool off, and the grass can stay green for the rabbits to eat. And I hose down the straw for Snake, so she can stay cool in her dark hideaway.

This morning I answered a knock at the door. After stating her business, the woman said, "Do you know you have a snake on your front side walk?"  "No," I replied and stepped outside.  "It is there in the mulch, coiled up. I think it is dead."

I walked a few feet down the concrete path and looked down. There, freshly molted, was the most beautiful snake I had ever seen. My friend. She had deep rich colors of green and blue adjacent to beautiful cream colored stripes. Snake was loosely coiled up, her mouth wide open and bright red. My friend was dead.

There were no signs of injury. Just a beautiful healthy looking Garter snake.

My heart sank. I felt a deep sadness, a tremendous loss. I had watched out for her, provided her water, tried to keep her straw pile cool in the intense heat wave. I admired her beauty, I talked with her while watering the garden. I looked for her each time I went out the yard. And now she is gone.

I picked her body up and placed her under the beautiful pink rose bush, saying a prayer taught to me by Grandma Twylah. And I wondered how many more snakes and birds and squirrels and fawns died today from something that I and all other humans helped create. I feel such deep sorrow for the suffering that this climate change is causing the other Beings that share this planet with us. Snake was the first casualty I witnessed first hand and that makes it all the more real.

My heart is still heavy with sadness knowing that tomorrow will come without my Snake friend. It will bring with it another day of extreme heat, and I don't know what to do to help my friends.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Farmers, Gatherers, and Thieves

Often when I go on trips I observe people around me, their culture, conversations, how they live. Kind of like sitting in the laundry mat eavesdropping on others' chats, except on a much larger scale. My morning cup of coffee gave me an idea, a hypothesis if you will, about people.

While sitting on a bench in the cool morning air, the thought that people are Farmers, Gatherers, or Thieves entered my mind, and I do acknowledge I am still shaking off the effects of a hotel room sleep.

Farmers are those who travel through life as seekers, planting seeds of knowledge for their families, communities, and future generations. They are visionaries, philosophers, movers and shakers, change makers. They grab ideas out of the air and make them reality. Their inner child was never put to bed, thus, they are forever curious. They are the kind of drivers who put the pedal to the metal, cruising at a cool 85 mph, until they start talking about an idea that excites them. Their car slows to 50 mph, then to 65, down to 55, and back up to 85 all in one sentence.

Gatherers are those who harvest the crops planted by Farmers. They tend to be focused on their personal needs and their immediate world. Gatherers are collectors rather than distributors, in contrast to Farmers, who are collectors AND distributors. They are steady streams flowing through life, often working in the same job for decades. Reliable, dependable, stable, predictable. They drive 55 mph down the highway of life, not taking too many risks.

Thieves are folks who steal from Farmers and Gatherers. They take everything, ideas, possessions, hearts, energy, cars, you name it they’ll grab it. They don’t utilize their own talents and gifts for the greater good, or even for themselves, they instead feel entitled to what others have. Some possess great skills of manipulation, control, deception, charm, charisma. Others just flat out grab what they want, boldly and without remorse.

We have all been a Farmer or Gatherer or Thief at some point in our lives. It is who we are most of the time that defines us, it is how we are remembered that tells of what we did with our precious lives.

Who are you?

Monday, July 2, 2012

An Unusual Stranger

So, I am sitting in the lobby of the hotel in a Casino in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, filling out my unemployment claim online, see.  It's weird, you know, and I hope no one looks over my shoulder. They don't know I am not here to gamble but am interviewing Elders about the stories of wild rice, and how the Tribe will adapt to climate change. Still, it feels quite odd to be doing this in a Casino. Maybe that is what caused this peculiar encounter to happen, I don't know. You can be the judge. So here then, is the tale of the Unusual Stranger.

I am sitting at a small, round table, filling in the required bi-weekly job search form that enables me to collect my unemployment benefits. To my left hangs a beautiful birch bark canoe, to my right, a wall.  Directly in front of me is the coffee station, where hotel guests come to fill those nasty styrofoam cups with cheap coffee and fake cream. That station is what drew in the Unusual Stranger.

The man filled his coffee cup and turned to face me. He was large and had a suspicious look in his squinty eyes, the kind that says he doesn't trust the world. Here is what he said, without pause.

"I don't like women who keep secrets, I mean if you can't be honest in a marriage then, well why get married, and if they are gonna keep secrets then I just [pushes away with hand gesture]. I got married once, I would have jumped in front of a train for her, I didn't do anything sinful or against God, I was just devastated, I was in the hospital for a long time, we went to North Dakota to get the hell out of the UP. I never got married again, I stayed true to my vows and my commitment, just like the Catholic church says. I was devastated, the Priest saved my life I was so depressed I was gonna kill myself."

"Uh huh," I said, nodding. What else could I say? Why do I attract people like this, I wondered?

He goes on. "That priest he was a good guy, he saved my life four times the first time I have sleep apnea and he woke me up when I had stopped breathing for along time, then another time I have diabetes you know, and he got me to the hospital and my sugar was over 1200, now the doctor didn't tell ME this but I found out, then another time he saved me from cancer, and then from suicide. But he got sick and now he has Stage IV prostrate cancer and it is in his spine, that is really too bad he was a good guy that Priest. Now it took along time for me to get on disability but I don't make much money on that, well anyway," and he walked out the door.

The Unusual Stranger said much more than this, but he mumbled often and turned around facing away from me so I couldn't hear him half the time. But that was OK, I could imagine what he was saying.

I am sitting here wondering if my filing for unemployment in a Casino unleashed some weird cosmic force that distorted reality for a moment. I don't know if the Unusual Stranger ever really existed. As soon as I clicked "submit", he was gone. Please call and check on me Wednesday night to be sure I made it home. Something weird is going on in the UP.