Sunday, January 5, 2020

Is it hoarding if you're organized?

This is such an anti-resolution post.

First, it’s not what I intended to write about resolutions in our Third Third. I’ll have to get to that later. And second, it flies in the face of all the de-cluttering I’ve resolved to do.

It started with an assignment to create a Volunteer Survey for OLÉ, our mostly all-volunteer nonprofit. There are always tasks to be done and maybe there are willing volunteers out there. How to find them and appeal to them?

I’ve done a lot with volunteers – recruiting, coordinating, and being one – and I have a lot of thoughts on how to value them, recognize them, incorporate them. I was once even the keynote speaker at the Golden Heart Awards.

But what I remembered was creating a Volunteer Survey for Denali Elementary School. It was a really good survey, so my first stop was my computer.

I searched in all my folders: Volunteering, Denali K-8, School District. I used the little Mac searchlight (spotlight?) thing over and over again. (I imagined her saying, “Enough already! It’s not here.” And besides, even if I found it, I bet its Microsoft Word would have that funny black “exec” icon that means my current Microsoft Word can’t read it.
[Aside: is there a cure for that??? Do I just watch my files slip slowly into oblivion? Is that Microsoft’s way of forcing me to de-clutter?]

I can clearly visualize the survey: I’d done it on letter-size paper, but folded it the long way, so it opened vertically. With columns and little check boxes. We printed it on hot pink paper.

That moved me to the file cabinets in the laundry room. I searched high and low. Didn’t I have a file on Volunteerism? Or was it subsumed under Civic Engagement? Or School District? Or even Speeches? I’m sure Volunteerism is somewhere. Where?!?

So then I went to my friend, Margie, who had been on the Denali Committee with me. I described the survey, the hot pink color. I hoped she had better files than I did. And this is what she said:
Oh I am sorry Barbara! I would usually have this sort of thing but I finally got rid of all my Denali paper, even, gasp, the state raffle paperwork and all the losing tickets, some time ago. Don’t you hate redoing something when you are sure you did a better job the first time? Good luck, Margie
She saved losing tickets???

But yes, she hit the nail on the head: I was sure I did a better job the first time. It’s the same feeling when I end up deleting something in error and have to re-create. It’s like a bad copy of a copy.

So this morning, I attacked the file cabinets again. If it wasn’t in my files, maybe it was in my “Sophie Files.” I have all the fascinating things she created: the Kindergarten folder, the 1st Grade folder, the 2nd Grade folder, etc. etc. all the way to Graduation. I keep meaning to have her go through them and de-clutter, but she doesn’t even know they exist. They’re my little secret stash of clutter.

And then, in the 1st Grade folder, in between her How Plants Make Food report, How to Tell Time handmade book, and certificate for TV-Turnoff Week 1999, was the Survey!

Oh, yikes! I feel like I’ve just outed myself as a hoarder! Am I still a hoarder if my files are neatly arranged and have plastic tabs identifying them?

But it doesn’t matter: I have the Survey! And yes, it is good. It asks whether someone “vants to work alone” or is a cheerful worker bee: “Give me a copy machine and I’ll stand in front of it.” Do they want short and sweet projects, to run the show or follow directions, to make fun or make money?

I told Margie I’d found it, and she replied, “This is the kind of thing that keeps one from throwing anything out.”

Moral of this story: A successful Find is a de-cluttering Setback. But a successful Find is a Jump-Up-and-Down-Happy-Dance with a Smile on your Face and a Hooray in Your Heart!

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Back from Japan

I’ve been in Japan.

Time zone changes, jet lag, and return-home-catch-up would be enough to explain why I haven’t written, but it’s even harder than that.

How do you sum up Japan?

It’s one thing when I travel for a month and go through the process – in this blog – of learning and discovery. It’s another thing when I’m back, have already dealt with both the panic and thrill of cultural disruption, and now have … reflection.

We arrived at Sea-Tac Airport early, so All Nippon Airways had signs that said “Counter opens at 9:20 a.m.” At precisely 9:20 a.m., the agents stood in front of their individual counters, bowed, and welcomed us to their airline with prepared introductions.

Welcome to Japan.

My first total and complete thrill began on the plane: Japanese toilets! With a lifetime of restroom visits and bladder emptying – with my experience as the Toilet Police – how could I have missed learning about Japanese toilets!

All those buttons! You can spray your front, you can spray your rear, you can change the pressure, you can warm the seat. You can air dry, you can deodorize. You can play sound so no one else hears your “sounds.” There are so many buttons, I’m not sure what some of them meant: pulsate? oscillate? (and that’s the English). And in the accompanying child stalls, there were even optional potty chairs.

It’s only fitting. In a country of clean streets, no graffiti, public transit with immaculate cushioned seats, absolutely pristine garbage trucks, and swept garden lawns (!); it’s only fitting that everyone would have clean butts.

Speaking of Clean
It’s impossible to find a litter box in Japan, but it’s equally impossible to find litter. After a while, you learn to carry your litter with you. Going out for the day is like camping and packing out your own trash. Look around and you realize everyone treats the public spaces as if they were their own living room. Japanese children mop their classroom floors (there are no janitors); Japanese athletes clean their locker rooms.

In Japan, the Commons is cared for. At every level, in every location, at any time, it’s obvious. (And afterwards, when you return to the United States, the opposite is obvious, too.)

And not just clean. Beautiful. So I’ll start with the gardens.

The Gardens
I know I’ve mentioned here that I tire of manicured gardens when I make my monthly trips; that I crave the wildness of Alaska and its “dirty dirt.” But the gardens of Japan take manicured to the level of artistry, of masterpiece, of divine spirit.

After visiting the Kenroku-en Garden in Kanazawa, I heard a BBC interview with its head gardener. He explained that it takes 60 gardeners per tree to pluck last year’s pine needles from each branch by hand. (The interviewer couldn’t tell this year’s from last year’s, but the gardener could.) Gardeners sit on the moss and pick out individual blades of grass that have taken root. Ropes are strung to the trees so when snow falls, it will stick to the rope and make patterns while the ropes support the tree.

We were there – just by luck – during the peak of red maple season, and the gardens were glorious. Beyond glorious. My color hair glorious. I can’t do justice to those scenes, so look at this.

It’s not just the trees. Ryōan-ji in Kyoto is fifteen stones in a garden of white pebbles. That’s all, but the stones were intentionally placed. Leave me there and just let me sit and look.

Just Look
I can’t read or speak Japanese, so the world was filled with signs I couldn’t read, bookstores I couldn’t enter, TV I couldn’t understand. My visual world was just a “look at” world, not necessarily an “understand” world. I walked through streets and saw color and shape and images; I couldn’t receive textual or verbal. Everything became a picture not a sign.

This was really a big change for my word-brain. And that’s even before I entered Zen and became one with the table.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Lefse Lessons: Trial and Error Error Error

A lot of my Quests for New-ness (my method for keeping life from getting stale) involve cooking. Cooking is so prone to staleness – dinner every night over and over and over again – that it needs dedicated intervention to liven it up make it bearable. So there was the Sauerkraut Saga and the Medieval Mustard Mission. Twice, I discovered parables for living with a brand new pressure cooker – once when I bought it and once when I wrecked it. But even if none of those had worked, there was always Barbara’s Ginger Beer Factory, raspberry liqueur, Bourbon Salmon, and further misadventures with alcohol.

Hmmm, cooking Quests for New-ness always seem to involve a certain amount of calamity. Well, New-ness doesn’t come without risk, but how else would I have learned how to whomp mustard?

So when the Sons of Norway put out a call for help making lefse, how could I resist? It was time to call Connie, and that was before I knew that we’d end up covered in flour. Connie and I are really good at getting dirty.

We entered Viking Hall and right off were greeted by Amanda. The same Amanda who’s taught me watercolors and pencil drawing! She teaches lefse rolling, too!

First we have to prepare round boards for rolling on. We cover them with round, pastry cloth covers and pull them snug. Then we have to sprinkle enough flour to cover up the printing on the cover. Lots of flour. We pull a little sock over the special ridgy rolling pins, too. More flour.

At one end of the kitchen, other volunteers are boiling potatoes, ricing them with flour, and making balls to put in the refrigerator. I take a ball from the plate of finished dough balls, put it on the rolling board, pat it, and push it a couple of rolls. Dough sticks to the rolling pin sock. Not enough flour. Get a new sock. More flour.

You have to roll in alternating directions to make sure your lefse maintains Round. My Round is Round-ish. My Round is basically just not square. Or it’s square with bulges here and there.

When your dough is a super-thin pancake, you stick the long, special turning stick under it. One side of the stick is rounded and one is flat. Flat-side down, you scrape under the dough to release it from the board. Then you lift up the pancake.

Then you pick up the pieces that have broken and fallen. Reject!

You roll out another, super-thin. So thin, there are holes in it. Reject!

You roll out another, but it seems most of your flour has been absorbed. You can’t get the stick underneath. Reject!

When you finally get a pancake to stay on the stick, you walk over to the griddle to lay it down and cook. Not so easy! It’s big and floppy and thin, so it falls on the floor before you can make it to the griddle. Reject!
You try to make one a little sturdier, but it’s too thick. Reject!

You roll out another, but it sticks to the pastry cloth. Reject! More flour. One woman volunteer talks to herself, “Flour is our friend. Flour is our friend.” She’s right! I am now covered in flour, but I’m making round-ish pancakes! I turn to the griddle … and my lefse lands with all its sticky sides sticking to each other. Reject!

Connie decides that productivity demands she give up trying to deal with the griddle. She’ll just roll. But Amanda doesn’t give up on us: we have to hold the long stick very low to the griddle and twist it so that the pancake slowly unwinds itself. It’s a balancing act of original placement on the griddle and unwinding over it. Some make it, some don’t.

Once on the griddle, you use the brush to brush off the excess flour. And because flour is now our friend, there’s a lot. Grill the other side and add your lefse to the mountain of lefses on the counter under the sheet. Other volunteers are brushing off excess flour (Flour is no longer our friend.) and packaging the cooled ones.

So much to learn! I am trying to decide if a valuable learning experience for me is a net-productivity-loss for the Sons of Norway, but by now, I’m churning out lefse. Well, I’m producing lefse. I’m not exactly a lefse factory. They can package my round-ish lefse mixed in with properly-round lefse, so maybe no one will notice.

I am exhausted. I whisper to Connie, “Two hours.” She looks at me in shock, “Two hours MORE?” “No, no!” I say. “We’ve been here two hours. I think we can leave.” Everyone else in the room is still toiling away. They were there yesterday and they’ll come back tomorrow. They tell us to taste one
before we leave. (We kindly pick from the pile of rejects.)

We butter it, sprinkle it with cinnamon sugar, and roll it up. It’s delicious!

And now I know how to make it! But first I need a nap. 

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Back to School (Reunion Version)

I drive onto the university grounds, following the signs for the parking lots on the grassy fields. The first lot, the closest one, says “50+.” Oh, whoa, I think, I can’t park there. That’s for the old people.

Wait a second: I’m here for my 45th reunion. Next time, I’ll be in the 50+!

Nothing like a reunion weekend to bring up the issues of time, aging, memory, way back when, and what next. The place you lived for four years and whizzed around on your bicycle in your sleep is now so full of new buildings – and even a whole new quad – that you are hopelessly lost and disoriented enough to feel disconnected from your own history.

And the class book is filled with so many people you never met that you wonder, Did I really go here? Or did I just inhabit some little insignificant corner?

Nothing like a college campus to generate an identity crisis.

Cindy says, “I worked for Congresswoman Bella Abzug the summer after you.”

“You did? That’s amazing! Why didn’t I know that?”

“Barbara, we know that. We’ve known that. We’ve talked about that.”

Candy is in the photo the night Bella came to dinner. “Candy, I didn’t remember you lived in that house.” “Barbara, you were there???”

The question of identity is time-sensitive. We were who we were once, and some part of us lingers and endures, but what if it’s a part we can’t remember?

Well, then, you still have a great time meeting new people. They have all come back because something interesting beckons, some learning, some exploration, some mystique. I meet Jan (whom I never knew) walking from the parking lot, Ann in a long conversation over lunch, the two aerospace engineers as we discussed the 737 MAX.

And then, there are The Friends. We met freshman year, and we endure. Dennis in from London, Debbie from D.C., Bob from Mill Valley, May and Bet from Oakland. Gayle from Las Vegas, Joy and Jeff from southern California. Neil hurt his hip, so he and Lee Ann can’t make it. Even Jon makes his appearance! We are like Shangri-La: we reopen every five years and we know we’ll always be there. Until, we don’t, and then we’ll miss them each year, like we miss Sally for the first time for always.

There is a class on climate change, a class taught by an ambassador to Russia, a computer musician who built a laptop orchestra, a class on poverty-stricken cities that can no longer even provide 9-1-1. I love all this learning, engaging, access to great thinkers!

But in a class participation session on post-retirement, everyone else seems to have found their rhythm while I’m still … experimenting. I tell them how, in search of something I could repair that wasn’t getting fixed, I couldn’t even get the goose poop cleaned up from a park! I’m looking for my legacy, and it’s elusive. “I’m Barbara, and I waste time.” Everyone laughs.

Afterwards, I hear from LOTS of people: they relate! What a surprise! We are all – always – feeling our way. That’s it. We are all – always – just feeling our way.

Meanwhile, I’m reading Kurt Vonnegut’s Timequake. He writes:
Still and all, why bother [writing]? Here’s my answer: Many people need desperately to receive this message: “I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people don’t care about them. You are not alone.”
We are all – always – just feeling our way! We are not alone.

One of the classes is “Cultivating Calm: Spiritual Practices for a Healthy, Whole Life.” How could I resist? She talks to us about The Tree of Contemplative Practices, and I didn’t know storytelling counted! And volunteering! And marches! So instead of focusing on how I don’t have the patience to meditate, I can see the benefits of what I am doing.

But this is what she says. She says the best thing she can help a student do is to get that student to wrestle with this question: “Who am I and who do I seek to become for the sake of the world?”

That question never ends! That is my question forever. It was my first identity crisis, and it will be my last, and wrestling with it is the point.

I have gone back to college, and I have learned something.


Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Word Wars 2019

When it’s autumn, you know I’m spelling and pronouncing words and Werd Nerd-ing for the annual BizBee, the Alaska Literacy Program’s annual adult spelling bee. Now it’s time for the less-than-instant replay.

Setting the stage for BizBee skill were our highly-qualified judges, three retired kindergarten teachers – the “Killer Bees.” Taking up her usual position of more than ten years was the “Human Dictionary.” Patricia provides precise pronunciations when teams either (1) distrust my New York accent or (2) are stalling for time. She received more requests for re-pronunciations this year than in all her previous years combined! And teams started a new thing: asking for “word origins.” Just playing for time….
All teams made it through the first round, even with a ridiculous word like mizzle (a cross between mist and drizzle). A climatologist in the audience pointed out that it’s an archaic word, never used anymore. What kind of words does he think spelling bees are made of?

But alas, our Distinguished Leaders in Literacy, the “Elemenopees” of First National Bank Alaska, gave way under pressure to yieldable and picked up the Red Lantern Prize. What can you say about a round that gives the Anchorage School Board team the word curriculum? (It’s just luck.)

What distinguished this year’s BizBee? Full bladders. To maintain the fairness of the competition – just in case a team has hidden dictionaries in the restrooms – if one person has to use the restroom, everyone has to take a bathroom break. This year’s BizBee included a record number of restroom breaks! How’s that for a wild night!

But it wasn’t until Round 3 that the carnage started building. The only thing worse than looking at kohlrabi is spelling it, and ServiceMaster suffered that fate. And because the BizBee came in September, the “Phrequent Phliers” of the Alaska Airlines-sponsored ALP volunteers, weren’t prepared for Oktoberfest and lost their pants on lederhosen. But wait! They pulled out the TeamSaver, the secret, one-of-a-kind, Get-Out-of-Jail-Free card for having sold the most raffle tickets. They were back in the game!

No such luck for ConocoPhillips. They may be a Distinguished Leader in Literacy, but their back went out on notochord.

In Round 4, “Pun with Words,” the ALP Board of Directors team, marooned themselves on the archipelago. Alyse for Alaska (featuring candidate Alyse Galvin) wasn’t going to go down easy: they cringed and flattered their way out of gnathonic by passing it to the Anchorage School Board team (who didn’t want it either). Then they mailed off philately, too. Every passed word means more donations to the Literacy Program, but the danger is the replacement word: what if it’s harder than the one you gave away? The heat was on, but they could handle Fahrenheit (with the same cheer that eventually won them the Outstanding Spirit Award).

Only one miraculous rescue is possible, so Round 4 ended with the Phrequent Phliers stopped at the gate by durwan.

Round 5 and Summit Spice and Tea were too explicit for euphemism; Alyse for Alaska lost blossoms on Hemerocallis; the “ALPabets” were carried off to Africa by roodebok; and the “Health Literacy Heroes” of Providence choked on kielbasa. It was an all-out team train wreck.

Round 6 knocked out the biological clocks of MSI Communications with zeitgeber, and witloof poisoned the salad of the DOWL team.

There’s always a moment in the BizBee when the judges and the Werd Nerd have to figure out how to avoid a midnight contest. How do we spell teams out so we’re not there all night? We have to advance on the word list. “Oh, no!” shout the MENSA cheerleaders. “Not #715!”

But it was word #716 that would have drowned the whole crowd: liman (especially hard if you consider it’s pronounced lē män) was passed by five teams. With no more teams left to receive it, it went into oblivion, sunk into the lagoon of its name.

Ravens’ Roost moved too slowly for tardigrade, and the School Board (the last rookie team standing) had no divine connection for afflatus.

So now it was down to the Big Three: 2018 champions Arctic Entries; 2017 champions Holistic Hands (the Rosie the Riveters); and runner-up both years the Anchorage Unitarian Universalists “In Fred’s Name” (for longtime literacy volunteer Fred Hillman).

Arctic Entries lost in the upheaval of geanticline, and the Rosies drowned in the chresard, but could the wildly-colored Unitarians escape their runner-up fate? After years as #2, could they finally claim victory? They successfully launched their Siamese fighting fish betta, and now one word stood between them and victory. With a sharp gravette ... they took the championship!

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

The Other Inhabitants of Bear Land

I’ve entered another parallel universe. This one was populated by bears.

But that wasn’t even the parallel universe that amazed me the most.

Tim and I are back from five wonderful days in Katmai National Park, where the bears hang out in Brooks Camp. They catch returning salmon, hoping to gorge out and get fat for their coming hibernation, and there are lots and lots of bears.

Katmai is the bears’ domain; humans are only the visitors. If a bear is roaming around – it’s called a Bear Jam – the humans have to get off the path and scurry into the woods so the bears have a clear path. It’s their path. We get to look at them from platforms (if everything is working right) and up close (if the bears get curious). Mostly they don’t care about humans because there’s lots of salmon.

We get to watch three “subadult” bears playing in the river every day, bears trying to catch salmon jumping upstream, bears sitting in the foaming “jacuzzi” at the Falls, bears just sitting in “The Office.” The bears are so busy with their fish-catching that they stop seeming ferocious. You could almost forget that they could tear you apart in seconds. It’s Bear Land, and they’re just calmly going about their business (tearing apart salmon in seconds).

Around these bears are Bear People. Bear people know a lot about bears. They know which bear is dominant and grabs the best spot at the Falls, which bear has a scar around her neck from a wolf snare once removed, which bear has a big hump. Which bear has widely spaced ears, spade-shaped large ears, blond tipped ears, upright ears, triangular shaped ears, large and round ears, short and round ears, tall brown ears, ears perched high on head, round peg-like ears, etc. etc.

It’s this universe of bear people that I found so … startling.

Some bear people are park rangers. Others – the really compelling ones – are just bear fans. They’re volunteers who come to Brooks to help out, perform tasks, and watch bears. They work long hours and spend their days off … watching bears. If they’re not at Brooks, they’re watching bear cams. They know each other through years of commenting on the bear cams; they have created a community of bear people. They talk in numbers: Bear #435, #910, #284, #410, and they know each of them individually!

This is a whole parallel universe of bear people that I never knew existed. Thank you, Naomi, for introducing me!

Parallel universes lurk undercover in unexpected places. My friend Robin discovered the universe of dance competitors. Angelo introduced me to the universe of train travelers. Jim occupies the universe of Winston Churchill buffs.

While I read lots of Sherlock Holmes and derivatives, I don’t solve international quizzes on the Holmes “Canon,” I don’t follow a gazillion blogs, and I’m not even a Baker Street Irregular. Sherlockians wouldn’t call me a Sherlockian. I study Time (physics and literature, time travel and Einstein), but while I may be more than a dabbler, I’m not an expert. I’m only a tourist, a visitor to those universes.

I’m a little jealous of parallel universe people (and not just because they have an escape from this one). They have such passion! They have such motivation! My friend Connie says that’s not all: they have a focus for learning and development of expertise, and they have affiliation. They belong to a group of like-minded folks who are interested in exploring the same thing. Really interested in exploring the same thing. Deeply.

At one time, I guess I was utterly and completely fascinated by waterparks. But even that doesn’t count as a parallel universe because it was just me.

Lots of people can have interests, but it takes a roomful of them to become a parallel universe. Parallel universes are in the eye of the beholder, the outsider who stumbles across them, marvels at their intensity of fascination, and can’t believe there are that many of them.

So which one do you occupy? Which ones have you discovered?

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Gizmos: Part II

Gizmos are taking over the world.

Right after I wrote about the discovery of all sorts of “added features” in my Subaru, after many of you reported stories of features you’d discovered; I went for a ride.

Without doing anything, without bumping something or getting close to something or breathing wrong; an alarm went off. A high-pitched squeal. I frantically looked for the icon that was supposed to tell me what was wrong. Where was the icon supposed to be? Which of the 32 different icons in the manual could it be? What was wrong?

And then it stopped.

I don’t know what caused it. I’m left with a slight unease wondering what hazard is percolating, waiting to spring on me when I least expect it.

And then yesterday, in my kitchen, the same alarm went off. Could I hear it all the way from the garage?! This was harrowing. I tracked the sound down … to my watch.

The watch I bought a couple years ago. I needed to replace my simple watch that had a dial on the front, but this was on sale, and it had digits. Not to worry: it still told the time. And it came in purple.

When I went to Toronto, I had to advance the watch four time zones. I had to pull out the eensy-weensy instruction paper. Then I had to read the eensy-weensy writing on the eensy-weensy paper.

I had to get in Time Telling Mode and hold ‘A’ until seconds flashed, then press and hold ‘D.’ To get minutes and hours, I had to press ‘B,’ and then back to ‘D.’ There’s a little diagram that shows what ‘A’ and ‘B’ and ‘D’ are. Notice that they run counter-clockwise.

This is all very hard because ‘A’ and ‘B’ and ‘D’ are just little purple bumps along the edge of the watch. It’s hard to keep pressing without falling off the bumps, and if you hold, it “will advance digits rapidly.” That means you’ll pass your intended digit a few times and have to start the whole sequence over to set seconds then hours then minutes.
Needless to say, I have remained on Toronto time for four months rather than face my ‘A’s, ‘B’s, and ‘D’s again. My watch comes with a special Dual Time Zone Mode which should accommodate both Anchorage and somewhere else, but that involves pressing ‘B’ three times before getting to ‘A.’

Well, a couple weeks ago, I finally faced down the watch and moved myself from Toronto back to Anchorage. That must have been when I activated the alarm. The alarm gets set if I only press ‘B’ once: One ‘B’ = Alarm Mode; three ‘B’s = Time Telling Mode.

My watch can also clock my running time as a stopwatch. It can also do split times. It can also light up (but that involves ‘C.’) It can do all these things if it didn’t have me as the owner.

Yes, “when I am an old woman I shall wear purple,” but I’m just not sure that should apply to purple watches…. I just need to know the time.

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