Thursday, June 29, 2017

Did you Duck and Cover?

If you’re in your Third Third, you know what “Duck and Cover” means. Maybe you hid under your desk at school during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Maybe you thought your father should build a bomb shelter in the backyard. And you certainly know what “Cold War” means.

Our trip through South Dakota included a thought-provoking counterpoint to all the natural beauty – the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site – with the potential to destroy it all. The wonderful visitor center took us through the Cold War and the arms race, mutually assured destruction, and ultimately, arms reduction.

You can see the visitor center; it’s above ground. Delta-01 Launch Control Facility and Delta-09 missile silo are mostly underground. Delta-01 is where the two missileers worked on 24-hour alert duty shifts, ready to launch ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) in the event of nuclear attack.

I thought of that word missileer. It sounded like Disney’s imagineer so at first I just didn’t feel the heaviness of it. It seemed creative, musical even. But the exhibit took us through the psychological pressures, about what it would take to be trained to “press the button.”

There were photos of little kids under their desks at school. Little kids wearing the dresses and hairstyles we wore in the early ’60s. They looked just like us. I still remember my Weekly Reader emphasizing that Florida was just 90 miles away from Cuba. My friend Denise grew up in North Dakota knowing they were a big X on the USSR missile map.

At the height of the Cold War, both the Soviet Union and the U.S. had more than 10,000 nuclear warheads. The exhibit takes us through the build-up and the reduction. Acronyms like SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks) and START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) suddenly make sense on a timeline.

And then we get to the last room, the one describing “the man who saved the world,” Stanislav Petrov. Petrov was the duty officer in the USSR on September 26, 1983 when alerts went off that five missiles were headed to the Soviet Union. He made the crucial decision not to alert his superiors, guessing that if the strike were real, the U.S. would have sent more than five missiles.

The tension he endured was immense. He guessed; we all won.
Apparently, a movie was made about this in 2015. I’m trying to get it on interlibrary loan. September 26 is Petrov Day: “Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, take a minute to not destroy the world.”

That last panel goes on to describe other false alarms: one where a training tape of a Soviet invasion was mistakenly inserted into the early-warning computer, another where a Norwegian rocket on a scientific mission to study the aurora was mistaken for a missile.

These were equipment mistakes, technological errors; they can happen any time. But the humans staffing the machines have to be able to stay calm and process the evidence rationally. Always it comes down to the one person who might be the one who “saves the world.”

Many times in my life I’ve explored what it takes to make peace as opposed to making war. This exhibit put another layer on it: how do we train people to refrain from pushing buttons, to pause, to consider? Because so far, the only time the world was saved was when a button wasn’t pressed.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Not Made by Humans

Living in Alaska, you can get complacent about Big Nature. The mountains are always on the horizon, the giant moose are often on the trail, glaciers fill the Sound. Mostly, you can end up just seeing the space in front of the windshield, bicycle, or your own two feet.

It can take a wholesale change in scenery to knock your socks off.

Fortunately, South Dakota and Wyoming come with Big Nature, overwhelming Nature. Nature that amazes. But they also come with rolling, calming, on-and-on-and-on-and-on Nature.

I thought we’d need books on tape or something else to get us through the prairies, the grasslands, the range lands. I couldn’t imagine just sitting and looking out the window – at grass! – for hours and hours and days and days and never growing tired of it. Turned out I could look at that grass for weeks.

It wasn’t just the cows or the horses or the rolled up bales of hay. It was the lushness, the abundance of space and time and … grass. Interrupting the greenness of the grass was the reddest soil I’ve ever seen. I stopped and collected some. I’m home now, and it’s still red, so it wasn’t just imagination tinged with vacation.

You come through the grasslands all soothed and still – and then suddenly you’re in the Badlands. Erosion has made the Badlands. Erosion has dug out their layers and peaks and valleys and sharp edges, and erosion will erase them entirely in another 500,000 years. You’d better hurry and go!

I’ve drawn log splitters and apple crushers, copied Picasso and Monet, but I don’t think I can paint the Badlands or the grasslands and do them justice. The problem is scale. A little doodle does not a whole landscape make. A little doodle doesn’t fill up the earth and air and sky.

The Badlands are striped reds and golds and blacks. The Yellow Mounds are yellow. The scrub is green. The dust is tan and white. You look over one set of craggy peaks and discover another batch of different colors. But the color is only part of it: the shapes are what haunt: this is the stuff of another planet, an intimidating dreamworld. Except it’s our Earth, but it’s primal Earth. It is raw, untamed, unbuilt, sharp and pointy Earth.

And if you’re driving along westward and Devils Tower rises on the horizon, you gasp. To see Devils Tower is to know why Close Encounters was filmed there. If extraterrestrials are to land on Earth, they will land at Devils Tower. No doubt about it. Native Americans honor it as a spiritual center, and it just throbs with whatever is more-than-meets-the-eye.

I can draw Devils Tower because everyone in Close Encounters did. I bet I could even make it out of mashed potatoes.
At Wind Cave National Park, we met a couple from Florida who said Mount Rushmore had disappointed, that it was smaller than they’d expected. We went to Mount Rushmore. We went to the even larger Crazy Horse Memorial. And you know what? They’re smaller. They’re smaller because they’re not everything. They’re not the whole landscape, the whole mountain range, the whole world. They’re a piece of it. A masterful, inspirational piece – what an artist can accomplish with pure will and tenacity! – but a piece just the same.

They’re Art. Humans made them.

The Badlands, the grasslands, the sky, the clouds, the Black Hills – they’re the forces of Nature. The universe made them.

I’m glad on this trip I was reminded of the difference.

Friday, June 23, 2017


For our latest South Dakota trip, we rented an RV. A “rig,” to be exact.

Yikes, now I guess this really is a Third Third blog. (There are LOTS of retiree RV blogs.) I feel compelled to add that we haven’t given up camping or sleeping in a tent, but the RV was the latest New Thing to try.

I also feel compelled to add that my New Thing was as a passenger. Either that, or we could spend every other day at a spa, massaging my neck and shoulder muscles. Besides, I’m a great navigator, and Tim’s a great driver.

Tim did all the arranging, but we both went to the rental company to pick it up and get whisked through the orientation. This is what I remember: he showed us a minuscule blue speck on the front of the beige hood and marked it on the walk-thru sheet so we wouldn’t get blamed. I don’t think blaming had anything to do with it. I think it was designed to scare us into thinking that any speck could result in Damages. (The capital-D is not an error.) It worked.

This is what we didn’t remember: Somewhere in the RV is a button that slides the side of the RV out, giving us lots more room. We knew it was there – we’d seen it once – but we searched high and low and couldn’t find it. The manual told us how to press it, but not where it was located.

Much later, as I was opening the freezer, I discovered the door above it. Aha! The slide button!

I guess every new RV renter has to face the first trip to a gas station. The passenger person has to get out of the car and find where to put the gas nozzle. The driver person has to fit the 24-feet of RV into the gas station, which means the passenger person has to run around outside, waving her hands and shouting at the driver person. In fact, that’s her job: at gas stations, restaurants, camper sites, parking lots – waving and shouting. She’s good at it.
We blissfully negotiated Colorado and entered Wyoming. Suddenly, the radio and Tim’s iPhone went nuts: Tornado Warning! Hail storm warning! Hail the size of softballs! Right where we are! We passed a car on the road with its windshield GONE, smashed by hail. Oh, no, Oh, no! Where are we going to hide? How are we going to protect the RV???

We pulled into a restaurant to eat so if the hail returned, we could quickly race out and move the RV into the gas station to hide under the awning. The waitress was distraught: she’d canceled her insurance coverage and now her car was wrecked by the hail. Or the tossed tornado debris – the disasters  were compounding. I started thinking fondly of earthquakes back home.

Amazingly, the weather cleared, the sun came out, and we new RV-ers reflected how we didn’t have to worry about non-hail/non-tornado weather. We watched tent campers run after their tent in the blowing wind; we noticed sprinkles without any unease. Even the one night when the campground was full, the town of Hawk Springs, Wyoming (population 45) had a wonderful restaurant whose owner let us camp by the playground. In RV comfort.

Admittedly, we don’t take full advantage of RV comfort: we never used the shower, and we never (ahem) took a dump. We had campgrounds for that, and we’re still a little cautious of that whole dump station thing.

One by one, I watched all the people ahead of us at the dump station, asking questions, observing all the details: “How come your hose is short and ours is long?” “Do you have color-coded hoses?” “When do we put the little blue de-smeller in the toilet?” I’m sure I was a real treat.
It was the same at the self-service car wash. What with pre-soak and tire-clean and wash and rinse and spot-rinse, all the options were very confusing. The rental man had told us we should wash the bugs off so we could make sure they were bugs and not scratches. Tim took over the hose while I waved and shouted to make sure he caught all the dirty spots. I am VERY good at waving and shouting.

Except that neither of us noticed that one of the windows was open till we were all done.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Do you have a Bucket List?

The only bucket lists I know are the ones mentioned in movies, and they all seem pretty extreme if not downright scary to me: skydiving, climbing Mt. Everest, surfing around the world. Sure, those are the ones in movies, but does a bucket list necessarily mean it’s far outside your comfort zone?

What’s on a non-Hollywood bucket list? Do you have one?
  • Is a bucket list just a Santa Claus list of unrealized dreams?

  • Are they things you wish you’d do, but your regular life doesn’t leave room for it, so it implies some sort of major shake-up? Does being on a bucket list mean it’s over and above regular old life?

  • Are bucket lists experiences or accomplishments?

I know many people who have “visit Alaska” on their bucket list. It wasn’t on mine. It’s just something I did. Same with living in Costa Rica for a summer. I wanted to refresh my Spanish; one thing followed another. Spending my month in Manhattan, however, qualified as a Big Dream. It hovered for a long time and I had to engineer its happening. So maybe that’s what a bucket list item is; it starts with “some day....”

The first time I rode a water slide in a water park, I was hooked. Every time I discovered another water park, I’d say, “Some day, I want to cross the U.S. by water park.” In 2002, Sophie and I did: 2½ months, 25 water parks. If I hadn’t already done it, it would still be #1 on my bucket list. It was the Bucket List Item to Top All Bucket List Items.

My friend Connie said rafting the Grand Canyon was on her bucket list. When I bailed out on the trip, it’s because it was never on mine.

So why am I wondering about this now?


Because I’m headed to the Badlands with Tim, and Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial are on my bucket list. Right now, I think they’re the only things on it. I tend to do my dreams one at a time: dream up one, plan it. Dream up the next one, plan it. Or maybe it has to be already possible to even get on my list.
My life may not come in manageable bites, but it seems my bucket list does. And now I’m about to check one off!

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Lessons of a Third Third Garden

I know many people who relish their Third Third because it gives them more time in their gardens … and their gardens reflect that. I love their gardens. I go on tours of their gardens. I marvel and compliment and ooh and envy. I write down names of plants. I buy them.

Then I go home to my dirt.

I was going to wax funny about my garden difficulties, my scrawny plants, my fight against invasives, my slugs. This was going to be a ha-ha-ha-woe-is-me kind of blog post. But as I thought about my garden, my perspective shifted in a very Third Third way. My garden was echoing some of the lessons and gifts my Third Third has given me. See if you know what I mean:
  • When I water a plant, I feel it drink. If you don’t know this feeling, I can’t describe it. I am nourishing something and enabling it to live.

  • Every flower has its moment of glory. Yes, mostly my flowers have only moments, but they’re still glorious. The Oriental poppy is big and bright till it isn’t. The peony is spectacular till it droops. The daisies are a sea of white till they’re scraggly. But they all have their moments.

  • Every now and then, there’s a surprise: the daffodils that have come up for 25 years and never bloomed produced one bloom this year! I don’t know why. Maybe it just needed more time.

  • For years, on tours at the Alaska Botanical Garden, I’d taste the sorrel and want to add it to salads. Last year, I finally found a plant for sale and bought it. This year, I noticed it’s back! I am getting this gift again! I didn’t know it would come back, but it did.

  • Years ago, after Sophie and I read Miss Rumphius, Louise and Richard called to say they were digging up their lupine, would Sophie want to come by and get some plants. Miss Rumphius committed to making the world more beautiful, so she planted lupine everywhere. Every time Sophie’s lupine grows, blossoms, and spreads, the world is more beautiful.
  • The back of the house has giant white columbine. One year, one plant produced bright purple flowers. How did that happen? Some years, there are yellow columbine, some times purple again. It is a mystery.

  • My flowers are scrawny. They just aren’t … exuberant. Except one area where a flock of pansies somehow got happy and come back every year. Again, it’s a total mystery how that happens. I don’t know how to repeat it, but it just repeats itself. My happy flock of pansies.

  • I let mint grow wherever it wants (within reason). It fills in my blank spaces and gives me fresh mint for salads. It is pure reward for no effort.

  • One parsley plant solves the problem of needing a bit of parsley for a recipe but not having to buy a whole bunch at the store (which will only go bad).

  • When the lilac is in bloom, every step outside is filled with fragrance. I remember that I have a sense of smell.
A long time ago, I took a lobelia basket class at the Alaska Botanical Garden. We lined a wire basket with black plastic and poked about 35 holes in it. We took a little lobelia start out of its little pot and rolled a piece of plastic around the plant, leaving the root ball hanging. We pushed the plastic tube through the hole in the basket from the inside and tugged till the dirt clump stopped it. (Or till you broke it; accidents happen.)

So then you end up with a basket that looks like a bunch of frightened lobelias. In the top, you plant yellow marigolds.

Eventually, they grow and get bushy and – supposedly – you end up with the giant Alaska-flag-colors, blue-and-gold hanging planters that decorate Fourth Avenue downtown.

Mine don’t ever get like that, but they do get pretty. So every year, I re-use my original baskets from years ago and make two more. They are my big effort/big reward gardening victory. They hang by my front door, and I notice them, pay attention to them, marvel at them every time I come and go. Ah, that’s what a garden does!

Thursday, June 1, 2017

A Paper Doll for our Times

Do you know those special times when you complete something or create something and you are so happy about it, you admire it over and over again? Maybe you’ve planted a garden or crocheted a pillow or set a table; and you go back to it again and again just to look at it?

These are Golden Moments, and you receive them in rare bursts of well-being and accomplishment. Mostly, you keep them secret unless you drag in new victims to share it with and you get to crow a little.

So here’s my creation.

It’s a paper doll, but instead of changing clothes, she changes her protest signage. Just like me.

In real life, I carry the same sign and stick but just cover it with a new paper sleeve each time. (Just like my sister Allison! And we didn’t even know we both did that.) While I was working on this, Tim was de-cluttering the garage. He found some of my very old signs from the Iraq War. What was going on in Latin America? I’d forgotten I had those colored ribbons, too.
Now I’m at work on a paper doll with a wardrobe of new books she’s reading. Maybe reading to a child. Maybe I’ll make an assortment of the activist dolls like an assortment of Barbies – do you want the brunette, the older one, the guy? All of us, standing up and speaking out.

It all started with this wonderful poster about “creative resilience and the artist’s duty in dark times”:
This led to a mental Third Third flash: was I moving through these “dark times” as an activist or an artist? Or had I never decided – never even thought of the choice – and so was moving through half-assed? And was I really neither anyway?

But then my bricolage group delivered the next assignment: make paper dolls. And I thought of McCall’s magazine and mounting each issue’s Betsy on cardboard and cutting out the clothes with their little tabs. (Did you do that?) And how when my brother wanted to play, we created the Legion of Super Heroes paper dolls and wasn’t it miraculous that when I was de-cluttering Uncle Wiggily’s Story Book, out fell all the Super Heroes (whose clothes were all their normal identities of course and who must have been in Uncle Wiggily only because it was the fattest book)? Why do I have Wonder Woman’s tiara but no Wonder Woman?

My deck of Peter Dunlap-Shohl’s wonderful White House of Cards arrived in the mail, and I thought: Could I make other paper dolls with their signs? Elizabeth Cady Stanton for the vote, Sojourner Truth “Ain’t I a Woman,” Elizabeth Warren “Nevertheless, she persisted.” Would you want a paper doll that looked like you or your friends or family? With a blank to create your own signs?

I think I’m still rather half-assed as an artist and activist, but inspiration struck and now I have paper dolls – a new generation of Super Heroes, but they’re us. Or rather, we have to be them. Let me know if you want one.

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