Wednesday, December 14, 2011

An Irish Blessing

Back in mid-September, my high school class held its fortieth anniversary reunion. Many classmates came from as far as California for the weekend festivities, and afterwards all said they had a wonderful time. Only a few classmates who attended, however, knew that an Irish celebrity had given our gathering her blessing a full month before the reunion.

I was on the committee preparing for the reunion. My chief responsibility had been researching and compiling information about classmates who had died. At one of our Saturday morning committee meetings back in July, we were discussing what kind of memorial presentation we wanted to do for our departed classmates. Sharon, the committee member in charge of the memorial, was outlining her thoughts: that we could do a PowerPoint slide show with some recorded background music. I then suggested that, since our class was known for its musical talent, perhaps we could have live music instead of recorded music. The committee all thought that was a wonderful idea, so of course they put me in charge of arranging for the music.

The first thing I had to do was pick appropriate musical selections. I figured that two pieces would be enough to get us through the slide presentation. The first selection was easy. I wanted to use a setting of Psalm 23, since that’s often read or sung at memorials and funerals, and I remembered that the high school concert choir had sung a setting of Ps. 23 called “Brother James’ Air” that I thought many of the singers would remember.

But I was stumped about the second piece until the following morning, when we sang the hymn “Be Thou My Vision” during our Sunday worship service in my home church. I recalled that many of our classmates had loved that hymn during our high school years.

I found some simple arrangements of the two selections and began contacting singers.

The first weekend in August is always the weekend of the Dublin, Ohio, Irish Festival. Dublin is a suburb of Columbus, and we always look forward to attending the festival, most notably because we can hear some of the top Irish bands perform live. And we especially like to go on the Sunday of the festival, because several worship services are held in the morning, and admission to the festival is free if we bring canned donations for the local food pantry. The free admission allows us to attend worship and then stay for the rest of the day’s activities. So on this first Sunday in August my wife and I, along with our second son and daughter-in-law, climbed into the car with about eight cans of beans for the donation and drove to Coffman Park for a day at the festival.

The Dublin stage, a large, open-air pole building, is normally the venue for the biggest and best-known acts that attract the largest crowds. On Sunday morning it was being used for the most heavily attended worship service: a Roman Catholic Mass that was being said in the Irish language. A local priest who has learned the language presides over this service, which is held every year at the festival. We decided to attend the Mass to hear the Irish language spoken—we thought that would be something different and interesting. (At right: the front page of the bulletin for the Mass. Photos below left: Some last-minute preparations before the Mass began)

Before the Mass began, the organizers of the service introduced a choir—I think they were mostly from St. Brendan’s Catholic parish in Dublin—and then they introduced a singer named Moya Brennan, who was sitting with the choir in the front.

Some of my readers here may know who Moya Brennan is. I didn’t. I had absolutely no idea at the time that she is an Irish music celebrity. I honestly thought she was just a local talent, perhaps from St. Brendan’s. Readers who haven’t heard of Moya Brennan may recognize the name of her better-known sister: Enya. I didn’t learn who Ms. Brennan is until after all this happened.

I am sure that readers can guess what the opening hymn for the Mass was. Indeed, it was “Be Thou My Vision”! (Well, it is an Irish hymn, after all.) Moya Brennan sang the first verse in Irish, and then we all sang three verses in English. My heart melted when I heard the Irish words being sung:
Bí Thusa mo shúile
a Rí mhór na ndúil…
Moya sang it in that lilting Irish soprano that is so captivating. I was so touched by the words and by Moya’s singing that I told my wife I had to go speak with her after the service was over. She told me, though, that Ms. Brennan was scheduled to perform some music on her own at noon, according to the schedule in her hand. I replied that I wouldn’t be taking much of her time; I just wanted to ask her a question.

So, without knowing who she is, I did approach Moya Brennan after the service. She was setting up for her gig behind the stage area. I went up to her and asked her where or how I could learn to pronounce the Irish words to the hymn that she had sung.

She looked at me, smiled and then said, “Here’s what I’ll do. I’ll give you a phonetic rendering.”

As soon as she opened her mouth to speak with her Irish accent, I knew she wasn’t from St. Brendan’s. Although she was quite busy getting ready for her performance, she graciously took the time to help me with the pronunciations.

I stayed and listened to her performance while the rest of the family visited other attractions at the festival. About two hours later, after Moya’s performance was finished, I stood in her reception line. She was selling CD's, chatting with appreciative fans, and posing for photographs as well. When I got to the front of the line, I purchased one of her CD's, out of gratitude to her for her willingness to help me out even though she was so busy. (Photo below right: Moya Brennan in her reception line, talking with an appreciative fan)

I then took the CD and gave it to her for her autograph. I looked at her, smiled and said, “I wish to thank you for your gracious willingness to take time out of preparing for your performance to help teach me the Irish words to ‘Be Thou My Vision.’”

She smiled and replied, “It was my pleasure.”

“I want to tell you the reason I am interested in that particular hymn.”


“I’m on the anniversary reunion committee for my high school class, and I was planning to use that hymn during our memorial presentation for our classmates who have died. Those Irish words truly inspired me.”

She looked at me, smiled, put her hand on my shoulder, and very kindly said, “Go for it!”

I will never forget that experience. Now our reunion, and especially our memorial presentation, has the blessing of an Irish celebrity! What more could I ever ask for?

The reunion was held during the third weekend in September. It was a marvelous experience and an emotional watershed for me as well as for many others. As it turned out, the elaborate memorial presentation we had planned, with the live singing and the PowerPoint slides, never materialized. Instead, Sharon simply read a poem that another classmate had written for the occasion and then read the names of the classmates who had passed. It was a very moving moment. (I did sing the two Irish verses of “Be Thou My Vision” that I had learned from Ms. Brennan privately to a few classmates.)

But most importantly, it was clear to me that Moya Brennan’s gracious and generous spirit permeated the reunion and all who attended it. After it was all over, many commented on how kind and friendly everyone was. Moya’s blessing certainly carried us through the weekend—her kindness, friendliness, and generosity being reflected in the attitudes and actions of all who were there.

Friday, November 18, 2011

New Development

Zane State College in Zanesville, Ohio, one of the two-year schools where I teach, is developing an associate degree program in sustainable agriculture. Take a look.

I was told that this is the only degree program of its kind offered here in Ohio. It will be fascinating to see how this develops. I'm assuming that this degree offering was inspired by the developing interest in organic farming, sustainability, and local food production. I will be watching this development with interest, especially to see how many students this offering attracts.

Kudos to Zane State College for anticipating the future!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Nature's Severe Mysteries

         Nature has many mysteries,
some of them severe.--Mary Oliver

I am the oldest of five siblings. Number two after me is a brother who is two years younger than I. Our only sister is seven years my junior, and the youngest brother is nine years younger. But between the second sibling and our sister, we had another brother. His name was Jerry. Few people outside the family knew about Jerry because he never went to school, he never attended church or Sunday school, and he never attended any of our school functions. Furthermore, I never talked about him with my friends and acquaintances from school. By the time he was seven years old, he hardly ever would have been found at our home.

Jerry was mentally handicapped--profoundly so. We used the word "retarded" back then, but I understand that word is out of favor now. We didn't know of his disability at first, of course, but it became more and more apparent when he simply didn't develop as a normal infant. A short time before his seventh birthday, my parents made the difficult decision to have him institutionalized because they didn't think they could care for him at home anymore. Caring for him simply took all of my mom's time.

Mom always hated that decision, even though she realized it was the only reasonable option. At first, Jerry lived at one of the state hospitals and was there treated little better than the livestock at some of those huge "factory farms" that we read about. We would go pick him up and bring him home as often as we could, usually on Sunday afternoons, but we could tell that he wasn't getting very good care.

Jerry's room and board at the state hospital cost our family four dollars per day. That was a lot of money in the mid-1960s for a family on one income with four small children at home. So mom made another decision that was difficult for her: she began working outside the home. At first, she worked as a housekeeper for the motel that her brother and his family managed. Then she took a job as sales clerk at a convenience store. Eventually, she was hired at the post office, where she sorted mail at first, then later became a window clerk serving customers.

Eventually, my parents were able to transfer Jerry to a nursing home that specialized in the care of people like him. (Some years after that, the state closed the hospital where he had been housed.) The care was better, but still he didn't get the kind of care he would have received at home, so mom still brought him home as often as she could. The nursing home was farther away than the state hospital, though. Eventually, though, the family no longer had to pay for Jerry's care. But Mom continued working anyway; college expenses were looming (beginning with me), and it simply made sense to keep the additional income flowing.

The chief reason I never told classmates about Jerry was fear. There was a small band of kids at school who teased and taunted me unmercifully. I figured that if any of them ever learned about Jerry, they would use the fact that I had a "retard" for a brother as an excuse to tease me all the more. So I never shared information about Jerry with anyone, for fear that it might get back to that group.

On April 11, 1992, long after the youngest of us had left home and gone out on our own, mom and dad brought Jerry home for another visit. One thing that Jerry always loved was taking a bath, so they would always put him in the bath right away. This day was no different. After putting Jerry in the bathwater, mom went to prepare his lunch. (He was never able to feed himself and basically lived on strained baby food which had to be spoon-fed to him.) While mom was taking care of getting lunch ready, Jerry somehow managed to turn on the hot water tap and scalded himself. Before anyone could do anything, Jerry was unconscious.

They rushed him to the emergency room, but it was too late. An autopsy was later performed, and I believe it was determined he died not from the burns themselves, but from shock leading to cardiac arrest. Jerry's death was ruled accidental.

We had a private family service for him; viewing hours were not advertised to the public, and no obituary was published in the local paper.

Jerry was 34 years old when he died.

Mom had been diagnosed with breast cancer in 1988. After the usual treatments--mastectomy followed by chemotherapy--her condition stablilzed, though the cancer never really went into complete remission. Mom's medical condition was still stable at the time of Jerry's accident, but mom always blamed herself for Jerry's death. "I wasn't there for him when he needed me," she would say. Of course it wasn't her fault; it wasn't anyone's fault. About a year after Jerry died, the cancer started spreading again, and two years later, on April 23, 1994, mom was gone too. I believe she had lost some of her will to live after Jerry died.

Mary Oliver's poem, "At the Pond," tells about six baby geese that the poet observed one summer. She would go every morning to the pond to watch them, and she describes how they "would paddle to me / and clamber / up the marshy slope / and over my body" (lines 5-8). At first it seems that the poet is simply going to continue describing "such sweetness every day" (10) that she observed that summer. But halfway through the poem, the tone abruptly changes. "Not there, however, but here / is where the story begins," the poet announces. "Nature has many mysteries / some of them severe" (14-17). Five of the six goslings grew normally: "heavy of chest and / bold of wing" (19-20). The sixth, however, "waited and waited / in its gauze-feathers, its body / that would not grow" (21-23). At the end of the season, the five that had grown up normally, along with their parents, observed their instincts and flew south for the winter:
And this is what I think
  everything is about:
      the way
         I was glad

for those five and two
   that flew away,
      and the way I hold in my heart the wingless one
         that had to stay. (25-32)

Like the baby goose in Mary Oliver's poem, my brother Jerry never developed and was never able to "fly" either. He simply didn't posses the normal mental capacity to attend school, develop talents and abilities, or eventually live on his own. And just like Mary Oliver's little gosling, Jerry's time with us was and continues to be a mystery. Why was he born the way he was? Why did he come to our family?

Mom always told us that she believed God knew Jerry would need special care and so gave him to our family, despite the fact that we weren't really able to care for him all the time. Perhaps Mom was right.

Mom and Jerry are buried side by side in a cemetery about 10 miles north of our family's home. The family paid for a memorial tree to be planted in Jerry's name; there's a plaque at the base of the tree. My wife and I visited the cemetery this past Memorial Day and took pictures of the plaque, the tree, and the graves.

We will continue to hold Jerry, our wingless one, in our hearts.

Work Cited
Oliver, Mary. "At the Pond." Evidence. Boston: Beacon Press, 2009. 34-35.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Urban Nature Preserves

I've been meaning to write on this topic for a few months. Back in March, my wife and I took a road trip to Texas. While there, our host (my sister-in-law) asked us if we wanted to visit the Trinity River Audubon Center in Dallas. We said sure. So on a hot day, especially for us Ohioans in March, we visited the center. Upon our arrival, I immediately encountered that deja vu feeling. It wasn't so much that I thought I had been to that specific location before; it was more that the Trinity River center had almost the same look and feel as the Grange Insurance Audobon Center right here in Columbus.

The family resemblance of the two Audobon centers was a prominent reason for this feeling, but it was more than that. Both are located within the city limits of their host cities: the Trinity River Center is in an outlying part of Dallas, whereas the Grange Insurance Center is close to downtown Columbus. Both are located along a major waterway: the Trinity River in Dallas and the Scioto River in Columbus. Both centers are built on reclaimed industrial wasteland. The Trinity River Center was once an illegal dump. The Grange Center is on a former industrial park called the Whittier Peninsula, formed by a U-shaped bend in the Scioto River. More recently it has been the site of the Columbus Police Division's vehicle impound lot, where abandoned and confiscated motor vehicles were kept. Both centers are only a few years old. Both have incorporated extensive wetland areas to attract greater biological diversity. And both have financial support from local government: the City of Dallas partly funds the Trinity River Center, while the Grange Center is incorporated into Scioto Audubon Metro Park and is partly supported by the Columbus Metro Parks system. And of course, both are islands of biodiversity in an urban setting.

Both centers take environmental education seriously, as do all Audubon nature centers. Both have education facilities housed in state-of-the-art, ecologically friendly, low-carbon-footprint buildings. Both nature centers have educational displays, a conference area, classroom space for lectures, hands-on activities for children, and a bookshop.

Here is the education building at the Trinity River Center in Dallas, taken in March 2011.
We first visited the Grange Center in Columbus in January 2010 when the Metro Parks held their annual winter hike there. This is what the education center looked like at that time.


Here is a view along the Trinity River in Dallas, in March 2011.
And a view of a mist-shrouded, partially frozen Scioto River. January 2010.
Both centers, of course, are valuable additions to the biological diversity of the urban areas in which they are located. The Whittier peninsula has been an important central Ohio stopover for migratory birds. Close by, on the opposite side of the Scioto river, is Green Lawn Cemetery, another area of high biodiversity, with its extensive prairie plantings and mature, mostly native, trees.

I might briefly discuss how these islands of biodiversity, while a great thing to have in the urban and suburban environment, are only part of the solution to the problem of urban ecological poverty. Property owners, from businesses to homeowners to religious and government facilities, also need to participate in the "greening" of our cities. Entomologist Douglas Tallamy, in his book Bringing Nature Home, discusses the need for urban and suburban landowners to add more native plants to their landscapes, and he then gives a thorough explanation of the reasons why this is important--highly recommended reading. Organizations like the non-profit Wild Ones are dedicated to demonstrating for homeowners how they can grow less lawn, plant more natives, reduce or eliminate the use of hazardous lawn "care" chemicals, and still have an attractively landscaped property. All who own even a small piece of property can help increase the spread of biodiversity throughout our urban and suburban landscapes just by adding a few native plantings to their yards.

Increasing the native plantings in our cities and suburbs can go a long way toward rebuilding our damaged ecosystems. The Audubon Society and its educational programs, along with those resources I mentioned and still others, also dedicated to restoring biological diversity, can help us achieve that goal. If you're ever in Dallas or Columbus, I encourage you to check out these unique Audubon centers and spend some time there.

Monday, May 9, 2011

I Have Emerald Ash Borer

This is so, so, sooooo--not good. We looked at the white ash tree in our front yard today and noticed one branch that hadn't leafed out. It looked dead. I looked closely at the branch and noticed the characteristic and unmistakable half-moon bore holes. Ever since the borer had been found in a metro park nearby, we have been expecting to see it sooner or later. We were always hoping for later, of course.

Now we have to decide whether to try and save the tree by using a systemic chemical drench that is implicated in honeybee colony collapse disorder, or to just let the borer have its way and turn the tree into firewood. Not a happy choice.


Saturday, May 7, 2011

How Quickly Will the Poison Build Up Again?

How many deaths will it take 'til he knows,
That too many people have died?
The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind,
The answer is blowing in the wind.
--Bob Dylan

I have been in a somber mood for most of the last week. Those of you who read the last post on this blog know part of the reason why, as I wrote about my wrestling with an uncharacteristic and unexpected emotional reaction to a tragic bit of news. In the time since then, the intense emotional pain has subsided, although my feelings are still tender, and I can be set off weeping just by thinking about it or being reminded of it. (Music, especially singing, can do it, for example.) But just as I was beginning to feel more or less "normal," another event, much larger in scope, imposed itself on my conscience.

I was working here on that high school classmate Facebook page last Sunday evening when someone posted a note saying the president was going to speak at 10:30 on a "national security matter," so I went downstairs and alerted my wife. We turned on the TV and then waited and waited for the president to come out; finally I gave up and went to bed, so I never heard his announcement. But in the meantime, the information that the president was going to deliver had leaked to the media, and the CNN reporters told me all I really needed to know: that terrorist leader Osama bin Laden had been hunted down and killed by American forces.

I have to say that I didn't react at all, one way or another, at the time. I simply accepted it as another news fact, no different than any other news fact. It wasn't until many hours later that I began to recognize that this initial reaction to such a significant event was rather strange. Maybe my emotions were still too raw to react? I don't know.

All the next day (Monday), I think I was in some sort of daze or trance. In light of my emotional vulnerability over the past two weeks, I didn't think I needed anything to happen that day that could provoke another emotional breakdown. (No, I didn't think it would be good to start blubbering in class!) So I tried to keep my distance from the whole thing. I deliberately stayed away from news broadcasts and newspaper reports about the details of the search, the raid, and the final outcome; I'm still purposely avoiding news reports of the affair and only slowly peeking at reports of other events. There are facts about this event that I simply didn't--and still don't--want to know; at least not now. But by Monday morning, I began hearing people talking about celebrations during the night, and that disturbed me. People celebrating bin Laden's death? How does that make us any different from the people ten years ago who filled Middle Eastern streets celebrating the collapse of the towers?

Then a friend and colleague from school posted some comments on Facebook, expressing a sentiment similar to what I had begun formulating:

[Name withheld] considers posting an opinion about recent events and wonders how many people will 'unfriend' her for finding all this kind of anti-climactic, thinking more about the deaths and permanent damage (visible and invisible) visited on many MANY good goood people, and wondering how quickly the poison will build up again.

So I came around and posted my own comment, echoing her concerns, and even borrowing some of her wording:

Don Plummer is still processing what he thinks about the news that broke late last night.

Like another Facebook friend mused, I've wondered how many people will ‘unfriend’ me if I post what I'm really thinking? Thirst for blood has been satisfied, I suppose, but what a horrible cost has been paid! Far more lives than were killed in the terrorist attack. Desire for revenge killed Hamlet in the end, after all.

Right now, I'm not willing to:
  • engage in flag-waving;
  • gloat over bin Laden's death;
  • begin to think that this event will solve our problems; rather, it may unleash even more terrorist threats as bin Laden has now gained martyr status;
  • think that targeted assassination, even of the most diabolical figures, is anything more than sanctioned murder.
I posted my comments not because I wanted to make a definitive what's-right-and-what's-wrong statement, but because my mind and my spirit were still trying to process the event and the nation's reaction to it--just like they're still trying to process the earlier-learned fact of my classmate's death.

Later Monday morning, I posted a snippet of dialogue from The Lord of the Rings, a work that has profoundly influenced the way I view the world. It's one of my favorite scenes, in fact, and features an exchange between Frodo and Gandalf that takes place after the latter had finished telling what he had learned about the creature Gollum, the miserable soul that had possessed (or rather, had been possessed by) the One Ring for so many, many years:
 "What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had a chance!"

"Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need ..."

"... I do not feel any pity for Gollum ... He deserves death."

"Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends."

This passage came to my mind very soon after I posted my first Facebook comment; again, not a statement of right or wrong, but a commentary on our all-too-human rush to "deal out death in judgment" (not to mention that Gandalf's comment, "some that die deserve life," reminded me again of my departed classmate).

In the comments thread generated by the earlier Facebook posting, I explained that my biggest concern was that we as a nation have dragged ourselves to the level of our enemies and have become what we hate. The temptation to do that is all too natural and must be fought against. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem we were up to the challenge.

I can be certain that none of my tears over the last six days were shed for Osama bin Laden. He was a despicable figure--far more despicable than Gollum, in fact, who, although a murderer, was really more of an old, miserable wretch, totally in thrall to that shiny object dangling from Frodo's neck. (If there's an analogue to bin Laden in Tolkien's narrative, it's more likely to be Saruman than Gollum.) But I have been mourning for what our nation apparently has become--how we have allowed the event that bin Laden will most be remembered for to make us forget who we are as a nation and to become something we were not. And I have mourned for the countless thousands that have died, multiple times more than died when the towers fell, in our nearly ten years of senseless war: some of them our own brave soldiers, of course, but many more non-combatant, innocent Iraqi and Afghani citizens.

As I said, I've deliberately stayed away from the news this past week, but I have been told some of the circumstances of the raid on bin Laden's compound. I understand that the "official" story has changed and I would presume that we may never know exactly how events transpired. Although I cannot second-guess why the special forces troops on the scene decided they had to shoot instead of capture, it just doesn't strike me that cornering and then killing an unarmed bin Laden in his own bedroom, while surrounded by family, can ever be regarded as our nation's proudest moment or most noble achievement. We've been told that the death of bin Laden serves justice, brings closure, or causes satisfaction. The Columbus Dispatch even used the word solace. But I don't feel any of these sentiments. Rather, just thinking of this entire affair makes me feel hollow and gives me a sinking feeling. Hence the somber mood I've been in.

Violence begets violence. Or, as put far more eloquently nearly two thousand years ago, "all who take the sword will perish by the sword". This past week, another friend blogged on the myth of redemptive violence. I highly recommend reading it. Already al-Qaida is plotting revenge on their new martyr. When will it end? Why couldn't we have ended it at the beginning, by responding differently to the initial attack?

I don't pretend that my words here are the last word on the subject. I'm still trying to make sense of this event and don't feel I could give a definitive word if I tried. If you think you must break off contact with me because of what I wrote here, do what you feel you must do. But I would hope, even if you disagree with me, you will read these comments in the spirit in which they are written: the cries of an anguished heart, concerned about what our country has become; and that you will receive them in that way.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Bone-deep connections

How can I write about something I cannot begin to understand?

I've been undone. My emotions have become unhinged. I've awakened at night with moist eyes; I've been weeping in my sleep. I've found myself crying audibly during the day. I've felt tears welling up as I walk between classes. I've lost sleep. I've neglected some of my work. As one who normally doesn't display his emotions, this is a totally new experience. And after a week, it isn't letting up. Moreover, I don't really understand why it's happening.

What has caused me to become such an emotional basket case? I recently was told of a tragedy. Just last week, I learned of the untimely death of a grade school/high school classmate--almost ten years after the fact. Clearly, I'm grieving. It's quite natural to grieve, of course. But I've never, ever, experienced this depth, level, or intensity of grief in my life--not even when my mother died (which was seventeen years ago this past week). And the classmate, who died in November 2001, was not really a close friend; she was more of a casual friend. What is happening? Why has this particular bit of tragic news so upended my emotions?

A few months ago, my wife received an e-mail from a high school classmate. With her 40th graduation anniversary approaching, a few classmates decided to use e-mail and Facebook to contact other classmates and try to organize a face-to-face reunion. In response, I realized my own high school class' graduation is also approaching its 40th anniversary, but nobody to my knowledge was organizing a reunion. So after a few electronic correspondences with another classmate, we thought it might be a good idea to set up our own "virtual reunion" on Facebook. Last week, on Monday, I did it; I set up the Facebook group and enrolled eight classmates who were also Facebook friends. It has been a great success so far; classmates who have Facebook accounts are signing on; then they're letting other classmates know of the group. Interest is spreading, and it appears that a face-to-face reunion will be organized for later in the year.

All is going as expected, right? Well, not quite. Along with the excitement and pleasure of reacquainting ourselves with long lost school mates, we're uncovering the always sad news of classmates who are no longer with us. Some of them I didn't know well or at all. Others I knew, but was never very close to. It's always a tragedy to be told of someone's death, but it's still less painful to say, "I'm sorry about ______'s passing" when one didn't know the deceased person well. However, when one classmate mentioned that she thought Mindy had died and another confirmed it, also sharing some details, I was devastated. I wanted to shout out, "Say it ain't so!" Not Mindy! This has to be wrong! Thus, one week ago, my inexplicable emotional ride began, with no end in sight.

Her name was Melinda, but she was always known simply as Mindy. It was a lovely name for a wonderful person. She was one of those extremely rare people for whom the word "special" doesn't begin to do justice. She was unabashedly friendly, and her friendliness was absolutely genuine, never contrived. She was full of energy, and always ready with an enthusiastic greeting. Most importantly, she was a warm, caring person, who always took interest in others' needs ahead of her own.

I cannot remember when we first met. We simply grew up together. Mindy was born three months ahead of me (and two days after Christmas) in the same small city that we both called home. We didn't attend the same elementary school after completing first grade, though it's quite possible that she and I knew each other by the time we were in first grade, if not earlier. I can be almost certain that she and I attended Sunday school together at the Methodist church from an early age, and that we were in the same confirmation class. It's also likely that we also both attended summer Vacation Bible School sessions together. Later, we were both involved with Methodist Youth Fellowship. By our junior high years and through high school, we would have been in many of the same classes together because we were both in the top 10% of the class and were normally enrolled in the same Advanced Placement classes. However, Mindy was clearly my superior in the intelligence department; she finished second in our graduation class of about 250, while I was several steps lower. Finally, Mindy and I shared one passion: we both loved to sing. We were in Concert Choir and Swing Choir together during our senior year, and we both sang in the high school youth choir at church.

After high school graduation, we went our separate ways, as so often happens to high school graduates in our mobile society. We attended separate private colleges in different corners of Ohio, and eventually both of us moved away from our hometown. Our families still lived there, though, so occasionally I would encounter her when we were both visiting family, usually in church over a holiday like Christmas. She would invariably give me her enthusiastic, warm greeting, like she always did, and we would briefly exchange pleasantries.

I believe Mindy attended our 20th high school class reunion in 1991 (we didn't have a 30th reunion in 2001), but I don't recall either seeing or speaking with her. Therefore, I may never know the last time I actually spoke with her. We simply lost contact with each other over time. The 20th anniversary reunion directory indicated that Mindy earned a doctorate in clinical psychology in the early 1980s, married, settled with her husband, also a psychologist, in a large city in another state, and had a daughter who was three years old at the time. However, I never learned that she had been diagnosed with scleroderma in 1983. I only learned that last week, after I was told of her passing. Scleroderma is a systemic disease; it is thought that the body's immune system turns against the body and begins attacking vital organs. Mindy suffered with it for eighteen years before it finally ended her life. The daughter would have been around 13 when Mindy passed away, so she's a young adult woman by now.

So why have I reacted so emotionally to the news of Mindy's death, when I never reacted similarly to the deaths of dear family members, including my own mother? Is the emotional intensity my way of crying out at the seeming injustice of Mindy's predicament--the age-old, unanswerable question of why someone as wonderful, generous, and kind as Mindy would be made to suffer as she must have, and made to die before she even reached the age of fifty? Or is it because the news came out of the blue and I was totally unprepared for it? When my mom died, it wasn't at all unexpected; we had watched cancer slowly devour her life over the six years after she was diagnosed. Until I heard otherwise last week, I would have assumed that Mindy was still as active, healthy, and energetic as ever. Or am I perhaps punishing myself for failing to keep in touch with a true friend? At the very least, I could have put her on my Christmas card list; we could have exchanged cards over the years. Perhaps all these are factors. But an essay by Scott Russell Sanders suggests that there might be a far deeper, more primordial, reason.

Sanders grew up in northern Portage County in northeast Ohio. During his high school years, the state decided to dam the west branch of the Mahoning River, which flowed through a valley near his home. The dam was completed during his senior year, but his family left the area right after he graduated from high school, and Sanders went off to college, so he never saw the reservoir after it had filled. About two decades later, Sanders happened to be doing some work in the area and was traveling on the interstate when the familiar town names on the highway signs lured him back to the area. He was shocked not only by the vista that the reservoir presented him, but also by the fact that the land surrounding the lake, including the area where his home had been, had seemingly been abandoned by humans and was reverting to wilderness (Sanders 7-11). But as unprepared as he was for the change in the landscape, he was even less prepared for his emotional reaction:
"My worst imaginings had failed to prepare me for this. I stood there dazed. I could not take it in, so much had been taken away. For a long spell I leaned against the guardrail and dredged up everything I could remember of what lay beneath the reservoir. But memory was at last defeated by the blank gray water. No effort of mind could restore the river or drain the valley. I surrendered to what my eyes are telling me. Only then was I truly exiled" (11).

Sanders believes that his emotional reaction to the inundation of the valley where he grew up was related to the inevitable tie we humans have between ourselves and our "native ground":
"One's native ground is the place where, since before you had words for such knowledge, you have known the smells, the seasons, the birds and beasts, the human voices, the houses, the ways of working, the lay of the land, and the quality of light. It is the landscape you learn before you retreat inside the illusion of your skin. You may love the place if you flourished there, or hate the place if you suffered there. But love it or hate it, you cannot shake free. Even if you move to the antipodes, even if you become intimate with new landscapes, you still bear the impression of that first ground" (12).

While Sanders is speaking here of what he calls our "bone-deep attachment" (14) to our formative physical geography, is it possible that we also, similarly and indelibly, bear an equally bone-deep connection to the people who were part of our formative lives? Sanders' story, especially his emotional reaction to the sudden realization that things around the reservoir did not remain the way he had remembered them, parallels my own experience from this past week. Is it possible that my life, Mindy's life, and the lives of perhaps other classmates I might not even realize right now, were woven together in some very deep, mysterious way during our formative years as we grew, learned, played, and, yes, sang together? Is it possible that this very palpable, almost physical pain that I've been experiencing since learning of Mindy's passing, a pain that is welling up from some deep, unknown, and heretofore unexplored depth of my being, has been caused by the severing of that bond--that deep, mysterious connection that was woven all those years ago? I don't know, but I'm beginning to imagine that it might be so. If so, it's a reminder that we humans are social creatures, and that we're not meant to live the autonomous, atomized lifestyle that's so relentlessly promoted by our American, consumerist culture. The bottom line is that we cannot live lives contrary to our own nature. We may ignore or neglect these connections, but we cannot escape them.

It's true that both Mindy and I, along with our families, made new friends and acquaintances in the places where we eventually settled. Mindy certainly had a secure support network that helped see her through the tragedy of her illness, and I believe I also have one. But new relationships do not replace these primordial bonds; they can only supplement them. Finally, although learning of Mindy's passing has caused me great emotional pain over the past week, I would never, never want to deny that deep, mysterious connection, even if doing so would allow me to avoid the hurt.

I began this essay by asking how I could write about something I am unable to understand. I'm ending it by imagining that, perhaps, the writing process itself actually helped me reach a kind of understanding--however inadequate that understanding might be--and has helped begin the healing of the Mindy-shaped wound that was inflicted in my soul. The pain and emotional intensity I'm experiencing now will, sooner or later, fade, and my life will go on. But it will probably never be quite the same. Such wounds never completely heal. The bonds that hold people together; the bonds that remain an essential part of our humanity, will endure come what may. Mindy, you have been and will continue to be sorely missed. May you rest in peace, Mindy, and may God continue to bless your family and loved ones.


Work Cited
Sanders, Scott Russell. "After the Flood." Staying Put: Making a Home in a Restless World. Boston: Beacon Press, 1993. 3-15.

FINAL NOTE: In order to try and protect the privacy of Mindy's family, I did not include last names; I also purposely left out the name of our mutual hometown, the names of the schools and the church we attended, and the name of the city to which Mindy eventually relocated. However, I couldn't bring myself to avoid using her real name.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

George Will's Flip-flop

My previous post, "George Will: Driving a Wedge" was re-posted late last Thursday on the Energy Bulletin site. It received a few comments from Energy Bulletin readers; among them was a comment from Eddiejoe67: "George Will was for high speed rail before he was against it." Eddiejoe's comment linked to an article in Grist published on March 4 and written by cities editor Sarah Goodyear. Goodyear mentions a reader who "tipped [them] off" to an article Will had written almost ten years earlier, shortly after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Goodyear writes:

In the dark days immediately after 9/11, Will seems to have had a revelation about how a certain mode of transportation could help our nation be stronger and more secure. In an Oct. 1, 2001 column syndicated in the Jewish World Review, Will recommended three steps in response to the attack that the nation had just sustained. First, buy more B-2 bombers. Second, cut corporate taxes. And third? Let Will speak for himself (emphasis mine):
Third, build high-speed rail service.
Two months ago this columnist wrote: "A government study concludes that for trips of 500 miles or less -- a majority of flights; 40 percent are of 300 miles or less -- automotive travel is as fast or faster than air travel, door to door. Columnist Robert Kuttner sensibly says that fact strengthens the case for high-speed trains. If such trains replaced air shuttles in the Boston-New York-Washington corridor, Kuttner says that would free about 60 takeoff and landing slots per hour."
Thinning air traffic in the Boston-New York-Washington air corridor has acquired new urgency. Read Malcolm Gladwell's New Yorker essay on the deadly dialectic between the technological advances in making air travel safer and the adaptations to these advances by terrorists.
"Airport-security measures," writes Gladwell, "have simply chased out the amateurs and left the clever and the audacious." This is why, although the number of terrorist attacks has been falling for many years, fatalities from hijackings and bombings have increased. As an Israeli terrorism expert says, "the history of attacks on commercial aviation reveals that new terrorist methods of attack have virtually never been foreseen by security authorities."
The lesson to be learned is not defeatism. Security improvements can steadily complicate terrorists' tasks and increase the likelihood of defeating them on the ground. However, shifting more travelers away from the busiest airports to trains would reduce the number of flights that have to be protected and the number of sensitive judgments that have to be made, on the spot, quickly, about individual travelers. Congress should not adjourn without funding the nine-state Midwest Regional Rail Initiative.

So long before passenger trains turned into a tool for socialist control, Will thought they might be useful both as a transportation and as a national security solution.

It's really a tragedy that a writer as intelligent and incisive as Will can be is apparently unwilling to counter the right-wing echo chamber.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

George Will: Driving a Wedge

On February 27, Newsweek published a column written by George F. Will titled "High Speed to Insolvency: Why Liberals Love Trains", in which he lambastes the Obama administration for proposing to build (and fund) a nationwide high-speed rail network. Will goes on to ridicule "liberals" for supporting taxpayer-subsidized passenger rail service in general. While Will repeats many of the shibboleths that commonly trip off the lips and pens of all passenger rail opponents (it will  drain our public treasuries, nobody will ride them, people prefer to drive, etc.), he goes a step further by presupposing an ideological divide over the issue. It's "liberals" who want trains, and, further, the real reason these "liberals" want trains is to use them to modify the public's behavior. These seditious "liberals," after all, want to "[diminish] Americans' individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism."

It's quite unfortunate that Will would frame his complaint in ideological terms, because doing so only drives another wedge between Americans. The simple fact is that those of us who want to see a nationwide passenger rail network re-established believe that restoring rail transportation in the USA is a practical necessity. We don't want trains for ideological reasons; we're only seeking solutions to pressing transportation and energy problems.

Will's argument that train travel would somehow lead the American public to embrace collectivism is extremely weak. I wonder whether, during the heyday of rail transportation in the USA in the early 20th century, anyone thought that trains were leading people down the socialist track. I wonder if the commuters waiting for the Metro in DC, the subway in New York, the T in Boston, or the Metra in Chicago experience pangs of worry that their support of public transportation is subverting American values. And since air travel, like train travel, forces passengers to abide by timetables and only takes people to predetermined destinations, I wonder if air travel might already be corrupting our individualism the way Will maintains that rail travel would.

The facts are these, in case Mr. Will is interested: we have a serious energy crisis and an even graver potential crisis. Petroleum resources are depleting worldwide, and new reserves aren't coming into production fast enough to offset the rate of depletion. Fuel prices are once again on the rise. Many people can't afford to operate their automobiles now, and it's likely to get worse. The civil unrest in the Middle East threatens to disrupt the flow of petroleum and, thus, torpedo our global economy (This column by Michael Klare details how, historically, oil producing nations that have gone through political or social upheavals never return to their previous level of production). In this age of energy instability, do we really want to say no to rebuilding our passenger rail capabilities?

Of course, George Will can disagree with the Obama adminstration's high speed rail plan if he wishes. (Even some rail advocates, most famously James Howard Kunstler, believe "high speed rail" is a pipe dream and that the money would be far better spent, not to mention go further, if we used it to rebuild a standard-speed system.) Will has the right to disgree with taxpayer-funded rail transportation altogether. But if he wishes to oppose passenger rail, he ought to give us his real arguments. In the Newsweek column, Will dismisses the arguments offered by rail advocates as "flimsy" and claims they point to an ideological purpose. I'm sorry to tell Mr. Will, but that doesn't work. He need to answer our arguments; if they're really as flimsy as he maintains, he should have no trouble whatsoever countering them. But because he offers us his ideological red herring instead, I suspect that he doesn't really have any substantive rebuttals to our reasoning.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Public Transportation: Not a High Priority in Ohio

The Columbus Dispatch reported last week that under the administration of Ohio's new Republican governor John Kasich, the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) is cutting funding for local transit agencies that had been promised by the administration of the previous governor, Ted Strickland, a Democrat. While this comes as no surprise, given that Governor Kasich managed to kill a major passenger rail project for Ohio before he was even sworn in as Governor, it still comes as a blow to those of us who believe that the government should stop favoring highway construction and automotive transport--those of us who believe we should begin to fund more sustainable transportation systems that will help us cut petroleum use and also provide transportation alternatives to those who need and want them.

Specifically, former Governor Strickland had pledged $150 million out of ODOT's budget over three years to ten Ohio transit agencies, mostly to help them develop new routes. The intent of the new routes was to help connect people to places that offer jobs and job training programs. The Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA), which serves the Columbus area, was among the intended recipients. COTA was planning to use the money to begin a new bus route that would have connected the area's hospitals, including The Ohio State University Medical Center and Nationwide Children's Hospital, to several local educational institutions, including Columbus State Community College where I teach. Given that Ohio's unemployment rate remains above the national average, and given that fuel prices are currently hovering around the $3.00 per gallon range and are rising, such a boost for public transport services seems to be a no-brainer to me.

But this expansion of transit services is not to be. Although ODOT will still share some $80 million in mostly federal transportation money with local transit agencies over the next three years, and although our public transit agencies will be getting more money this year than they have been getting in previous years, the increase won't be enough to allow COTA to offer the planned service connecting health care and higher education services.

According to the Dispatch report, a spokesperson for ODOT dismissed Strickland's funding promise as "not realistic and short-term." One wonders, however, why it isn't realistic. One also wonders what ODOT plans to do with the previously promised money. It is my understanding that ODOT's annual budget hovers around $3 billion per year. I also understand that ODOT's funding, since it comes from federal transportation money and fuel taxes, is not accounted with Ohio's general fund, which is currently running something like an $8 billion projected deficit over the next two years, and over which a lot of hand-wringing is now occurring over imminent and severe budget cuts. Again according to my understanding, ODOT spent about $10 million last year on public transportation. That's only about 60% of the amount ODOT spends every year mowing along the highways! Is most of the money that Strickland had promised to the transit agencies now going to be used for highway construction? One wonders. And if so, one wonders why we need to dedicate even more of the ODOT budget to highway construction, since that's where about 98% of it goes right now. Partly because of the fuel price crunch and high unemployment, Ohioans, like most Americans, are driving less and many younger Ohioans, like many younger Americans, want other transportation options besides driving and being saddled with the cost burdens associated with automobile ownership and maintenance. (Some young Americans aren't even getting their driver's licenses until they're in their 20s, and there's a boom in auto sharing and ride sharing among them.)

The $80 billion that the Kasich administration indicates it will deliver to local transit agencies, spread out over the next three years, represents almost quadrupling the state funding for public transportation from last year. I guess that's better than nothing, and I suppose I shouldn't complain. But other states do far better than this. According to All Aboard Ohio's Ken Pendergast, Pennsylvania spent close to $400 million last year on public transport. And the results are evident in clearly superior services to the public, as Pendergast reports here. There's no real reason why Ohio can't do at least as well.

One more thing: John Kasich, in his inaugural address on January 10, 2011, enjoined Ohioans to "rebuild our great cities in Ohio." I honestly don't know how he can accomplish that without significant and serious increases in spending on viable, convenient public transportation for our cities (not to mention inter-city passenger rail). Just look around: the cities that are vibrant and alive all have excellent and convenient transportation services that the residents use frequently; they are cities that are designed for people and not automobiles. Then take a look at many of Ohio's cities: the central cores are deserted after business hours. Walk around the downtown areas and notice the wide streets cluttered with fast-moving traffic; then look at the relative lack of safe places for people to walk. Notice the parking lot deserts where shopping and other services, as well as residences, could be built instead. (Columbus' downtown has long since been abandoned by retailers; to compensate, if one can call it that, we built a fake downtown in the suburbs, called Easton. One has to drive to go there, of course.) If we want to rebuild our great cities, we need a real commitment to invest in public transportation.

This is not a funding problem; it's a problem of priorities. So long as road-building and automobiles remain a top priority, the full transportation needs of all Ohioans will be neglected. Ohio can do better than this. Ohio must do better than this.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Winter Hikes

Last week I changed my Facebook profile picture. The new photo features me bundled up in my winter coat, hat, gloves, and scarf. Liz and I were participating in one of the Columbus Metro Parks' winter hikes. A few moments after I posted the new photo, I got a comment: "Are you cold?"

I replied, "Nope." Then someone else commented that she was glad she lives in a balmier climate.

I honestly don't know what it is about winter that makes people cringe. I love the season. Things are quiet. The garden is at rest. Mosquitoes aren't bothering us. And most of all, there's nothing more invigorating than taking a walk in the woods on crisp, cold, clear winter days.

Winter hikes in the Metro Parks are fun. We can go on a guided hike, or we can just go at our own pace. When we are finished, there's hot cocoa and soup waiting for us.

  This chinkapin oak is growing alongside Big Darby Creek at the Prairie Oaks Metro Park west of Columbus. The tree's architecture is plainly visible in winter when the branches are bare. The dried leaves of oaks often cling to the branches all winter, but this tree dropped its leaves in 2009, the year I took this picture. We were back at Prairie Oaks two weekends ago, and the tree was bare again. Maybe this one simply doesn't enjoy having its dead leaves hanging around all winter.

In February 2007, we hiked at Wahkeena State Nature Preserve southeast of Columbus as part of a guided hike. The naturalist took us off the marked trails. We saw things few visitors to the preserve ever see. It was an amazing trip and a learning experience as well. At one point we climbed up a narrow passage between two rocks, hanging onto a rope for support. We saw icicles clinging to the rocks. (Note the evergreen rhododendrons growing on top of the rocks here.)

In some places, the snow had partially melted away to reveal early growth, a clear sign of spring despite the cold.

Note the large leaf in the upper center of this photo. This is a native orchid. I wish I could remember which one. The leaf is not dormant. It will gather solar energy and photosynthesize until later in the spring, when, a flower cluster will arise. It does not flower every year.

Below the orchid leaf is the frond of a common Christmas fern.

And this is Lycopodium, commonly known as ground cedar. Like ferns, it reproduces by spores, not seeds.

Lycopodium is the modern descendant of one of the oldest vascular plant families.

More evidence that not all living things go to sleep in the winter. These woodpecker holes certainly would not be readily visible in summer when the forest would be in full leaf.

Back to Prairie Oaks Metro Park two weekends ago, we noticed this area of open water in an otherwise frozen pond. The geese were keeping the area ice-free.

There is natural beauty in every season. I really don't believe I would ever want to live in a place that didn't have four clear seasons and where snow never, or rarely, fell.