It’s Snowing In June–Again

Every year around this time the trees we commonly refer to as Cottonwoods (but are, in fact, their close cousin Balm of Gilead, according to my “Trees of Michigan” book) send warnings of a cotton storm a’brewing by wafting tiny cotton flakes into the air.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAFor days we see the cotton building up on the upper branches, knowing that one day when the sun warms the branches enough and the Gods are in their places the “snow” will begin to fly.

This year it started three days ago but then the rains came, stalling the cotton storm for at least a little while.  I would say that’s a good thing, but it really just prolongs the inevitable.  Those cotton bombs are growing bigger and bigger up there and either tomorrow or the next day our side yard is once again going to look like this:

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

This is a close-up of the cotton ball once it has “exploded”:

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

Early in the spring the “cotton” seeds form and start to fall.  They’re covered with an incredibly sticky resin and manage to stick to everything, especially the bottoms of our shoes.  They end up inside the house, where we have to literally scrape them up off the floor.  What a nuisance!

But I’ve been doing a little research, and it turns out those sticky little buggers are good for something.  They can be made into a salve.  A balm.  A Balm of Gilead.  The people who are onto this balm claim it has magical, out-of-this-world qualities.  It is a pain reliever, an antibiotic, an anti-itch, anti-inflammatory miracle worker, and, if some others are to be believed, a sure-fire cure for cancer called “black salve”.

I found this recipe online, and I can’t wait to try making it when it gets cold again and I can gather up those little sticky slivers.  Olive oil and beeswax are the main ingredients, and it looks simple enough for even me.

The tree is also called “balsam poplar”.  They talk about the pleasant aroma, but I can’t say I’ve actually noticed.  I’ll have to pay attention.

(Oh, by the way, I started this blog yesterday, and today was the day.  Our yard looks just like the picture above.  I almost took another picture, but you wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference.  One snowy yard in June looks like any other.)

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William Zinsser: Writing Well is the Best Legacy

Zinsser On Writing WellI came to what I call professional writing fairly late.  I didn’t take it seriously until my real life eased enough for me to give some attention to what I might want to do with the rest of my days.

After dabbling in every artistic expression of my day–needlework, crochet, macrame, pottery, ceramics, drawing in charcoal and pastels, painting in oils, acrylics, and watercolor–none of which I did well, I finally realized that my early love, writing, was the creative outlet I had been looking for all along.

I joined a local writing group and there I found William Zinsser, their anointed guru.  They couldn’t stop talking about his book, “On Writing Well”.  It was their bible and I, more interested in hamper-free, no-rules writing, was having none of it.  I didn’t want to be told how to write, I wanted to be told I wrote well, even when I didn’t.  That was the whole point of joining a writing group.  Or so I thought at the time.

Zinsser, when I finally opened up to him, taught me otherwise.  Good writing takes skill.  There is no easy way to acquire it and the sooner the novice realizes it, the easier it is to look at the beginnings as school–lessons, grades, apprenticeships.  And then you go to work, where you find that you don’t know everything after all, and that, as in any other profession, the learning never stops.

I’m still a dummy when it comes to grammar and sentence structure.  I’m always imagining the “Oh, God, no” reactions from the more knowledgeable people who take on the task of reading what I write.  I don’t always get it–what can I say?  But William Zinsser gave me the reasons to write. Yes, he was a stickler for grammar and sentence structure, but his main focus was not so much on doing it right as on doing it well.

In honor of his life and skills, in sadness at his passing, here are a few passages from “On Writing Well” (Fifth Edition):

Trust your material if it’s taking you into unknown terrain you didn’t intend to enter but the vibrations are good.  Adjust your style and your mood accordingly and proceed to whatever destination you reach.  Don’t ever become the prisoner of a preconceived plan.  Writing is no respecter of blueprints–it’s too subjective a process, too full of surprises.

Writing is hard work.  A clear sentence is no accident.  Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time.  Remember this in moments of despair.  If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard.  It’s one of the hardest things people do.

The good writer of prose must be part poet, always listening to what he writes.  E.B White continues to be my favorite stylist because I’m conscious of being with a man who cares about the cadences and sonorities of the language.  I relish (in my ear) the pattern his words make as they fall into a sentence.  I try to surmise how in rewriting the sentence he reassembled it to the end with a phrase that will momentarily linger, or how he chose one word over another because he was after a certain emotional weight.  It’s the difference between say, “serene” and “tranquil”–one so soft, the other strangely disturbing because of the unusual n and q.

Writing is not a contest.  Every writer is starting from a different point and is bound for a different destination. Yet many writers are paralyzed by the thought that they are competing with everyone else who is trying to write and presumably doing it better.

Decide what you want to do.  Then decide to do it.  Then do it.

Mr. Zinsser, I wish I had said this before, but you’ll understand if I feel the need to say it now.

Thank you.  It didn’t always take (living proof), but you gave it your best.  You never stopped trying.  And that’s what counts.

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Yes, Virginia, There Are Unicorn Hunters

There is a real Unicorn Hunters Society in the United States, in case you hadn’t heard.  It was formed in 1971, even though, as you know, unicorns have been around forever.  The society is based at Lake Superior State University (hereafter known as LSSU) in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan (pronounced “soo saint Marie, hereafter known as The Soo).

The Soo is at the northern terminus of I-75, just beyond the 46th parallel, an hour north of where I live most of the year.   Up in the north woods hunting is a traditional activity, but until unicorn hunting was established only certain of us believed they existed.  The Unicorn Hunters Society, knowing what chaos would ensue once word got out about the mythical creatures’ activities, wisely set up a list of regulations.

From their Unicorn Quest list:

  • BAG LIMITS:
    1. Only one Unicorn per month. A success ratio higher than this often results in a form of euphoria, which of course requires a mental truss. This is highly undesirable.
    2. Female unicorns may not be taken. Since no one has ever sighted a female unicorn it is believed that males reproduce asexually.
  • TERM OF SEASON. All days of the year except St. Agnes’ Eve. This exception is to protect hares who limp trembling through frozen grass from being trampled by running unicorns. Bow and arrow season is Oct. 1 – Nov. 14, then Dec. 1 – Jan. 1.
  • APPROVED QUESTING DEVICES. Unicorns may be taken with:
    1. Serious Intent
    2. Iambic Pentameter
    3. General levity
    4. Sweet talk

(See complete list of regulations here.  Download a Unicorn Quest license here.)

The society was founded by W.T (Bill) Rabe,  a Public Relations mischief-maker from Detroit who later became the resourceful PR Director at LSSU.  He was looking for something unique that would put the obscure little university on the map, and, for reasons obscure, he came up with The Quest for Unicorns.

It got some attention.  Who could resist? But for Rabe it apparently wasn’t enough. At a New Year’s Eve party a few years later, in 1975, he and some of the other Unicorn Hunters got together and began writing down the words or phrases they most hated that year. (Must have been some party.)  They saw right then and there that unicorn hunters made the most perfect wordsnobs wordsmiths, and the idea for the First Annual Unicorn Hunters List of Words Banished from the Queen’s English for Mis-Use, Over-Use and General Uselessness was born. (Hereafter known as the Banished Words List. Or List.  Or list.)

Bill Rabe, old PR expert that he was, chose New Year’s Day, 1976, for the list’s debut date.  He knew from experience that January 1 is traditionally a slow news day, and the media, always hungry for tidbits on that day, would snap up the whimsical back story about the unicorn hunters and help to promote the Banished Words List.

Some of the words from that first list:  At this point in time, detente, macho, scenario.  (See 1976 list here.  See archive of all lists here.)  Now the voting is open to everyone and the words or phrases that show up most often will get to the top of the list.

Last year’s list included Selfie (no surprise), twerk/twerking, hashtag, Twittersphere (or Twitterverse, as someone corrected.) and Obamacare.

This year  they added BAE (a new word for me until my niece explained it), polar vortex, skill set, cra-cra, and my own favorite candidate, enhanced interrogation.

Well, certain people took umbrage (whoa–a candidate right there) with the Unicorn Hunters.  They didn’t see this as just so much fun; they saw it as a bunch of stuffy university types forcing people to stop using words or phrases of their choosing.   One commenter wrote, “Nobody is going to tell me what words I can use.  Not gonna happen. Bite me.”  (Oy.)banned-wordsI’ve perused (all right, read) the whole damn list from A to Z and I’m pretty sure I’ve used at least a third of those words and phrases.  (Except “bromance” and “chillaxing”. Typing them here for the first and last time.)

I literally (Literally! Ha!  Not on the list!) love lazy phrases and cliches, but only when I’m using them.  I hate it when other people take the easy way out and use them, too.  Amateurs!

I’ve followed the Unicorn Hunters for years and I love these lists, but at the end of the day (1999), they’re just words, right?  So far it’s not a crime to use them, right?  So will I try to mend my ways?

As if! (1997)

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An Education By Fits And Starts But Not Degrees

My formal “college” consists of 26 community college credits, half of them in ceramics.  I took two classes in cultural anthropology, fell in love with Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart”, and decided anthropology was my life’s calling–until my husband called my attention to the want ads in our big city paper.  Not a single call for anthropologists anywhere, and since we were among the almost-poor, and I still had kids at home, I had to think inside the box.

I took a business class taught by a one-handed pianist who should have stuck to his night job.  He invited our class to his concert and, even with one hand, his performance was flawless.  When it came time to evaluate him, none of us could do the honest thing and point out his flaws as a teacher of business.  We gave him high marks for personality.

I tnouveau girl reading books 1909ook two creative writing classes taught by an old pot-smoking hippie who wore chains and earrings and orange tennis shoes and who told us right off that he didn’t care what we wrote as long as we wrote something.  I thought the guy himself was ridiculous, trying as he did to be George Carlin and Jack Kerouac, all in the same skin, so it took me a while to realize how much I had actually learned there.   It came to me much later, when I was putting together materials to teach my own adult-ed creative writing classes:  What he gave us was a setting where we could write and fail and get a huge kick out of what we were doing.  He was a teacher without judgement but with a knack for finding what could be fixed.

I took a modern literature class taught by a woman I don’t remember at all–not her name, not her face, not her teaching technique.  But through her I met Eudora Welty, Joseph Conrad, Langston Hughes, and Flannery O’connor–writers I might have overlooked if she hadn’t brought them (and so many others) to my attention.

And that was the end of my formal education.  Whatever else I’ve learned, I’ve learned either by happenstance or serendipity. Being in the right place at the right time.  Stumbling across something that got me curiouser and curiouser and led me to something else that led me to something else.  Unless I got distracted; then it was something else altogether.

Living near Detroit, I had the advantage of meeting some exceptional writers and thinkers and I latched onto them like a parasite on a host.  I tried to drain them of everything they had to give–quietly, of course, without drawing blood.  I went to readings and workshops and lectures.  I joined groups where professional writers gathered.

They taught me a trade, but it’s a haphazard way to get an education.  It’s not an education, in fact.  Whatever it is, it’s full of holes.  Great gaping holes.  Great gaping embarrassing holes.  (I couldn’t find Iraq on a map if you gave me a hundred bucks to do it. I don’t know what Pi is and I’m afraid I’m missing something meaningful.  I only recently found out that Goethe is pronounced “Gurt-uh”.  Good thing I never had occasion to say his name out loud.)

Now President Obama is pushing for free two-year community college for everyone.  It’ll be an uphill battle, but I’m right there beside him, rooting him on.  I don’t want anyone to have to take on the task of educating themselves.  It can’t be done.  They need teachers.  They need campus life.  They need to argue and debate, to be challenged, to be opened up to directions they might never have taken and ideas they might never have formed on their own.  They need to be pushed and pulled and exposed to a world wholly outside of themselves.

They need to prepare for jobs, and we as a country need to pave the way.  We need to build again, creating good-paying jobs for them to fill.  We need to smarten up, and the best way to do it is through education.

We know that now.

Pretty sure we do.

But I could be wrong.

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Vandals, I Don’t Get You. Can We Talk?

Van·dal

noun: vandal; plural noun: vandals
  1. 1.
    a person who deliberately destroys or damages public or private property.
    “the rear window of the car was smashed by vandals”
    synonyms: hoodlum, barbarian, thug, hooligan, delinquent, despoiler, desecrator, saboteur

    “vandals defaced the front steps of the church”
  2. 2.
    a member of a Germanic people that ravaged Gaul, Spain, and North Africa in the 4th–5th centuries and sacked Rome in AD 455.

_____________________

When I was around seven years old I wandered over to our neighbor’s roadside mailbox and stole the mail out of it.  There was a vacant lot between their house and ours and I remember sitting in the weeds opening that mail. (The mail that, at seven, I doubt I could even read) Then I got scared.  I tore it all up into little pieces.  I got caught–I don’t remember how–and my mother marched me over to our neighbors, where I had to apologize for stealing their mail and tearing it up.

What I learned through my tears was that one piece of that mail–the pretty one with the red and blue stripes around the edges–was a long-awaited letter from their soldier son who was fighting in the war overseas.   That was seven decades ago and I still cringe at the memory.  They were sweet people, those neighbors, and they were kind enough to accept my apology, but I’ve never forgotten how I felt when I had to admit, to them, to my mother, and to myself, that I did a terrible thing.  What was I thinking?  What would make me steal and then destroy something that didn’t belong to me?  I didn’t do it to deliberately hurt our neighbors but the end result was that I did hurt them.

But even though I was a vandal myself–no getting around it–I’ve never understood acts of vandalism.  I’ve heard all the excuses– pent-up rage, drunkenness, group dynamics, an extreme sense of privilege–but every act of vandalism is a criminal act.  Deliberate, wanton destruction is a crime.  It’s not cute, it’s not cool, it’s not ever justified, and it can’t be considered anything less than what it is, just because the people who do it aren’t your ordinary criminals.

So last week this happened:  University of Michigan frat members took over 45 rooms at a Michigan ski resort and over the course of a couple of days did more than $50,000 in damage:

Treetops Resort manager Barry Owens said the students were escorted from the premises by Michigan State Police last weekend after causing $50,000 in damage. The resort is in Dover Township near Gaylord.
Owens said Sigma Alpha Mu fraternity members caused significant damage to furniture, carpet, walls and ceilings.
Sigma Alpha Mu Michigan chapter President Joshua Kaplan says his members “are embarrassed and ashamed of the behavior” of some members. He says the chapter “accepts full responsibility” and “will be working with the management of the resort to pay for all damages and cleaning costs.”
“This behavior is inconsistent with the values, policies, and practices of this organization,” Kaplan said in a statement. “We will work within our own organization and with university officials to hold those who are responsible accountable for their actions.
Kaplan said there will be no further comment from his chapter or organization.
“They caused an excessive amount of damage,” Owens said. “The rooms were just a pigsty. Unfortunately, I’ve been in this business for 30 years and it’s the worst condition of rooms that I’ve ever seen. There were broken ceiling tiles in the hallway, broken furniture, broken windows. There’s carpet that’s going to need to be replaced.”
Owens said there were more than 120 people, men and women, in about 45 rooms.
“A lot of the rooms were just very, very dirty,” he said. “There were holes in the walls and different things like that. They were very disruptive to additional guests that were here.”
Owens said prior to the students being removed, resort staff attempted to rectify the situation.
“We tried to address it with them, but we made a mistake and took these people at their word when they said they would change their behavior,” he said.
The resort is considering its options, including pursuing criminal charges against the fraternity. Owens said the resort also has a meeting planned with university officials.

 

What about the criminal charges against the students? What happened after the Kids Just Want to Have Fun Gang were “escorted from the premises” by the State Police?  Were they fingerprinted and then thrown into as many cells as it took to fill?  Are they still there?

I haven’t heard, but you know they’re not still in jail up there in Gaylord. Who are they?  Give me their names.  Let me talk to them.  Let them try to explain why they did what they did.  I want to know how they’re feeling right now.  Not how they’re feeling about getting caught or being blamed or  about whether or not they’ll still have their fraternity.  I want to know how they’re feeling about themselves.

(And whether, at some future date, they’re going to be thinking about running for public office. . .)

vandal damage Treetops Resort

Vandals damage, Treetops Resort. Photo Credit: Detroit Free Press/Keith Wilkinson

(Cross-posted at Ramona’s Voices and elsewhere)

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Resolved: To Make 2015 A Year To Remember. If I Don’t Forget

Here it is 2015 (Where did the time go, right?) and let me say once again that New Year’s Resolutions are a fun way to pass the time but are meaningless in the real world.  Not meaning to burst your little bubble on the very first day of the new year;  just telling you, in case you woke up this morning actually believing that all it takes to do something life-changing before the year is out is to sincerely resolve to do it on New Year’s Day.

Some people believe a resolution is not legit unless you say it out loud to someone who might actually remember–and care–later on.  I’ve done it myself in the days when I couldn’t have started the year without a list of resolutions.  It was a good luck gesture I really believed in.  Sort of like not stepping on a crack to avoid breaking your mother’s back.

But over time I realized the surest way to disappoint myself in the worst way possible was to promise myself (most sincerely, because no other way would do) that I wouldn’t be a complete failure again.  This year I would finally do what I’ve been meaning to do, and this time I mean it.

Sometimes I would even make a list–actually write things down:

Lose 20 pounds.

Make a lot of money with my writing.

Travel to that place I’ve always wanted to go.

Okay, lose 10 pounds.

Okay, make any money with my writing.

Okay, at least get out of the state.

Then, thankfully, I would lose the list, and any remnants of any long ago resolution would drift away, never to be heard from again.

Well, okay, not never.  By the next New Year’s Eve those long-ago resolutions would come back and hit me like a ton of bricks.  I promised!  I resolved!  I said them out loud!  I didn’t do any of them!  (Except to get out of the state.  I did manage to do that.  But who couldn’t when you live 20 miles from the border?)

So this year you could follow my lead, save yourself a lot of headaches, and just bypass that tradition.  The world won’t come to an end.  The year will start, the days will go by, one by one, and nobody will notice that you didn’t make a resolution.

I didn’t know that when I was young.  I went along, sheep-like, because everyone else did.  I honestly thought I was the only one who didn’t keep her resolutions.  I know better now.  It’s the most freeing thing in the world to know my promises to myself are meaningless and therefore totally unnecessary.

You too can be free.  Just say no.  No resolutions!  (If you think you can’t do it, write me.  I’ll talk you down.  I’ve been there.  I know.)

So Happy New Year!  Health! Prosperity!  Love!  Joy!

Carry on. . .

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

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It’s Hard to Be Merry At Christmas When It’s “Merry Christmas” Or Else

 The last time I wrote about Christmas I thought I was being pretty polite, considering the message I was getting from my friends and relatives and neighbors.  To wit:  How DARE you even THINK about not wishing me a Merry Christmas!  Which, of course, led me to respond by pleading “not guilty”–which caused me to tell a lie at Christmas since I didn’t feel the least bit guilty. Why would I?

I say “Merry Christmas” quite a bit at Christmas time.  I’ve been saying “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidchristmas-dream2ays” ever since I could say the words, which, I’m guessing, was around December, 1939, when I was just over two years old.  Sometimes I say “Have a great holiday!” without mentioning which holiday I mean when I say that.  There are times when I say “Happy New Year!”, forgetting to say “Merry Christmas”, even though it may be several days before Christmas.  I can’t help it.  It just comes out.

For weeks now I’ve been getting those admonishing Facebook posts and emails about keeping Christ in Christmas by saying “Merry Christmas”. (As if, if we don’t keep repeating those words, everyone will forget who Christ was.)

I hadn’t planned on writing yet another blog about the “war” on Christmas.  Even Bill O’Reilly himself is getting bored with it. I can tell.  (He has now declared the war is over and he won it.) But today I received the email that was the straw that finally broke it.

It was an email from a dear friend and the subject line read, ” MERRY CHRISTMAS!”  The picture that topped it was an old fashioned Currier & Ives etching with digital snowflakes falling, falling, falling.  A colorful “Merry Christmas” banner arched over the top with a bright red ribbon wreathed with holly and ivy.

So lovely. . .

And this is what it said:

I will be making a conscious effort to wish everyone
a Merry Christmas this year …
My way of saying that I am celebrating
The birth Of Jesus Christ.
So, I am asking my email buddies,
if you agree with me, to please do the same.
And if you’ll pass this on to
Your email buddies, and so on… maybe we can prevent one more
American tradition from being lost in the sea of “Political Correctness”.



What. On. Earth.  Really??  At risk of never receiving another Merry Christmas greeting from any of you ever again, I’m going to say this and I hope you will take it in the spirit in which it is given:

What is wrong with you people?

It’s Christmas!  Millions of us love this season.  We look forward to it, we read about it, we sing about it, we who are parents can’t wait to experience it with our children.  We plan, we decorate, we bake, we go shopping, we party.  We find a million different excuses to hug each other.  We hang mistletoe just so we can kiss under it.

We fill food baskets and donate money because it’s Christmas and there is nothing sadder than the thought of someone not enjoying the holidays.  Our happiness is so acute we smile at perfect strangers and wish them good tidings.  Joy, my friends, is busting out all over.

Many of us only go into a church at Christmas time;  some of us not at all.  I love the story of the baby Jesus.  I love Christmas carols. (Last night I watched the St. Olaf Choir Christmas Concert from Norway on PBS.  It was beautiful–a mix of the sacred and the secular–like Christmas.) I love the happy faces.  The candles.  Nice.  All nice.

But let’s talk about Christmas tradition:

December 25 is closer to the pagan celebration of the Winter Solstice than it is to Jesus’ birth, which most Christian scholars put nearer to summer, based on historic events.

The Christmas song “O Tannenbaum” was based on a 16th century tune, put to secular lyrics in 1824.

Charles Dickens wrote “A Christmas Carol” in 1843. While it ends with, “God bless us, every one!”, it’s a morality tale about the rich holding terrible power over the poor.

Irving Berlin, a Jewish songwriter, wrote “White Christmas” in the late 1930s and it became the most popular Christmas song of all time.

Charles Schultz’s “A Charlie Brown Christmas” was released in 1965 and has been shown every year since.

We love “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” and “Let It Snow” and “Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas”.  We love red and green and silver and gold.  We love twinkly lights and Santa and snowmen.  And elves.  We love elves.  WE LOVE CHRISTMAS!

And you’re spoiling it for us.

It takes all the fun out of it when you think you get to decide for us how we’re supposed to spend Christmas.  For you, Jesus is the reason for the season. Amen to that.  For us, it’s a wonderful, happy holiday that is open to so many interpretations you could get the idea it’s mainly about peace on Earth, goodwill toward mankind.

But we would never know it now, what with this sudden ruckus about putting Christ back in Christmas–as if there were sinister factions out there trying to erase him for all eternity, the main weapon being two words: “Happy Holidays”.

If Christmas means Christ to you, there is no better time than the Yuletide to celebrate him.  But you simply cannot butt into our celebrations, Grinch-like, throwing wet blankets all over our happy days.  If there is a war on Christmas, it’s a one-sided battle and it’s coming from you. You can have it.  For me, it’s the happiest, happiest time of the year.  I feel love in the air and I plan on enjoying every minute of it.

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa, and a joyous New Year.

Posted in Beauty and joy, head-scratchers, Humor | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments