knee-deep in higher learning

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Fall with Us

Sometimes fall feels like Autumn. Much-needed change, and much-needed rest. If you like school clothes and sweaters more than shorts and t-shirts, it's the most! wonderful time! of the year! Like another favorite feature of the season, a comfort food recipe, it's equal parts invigorating beginnings and peaceful repose.

And sometimes fall feels like FALL. As in falling, careening, skidding, smouldering, over the finish line of the year's end, never having gotten a handle on some unexpected challenges over the last eleven months. That's us, this year.

This year, we launched our oldest student out of the house, and into the world. New baby chicks joined us in spring, joined each other in the summer, and then joined the pre-existing flock. The human ladies of the house went to Mexico for a month of aventura, Three out of four of the school-goers here made a transition to a new school this year, with one of us being me, returning to college to finish a degree in education. Brisk!

But, on most of these things, the axis tilted away and things started falling.  This year, Henry leaving was not without impact The other kids' roles shifted; we have all been on this curve together, learning how to be the new us.

Then, a family of what can only have been Chupacabras nested under a nearby house and feasted on our young hens relentlessly over Mae's and my month of travel.

 Now, there's one lonely girl, with a whole coop to herself.

Oh yeah, and about this time last year, I woke up, sat up, and then...
                                                                                  tipping over.
Powering through the wooziness, I got up and ready and went to work, where the hallway
                                          tilting? Or was that my imagination? This, and other weird symptoms, manifesting over the next 12 months led to, not only many medical visits and tests, and scary suspected causes, but pretty much nothing in the way of actual answers; it made every. other. thing. harder. to. do. And some things? Just impossible.

Changes and unrealized goals. Everywhere, depending on your outlook, there are signs of our failure to preserve the fleeting. A hoop house untended, the lone hen, kids growing up, their pets aging.

Melancholy yet?

Oh good. This is the great thing about fall, or autumn, depending on how it's going for you. The passing over the hill of the year, a time when loss surrounds us, we don't have to pretend that things are growing and full of promise. That's what spring is for.

Notice we don't ask anyone what they're "thankful" for in springtime? Ha! What'd be the point? Everything is awesome when the sun is shining and birds are chirping. How about when the flowers have faded and the winds are howling? This is why, in spite of it being a ritual, enshrining an ethnocentric fairy tale, in spite of having nothing special planned, I am really looking forward to Thanksgiving this year.

 Who wants seconds on small pox?

This year, I'm thankful that we are helping each other as a family, finding our way. That we have a big funny handsome reason to visit Portland, and one free egg a day. And that, as a way to improve my physical health, I have begun to take care of myself as I never have before in my life. That's going to have to do this year. Call it thankfulness or stubborn appreciation, maybe Pollyanna glad-gaming, which is fitting, considering the U.S. Thanksgiving honors a sugar-coated rendering of a tragedy.

When Autumn feels more like Fall, gratitude feels more like reminding yourself that it could be worse, and maybe that's got to be good enough.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Tú do Tú, Unless...

Five summers, five trips outside of the United States, the last three of which have been made with one of my kids as a travel companion. I have enjoyed many privileges in this life, but little has made me as reverent and grateful as having the resources, support, and health to explore other corners of this world with my children. They grow tremendously from being taken out of the life they take for granted. At first, the experience of being a foreigner is jarring, but it doesn't take long for them to adapt and incorporate all of those differences into a new idea of normal.

This time, it's her turn.

My daughter, the brave and adventurous little lady, charmer, and amiga de todos. She and I are spending a good chunk of our summer in a country that is enormous, diverse, and sensational. We are en México.

In one week, we have been in two different cities, but no matter where she is, one thing stays constant: Mae loves a good playground.

She can't speak with the kids she meets there, beyond greetings and goodbyes, but that matters little to any of them. They communicate through the language of kids at play, which involves silly noises and a great deal of running around for no discernable reason.

Other things she appreciates? Fancy hair accessories, barely practical footwear, cute dresses, and pink nail polish. All things I lost interest in over a quarter of a century ago. So, how does it feel to have such a quintessential daughter who is clearly not a mini me?

Wonderful, that's how. Is that because I secretly love all the girly affectations? Not really. It's because all of those things are a sign that the space around her to determine herself for herself is present and healthy. The less she is like me, the more encouraged I feel that we have something good going on here.

This principle applies to so many differences, with so many people. Beyond "tolerance," or "appreciating diversity," is something else; something unseen, but so important: space. The nothingness that is a right, not a favor granted or sanctioned by me or anyone else. That space in which someone feels free to be something I am not is exactly the same space that allows me to be what I am. 

If I needed a selfish reason to accept differences, there it is. I can skip any convention or ceremony I choose, thanks to the freedom someone else enjoys to participate enthusiastically.

Sure sounds good, doesn't it? But everything has its limits, so where does this healthy space start to become harmful? What view or practice is so far from my values that it feels like it shouldn't be acceptable? That's easy. Basically, any view or action which inherently denies or hinders the freedom of self-determination for others. That is the only wrong, and it is how a deep joy for the various ways of dressing, thinking, worshipping, and eating stops before becoming acceptance of bigotry.

Like so many truths, this almost seems at first like a contradiction. All we need to have in common is a belief that we need nothing else in common. Everthing else is just like polish on toenails: superficial, colorful, and subject to change.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

A Farewell to Wings

Warring factions, cold beady eyes, narrowing pupils, showy displays of aggressive territorialism, inability to see that what should bring them together is far greater than that which divides them: No, I'm not talking about last Thanksgiving, or even next Thanksgiving. I am talking about something I am calling BirdMerge.

That is the the name for the bringing together of our two groups of pullets, formerly the new chicks we bought, and then the other new chicks we bought a month later. By the way, "pullet" is the official term for those chicks you bought four or five months ago, who nobody wants to see pictures of anymore.

The babies are all growed up now and need to go live with the adult hens. Only thing is, chickens aren't the most welcoming to newcomers. A new bird introduced into an existing flock is definitely going to be challenged, will have to be assertive in order to get any food, and faces risk of being attacked to death by the other hens. We have our tricks for that get-to-know you phase, but this time around, we have an additional peace treaty to eggotiate. We need to get our two sets of three pullets to think of themselves as one set of six pullets before they all move in together with the older girls.

Only, again with the hostility toward newcomers. The first coming together quickly became a coop d' etat. There is a month age difference between the two sets of birds, and the older, bigger, black and white ones knew it. When we checked the birds after their initial fighting died down, all of the younger golden pullets were huddled in the corner, their heads sticking through the bars of their cage, out of pecking reach.

So, the two separate groups went back into two separate cages, but those cages were scooted right up against each other in the hoop house. For a month, they lived side by side, face to face, with only an inch of space and some lines obscuring their view of each other.

Time passed, as it does, and that became normal to their little chicken brains, to look into each other's eyes, hear each other's breath, view one another through lines that almost seemed not to be there at times. The sameness of their experience came to dominate their other thoughts. Together, they wondered when those distracted primates would return to refresh their water? Or, what was that barking sound? Isn't this hoop house too warm today? Someone should come and open the door. Oh, here's that cat who can crawl under the door again. Say, those radish leaves are getting so big, I think I can reach one through the cage!

Chaucer once said, "Familiarity breeds contempt," but chickens don't read, so they don't know that. To them, familiarity breeds, "I will not try to end you." A month of adjacent captivity made them nice and familiar, so the stage was set. For BirdMerge, take two.

Factors I've noticed that make a difference when trying to broker a peace treaty:

Abundance: Trying to convince opposing parties to be peaceful and generous cannot happen in a deprivation situation. There needs to be plenty. Plenty of space, plenty of water, plenty of food, in this case.

Neutral Ground: Neither side wants to feel like it gave up its space to the other, even if they end up actually doing that. This cage set up is open, and includes a neutral space that neither set of birds considers its territory. They both ended up in each other's cages eventually, but not one group exclusively taking over the other's space.

Conflict Processing Space: Instincts matter here. When new flockmates meet each other for the first time, they're probably going to have to fight it out a bit. Usually it's mostly fluffed-up feathers, hopping, wing-beating, and a minimum of pecking. Concerns would be excessive pecking and denying the newbies access to food and water. 

To a degree, it has to play itself out, so that the more vulnerable one can prove itself. Those more vulnerable ones will stand a better chance if they are old enough, have numbers on their side, and are given enough overhead space to show how high they can hop.

Last Saturday saw the great merging. I put their cages on a seriously neglected part of our backyard, facing each other, doors open, with pieces of an old baby crib creating a connecting tunnel.

Slowly, each set of birds left their respective residences and ventured into that unknown patch of jungle between them.

Once again, they saw each other, faces only slightly obscured by lines; but these lines could be trampled and eaten.

This was normal, only better! The two trios grazed and ambled into each other's spaces (mostly) peacefully, and have been a content sextet ever since.

Happily Feather After. The End.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

All About That Space, and Sexing Chicks

Leaving this place was the beginning of our journey home, eight months ago.

Here, Thomas and I had been welcomed graciously. to live for a month.

Here, my friends and I incubated an idea. In these spaces, so well suited to teaching garden and kitchen basics, we had done just that, with the always impressive residents and students of Fundación Niños de los Andes.

As we left to catch a taxi to the bus station, to begin the long trek back home from Manizales, Colombia, I turned and took these photos, in a moment of reverence for the role this place, and its specific attributes, played in realizing a dream.

Call it an eternal soft spot for the unsung hero, but I think thinking about the silent stoic spot in which something is supposed to happen is also pragmatic.

You have to plan the void, it's step one in most projects. So goes it with a workshop, a blog, a home, a garden, a brooding box, you know, your average wannabe backyard farmer's usual domains.

Back home, and a whole fall and winter later, we are now entering year eight of domestic hen management, and have decided to bring some new little ladies onto the team.

Sure, it's fun to shop breeds and dream up cute office lady names (I WILL HAVE MY BRENDA!) but before hitting the feed store to pick up the li'l peepers, we must make sure they have a place to stay that meets all of their itty bitty cute wittle needs. As adorably fluffy as they are, their body temperature still can't sustain a long time away from a heat lamp, so their spot must be ready for them immediately. Commence: void planning.

We start with the box.

You can go different ways with this, depending on what you have handy, but I like something high-walled and sturdy. Over the years, this part of an old tool trunk has been home to not only chicks, but ducks, puppies, and kittens.

For chicks, we use a couple of inches of shredded pine bedding to keep them warm and cleanish. I change it out weekly when they're a couple of weeks old.

For the feeder and water dispenser, it's a good idea to create a sturdy base first, with a heavy plate. This minimizes the amount of bedding that invariably finds its way into the food and water.

Slap a heat lamp on that bad boy and you're done! 

The heat lamp is essential, and is usually easy to purchase wherever chicks are sold. Baby chickens cannot keep themselves warm enough without one. 

But here's the equally important spot, far from the warmth of the heat lamp.

Why does this cool zone matter so much to the health of young hatchlings?

Because they must be able to move across a spectrum of temperatures, as the larger ambient temperature fluctuates throughout the day. Warm, cool, and all points in between: they need the range and freedom so that they adjust their location and stay healthy. It's also not a bad idea to park the food and water in the middle, so it doesn't get bacteria-nurturingly warm, nor tummy-chilling cold.

Oh yeah,  if you have any curious critters sharing the space, be sure to get something sturdy to cover it, that doesn't trap the heat or air inside the box.

"What? I only want to play with them! (with my claws and teeth)"

So, it was off to the farm store to buy some babies. Only this time, while we love and care for them fully, we are also holding them at arm's length for the first time, and here's why. And how

Why: These chicks were bought "straight run," which means their sex has not yet been determined. Seven years ago, our first flock ended up being 50% failure, despite having been "sexed." Our backyard farm is an arcane example of gender inequality: Hens Only. So, when we heard cockadoodledoodling, we had to send two of our beloved babies packing . 

This year, when we found out the only chicks available immediately were straight run, it should have meant no chicks for us, for another month or so. But, we took to the internet and discovered that with some breeds, you can compare chicks and look for several physical traits and try to buy only females. 

Thomas was tasked with making the cheat sheet, on sexing Barred Rock chicks, for us to take with us to the farm store. It was a meeting of the minds, down at the co-op, as Geza, Thomas, and I compared foot color and head spots, gently extended tiny wings, and generally bored the good staff of the store. We made our best guess and brought home these three.

"Did you just assume my gender?"
How: The plan this year was to acquire five chicks total. However, instead of buying five straight run chicks, we only bought three. This leaves room for some losses, and gives us a chance to buy a few more chicks later, when sex-link breeds (chicks whose markings indicate their sex) will be available.

The cold fact is, any and all of these baby birds may only spend a few months here before crowing one day and moving out the next.  That'd be sad, but here's an old farm trick for keeping baby animals you want to cuddle, despite the fact that one day you might turn on them and kick them out or cut their heads off: No names, office lady or otherwise.

Seven years of doing this, okay? We're not brooding little babies, we're fully feathered flocksters! We can be tough and zen and grown-up about things. We will give this time more space, wait, and only name the ones we are sure are staying. 

Except you, Brenda, even if you are a rooster.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

No, Thanks: A Special Story

It all started with a case of the hiccups.

George was riding the school bus home, as usual, but got off at an early stop, as unusual.

His reason? Hiccups. He had them and knew there was a public water fountain at an earlier stop, so he got off his bus to get a drink, planning to walk home from there instead, as it was so close to where he usually disembarks.

Except, when he exited the bus, and entered the public facility with the public water fountain, he was spotted by some caring friends who worried, seeing him get off his bus too early. They asked him whether his parents knew he was there. They called me in a meeting. They even went to his dad's place of work, interrupting an Algebra class to let him know his son was deviating from his after school routine. They insisted George stay with them at the public facility until his older brother arrived to pick him up.

Why did those friends go to such lengths to look out for a kid who is well over the age to walk home unattended, and who was literally only about 200 feet away from the usual place a school bus drops him off every day?

Well, for one, because they are the best kind of people to have in your community. It's pretty normal for them to care about friends' kids and be willing to go to great lengths to ensure their health and safety. Enjoying the privilege of raising my family in such a community is the kind of thing that puts a lump in my throat if I think about it for too long.

But there's another, more throat lump-inducing, reason. George is "on the autism spectrum," and they know it. His delightfully dry humor is delivered in a rather monotone voice. Math, logic, and memory are naturally easy to him, and unpredictability is a sort of hell.

So are intense social scenes, like buses and bus stop sites. There was a time when school bus routes and rides were especially stressful and confusing for George.  My friends who intervened that day are only part of a group who have all done anything and everything to help him over the last couple of years. For this, to each one of them, I am eternally grateful; even if in this case, it wasn't necessary.

         "George, why didn't you tell them that it's okay for you to walk home from there? That you're old enough and know the way..."

Yeah, as I asked the question, I thought I already knew the answer. Because, I reasoned briefly, in our complex world of grown up social cue-fusion, he resorted to silent and wide-eyed staring, like the little chubby-cheeked four year old who lost his voice every time he went to preschool, causing his first battery of assessments and meetings with specialists. Or more worrisome, he was emotionally unchecked, as he has always gotten when overwhelmed. But for only a second could I imagine those less mature versions of my special son. He quickly cut through my misconceptions with a pained sigh, and

       "Because it's hard for me to say 'No' to niceness."


Turns out, in all of that "looking out for George," George is also looking out for us, and taking me to school at the same time. Faced with difficult differences in perceptions and processing,  he couldn't bring himself to break it to his helpful village. He's got this. They did their job, helped him grow up, and now he can handle it.

"No, thanks." might be hard to say because it's awkward, or because a nice person being nice is too special to stop. Or maybe those are two ways of describing the same thing. I guess those of us who worry about George have to learn that this growing up thing is happening, and perhaps it will cause us to be absolutely clueless at times.

Lucky for us, he's going about it gently.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

From Knee to Shining Sea

Ah, the beautiful coast of Oregon, USA!
Sparkling waves of one of the seas to shining seas.

Purple mountains majestically falling over each other, tumbling to the sand, trying to be the first and last to be shrouded in lingering mist.

The nesting bald eagles have been around more and more.


The famous American melting pot of all the races, ethnicities, and ....wait.

Humanwise, the stunning Oregon Coast actually has a rather monocultured landscape: for the west coast, there is a surprisingly homogeneous collection of mostly white people.

This is not an accident. White people came here during a period of time in U.S. history when most other people were wrestling with matters of race, back east. The easy fix to racial tension, as most white deciders coming northwest saw it, was to prevent racial diversity in the first place.

The Ku Klux Klan got pretty big in these parts, which surprises most people who think the KKK is mainly a Southern thing The klan and their fans' dreams of a white utopia led to something called "sunset towns," which outlawed walking around outside at night, while black. I live in a town that was once a sunset town.

One man's utopia can easily be another man's dystopia. Especially if the first guy is in the KKK.

But that's the past, right? Now is not then, we are not them. Now Oregon is a hippie wonderland, plus Obama, so racism must be just like Nazis, a thing we only see in scratchy black and white footage.





Which reminds me of.

It's almost like we are doomed to repeat some sort of history. How could that have been avoided? Didn't someone once say something about that? Oh well, history is old, right?

Who cares?


Who cares?

She cares. And her concern is taking a form that really could teach and create possibilities for something new for the future, which requires being unflinching and unrelenting when describing what is happening around us now, and in our recent past.

Here's what LaNicia Williams did (and this is just lately!)

She came to a place where she gets to live with the wearying daily reality of standing out, and kindly leads its most innocent little residents through their ignorance.

She's looking out for local kids, particularly kids of color.

In short, she teaches the wider community how to be inclusive, not only with her, but for everyone living here who has a different "label." She knows good intentions do not mean that there aren't still some who tragically don't appreciate what it's like to be not-white, young, living in Nehalem, OR and see this sprayed at a place that's supposed to be a safe haven for our youth in our community.  

I am so grateful to her for speaking out and not letting up. Thanks to that, there is now a big $1000 reward and the community of Nehalem is talking about something we obviously need to discuss: race, diversity and inclusion in the USA.
Because,if we are serious about being the best mixed collection of people whose great great grandparents probably came from other places, we're going to have to be able discuss things sometimes. Not just discuss, but listen.
The art of listening to each other could go a long way toward avoiding situation where people who have, recently, been trotted out to perform patriotic gestures, feel no other recourse but to refuse.
It's also what will help the average U.S. citizen not have to think about what it's like to be all kinds of things they aren't. Each of us doesn't have to consider all the things if we are listening to people who walk through this life and world differently than we do.
When black people tell white people that racism, the systemic oppression of a race of people, is a real and unacceptable problem, it's possible for white people to believe them before literal writing on walls.
If all of this only made you want to read more, stay tuned, because LaNicia isn't only single-handedly leading this county's most important overdue conversation. She also participated in the little project that never quits, The Food of the Future, by teaching local kids to make soul food.

For hours, she directed, explained,and invited participation; a paragon of ability, humor, and wisdom. A video presentation of her work that evening is in the works .

As she guides our neighbors through these times of racial revelation, I imagine her employing the skills I saw at work in my kitchen when she was here. I know she is treating her students' weak moments as opportunities to know and teach them better and also learn from them.

LaNicia is currently working with other like minds at Oregon Coast Love Coalition. Check it out and read more, in LaNicia's words, here.
Quite a legacy, LaNicia! And that fried chicken haunted my dreams for weeks afterward.

Written by Rebekah Laszlo and LaNicia Williams

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Keeping the Code

Check her out. A beauty, ain’t she?

Though we don’t crank that handle nearly often enough, our living room has been a more beautiful place thanks to the presence of this death-defying time machine. Oh? Just looks like a no-tech antique to you? Well, turn the handle and set a needle in the grooves of one of these babies, and you’ve got yourself a room full of people from the past, their voices and talent captured in one magical moment, for which they practiced all their lives. Their bodies are soil but their love, their passion, is ours forever.

Except, we are not forever. We are soil-bound too.

The more I live through that reality, and face what it means, the more my mind’s eye is drawn to those things about us that remain with others, which are passed on, and reverberate after our exit from this mortal stage.

A good friend died yesterday. This is where I am supposed to talk about her in the past tense. She was this, she was that, but some people live with a force that outlasts them in my mind. She still is more brilliant, beautiful, unique, and fun than any words can describe. She brought those things to every interaction with such force, they could never vanish as easily as a human body succumbs to aggressive cancer.

Death makes me stubborn, it turns out. I feel determined not to let go, to crank the handle and listen to the breath and lightning fast fingers of ghosts, and delight in the fact that their song got another printing, in my head and heart.

There is something, for our intents and purposes, that is permanent. A code. We pass it along, for better or worse, to everyone around us, some of whom will outlive us. Like an analog data storage spiral of notches and grooves pressed into fresh vinyl. The code lives on and on and on.

When someone I love dies, my thoughts search for their influence on the code of my life. The parts of them that live on in me, and which I hope to leave with the impressionable around me.

With Julie, I don’t have to look far. The Backyard University ethos comes from basic tenets I learned in the same years I became friends with her. Notions like being adventurous, driven, inclusive, kind to animals and people, willing to embrace the edges that come with looking at all of life’s jagged sparkly beauty and ugliness: these have been important to me over the same period of time I have been friends with her.  Either I learned it from her, or felt reinforced by how well she embodied those values. One way or the other, that is her code in me. It’s what she made that I can carry and pass on.

If you get to live many years, you will say many good-byes, some of which will leave your heart a little broken forever. Here’s what is unexpected: you wouldn’t have it any other way.

You wouldn’t trade that rough lace for a smooth uninterrupted heart that was never impressed upon; not in a million years. You find a needle to play those rifts and crags left behind by the love and loss, a way to sing to the beautiful pattern dug into you.

You might find it is your favorite song.