Friday, December 15, 2006

Wearing on me Eragon

I took Conor, Chloe and a couple of their friends to see Eragon tonight. Conor has been waiting for this movie for a long time. Eragon was the first really long book that he read and it made a big impression on him at the time. So we had to go on opening night. I was looking forward to it too. I didn't read the book and I like to be able to share references with my kids.

But this was, well totally derivative. If you've seen the three Lord of the Rings movies I don't know what more you'll get out of this. The Urgals look and act like Orcs, the King's castle is akin to Mordor and the battle scenes, yes you've seen them before. The only thing that kept me interested was Jeremy Irons, who has aged quite a bit since Dead Ringers, but is still breathtaking. I just kept staring at his face wondering at what point I had lost interest in the young leads and became drawn to the old guys. I think it's his eyes. John Malkovich, as the king, sounded like he was reading his lines off a prompter--just deadening.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

A Good Mood Guide

If you told me four years ago that I would be writing a book on alternative therapies for mood disorders, I would have found the idea highly amusing. As the senior vice president of medical affairs for an Internet marketing agency, I was not only writing copy for antidepressant web sites, but I was taking two antidepressants everyday. The pharmaceutical industry was my means of support as well as my savior from insanity. Deadline pressures, business travel, and the stress of managing a busy team of writers, editors, and proofreaders made it seem impossible to me that I would ever be able to stop taking those pills.

As is increasingly the case these days, one of the two pills I was taking had come under investigation by the FDA. My psychiatrist told me that the drug caused an increased risk of liver failure and that I would have to have blood tests done every month, to ensure that my liver enzymes were not elevated. The artificial defense that I had constructed for myself was starting to crumble, and I would need to make life-changing decisions as a result. Now, I look back at that discovery as a catalyst for all the positive, renewing changes I’ve made in my life, but at the time, I was terrified.

What do you do, when you have to stop taking the antidepressant medications that you’ve come to rely on? Many people turn to alternative medicine as a solution for their specific problems. In study after study, these therapies are proving to be as effective as medications, without the side effects. Doctors may even recommend that their patients with mood disorders consider alternative therapies during pregnancy or lactation, an important matter for the many bipolar women who choose not to have children at all, rather than risk going off their medications. For women who are having mood issues during menopause, now that estrogen replacement therapy is no longer recommended, alternative therapies are also an attractive option.

I'm going to offer suggestions in this space for lifestyle changes that can help to ensure a stable good mood throughout your lifetime. I will discuss the most effective therapies based on their proven effectiveness in clinical trials including:

  • Talk therapy--cognitive-behavioral
  • Biological therapies--e.g., omega-3 fatty acids, SAM-e and 5HTP
  • Lifestyle changes--good sleep hygiene, nutrition, and social networks
  • Mind-body therapies--exercise, yoga, and meditation
The best way to begin being accountable for your mood is to make one small change at a time and to record your moods on a calendar or in a journal over the course of a month. If you're still menstruating, know first how that affects your moods. I've drawn simple up or down arrows on the calendar in my kitchen. Predictably, my mood is worse a week before I get my period. That's a law of physics. Nothing I do has changed that. But the rest of the month is malleable and amenable to some of the above therapies.

I haven't found one simple thing that's improved my mood. I look at the supplements, social support, exercise and many other changes that I've made in my life as a finely woven net that holds me up. Each strand adds strength to the structure, but if one breaks, I'll still be OK. Each of us has to construct her own net. I'll share what I know from my personal experience and the research that I've been doing on this subject over the past ten years.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Projects and Thoughts

It's time for me to switch gears and recover this blog from its dalliance in adventure and travel chronology. It's dark and cold here and that means it's time to focus inward and get back to some serious writing.

As it says in my profile, I'm working on a memoir about my search for my birth parents. That's the project I was working on in the Prague Summer Program, and the one I plan to continue and finish the next couple years while I'm in graduate school.

The other big project I'm working on is a book on alternative therapies for women with mood disorders. This book is the natural output of my career as a pharmacologist, medical writer, and instructor of biopsychology. My research, pharmaceutical contract work, and teaching led me to find solutions for my own mental well-being and I hope to be able to share that knowledge with others.

I think I'm going to use this space to help me develop the concepts of the second project. It seems to be the one that would benefit the most from public exposure and I can begin to sketch out chapters in this format. I'll start with my personal journey and struggles with mood disorders and since the theme of this blog is writing and mothering I don't think there's too much of a discrepancy there. Writers and mothers are notorious for being moody.

Please consider sharing your own concerns, questions or knowledge about mood problems or alternative therapies. Women do have more than their fair share of this burden and our cycles, both monthly and over our lifetimes add difficulties to successful treatment.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Thanks Hotel Chelsea

Be afraid for your children is the title of an article on the Hotel Chelsea's blog. They picked up on my story of our last visit. I assure you, Conor will be back before he's an adult. In fact, I think I'll make reservations for the last week of December. Love them.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Salon on the Leibovitz Show

I don't think two people could have walked away from the same show with opinions that are as far apart as mine and Sarah Karnasiewicz's, as expressed in a review in Salon this weekend.

Where I saw courage, Karnasiewicz saw reckless candor and that is a telling testament to the risk of misinterpretation. I have a tendency to applaud candor in all of its forms. I think we get so little honesty in our lives. Certainly people are exploiting their family secrets all the time, I realize that's happening, but we don't often get the pus-filled peek at feelings that I got from the Leibovitz show.

I walk away from so many exhibits without feeling anything at all, nevermind thinking anything at all. I want to connect to something outside of myself to know that I'm not alone in my mental wanderings. So Karnasiewicz didn't connect and I did. She was looking for an aesthetic continuity between Leibovitz's professional work and her personal work. I saw a forms that fit the content.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Art for Love

The more I think about it, the more I realize there is nothing more artistic than to love others
-Vincent Van Gogh

We spent our second day in NYC at the Brooklyn Museum. I had heard that was where the Annie Leibovitz exhibit--A Photographer's Life--was being shown. We must have spent a good hour and a half in the exhibit. The final room had two large beds in the middle of the floor and Chloe and Conor crashed on those with their books leaving me all the time I wanted to study the pictures.

The exhibit merged together Annie's two outputs, her professional and personal photographs, in forms that suited the material. Celebrity shots are slick, large format, flattering pieces, work that Annie is famous for. Her personal snapshots are shown en masse, much smaller individually, but as a collection powerful in scope. This is where you can see the pictures of Susan Sontag in her hospital bed, Annie's children, and the Leibovitz family portraits taken over several Thanksgivings down the road from here at her country house in Rhinebeck.

I had a crush on Susan Sontag for years. Her combination of piercing brilliance and courage, and her dark, soulful eyes was alluring. It's no wonder that Leibovitz fell in love with her, when you also consider the attention she paid to the art of photography. What moved me the most though in the show was the demonstration of that love throughout the course of illness and eventual death. I think it was more poignant for me against the beauty and vitality that Leibovitz herself had during this time and the beauty she was surrounded with in her work. What I wondered did she hold onto in Susan that kept her love alive all this time? Was she responding to her memories, or does Leibovitz have the muscle (and I think she must) to conjure up an active love, giving it away and creating a lasting beauty in her work. Descriptions of several of the photos (family portraits and the Cash family photos for instance), which quoted the subjects, say that Annie could be seen crying behind the lens while composing a shot.

This is an emotional exhibit, but not because you see a strong beautiful woman decline in health and looks. It's because you can see evidence of a love that few of us will ever feel and not having it, maybe we've convinced ourselves that it doesn't exist. The shock of discovering that it does can create an immeasurable sense of loss. We often think of art as coming out of unrequited love. As I read today in Nina's blog, The Lazy Geisha, her husband Jeff says that

“Desire is born in the gap between what we have and what we want, and it is in this gap where all art is made.”

I had believed that myself. I thought that love sickness was good for my poetry and that so much wonderful art has been born of this pain. But now, I wonder if this this isn't an adolescent idea and one that can be treacherous too. Think Oscar Wilde. Looking at Leibovitz's work, I now believe that true art, mature, lasting work can come from deep long-lasting love. The kind that produces individual growth, the kind that forces you to the point of enlightenment, because you stick with it until you're transformed. There's no flitting around here. This is hard work, heart-wrenching in its immoveable devotion to connections between people and their meaning to our lives and work.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Too Much in NYC

The kids and I saw Death Cab for Cutie Thursday night at the Theater in Madison Square Garden. Ben Gibbard the lead guitarist and singer couldn't contain his joy over the election results. He made a couple of remarks about living in rosier days and predicted that in a couple of years the troops would be home and Barak Obama would be president.

I was blown away by Ben's drumming in the middle of We Looked Like Giants. He put down his guitar and walked over to a second drum set that they brought out for him. Bright white lights filled the stage and he let go, shining as if that were his one moment to be totally on.

I missed Transatlanticism--I need you so much closer. Maybe they played it for the encore, but I couldn't stay for that. Conor had fallen asleep and I knew I had to get them back to the hotel.

The Hotel Chelsea...when we checked in before the concert, we had to wait in the lobby for the bellman to show us to our room. Conor sat on one side, playing his Game-boy and Chloe and I on the opposite side. An older man sat down next to Conor. He had a carved, wooden monkey head in his hands, and he was putting things into the hollow bottom of it. Conor looked over at me with a question of concern. I assured him that he was OK with a hand gesture and he settled into his curious observation mode just in time to catch the story of the head. The man in possession of the monkey head told another resident of the lobby that this head had belonged to him at one time. He had owned it about 15 years ago and then someone stole it from him. He said he found it today in a store and stole it back. The head was from East Africa and was quite attractive, I could see how someone would become attached to something like this.

When we got back to the hotel after the concert and arrived on the 7th floor where our room was, we could see bright lights beyond the door in the direction of our room. We tried going the other way, because we weren't sure exactly which way to go, but then realized we did have to go toward what we then realized was a photo shoot of...a woman wearing a corset. It was about 11 PM. We opened the door and the photographer apologized to us. No, we said, we're sorry to interrupt. Conor claims he didn't see anything other then the leopard print chair that was turned over on its side on the floor.

Our trip the next day to the Brooklyn Museum included a scene with the NYPD. When we sat down in the car, a man lay across from us spread out over 5 or 6 seats. He was passed out and no one paid much attention to him. A man a couple of seats down from me asked us where we were headed, I guess because he saw me looking at the list of stops. I told him the Museum and he said that we should get off the stop after him. We had a long ride ahead of us and I settled back in my seat to relax. At one of the stops, a uniformed policeman got on the car and walked right over to the guy who was passed out. He told him to sit up and nothing happened. Then he grabbed the guy's belt and started shaking his body to wake him up. The guy looked up at the cop and the cop said sit up, you can't lay down on the train like that. The guy said I was looking for something, and the cop said no you weren't, you were passed out. Right, the guy said, I was sleeping, but after you woke me up, I started to look for something.

He sat up and the cop stood there, a big guy with his gun and stick. He put his hat on, down over his eyes the way they do that to look tougher. Then something happened at another stop. The cop yelled something, got off the train, and then back on again. At the next stop, he told the guy who had been passed out, to get off the train. The cop seemed really angry, as if whatever had happened at the last stop now had to discharge and this guy was going to have to pay. He did get off and we saw the cop put handcuffs on him.

The rest of us on the train shook our collective head at the abuse of power. And our friend who was going to get off at the stop ahead of us, grabbed a bottle of whiskey out of his duffel bag, filled his Sprite bottle and then shared it with another guy across the aisle from him.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Paying Attention

I hurt myself a few times in the last couple of months. I fell riding a horse--actually a pony--for the first time in September. I got lucky and didn't do any lasting damage, just a sore shoulder for a couple of days. What was I thinking about? What was distracting me?

I burned my hand making tea. I poured boiling water all over the back of my left hand. I held back tears as I drove my daughter to her dance class soon after the incident. For three weeks I covered it with my other hand when I stood talking to someone. It turned dark brown and peeled. Underneath the raw, red skin looked unready for exposure.

I fell riding again on Friday. This time I did get hurt. My neck and shoulder are sore and I have appointments set up with my physical therapist, massage therapist, and a new chiropractor that a friend strongly recommends. This is probably overkill, but since I've been feeling so great physically, maybe better than ever, I can't accept this setback easily.

One thing I know from riding is that your eye is everything. Where you're looking and what you're thinking about is critical to staying in the saddle. It's not easy to be a daydreamer and ride horses. Until now, I've been lucky, but it looks like I've tempted fate and my daydreaming is beginning to cost me.

Clarity and focus are things that I've learned about in yoga and meditation. I can try to apply some of those skills to the rest of my life. I think I better, before I really get hurt. My new mantra should be "focus on what you are doing now." That would keep me out of a lot of trouble, because so much of what spins me is not paying attention to what I'm doing in the moment. I assume many writers have the habit of living in their heads. It's how we get a lot of our work done, and since we bring our heads with us wherever we go, we often forget that we're doing something other than work and get lost somewhere in between the two activities.

I can't possibly stop thinking, except when I'm sitting at my computer, but I do need to be more aware of how I allocate time for this work and time for the rest of my life. I need to notice if I'm paying attention when I'm cooking, or spending time with my kids, or driving, so that I don't get hurt anymore. But also so that I can live more fully. If I leave this thinking process on all of the time, I think it gets diluted and less effective. It becomes something in the background, too familiar and less engaging. And the activities that I fill my life with become nothing more than unnoticed landmarks whizzed by at 75 mps.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Blue Arabesque--NY Times Review

Patricia Hampl's new memoir "Blue Arabesque"--justifiably called so, since she defines memoir as the story of a mind, not a life--received a grand review in the October 29 Book Review section (available now to online subscribers).

Kathryn Harrison compares Hampl's analysis of her aesthetic experiences to those of John Berger in "Ways of Seeing," and Susan Sontag in "On Photography."

Patricia Hampl’s determination to occupy the space between the eye and its object and her success at articulating the mysterious transactions therein grants her authority among writers like Berger and Sontag, who not only sit and stare but see. Read “Blue Arabesque” and you too might mistake — or exchange — art museums for churches.

I'm eager to read this after having the honor this summer of studying with Patricia at the Prague Summer Program. The other two books of hers that I've read, "A Romantic Education" and "I Could Tell You Stories," are now two of my best-loved reads. If her exploration of Matisse is anywhere near as exalted as what she accomplished with Czeslaw Milosz in "I Could Tell You Stories," then I am sure to be taken beyond the walls of my minor-league mind.

Here's an example of her thinking on why Milosz's memoir "A Native Realm" differs so much from American work:

The American assumption is almost always psychological, and therefore personal. There is a throb toward (personal) salvation beating within American autobiography. Milosz's assumption is superficially cooler, harder. Put another way, it is more elemental. For him, the awareness of a rich and complex "origin" necessarily dilutes some of the paralyzing power of the present: something else is always tugging at consciousness, something neither wholly familiar nor wholly abstract. This presence which lies at the heart of the experience of memory is both personal and impersonal. This double nature of his memory, which Milosz says caused his post-War experience in the West to be "robbed" of some of its "reality," is, from an American middle-class perspective, an enriching and intensifying of reality. (from "Czeslaw Milosz and Memory" from "I Could Tell You Stories")
Be kind to yourself and allow this brilliant memoirist to push your thinking, seeing, and feeling into the realm of the divine.

Monday, October 23, 2006

First Dance

My daughter had her second school dance last Friday and it reminded me that I had taken some pictures of her and her friends as they were leaving our house for the first school dance. Jim walked them across the street to the middle school.

She had asked me if three of her friends could come over after school that day to get ready. I said sure, and went shopping that afternoon for snacks and pizza and drinks.

Instead of three friends, four ending up walking over here after school, although Chloe forgot to mention this additional girl's presence. Fortunately, I saw her walking through the kitchen and asked her who she was, a few minutes before her father called to see if she'd made it over here OK. That's right, I'd never met her.

She's only eleven and yet our biggest argument lately is about dating. She insists that she should be able to go to the movies with a mixed-gender group with no chaperones. Last year, I was the only parent who did stay for the movie when they went as a group. Even though I sat in the back and said nothing the whole time, I'm ruining her life. Sigh...

Rock on Baby

Is it easier to be in a good mood when you listen to a lot of music? I wondered about that. I figured that it could at least help as a distraction for the annoying and sometimes damaging thoughts we can allow to make residence in our minds.

A quick search on Medline showed that music is being used as therapy and that it has been shown in a variety of studies to improve mood. Using "music and mood" as my keywords, I pulled up 271 articles. Here are a just a few of them:

Kemper KJ and Danhauer SC published Music as Therapy in South Med J. 2005 Mar;98(3):282-8.

Their study shows that:

"Music is widely used to enhance well-being, reduce stress, and distract patients from unpleasant symptoms. Although there are wide variations in individual preferences, music appears to exert direct physiologic effects through the autonomic nervous system...Music effectively reduces anxiety and improves mood for medical and surgical patients, for patients in intensive care units and patients undergoing procedures, and for children as well as adults. Music is a low-cost intervention that often reduces surgical, procedural, acute, and chronic pain. Music also improves the quality of life for patients receiving palliative care, enhancing a sense of comfort and relaxation..."

Stratton, V.N. Psychology and Education: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 2003; vol 40: pp 1-11. News Release, Penn State University.

Shows that:

"No matter what kind of music you listen to, it makes your mood better...Not only did our sample of students report more positive emotions after listening to music, but their already positive emotions were intensified by listening to music," Stratton says in a news release.

It didn't matter whether the students listened to rock/pop, soft rock/easy listening, oldies, classical, or new-age music. It also didn't seem to matter whether the music was played during an activity -- such as dressing or driving -- or or whether it was played while socializing.

After listening, the psychology students were more optimistic, joyful, friendly, relaxed, and calm. They also were less pessimistic and sad. Music, however, did not entirely soothe the frightened beast in student breasts. After listening, they did not report being less fearful." therapy, massage, and hypnosis may have a positive effect on anxiety in cancer patients (Mansky PJ and Wallerstedt DB Cancer J. 2006 Sep-Oct:12(5):425-31).

So, why not turn on the tunes? We have so many more ways to enjoy music in our lives these days, from our iPods (check out the love song to this device on Salon today) to Pandora--a free customizable Internet radio service, which I'm listening to now as I write this, that we really have no excuse to sit in silence.

I've gone back and forth with music. I know I wouldn't have survived our cross country trip without the thousands of songs I had downloaded, and my feet move with extra buoyancy when I listen to my workout playlist while running. I also love to listen to music when I cook.

I do sometimes choose to sit in silence when I write though. I guess I've always thought that music would distract me. I've read that some writers use music to set the mood for what they're working on and I've toyed with that idea myself. I do know that if I'm going to get depressed, irritable, or crave carbohydrates it's usually going to happen when I'm writing. I mean sitting still in front of a computer all day and spitting out slop isn't a mood-enhancing activity for me. Maybe if I play some music I'll get more done and make fewer trips to the refrigerator. It's worth a try.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Aironic Hudson Valley Living

I've never read the Kingston Times. Although it's published by Ulster Publishing, whose work I admire--especially anything written or edited by my friend Sigrid Heath--I rarely see this newspaper around town. But, the other day when I was at Adams in Kingston, I couldn't manage to walk by this headline:

Killing us softly?: Scientists suspect PCBs jack up stroke, heart attack risks in riverside towns

I happen to know Dr. David Carpenter the researcher who is responsible for this study. He's renowned for his public health work, was the Dean of the School of Public Health and is employed by the New York State Department of Health Research Labs, where I worked for five years before and after grad school.

What I found so disturbing about this research is that they are suggesting that the 40% increased risk of heart disease that they saw, in towns that border the river, is do to volatile PCBs, meaning that they're airborne.

In other words, we're breathing these in every day and they're acting on our livers to increase production of cholesterol which then builds up in our blood streams and blocks our arteries.

This finding is remarkable considering that towns that border the Hudson River have generally speaking a more affluent population which should have reasonable access to health care and knowledge of healthy lifestyle choices.

GE, thanks for that and the microwave thing too.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Taking One's Life

Pay attention to things that come up more than once in a short period of time. It's not always a coincidence. Suicide is a theme for me to struggle with it seems. Please be assured that I'm not suicidal myself, but that I'm finding myself engaged in the topic with several people.

I have a pen pal named Beverly who is a prisoner in California. Her last letter was short and painful for me to read.

My dear Sista and friend,

This will be short--I just am upset today because a young woman here about age 26, hung herself. Yes, Kim she died right in her cell--the room mates were not around, I had last spoken to her during work but never was there any clue that she was having problems!

As I have mentioned before Kim, I have seen too much illness and death among my peers--these years have not been easy to do, yet I press on no matter what I endure because I'm leaving here Kim and no matter how tough being here is--taking your life is not an option, ever!

Well, I just felt too overwhelmed Kim and I thank God I can express my fears to you...
It's taking me longer to write back to Beverly this time. I've had to think of how someone in my situation can possibly identify with what she's feeling. My automatic response regarding suicide--that it's the end result of a potentially fatal illness, not unlike a heart attack--doesn't resonate with people. Most people that I've spoken to about this, still see suicide as a choice and not the result of what happens when a powerful organ like the brain is sick.

Maybe I am too much of a reductionist. It's just that despite how difficult it might be for people to understand that the mind is in the brain and no where else, it seems like too elusive a concept for most people to grasp.

Lately, people have come to accept the idea that sexual orientation isn't a choice. Before this awareness, homosexuality was viewed as a criminal deviancy, a crime against society. But now, most people seem to understand that a conscious choice is not what homosexuality is about. That people are born with their orientations and that their lives can be a struggle for acceptance.

Our brains are affected by stress. Depression is considered by neuroscientists to result from chronic stress. Certainly being in a woman's prison at age 26 is depressing. When we're suffering from chronic stress, our brains are bathed with high levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. This compound can actually kill neurons in some brain regions and can affect the way the brain works.

Of course suicide can be prevented in many cases, but I think the more we consider this event to be a medical crisis, rather than a selfish, criminal act, the farther along we will be to finding compassion for the dead, their families and friends. No one stands around at a wake for an obese, middle-aged man snickering about how selfish he was to leave his family. If he had only exercised and dieted...or do they?

Untreated depression can be fatal. It's hard for me to see this any other way, just as it's hard for many of the people I've spoken with about this to see it this way. Our consciousness is a wonderfully complicated phenomenon constructed from the cells inside our skull and when we try to understand this we falter as humans have throughout history.

To Beverly and other survivors, the aftermath of a suicide seem more tormenting than a death by other means. We always struggle with questions of "why" or "if only," but we can say that for all deaths. Understanding the role of the sick brain in suicide can give survivors a break. They are no more responsible for the way a neuron is firing in someone else, than they are the way a loved one's heart is pumping. Think about accepting this as another natural, but no less tragic death and see if your heart opens up a little more.

I haven't begun to address the issue of health care for these prisoners. I wouldn't dare to absolve anyone who works there for this woman's death, if she wasn't receiving adequate care. From what I've been learning, the conditions there are abhorrent and medical negligence could possibly be a question in this case. But that's a different question to answer and a different state of mind to live in, than one where the survivors are looking at each other and the departed in a futile effort to make sense of a choice.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Lonely in a Hot World

Two things that I read yesterday resonated in the most poignant way and I had to share them with you. In Parabola, an article by Thomas Berry quotes Chief Seattle as having said

"when the last animals will have perished, humans would die of loneliness."
Berry goes on to illustrate the importance of the natural world to humans by reflecting on the needs of our children, especially toddlers and pre-schoolers. How else can we communicate with them in any meaningful way, without the use of pictures and stories of humans and animals?

These present to the child a world of wonder and beauty and intimacy, a world sufficiently enticing to enable the child to overcome the sorrows that necessarily they experience from their earliest years....We consider ourselves blessed, healed in some manner, forgiven and for the moment transported into some other world, when we catch a passing glimpse of an animal in the wild: a deer in some woodland, a fox crossing a field, a butterfly in its dancing flight southward to its wintering region...
How lonely will we and our children be when this is no more? The connection is with an article published in Nature in 2004, which predicts that, worst case scenario, 60% of all species will be extinct by the year 2050. Chloe will be 55 and Conor 53. What kind of world are we leaving them? Will they see a fox and her baby along the side of the road when they drive home from a night out, like I did the other night? Will they be able to take their children to Glacier Park to see mountain goats? Will hawks and turkey vultures soar over the valley?

More from Berry:

The animals can do for us, in both the physical and in the spiritual orders, what we cannot do for ourselves or for each other. These more precious gifts they provide through their presence and their responsiveness to our inner needs.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Wait--tell the chimps it's unnatural

A new, first of its kind exhibit at the Oslo Museum of Natural History courageously portrays the truth about sexuality among the animal kingdom. While the religious right seethes at the sight of bees sucking pollen together, the exhibit illustrates a complexity of relations among creatures. Not all interactions are performed for the sake of reproduction.

The birds and the bees may be gay, according to the world's first museum exhibition about homosexuality among animals.

With documentation of gay or lesbian behavior among giraffes, penguins, parrots, beetles, whales and dozens of other creatures, the Oslo Natural History Museum concludes human homosexuality cannot be viewed as "unnatural."

"We may have opinions on a lot of things, but one thing is clear -- homosexuality is found throughout the animal kingdom, it is not against nature," an exhibit statement said.

Geir Soeli, the project leader of the exhibition entitled "Against Nature," told Reuters: "Homosexuality has been observed for more than 1,500 animal species, and is well documented for 500 of them."

Friday, October 06, 2006

Laptop Lunchboxes

It's not often that a new product comes into my life and changes the way I think and behave. As a mom of two school-age children, I'm faced with concerns of offering healthy, organic lunches, and the issue of packaging. How do we provide lots of cut up veggies and fruits and yet not increase the volume of the already overflowing garbage pails with more ziplocks?

Laptop Lunchboxes are one of those cool things that the kids like and I love. It even offers a creative outlet and a book with ideas of how to fill all of the containers with yummy, vitamin and fiber packed goodies.

The Mind is the Universe

and the universe is the mind.

I always wondered how--if there was any chance of consciousness after death--it would be contained. Gamma rays? I do believe in a collective unconscious, but knowing that the mind is in the brain makes it hard to imagine anyway of it remaining after the cells, which make it up, decompose.

Anyone out there who doesn't understand what I mean by that should read Oliver Sacks' book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. He shows how brain lesions can fundamentally change who we are, yes our consciousness. That slim little book, more than anything else, shook my metaphysical understanding.

But today, I Stumbled upon (literally) two images. One of a neuron and one of a model of the universe. See for yourself. It's the same thing. It's all one and I like that.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Is Bush Really the Devil?

Mark Morford doesn't think he quite pulls it off.

Satan has better taste in shoes. Is far sexier. Can actually spell 'Venezuela.' I mean, come on

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Energy Star Pledge

This weekend the new organization that I helped to form is manning a table at Red Hook's annual Hardscrabble day. Neighborhood Earth Watch will be selling compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs), handing out free reusable shopping bags, courtesy of Hannaford's, and asking people to sign a pledge change one light bulb in their home to an Energy Star light bulb.

You can sign the pledge yourself here.

Microwave Fire--GE

Yesterday morning we had a very close call. Conor was making his oatmeal in the microwave and I was in my office reading e-mail. He called me from the kitchen to say that there was a very big problem. I ran in, and he told me that our microwave was on fire. I assumed that he meant that the food was on fire, but when I opened it up, I saw flames burning on the inside of the microwave itself. The food was fine, aside from strings of melted plastic on top of it.

We closed the door, unplugged the appliance and thought of getting water. Conor filled up a cup from the fridge, while I grabbed a dish towel and wet it under the faucet. I opened the door again and placed the dish towel on top of the flames, where it sizzled and put out the fire.

We carried the microwave outside to the patio, where it still sits. My initial reaction was to call GE to tell them about this problem, so that they could warn other consumers, but when I googled around, I found out that GE knows full well about these fires, although they won't say so to their customers.

Please be careful with your microwave. Even if you don't have a GE model, know that most of these are manufactured outside of the US and have the branding put on afterward. Think twice about letting your kids use the microwave when you're not home.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

The Last Day

On our last day, Chloe was on the phone with her friend:
“Don’t get sick and miss school,” her friend said to her.
“It’s the first day. I would go if I had pneumonia.”
“Well, I heard that hay fever was going around Pennsylvania.”

Thanks to all of you for sharing our journey with us. It meant a lot to us that you were there to offer advice, feedback, and concern as well as the occasional hello.

We’re home and the kids are back to school. I’m starting to slide into a routine again, but I hope to break a few of my old habits and begin a few new ones. I still plan to write at least one more blog post about our trip. Something to do with my general impressions of camping, the rest of the country, and being with my children. After that, I may continue to be a blogger, but I don’t think I’ll be sending out e-mails every time I post an article. It feels too forced to me. You can stop by the site—I made the URL easier to type—it’s now, but the old URL works too. I think I might write more about writing and politics and anything else I feel like thinking about. I don’t want to bore anyone.

They make newsfeed readers that let you know when content on a Web site has been updated. I have a couple of feeds that run on my Yahoo home page, but there are many other readers designed specifically for this purpose. If you want to do this, the atom feed is:

I think Bloglines is a good service to use for newsfeeds. It’s easy to set up and free. You can see it for yourself at:

If you all of this sounds like too much trouble and you truly want to continue receiving e-mails from me, than send a message to me and I’ll make sure to keep you subscribed by e-mail.

Madison, WI to Elkhart, IN

It's our anniversary today. I think it's the first time we've ever been apart, but then since Labor Day is such a great time to travel, I may have been in Maine or somewhere else at another time.

I didn't think I'd have anything to write about at this point. Our sightseeing is over and the absence of National Parks and Monuments on our way home left me thinking it was just a matter of miles and doing the time.

But I'm surprised again here in Elkhart, IN. About 30 miles east of South Bend, we found not only the home of 70% of all RV manufacturing in the world, but also the second largest Amish population in the country. These two things did not happen by coincidence. The RV manufacturers chose to be here to make use of the Amish's exceptional craftmanship.

I would imagine that this would be a great place to shop for a camper or to get repairs.

We'd seen Mennonites on our way out to Seattle. They camped in huge bus-size RVs with several families together. I would always see the men walking around with the children, while I assumed the women were inside preparing meals or doing other things. The Amish, would not be found in RVs, because they won't even drive cars, but they are building these things apparently.

With the impending oil crisis and global warming to face are the Amish going to be miles ahead of the rest of us? We may be impatient when we're driving behind their horse and buggy, but it may not be long before we're asking them to help us learn how to live more simply ourselves.

Jackson, MN to Madison, WI

We stopped a couple of times today; something we can easily afford with a goal of only 5.5 hours. Our first stop was the SPAM Museum. This was not in my plan, but with free admission and restrooms it was a great opportunity to stretch our legs and study top-notch PR in action.

Once inside the door, you are immediately directed to a movie that "just started, hurry." The film cleverly uses irony to increase your comfort level with SPAM. In one scene we met a college student who has only worn SPAM tee-shirts every day for the last 5 years. He has 20 of them in all varieties.

While I was able to find a small display of factory worker uniforms and tools, including some butchering knives, I didn't see any films or photos of the pig butchering process. These cute pink pigs just shrink down into cubed cans.

Chloe wanted to try some, so we bought a can of low-sodium on the way out. Ugghh...On the way to the museum, you drive by the flagship Hormel factory. The smell is strong enough to enter the car even with the windows closed. I admire the marketing job that the SPAM team is doing--what a challenge. Too bad they can't convince Hormel to change its logo. It reeks of bad institutional food.

The same storm that soaked us at Mt. Rushmore hit us last night too and then we had to drive through it. I think this is going to be a repeating pattern now that we're traveling east. No escaping the weather.

Monday, September 04, 2006

South Dakota to MN

We wanted to stop at Wall Drug on the way home, since we didn’t have time to do that the day before. We had a tough night, heavy rain and strong winds and thunder kept all of us up much of the night. The kids were too scared to leave the tent and I was glad for that since the chances that they’d get hit by lightening would have been greater.

In the morning, we had to make a plan on how to pack up the wet tent despite the fact that it was still raining hard. I told the kids to hold the fly up above the tent as a sort of umbrella, but that didn’t work too well. Everything was soaked. We just left it all in a pile on the floor of the TAB on top of some towels. If I’d thought ahead, we might have been able to place it all in the laundromat’s dryer and then we could have packed it up dry. Our new tent did keep everything inside dry though. The sleeping bags, blankets, and pillows were all fine.

When we got to Jackson, MN, our next stop, I did use the dryers in the laundromat at a low temperature. The owner’s wife came out at one point because the plastic clips were rattling in the machine. I asked her if it was bothering her and she said no, she just wondered what the noise was. Then her husband came out when I was taking the tent out of the dryer. He said, I can smell something burning. I couldn’t smell anything and said so. God knows I have a sensitive nose. Besides, I had it on delicate and stood there watching over it, worried that I might damage the new tent. He said, I hope the next person who uses that dryer doesn’t end up having their clothes smell. It was late and I let it get to me. I asked him if he wanted me to buy him a new dryer. Then he gave me a look, turned around and left. I was the one to use the dryer next, since I decided to wash all of our dirty clothes while I was there, and there was no problem. Just a creepy place. I ran into the owners every time I turned around. It felt like they were watching every move we made.

Agate Allotment

I had a feeling that South Dakota might be a good place for rockhounding and an Internet search that I did the night before confirmed this. While no one is obviously allowed to collect rocks from the Badlands National Park, or any other National Park as far as I know, The National Grasslands has what they refer to as the Agate Allotment, where they allow rockhounding for personal use.

We found the visitor center for the National Grasslands and asked the ranger if she would tell us where we could go for rocks. She pointed out a location on 44 past the south east exit of the park near Interior. She said that we should look for a sign that said Agate Allotment near a gated road.

When we reached the spot we saw all around us, lying on top of parched earth, small agates, jaspers and quartz. We’d seen the varieties of agates that we might find in the visitor’s center before we left. Bubble-gum agates, jaspers and black agates were the most interesting to us, although Chloe found quite a bit of rose quartz. We got close enough to a prairie dog village that they started to call out warnings, so we decided to turn back.

We kept our eyes on the ground for rattle snakes and on the horizon for buffalo, but no threats were visible aside from the very small cactus hid among the low grass. I think we’ll look into purchasing a rock tumbler when we get home.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Sitting Bull Crystal Cave

We didn’t know anything about this cave, except that the woman at our campground told us that it was on the way to the Badlands. Although small, it was a good choice for us. We learned that it’s one of only five in the world that have dog-spire crystals, and it has the largest crystal of its kind in the world.

Unlike other caves we’ve been to, this cave doesn’t have stalagmites or stalactites to speak of. Instead it’s like being inside of a giant geode crystal. We walked down three flights of steep metal stairs. The hand rails felt like metal does in the winter, but they were necessary, as was watching every step.

I didn’t feel very cold until the end of the tour, about 45 minutes after we started, and at that point, I would have loved to just climb back up the steps to get warm, but our guide wanted to show us a water feature named Diamond Lake. We were only allowed to go three at a time, and when she showed it to us at first, she didn’t shine the light directly on the water, but covered the light up with her hand and shined it around the room, which caused the ceiling of the cave to reflect on the water and made the 6-inch deep “lake” look like it was 100-200 feet deep.

Mt. Rushmore

I had originally planned to go to the Wind Cave National Park in the morning and Mt. Rushmore later, and then see the Badlands on the way to MN the next day.But, we decided that trying to see the Bandlands and driving 8-hours was too much for one day. Our new plan was to see Mt. Rushmore, and then stop at a smaller cave on the way to the Badlands.

The Black Hills were the biggest surprise for me. I had imagined them being bare and black, but they were rugged and covered with Ponderosa Pines. The area is like an oasis between the dry range lands of eastern Wyoming and the Badlands.

Mt. Rushmore was also much nicer than I had pictured. They’ve built a promenade and a Presidential Trail, which offers a variety of closer views. The kids both said that this was something they had wanted to do all of their lives…Hunh, me too I guess. What I thought was most interesting was how the mountain it was carved out of was brown, unlike the white faces underneath. The ranger said that the sculpture was pressure-washed last year.

This visit was more meaningful to us after we’d been listening to the “Don’t Know Much About History,” book on tape about American history. We’re were up to the part about Vietnam when we reached Mt. Rushmore, so we’ve been refreshed on these biggies.

Across Wyoming

This was the day I dreaded before ever leaving home. There’s no straight route across the middle of Wyoming, so I had to zig and zag my way over to South Dakota. The Nav system predicted a 14-hour day. At around eight hours and 6 PM, we were somewhere between Douglass and Lusk on Route 20 at a truck stop called the Three Sisters. We had dinner and a peek at very small town Wyoming.

My dashboard is telling me that my oil needs to be changed and that something is wrong with my tire pressure. On the way here, I tired to make a repair to the orange casing of our TAB’s propane tank cover. It’s broken in a few places and a screw is missing from one of the brackets. I tried replacing the screw, but after driving on roads that were under construction for a good part of the day, the jiggling beat me in the game.

The drive even more demanding than I thought it would be. After dinner we drove for another 2.5 hours in the dark and near the Black Hills where hundreds of deer stood near the road. I wanted to make up time, but couldn’t risk driving over 50 mph. At one point, a huge buck stood in my lane and I had to swerve onto the shoulder.

We came to the Jewel Cave National Monument and had a crazy drive over step winding roads. The Nav system got confused then, and I was trying to look at a map in the dark and at the same time, avoid the deer.

Once we got onto 244, we found the seconded largest KOA in the country with no trouble. The new two story office and store felt more like a hotel lobby than a campground. Since it is so big, you’d think that they’d offer to escort us to our site, especially in the dark, but unlike many of the other, smaller KOAs where this courtesy was offered, Mt. Rushmore hands you a map and sends you on your way. I had some trouble finding it, because the campground is about the size of the Village of Red Hook, but once we found it, we were happy. It was on an end and right across from the bathrooms. With 25-35 mph winds, we had some difficulty setting up the tent. I doubt that the older one would have stood up to this test, but this new one was great. I made sure to use the guys on the corners for extra protection.

Jackson Hole and the Grand Tetons

We had one day to explore Jackson Hole and the Grand Teton National Park. We decided to take it easy, since Chloe and I both still had colds, and white water rafting in the cold water didn’t sound too appealing to us. Our first stop was the ski area for the tram ride up Rendezvous Mt.

Chloe was nervous about the height, over 10,000 feet and a 4000 foot climb, but our operator was informative and kept us entertained on the way up. After the 10-minute ride to the top, we walked around and enjoyed the great views of the Grand Tetons, the valley and town of Jackson. We didn’t stay long, because the temperature was about 40 degrees and hiking at over 10,000 when you’re not feeling well is too much. At the bottom of the mountain, the kids each took a turn at the bungee-trampoline combo, each accomplishing some backflips.

Our plan for the park was to drive up the road from Teton Village to Jenny Lake. We stopped at Taggert Lake to look at the renewal of growth following the 1985 fire. Most of the foothills there are green, covered with evergreens, grass and shrubs and yet there are still obvious signs of the fires among the charred logs on the ground. It was encouraging to see after the sadness we all felt seeing the fire in Glacier a couple of weeks ago.

We got out of the car at Jenny Lake to take some pictures and then continued down to the south visitor’s center for our boat ride across the lake. Our boat operator had New York listed as his home and we found out he was from Albany.

We crossed the lake and climbed to Hidden Falls. More beautiful than the falls, were the mountains on our right. Closer than before and rough-faced, climbing them seemed unimaginable, perhaps because I could hardly make the 0.5 mile climb to the falls with this cold sapping my energy. I thought about Hensley being out here doing technical climbing and how she didn’t want to come back. I picked up a Real Estate guide to go over with Jim when I get back.

Bruneau Sand Dunes

We stopped in Boise to get gas and the Nav system led us through the entire city, past Boise State University on the way to 84. What I saw was not impressive, but unimaginative and full of chain restaurants and gas stations. Maybe we missed the downtown, but from what I saw, I couldn’t tell why this city is always listed in the top ten places to live.

We were headed to the Bruneau Sand Dunes, based on the suggestion of Siri, Katti’s friend. Although all the park rangers we met on this trip were kind and helpful the ones at the Sand Dunes top them all. They let us borrow a sled to ride down the dunes.

We were the only people there and when we got out of the car, I was still feeling awful. Cold? Allergies? The 97 degree temperature felt like 120 in the sun and the air was so dry it was hard to breathe. I found a little shade under a tree where I could watch the kids, but felt like I might pass out any minute. I shared the shade with dragon flies and something else that kept biting my shins.

The dune sledding was not successful. As hard as the kids tried, they couldn’t get any momemtum. They might have had more luck on the bigger dune, but it was a hike from the parking lot. Maybe if we’d gotten there earlier in the day when it was still cool, they may have had more interest. But as it was, they just wanted to get into the car to cool off in the air conditioning.

We decided to skip Craters of the Moon, even though we really wanted to see it, because we didn’t want to repeat the delays and late arrival of the day before. We pushed ahead at max speed, getting terrible mileage. It seemed like we filled up the tank every couple of hours. By 7 or 8 PM we were close to Teton Pass. If I had known what it was like, I wouldn’t have gone that way. With 10% grades it seemed like we would blow a valve going up and then on the way down each time I hit the brakes a tire rattled and the steering wheel moved and vibrated. This must have something to do with the way the brakes work on the TAB. Since then, I haven’t had problems braking and nothing seems to be wrong with the tires.

Cascade Locks to Idaho

We had plans to drive all the way across Oregon and into Idaho in one day. Most of the trip was along the north of the state following the Interstate and the Columbia River. The first thing we did in the morning was check out the Bridge of the Gods. I had to see what that was about. It cost $1.50 each way with the trailer. One side is Oregon and the other Washington. We missed all the other sites in that area: trails and waterfalls to see on the next visit.

Although we started out on 84, part way through the trip we decided to make a detour and headed south for the John Jay Fossil Beds National Monument. This detour required meandering through some back roads, climbing over some mountain passes and traveling through National Forests. If I had really known what was ahead I would not have done this, but in making the decision, it seemed to fit in with our secondary theme of rocks and geology that we’d started in North Dakota.

When we got to the National Monument at around 5 PM, the visitor’s center was already closed. It was about 100 degrees there and it seemed that my allergies were starting to act up again. I was beginning to think that I was allergic to deserts, but maybe I had picked up a cold along he way. The green color of the fossil beds was impressive, but we didn’t stay too long in the heat.

After that, the drive seemed interminable and following our dinner in a small town at around 7 PM, I just didn’t know if we could make it to Mountain Home. We called telling them that we were going to be late, the time change not working in our favor and they told us that they lock up the bathrooms at 10 PM. Hunh? For that I was killing myself?

At about 11 PM, I gave up and pulled off the highway at an exit that had a camping sign. The Oasis, a small campground seemingly in the middle of nowhere and still about 2 hours away from Mt. Home, we stopped. The office was closed and I was about to fill and the form and leave my $20, when the manager came out to help me. This was the second night that we all slept together in the TAB. The night before coming back from Portland it was too late to set up the tent too. I found that it really wasn’t that bad and saved us a lot of time. We sleep head to toe to make more room for our pillows.

When we woke up the next morning, we saw the Snake River only about 20 feet from our camper. What a gorgeous spot they have there in eastern Oregon. Don’t hesitate to stop if you’re headed through. For $20 it’s the best deal we’ve gotten, and they have the cleanest rest rooms we’ve seen.

Face Forward

My friend Jackie Dooley is looking for sponsors for her walk on September 17 in NYC. She's raising funds for Face Forward, an organization that helps children who are born with cleft lips and palates. Jackie's own daughter was helped by Face Forward. For more information see:

Portland, OR

We left Vashon just in time to make the 10:35 AM ferry to Tacoma. Jim stayed behind, because Andy offered to drop him off at the ferry station later in the day. He had hotel reservations near the airport and an early flight the next morning. We had people to meet in Portland, and were eager to get there around lunch time.

Parked right in front of us on the ferry, was a Bard student who lives on Vashon Island. She talked to us, well mostly Chloe, throughout the trip. We promised to get in touch with her this fall.

Our first stop in Portland, was the home of Goudarz. A friend of Majid’s from Tehran, Goudarz is the person who helped me find Majid in the first place. When he was helping me 12 years ago, he said that if I was ever in Portland, I should stop by to meet him. Goudarz and his partner Gabby gave us a grand tour of their beautiful city. Our first stop was the famous Portland Rose Garden, which is unlike anything else I’ve ever seen in scale and variety. Portland is certainly a garden city, as my friend Allison has tried to explain to me.

After seeing the downtown, they drove us past Powell’s Books, which Goudarz said was the #2 icon in Portland. I asked him what the #1 icon was, and he said the Rose Garden…

I was impressed by the four-car tram that they have running through the city. Gabby relies solely on public transportation. The biking is great here too, with numerous trails and paths, and bike racks on the buses.

One thing that truly surprised me was an electric car charger on the street. A single person vehicle was plugged into it. It looked like a covered motorcycle with three wheels; it’s made by Corbin Motors ( The charging was provided for free by the local electric company: Portland General Electric.

Everything about Portland seemed good. The politics are progressive, they have good public transportation, and they even have a Persian Festival every year. Some 11,000 Iranian-Americans live in the area. I may have to return one year for that.

We left Goudarz and Gabby after too short a visit, but so glad to have had the opportunity to meet them. We were headed to my friend Sue’s house for dinner. Sue and I met this summer in Prague, where she was taking the playwrighting course. When she found out that we would be driving through Portland this summer she suggested that we stop by, so that we could see each other again and meet her daughter and husband.

Sue gave me an amazing Pinot Noir to drink—what was that? please tell me again--and a wonderful dinner with salad from their garden. It was great to see her and meet her family. I hope we can see each other again this fall when her instructor’s play is staged in Chicago. Another visit that was too short, but we had to drive to Cascade Locks to spend the night. Bruce and Deanna told me to look for their old house out there, but I ended up driving out of Portland in the dark and missed it. Next time, because Portland is one place I know I’ll return to.


There’s no bridge from Seattle to Vashon Island, and as my friend Andy said, “the surest way to get thrown off the ferry is to suggest that there should be one. Just look at the development on Bainbridge Island to see why those on Vashon like things just the way they are.” We ended up sitting on line for the ferry during rush hour, exactly the thing that Jim had wanted to avoid. But our list of errands including our REI stop delayed our departure from the Seattle KOA. After 40 minutes of sitting parked on line, we were at the ticket booth, where the officials measured our rig’s length. If you’re under 30 feet it’s $30 for the round-trip ride, but if you’re over, it’s $70. Our official length according to the ferryman was 31.5 feet. We cried foul, but what’s there to do?

Andy and Naomi have a great house on the eastern shore of the island. They have a view of the water from their front patio, and they’re only a short walk down a steep hill, from a beachfront. Andy had driven into Seattle that afternoon for Dungess crabs and oysters and we had a delicious dinner of them that evening.

We set the TAB up in their driveway and the kids’ tent in the yard. Andy had a wireless network that I was able to use to get my course ready for the fall semester. He also answered my questions about setting one up at home.

We spent the next day at the KVI beach down the road from their house. The beach is named after the local radio station that owns it, and lets the locals use it for free. The beach is covered with huge driftwood logs, and there are tidal pools with hermit crabs that the kids played with. Down the beach, large rocks were covered with blue starfish and barnacles.

We ate sandwiches that Naomi and I had made that morning with the Applegate turkey we bought in their grocery store. Based on the grocery store alone, I could live here. I offered to cook dinner that night and made crab cakes using the leftover crab meat.. Andy also cooked some salmon for us, just to make sure that we didn’t leave without trying the best that Seattle had to offer.

Friday, September 01, 2006


We entered Mt Rainier Park at the southwest entrance and stopped for lunch at Longmire. Our first hike was called the Trail of the Shadows. It was around a pond and passed by springs that were once part of a resort for assorted maladies. Now signs say not to drink the iron-saturated water.

From there, we went to Paradise and did a short hike around wild flower meadows. We had gone up into the fog and from the overlooks it looked like we were in heaven, with nothing to see past the split rail fence but whiteness.

Jim was eager to try to see Mt. Rainier up close, and despite the fog and clouds in Paradise, the rangers assured us that the sky was clear on the other side of the park. On our way over, we stopped to take one more walk through the Trail of the Patriarchs. This section of the park has old growth forest. No redwoods, but cedars, firs and hemlocks that are between 500 and 1000 years old. To me it felt like Redwood Park and I was glad the kids go to see it.

We lucked out and saw the majesty of the peak before sunset.

Problems Solved

It seemed like after the long trip here, everything was starting to fall apart. Our car had a weird propane-like smell; part of the tent where you would stake it down had ripped; the air mattress wouldn’t stay inflated; the coffee tasted terrible yesterday and I don’t know why; the garbage leaked on the floor and the yogurt leaked in the fridge. I wondered what kind of impression we were giving Jim. I asked Chloe to validate that we had good systems in place until that point and she did and then Jim said that we were just trying to make him feel needed. This was my first honest glimpse into something I had suspected for a long time. Men like to feel needed. To me, problems feel like nothing but stress.

To solve these matters, Jim offered to bring the Highlander to a dealer in the morning to have the smell checked out. While he was gone, Chloe helped me with the laundry. The Highlander’s problem was that its altimeter was confused and it wasn’t mixing the fuel properly. Wow, I didn’t even know it had an altimeter. The mechanic at the dealer said not to worry about it; it was just a result of riding up and down all those mountains.

The tent and air mattress problems were handled at REI. Jim bought a new tent and Thermarest-type mattresses for the kids. This new tent shouldn’t leak at all, because the fly covers the whole tent and even with high winds and rain they should stay dry. The new air mattresses are a lot easier to set up and store. Thanks Jim!

Old Friends

We met Andy and Naomi, for the first time in six years, at a restaurant not far from our campsite. They didn’t want us to try to come over to the island at rush hour, because the lines at the ferry would be too long. We talked about our plans for the remaining time we had in Seattle and decided that we would make a trip to Mt. Rainier the next day, and then bring our camper over to Vashon the day after that. It didn’t seem to make sense for us to drive all the way to the Olympic Peninsula with only three days left in our stay.

At the campground the next morning, we met owners of the second T@B that we’d seen on the whole trip. They were a family of three from Texas who were on their way back from Alaska. They had chosen the clamshell design, with the kitchen in the back, so that their little girl could sleep on a bench inside. If you’re interested to hear more about their adventures, they also have a blog: They also told me about a Yahoo group for T@B owners: I’ve just checked it out and it seems like it will be a good resource for the future, especially for tips on making modifications. They’ve also scheduled rallies for T@B owners all over the US.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

The Right's View of Western Parks

A couple of weeks ago when I was worried about the fires at Glacier, I signed up for a Google alert. I shut it off today, but not before catching this interesting view of the same parks I'd seen written in the National Review. Funny, I'd thought about moving out to Missoula too.

The Scheme

We met two friends of Katti and Adam's who were also staying with them, while their house was being worked on. Jim and Dave hit it off, because Dave showed Jim how the Beatles really played Dear Prudence on the guitar. When Dave and his wife Diane sang together in harmony, everyone stopped what they were doing to listen.

Dave gave Jim a CD that his band put together recently. The Scheme now plays out in Seattle, but you can check out some of their songs on their MySpace site. Great tunes.

Persian Cooking Lesson

My Aunt Maryam cooked a second feast for us at Katti and Adam’s house and we returned from Snoqualmie Falls in time for me to watch and help her prepare a variety of dishes. She was making three different main courses, actually four, because one of them was a vegetarian variation of Persian macaroni. I was most interested in the Koresh-e Fesenjan, the chicken stew made with a walnut and pomegranate sauce. I had tried to make it at home with peanut butter (I know…) because Jim is allergic to nuts, but here was a chance to see how it’s really made, with all of the authentic ingredients. Aunt Maryam was reluctant to make it at first, when she heard about Jim’s allergy, because she didn’t know if even having the walnuts in the kitchen when she was preparing other things would be a problem. I assured her that his allergy is not that severe, and she thought of another stew with celery and beef that she would make for him.

To start, we ground walnuts in a grater, such as the kind that some use to grate parmesan cheese. We did what must have been a pound or two. Then we cooked onions in oil and added pieces of skinned chicken to brown. I believe we added water and then the ground walnuts, which made a thick gravy. Later, after the meat simmered we removed the bones. We added a full bottle of pomegranate syrup for flavor. Aunt Maryam gave me two bottles to bring home. Adam gave me a bottle of olive oil flavored with Persian limes and Nahid gave me saffron. I expect to cook with all of this gifts and my new knowledge sometime this fall. Let me know if you want to join in the experiment.

The other dishes we had that night included the ultimate Chelo Koresh, or rice with a crusty top. I learned a few tricks about this, but I’m not confident that I can pull it off yet. Making rice like that is the hallmark of a good Persian cook, and it probably takes years of practice. We also had Persian macaroni, which involved taking the cooked pasta and homemade meat sauce, flavored with cinnamon, and layering it over cut pieces of yam and crushed rose petals. Katti also made a green salad with red currants and avocados and a salad dressing of lime, garlic and live oil. We sat out on their patio and watched the sunset over the Olympic Peninsula. Everyone had seconds, thirds? Even Chloe and Conor ate more than just rice and bread.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Persian ways

Every minute we were there, our hosts were eager to see that we were entertained. Shirin and Siamak arrived each morning to take us somewhere new. We explored the Pike Place Market and downtown one day, ending at the Elliot Bay Bookstore. Majid met us there and magically, somehow everyone else had left to do other things, leaving the two of us time alone to talk.

It’s so refreshing to know that there is a whole other group of people now in my life who are mature and kind and generous, brilliant and passionate. I only wish that I could have done more. It’s true the saying that it’s better to give than to receive. After being the recipient of so much affection and generosity for four days, I only wanted to give back to these amazing people. They promised to let me return the love when they come to visit us in NY.

I learned about a Persian custom called Tarof. It has to do with manners and the requisite courtesy that one pays to family or friends. It’s very complicated and I doubt that I’ll ever completely understand it, but I think that it has something to do with the way that we were treated. No matter that we weren’t close, since we were visiting in their city it was their obligation to treat us as their special guests. I hope that we weren’t too much of a burden and that somehow, despite all the work involved in entertaining us, they managed to have a good time too.

Luxury and Feasts

We spent four nights at my cousin’s house and we were treated like royalty. A bed never felt as comfortable as the one in the guestroom at their house. My cousin’s husband is an uber cook and we were never without a cappuccino, or a mineral water, or a platter of cherries, figs, peaches, and nectarines.

My half-brother and sister picked us up and brought us to Ivar’s, a seafood restaurant overlooking a lake, to meet my birth father and his wife. I had never met his wife, so this was a momentous occasion. She was gracious and kind in conversation, and I thought the evening went well. I had the most delicious salmon. It doesn’t taste anything like the fish we get back east. Conor impressed me by ordering the salmon from the children’s menu.

When we got back to my cousin’s house, my aunt was still there and we played Blokus and talked about what to do the next day. I asked them if someone might recommend a place to get a pedicure and then the idea of all of us going out together to get one, while Conor did something with the guys became the plan for the next day. After two weeks of camping and limping along on the socialist realism pedicure I got in Prague, my feet were eager to go along.

We picked Jim up at the airport and went to my birth father’s house for dinner. I was also to meet another cousin that night, the son of one of Majid’s brothers and his wife. We were presented with a Persian feast. Three main courses two different kinds of chicken, one like a shish kabob and the other in a stew and then shrimp, along with rice, salad, sautéed vegetables, and cucumbers in yogurt. We had strawberry juice to drink.

One feast followed by another, the next morning Adam cooked brunch for us. Homemade Belgian waffles made with a yeast batter, omelets, fruit, and the makings for a Persian breakfast, as Katti explained to me, cucumber, feta and nan bread with fresh mint.

We left for an outing to Snoqualmie Falls and planned to go back to Katti's for yet another Persian feast, this time cooked by my Aunt Maryam. I hoped to get home early enough to help, and perhaps learn a little about this magical cuisine.

Seattle Campground Take One

For those of you who don’t know, this trip was planned in part for me to spend some time with my birth father and his family. I had spoken to him a few times before we left, because he was concerned about where we were going to stay. He had originally wanted to put us up in a hotel, but I had said that wasn’t necessary—we were going to have the T@B after all—but when I spoke to my aunt, she insisted that we stay at her daughter’s new house, because they had plenty of room and they wouldn’t hear of us staying at a campground when we had family in the area.

I was glad we were going to arrive in Seattle a day early. I wanted time to do laundry, relax and repack our things before arriving at Katti’s house. I was nervous. I had only met this cousin once before over a year ago, when her sister Marjan had asked me to come down to the city for lunch. We were ragged and tired and I wanted to be fresh and clean when we showed up.

It was late when we got to the campground, sometime after 9 PM and right away I felt disappointed. It seemed more like a parking lot than a campground. The site they sent us to was too narrow for our tent, because the RV next to us had its sewer line hooked up in the only clear spot where we could have put it.

I went back to the office and asked them to move us and the woman I spoke to was unsympathetic. She said, “You have a trailer and a tent?” as if that was an offense. All the way across the country we stayed at KOAs and had no problems. “All of our sites are 16 feet, what do you want me to do?” I was tired and beginning to feel desperate and asked if there were any other campgrounds in the area. Then the young man who also worked there and who had checked us in when we arrived stepped in to help. He offered to put us in a wider site, even though it was deluxe (having cable access, not that we could use it with no TV) and said he would do it for the same price. We were staying there for 9 nights. I was glad for his help and yet when he showed us the site, right up front and two rows from the highway, where we were staring at a street light and listening to trucks roar by, I cried. It was after he left, and in the dark, but the kids saw me and comforted me. I don’t know if it was from exhaustion or nerves, I don’t know. I just cried and together we set up the tent and then I climbed in with them and we cuddled like we used to when they were little. It seemed like too long since we did that and in fact it precipitated a number of conversations on their part of-- remember when…we used to play spoons in the drawer or when you spent more time in Conor’s room then mine?

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Coeur d'Alene to Seattle

We’ve been in Seattle for a week now, and I haven’t had a chance to write about our short time in Coeur d’Alene, or our trip into Seattle, so I’ll catch up with that before describing our time here.

We left Glacier a day early, because we woke up to a rainstorm the day we were to travel to West Glacier. The forecast was for more rain the next day and I thought that maybe we could escape the rain by traveling farther west. The kids agreed and together we packed up the wet tent and air mattress in plastic bags and changed our reservations to arrive in Coeur d’Alene a day early.

It was a long drive, about 8 and a half hours, a lot of it on secondary roads. Idaho impressed us, especially the LOLO National Forest with its ragged mountains and evergreens.

Our site in Coeur d’Alene was a back-in and when the person who checked me in saw the look on my face, she offered some assistance. I was met at the site by a young man who took over the wheel and backed the T@B into the narrow, terraced spot with ease. The tent dried out easily and we put the air mattress in the T@B with the heat blasting to dry it out.

We spent the morning exploring Coeur d’Alene a popular resort in Idaho. It has one of the longest floating boardwalks on a fresh water lake.

Every corner in the downtown had a different, unique fountain. We found a nice café with WiFi and had lunch. Five and a half hours later we were in Seattle.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Hidden Lake Overlook

We started our hike from behind Logan’s Pass visitor’s center. Don’t go in the late morning like we did, because the parking lot fills up and then you have to drive around until someone pulls out.

The first part of the trail is along a board walk to help protect the fragile alpine plants. Some of the steps were high and Conor began to complain. This was after he had bragged about climbing Chimney Mountain when he was in camp this summer. But he said that this was different, it wasn’t deep in shady woods and we weren’t climbing on rugged dirt and rocks like he was used to.

On the way we say a marmot, crossed a couple of streams, and passed through fields of wild flowers—yellow, red and purple. Close to the overlook we saw a mountain goat. He stood only about 10 feet from the trail. Our tour boat guide had told us that mountain goats eat lichen. Their tongues are like sand paper and they lick if off rocks. That’s how they’re able to survive through the winter in the high elevations where the wind sweeps the snow off rocks.