On Being “Nobody’s Role Model”

We counted over 130 steps down to the beach at Mohegan Bluffs on Block Island.
We counted over 130 steps down to the beach at Mohegan Bluffs on Block Island.

Last weekend, I travelled to Block Island, R.I., for a reunion weekend with six girlfriends from my grade school and high school. We’ve been getting together every two or three years in different locations for the past several years.

This time it was at the Block Island vacation home of one of our group. Her place – and the island in general – is beautiful, tranquil, and remote. It was some distance by car and then by ferry, but worth every mile.

It was a perfect get-away for kicking back and letting loose. Early in the visit, my one girlfriend – the happily well-read one – set the tone by raising her cocktail in the air and announcing: “This weekend I am nobody’s role model!”

Yes – she is married with children; most of us are (except two).

We did the usual beach/resort things: spent a sunny afternoon at the beach; did a morning hike along bluffs overlooking the Caribbean-blue ocean; visited the local farmer’s market featuring a motley musical band; and shopped in the sea-side town of Old Harbor.

The salt-water breezes kept us cool at all times, and I encountered NO mosquitoes on this island arcadia.

Gettin' their folk on at the farmer's market at Negus Park.
Gettin’ their folk on at the farmer’s market at Negus Park.

Most late afternoons, we returned to our friend’s house to “enjoy the ocean view.” In other words, for cocktails. Dinners featured excellent seafood either out or at home.

I won’t go on – too much – with effusions of how great my girlfriends are. For one thing, I kind of promised them I wouldn’t write about them.

For another, don’t we all think our friends are great people? We choose to spend precious time with them, so they’re worth it, right?

But isn’t it also true that most of us – all of us? – have wasted time on friends-who-weren’t-friends, at least once or twice in our lives?

I certainly have.

One of the benefits of getting older, however, has been becoming less tolerant of the friends-who-aren’t-really-friends variety. I’ve gotten good at letting those go.

One of the other benefits has been, cherishing the friends who’ve consistently supported you over the years. Who have always been bright lights in your life.

In 1993, the Southeast Lighthouse was moved 245 feet from eroding bluffs.
In 1993, the Southeast Lighthouse was moved 245 feet from eroding bluffs.

So I’ve hung on to friendships from my earliest school days. As a young girl who was extremely shy but couldn’t wait to leave my hometown, I didn’t expect it to turn out this way. We haven’t all been close at all times, and today we are spread across three states.

But we keep reuniting because it’s fun and good company, and because we value each other. I have been told, more than once, that that is not an easy thing to find.

And it’s even harder to keep.

We are a group of seven women – SEVEN – who all get along, in close company, for at least days at a time. We run the gamut of political and religious views, but we wisely steer clear of controversy.

We aren’t clique-y, we don’t need certain combinations of people present to get along; we all mix well with each other and split up to catch up one-on-one with ease.

Nobody is too bossy (despite some best efforts), nobody is wimpy, and nobody is boring. At the same time, everyone is reasonable.

They all bring it, what you hope for in a friend – lots of laughs, substance, wisdom, honesty, strength, loyalty.

The walls and ceiling of The Oar Restaurant is covered with over 1000 oars.
The walls and ceiling of The Oar Restaurant are covered with over 1000 signed and decorated oars.

As one of us has often said: “One requirement for my friends is that they have to be entertaining.”

Check.

During our trip, another said: “I love how you guys all amuse me, in your different ways.”

Yay?

Another friend asked me, when I did something she considered a little quirky: “Are you like this around your siblings?” (She knows I’m close with them.) I said, “Yes.” She said, “Oh good.”

Yes, it’s good – I am always myself with this group, always engaged, always happy.

When I add it up, each of these friends of mine – who pledged this past weekend to be “nobody’s role model” – is a role model nonetheless.

Of how to be a true friend.

By George! The Royal Baby’s Excellent Name

You didn’t peg me for a Royalist, did you?

Well, I’m not.

The royal baby needs to work on his royal wave.
The royal baby needs to work on his royal wave.

But I’m not above getting my knickers in a twist when it comes to the UK’s favorite royals, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, and the birth of their new baby.

The baby’s name is George Alexander Louis, and his official title is “His Royal Highness Prince George of Cambridge.” He’s third in line to the British throne.

Some Americans were all “Whaaa?” about the name “George,” saying it’s stuffy and old fashioned.

I think it’s excellent.

The choice of name wasn’t even a surprise. “George” was the 2-1 favorite according to British bookies, who raked in $2.46 million in baby name bets alone, which averaged about $10 per bet (source).

But I am surprised at how much I like the name. Then again, I shouldn’t be. I’m used to it.

British bookies raked it in as "commoners" rushed to place bets on the royal baby's name.
British bookies raked it in as “commoners” rushed to place bets on the royal baby’s name.

My oldest brother’s name is George, my father’s name was George, and his father’s name was George. They weren’t George Holder III, II, and I, however, because they each had different middle names. Also, I think because my grandfather didn’t like the idea of creating a “Jr.” or a “II” and neither did my dad.

[Side-note: Three Georges is nothing compared to the six Marys in my immediate family! It’s similar to George Foreman naming his five sons “George,” ironically… I’ll save explaining the Mary madness for another post.]

George is a good name. It’s also a fairly common surname. It’s short, easy to pronounce, and strong.

It has fun female derivatives: Georgette; Georgia; Georgina; Georgiana.

It’s old. Wikipedia says the name derived from the ancient Greek word γεωργός (geōrgos), “earth-worker” or “farmer,” which became a name in Greek: Γεώργιος (Geōrgios), or in Latin, Georgius.

It’s multi-national. In Spanish, George is Jorge; in Italian, it’s Giorgio; in German, it’s Georg, Jörg, or Jürgen (“J” pronounced like “y”); in Russian, it’s Yuri.

In French, the name is plural, I don’t know why and Google is no help. I also think it sounds the best: “Georges” is pronounced “Zhorzh.” It rolls off the tongue like a fine French Bourdeaux.

The crazy exterior of the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris.
The crazy exterior of the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris.

Georges Pompidou is one of the great French names. Pompidou was Prime Minister and later President of France in the 1960s and early 70s. Today he’s probably best known for the eponymous and ugly Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, which is a library and modern art museum whose exterior looks inside-out.

“George” is distinguished – some of my favorite famous people – both real and fake – are named George.

George Washington, George Eliot, George Carlin, George Harrison, George Clooney, George of the Jungle, Curious George, George Oscar “GOB” Bluth and his father, George Bluth, Sr.

Then there’s the Seinfeld character, George Louis Costanza, famously played by Jason Alexander. Take away “Jason” and “Costanza” and rearrange the other names, and we’re back to the royal baby’s name!

Coincidence?

I say not. I say the Cambridges are huge Seinfeld fans… Who isn’t?

Our George kicked some royal butt.
Our George kicked some royal butt!

But nooo, royalists would argue. “George,” “Alexander,” and “Louis” are names that hold personal and historical significance for the British royal family.

So far, there have been six King George’s atop the British crown, starting with George I who ruled from 1714 to 1727. Thus the name became popular and habitual among the royals. And let’s not forget that St. George is the patron saint of England.

“Alexander,” it’s been speculated, was perhaps chosen as a nod to the three kings of Scotland who bore the name, as well as the strong association between “Alexander” and “The Great,” as in the ancient Greek ruler.

“Louis” may well have been chosen in honor of Louis Mountbatten, who was the uncle of Queen Elizabeth’s husband, Prince Phillip. Mountbatten was assassinated by the IRA in 1979 – royal names evoke triumphs as well as personal tragedies.

But I say poppy-cock to all that talk of historical significance! I still think the royal baby was named after George Costanza.

Why? For one thing, the royals can afford to follow Costanza’s ethos of laziness:

George Costanza, royal inspiration??
George Costanza, royal inspiration?

Instead of doing a wash, I just keep buying underwear. My goal is to have over 360 pair. That way I only have to do wash once a year. – George Costanza, Season 2 of Seinfeld

And – let’s face it – there’s this:

My father was a quitter, my grandfather was a quitter, I was raised to give up. It’s one of the few things I do well. – George Costanza, Season 4 of Seinfeld

Yup, the royal baby’s name is perfect!

 

Mosquitoes – Avoiding Summer’s Biggest Buzz-kill

Ain’t summer grand? It brings us warm, long days with lots of sunshine and greenery and outdoor fun…

"Nom, nom, nom," says this happy mosquito.
“Nom, nom, nom!” says this happy mosquito.

…and millions of blood-sucking mosquitoes.

That’s right. This Debbie Downer is duty-bound to warn you about the biggest buzz-kill of the season.

No, not me.

The mosquito, a.k.a. Culicidae or “little fly.”

But warning – the title of this blog post is misleading. This post is not terribly informative, and I won’t offer a list of ways to avoid mosquitoes, either, since I’ve recently sworn off the evils of list posts (but I do offer links to more info below).

I’m mostly here to whine about mosquito bites.

As I write this, I’m dying to scratch the latest bite on the tip of my left elbow… The one I got – along with three other mosquito bites – after I spray-soaked my arms and legs this past weekend with Off! Deep Woods® insect repellent containing 25% DEET.

Which ought to be called “On!” Because the mosquitoes in my tiny back yard pay little mind to silly insect repellent.

Before I am sued by the SC Johnson Company, let me emphasize that it was me, after all, that the mosquitoes feasted on as I pruned and weeded my small plot of ground. It’s well known that mosquitoes are attracted to some people more than others.

My mortal enemies illustrated.
My mortal enemies, illustrated.

Mosquitoes love me. The female ones, that is, because they’re the ones who suck blood so they can develop their eggs. They’re so happy to have me back on the east coast. They made it clear during my first summer back in the D.C. area three years ago, after I’d lived in Southern Arizona for over a decade.

I went for years in Tucson without experiencing mosquito bites. Mosquitoes are there, but only for a few weeks during the summer monsoon season, and in relatively small numbers.

So when I moved back to the swamp-like conditions of the Washington, D.C. area, mosquitoes swarmed on me that first summer like white on rice.

I’ll never forget it. I would spend maybe five minutes outside watering flowers at my new place in Alexandria, and walk inside feeling the sting of several bites.

The bites swelled, a lot; I could practically watch the pink welts form on my legs and arms.

I visited my hometown in Pennsylvania one weekend that summer. I remember one of my sisters recoiling at the sight of bug bites patterned across both of my legs like polka dots.

My legs once looked like this poor guy's back.
My legs once looked like this poor guy’s back.

“Are you sure that’s not a rash?” she asked.

“I’m sure.”

I learned to rush through my flower-watering routine outside; I used bug spray but it didn’t seem to work. Mosquitoes still bit me – they followed me inside, too, and kept biting. I remember the day a mosquito came inside the house and bit me on the side of my face.

It was my low point of that summer – I felt like I had been branded, like the big, dumb, fresh piece of meat that I’d become to the buzzing blood-suckers of Old Town.

I couldn’t understand it; I grew up on the east coast and I don’t remember ever reacting that much to mosquito bites in the past.

But while living in the desert, I learned a thing or two about allergies, and I knew that the itch of mosquito bites is your basic allergic reaction (to the mosquito’s saliva).

My working theory – unverified due to laziness – is that I’d lost much of my tolerance to mosquito bites during my years in Arizona, but that my tolerance would return over time.

That’s proven to be mostly true.

These days, I use less insect repellent and it works a little better. Or, I just cover up. In the early mornings when I come home from the gym, I make sure I’m wearing long sweat pants and a long-sleeved windbreaker before I water my flowers outside. It looks stupid, and it’s hot, but it’s been my best defense.

I’m more hopeful after the news of last week. There’s a simple way to keep mosquitoes away while you’re relaxing outside – run a fan, preferably an oscillating one.

Mosquito larva need water to develop, so avoid standing water near your home.
Mosquito larva need water to develop, so avoid standing water near your home.

Mosquitoes hate wind, and apparently they’re slow suckers whose top speed is only 1.5 miles per hour. So they’re easily thwarted by a fan, plus the fan disperses the carbon dioxide we exhale that attracts mosquitoes.

This gives me hope that I can entertain on my back patio without anxiety – I’ll just pull out a tacky drugstore-bought fan and blow hot air on my guests!

I kid about mosquitoes. But the truth is, mosquitoes carry numerous deadly diseases – malaria, yellow fever, dengue fever – that kill millions of people every year throughout the world.

Americans are not immune to the risks. Mosquitoes can spread several types of encephalitis here. West Nile Virus, though not as serious, is a growing problem since it first appeared in the U.S. in 1999.

So do make efforts to protect yourself from mosquitoes by using insect repellent, and minimize their risk by eliminating factors like standing water near your home. You can find more information here, here, and here.

Don’t just be a Debbie Downer like me. Take control of mosquito threats, and make the most of summer. It really is a great time of year!

 

4 Reasons to Stop Reading List Posts

As you know, Dear Reader, I am not above writing “list content posts,” otherwise known as list posts (see here, and here). Like this very post you’re reading now.

Forget 10 ways -- one way is to stop reading list posts!
Forget 10 ways — one way is to stop reading list posts!

They’re blog posts like “7 Tips for Successful Container Gardening” or “6 Things You Need to Know About Facebook Privacy.”

List posts are considered blogging gold by online content creators and marketers. They’re often cited as a no-fail method to engage readers and build interest.

After all, people like to-do lists and they like titles with numbers in them, which tell them exactly what – and how much – to expect in a post.

Like the title of this post… You’re hooked already, right?

That’s the conventional wisdom. One of my rules for living a more authentic life, however, is to never trust conventional wisdom. (Stay tuned for my upcoming list post on “Five Reasons to Ignore Conventional Wisdom”!)

So I’m here to tell you that list posts are bad, very bad. At best, they muddle your thinking, at worst, they pitch you into a shame-spiral of failure and underachievement.

Here are four reasons to stop reading list posts – today! (Yes, this is all very meta.)

This gullible woman is writing down another list.
This gullible woman is adding another list to her harried life.

1. A list post is another list in your life. Don’t you have enough of these already? A list post means another list that you’ll print out or write down and carry around with you in your phone or your pocket. Or you’ll put the list somewhere so that it stares back at you all day – from your desk or your computer screen – beseeching you to act. Mocking you when you don’t.

List posts are the bunny rabbits of online self-help, endlessly propagating advice that pollutes your mind with how-to overload. This creates anxiety and is bad for your health.

Just say no.

2. List posts are addictive. If you don’t just say no to list posts, trust me, you’ll never get enough of them. They’ll never satiate your endless need to fill the empty recesses of your soul with pablum on how to do more, do better, do more simply, do, do, do!

I conducted a quick (i.e. ridiculously unscientific) experiment to illustrate the insidiousness of list posts. I went to Google and started ten searches, each beginning with “10 ways”, “9 ways”, “8 ways”, etc., on down, and these are the first Google-suggested list posts that popped up in search results:

“10 Ways to Make Money on the Side”
“9 Ways to Win Powerball”
“8 Ways to Bully a Kid in Minecraft” (wow)
“7 Ways to Discipline Your Child”
“6 Ways to Sunday” (Ok, this is an outlier, and a stupid expression.)
“5 Ways to Say ‘I Love You’”
“4 Ways of Knowing”
“3 Ways of Learning”
“2 Ways to Live”
“1 Way Trip to Mars” (hunh)

This poor guy thinks he found 5 new ways to improve his love life.
This poor guy thinks he found 5 new ways to improve his love life.

Admit it, you want to read at least one or two of these, don’t you? So do I. But the key is total abstinence. You must go cold turkey.

3. List posts take too much time. Reading a list post takes time. Deciding whether to follow the advice in the list post takes time, saving it takes time, doing it takes lots of time. Imagine all that you could accomplish if you just ignore these time suckers… Wait, don’t imagine, that wastes more time… Move on.

4. List posts set you up for failure. Face it, Dear Reader, you’re never going to follow those five steps to better organize your files, or do those eight easy craft projects to beautify your home, or take those six steps to “change your life now.” Oh, you’ll try. Then you’ll fail.

It’s better to never start.

So declare your freedom and pledge to never read another list post again. Right now. If you do, I guarantee you’ll avoid a lot of grief.

But first, don’t forget to share this list post.

The Squirrel Days of Summer (Photo)

Squirrel on fence -- 3 July 2013 -- circled

Forget dog days. The “squirrel” days of summer in the D.C. metro area are upon us — hot, sticky, heavy heat that knocks out even the most industrious little rodent, like the squirrel that lives in my back yard.

Here he is on my fence, where he’s normally sitting up all sprightly, his bushy tail twitching like a nervous question mark. Not today. He’s whipped, and you would be too if you walked around in this muck. Temperatures hovered around 90, and humidity hit 80%.

I felt sorry for the squirrel, but not too sorry to stick around and share his pain. The morning after I took this photo, I booked out of Alexandria and drove north to be with my mom for the 4th of July holiday.

Which means this week’s blog is abbreviated, about nothing but a tuckered out squirrel… I’ll resume with a normal post next week.

FireworksHappy Fourth of July to one and all!!

 

Fun Facts About the Bad-Ass American Bald Eagle

320px-American_Bald_Eagle with flagAs we prepare to celebrate the 4th of July, let’s take a look at the biggest bad-ass of American symbolism, the American Bald Eagle.

Forget fireworks, apple pie, and baseball, the ultimate emblem of our freedom and national pride is this righteous raptor.

The American Bald Eagle is on the Great Seal of the United States. When the seal was adopted in 1872, the bird’s image was added as the symbol of “supreme power and authority” (source). The bald eagle is also on several state seals, and on the backs of several U.S. coins.

The bald eagle’s early rise to national awareness was not without controversy. Benjamin Franklin famously advocated for the turkey as our national bird instead. Franklin reportedly did not appreciate the bald eagle’s willingness to steal food from other birds.

320px-Wild_Turkey
turkey < bald eagle

In a flourish of revolutionary demagoguery, Franklin also argued that the turkey is “a bird of courage, and would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British guards, who should presume to invade his farmyard with a red coat on” (source).

Okayyy… Ben was right, however, that turkeys are tough. I once came upon a “gang” (the proper term for a group of turkeys) of wild turkeys while I was hiking in a canyon in Southern Arizona; they were huge and menacing and I kept my distance.

Still, Ben Franklin should’ve known that American pride is only matched by our vanity – turkeys are not pretty, and not nearly as fierce-looking as the bald eagle. In a popularity contest, style over substance will win every time.

So the bald eagle became our country’s national bird as well as our national animal, and rightly so. Look at it. It oozes beauty and bad-assery in equal proportion.

Bald Eagle vocalizingA bald eagle can put the fear of God in you with its shrill keening and the glare of its yellow hooded dinosaur eyes.

It can tear you to pieces with either its hooked beak or any of its eight talons, which can grow up to two inches long and clamp down simultaneously to tear flesh and break bone.

The bald eagle can fly at speeds of up to 75 miles per hour. The wingspan of a male bald eagle can approach seven feet across, and is even larger for a female.

Which is another reason why bald eagles rule – the females are larger than the males. Bald eagles also mate for life and co-parent their young, maybe because the male knows better than to fly the coop on its bigger, better half.

Here are more fun facts about the American Bald Eagle:

Beak and talons – All are made of keratin, the same as our hair and fingernails, and never stop growing. They’re naturally worn down in the wild by the raptor doing its predator thing, capturing and killing.

Eyesight – The bald eagle’s eyesight is at least four times better than ours, using eyes that are almost as large as ours.

Bald eagles don’t sweat – Of course they don’t. They cool off by panting, perching in shade, and holding their wings away from their body.

Bald_eagle_nest_noaaNest – Bald eagles have built the largest tree nests ever recorded of any animal species, up to 13 feet deep, 8 feet wide, and over 1 ton in weight! One time I spotted a pair of bald eagles flying near their tree nest in southern Idaho during a road trip; I was at least half a mile away but I remember being impressed by the size of that nest.

Young aren’t “bald” – Bald eagles’ head feathers turn white only after the birds reach the age of 4 or 5 years old.

Habitat – Bald eagles live near coastlines and other bodies of water because they mainly feed on fish. They are found in Alaska and all 48 of the continental states; Hawaii is the only state that doesn’t have bald eagles.

Longevity – The bird’s average lifespan is 15 to 20 years, although they can live up to 30 years in the wild. A captive bald eagle reportedly lived to the age of 48, in West Stephentown, NY.

A Conservation Success Story – By the early 1970s, the American Bald Eagle was on the verge of near extinction with only 412 pairs nesting in the lower 48 states. Their demise was primarily due to DDT, a pesticide used in farming that made bald eagle eggshells too thin to carry their young long enough to hatch. After DDT was banned in 1973, bald eagle populations rebounded dramatically. The species was removed from the List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife in the lower 48 states in 2007.

Bald Eagle flyingBald eagles remain protected under the laws of many states as well as under the federal Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act. These laws prohibit killing or otherwise “disturbing” bald and golden eagles, their nesting places or their chicks.

It’s a success story that even pro-turkey Ben Franklin would applaud.

Additional sources:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bald_Eagle

http://www.baldeagleinfo.com/

http://www.learner.org/jnorth/tm/eagle/ExpertAnswer03.html

http://sciencenetlinks.com/blog/snl-educator/american-eagle-day-celebrating-conservation-success-story/

http://myfwc.com/wildlifehabitats/managed/bald-eagle/information/conservation/

A Dying Mother and What Matters Most

Yellow_Flowers_(3) -- large yellow flowerMy mother turned 92 this past Sunday, June 16. Two days before that, my family enrolled her in hospice.

That Friday afternoon, I’d arrived at her home in Pennsylvania looking forward to her birthday celebration with almost the entire family. So the news of hospice jarred and surprised. At first.

Then it wasn’t a surprise at all.

My mom had been declining noticeably in recent months. Her weak legs and broken knees stopped carrying her for good in late April; ramps were installed in her house and her transport chair was used every time to move her from her bed to her chair and wherever else she was willing to go. She’d been slowing down and losing strength.

But that Sunday, we celebrated Mom’s 92nd birthday in style. She rose to the occasion – she got dressed up, sat in her chair and then in her transport chair for a long time in different parts of the house. She ate dinner with us in the dining room and had cake and ice cream. She was lucid and wisecracking and she enjoyed herself.

Laburnum_anagyroides_yellow_flowers -- in sunlightThere comes a point, in witnessing a parent’s descent into extreme old age, when you dread every illness whether major or minor: is this the one that will lead to death? I’d buried my father in my mind a couple of times when he struggled with illnesses, long before he actually died four years ago at age 93.

I’ve done the same with my mom. She fell a few years ago and broke her shoulder. I thought it could lead to the end. But she recovered. Last fall, she battled bronchitis for months – she thought it was pneumonia and so did I. But she recovered.

Now, however, it appears my mom is battling some kind of infection, and losing. After several tests, we still don’t know what it is.

But it doesn’t matter. Her body is shutting down. According to her long-time internist,  her bone marrow and white blood cell count is so low that, if she has an infection, she can’t fight it off. Putting her in the hospital could lead to a diagnosis, but then what? She is a poor candidate for surgery, plus hospitals can be deadly to those with compromised immune systems.

Instead her doctor talked about keeping her home and “keeping her comfortable,” that euphemism for a looming death knell. Soon after, he recommended hospice. I’m extremely grateful to this wise physician for charting a peaceful demise for my mom.

399px-Little_Yellow_FlowersSo here we are. My family is lucky – for years now, our mother has had an amazing team of caregivers who love her and treat her with the greatest compassion and care.

I plan to visit Mom when I can, including this weekend; I’m only a two-hour drive away.

And I face this – the challenge of the most stressful of times, the saddest of times, when losing a parent is hard no matter what, and all of the other stresses in your life are at once magnified and trivialized.

Throughout, it’s important to remember what matters most:

  • Being present – As long as my mom is still with us, in spirit with thoughts and prayers, and in body when I can — sitting with her, holding her hand, looking into her hazel eyes with love.
  • Mourning the loss – It’s not a choice, I know. But my father’s death taught me that the process of recognition and remembrance are important and therapeutic and not to be done passively. It’s hard, and may be even harder with my mom.
  • Yellow_flowers -- two flowersCelebrating the life – My family is too traditional to call a funeral a “celebration of life” like some families do. But celebrate we will, in the grand Irish Catholic tradition – by getting sloppy drunk and telling stories of our mom’s great wit while laughing and crying through it all. Irish-style wakes are the best.
  • Accepting the love and support of others – This can be surprisingly hard. But it’s important to embrace the outpouring from others. I look forward to seeing relatives and friends of my mom, and of all of us, at her services. Death brings people together.
  • Taking care of yourself – Grief takes a toll, so you need your rest. You go ahead and have that cry in the middle of the grocery store. Then throw a treat in the shopping cart. You schedule a spa treatment. You take a trip. You remind yourself: Your dead parents will want you to go on and live well and be happy.
  • Feeling the love that stays with you forever – This is the greatest gift of life, the greatest gift of all.

It’s one hell of a to-do list, but I’ll give it my best.

How Conflict Revealed a Father’s Love

320px-Happy_Fathers_Day--pink flowerAs Father’s Day approaches, I’m reminded of the turning point in my relationship with my late father toward the end of his life.

He and I were in the middle of a fight one night, the one and only serious fight we’d ever had, when he paid me the highest compliment he ever gave me:

“There are many things I admire about you, Kate, but your politics is not one of them.”

We were fighting about the Iraq War; it was 2004, I think, and I was visiting my parents on the east coast while I was living in Arizona. My dad was always a staunch Republican, and I was the lone Democrat at that time in our large family. The post-9/11 world had pushed our politics farther apart – he had grown more conservative, and I, more liberal. He was also in his upper 80s by then.

So you might wonder: what was I doing picking a political fight with someone as old as my dad?

But maybe you didn’t know my dad. He was a highly intelligent, charismatic, alpha male right up to the final weeks of his life when he died at age 93. A successful businessman, he was disciplined and tough although he had a sweet and silly side, too.

He was used to winning, and you didn’t debate him lightly even in his old age.

Until that fight, though, we had always been able to discuss politics in a civil, even light-hearted and teasing way, agreeing to disagree. We did so regularly for as long as I could remember. It was a big part of our relationship.

But no more, after that night. The fight had turned dark and accusatory, with recriminations like “you’re wrong” and “no, you’re wrong!” being traded. The kind of hopeless, bitter face-off we’d never stooped to before. But it reflected the times, when our country was in turmoil.

Luckily, no one else had witnessed it. My father and I were off by ourselves, out of earshot of other family members. To my dad’s credit, he was the one who defused it and backed down, refusing to discuss the war further.

I was shaken by our fight, but I also remember being surprised to hear him say he admired me, for “many” things.

He’d never told me that before.

Maybe you’re wondering what those things were. I still do. I never asked and he never said. I was too upset to ever bring it up, after knowing our relationship had changed in a fundamental way.

We never discussed politics again. My dad died five years later.

Sadly, I know too many stories of strained family relationships and friendships – including broken friendships – as a result of our country’s increasingly polarizing politics.

You may have similar stories of your own.

As a society, we remain bitterly divided, and I don’t know how or when it will end. I’ve learned to avoid political debates with people I care about whose opinions differ from mine. I still look back on that fight with my dad with sadness.

But mostly now, I choose to focus on the two positive things that came out of our fight.

1) My father’s compliment. There are many things I admire about you, Kate…

It doesn’t matter what they were. It was mainly a reminder of how supportive my dad was of me throughout my life, despite our differences. Whatever I wanted to do, he said I could do it. He never tried to discourage me, or make me feel like I couldn’t be the best at what I wanted to pursue. He always had faith in me.

2) My father’s decision to defuse the fight. This was unusual, and it took me a long time to appreciate its significance. When things got hot between us, he suddenly calmed and said: “We can’t talk about this anymore.”

He chose to make peace instead of to “win” the fight.

Why?

Because even in conflict, my dad never lost sight of what was the most important thing between us.

Love.

National Parks Nurture Us, Let’s Nurture Them

This past Memorial Day, I enjoyed a visit with my friend, Nancy, to Arlington National Cemetery, which is part of the U.S. National Park Service (NPS). I hadn’t been to the cemetery in years, so I was excited to visit especially after I’d blogged about it the previous week as one of the most visible symbols of Memorial Day.

Arlington National Cemetery
Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia

We spent a couple of hours that pleasant Monday morning walking among the rows of white marble gravestones that grid over 600 acres of the grassy hills and dales of a former plantation in Arlington, VA. The cemetery rises up just south of the Potomac River and offers spectacular views of Washington, DC. The grounds are grand and serene.

An Historic Home Needs a Face Lift

But my heart sank as we approached the top of the hill to visit Arlington House, the mansion and historic centerpiece of the property. The home’s history is remarkable: It dates from 1802 and was built by George Washington Parke Custis, the adopted grandson of President George Washington, and later was home to Robert E. Lee until he became commander of the rebel forces during the Civil War.

We were still many yards away from the house when it was obvious that the exterior of this Greek Revival masterpiece badly needed renovation, particularly the wooden façade of the large pediment. The dull beige paint is cracked and peeling and the whole front looks shabby.

Sequestration Won’t Help

Arlington House from below
Arlington House from below

Arlington House had undergone some interior renovation the year before, I was told later in a phone call to a park ranger. She added that there are plans to renovate the exterior next year. But it’s unclear whether that will happen, given the 8% budget cuts that the National Park Service will have to absorb due to federal sequestration.

Those are the automatic cuts to all federal government discretionary spending that took effect on March 1 of this year. They are dumb cuts that no one wanted, which do nothing to address the long-term budget deficits that cloud our country’s fiscal future.

So this is, in part, a cautionary tale of what to expect as the summer park season begins.

Funding Has Fallen Short for Years

After I returned home from Arlington National Cemetery later that day, I turned on NBC News and watched a segment called: “National Parks Show Signs of Wear and Tear.” It included a depressing litany of the consequences of budgetary woes that the park service has, in fact, suffered for several years:

  • 7 years of flat budget appropriations, despite rising costs
  • 900 jobs unfilled, including park rangers
  • 1000 seasonal jobs cut
  • park police furloughed
  • park entrances unmanned
  • a maintenance backlog of $11 billion!

About 400 sites make up the National Park system – parks, monuments, battlefields and coastlines – which over 280 million people will visit this year including millions of tourists from all over the world. The National Park Service operates on a total budget of about $2.6 billion, a pittance by federal budget standards. The massive backlog resulted from over 10 years of shifting funds away from investments like maintenance to operations.

Our Parks Bring Huge ROI

Hundreds of thousands gather on the National Mall to celebrate 4th of July
Hundreds of thousands gather on the National Mall to celebrate 4th of July, Washington, DC

Forget the value of their historical and natural assets for a moment: National parks also offer a huge return on investment (ROI) for taxpayers. In February, the National Park Service released its annual report, which includes a measure of its economic impact based on peer-reviewed research done in cooperation with Michigan State University.

In 2011, National Park visitors generated $30.1 billion in economic activity and supported 252,000 jobs nationwide. That means for every $1 spent by taxpayers to fund NPS, national parks generated more than $10 in economic activity. One third of the $30 billion total spent by visitors went directly into communities within 60 miles of a park.

Yet the entire park system is being starved of maintenance, staff, and a funding mechanism that keeps pace with costs let alone invests in its future.

Relish Your Park Experiences

Before I tell you how you can help, I’d ask that you take a quick mental inventory of all of the national park experiences in your life. Odds are you’ve had more than you realize.

Go ahead, right now. Picture those places in your mind.

Yosemite Falls
Yosemite Falls, California

Remember how you felt: seeing the Diorama and measuring the cost of our worst war at Gettysburg National Battlefield; reading the inscriptions of Lincoln’s speeches at the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall; smelling saltwater and listening to the waves as you walked the beautiful beach at Cape Cod National Seashore.

Then turn your mind’s eye to the gigantic, muscular parks of the great American west: Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Arches, Zion, White Sands, Olympic. These places are almost alien in their awesomeness, staggering in their raw majesty.

How small did you feel standing at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon? How blown away were you by the roaring beauty of two-tiered Yosemite Falls?

How to Help

Here are simple steps you can take to help preserve our national parks.

The Grand Canyon
The Grand Canyon, Arizona

When visiting a park:

  • Don’t – move or remove anything. Not one flower, not one rock. These are public assets to be preserved. Look at them, photograph them, wax poetic over them. That’s your right for paying admission, but that’s it.
  • Don’t – touch, if a sign says not to. Why? Because the trace oils of one finger may not hurt the object, but the trace oils of thousands of fingers will. This is the same reason why museums impose that rule. Collective touching damages.
  • Don’t – feed animals. They usually don’t eat what we do, and if they lose their fear of humans, they can put their lives and yours at risk.
  • Do – stay on designated trails and walkways. The NPS barely has money to cut the grass and weed historic gardens, you think there’ll be money to re-sod the new trail you and others decided to cut through the park? No.
  • Do – visit the park’s concessions, book stores and visitor centers, and buy stuff. The food is decent, there are quality souvenirs and clothing, and the park service publishes very fine historical and coffee table books both large and small.
Ranger hike with kids at Biscayne National Park, Florida
A ranger hikes with kids at Biscayne National Park, Florida

Also:

  • Take your kid, or an “under-engaged” kid, to a national park. As baby boomers age, younger generations who didn’t grow up enjoying the outdoors will be the ones the park system must attract and count on for its sustainability.
  • Consider becoming a national park volunteer. Given all the staffing cut-backs, park administrators need volunteer help more than ever!
  • Consider donating to one of hundreds of non-profits that support national parks, including nation-wide groups – National Park Foundation, National Parks Conservation Association – and the many “friends of” individual parks that you’ve enjoyed.

My favorite writer, Wallace Stegner, said national parks were “the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”

In 2016, the National Park Service will celebrate its 100th birthday. By then, let’s make sure America’s “best idea” reflects stewardship at our best rather than our worst.