Mary: October 2003 Archives

Fly, dammit

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I might as well start with the first topic I listed in Or Just Settle For Mustard: the Empty Nest experience.

About three years ago I ran into a woman, Peg, whose daugher is three years ahead of my son in school. I'd known Peg for about 10 years. Her daughter, like my son an only child, had just left home to attend Yale, and I imagined that Peg must be hurting. When I asked her if it was hard not having Elizabeth at home anymore, she insisted that it was No Big Deal, because everytime she sat down at the computer an Instant Message popped up: yo, mom.

Peg and Elizabeth have a close relationship, as do my son and I, and it's because of this closeness that people have assumed I'd suffer terribly when my son left home. Paradoxically, I believe those of us who are close to our children feel the separation less, because I, too, get a "hey mom" message at least once a day.

The anticipation was terrible, I admit. And it took me a few weeks to realize that I wasn't suffering. But the parent-child relationship undergoes constant change from birth on-- change characterized by a stretching of the bond every step of the way. The thread that has been stretching for 18 years just stretches a little farther when the child goes away to college.

The event that results in the greatest single stretch goes unremarked, mostly, because no parent realizes at the time how significant it is. My son got his driver's license on his 16th birthday, and I realize in retrospect that that was the day when the parent-child relationship underwent the most fundamental change. No longer dependent on me for a ride to school, to a friend's house, to the mall, to an orchestra rehearsal or a basketball game, my son was suddenly free, and so was I.

There are other stretching developments and events along the way, and by the time college rolls around it's just one more step on a long, long path.

One person I spoke to thought I might be afraid to live alone, but I'm not. Aside from the fact that I've lived alone at various times in the past--college, grad school, first job--I've overcome fear of strange noises in the house, since reading somewhere that "hardwood floors give back the day's footsteps during the night." (I wish I could attribute that-- I think it's from a short story I read in The New Yorker)

Or Just Settle For Mustard


Getting this blog started has proven to be a task akin to that of getting the ketchup to flow from a new bottle. I have too many things I want to write about and don't know how to begin.

I could start by writing about my experience as a new "empty nest mom", but I'd want to mention that I'm a widow, and thus completely alone in my nest now, making the sending off of my only child to university a more life-changing experience for me than it is for most.

This would lead to my mentioning in passing that my husband took his own life, since readers would wonder how he died, but something like that requires further explanation, which would be at least one whole post.

That post or another would have to contain a discussion of Asperger's Syndrome, with which my husband was afflicted, or it would not do him justice.

And then, as an aside, I might want to talk about university mathematics departments in general, and how my husband and I met in the xerox room of the math department in which I was a graduate student and he an assistant professor, because I like to say that as mathematicians go, he was by no means the strangest nut in the bag.

In any discussion of Asperger's Syndrome I'd want to explain my way of understanding it, and autism in general, which is based on my theory that we are all spiritual beings, or manifestations of consciousness if the word "spiritual" has too many religious connotations, enclosed in bodies the way air can be enclosed in a glass jar, and how some jars are more insulated than others and so on.

I'd want to say, though, that despite the difficulties of living with someone with AS, we did have many Good and Interesting Times in the twenty years we were together, which might lead to a whole series of posts on the difficulties of traveling in Eastern Europe during the Cold War, staying in Warsaw as the currency was collapsing there, getting yanked off a train at the border of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, and learning to say "Two beers please" in six languages.

I don't know where to begin; any meaningful topic will lead endlessly to other topics. So what has happened is that I've written about freeway construction projects near my home, and the Maryland Renaissance Festival, and I've thrown in a little politics and whatnot and other odds and ends. The point being that these topics have been chosen pretty much because they are all dead-ends. Where to go from here?

Senseless Destruction

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Every day that I read the news I find things to be outraged about. I expect this pattern to continue throughout the duration of the Bush administration, however long it may last. Every day there is some new in-your-face assault on environmental protections, some give-away to a wealthy donor, some new lie being sold to a credulous public, some laughable denial or spin. Just today, mining restrictions are being eased, republican congressmen tour Iraq while democrats are kept away, republicans in Texas create districts that are two blocks wide and 300 miles long. But I know these things are "Just Politics". Much of it will stop happening when Bush is gone, more will stop when Tom Delay is gone, so there is light at the end of the tunnel, and while it makes me angry, none of it really gets me down.

But there are also tunnels with no light at the end; things that can't be blamed on the politics of this administration, but seem rather to be evidence of pointless mean-spiritedness in human nature. These are the things that depress me. I came across one such item today. Whom can I blame this on? We don't dare, ever, criticize Our Troops. Our brave guys over there, getting shot at, risking their lives, blah blah blah. But when I read about senseless destruction like this I feel sick.


12 October 2003

US soldiers driving bulldozers, with jazz blaring from loudspeakers, have uprooted ancient groves of date palms as well as orange and lemon trees in central Iraq as part of a new policy of collective punishment of farmers who do not give information about guerrillas attacking US troops.

The stumps of palm trees, some 70 years old, protrude from the brown earth scoured by the bulldozers beside the road at Dhuluaya, a small town 50 miles north of Baghdad. Local women were yesterday busily bundling together the branches of the uprooted orange and lemon trees and carrying then back to their homes for firewood.

Nusayef Jassim, one of 32 farmers who saw their fruit trees destroyed, said: "They told us that the resistance fighters hide in our farms, but this is not true. They didn't capture anything. They didn't find any weapons."

Other farmers said that US troops had told them, over a loudspeaker in Arabic, that the fruit groves were being bulldozed to punish the farmers for not informing on the resistance which is very active in this Sunni Muslim district.

"They made a sort of joke against us by playing jazz music while they were cutting down the trees," said one man. Ambushes of US troops have taken place around Dhuluaya. But Sheikh Hussein Ali Saleh al-Jabouri, a member of a delegation that went to the nearby US base to ask for compensation for the loss of the fruit trees, said American officers described what had happened as "a punishment of local people because 'you know who is in the resistance and do not tell us'." What the Israelis had done by way of collective punishment of Palestinians was now happening in Iraq, Sheikh Hussein added.

The destruction of the fruit trees took place in the second half of last month but, like much which happens in rural Iraq, word of what occurred has only slowly filtered out. The destruction of crops took place along a kilometre-long stretch of road just after it passes over a bridge.

Farmers say that 50 families lost their livelihoods, but a petition addressed to the coalition forces in Dhuluaya pleading in erratic English for compensation, lists only 32 people. The petition says: "Tens of poor families depend completely on earning their life on these orchards and now they became very poor and have nothing and waiting for hunger and death."

The children of one woman who owned some fruit trees lay down in front of a bulldozer but were dragged away, according to eyewitnesses who did not want to give their names. They said that one American soldier broke down and cried during the operation. When a reporter from the newspaper Iraq Today attempted to take a photograph of the bulldozers at work a soldier grabbed his camera and tried to smash it. The same paper quotes Lt Col Springman, a US commander in the region, as saying: "We asked the farmers several times to stop the attacks, or to tell us who was responsible, but the farmers didn't tell us."

Informing US troops about the identity of their attackers would be extremely dangerous in Iraqi villages, where most people are related and everyone knows each other. The farmers who lost their fruit trees all belong to the Khazraji tribe and are unlikely to give information about fellow tribesmen if they are, in fact, attacking US troops.

Asked how much his lost orchard was worth, Nusayef Jassim said in a distraught voice: "It is as if someone cut off my hands and you asked me how much my hands were worth."

Fun at the Festival

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I finally got around to visiting the Maryland Renaissance Festival yesterday. I go every year. It's been running since August, but I decided to wait with going this year until the weather cooled off. Apparently everyone in the mid-Atlantic region had the same idea-- the place was packed. Maybe because it was the penultimate weekend of the festival; maybe because we've had a rainy summer. I can't remember there ever being a police officer directing traffic at the exit.

Maybe it just seemed terribly crowded; we had good seats for everything we saw, and we never had to wait in a long line for either food (or beer) or purchases, although I would have had to wait in a very long line for an ice cream cone at about 4:30pm. We saw Johnny Fox, Swordswallower Extraordinaire, who got a cheer from the crowd by calling the Maryland festival the premiere Renaissance Festival in the country. We saw Hack and Slash again; same show as last year, exactly-- still funny. They're going over to Iraq next month to entertain the troops. We watched the chess game, and of course the jousting. Again this year we commented on how hot it must be inside a suit of armor. I would have liked to have seen Barto, the human pretzel, but my son was with me and he declared it would be too disturbing. Unfortunately we didn't make it to the Globe Theatre for "The Taming of the Shrew", and I'm even sorrier we missed seeing Shakespeare's Skum perform "MacBeth in 20 Minutes or Less". Of course we ate. And ate. And ate.

I could spend a fortune on stuff I don't need at the festival-- ceramics, sculpture, jewelry, costumes, musical instruments, candles and herbs and soaps, leather goods, even furniture. Every year I see dozens of things I love. I restrained myself this year, coming away with only a pair of liqueur (or sherry, perhaps) glasses from Willow Wood Art Studio. A couple of years ago I bought a pair of champagne flutes from the same fellow, so I guess I'm besotted with his work (inadvertent pun--sorry.) Some of my other favorite shops are Shore Fire Pottery, The Brass Dragon, and the Black Sword Armory (website under construction). I'd love to have a costume from Noblesse Oblige, but their stuff is definitely for the nobility; a few years ago I priced one of their dresses at $1600. I bought my own peasant costume from Purple Unicorn last year. Not terribly authentic, but I'm somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between wouldn't-be-caught-dead and stickler-for-authenticity. I just like to be in the spirit of the festival.

It seemed to me as though the prices of everything were much higher this year. A sculpture of a dragon with about a two-foot wingspan was priced at $5000 and was far from the most expensive item in the Brass Dragon. I picked up a mug I loved at Shore Fire Pottery but put it down again when I saw the tag: $62. A few years ago I bought a dagger for $75 that would have cost me $125 yesterday. My son and I both considered getting psychic readings, just for a lark, but at $60 they cost about six times what we were willing to spend on a lark. Is it just me, or do these prices seem out of line? $62 for a mug? It was a beautiful mug, one-of-a-kind, but $62?

Not that stuff was ever cheap at the festival. A few years ago I spotted a massive wooden bed-frame, middle-earth motif, with a SOLD sign on it next to the price tag: $30,000. Some people have way too much money.

My Husband's Books


Last night I watched a program on PBS about the Lewis and Clark expedition. It interested me so much that I decided to read the book about it that I noticed while doing housework some time ago. It's a large book, hard cover, so it shouldn't be too difficult to find. I just have to search through the fourteen bookcases that are scattered among six of the rooms in my house.

About three of the bookcases are filled with my own books, a couple are filled with my son's, and the rest of the books, crammed into the shelves, doubled up in some, were my husband's. I like looking through his books; since his death in 1999 I have, from time to time, perused the shelves. The books remind me of the diversity and intensity of his interests; they remind me of the attributes that attracted me to him when I was a graduate student and he was an assistant professor about 25 years ago.

The first place I looked last night was in the two tall bookcases on the western wall of his study. These bookcases don't contain the oldest or most valuable books-- those are in the den, in a barrister's-style bookcase, each shelf of which has a glass door that lifts up. Nor do they contain the collection of old books on the history of California, which are also in the den. The large collection on the history and culture of Native Americans is in the cases along the eastern wall of the study along with the art books, and the math and science books are downstairs. The books in these two cases are a random assortment, randomly arranged.

For no reason other than entertainment value I decided to close my eyes, turn my head in a random direction, and note the title of whatever book my eyes first landed on when I opened them. The result: Burmese Days by George Orwell. I did this five more times, and found The Republic of Plato, Michael Crichton's Eaters of the Dead, Principia Vol I by Isaac Newton, Selected Works of Lucian (born in Syria c. A.D. 120), and Does God Exist? by Hans Kung.

Extending this game, I decided to look next at the book just to the left of each of these, and I found German Short Stories I, a book of stories by Eugene O'Neill containing Beyond the Horizon, The Straw, and Before Breakfast, Nostromo by Conrad, Hesiod and Theognis (two Greek poets), Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion by Hume, and finally, Masked Gods by Frank Waters.

Any Old-World Alluvial Port in a Storm


Alluvial plain: a level or gently sloping surface formed of sediments laid down by streams, generally during flooding.

I heard the word alluvial used in conversation today, for the first time in, oh, my life, maybe. People don't use the word alluvial enough.

The fellow who used the word was giving a presentation to a few of us at my workplace. He was trying to interest us in a 3-D graphics program developed by the company he works for. He was demonstrating the software for us by showing a ship entering a port, which he referred to as "any old-world alluvial port"-- at least that's what I thought I heard him say; I wasn't paying much attention, really.

I wasn't very impressed by the graphics capability he demonstrated, because I couldn't get past the thought that it was lightyears behind the graphics capabilities of the newest multi-player online games. He came close to admitting as much by saying "We've benefited from the the gaming technology", and then gushing about the new video cards such as nvidia.

He talked about the ability of his software to receive data from multiple sources and display it as it comes in, and I thought "Thousands of players on my shard, twenty characters on my screen, running, gating, casting spells on one another; UO." He showed the ship moving through the port and I thought "Running through the woods, seeing the trees go by; EQ." He zoomed in and out and around, changing his perspective, and I thought "Shadowbane".

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