Monday, August 25, 2008

Orbit's Watch

I grew up hearing tales of amazing dogs my grandfather had known. There was Mike, a Springer Spaniel who guarded my mother when she was a toddler. My grandmother would place my mother in the backyard in the sandbox with a few toys, and then she would call the dog and say, “Watch Cody, Mike.” He would sit down and begin duty. Mike would patiently and repeatedly pull her back from the busy street when she pushed her doll buggy too close. He was the best of babysitters.

Mike was a valued member of the family and when he vanished one cool fall day, my grandfather searched the County for him. Several days passed before a neighbor on the edge of town called with the sad news that he had found Mike, dead, caught in his wire fencing. His collar had strangled him as he tried to free himself. Mike and his remarkable fidelity lived on in stories that I begged to hear and my grandpa loved to tell.

When my brother Nick was born, my grandfather dropped in daily to hold the baby. For the first few weeks, despite my mother repeatedly telling him that his name was Nicholas Joseph, my grandfather stubbornly called the baby “Mike”. After a month or so, when he saw my mother was unyielding in her choice, my grandpa finally gave up his attempt to christen my brother after his dog.

I had my own faithful guard dog as a child. Hershel the beagle lived with my paternal grandparents on their farm outside of town. Hershel had wide and knowing eyes, a gentle disposition, and an almost human presence. In the many pictures I have of myself on the farm, Hershel is always sitting a few feet away, observing me with his liquid and soulful eyes. Though he usually watched with benevolent boredom, he wasn’t afraid to voice his displeasure if I ventured into trouble and more than once began barking like crazy to alert my grandparents when I snuck too close to the barn. A particularly vicious bull lived there and I was fascinated by his dangerous horns. Hershel had more sense and thwarted my every attempt to get a closer look.

One fall day some trigger-happy hunters mistook Hershel for a turkey and blindly shot toward some low brush. After he was killed, it felt so alien to be alone on the farm without his ever watchful gaze; I pretended he was still there, a few feet beside me, keeping silent vigil.

Canine fidelity was a trait respected by my family, but I think one dog will forever be linked in my mind with true devotion. My brother Nick brought home a small black and white rat terrier from the pound, and named her “Orbit”. She had the frustrating qualities that many terriers possess: a willful spirit, a devotee of the dangerous art of moving tire biting, and a relaxed attitude about peeing wherever and whenever the mood struck her. Nick thought she was perfect, however, and even wrote songs in her honor. One I recall was sung to the tune of “O Christmas Tree” and included the lyrics, “O Orbie Dear, O’Orbie Dear, you’re the best dog in the hemisphere!” And she was.

They would often play a game of mock battle: Nick would grab Orb through a blanket and Orb would bite his hands and spin about in a delighted fake attack mode. Nick called the game “Pit Pup” or “Ninja Pup”. There’s was a perfect example of a dog finding her true boy.

When we lost Nick, suddenly, unexpectedly at age 12, we each were caught in our own waves of grieving for many months; we struggled just to keep breathing.

Absorbed with my own misery, Orbit was present, but not foremost in my thoughts until I noticed her sitting in the front window one fall day. Nick had died shortly before school had begun and now, weeks later, children were streaming down the street, released from school for the day. Orbit watched each child intently. Particular children were given extra scrutiny. Boys on bikes, boys with a familiar walk, boys with tee shirts and knobby shoulders, or a boy with dark hair – these traits excited her. As they passed by, and she recognized each not to be hers, she would sag a bit, and then resume the posture of patient waiting. Every day, she waited.

We moved to a new house and Orbit immediately took up her vigil in the front window. Each possibility that walked or rode by elicited brief excitement. A tiny quiver of hope. A black and white canine candle in the window.

Ten years passed and a much greyer Orb still watched with cloudy eyes. Too arthritic to jump up, she barked for a boost to her perch. She would keep waiting for as long as it took.

In her 14th year she had a stroke and fell down a long flight of steps. After an emergency trip to the vet, mom called to tell me Orbit seemed to be paralyzed. I rushed home armed with bags of Orbits’ favorite treats and we worked with her all night. By midnight she was up, pudgy with treats and although unsteady, she was walking. We said how proud Nick would be: Orbit was healed by the power of Pupperoni.

Eventually, more strokes struck and the day came when Orb could no longer walk at all. Our family knew what needed to be done, yet it was excruciating to take that final trip to the Animal Hospital. The vets were wonderfully kind as always and as Orbit slipped quietly away we all sobbed together. The thought that sustained and comforted me was that her long wait was over; Orbit had finally found her boy.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

List of Plants, Trees, Animals, Birds on Monticello Bike Path

Thanks to Mr. Harty who created this great list.

Two good books to recommend to hikers on the trail is Illinois
Wildflowers by Don Kurz
And/or Tallgrass Prairie Wildflowers by Doug Ladd and Frank Oberle

Yellow or grey-headed cone flower Ratibida pinnata
False sunflower Heliopsis helianthoides
Purple prairie clover Petalostemum purpureum
Bindweed Convolvulus sepium
Big Bluestem Andropogon gerardii
Wild petunia Ruellia humilis
Tall goldenrod Solidago altimissima
Stiff goldenrod Solidago rigida
Wild quinine Parthenium integrefolium
Prairie cordgrass Spartina pectinata
Fleabane daisy Erigeron strigosus
Rosinweed Silpihium integrifolium
Purple coneflower Echinacea purpurea
Ironweed Veronia fasciculata
Staghorn sumac Rhus typhina
Smooth sumac Rhus glabra
Poison ivy Rhus radicans
Trumpet creeper Campsis radicans
Sullivan's milkweed Ascepias sullivantii
Common milkweed Ascepias syriaca
Switch grass Panicum virgatum
Grey dogwood Cornus racemosa
Grapevine Vitis aestivalis
Winged verbena Vebesina helianthoides
Basswood Tilia americana
Green ash Fraxinus pennsylvanica
Black cherry Prunus americana
Hackberry Celtis occidentalis
White mulberry Morus alba
Silver maple Acer saccharinum
Box-elder Acer negundo
Elderberry Sambucus canadensis
Black walnut Juglans nigra
Pokeweed Phytolacca americana
Honeylocust Gleditsia triacanthos
Shingle oak Quercus imbricaria
Black oak Quercus velutina
Sassafras Sassafras albidum
Virginia creeper Parhenocissus
Heal-all Prunella

Vine honeysuckle Lonicera flava
Catbriar Smilax
Avens Geum canadensis
Hazelnut Corylus americana
Red elm Ulmus rubra
Solomon's seal Polygonatum commutatum
American bellflower Campanula americana
Canada wild rye Elymus canadensis
Joe-pye weed Eupatorium fistulosum
Thimbleweed Anemone cylindrica
Gaura Gaura biennis
Prickly lettuce Lactuca biennis
Illinois memosa Desmanthus illinoensis
Evening primrose Oenothera biennis
New England aster Aster novae-angliae

EXOTIC SPECIES: Not native to North American and cause are a huge threat
to natural ecosystems

Queen Anne's lace Dacus corata
Reed canary grass Phalaris arundinaria
Garlic mustard Allaria officinalis
Multiflora rose Rosa multiflora
Chicory Cichorium intybus
Wild parsnip Pastinaca sativa
Soapwort Saponaria officinalis
Depford pink Dianthus armeria
Bush honeysuckle Lonicera x bella
Hops Humulus japonicus


Purple martin
Turkey vulture
Cedar waxwing
Redwinged black bird
Indigo bunting
Barn swallow
Bell's vireo


Cricket frog


Grey squirell

Goudy oak gall on shingle oaks
The acorn weevil isin the genus a Cuculio spp.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Back To School

The summer is waning, the evenings feel cooler and this week I caught the first scent of fall in the air. Late August is an evocative time.

As a kid, August represented a return to school. I always celebrated July 4th with mixed emotions, for each day after the 4th brought me closer to the end of summer. Even the droning of the cicadas seemed to hum vacations imminent end. After dragging my heels and squeezing out every bit of fun summer had to offer, I finally accepted the inevitable end of my break. I even began to enjoy the thought of a fresh start. I would lay out my new school supplies and admire the box of 72 crayons (with built in sharpener). I imagined how this year would be different from all my other years of scholastic mediocrity and odd duck status. This year was as fresh and unblemished as my Periwinkle crayon.

In my mind I saw myself dazzling my peers with my new school clothes and imagined stunning my new teacher with my wit and intellect. I banished all the many past educational and social failures from my mind and resolved to make this year successful.

I agonized over which outfit to wear; I wanted the best first impression. On the first day of school, I created many equally ridiculous styles with my mousy hair (In 4th grade, after the success of Bo Derek’s movie, 10- I tried cornrows. I was less successful. ), and once even briefly tested a new walk- shoulders uncomfortably back, head held high, one foot placed directly in front of the other- a look I admired having watched the Miss America pageant. Adopting this rifle straight and odd looking gait in school merely resulted in boys asking if over the summer I had sat on a steel rod.

I nursed other expectations lovingly over the last long summer days; I would be organized, I would shock everyone with my new found confidence, I would find a true kindred spirit for a friend. Sadly, my hopes often fizzled within the first week. Boys and girls still treated each other unkindly, I was still scattered, awkward socially and physically, and unfailingly messy. It wasn’t many weeks before I would suffer the routine shame of an exasperated teacher shaking the entire contents of my crammed and disorderly desk onto the floor. I can still hear the sound a shaken desk and crashing books make in a hushed classroom. I spent many recesses slowly sorting and organizing my desk; always among the detritus- 72 broken crayons with torn papers.

When I think of these memories I have to admire my unflagging hope. I truly believed, however briefly, in each new beginning. I also remember with piercing clarity, not the curriculum, but individual moments of kindness shown by my teachers; those instances glow in my recollections. I remember how good it felt when a teacher seemed to genuinely like you.

I recall suffering a couple of teachers who made no effort to hide the fact that they didn’t care for me and how disconsolate their indifference, (or as in 3rd grade- obvious distaste) made me feel. It made for a long, unhappy year. In 5th grade, however, I met Ms. Moore who startled me with her kindness. Once, although I was taller by at least a foot, she helped me put on my coat, tied my hood with affection and then delivered a hug that felt like a benediction. That small gesture, and the many more she showed throughout that year renewed my faith in myself as likable.

Perhaps in these times of state mandated teaching to tests, rigidity and resistance in allowing creative teachers to be creative and an adopted mantra of “teach, don’t touch” holding sway, we sometimes forget how powerful simply connecting with a child can be. The 8 hours a child spends in school, nine months of each year, are central and formative to his life experience. In that time, in that place, young lives are being lived. I worry that important things are being lost in our resolve to “leave no child behind.” Teachers may be losing the time and the flexibility to teach at reasonable speeds and styles that match the natural development of children. Teachers and children alike are under increasing pressure to perform. I wonder what is truly being left behind.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Cellular Effects

Much has been said in recent days about the possible physical side effects of excessive cell phone use. We know that driving while talking on a cell induces the same effects as having a .08 alcohol blood count. Additional unease regarding the dangers of radiation from cell phone exposure continues to linger. Although the warnings have generally been pooh-poohed by Americans, European health agencies have warned their citizens for years and recommend limited cell phone use, especially for children.

Scientists in America are generally quick to assure the safety of new technology; however, blanket assurances always remind me of the radium dial girls of the mid 1920s. Few remember the story of the young women whose jobs involved painting radium laced illuminating liquid on clock dials. The girls were encouraged to shape the paintbrushes to a fine point with their lips. They were paid a penny and a half per dial. While shaping the brushes, they ingested the radium paint, called “Undark” and many developed deadly and horrifying jaw and lip cancers. Similar assurances had been made at that time regarding the safety of radiation exposure, yet those girls’ graves are still ticking out radiation like clockwork. Human fragility and our proven fallibility should dictate caution.

Lately, I’ve been thinking and wondering about unintended social consequences of many of the new tools our society has unhesitatingly embraced.

Wandering aimlessly around in Bement, searching for a street (only I could get lost in Bement), I saw a middle aged woman standing near a school and decided to ask for directions. I pulled up with my window down and then noticed she was laughing and talking on a cell phone. Before I could smile at her, and pull away- I didn’t want to interrupt; she glanced up at me, frowned, shook her head, and then turned her back to me to continue her conversation. Momentarily stunned by the ease of her rudeness, I waited a moment then pulled away. I looked elsewhere for assistance and added another mental entry to my list of the negative aspects of cell phones: they are a tool which enable and encourage rudeness. Cell phones can form an effective cloaking device that allows users to move through the world without connecting to others in the environment.

Last Spring, I watched a girl, perhaps 14 years old shopping with her grandfather. The grandfather was obviously making a graduation purchase for her- an extravagant piece of electrical equipment. She trailed him in a bored shuffle as he carried her gift; she never stopped texting or looked up from her cell phone/keyboard.

This disconnect is a distressing aspect of cell phones. It is something that many parents simply do not anticipate. When your teen has a cell phone and actively text messages, even when they are with you- participating in a family outing for example, they are also with their friends. It is intrusive and disruptive and parents are fighting to regain a measure of control.

As kids most of us talked with frequently with friends. I recall my mother’s irritation with the constantly ringing phone (a single phone, connected to the kitchen wall).The difference was, when we weren’t on the phone our pals, we were usually with our family. There were definite lines of demarcation. Texting has changed that notion. How is socialization and family life affected when peers are always available and present if only in voice or word? Additionally, the communication among friends is instant, often beyond parents’ sphere of influence, and can involve sharing confidential conversations with unintended parties. When these communications are posted to internet sites, the can even be criminal.

Kids are using technology in ways most of us simply did not envision. This technology is so new; we may not see results of physical risks associated with cell use for years to come; the social side-effects are all around us.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Poolside Memories

As I waited for my son to emerge from the pool this week, I watched the moms and small children paddle about in the baby pool. My boys are teens now, but how well I remember the days of floaties and swimming diapers. I look back with some wistfulness that those days are gone forever, but also with immense gratitude that I survived.

In my memory those days were always sweltering, so hot that even the daunting prospect of a trip across town with three fractious toddlers (my boys were one year apart so I often felt as though I had triplets), the laborious undressing and suiting up, the collecting of toys, and the slathering of sun block on three small, resisting boys was not enough to deter me from the undertaking. We would arrive at the pool and survey the kiddie pool crowd. The scene was always the same: pink suited, impossibly tiny, blonde babes and their often mirror-image moms bobbed and swayed gently in the water like so many graceful swans and goslings. Wee, cherubic girls poured tidy streams with toy watering cans or carefully scooped with ladles and buckets. A gaggle of moms made easy small talk with one another- it often resembled an outdoor cocktail party or a magazine spread exemplifying graceful summer living.

Then, Da Da DAT da DAAHH! my crew arrived like a pack of Bumpus hounds. I tried desperately to restrain my herd of wild things, but the task was daunting. They hit the gate running and, immediately, the peace was shattered. Tension electrified the air as splashing and yelling ensued. High-pitched wailing arose as small, pastel suited girls were flattened by rogue waves created by my zephyering, canon- balling little boys. My sons seemed to be everywhere at once, mini bundles of incredible energy- and I could feel my blood pressure shooting upwards as I scurried about, desperately putting out the social fires they continuously sparked. Here an accidental, but colossal splash to a face, there a toy grabbed (always a Snoopy-esque snatch) - a grab and go which left the victim momentarily bewildered, mouths agape in shock and set off the inevitable chain of events: screeching from the injured party, chasing of the offender, returning the toy to the indignant child (and parent), the hurried, forced, insincere apology from my son, and ending with the other parent mentally crossing off of our names from the invitation list of their child’s next birthday party.

My sons not only splashed others, snatched toys, and generally ran amok, but enjoyed varying their routine by occasionally sneaking fairly large sticks into the pool area to employ as weaponry. These sticks were crucial for games of water jousting, a less injurious form of the original bicycle jousting; a brief but lively game they invented which may hold a record for being attempted and banned during its trial run. In a lax moment, perhaps when my attention was diverted to my youngest toddler, who was fond of repeatedly bouncing slowly in the water- bobbing in wonder toward the deep end until he inevitably bounced too far, disappeared from sight and had to be rescued- in that moment, my other sons would strip nude and streak gleefully about to the delight of the bored teen lifeguards who were immensely pleased at any diversion. To shake things up a bit, my sons might join forces and create a multiple brown out-thereby shutting down the baby pool for cleaning and sterilization and alienating and disgusting the entire baby pool community.

Although the transgressions were unintentional (mostly) and never committed in a mean spirit, but simply in the goofy, gangly puppy stage that most little boy’s experience, I could tell that some parents thought my sons a menace. Heaven help me if I had to explain an incident to a protective father. On one memorable occasion, a paternal jaw had jutted aggressively and inordinate anger was expressed. After apologizing for my son’s dousing of his daughter and multiple counts of absconding with her kick board, I came away feeling excessively weary. I recall catching a glimpse of myself in the changing room mirror after this particularly grueling pool session (which had also included one of my boys inadvertently backing into a smaller child and toppling them headfirst flailing and shrieking into the pool not once, but three times in rapid succession), in that quick glance I noticed that my face was frozen in a look of apologetic embarrassment and chagrin. I wondered if it would remain that way throughout my sons’ youth.

The parents tried to be kind (mostly), yet it was obvious that parents of many little girls and of the more sedate little boys often thought my guys were a different species; some untamed, dangerous creature; possibly a minute Viking remnant or Cro-Magnon offspring.

I couldn’t blame them, although it wasn’t as if I sat back and allowed my boys to be ill-mannered. I never stopped moving -shepherding them, herding them to more neutral pool ground, speaking in low, firm tones, intervening at every transgression. I was (and continue) earnestly trying to civilize my guys.

Those years were often exhausting, yet I am so glad that I was with my boys; that I had the opportunity to tell them to stop running along the pool the million or so times it took before it finally processed. That is what they needed; a parent to be there, to say the words of guidance as many times as it took. Childhood is a short season. We must fill it with understanding, patience and love- and millions of guiding words.