Monday, March 30, 2009

Bribes and Threats

As a family we've been through countless "programs" of one sort or another: some successful, most not. The latest iteration of the 'carrot and the stick'--a Becky innovation--goes like this: we want the kids to keep their room clean, so we help them get the room clean (beds made, floor clean) and then tape a bag of swedish fish to the door. If we see something left out or the bed not made, we eat a fish. If they kids have any fish left at the end of the week, they get what's left.

Well, Mary tried to throw a bit of a wrinkle into the system this morning. First, she demanded that Becky pay her a fish for making her bed. "It doesn't work that way." Becky replied. "Okay, here you go," said Mary, handing Becky a fish as if to say, "Go ahead: I'll gladly pay a fish to have you make my bed." "Sorry," countered Becky, "It doesn't work that way either."

Take that, sugar monkey!

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Chocolate Custard

Is there anything better in all the world than real chocolate custard? Mmm. I think not.
(Photo courtesy of stu_spivack on Flickr; available at:

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Sacred Datura

We had an interesting “nature moment” a few years ago after we finished our home in Centerville. We'd been slaving away for months putting in the yard, moving (and removing) rocks, grading the dirt, digging trenches, laying sprinklers, regrading the dirt, and so on and so on.

I’d noticed a lot of interesting plants (weeds) growing up here and there, but two in particular struck me as unusual. They began growing in a bare patch of dirt out by the electrical boxes and they had dark, rigid leaves. They looked almost like a squash plant or something, only somehow more earnest, even ominous. Anyway, I left them alone to see what they would do. Within a few days, I could see long flower pods beginning to grow, the most mature nearly three inches long.

About that time I started wondering whether they were a desert plant with large white blossoms called a “Sacred Datura.” I knew next to nothing about them, but I’d seen photos of them in the Visitors’ Center at Great Basin National Park—luminous, white flowers that open like a trumpet. Curious, I read up on them, and found out that they are a desert plant that likes dry, disturbed soils. They bloom in the late evening, with each bloom lasting only one night, and they are pollinated by sphinx moths. Considered magical by Native Americans, the plants contain powerful toxins and hallucinogens. Some Indian Tribes used to brew a kind of tea from their leaves, which was then administered to young warriors as part of a coming of age ritual. Some of them saw visions; others likely died in the process. Even today, people occasionally die from trying to make (and drink) their own Sacred Datura tea.

The leaves in the photos I saw were a dead ringer for the plants in the yard, and so I wasn’t surprised at all when, a few days later, the first flower pod opened and sent out a long, tightly wound blossom. Later that evening, as twilight deepened into full darkness, the corkscrew unraveled quite suddenly, and there, sure enough, was the mystical bloom.

(Photo courtesy of Bill Barber on Flickr; available at:

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Natural Acts

I've been re-reading this brilliant collection of essays by David Quammen. The man can write. Consider this passage in which he describes his companion on a three-day fishing expedition into Montana's Bob Marshall Wilderness Area:

Whisperin' Jack is six foot five and weighs about 140 and wears a brown Dobbs fedora that, despite his degree from the Harvard Medical School, makes him look like the kind of quiet creepy guy whose car trunk is one day discovered to contain the sucked-upon finger bones of missing hitchhikers.

Like I said, the man can write. But clever asides like that are just the appetizers, the main course is a series of fascinating essays on natural history: crows and cockroaches, black widows and vampire bats; life and death and sex all take their turn beneath his wry and inquisitive gaze. Not everyone's cup of tea, to be sure, but fascinating stuff.

(As an aside, I once wrote Quammen a letter and asked him the secret to great writing. His answer: "hard work.")

Finding the Fremont

Our family has spent a fair amount of time recently exploring Native American ruins of one kind or another, particularly those involving the Fremont Indians, who, at the height of their culture in about 1000 AD, occupied much of present day Utah in small farming and hunter/gatherer communities. Though the archealogical record is uncertain, the Fremont culture appeared to die out gradually between about 1250-1500 AD.

Unlike the Anasazi, who built elaborate villages of mud and stone, the Fremont built simple pit houses and rocky granaries to store corn they grew along the creek bottoms. For some reason--war? drought? internal conflict?--the Fremont eventually moved these granaries from the sedate creek bottoms to the dizzying heights above, where they camouflaged them carefully and tucked them into barely accessible nitches and narrow ledges. To this day, it remains difficult to spot these granaries, some of which still hold corn cobs and other artifacts, and even more difficult to access them, with many accessible only by helicopter or by skilled climbers using ropes and rappelling gear. We've found a few, but they remain elusive, even with a good pair of binoculars. (Can you spot the granary in the attached photo? I've made it easy for you by reducing it to a single cliff face. Hint: you can double click the photo and view it large.)

In any event, we've loved learning more about the Fremont and poking around in artifact rich areas like Nine Mile Canyon, which contains a stunning array of Fremont petroglyphs, ruined granaries, pit houses, and even a 700+ year old corn cob, which Sarah and I discovered near the remains of an ancient village (and, which, I'll have you know, we duly left right where we found it).

Friday, March 20, 2009

Photographing Children

As those who know me may appreciate, I'm a bit obsessive-compulsive when it comes to hobbies and interests. I've gone through many in recent years: fly fishing, fly tying, fossil collecting of various sorts, nature photography, English language haiku, and now ... children's photography.

And so you'll have to excuse me if this blog takes something of a turn in that direction.

Here's my gripe with most existing children's photography: it's cluttered and it's fake. By "cluttered" I mean that people love to fill photographs of children with a vast array of cheesy props, objects that pull attention away from the child. At worst, those photographs look something like this: (Sorry, Cindy, I wish you well in your business venture, it's just not my cup of tea!). I think that props have their place, but only if they say something particular, and meaningful, about this child.

By "fake" I mean that most children's portraits are staged and awkward looking. Rather than take photographs of children in their natural settings, we like to put them under the studio lights with a paint dabbed drop cloth behind and then expect them "smile" (hold it, hold it!) or "act natural" when, in fact, there is nothing natural about it.

While family snapshots are much better at "telling a story" than Kiddie-Candid studio prints, they typically fall victim to clutter and poor lighting. Life is messy and complicated, and family snapshots reflect that. Besides, a birthday party or other event typically can't wait for perfect lighting or a clean house.

But I digress: what I'm really talking about here isn't snapshots for the scrapbook but portraits of children, where we set aside some time (and often money) to capture a particular moment, expression, age, or interest.

At their best, these portraits don't just show, but tell. The images are simple and uncluttered, the lighting works, and, perhaps most of all, kids are allowed to be themselves. Contrast the images from the link above with those of the Philadelphia-based Karen Carey:

What I love most about children's photography is the challenge of reducing life--a little life--down to something that fits in a square frame, to capture a moment, an expression, that may never happen again. In some ways, children's photography allows us to do the impossible, to hang on to these little ones who grow and change so fast. Ah, yes, time's "fatal wings do ever forward fly," but a camera allows us stop time in its tracks, leaving us with an image, a moment, a story, that can endure beyond life and memory. And you know what? Those little suckers are just plain cute. And perhaps that's reason enough.

So, blah, blah, blah, and philosophic musings aside, here's a picture of guinea pig #1, also known around our house as Mary. I took it last weekend after Church with my new toy (Becky prefers the word "investment"). What do you think? No smile, no flash, no make up, no props ... just Mary.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Democracy is Beautiful

I stopped by a City Council meeting this evening, and, after a presentation on a planned curb-side recycling program, the Council opened it up for public comment.

I spoke and at least a dozen other ordinary citizens did so as well, and it struck me how amazing this democracy of ours remains, for all its faults. I thought of the billions of people around the world who cannot speak freely on subjects of interest or importance to them, and yet here, in America, the idea is so fundamental, so natural, that most of us give it scarcely a second thought.

But there's another dimension worth nothing as well: a kind of creeping cynicism, even here in America, that whispers "Why bother? Your voice [or your vote] doesn't count." And, in truth, I think interest groups of one kind or another, particularly PACs, wield far too much influence.

Nevertheless, ordinary citizens can and do make a difference, a reality brought home again to me during the 2009 session of the Utah legislature, when a bill pushed by two of the most powerful interest groups in Utah--the Realtors Association and the Farm Bureau--went down to defeat on the floor of the Utah House of Representatives. Opposition to the bill was led by a rag tag assortment of trout bums and ordinary citizens, many of whom had never been involved in politics before. This time, however, they called, they wrote, they texted, and emailed. Dozens of them marched up to the Capitol and spoke to their legislators personally. Others testified at committee hearings. And it worked. Democracy works. Somehow. It can be messy, and ugly, but it works, and when it does, it's a thing of beauty.

(Image courtesy of USAID, available at: For those who don't recognize the image, it shows the hands of Iraqi citizens who voted in recent elections, where a hard-to-remove dye is used to prevent repeat voting. Insurgents, incidentally, have used the dyed fingers to single out and execute people for "supporting the U.S." or "supporting the regime." Many Iraqis voted anyway.)

Friday, March 13, 2009

Youthful Optimism

So Mary got out the markers the other day, scribbled this picture on a sheet of paper, taped it to a glass jar, and declared it the "vacation jar" (or words to that effect). She was terribly disappointed when, after a few days, I told her that the few accumulated coins and bills wouldn't cover a big family vacation, at least not yet. Still, hopes springs eternal ...

Can you guess where she wants to go?

Monday, March 9, 2009

Pruning 101

When we built our house in 2006, the first and only home we’ve ever owned, I took it upon myself to put in the yard. And so I planted things—lots and lots of things: Russian Sage, White Sage, Burning Bush, Eastern Redbud, Red Spire Flowering Pear, Dwarf English Laurel, lavender, plum trees, peach trees, crab apple trees, apple apple trees, and the list goes on.

I did so with all kinds of happy thoughts running through my head: “Gee, these plants are swell. Won’t this look nice when it all fills in?” In my mind’s eye, I saw the yard as a refuge, a sedate place for light weeding and blissful contemplation.

We finished the last yard project in 2007 and promptly moved to Maryland. When we moved back last August, I was thrilled get back and see how the yard had fared: beautifully, as it turns out, thanks to an improbable renter who loved yard work and had a flair for neatness, a quality that, sadly, I lack. So the yard looked great, but many of the trees and shrubs had grown in leaps and bounds, which got me thinking about … pruning.

And I was excited about it. You know, the cool little nipper things, and the giant scissor-looking shears, and the heavy, muscled lopper … it gives one a sense of power and accomplishment: trim a little here, cut a little there, yes, yes, me, the master of all I survey.

That was before I learned that pruning requires a PhD. Seriously. Astro-physics has nothing on pruning. Each tree or shrub, I learned to my horror and amazement, has different pruning needs, and those needs change based on time of season and the plant’s maturity. And there are rules—lots and lots of rules--though every rule has an exception and competing schools of thought and, as the pruning instructor at the local nursery told me, “Rules are meant to be broken,” except of course, when breaking the rule will kill the plant, or turn one’s life into some kind of pruning Hell for all eternity—the Myth of Sisyphus in your own back yard. Fun!

I also discovered that plants have one serious evolutionary advantage over humans: they can regenerate lost limbs, a lesson that struck me with particular force when I took my new set of nippers and promptly pruned the little finger of my right hand, leading to an episode of rapid blood loss, muttered curses, and stumbling blindly around the yard in near-shock. But, hey: once I wrapped my finger in a mass of bandages and sat down to keep from fainting, at least I had few quiet moments for contemplation.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Power of Forgiveness

I was deeply touched by a recent piece I heard on NPR from the "This I Believe" series on the power of forgiveness. Here's the link, which tells the story of a woman who picked the wrong man out of a police line-up, sending him to prison for 11 years for a crime he did not commit. Remarkably, the two of them are now friends, and they composed the NPR piece together. Here’s the link:

The story reminded me of another powerful story of forgiveness from the recent past, that of a community of Amish farmers in Central Pennsylvania who have embraced the family of a mentally ill milkman who killed several children at an Amish school before taking his own life. That story, too, was profiled not long ago on NPR:

In sharing these, I don’t mean to suggest that forgiveness is, or should be, simple or automatic. From personal experience I recognize it as a deeply personal choice, and one that can’t be forced or pressured. For forgiveness to mean anything, the “if” and the “when” must be left entirely to the individual.

But when an individual does choose to forgive, these stories speak of the powerful healing effect of forgiveness on the forgiver as much as on the forgiven. In the end, forgiveness isn’t about what's just or fair, but rather a conscious decision to let go and to move beyond, to love and forget, even when there’s no reason for either.