A Ten-Bird Guide to Time 2010 Wall Calendar

Telluride Daily Planet,  Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The winter solstice has teetered, a new year is on its way, and that means palettes of shrink-wrapped calendars will soon be handed out like Bingo cards to all of us, the day-trippers of time.

There must be other people out there like me, yearning for something completely different: Imagine a calendar that shoves us off, sails us through 2010, spinnakers full, with all our space-time continuum needs met. Isn’t that what a calendar is supposed to do — connect alarm clocks to stars and then back to pineal glands so that we can reflect on what another sunrise means in this part of the galaxy? This was my understanding.

Not exactly how we do it, though, on the third planet from the Sun.… Here, it’s more like a game of categories slapped on a second grade template, deboned of all celestial reference. And oh the places the boneless categories go! From heavy hitters like cats, word-a-days and swimsuits to back porches, teapots, shells, purses, covered bridges, cocktails, cockatiels, weird mushrooms (Weird Mushrooms 2010), Go Vegan, Hannah Montana, the Hubble Telescope, Donny Osmond, Ed Rosenthal’s Big Buds, Woodland Faeries, Kama Sutra, and the Beer Pong Wall Calendar. Thousands of calendars. Thousands of ways to tick off the days until blackout Bingo is unanimously achieved. But what’s achieved?

In a time capsule of 21st Century Earth calendars, how will other life forms cipher what lighthouses, beaches and black-and-white photos of Yosemite had to do with our orbit around the sun? Did Doodle-a-day help connect our hands to our diurnal segments? Were the Twelve Poodles of 2010 keepers of the secret? Were Nuns Having Fun whirling dervishes, a mystery school of time, space and beyond?

You’re probably thinking, So what would you propose, Little Miss Better-Than-Bingo? What’s so bad about x’s in boxes, countdown, appointments, Big Days? We need calendars to file events in time. The categories are simply phyla and sub-phyla of our culture. It’s how we DO it. I suppose you’re opposed to watches, too…

No, I’m not opposed to anything. I don’t know! At first I thought, just stick to Bingo, but with better categories. The Stephen Hawking 2010 Calendar, Page-a-Day Time Quotes by Super Smart People. Poetry About the Quantum Field Desk Calendar. Whispers of String Theory Oversized Wall Calendar. What Emily Dickinson Had to Say About Time Mini Calendar. But it’s all still Bingo.

Now I’m thinking a calendar has to be ground breaking. Revolutionary. And idiosyncratic. Like a bird calendar, since birds are mysterious, have secrets, and we see them everyday. (There are some quirky bird calendars already out there — Birds in the Garden 2010 Linen Towel Calendar, Loon Magic with Sound 2010 Wall Calendar; but they still don’t send me skidding across the space-time linoleum.)

My calendar is about winged creatures that have flown into my life in the past year. And since I’ve collected only ten important bird moments this year, I’m simply re-dividing the calendar into ten months of 36 days — with a five-day party at the very end. I’m not renaming any months but I am leaving out April and November, just this once, and putting April Fool’s on my birthday (March 31). Thanksgiving I’m shoving in with Halloween. April and November birthdays will all be celebrated at the summer solstice with giant bonfires and punch.

In terms of weeks, I’m going to six days instead of seven, for an even six weeks per month. And I’m leaving out Monday, for obvious reasons. All lunar and planetary information will be noted in sidebars with little thumbnails of deep space. And the Bingo grid? No grid. Circles spiraling outward from the center of the page in a Fibonacci spiral and right off the page. Can’t play Bingo on that.

The text? Obviously, the hard part. How to impart time, space, poetry and human emotion in three or four narrative sentences? But October, for instance, would feature the bird I met hiking up a steep trail as the last leaves fell to the ground. I’m breathing hard in the still air when suddenly I hear a Camp Robber swoosh past and up and then land in a tree. Admiring its grace, its perch, and without thinking I say “Hi,” and keep marching. Six or seven steps later, I hear “Hi” repeated back, same inflection, same tone. I peel around just as is its wings have begun to flap. In a flash it’s gone. I feel my place on the planet, frozen as things whirl around me.

Time is the present, nothing behind, nothing in front. It is a window on eternity, which we cannot grasp. It is deep rather than long, folds over itself like a burrito, bends in the light, slips through our fingers but lodges itself in our cells, our minds, our time-traveling souls. That is what the Camp Robber told me.

For other bird secrets, see me — the calendar isn’t available yet.

Holiday Shenanigans

Telluride Daily Planet, Monday, December 7, 2009

Dear Santa,

I’m worried, favorite superhero of mine. Because yesterday when I flashed on your face — which I do quite often during the holidays — my mind’s eye went directly to your mustache, and sure, it was white all right, but in place of those infamous soft whiskers was a handle-bar polycarbonate swirl from pre-Pixar days. It was plastic!

And as the mind’s-eye cam panned, the rest of you came into focus, and it was all red, white and black polymers as well, and some of the belly paint was chipping off revealing a bare-bulb light source (?!) beneath. That was when I realized you’d become one of those three-foot light-up Santas, a front yard escapee, dragging a cord and power strip behind you.

What kind of mixed metaphor would you call that, when Santa (you), who looks a lot like Freud (or vice-versa), wanders off dragging his disconnected source of power behind him? Well. Anyway. Even though it’s been about 42 years since my last letter to the now melting polar ice cap, I’m compelled, at this point, to write. Make you real again. In my mind’s eye.

Let’s see, where to begin. Well, first of all, I mean, wow, you’re a survivor. I think part of the reason you really are a superhero and not just quasi is that you’ve endured all manner of brutish assaults on your dignity, identity, and place in history. You’ve been in beer commercials and flamingo parades and cast as countless drunks in red fat suits. You’ve even survived being a character in actual superhero comic books, which you probably even had to drag down chimneys and deliver at some point — which must have felt like being in an Escher drawing or a Borges short story. By the way, do you read fiction or nonfiction, or is there no distinction where you’re from?

I guess one could argue at least we haven’t forgotten you, however perverted our focus. You continue to spawn novelties year after year after year, from mugs, acrylic sweaters, and doormats to corn-syrup confections, screen savers, and giant light contraptions hoisted onto house fronts. I mean, you name it. Personally I think it should be your face on a brand new nickel: you’ve influenced more people than any buffalo, and you seem to be just as much in danger of extinction.

Hey, remember my father? Resolutely opposed to anything remotely smacking of what he felt was the willful suspension of disbelief? Remember that spindly seven-foot Christmas tree we bought every year for $1.99 — that he’d immediately cart to his workshop and reconfigure by drilling holes into the trunk and sticking other branches into until the illusion was one of perfection? Do you remember me lying under that tree, staring up at the little gazebo-shaped ornaments with propellers that twirled if you placed them directly above the old-fashioned lights? Can you feel me lying there, willing you into my heart?

Though superhero historians might lump you in with the Rider archetype (mounted upon either powerful vehicle or animal, or, in your case, both), I continue to see you more as a Mentalist, gifted also with superpsychic empathy. Deconstructionists might continue to argue that you are the anthropomorphized version of the amanita muscaria mushroom, the polka dot red and white one that humans ingest in order to see men and reindeer fly across the dark void. But we both know — obviously, right? — that children see this (you) without chemical alteration of any kind.

A couple of years ago, I saw something that made me feel like you made me feel long ago. I was in our little Town Park, schussing along quietly on my cross-country skis, on one the outer loops, not far from the river. I looked up and saw a lynx and her two cubs about 20 feet away. Luxuriant white-furred bodies, long legs, and fringed feet. They were punching through the deep snow silently, calmly, utterly at peace with their surroundings and my presence, which did not disturb one fiber of the quantum field. They stopped and we all stood there, deep inside the magic and beauty of the world. So in the spirit of this letter, I’m asking for the lynx metaphor this year. That feeling. The same one from under the tree.

In parting, I’d like to thank you for tirelessly saving humankind year after year, even amidst all our ruthless consumer shenanigans. People don’t realize how important it is that that children grow up believing in belief. We forget that children are holding the world up and that you are one of the pantheon of spirits in turn holding them up.

Thanks for doing all that. Here’s what I promise to do in return: I’m going to turn Sigmund Freud’s mustache to plastic — in my mind’s eye — and you back to jolly old flesh and blood. Should be good for both of us.

Skin Deep

Telluride Daily Planet, Friday, November 20, 2009

I really didn’t start using moisturizer until I was 48 years old. And as far as I know, only exotic types who stay out of the sun for years at a time — countesses or vampires, say — can get away with that.

I have no idea what I was busy thinking while the rest of the world stood in line buying kelp, ground-up pearls, Dead Sea minerals, topical vitamin C, and botanicals like calendula and heliochrism. It’s not like I didn’t need these things. Obviously, here at 9,000 feet, the air is so dry that you can actually feel desiccation occurring on site. We’re Appalachian apple dolls, our once juicy cheeks hollowing out and caving in at time-lapse speeds. And if you don’t put on sunscreen? You’re hundred-year-old shoe leather under a magnifying glass. You’re mummified, basically, but still alive and walking around under a permanent noonday sun.

Like everyone, I have a history with my own skin, one that explains in part what kept me from gunking up my pores with anything at all until pretty recently. In my case, it was trauma — the sundry humiliations of having grown up with acne and marching around splotched while the rest of the tweed-skirted Catholic girls sailed through high school without much facial stigmata at all.

The tale hit a low point when my mother dragged me, at 15, to Madigan, the army hospital in Tacoma, south of Seattle, where she consented to let them test-group me on a brand new product called Retin-A. In 1973, with a dosage of probably a trillion times what it is today, my face miraculously cleared to porcelain perfection for a couple of days before about-facing me down a different road, a bumpy, every-pore-is-a-pimple, paved-with-good-intentions, road-to-hell road. Disappearing further still into the dark and stormy teenscape, I picked up a few more cloaking devices to add to my wardrobe, and waited out the sadism of being a test rat in a military hospital.

Eventually — and long, long after my mother promised it would — my face did clear up, and I was somewhat protected against premature wrinkling by the same naturally oily skin that, as a teen, I’d cursed. I did very little to my skin for years, until one day, in one of those bed-and-bath stores, where I had a close encounter with my epidermis.

My own teenager and I are near the checkout counters, playing with back scratchers and massage balls, and looking at candy. I’m trying to decide if plastic is an actual ingredient in strawberry Twizzlers when I get distracted by a shelf of stand-up mirrors. I pick one up. It’s the 5x magnifier (which I’ve never used) and once its light is flicked on, I freeze into stone. For a moment, nothing exists but my face — in super-sized HD — set against the blurry world behind it.

“Mom!” Celine cries, fully aware of the pitfalls. “No—”

But, of course, it’s too late. I’m riveted. By splotches, craters, and harrowing wrinkles I’ve never even seen before. I press my face closer to the mirror, desperate for even greater magnification, thinking maybe at 25x things turn beautiful again, like anything does under a microscope. Eventually, feeling dizzy, I carefully put the thing back on the shelf and tiptoe out.

Suddenly, with an eidetic memory for every skin-care ad I’ve ever seen, I want it all: eye creams, wrinkle creams, non-greasy morning creams, highly rich nighttime ones, exfoliants, toners, masks, and tubes of topical oxygen. Unbelievably I reconsider Retinol, and also fruit acids, and small jars of super gels from the center of the earth. I don’t know what I need. Who am I, anyway? How did I get so lost?

For months and months, handcuffed to vanity — and with new wrinkles appearing pretty much at the same rate as my eyesight is disappearing — I flail with different products, different approaches. Then one summer day, at a little lavender farm in the Northwest, I buy a facial atomizer. And I discover that by spritzing my face, I am transported back to their hazy fields bending in the wind, bees swaying alongside the dusty blue stalks, sun above me, wind light on my arm hairs. Lavender unpanics me. My face likes it.

I get rid of every jar and tube on my shelf that has chemicals in it. Whatever I put on my face has to reconnect me somehow. That’s it. That’s as far as I’ve gotten on my skin care philosophy.

You know, at this very moment, magnifying mirrors are front and center at your local hardware store, two feet from the Christmas aisle. 4x purse- sized ones right up to lit-up 10x consoles. Some inspired and mischievous holiday elf is obviously encouraging anyone to start a little journey there. Because skin? Turns out even skin is deeper than skin deep.

Day of the Dead Pumpkins


Telluride Daily Planet, Thursday, November 5, 2009

One day, during the beta version of my jaded years (13-15), my father arrived at breakfast and — over his Mayo Clinic grapefruit and soft-boiled egg — announced that plants had brains. Not just nervous systems, he said, but brains. “They are not given enough credit for their complexity,” he added, scooping out the sections my mother had pre-cut and pre-sugared. “This can be seen in how they all turn their heads in search of the sun.”

It was most likely his use of the word “heads” that got our attention. We were, after all, talking about a retired army colonel engineer, someone who would typically wake his sleeping children on weekends by barking through bedroom doors at the crack of dawn, task list in hand: “Workers of the world,” he’d call out. “Rise and shine!” In other words, a man more Robinson Crusoe in nature than Henry David Thoreau.

Well, to be fair, this was also a man who had built a plant convalescent center in the basement, 20 square feet of nutrient-pumping asylum-in-a-box, where plants, removed from the threat of weeds, animals, and, worst of all, humans, could relax, spread their wing-like leaves up to the Gro-Lux god, and quietly gather their forces again. This was someone whose dream was to have an apple orchard, to graft fruit, to astonish the world with the biggest apples grown on the smallest trees.

Now, however, he’d gone beyond the simpler contradictions of wanting plants to wildly flourish so that he could tame them again. Now, they had brains in their heads, and who knew, possibly good heads on their shoulders as well. My mother and I wondered if, weak from the grapefruit diet, he’d begun having the sorts of visions associated with starvation.

During the month of November, however, none of his ideas seem so farfetched to me. The decapitation of pumpkins reminds us that not only do plants have heads but that we may have become too fond of cutting them off, carving them out, and then letting them rot on front porches. We throw them at walls and off cliffs, kick them across streets and schoolyards, and then casually toss them in dumpsters, as if their intrinsic value had long ago been forgotten. As if pumpkins had nothing to do with the stuff in cans.

Many speak up for the rights animals, but who speaks up for plants? There’s no society protecting pumpkins, no group dedicated to fighting their annual slaughter. Not yet anyway. My mother belonged to a group in Seattle called Plant Amnesty, whose chief grievance was against the senseless torture and mutilation of trees and shrubs (especially pruning, as viewable at their Shear Madness Gallery). But what about the rest of the kingdom — the vegetables and fruits, flowers, grains, fungus, mosses, algae and blades of grass?

Last year, Switzerland’s Parliament (advised by a panel of philosophers, lawyers, geneticists and theologians) ruled by constitutional amendment that plants had intrinsic value and that it was immoral to arbitrarily harm them by, for instance, “decapitation of wildflowers at the roadside without rational reason.” Also last year, Ecuador ruled that, “Natural communities and ecosystems possess the inalienable right to exist, flourish and evolve.” Of course, these kinds of rulings incensed and continue to incense religious and political leaders who fear that by respecting all forms of life, the value of man shall somehow be debased. That by giving in to frivolous philosophizing, we will lose our economic edge and lordship over nature and the planet. This, in turn, incenses me.

So I go back to my father, a conservative military man, an empiricist and someone with whom I did not see eye-to-eye, and I am grateful for the observations he made 35 years ago. I pick up the midget pie pumpkins I paid too little for and wonder if they can still be used now that they’ve frozen outside. They can. There is enough pumpkin for pumpkin butter, muffins, and maybe a pie. There are enough roasted seeds for three people and one episode of Anthony Bourdain, “No Reservations.”

So maybe next year, when we are buying our bite-sized Twix and Milk Duds and wandering around dressed up as archetypes, alter egos and clever commentaries, we can remember that pumpkins, which are helpless, have value, practically, historically, and symbolically. That they mean more than their plastic counterparts.

Pumpkins have never done anything to hurt you. On the contrary, they are beautiful, eminently edible, and provide us with piles of beta-carotene, a gift to the immune system during flu season. Why should we carefully grow them, expending energy, water, and fuel so that the harvest can so carelessly be left to rot?

If my father was right, we should be grateful, too, that plants with brains also seem to have merciful hearts.