Sanctuary

oasis 1

All my sanctuaries are green and empty of people or at the edge of the sea and deserted. Some are hard to get to and some are harder. Some have names like music – Aransas, Edisto, Hatteras, the South San Gabriel River. Some are just fun to say – Abernathy, Little Pine Garnet Mine. My newest has a clunky unfortunate name that sounds like machines, all metal and rust, like a steam engine pumping, like a Victorian shipwreck, iron hull screeching against the sea, some poor lost soul’s clumsy surname – Shackleford.

What a clumsy word for the hissing of shifting sand, the hush of the clamoring surf, all that motion and energy and peace and nothing to witness it but the gulls and wild ponies. Nothing comes here that doesn’t swim or fly or float.  A fluid island, creeping grain by grain along the coast like a beast made of sand and salt and bits of shell, feather, bone and fossil, where grass roots itself in dunes and sea birds feed and shelter but just for awhile. The next storm will shift it, divide it, cut a channel through or join it with another – barrier islands don’t stay individual.

poniesFor 400 years the shaggy ponies have survived an ocean away from Spain where they began – living on rainwater and occasional springs, swimming in salt channels, eating grass dry as chaff. The wild-eyed, scarred horses – exposed on a shifting pile of sand in the heat, bearing by turns the huge summer sun or the thrashing rain and shrieking  winds with nothing but a dune to huddle behind. Sometimes the ocean wells up and washes over everything. But they drop their foals in the spring and live another year.

The Gulf Stream passes near here, a river of tropic water surges by just miles offshore just before it swings away into the massive Atlantic. It flings Florida conches and queen’s helmets onto shore, the remains of milder latitudes carried here like a message I’m not equipped to understand. But I keep trying.  I’ll spend my life trying.

Someone here salts the sea with wine and whiskey bottles. Green seems the favorite. There’s surprisingly little plastic. Just colored glass to shatter in the surf and melt in the pounding like a sliver of frosted soap for some tourist like me to find like a treasure – beach glass. And I do. And I keep it. Because it’s a bit of the message but only a tiny part.

oasis 7All the questions I see in the stars at night, I can find here washed up on the sand, but written in shell and bone instead of ancient light. The math is the same, only more apparent – almost. So I pick up the bits and bring them home. A snail made this shell from calcium and carbon it soaked from the sea. Maybe a hermit crab used it too and discarded it again. Then the warm sea river carried it here to me. Maybe I’ll put it in my garden – pick it up occasionally when I can’t remember how the ocean sounds because I’m 200 miles away, imagine the snail and the crab and the stardust in its atoms. But mostly to call to mind the quiet thunder of the surf and horses’ hooves, the tick-tick-hiss of dunes creeping grain by grain, and the windchime rake of empty shells in the undertow. The sun and salt and winter wind sucking the water from my skin until it’s hard just to swallow.

I’ll keep doing this, every time I come here or any place like it. Combing the wrackline like a priest, looking for portents in the shell and flotsam – a hollow wing bone jutting from a dune, a fossilized scrap of turtle shell, fish vertebrae, a bit of coal from a steamship wreck, a Caribbean nut – the sea tells a story, writes it on the sand all over the world in a strange and wonderful language. I think I’ll spend my life walking the tideline every chance I get trying to decipher some small part of it.

oasis 6

Advertisements

Catching Comet Dust – the Orionids

In 1066, Halley’s Comet appeared just before the Battle of Hastings. The comet passed particularly close to the earth that year and was described by witnesses as a bright new star in the heavens. King Harold of England took it as a bad omen that he would lose the battle to William the Conqueror which we know, of course, he did. And we also know now that the comet probably had very little to do with it.

Halley’s comet swings through the inner solar system making itself visible to all of us here on Earth once every 76 years. It was 1986 the last time it swung by, and it won’t be back until 2061. Since that’s kind of a long time to wait, it’s fortunate that anyone can see bits and pieces of the comet every year in October when the Earth passes through the trail of debris it left on its last pass. This morning, I got up two hours before dawn and went out to watch, and try to photograph, the Orionid meteor shower.

I didn’t see any meteors but managed to photograph three. With 25 to 30 second exposure times, that wasn’t so hard to manage. I pushed the button on the camera and fidgeted in the cold drinking my coffee until I heard the shutter close and then pushed the button again. After an hour, I came in, reviewed the photos, and found 3 faint streaks indicating meteors. Then I drank coffee, ate chocolate eyeballs (my favorite Halloween candy), and watched the X-Files on Netflix until the sun rose and my family eventually got up. Not a bad morning.

So here’s the best of my meteors:

A few other interesting things in the photo: The brightest star in the frame, to the left of the meteor trail, is Jupiter. It appears right in the middle of the constellation Taurus. Almost directly to the left, at the edge of the frame, are the three stars making up Orion’s Belt. The top half of that constellation is also visible in the frame. The star cluster, Pleiades or the Seven Sisters, is also visible at the bottom of the frame near the tree tops. (If you continue the line defined by the meteor streak, toward the bottom of the photo, it will pass just to the left of the cluster.)

I’m just learning about the night sky and at first, could rarely find anything other than Orion or the Big Dipper without help. I use several websites to gather information but my favorite tool is the planetarium software, Stellarium. Here are a couple of screen shots showing the same part of the sky in the photo.

And here’s one with the constellation lines drawn in:

How cool is that? Stellarium can be downloaded for free at http://www.stellarium.org/

Though the best viewing was forecasted for this morning before dawn, the Orionid meteor shower will continue through tonight. See more here:

http://earthsky.org/tonight/radiant-point-for-orionid-meteor-shower

If you liked this post or learning a bit about things that happen in the night sky, you might enjoy the account of the last meteor shower I lost sleep over:  Why I Stayed Up for the Perseids.

The Hesitant Herbivore, Part 2

Yup. Hate it all.

I hate fruit. I hate oranges because they’re pulpy, bananas because they’re mushy, and grapes because they pop like eyeballs might when you squeeze them between your teeth. I hate mangos because they’re slimy without their skin and smell like pepper. I hate watermelon because it smells like cat pee (to me). I like kiwi because they’re pretty, but I hate the way they taste.

I also hate most vegetables. Beets, broccoli and asparagus are all gross. Brussels sprouts are beyond disgusting and I’m not overly fond of peas or carrots.  And beans. I really hate beans. Pretty much, I hate almost everything people eat that grows in the dirt.

So naturally I decided to become a vegetarian. And then I thought, Oh shit. I’m going to starve.

I’ve been a carnivore all my life and always figured that’s the way nature intended it to be. And I’ve probably spent more time than your average bear contemplating nature’s intentions. I’m a natural history buff – fossils, bees, birds, trees – I think it’s all pretty fascinating stuff.  As a kid, I was one of those nerds who loved a good nature documentary but I had to cover my eyes when the lions caught the zebra or the polar bear dragged a seal out of a hole in the ice. Nature is grand and glorious and brutal. And that’s not good or bad, it just is. It’s the way life works.

And so we human beings, as part of nature, are also brutal, because we have to be. Animals are food. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. Or is it?

A hundred thousand years ago, our ancestors ate what they could gather in the forest or the fields and also what they could hunt, kill and cook in order to survive. Even when agriculture was invented, supplementing their diet with meat from newly domesticated animals was a logical choice for early people. But things have changed. Now there is Kroger. Now there is Food Lion, Harris Teeter, Costco, Safeway, Publix, WalMart Supercenters, and The Pig (or Piggly Wiggly for those of you not familiar with this fine southern grocery establishment).

Gathering ain’t what it used to be.

There’s a supermarket on virtually every corner in this country where a person can go and buy a wide variety of nutritional plant-based foods and a bottle of B-12 supplements and be just fine even if they never ate meat again. So after 46 years, I finally realized the problem with the logic I used to justify my carnivorous diet. There is nothing natural at all about our modern way of life, so why would I use nature as a model for my behavior?

I learned a new phrase recently:  “selective compassion.” It just what you might imagine – the act of compartmentalizing the compassion you allow yourself to feel for other living things. On the one hand you have people, dogs and other pets, animals in the wild, and wild animals in captivity and all of these, as amazing living things, are deserving of our compassion. And then there are animals that become, or provide, food – cows, chickens, pigs are the most common in our culture. And seafood. (Isn’t is interesting how we use our language to reduce a whole host of ocean creatures to food with one compound word?)

I realized I’ve been practicing selective compassion all my life (as most of us do). Though I’ve believed for a long time that there are more humane dietary choices for us modern humans, it took me 46 years to get up the gumption to even try a meatless diet, because I was afraid that if I allowed myself to feel compassion for our “food” animals, I would have to stop eating them. And then my retarded palate might just kill me.

So for me, the time had come to put up or shut up. It’s hard to be a bleeding-heart animal lover and a carnivore. I was either going to have to learn to eat more things that grow in the dirt, or admit that human beings are brutal by choice not by necessity…

Look for part 3 tomorrow in which I will expound upon the evidence that finally helped me overcome my fear of “death by vegetable” and led me to become a vegan convert.

The Hesitant Herbivore

via National Geographic

I am a creature of habit, entrenched in my routines, glacially slow to alter my course. I cling to the familiar with the powerful grip of a 3 toed sloth and move toward any new direction with such incremental velocity that algae grows on my furry metaphorical coat. I don’t like change.

So for me to alter something as fundamental to my life and being as the food I eat took nothing less than years of passive contemplation and a growing a mountain of evidence that grew so high it finally fell on me. And I suddenly realized that becoming a vegan was not only the ethical thing for someone with my beliefs to do but the healthiest choice for my body.

via dummies.com

Six weeks ago, I removed dairy from my diet – a heartbreaking task for me. I believe cheese to be the glorious result of the most inspired bit of culinary resourcefulness the human race has ever displayed, a brilliant example of biotechnology born long before that term was coined. What a delightful variety of food we’ve learned to coax from the curd of sour milk – sharp aged cheddar and smoked gouda and herb infused wonders like Havarti with dill. Cheese is, quite simply, culinary wizardry at its best. And it makes the majority of the humans who consume it poot. Whoopsy.

I read an article about a recent study that found that sixty percent of human beings are lactose intolerant. Yep. Six out of ten. And here I was thinking all this time that the inability to process lactose was abnormal, and that only a few physically delicate nerdy-types can’t manage it (like the loveable but nerdy TV sitcom character, Dr. Leonard Hoffstater of The Big Bang Theory). In reality, the majority of us stop producing lactase, the enzyme necessary for breaking down the sugar, lactose, when we’re somewhere between two and five years old – presumably because we generally stop drinking our mother’s milk after that and don’t need it anymore. So the “abnormal” ones are actually those 40% who retain the ability to break down lactose and so drink milk or eat cheese without worrying about clearing the room later. Scientists call it lactase persistence and it’s the result of a genetic mutation.

Most commercial milk cows don’t get pretty meadows to roam in.

The funny thing is, I have known for a long time that cow’s milk is not a particularly healthy or logical dietary choice for me, but my love of cheese and a few other dairy delights (like ice cream!) clouded my judgment. Okay, so we aren’t designed to eat stuff made from cow’s milk, so what? It’s so good! So it’s high in calories and has a lot of saturated fat. It has protein too! And calcium that the dairy lobby says I must get from milk! And it tastes good! Really good!

But once a person hits a certain point in life (the one I’m apparently at now), digesting foods that our bodies aren’t ideally designed to process finally becomes an issue. I’ve gained weight and am having a hard time losing it. The cholesterol numbers in my blood work say borderline high and are creeping upward. And I feel bad a lot after I eat. I was tired of being tired and feeling crummy.

So I gave up dairy. I got used to drinking my coffee without creamer and actually like it that way, now. I got used to pasta not smothered in butter and cheese and am experimenting with spices and oils. I’ve found a mint dark chocolate with no dairy that I like better than milk chocolate now. And I can live without ice cream. Whoops. No I can’t!

Ice cream is right up there with cheese. I love it too much to ever let it go. And so was born the Friday exception. On Fridays, I get dairy because life is too short to live forever without ice cream and cheese. And the cool thing is that if you go six days a week without these things, small amounts of them are more than satisfying by the time I get to Friday. So my days of stuffing big soup bowls full of frozen dairy goodness are over.

But this was just the first step in my dietary revolution. Come back soon for part two about the conversion of a lifelong carnivore to a plant-based diet and get the answers to questions I know you’ll be dying to ask. How hard is it to give up meat? Is it worth it? What are the benefits? Do you have to start making your own granola, hugging trees, and/or wearing Birkenstocks?

Why I Stayed Up for the Perseids

Because standing in my driveway at 3:00 AM next to a tripod holding my camera taking 30 second exposures over and over of a relatively small section of sky not polluted hopelessly by city lights, streetlights, porch lights and the rising moon on the off chance a meteor might steak through the frame just sounded like fun.

For the record, I was out there for about an hour and a half. Because of the poor viewing conditions, I saw less than a dozen Perseid meteors and I caught an image of just one. It was the second picture I shot, but that didn’t stop me from taking about 50 more exposures of dark patches of sky.

Here is my meteor:

Not perfect, I know, but it’s my first try, and I love it.

If you look near the right edge of the photo, you’ll see 5 bright stars in the shape of a sideways “W.” That’s Cassiopeia. The radiant point of the Perseid meteor shower, the point from which all the meteors appear to radiate, is near the constellation Perseus which is below and to the right of Cassiopeia (and not in the frame). It is made up of fainter stars and is more difficult to see, especially in a light-polluted sky. (See http://earthsky.org/tonight/wheres-the-radiant-point-for-the-perseids for a handy diagram.)

The Perseid Meteor shower occurs each year when the earth crosses the orbit of a comet called Swift-Tuttle which orbits the earth once every 130 years leaving a path of dust and debris behind it. Each August, as the earth passes through this comet dust, we get a light show as the bits enter our atmosphere and burn up leaving bright streaks across the sky.

The best viewing time for the Perseid shower is after Perseus rises above the horizon, which was after midnight. I waited until 1:00 to set up my camera. That would give me a couple of hours to shoot for meteors before moonrise which would lighten the sky even more. After a while, I got a bit bored, and pointed the camera at our front porch, hit the button waited about half the exposure time and then stepped into the frame. And that’s how I made this ghostly self-portrait:

See the bricks through my shirt? Dorky, I know (but it will make a good prop when it’s time to decorate for Halloween). I took a few more dark, star-studded-sky-with-no-meteor-streak photos and then the moon rose.

That’s Venus trailing behind in the little crook in the tree tops.

I went to bed about 4:00 AM and got up about 7:00 and felt like a zombie half the day. It was completely worth it. I haven’t spent that kind of time watching the stars since the last time we went camping maybe, or the last time I walked on the beach after sundown. I wonder sometimes what it was like before electric lights and TV and air conditioning closed us up inside our homes, when people were still more a part of the world we live in and the night sky was the best show on earth.

If you missed the Perseids, don’t worry, there are several more coming up soon. Here’s a link: http://earthsky.org/astronomy-essentials/earthskys-meteor-shower-guide

And for those of you who, like me, have never photographed stars or meteors but would like to try, I found a handy, simple guide here: http://www.steves-digicams.com/knowledge-center/how-tos/digital-photography-101-how-to-photograph-meteor-showers.html#b

 

All the Days of Summer

“Hold summer in your hand, pour summer in a glass, a tiny glass of course, the smallest tingling sip for children; change the season in your veins by raising glass to lip and tilting summer in.”

–  Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine

When I was a kid, summer was all about freedom – from school, from homework, from having to close the book and turn out the light too early every night, from bells ringing and chalk squeaking on a black board and being expected to sit for most of the day. And from staring out the window daydreaming about being out there, outside under the fierce sun and fathomless sky watching clouds scud across the blue like clipper ships with full sails.

Sometimes, I think I remember my childhood summers like stories Ray Bradbury wrote just for me. If you picked up my copy of I Sing the Body Electric or Golden Apples of the Sun, you’d find them there, my stories, like the thirteenth floor in tall buildings, invisible until you looked for them. And when you did, there I’d be in print – running with the neighborhood kid pack, riding my bike and going barefoot and wading in ditches and scooping polliwogs into pickle jars.

The summers I remember smelled of pine sap and honeysuckle and sounded like cicadas. There were water moccasins in the garden, gators in the bayou, and graveyards in the woods. All old homes were haunted, especially if they were built before the Civil War, and people said the river sang with the voices of a vanished Indian tribe. I wore cut-offs and drank water from the hose, got bitten by mosquitoes and deer flies and horse flies and ants, climbed trees and neighbors’ fences, and rode my bike around deserted schools and vacant ballparks. Sometimes I’d stay out until the bats swooped in the evening sky and the streetlights flickered on and my mother’s voice began calling me home.

If I was inside on a summer day, I was reading a book – Bradbury or Heinlein or Asimov or Clarke, stories where anything could happen and usually did. A trip to the Pascagoula Public Library to stock up on new stories was even better than a visit to the Pixie Pet Shop where we got our dog (a 12-pound miniature dachshund named Caesar) and where they kept a real piranha in a huge murky tank. The library was seemed dark when you first stepped in from the afternoon sun until your eyes adjusted and you could see all the daylight the old building let in, dust motes drifting in rays of light from walls of paned windows. The air inside was cool and smelled of aging paper and ink and glue. Its stacks were labyrinthine and had creaky wooden floors, high shelves, and secret corners perfect for reading. The librarians were traditional and enforced the quiet so it was easier to dive out of the world and surface in another where dinosaurs still lived or spaceships were real.

“He brought out a yellow nickel tablet. He brought out a Ticonderoga pencil. He opened the tablet. He licked the pencil…”

When Ray Bradbury passed away a few weeks ago, just before what would have been his 92nd summer on the planet, all I could think was – the world will be poorer without him but thank goodness for all the stories he left us –  The Martian Chronicles,  Fahrenheit 451, Something Wicked This Way Comes. And especially for my favorite, Dandelion Wine. In that novel, he created the most magical summer I’ve read (or experienced) making me feel nostalgic about growing up in the Midwest in the 1930s though I was raised a thousand miles away and 40 years later.

So I might have semi-mythologized the summers of my own childhood and it might have been at least partly Ray Bradbury’s fault. I might have glossed over all the mundane details, and I’ve realized lately – I really owe him for that. Because what else are we but a set of selective memories we take out to re­-live, tell it like a story, polish it like a stone, and then put it away again? I’ve got some good stories now, and like dandelion wine, they get better with age. Thank you, Ray. RIP.

The Summer Country

It had been about 6 weeks since the last time I managed to get away and go for a hike, just me and my camera. I had come to this very place, an artificial wetland created by the state after they had dammed a local river and flooded the natural wetlands.  It’s a great place to go birding and butterfly hunting.

That day in the spring, the last time I was here, the air still had a nip, a cool breeze ruffled my hair, and fluffy white clouds drifted in a deep blue sky. What a difference a few weeks made. The sky was bleached and pale. The heat was stifling. Not the slightest breeze moved in the trees. The birds, though, were everywhere and they were singing.

The path is actually a narrow road – just 2 graveled tire tracks lined with high grass and wildflowers. It makes a big loop around a marsh and is bordered by pine woods on the outer edge. I glanced down the path and froze. Something was moving in the grass about 20 yards ahead. I squinted. Not a squirrel or a bird. It was brown and seemed to hover about a foot off the ground. I turned on my camera, zoomed in and saw this: 

Can you tell what it is? I was still puzzled, so I waited a moment. And then this popped up:

He watched me for a moment and fled when I took a step. I felt kind of bad for interrupting his foraging.

Part of the fun when I go for a hike is that I never know what I’m going to see. Today there were black swallowtails everywhere.

And not one of them would stop and hold still even for a moment. They would appear out of nowhere, flutter aimlessly about, within tantalizing reach of my zoom lens, and then swoop away again without checking out a single flower.

So I took pictures of the flowers because they didn’t fly away before I could focus.

When I finally did get a bug to hold still for me, it wasn’t a butterfly.

Just after this, I was walking along, thinking about icy Gatorade and wishing for a breeze, when something splashed, squawked and 3 big shapes flew out of the reeds to my left. Since my lightning reflexes kind of misfired, I didn’t get a photo of the mystery squawker(s) until one landed in the top of a nearby tree.

I had no idea what bird this was and that illustrates part of the fun of my little hobby – looking stuff up when I get home. Uploading my photos after a hike is like a present I get to open after I have showered, rehydrated, and collapsed into a comfortable chair with my laptop. It’s even more fun if there is a) a particularly good photo or b) a photo of something I have never seen (or noticed) before.  This one was particularly fun to figure out because it’s a juvenile and because at first I couldn’t find a match that could do this:

This one landed in a neighboring tree and his body language says he is quite alarmed. So he stretches out his neck and raises his crest to make himself appear bigger. But most photos, including the ones in my field guide or on Cornell’s excellent site, don’t show the crest. So it took me a little while to figure out that they are juvenile green herons. I felt a happy, warm glow when I identified him.

Sometimes, I am convinced that I was born in the wrong time. I should have lived in the 19th century when natural history was still such a mystery and explorers all over the world were sketching rocks and fossils and bugs and birds in their notebooks so they could study them later and identify or compare and classify and name the new species. I would like to have lived when Alfred Wallace was still tramping about in the jungles of South America or the East Indies, when Charles Darwin was sailing around the world, when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Jules Verne wrote their fantastic tales, when museums still sent great expeditions all over the world to bring back artifacts and specimens and first-hand accounts.

But this is not the dark continent of Edgar Rice Burroughs or the Gobi desert or the Amazon rain forest. It’s a rather pleasant walk around a big, artificially-designed swampy area with songbirds and butterflies. No leopard waits to sink it’s fangs into my skull and drag me up into a tree, no malaria-carrying mosquito will take my blood and leave me feverish, and I’m not going to stumble across ancient ruins in a clearing or find a plateau full of leftover dinosaurs. But I will get to go home and look up my bird using a world wide web of interconnected machines that not even Jules Verne could imagine and then write a little diddle about it that people all over the world might read within minutes.

Pretty cool really, but still sometimes I have to get away from the machines and come walk where I can’t hear engines. I have to sit by the water to enjoy the weak, bloodwarm breeze that finally sprung up and study the world upside down in the water and flight of dragonflies.

When I got restless again, I walked until I found a bank of purple and white.

I took a dozen photos of these flowers trying to figure out the right light and angle to do them justice when this flew into the frame:

And then a male joined her:

And then they were gone:

As they left, they orbited each other like twin suns, each captured by the other’s gravity, revolving in a fluttering ball to within a few inches of my face, hanging there for a moment like some fantastic Christmas ornament and then they spun away.

About then, I realized my tongue felt like parchment. I had left the water in the car because I didn’t want to carry it and my camera too and I was only halfway around the loop. I resolved to pick up the pace, took two steps and found this:

Can you imagine having to shed your skin every time you grew? The next time I am aggravated with the trials of parenting teenagers, I think I will try to remember to be grateful that I don’t have to pick up their old skins along with their dirty socks.

By this time, I could feel my skin burning through my sunscreen, so I really did pick up the pace. I spent the last half mile daydreaming about swimming in a river in Texas where I used to go hiking and fossil hunting. Even in the dead of summer when it hadn’t rained in weeks and I could walk parts of the river bed without getting my ankles wet, I knew where a deep shady pool was that never went dry and the water was always cool and green. But that’s another story.

Fifty-one Years and Counting

A year ago, my parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary and I wrote this little essay for them. Since then Fork in My Eye was born, so I thought I would post it here to honor another year added to their tally:

June 24, 1961 – She had just finished high school and he had just graduated from the Naval Academy.

This is the story of an artist and an engineer and how they have weathered 51 years of wedded bliss including: parenthood to three neurologically atypical children, a multitude of pets representing at least 4 of the vertebrate phyla, 10 years living at the command of the US Navy, hundreds (maybe thousands) of hours on the road, a sandstorm, two earthquakes, 39 years of Mississippi heat and mosquitoes, and several hurricanes including a category five that washed their house away. Together they’ve witnessed the elections of ten US presidents, the end of the Cold War, and the doubling of the world’s population. They survived cars without seat belts, lead paint, asbestos, mercury thermometers, second-hand smoke, McDonald’s transfat French fries, Hare Krishnas at the airports, and Jehovah’s Witnesses at the door.

During the Navy years, they spent more time apartthan together. While Kennedy and Khrushchev sparred in the news and the young  officer’s ship stalked a Russian submarine off the coast of Cuba, she was home in Norfolk, Va, caring for their firstborn infant son and still unaware that she was pregnantwith their second.

Buzz Aldrin walks on the moon, July 20, 1969
Buzz Aldrin walks on the moon, July 20, 1969
 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon and she watched from home with their three young children, he was serving his country 9,000 miles away in My Tho. During these first 10 years of their marriage, they drove roughly the equivalent of the earth’s circumference, up and down the Eastern seaboard, then ocean to ocean and back again on shiny new interstate highways. And they did most of it with 3 kids and a dachshund in a Pontiac station wagon with no air conditioning.

In the seventies, they settled in the deep South and upgraded to a Freon-cooled, blue Mercury station wagon with genuine, faux woodgrain paneling along the sides and a profile longer than some baby limousines. As the decade got rolling, the Beatles broke up, Nixon got caught, bell bottoms became hip huggers, Happy Days premiered on TV, and two men were abducted by a UFO from the west bank of the Pascagoula River just a few miles from the Gallaghers’ new home in the Mississippi woods.

Dad designed warships by day, went to school at night to earn his masters degree in business, worked most Saturdays, and served in the Naval reserves one weekend a month. He came to every softball game and soccer game and refereed a few of the latter. He would always play chess or Scrabble or gin rummy on request. And notably, he gave up smoking at the request of his youngest child.

Mom took art lessons and soon was giving them, planted beautiful gardens, decorated the house, joined the garden club and the Hickory Hills Country Club and the PTA. She sewed clothes for the kids and costumes for school plays and Halloween, attended umpteen swim meets in the sweltering Mississippi heat, read Erma Bombeck’s books, and listened to Paul Harvey every day on the radio.

The King Tut exhibit toured the US and everything Egyptian became an American fad. We saw the exhibit in N.O. in 1978.

Together they dutifully attended three years (one for each child) of beginner band concerts without once pointing out to each of their children the clear deficit of musical talent in our family. They took us to see Jaws and Star Wars and the King Tut exhibit when it came to New Orleans. The house was always full of books and art and animals. Their family expanded at various time to include not only dogs and half-feral cats that wandered in from the woods, but also tropical fish, parakeets, mice, gerbils, box turtles, rabbits, snakes the boys caught in the woods (these, our mother asserted, were temporary guests), and one mean duck.

The eighties rolled over. The boys graduated high school and left home for college. Dad took up jogging, read all of Dr. James Fixx’s books, and amassed an impressive collection of tacky t-shirts from 5K and 10K runs. Mom realized Father Cleary, the stern, sexist, philanderer of a rector of the only Catholic church within 15 miles had finally been replaced and dragged her youngest child back to mass, started arranging flowers for the altar, and then dragged the same child through fields full of fire ants, chiggers, briars and bull thistles in search of wildflowers (which the youngest child thought was way more fun than church). She taught a year of art at a Catholic high school and then went to work part time at a florist where the ladies always had the latest gossip because they did the flowers for every event.

Finally, the youngest child left home and they were alone. But not for long, because we came back – each one of us for some length of time over the next few years ran back to Mom and Dad. And then we didn’t for a while. Dad had to quit jogging because of a bad back so he focused on scholarly interests that come naturally to him – genealogy, history, world economics, politics, applied sciences, new technologies. He became active in local politics when their tiny community finally incorporated and became a city. He retired as a captain in the US Navy in the early nineties but continued to work until just last year because he said, he was still enjoying himself.

Mom began to sell her paintings at galleries along the coast and still does. Her gardens became even more extensive havens for local wildlife including, almost every summer, at least one water moccasin which she dispatched herself with whatever garden implement was at hand. Her house became a showcase but always a comfortable one. She was also active in local politics and always had her finger in a dozen community pies.

They took their first trips alone since their honeymoon posing for photos on a Canadian glacier, exploring Yellowstone, strolling through Stonehenge and Blarney castle (and yes, Dad kissed the stone). Their children finally grew up and grew more interesting, probably because one son travels the world and brings back cool stuff and stories and photos, and the other son and daughter acquired children of their own and by virtue of being parents themselves suddenly had more in common with their own parents.

After the turn of the new millennium, Mom and Dad decided that 30 years in one place was long enough, pulled up roots and moved 50 miles west to a charming artsy little community on the beach. A year later, Hurricane Katrina roared in with a 30 foot surge and washed their new house, and everything they had accumulated over 40 years together including all the family photos, away. In the months that followed, as they and their children scoured the debris field, they found no piece of their house bigger than half the staircase. They salvaged a few things in the rubble – some jewelry and silverware and knick knacks.

They have rebuilt. Bigger, better, more beautiful than before, and several feet higher – their new home is full of light and air with high ceilings, lots of windows, and big screened porches. Mom’s new gardens are maturing beautifully and the wildlife is coming back. The pool that was a festering swamp for two years is sparkling blue again and surrounded by new foliage. Visiting them is like staying at a beachy bed and breakfast  run by my own mom and dad and it’s is one of my favorite places on the planet.

And I wish I could be there today. But since I can’t be, I’d like to take this opportunity to once again apologize for any time I may have vomited on you, wiped my nose on your shoulder, or kept you up all night. I am also heartily sorry for years of making dubious noises with brass instruments in your home, any time I bitterly complained about helping out around the house, and especially for my late teens and most of my twenties.

I love you and miss you both. Happy 51st anniversary, Mom and Dad.

I Used to Be a Tomboy: 10 Common Misconceptions about Gay People

I have always been amazed at how remarkably interested perfect strangers seem to be in my sex life. That’s the problem with being gay. Not only do people choose to believe all sorts of pretty ridiculous things about you, they’re constantly trying to tell you what those things are.

And they go out of their way to do it. They drive by gay bars in pick-up trucks, chuck beer bottles at anyone walking in from the parking lot, shout various epithets, and speed off. They stand on sidewalks on college campuses clutching a Bible and shouting at passers-by about Sodom and Gomorrah. They stand for hours in the hot sun outside gay pride events toting hand-lettered signs expressing their interpretation of God’s particular tastes (i.e. “God hates queers”).  All of this because a few of us prefer partners of the same gender. When you think about it, you have to wonder what all the fuss is about.

So with the vote on Amendment One (which would make gay marriage in the state of North Carolina illegal twice over) fast approaching, I thought I would dispel a few of the misconceptions about gay folks like me.

1 – Being gay is a choice.  Gay people are demonized in churches and legislative houses. They are disowned by their families, fired from jobs, snubbed by neighbors, dishonored by the military, and generally victimized by bullies and haters of all kinds. There is often such a high cost for being openly gay that some people will stay closeted for their entire lives rather than pay it. Yet, still, there are people who insist that gay men and lesbians choose to be gay.

So let me ask all of you, would you choose it? The only choice a gay man or lesbian really has is whether to be true to our feelings and live as we are or to conform to society’s expectations, stuff what we feel, and live a lie regardless of the personal cost.

2 – Lesbians want to be men. When I was five years old, I wanted very much to be a Cub Scout like my big brothers. I was told only boys could be Cub Scouts. I was crushed. When I was old enough to join the girl scouts and be a Brownie, I happily signed up. But the Brownies weren’t like the Cub Scouts. They didn’t get those cool yellow kerchiefs and blue shirts and caps. They wore brown dresses and beanies. I was mortified.

But my mom said, give it a chance so I did, but not once did I get to make a balsa wood model racecar. My troop just sat around singing Kumbaya and playing stupid party games. I hated it. It was my first inkling that I wasn’t like the other girls. I grew up happily wearing my brothers’ hand-me-down dungarees and playing with their hand-me-down Matchbox cars. When I was 25, my mom was still telling people that I still hadn’t outgrown my tomboy stage. I’m 46 now, and I still haven’t.

Yes, that’s me about 15 years ago and yes,
that is a dinosaur footprint.

So I have to tell you. I have always coveted boys’ clothes and toys. To me, they are more comfortable and more fun. (From the first time I almost broke my ankle in high heels and nursed sore toes for a week after wearing the evil things for an evening, I knew that “girl” clothes would never be for me.) But a girl who wants to wear jeans and have a cool pocketknife is still a girl. Not once have I ever, and I think I would know, wanted a penis. So no, I have never wanted to be a man. But I did want very much to be a Cub Scout.

3 – Lesbians hate men. This one is kind of funny to me because of all my women friends, gay and straight, it is by far the straight women who trash men the most. (Sorry guys, but it’s true.)

As for me, well, I love women. And that has nothing to do with hating men. Actually, it has nothing to do with men at all – that’s kind of the point. And I think that pisses off some men. I don’t know why. Maybe they perceive lesbians as competition. (We’re not, you know. Well, except for the bisexual women. But I think true bisexuals are rare. So mostly, the women who dated me were never going to date you.) Or maybe the chest-beaters out there don’t like the idea that two women can be happy together without a man. Honestly, I think that’s it.

I can see now, that this is going to take more than one post. Stay tuned for part two of 10 Stupid Common Misconceptions about Gay People. (Don’t go away now. Tomorrow, we tackle Leviticus. Whee.)

And remember, if you live in North Carolina, the polls are open for early voting!

When “Well-behaved” Just Won’t Do

“Well-behaved women seldom make history.”

Cover of "Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make ...
Ulrich used her famous line as the title
 for her latest book.

You’ve probably seen it on a bumper sticker or a coffee mug, but do you know who said it? Do you know why? She’s Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, an historian, Harvard professor, and Pulitzer Prize winning author who once used the phrase in a paper she wrote as a graduate student.  As an historian who has spent a lifetime writing about the role of women in American history, I think she nailed it in one simple sentence.

I’ve noticed that the older I’ve gotten, the more well-behaved I’ve become. You’d think that would be a good thing, right? Most of us do, especially once we have children and become models for behavior. But there’s a difference between courtesy and complacence.

For years now, my partner and I have told ourselves that just living honestly and openly is the best way to advocate for our family (and other “nontraditional” families). We don’t “advertise” ourselves as a lesbian couple, but we don’t hide anything either. We hope that as people get to know us, even like us, they’ll find that we’re pretty much just like everyone else. We pay our taxes, love our children, honor our parents, help out our neighbors and our friends when we can. We’re nice people. And we don’t make waves. What’s to hate?

It’s just a yard sign, but
it’s a beginning.

On May 8, the voters of North Carolina will consider a proposed amendment to the state constitution to ensure “that marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State.” There’s already a law against gay marriage in North Carolina, but it seems some of our state legislators (of the Republican persuasion) felt that it wasn’t illegal enough. They want an actual amendment.

For years now, I’ve told myself, So what? What do I care if the state or the federal government tells me I can’t marry B? We love each other. We’re raising a family together and plan to spend the rest of our lives together. What do we care if we can’t legally marry? (Actually there are some very good reasons involving health insurance and my non-existent legal rights as her partner. But this essay isn’t about that.)

It’s about our kids. By telling us that we can’t marry, the state of NC is telling our sons that their family is not legitimate. And we just can’t have that.

State Senator Daniel Soucek, the Republican who sponsored the bill for Amendment One, warns us that the amendment is necessary to defend the existing law against “activist judges” who may not agree with the “majority” of the voters and overturn the law. So voters should have the last say. All the voters. I’m sure that was his intention when he and his fellow sponsors of the bill arranged to place it on the ballot on the same day as the Republican primary.

Recently, Soucek had this to say to the Huffington Post, “It’s not just the term ‘marriage.’ It’s all of the societal communal building blocks that make up traditional marriage. We think that’s the healthiest way to raise children.” And there it is. This isn’t just about marriage. It’s about our children.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard or read similar words from people with the power to do a lot of damage. I’m tired of it. I’m tired of being referred to as perverted, immoral, mentally ill, evil, unnatural, or maybe worst of all, unfit as a parent. I’m tired of trying to “nice” the bigots and the haters into their right minds. I’m tired of being well-behaved.

So I’m setting up my soap box on this blog for the next three weeks until the vote on May 8. Expect to see a lot about basic human rights, about ordinary people who happen to be gay, about family values and why the Republican version of that phrase is an oxymoron. It won’t be “nice.” It won’t be “well-behaved.” But it will be true.