Sunday, July 26, 2015


I am fed up with you people who don’t want to hear about my humongous cantaloupes. Fortunately, I have a blog where I can redirect my frustration. Welcome to my melon monologue, or, as I like to call it, my melonlogue. Although I have been sidling up to people for weeks and announcing that I have amazing cantaloupes, few people show signs of interest in hearing more. (A couple of you, and you know who you are, have asked to hear more and you will be rewarded with Casabas, Hamis, and Galias galore in heaven.) Whenever I mention my outrageous cantaloupes to my husband, he tells me to stop boasting and changes the subject to pears.

Left to my own devices since hardly anyone wants to hear about my cantaloupes, and being endowed with a wild imagination, I have come up with a film treatment for a movie called The Cantaloupes that Took Over L.A. They first appear at Universal Studios and say to the unsuspecting tourists, “Take me to your weeder.” They are eventually defeated by a team of caterers who capture them and carve the faces of Disney characters into them. The invading melons are so mortified that they roll into the ocean at Venice Beach. They are never seen again, except briefly by Tom Hanks while filming Cast Away II on a remote island. He mistakes them for volleyballs and gives them adorable names like Anabelle and Ignatius. (I really need to talk to someone about my melons.)

This spring I planted cantaloupe seeds at the end of my new bed of strawberries. They were an afterthought since I have not had any luck with cantaloupes in over 30 years of gardening. My best previous effort was one summer at the Ranch when I grew three teeny-tiny cantaloupes about the size of softballs. Even though I watered them, talked to them, begged them, pleaded with them, they never grew any bigger than that. One day I had a girlfriend over and we were trying to think of something to do, so I suggested, “Hey, why don’t we harvest my cantaloupes.” She was enthusiastic. This is the kind of thing country people do for fun. We picked those little-bitty cantaloupes and ate them. They were so delicious that we even ate the skins. And I had an epiphany. I realized that my life would be complete if I could grow a cantaloupe patch for real and eat an actual homegrown full-sized cantaloupe freshly picked from said patch. I have attempted to do this every year since then with no luck.

Sidebar:  I can’t share the glory of cantaloupes with my husband because, try as he has on numerous occasions, he hates the way they taste. The face he makes when he bites into a cantaloupe is almost as painful as his okra face, and no one flees from the slimy mess they called okra while he was growing up like my husband. Every few years, when I have had my head buried in a cantaloupe and I have sunk into a melon stupor and proceeded to make noises shockingly similar to those associated with late night pleasures, my husband will want a piece of that so badly that he’ll try a slice. Then he makes noises like a cat coughing up a hairball. Some people just can’t handle a cantaloupe. The only melon he will eat is watermelon, and it has to be perfect – crunchy, sweet, cold, ripe but not too ripe. He and I have fundamentally different melon-in; I mean to say that the gene for melon-worshipping skipped him and went to me. This has never negatively impacted our relationship, except for the week he retired from his job and I handed him a honeydew list, which he immediately threw in the recycling. I should have called it a list of berry special chores or the home re-pear plan or something far from melons.

The garden is a great teacher about life. One of my favorite quotes comes from the Greek poet Dinos Chrsianopoulos and goes like this:  “They tried to bury us. They did not know we were seeds.” Oh yes, lessons from the garden. We plant, cultivate, imagine, believe, but there are no guarantees that what we plant will grow. Expect the unexpected in the garden.

In the past, I have grown spectacular golden peaches (both yellow and white), bushels of deep red-purple sweeter-than-heaven plums, heaps of apples and pears, juicy strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, pomegranates, grapes, and even (once) a dozen kiwis. But the cantaloupe has eluded me. Until this summer, when that handful of cantaloupe seeds casually (wistfully even) tossed into the ground in April has grown like something out of Jack-and-the-Beanstalk. I now have half a dozen humongous juicy cantaloupes soon-to-be-ready for slurping; plus a dozen more on the way in various stages of joyful growth. I have repeatedly googled “how to tell when a cantaloupe is ripe” and have read the instructions with eager anticipation. Every day I visit the cantaloupe patch and stroke my fruit, cooing softly. Soon. Soon.

I have nearly entered that state of grace in which I know in my heart that I can die in peace whenever my time comes because I have successfully grown and eaten my own organic, perfect, luscious cantaloupes.

This is not one of my cantaloupes. Public domain photo. Mine are much bigger than this one.
I chose this photo because the melon is nestled in with strawberry plants, like my melons. 
(I'm not much of a photographer so no pics of my own melons. I doubt that my husband would agree to photograph a melon. After all, he threw out the honeydew list.)

Sunday, July 19, 2015

"You have died of dysentery."

Do you recognize the title of this blog? If you don’t recognize it then you probably were not born in the second half of the 70s or in the 80s, not a schoolteacher (or former schoolteacher), and either not the parent of a child born in the 70s or 80s or else (if you did have children during those decades) your memory is failing you. You have died of dysentery is a computer screen message from The Oregon Trail, which is generally considered to be the first computer game of the technological age. To an in-between “half-generation” of people who grew up on the cusp of the technological explosion that ushered in the Digital Age (straddling “Gen X” and “Millennials”) Oregon Trail represents the moment that changing technology and communication systems began to exponentially transform our lives.

To that half-generation, playing Oregon Trail in computer lab at school was the most exciting part of the school day. Oregon Trail was a phenomenon that binds together many people of a certain age in a common cultural experience. The game was invented in 1971 by Don Rawitsch when he was doing his student teaching to get his teaching credential in Minnesota. In 1974, Rawitsch took a job at Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC), which developed educational software for the classroom. He recreated his Oregon Trail and made it accessible to schools for free across Minnesota through MECC. The original game was designed to teach school children about the realities of 19th century pioneer life on the Oregon Trail. The player assumes the role of a wagon leader guiding his/her party of settlers from Independence, Missouri, to Oregon's Willamette Valley on the Oregon Trail via a covered wagon in 1848. The first commercial version of Oregon Trail was made for the Apple II in 1978, many years before my children were born. Subsequent more sophisticated versions appeared in the 80s and 90s, and these were the ones my children played, both at home (we bought it) and at school.

Dying of dysentery was but one of a host of dreadful experiences that occurred to the hapless Oregon Trail player. The game is not a race to see who can get to Oregon first. It’s an obstacle course of dangers and ills, and the objective is to get to Oregon alive. The game is fraught with trauma. To start with, the player (the wagon leader) gets to name all the people in his/her party. These people (and sometimes the wagon leader) are soon systematically killed off by dysentery, cholera, measles, diphtheria, typhoid, snake bite, and drowning. Sometimes you (the player) just lays down and dies, or, as the screen says, “You have exhaustion.” People sometimes have their oxen die so they can’t proceed along the trail or they have everything they own stolen (including all their food, resulting in starvation). On the upside, the player gets to write up the tombstones for the dead. The problem with this is that eight-year-olds shouldn’t be allowed to write tombstones. (RIP Fanny. You had a big butt.) One screen says All of the people in your party have died. Press space bar to continue. Why would you want to? The fact that children loved this game says something about the morbid fascination of children with the horrors of life, especially horrors from the “olden days.”

The main attraction of Oregon Trail was that it was the first sophisticated computer game this half-generation encountered. If you ask someone who grew up playing the game what they loved most about Oregon Trail, more often than not they will tell you “shooting buffalo.” Here I was thinking my children were playing an educational game and in fact they were reenacting the extinction of the buffalo, which contributed to the genocide of millions of indigenous people in North America. The game was absolutely not PC. The “Indians” in the game helped the settlers find their way across a river in exchange for sweaters. (I don’t think so.) For better or worse, millions of young people vividly remember the details of this supposedly educational first computer game. What they learned from it was not what it was invented to teach.

My children were the first generation to grow up with a household computer. Things were changing so quickly in those years, that while my older two children remember the advent of the internet, my youngest doesn’t. My oldest child went away to college without a computer and used the computer lab at the college library until she inherited her grandmother’s desktop computer in her sophomore year. By the time the youngest left home for college seven years later he had a laptop as well as a smartphone that brought the world to the palm of his hand. His college required that incoming students bring a laptop with them. My middle son participated in “LAN parties” in high school. These consisted of a group of teenagers, usually boys, who took their clunky enormous desktop computers to one person’s house for the night and they connected all the computers in a network (on the dining room table, in a sea of cables) and played games on their computers with each other. Now, a dozen years later, he is a web developer.

I recently had a series of conversations with my children and one of my nephews about what it was like growing up in the advent of the Digital Age. My oldest recollected the days when she had to save her work on a floppy disk and when she would chat with friends on her computer, but could only do so when they were in the same room with her. She was born in 1984 and remembers life before the internet. My son who was born in 1987 feels like he had one foot in the pre-technology age and one foot in the Digital Age. He said there is a small group of individuals born in the late 80s and early 90s  (that half-generation I refer to) who grew up smack in the middle of a Tsunami of transformation. Their experience is unique because they straddled this enormous change like no other people. However, my nephew pointed out that exactly when young people moved from pre-Digital to Digital varied by where they lived and when they acquired access to the internet. Rural children didn’t have access until satellite dishes appeared. Low-income children didn’t have access as quickly as children in families with enough money to connect to the internet and buy computers and other “tech-toys.” My nephew’s family was poor and he viewed computers and the internet as “a luxury thing” (his words) that only rich kids had. When my youngest child came along, he became one of the first people to be raised as “digital natives,” meaning people who grew up with computers and the internet as a regular part of their lives. But my youngest, that digital native, vividly remembers playing Oregon Trail (even the older versions of it).

My older two children belonged to the very last group of young people to graduate from high school without social media being part of their growing-up experience. By the time my youngest finished high school, however, communication through Facebook was the norm. It’s quite possible for siblings (not even those far apart in age) to have had entirely different technology experiences growing up because things were changing so rapidly during that time.

All of my children say they can remember using pay phones. All of them remember our first dial-up connection to the internet, and then how life changed when their dad bought our Starband satellite dish and internet service. My own life changed dramatically. I was able to quit my job and work from home as a writer because of that satellite dish. Me, someone who grew up with a rotary phone in my house. Heck, when I was a child the local baker drove through our neighborhood two mornings each week in a horse-drawn carriage and came to the door with a tray of breads and baked goods for my mother to peruse. I have gone from that childhood to someone who spends my entire work day on the computer, someone who Skyped my father and cousins in Israel yesterday morning. I can’t help but wonder what awaits us around the corner. What more changes are in store? They can’t possibly be as dramatic as what we’ve been through. Or can they? In the 1860s settlers were dying in their covered wagons pulled by oxen on the 2,200-mile Oregon Trail. A hundred years later, when my family went to live in Scotland for a year, we flew from New York to Glasgow in one day. Less than 50 years since we flew to Scotland, I can see and speak to my father in Israel on my home computer. 

I mean it. What’s next? Surprise me!

Sunday, July 12, 2015

I'm Still Here, or 50 Shades of Red

Yesterday I tried something new:  anaphylaxis. Whee! Could have done without that exciting experience. I now belong to an elite club, kind of like the Mile-High Club only without the sex or the airplane, so what’s the point? I belong to a club of people who have had an allergic reaction to the stings of “vespids,” which includes yellow jackets, hornets, and wasps (not a bee sting allergy, but the body responds the same way). If you are wondering where anaphylaxis falls on a scale of one to ten for pain and discomfort, where 10 is childbirth, 9 is a Justin Bieber Concert, and 1 is a hangnail, I’d put it at about 7. In terms of rating it for the level of adrenalin rush, it would have to be about 11 since the drug of choice to save you when you have anaphylaxis is epinephrine, which IS adrenalin.

How did this happen, you may well ask. Well, I was in my yard innocently pulling weeds out from around an extraordinary cluster of prolific cantaloupe plants (which are on the verge of producing enough melons to cater a New Jersey Bar-Mitzvah) when I inadvertently disturbed a yellow jacket nest. Inadvertently because who in their right mind would do that on purpose? I have been stung by a single yellow jacket before; in fact I was stung by one two weeks ago and nothing serious transpired. The sting hurt. It swelled up. I put Benadryl cream on it, complained (because who can waste an excuse like that to kvetch), and that was that. It was gone in a few days. But yesterday I was swarmed and stung about a dozen times (not on my face or neck, luckily). The minute the yellow jackets attacked, I dropped everything and ran like a Loony-Toon character across the yard and into the garage, where I slammed the door shut. I swear a swarm was chasing me. I stripped off my clothes in the garage and stomped and swatted the yellow jackets dead. Then I made a beeline (oops, poor word choice) for the shower, where I ran cold water on my stings. I took a Claritin antihistamine immediately.

After my shower, I explained to Ron what had happened. By then I was beginning to feel lightheaded so I sprawled on the sofa and drank a ton of water and ate an energy bar. My scalp, palms, eyes, ears, and other odd places where I had not been stung started to itch like crazy. My ears were swelling up inside so that I could barely hear. Then I began to break out in impressively colorful and prodigious hives. Ron was not allowed to take pictures. Time to dash to the ER. When I stood up I became viciously dizzy. The ER is only a few minutes’ drive from our house (that’s why we moved here, to be closer to medical services). Ron demonstrated admirable driving restraint. He couldn’t have done better if I was having a baby, which I’m indescribably grateful that I was not. (Especially because when you are in labor everyone keeps telling you to breathe and I hate it when people tell me to breathe – if I wasn’t breathing I’d be dead, so what kind of stupid advice is that?) It’s a good thing we booked out of the house when we did because I was beginning to have trouble swallowing by the time I walked into the hospital. The next level of anaphylactic shock is when the person can’t breathe. That’s how people die of it. I’m partial to breathing. (Maybe I did need someone to be telling me to breathe after all, just to make sure I could still do it.)

By the time they took my vitals, I was covered in angry red hives from head to toe. I looked like an enormous strawberry, or like a lobster; I mean I was as red as the Communist Manifesto. The doc gave me a shot of epinephrine and started me on intravenous Benadryl. By then my toes and fingers had turned blue and my blood pressure had dropped very low, even for me (I usually have low blood pressure anyway). My symptoms had crossed over into anaphylactic shock, but fortunately the epinephrine halted that instantly. Ron was tripping over the fact that he was on the other side of the emergency episode. Usually he’s the one in crisis and I’m sitting on the sidelines while the doctors bring him back to life. This time it was reversed. The blast of Benadryl put me to sleep. So Ron went in search of more entertainment and found a Peet’s Coffee outlet in the hospital cafeteria. I swear that my husband has an internal Peet’s Coffee dowsing stick in his head. He could find a Peet’s Coffee in a sandstorm in the desert without a camel or a compass. I slept for about 15 minutes and when I woke up Ron was back with his cup of Peet’s, sipping contentedly, and I was a more normal color. The drugs stabilized my condition in a jiffy. (The Peet’s stabilized Ron’s.) The doc unhooked me from all the apparatus and released me with prescriptions for Benadryl and an EpiPen. He tried to talk me into taking prednisone, but I’m not inclined to go that route. I would rather not if I can help it since prednisone scrambles the immune system.

While I was turning 50 shades of red in the ER, I recalled another yellow jacket encounter that happened about 10 years ago. My then-teen son was weed-whacking brush in the yard at the Ranch when he stumbled upon a yellow jacket nest. Through the kitchen window I saw him tearing across the yard faster than the Roadrunner. Actually, he was just a blur. The first thought that crossed my mind was FIRE and I reached for the fire extinguisher. He raced into the house, slammed the kitchen door shut, hollered, “yellow jackets,” and unceremoniously stripped down to his underwear on the spot before fleeing down the hall and leaping into the shower. I picked up his clothes from the floor and discovered yellow jackets trapped inside them. I sustained two or three stings before I threw the clothes out the door onto the porch. Our children bring us the darnedest gifts. Neither my son nor I had an allergic reaction to those yellow jacket stings. I had to fetch the weed-whacker from the yard where he had abandoned it since my son refused to step foot out of the house again.

If yesterday’s fun-and-games had occurred when we still lived at the Ranch, I would have been in far worse shape after driving for half an hour to get to the ER. It certainly gives me pause to consider that alternate scenario. Here I am, in perfect health; I take no medications, have no significant ailments. Theoretically I should live a long time, but life happens. It seems ludicrous that an insignificant little insect can kill a person. And I use the term “insignificant” with the unequivocal intent to insult stinging creatures. (Remember what happened to Steve Irwin, acknowledging that a stingray is a bit larger than a yellow jacket.) Yesterday’s mishap reminded me yet again of the precarious nature of my existence. I’m grateful that I’m still here.

Endnote:  If you read my blog a few weeks ago about my bottomless handbag with everything needed for life on the planet crammed into it, then you will get why I’m so excited to now have an EpiPen to add to my collection of necessities in my handbag. I’m now fully prepared to respond to yet another potentially catastrophic event.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Save One Life, Save the World

“Save One Life, Save the World” is a phrase in the Talmud (a Jewish book of law), and this phrase is inscribed on a ring worn by Sir Nicholas Winton (born Nicholas Wertheim), who passed away on July 1, 2015 at the age of 106. The ring was given to him by some of the Jewish refugees he rescued from Czechoslovakia when they were children during the Holocaust.

In 1938, at the age of 29, Winton worked in London as a stockbroker. He was about to go on a skiing vacation when a friend called him from Prague to ask him to travel to Prague instead to help rescue Jews endangered when the Germans annexed western Czechoslovakia. Winton went to Prague to assist his friend, and between March and August of 1939 he arranged for the transport of a total of 669 children to safety in foster homes in England. He raised a large sum of money to foot the bill for his efforts, found the foster families (carefully matching children with appropriate foster parents), and arranged for the travel of the children. He was prepared to transport 250 children by train on September 1, 1939, but on that day Hitler invaded Poland and closed all German-controlled borders. The 250 children perished and Sir Winton’s efforts came to an end. But by that time he had saved 669. He personally saved the lives of 669 people. He was the one who rescued 669 children from unspeakable horror.

Winton told no one of his wartime effort. It came to light many years later when his wife discovered his scrapbook and records in a box in the attic and revealed what her husband had done. He was then recognized and honored by the British and Czech governments. Clearly, what mattered to Winton was not the recognition, but the knowledge that he had saved those lives. What a magnificent knowledge for him to carry within him for his life. I think it must have given him a tremendous sense of peace to know that he had done such a good thing, a thing that mattered. But maybe this was not so; maybe he was haunted by the children he could not save, maybe he remained troubled by that 250 who never arrived. I like to imagine that he lived to be 106 because at his core he held the calming and satisfying knowledge that he had saved 669 lives.

When I read about what this man did in the world, what other people did and are doing, I feel as though I have done nothing to make a difference in the lives of others. Have the small things that I have done grown beyond me and made a difference of which I am not cognizant? Did any of the projects and programs for which I secured funding as a grant writer provide services that saved a person’s life? That saved a child? As I sit in my cozy office where my life is not in danger, I like to think that this is so. But perhaps it is nothing more than my little fantasy to ease my conscience.
It is true that the grand gesture is not the only avenue to being of use, that one small good deed can take on a larger life in the world. Look at the story about Hilde Back. Hilde was a German woman living in Sweden who participated in an international sponsorship program in the 1970s. She paid to sponsor one Kenyan child from a poor family so that he could receive an education. The child she sponsored was Chris Mburu, who went on to receive degrees from the University of Nairobi and Harvard Law School. In gratitude for the funds he received from Hilde to complete his secondary school education, he founded the Hilde Back Education Fund (HBEF). Through this organization, children in Kenya who could otherwise not pay to go to school receive funds to pay for their education through sponsors, much as Mburu received his education through Hilde’s generosity. HBO produced a documentary film entitled A Small Act about Mburu’s search to find his benefactor and how he finally tracked her down and met her. Mburu is an internationally recognized human rights advocate and the HBEF has made it possible for many Kenyan children to go to school. Hilde Back wound up living in Sweden after she fled Nazi Germany during the war because she was Jewish. Let the circle be unbroken.

As I ponder the contributions of Sir Winton and Hilde Back, the Malala Fund comes to mind. It was started by Pakistani Malala Yousafzai and her father, Ziauddin, to raise funds to support education for girls in six countries in crisis where girls have little resources, little power, and limited access to education. For instance, the Malala Fund is paying for the education of girls in Nigeria who escaped Boko Haram. What an extraordinary amount of good Malala has put forth in the world in the short time she has been on the planet. She started the Malala Fund before she won the Nobel Peace Prize, back when she was 15 years old. Witness what she has accomplished in her few years of life. She was already speaking out and making a difference before the Taliban shot her. She gave a much-publicized speech entitled “How Dare the Taliban Take Away My Basic Right to Education?” when she was only 11 years old. The following year she blogged for the BBC about what life was like for her under the Taliban. She was targeted because she was so outspoken.

I love it that the name of the film about Hilde and Mburu is A Small Act. Something small can become something big can become something great. A small act can save a life. Sometimes it is a courageous act, as in Sir Winton’s case, and at other times it is something safer, as in Hilde’s simple act of generosity. A child grows up and becomes an adult who acts in the world. Placing knowledge in the hands of children seeds the future. I have ever believed that our most important job as parents and as communities is to raise our children well. When I worked at Head Start in the 1990s, there was a quote from teacher Forest E. Witcraft on the cover of our employee handbook that went like this:  “A hundred years from now it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in, or car I drove; but the world may be different because I was important in the life of a child.”

Sir Nicholas Winton