Friday, September 26, 2014

No Love For Paris?

 Love along the Seine in Paris

Paris is collapsing under the weight of too much love. You like Paris. I like Paris. The food, the art, the fashion. L’amour. Yes, l’amour. The City of Lights has also had a reputation as the City of Love. On my flights over to there, sometimes it feels like half the people on the plane are on honeymoons or anniversary trips. There is love on the streets and along the rivers. The tiny cafĂ© and bistro tables seem to be perfect invitations for two lovebirds to snuggle up close. However, all this love is slowly killing one of the most beautiful large cities in the world.

This summer, an iron panel from the Pont des Arts — one of the most famous bridges across the Seine and located near the Louvre — collapsed into the river below because of the weight of all the “Love Locks” tourists and locals had attached to the metal panels. The Seine River, its riverbanks, and the bridges over it make up a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Yet around 2008 padlocks started appearing on bridges in Paris as a supposedly romantic gesture. Couples write their names on a lock, attach it to the bridge railings and then throw the key into the river below to signify their eternal love. However, with over a million locks on bridges (and now starting to adorn the Eiffel Tower), the beauty that is Paris is literally collapsing.

 Locks on one of the bridges below the Notre Dame in Paris

The website and Facebook page No Love Locks, started by two American expats living in Paris — Lisa Anselmo and Lisa Taylor Huff — document the destruction of centuries-old architectural structures in Paris (a trend quickly taking hold in other countries as well). The city officials of Paris were very slow to take action, and any action they try to take now is met with extreme resistance by the tourists, lock sellers, and others. After the ancient panel collapsed into the river from the weight of all that metal (thank heavens no one on the river boats was injured) they removed other panels supporting literally tons of locks and replaced it with plywood. Which was immediately defaced with graffiti.

Standard graffiti on the walls of France

In all of my travels, I’ve never once had the urge to place my mark or stake my claim on any place I’ve visited. Yes, I’ve taken shells from beaches (but no living sand dollars or starfish), perfectly smooth rocks from trails I’ve hiked, and one coin from Tunisia last year even though the law states no currency can be removed from the country. Places live eternally for me in my photos and memories. I travel to see what I can get from a place, not to impose myself on it.

When I visit ancient churches in France, sometimes back behind the main altar somewhere past the choir stalls I can find a bit of graffiti scraped into a massive column holding up the magnificent arched roofs — “Jacques 1742.” Perhaps it was the work of a bored altar boy. Throughout Paris — and my second home of Dijon — I see bits of art painted in out-of-the-way places as social statements. We could discuss whether leaving any marks on anything that doesn’t belong to you is acceptable. But one drawing on the side of the building is not the same taking cans of spray paint to the entire Acropolis. Would tourists go to the Lincoln Memorial with a chisel and chip off a chunk of Lincoln’s boot as a sign of how much they admire him?

Dijon and Paris walls are plastered with announcements of political uprisings.
But by the next time I visit, the weather has worn them away.

What makes the state of the Paris bridges so depressing, though, is that the city of Paris cannot move faster than social media, as millions of couples place their locks, snap their pictures, and then Instagram, tweet, and update it to every person they know and by effect to every person that those people know until a million more people think that this is a great way to celebrate their love. Every space the city clears of locks is covered again in a matter of days.

What is more important to me than brief romantic acts is history. And culture. And architecture. And the uniqueness of the places I visit. Now that the Paris officials have decided to say “No, we will not let you do this anymore to our city,” the tourists blast them for trying to ruin their moment of love. But their gesture really only lasts a click of the lock for them, while the city will have to live with the destruction forever. What a shame these visitors can’t love the city more.

Forgive me for a small lapse into revenge fantasy. I wish I knew where some of these people lived so that I could go to their house and under darkness of night cover their houses with thousands of locks as they slept. All in the name of l’amour, of course.

Share in the comments box situations where you saw signs of visitors running rampant and drastically changing a place to the point of ruin. Or tell us about the favorite small thing you brought home as a memento.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

What's Growing In My Garden

"Bloom Where You Are Planted" -- oh, the lessons a garden can teach us 
(Ashland County, OH)

Summer seems to resist letting go this year. We’re reaching the end of September and still the sun bakes me as I weed like a madwoman and begin preparing the garden for some of that end-of-season moving and shuffling of plants. The lilac that was planted in the spring just doesn’t have as commanding a space as it deserves. It needs to be advertised more and thus will be move next week. My anemone that grew and smothered a lot of my spring-blooming plants as the summer progressed did get moved, but now I realize that small runner plants are exploding out of the ground like a million little volcanoes. The whole anemone must be ripped out and destroyed before it takes over my entire front garden.

My aenemone blooms glow in the night

On the other hand, my zinnias seem to dance continually on their tall, arching stalks, having made a deal earlier in the summer with the butterflies and hummingbirds that they would stay as long as needed. My impatiens have patiently waited out the heat of July and August and are as fresh as the day I planted them.

Almost-opened zinnia and friend
I seem to be blest with a late summer yellow columbine, a plant I thought was strictly about spring’s cool weather. This week an iris bloomed in the most beautiful pale lavender. I love it but don’t understand its untimely appearance. The same with my delicate evening primrose — as pink and hardy as it should have been in the spring but wasn’t. It’s these unexpected surprises that spur on a gardener.

  Unexpected gift of autumn

As I’m tending to my garden, I’ve also been paying more attention to my life. Hence, my long absence from my online world. I don’t know if it’s been the reduction of carbohydrates in my diet or the beautiful weather we’ve had this summer, but I’ve experienced a drive to de-clutter my mind and re-arrange my life in an attempt to gear up full speed ahead to a writing life.

My summer residency at Ashland University’s MFA program left me exhausted, confounded, and exhilarated. Just when I thought I had defined my writing path, they introduced me to new strategies, fabulous writers I hadn’t read, and new perspectives on the work I had thought I had finished. So now I feel like I’m at square one because I want to pour everything I’ve learned into the first draft of my thesis, which is due in December. But I can’t do it all.

To clear my mind for writing, I’ve become overtaken with an impulse to purge spaces in my house (clean house, clean mind?) and start making phone calls on that whole-house renovation project I’ve threaten to do for too long. Now that I’ve more fully embraced the writing life I’ve wanted for so long, energy for other things seems to lift me and carry me along with house projects, tackling French again, organizing my books (although I admit that it only lasts until about 9 o’clock at night, at which point it’s a cup of tea and TV).

Surprise, surprise. When I tend to my life as energetically as I tend to my garden I seem to be rewarded with unexpected blooms of words, feelings of accomplishment, and creativity. It’s going to be a good autumn, I believe.

Meanwhile, a some books I’ve enjoyed and hope that you might:
Making Toast by Roger Rosenblatt — When his daughter dies unexpectedly Rosenblatt and his wife move in with their son-in-law to help raise the three young children. His story of dealing with his own grief and the more important job of helping his grandchildren grow is told in a series of vignettes in the spare, beautiful, fluid language that Rosenblatt has been known for in his lifetime of essay writing and as a political columnist.

Kayak Morning by Roger Rosenblatt — the follow-up to Making Toast. The style is just as spare and beautiful as the previous book as Rosenblatt continues to reflect on the new direction his life has taken.

Carrier: Untangling the Danger in My DNA by Bonnie J. Rough — Rough and her husband are ready to begin a family, but her biological legacy sits heavily on them. As she begins to research her family’s medical history she begins to unravel something deeper in their past. Steeped in scientific research and family stories, she and her husband must face modern personal dilemmas in their own quest for a family.

Safekeeping: Some True Stories From a Life by Abigail Thomas — Thomas eschews straight narrative technique as she examines her life. Through vignettes and stories she tells, with vivid style, the life of an ordinary woman who made mistakes and had successes, who had failed marriages but tended to her ex-husband during his last days with the help of her current husband. She goes from an 18-year old single mother to a doting grandmother who always finds cooking as the answer to many life problems. It’s a confession and a universal story about a woman who figures out who she is and holds on to that.

You never know who you'll meet on the backroads of Ohio

Tell me in the comments what’s growing in your garden. Have you tackled any new projects or completed any old ones? What’s giving you energy these days? What have you read?

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Is There Such a Thing as a "Last Dog"?

When I was a child I’d lie awake each night listening for the burglar to come up the hall and into my room to get me. He was a very sneaky burglar. I’d hear the floorboards creak and then silence. Of course, he knew I was awake and so he was just waiting until I fell asleep to take that second step. Then … creak … and I’d then be awake until early morning hours. Other nights I knew there was a witch in the closet. She, too, was waiting until I was dead asleep to creep out of the closet and snatch me away.

That all stopped, however, one Sunday when we got home from church and my dad was waiting on the back porch with the most beautiful dog I had ever seen. Our allergy doctor had said “no dogs.” I think my mom had said to Dad, “Small, with short hair.” And there he was with a dog the size of a collie and the long flowing hair of a collie and the markings of a Brittany or English Springer Spaniel. For reasons I was too young to know, our grandma told us to name her Pandora. Such a special name for such a special dog, I thought. We called her “Pandy” for short.

And from that day forward I was a dog person. And nobody ever tried to snatch me away in my sleep ever again.

Over the years all the dogs I’ve brought into my home have given me more joy than I’m sure I have given them. They soaked up my tears and made me laugh. They frustrated me but also took me out of any moments of self-absorption. They made even the most bare apartment or house a home. They were usually satisfied with anything I gave them, and they were even content when I had little to give them.

It’s pretty hard to find any research that identifies negatives about dog ownership. It improves both physical and mental health because a dog gets you out into the world to exercise and because most dogs are social the owner meets more people. Research is even showing that having dogs in the family when children are young reduces allergies and asthma. Because dogs carry so many mites, tiny bugs, and dirt in their fur, the people they live with develop more immunity and have fewer colds. And I can happily report that my sisters and I never showed any allergic reactions despite our doctor’s dire warnings. Over 35% of households own dogs, and I believe that at least ten million of those dogs live in my neighborhood. In fact, I think it’s in the HOA bylaws that you can’t move into a house here unless you have at least two dogs or one dog over 50 lbs.

But now I’m dogless.

My last dog, my goofy girl Skyler, went to chase tennis balls in heaven this week. She was originally my kids’ dog. After a previous dog had passed on, in true dog person fashion we went out to find another. Brad and I had chosen the smart and calm Millie (who died too soon), but my children feared she would not be fun enough. We took a deep breath and let them choose a second one. And play Skyler did. Incessantly. The tennis ball was her thing. But she also was champion at marathon sessions of squeaking dog toys when we were trying to watch television. She got me out every single day, no matter the weather, to run across the golf course at the end of the street. And everyone who walked past our gate stopped to give her love (and sometimes dog treats).
Skyler in her prime

When the children grew and moved on, she stayed with Brad and me. And eventually even walking around the block was too much for her. The care and time I wanted to give to her was one of the reasons this blog has been dark for so long. So this week she found peace and a life free from pain while surrounded by people who loved her.

I’m dogless. It’s a strange feeling because I’m actually contemplating the possibilities of a life without dogs. My dogs have averaged lifespans of 16-17 years. In that amount of time in the future I might be looking for someone to take care of me instead of me carrying a dog up and down stairs to go out like I did with Skyler for months. I’m a true emptynester with the freedom to take off and travel without having to make dog arrangements. I have free space in my life to support family and friends who might need it. If I don’t ever bring another dog into my home am I taking five years off of my life? Will I become more social because I have the time to do more? Or will I meet fewer people because no one is stopping to pet my dog?

If Skyler was my last dog ever, I was lucky. But can I really make it without one?

And what will protect me from things that go bump in the night?

Tell me about your favorite animal family member in the comments box. If you were a dog person who chose to go dog-less, tell me how you did it.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Time-Traveling in Tunisia -- Pt. 1

 Just one of many jarring encounters. I read the menu outside and didn't see a single taco or burrito mentioned.

When a flight starts with stairs being rolled up to the back exit of a plane so the police can board and remove a man arguing loudly in a language you don’t understand and ends with the plane bouncing down the runway as someone sounding suspiciously like a flight attendant exclaims “Hamdoulah!” (Thanks to God), well then, you know that you’re about to experience something new. You’ve left the straight up and down world of American/European culture and entered a world as different and mesmerizing as the narrow streets of the medinas that define North Africa.

In December, my husband Brad had a math conference in Tunisia. This would be the first time I joined him because, among other stupid reasons, I was a bit afraid I couldn’t survive on my own in such a foreign country while Brad was doing his math thing. Traveling in Europe, even if I don’t speak the language, is no problem. I see much of my world in theirs. North Africa, though? Language, food, habits, everything would be different, I thought. What if I accidentally offended someone? I wouldn’t be up to it. So I had to conquer my silly fears and head to Tunisia finally.

While the trip only lasted five days, I have more to talk about than can be contained in a single blog post. Since this country is probably not on the radar for most of you, let me bring you up to speed.

Tunisia is a small (tiny) piece of land along the Mediterranean Sea wedged between Algeria and Libya. Population is a little over 10 million, most of the people living in the capital of Tunis or along the east coast. It has verdant farmland as rich as Missouri’s bottomland, rocky mountains providing building materials for Roman ruins, and the Sahara. An educated country, even your porter at the hotel can speak Arabic, French, and one other language. While 98% of the people are Muslims, the modern government has been secular, perhaps because of its position as a French colony until they gained their independence in the 1950s.  And if the word “Tunisia” rings a bell, it might be because this country was the site of the Jasmine Revolution that began what we now call the “Arab Spring.” The people we met, however, didn’t want to be connected to the Arab Spring because their revolution is more or less over and done with. They’ve had a change in government, they voted on a new constitution, they work hard to convince the tourists to return to their resorts along their gleaming beaches -- Inshallah (Allah willing).

Our driver sped down the highway toward our resort community of Yasmine-Hammamet with the full moon blinding us through one window and billboards of Cameron Diaz selling watches, Jennifer Lopez selling shampoo, and George Clooney selling coffee makers whizzing past the other. And Coca-Cola. Always Coca-Cola. It has to be the most universal brand, the taste around which feuding nations rally. Is there a country that doesn’t sell those red cans?

As we left the lights of the historic city of Tunis (ancient Carthage) behind and my eyes adjusted to the dark, I squinted and tried to get a sense of this country. About all I was sure of was that the lines in the highway were mere suggestions for where cars could drive. Things I saw along the highway were so unfamiliar at times that I was suspected they were mirages.

A short list of what I think I saw in the dark:
-- a lot of cars and trucks pulled over by police (that many lawbreakers? that vigilant a speed trap? or something else?)
-- huge convoys of trucks just sitting on the side of the highway; I think our driver said that’s just where they stop and sleep for the night
-- grapes-of-wrath style flatbed trucks with hay or vegetables piled as high as a 2-story house, held by a single rope
-- a man pushing a bicycle along the shoulder with belongings stacked higher than his head. Was that a goat walking beside him?
-- on second thought, that was a donkey, not a bicycle
-- French road signs and French toll booths; Tunisia may have thrown off the shackles of colonialism, but why fix what ain’t broke
-- me, in a car, under the brightest moon of my life, driving through North Africa

Come back soon for more stories of my time in Tunisia. Meanwhile, tell us in the comments box where have you visited that you felt the most out of place. Or, what was the most exotic place you’ve visited and why did you go?

Camels were absolutely everywhere. Unfortunately on this trip I didn't have the chance to get close to one.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Is It Too Late For New Year’s Resolutions? Or Am I Doomed?

 In cleaning out my basement (more about that later) I discovered this clock,
covered in dust, that my mom had lovingly cross-stitched for her sister.
I don't know where I'll hang it, but I'll make time to do that.

It’s not too late to make a New Year’s Resolution is it? Isn’t the statute of limitations the end of January? So quick, before the year gets too far gone let’s talk about what will make this year better. And how can I get it to stick because, let’s be honest, “lose weight” is not exactly original or successful.

I wish I were one of those people who didn’t eat when I’m stressed or unhappy because then I’d be back to my 6th grade weight over all the depression that begins each November when I’m staring down the Mt. Everest of unmet resolutions. Weight, unfinished and unsubmitted manuscripts, a basement that could qualify me for an episode of hoarders, the third copy of that Jane Austin novel dug out of the bookshelf because I never made an inventory of my books.

This year will be different, though. (Cue the Rocky theme music!) Even in mid-life it's good to keep trying.

The problem isn’t which resolutions to make. It’s – ta-dah! are you ready for it? – my mindset on my life. In December I read about defining THEMES for the year, rather than making resolutions. If I said, “Lose Weight” that’s an outcome that I achieve or don’t rather than a way to guide me each day. It’s so much easier to fail. However, if I were thinking in terms of themes I might say “This year I’m going to NOURISH MYSELF.” With that theme, every day you’d make food choices that are healthier. You could also extend the theme to other nourishing directions. How can you nourish your mind? What about taking that beginner’s knitting class or learning French? You could nourish your soul and body at the same time by taking a gentle hatha yoga class each week. The ways to follow this theme are only limited by your imagination. To follow any of these directions would make your year better.

What would be my theme this year? Since the new year was already speeding by and – yikes! – it’s the last week of January, I didn’t have a lot of time to contemplate this to find the perfect one. I went online. No there’s no Wikipedia entry for themes. I did find find a couple of websites that followed this same principle and had some suggestions. But none of them felt right. Time was moving quickly when I remembered that author Gretchen Rubin had divided the chapters of her book Happier At Home into themes for each month. “Pay attention” or “boost energy” were good concepts, but I didn’t see how they would work for me for an entire year.

As this month rushed on I just didn’t even have time to think of that one word that would shape my year. I got sick. Our furnace broke during the week of the national snowpocalypse. My dear, sweet dog Skyler is quickly reaching the end of her days, so I’m running a doggy hospice in my living room. She’s clearly not ready to go, so I have to give time and energy (carrying her up and down stairs) to her care and end up saying “why bother?” about so many other things in my life. And we won’t even talk about that weight thing. Time sucks were taking over my life.

But isn’t that craziness when I need a guiding theme the most in order to get back on track when life throws me off?

And that’s when my theme hit me. TIME. I need to be mindful of my time. While I can’t control my life train jumping off the tracks, I can control how long I let it stay down. I can control how long I sit like a zombie watching “Love It or List It” marathons as a distraction. How long I read home improvement magazines instead of improving my own because I’m too tired today. How long I stay away from the computer because “I don’t have time to write” because life is crazy this week and I can't concentrate.

This year I’m going to be more mindful of how I use my time. To help me in that process I’ve found this great calendar that will give me an incentive. I’ll choose three or four areas where I want to be mindful of time every day. The idea is to fill this calendar solid with checkmarks. While it’s not a sin to Facebook each day, I have to first make sure that I’ve used my time well in other areas of my life. And so I need to know that each week, for example, I’ve spent more time communicating with you on my blog than I have searching for or “liking” cat videos. I’ll post this calendar in an obvious place.

I’ve already given some time to that basement. You can see that I’m back to writing as well. I’ll let you know how I’m doing. And for the sake of full disclosure, you can see other stabs at self-improvement here and here. None of them were unworthy. They just didn’t stick.

So Happy New Year. And tell me in the comments box how you’re faring with the horrible winter weather and if you are a resolutions kind of person. And I promise I’ll see you soon in another blog post. Because now I will make time for it.

Time doesn't move very fast here or change much. More about this in the future.

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