Forests I have loved

By accident and restless choice, I am the ultimate stone that gathers no moss and have lived all over this country. In each location, I’ve hiked whatever wilderness the area boasts, and one doesn’t truly know how beautiful this country is until you’ve walked the fields and forests, beaches and rivers.

In the Northwest, the wet rainforests of the Peninsula be-grudge every inch of the path and at times you feel as if the forest will swallow you whole, so rich and close it is. If one is fanciful, and the rainforests generate fancy, one would think to look closely at the bushes, to see if a set of eyes looks back. Cold water droplets down the back of one’s collar area is a typical Northwest rainforest experience. Elsewhere in the region, the forests are less dense but no less wild: whether walking the foothills of The Cascades, or the high hills of the Inland Empire.

As a break from the forests, one can walk the desert-like petrified forests, the rich meadows, or the beaches of the Oregon coast, getting lost among the rocks and the tidal pools, to climb sandy dunes and rocky cliffs. I have walked a thousand miles of Washington and Oregon through the years, and every mile is unique.

Roosevelt lake a few miles from where I grew up

In Arizona, the forests are in the north and consist mainly of Ponderosa and scrub pine. In the red rock country, the trees fight for a life among the rugged rocks, their green a brilliant counter-point to the rust reds of the ground, and the azure blue of the skies. In the Arizona deserts, one can turn about once, twice, and get lost if not careful, and during the summer, the wilderness is unforgiving of fools. But, oh the beauty of an Arizona desert in the Spring, with flowering cacti and cool breezes, snakes warming themselves in the sun, lizards scampering about. And the area is so rich with minerals that one can find entire valleys literally sprinkled with jasper or black or white onyx.

One might expect fierce wilderness in Vermont, but you’d be surprised. The entire state was clear cut at one time, and the trees are of a uniform sameness and type and size. But in the winter, when the snow is on the ground and the lakes are frozen, that’s when Vermont shines for me. The irony though is that there are few places to hike easily in Vermont. In the winter, on Grand Isle, the local high school opened its doors in the evenings for community members to walk the corridors, get a bit of exercise and socialize. When snow is 4 feet deep, you don’t just cut across the country for a bit of a hike. Unless you’re a red fox.

Once, when I stayed at a bed and breakfast in the central part of the state, I found a trail made by a snow trailer and was able to walk to the top of the hill the B & B was next to. The day was sunny and cold, and fresh snow was pure white, all about me. As I walked further and further up the hill, all sounds fell away until the only thing you can hear is your own heart.

Trail in Muir Woods, CA

In Massachusetts, there are miles of coasts to walk if you can find them. The water is warmer than the Pacific but more temperamental, and there are few experiences finer than to stand on a beach during a summer storm in New England. Wet. Truly wet.

I prefer hiking, but it’s hard to resist the lure of the Emerald Necklace in Boston for walking — the series of connected parks that traverse the city. In Boston, you’re always aware that the streets you walk were once walked by the likes of John Hancock, Samual Adams, and Paul Revere. It was in one part of the Necklace that I walked along a stream and a red-tailed hawk landed on a branch only a few feet away. Right in the middle of the city.

In Montana, the green forest gives way to mile after mind-numbing mile of cattle ranches before hitting rocky mountains that tear through the earth in jagged layers, dangerous to walk, beautiful to see. And In Idaho, the lakes rest like blue sapphires nestled in verdant green velvet.

In Northern California, you can walk among Redwood trees so tall that no other life grows on the forest floor, because no sunlight ever makes it past the trees. In the distance, you can hear birds singing, but not a sound at the forest floor. As you walk, you can reach out and pat a tree that was born about the time when Abraham gave birth to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Rocky Mountain forest

Here in Missouri, where mighty rivers have carved a culture unique to this region, of blues and banjos, where north and south meet and co-exist, this is a land of many faces: river fronts give way to wild mountain, which gives way to city, which gives away to parks absolutely unique in this country. One can walk every day in the year and still not touch all the trails and paths this state supports.

The mountains here are smaller than in the Northwest, but no less wild and no less fierce with brambles and tangles and rocks and soft clay ready to trip you up at every step. Here is where one is likely to meet white-tailed deer and beaver and black bear in addition to squirrel and opposom and raccoon. The bird life is as rich as the landscape, with bluebirds and red cardinals and mockingbirds and finch, hawk, eagle, and red-winged blackbird, all within a few miles of the city.

However, the real magic in this simple land is to walk the same path in all seasons; to see the land in winter, only hinted at behind lush trees and bushes in the summer; to watch a whole valley suddenly become dusted with green after a spring rain; to stand at the edge of the forest and see color that would shame the finest painters as the leaves of dozens of different trees of different heights and shapes change into their autumn colors, of gold and rust, pink and scarlet, with a hint here and there of defiant, stubborn green; to stand beneath a canopy of trees as golden leaves cascade down around you.

Trail in the fall

47 Million. And One.

The pain was sudden and intense, a band across my chest, taking away my breath. I had been bent over, lifting several books from a lower shelf, and the pain hit as soon as I straightened up. I dropped the books and fell back into my chair, clutching my hand to my chest, just like they do on TV. Heart attack. I was having a heart attack. I was home, alone, having a heart attack.

I grabbed my phone to dial 9-1-1 but then stopped. If this was a heart attack, I should go to the hospital. However, if this was not a heart attack, the paramedics would still want me to go to the hospital. The hospital would want to do tests, and tests cost money. In my mind, I started adding up charges…probably 250.00 for an ambulance, a couple of thousand just for entering through the emergency door, EKG, saline drip, that test with the paper and squiggly lines

Let’s just stop for a moment, and re-evaluate the situation. Consider the circumstances. I had been bent over in an awkward position, and the books I was lifting were heavy. I imagine heavy lifting could cause a heart attack, but heavy lifting can cause other things, too, like a muscle strain. I felt the pain, trying to gauge its location. Yes, yes, the pain was focused in the right side, not the left. That’s good. I mean, that’s good.

The pain was still intense, though, making it hard to breathe. I grabbed the phone, but instead of calling 9-1-1, I called my roommate. I told him what happened, how I felt. Are you going to the hospital, he asked? I’m not sure, I replied.

Is the pain on your left or right? Right, I answered. Is it persistent? I thought about it, doing a mental check, and responded affirmatively. Are you having a hard time breathing? Y-e-e-s, I replied, though hesitantly, because by this time the band seemed looser, less urgent. Breath in. Hurt? Breath deeper. Hurt more?

Of course, I said to him, if I were having a heart attack, we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation. True, he said. What were you doing, anyway? I told him I was lifting books from a bottom shelf. Well, does it feel like you pulled a muscle? I don’t know. It just hurts, hard to breath. Try lifting something, he said.

I picked up Zoë, and felt a twinge, in my right shoulder and chest. I put Zoë down, and it seemed like the pain was less. I picked Zoë up again. Yes, the pain was more intense. Zoë was happy, though.

I think I’ll live this time, I told my roommate. That’s good, he said. That’s good you’ll live, this time.

Zoë just purred.


An archive of this page, with comments, is available at Wayback Machine

Saturday was the Artica event downtown, which promised many photographic opportunities. I wasn’t up for the crowds, though, and headed towards the Botanical Gardens to look at leaves turning color.

The leaves were still green except for a sugar maple here and there. The other colors of fall are soft and muted, but the sugar maple screams defiance at the winter. That and the poison ivy, of course, but catch me trying to capture its red color against the blue of the sky.

Sugar maple in glorious reds

There’s a fountain at the Gardens that the children play in. It’s red brick, with water spigots spaced equal distanced in a curving line on either side of a cement sitting platform. The water rises up slowly into the air, and falls just as slowly back. No one was at the fountain on Saturday; I put my macro lens on and spent 45 minutes taking pictures of the water. My pants were soaked by the time I finished, none of the photographs came out, but it doesn’t matter.

The Victorian waterlily came through, though, champ that it is. Thank goodness for the Victorian waterlily.

There was music in the air on Saturday, which I followed. A new section of the Garden had been opened—marked off by curly vined fences and centered by a lovely reflective pool. By coincidence, it was the grand opening of the George Washington Carver Garden. Several dignitaries were there for the unveiling of the statue. One such was an older, distinguished gentleman, sitting in a chair, cane handle between his hands. He wore glasses, and he looked oddly familiar, but it was hard to see his face–so many people kept coming over to greet him.

Various people spoke at the dedication, each with their own favorite story of Carver.

Carver was born in Diamond Grove, Missouri, and is one of this state’s favorite sons. Orphaned at birth and born a slave, he still managed to obtain an education. He wanted to study art but was convinced by a teacher that his strengths were in botany. His Garden will introduce young people to botany and, hopefully, open a door to the black community who have, for over a hundred years, refused to enter the Botanical Garden’s gates. As Shaudra McNeal said at one event held here last year, You know Shaw owned slaves. That’s why some people won’t come here.

Three of Shaw’s slaves, a woman named Esther and her two children, tried to run away in 1855. They and several others boarded a small boat pulled up to the levee along the Mississippi to escape to Illinois, a free state. However, they were met by local police on the other side and returned. The place where they attempted to cross has now been designated as part of the historical Underground Railroad.

Shaw kept the children but paid a slave dealer to sell Esther down river in  Vicksburg, Mississippi. I’ve always wondered what happened to her. I looked into the faces at the ceremony and wondered if any were her children’s children’s children. In four years of going to Shaw, Saturday was the first time I’d seen black people in the Gardens.

Before the ceremonies, an older woman came to sit on the bench next to where I stood. After a few minutes, she spotted two women she knew who were sitting in reserved seating close to the reflective pool. She walked over and they greeted her warmly. They were black, she was white. They had an empty seat near them and invited her to join them. She hesitated because it was marked ‘reserved’, but one lady patted her arm and said, “…that’s alright, we can sit here. We’re privileged.” One of the seated ladies moved over to make a spot for her, and she sat down between them, her hand on the arm of one, while the other hugged her closely. And that’s how they sat during the ceremony: three old women, two black, one white, arm and arm.

The master of ceremonies began introducing the different speakers, including a local historian and expert on Carver, a minister, the director of the Gardens, and finally introducing the older man I had noticed earlier: he was the actor and opera singer, Robert Guillaume. He had been invited to read a poem in honor of the occasion.

Guillaume made his way to the podium in slow, stiff steps, leaning on his cane. His voice was soft and his words halting at times, but still beautiful to hear. He mentioned growing up in St. Louis and how happy he was to have been invited to attend the dedication. Then that lovely, wonderful voice, unimpeded by the stroke that halted his footsteps, came over the speakers; reading Carver’s favorite poem, Equipment by Edgar Guest:

Figure it out for yourself, my lad,
You’ve all that the greatest of men have had,
Two arms, two hands, two legs, two eyes
And a brain to use if you would be wise.
With this equipment they all began,
So start for the top and say, “I can.”

Look them over, the wise and great
They take their food from a common plate,
And similar knives and forks they use,
With similar laces they tie their shoes.
The world considers them brave and smart,
But you’ve all they had when they made their start.

You can triumph and come to skill,
You can be great if you only will.
You’re well equipped for what fight you choose,
You have legs and arms and a brain to use,
And the man who has risen great deeds to do
Began his life with no more than you.

You are the handicap you must face,
You are the one who must choose your place,
You must say where you want to go,
How much you will study the truth to know.
God has equipped you for life, but He
Lets you decide what you want to be.

Courage must come from the soul within,
The man must furnish the will to win.
So figure it out for yourself, my lad.
You were born with all that the great have had,
With your equipment they all began,
Get hold of yourself and say: “I can.”

There wasn’t a large group of people attending the ceremony and after the statue was unveiled, we were invited to view it more closely and meet the speakers. Standing on the platform, I finally turned away from looking at the statue to realize that Guillaume was, for the moment, not surrounded by people. I hesitantly approached him, and gibbered something along the lines of, “Sir babble babble honor gibber gibber Phantom babble gibber wonderful.” Luckily he spoke Fan and could decipher what I was saying. He was incredibly gracious.

My favorite picture of him was when he signed an autograph for the television cameraman.

You are the handicap you must face,
You are the one who must choose your place,
You must say where you want to go,
How much you will study the truth to know.

I don’t care much for Guest as a poet — too manly man for me. But such complex truth in so many simple words. If I had gone to Artica, I never would have heard Guillaume say these words. I guess the luck was with me, though I’ve not been a believer in luck. Loren Webster wrote something on luck recently when he discussed the Elizabeth Bishop poem, One Art, which starts with:

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

It’s a wonderful poem; resigned but not defeated. Loren speaks of loss and luck, writing, I still remember that period in my life when I repeatedly played Ray Charles’ version of “If It Wasn’t For Bad Luck,” I wouldn’t have any luck at all, and ironically referred to it as my theme song.

I sometimes think we see bad or good luck when what we’re given is opportunity. Being invited to a special event with many movers and shakers is opportunity, but so is not being invited. Spending the rest of our lives with the perfect love is opportunity, but so is being alone. In the end, as George Washington Carver would most likely say, it’s not what we have, or what we’ve given but what we choose to do that matters. Some people prefer to hack life; others prefer to just live it.

Loren also wrote:

Things often have a way of righting themselves, though it certainly doesn’t seem that way when you’re in the middle of a losing streak. Unfortunately, for some people things never do quite right themselves, and who can blame them if they’re left feeling lost and alienated?

Feeling lost and alienated can also be an opportunity.

bunch of colorful mums

What’s the use?

Wayback Machine has copy of this story with comments

Last week I had an email from a person writing an anger management manual, who wanted permission to quote my old posts about using anger as a weapon against helplessness.

In the posts, I wrote about Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman’s research into a cause of depression he termed ‘learned helplessness’–where a person internalizes their inability to control a situation so much so that even if a method of change does present itself, they don’t see it. Seligman has based his entire career on techniques to fight this destructive perception.

As serendipity would have it, Joel Spolsky of Joel on Software just released his list of book recommendations for programmers and it featured Seligman’s book on the subject. This list, though, led to an ironic development, because I’ve been fighting my own sense of ‘learned helplessness’, and Joel’s book recommendations just added to it when I noted that not one of the books featured was by a woman; not even a co-writer.

I have become increasingly sensitive to this because not long after receiving the email from the anger management person, I had a chance to see pictures of employees of a company that provides services central to weblogging, and was disheartened to see that of all the pictures shown, over 20, only one was a woman–and she was in a non-technical position. This started me searching among all of the tech companies associated in some way with weblogging. In all, regardless of the nature of the business, there are very few women employees; of those, most are either in business or support positions.

For instance, O’Reilly Publishing has several women in key positions, but if you look at the senior editing staff, there isn’t one woman–at least none that I can see, and I looked, hard. People have said that women at O’Reilly do play a major part in the O’Reilly conferences, but from what I’ve seen in the past, they’re behind the scenes, not up on the stages. And where are the women authors? Where are the women who write the articles, and the books? Are there none of us left? Not at the new O’Reilly weblog–and rarely in the photos.

How many women are engineers at Six Apart? I know that the support staff is primarily women, but how about the engineering staff? How many women engineers with Google? How about Yahoo? The other major companies associated directly or indirectly with weblogging?

(I hope you all return with “lots”. It would give me fresh hope.)

I wrote in an email to a friend last week that rather than empower women, especially women in technology, I’m concerned that weblogging will ultimately prove harmful to women. Why? Because technology companies are looking more to the weblogs and to those who are more ‘vocal’ in this environment for new recruits for their companies. When you consider that most of the people doing the hiring are men in their 40′s or less, who tend to read others of like frame of mind, particularly those who have more notoriety, what happens, then, to the more traditional recruiting process?

Rather than post a job notice to Monster, or to local recruiters or in whatever local newspaper, these same people send emails out to the bright, enthusiastic, vocal, usually younger men who dominate the technology weblogs. The end result is that technology companies associated with weblogging tend to have a male-female ratio out of synch with the demographics of the rest of the country. So what happens, then, if this continues as a trend, as more and more companies enter into the world of weblogging?

This is a chilling prospect, especially to us older women in technology who haven’t secured a comfortable position. I ran from this in fear a couple of months ago when I took what little money I had on a trip to Florida to try and discover a new career in travel writing and photography. I was desperate to find hope, and instead, found a timeshare.

That’s not to say that I haven’t had interviews. Two weeks ago I had a phone interview with a major player in this field, and the interview did not go well. Everything was fine until he started giving me the technology quizzes — the questions that techs tend to ask to see if you ‘really’ know this stuff. As soon as he started I froze and had difficulty answering any of the questions. It wasn’t that I don’t know the stuff — it’s just that I have never been particularly adept at these types of interviews. When I was fresh out of college, true; but not lately.

When he asked how he could assess my technical abilities, I suggested he read my writings and look at my resume. He was very personable and very pleasant, but it did leave me feeling even more depressed.

These thoughts rattled around in my brain this last week, and with each new photo published online featuring primarily all men, or each new radio show or company almost exclusively all men, I became more depressed — I was fast approaching an internalized view that women in technology are a dying breed, and there is little we can do to change this–and I was one of the first old dragons being booted out the door.

Normally in times past, I would have written a blistering note about this issue in my weblog, and felt re-energized and ready to battle this particular demon. My anger sustained me and made me strong. Not this last week, though, I just felt quieter. Every time I would go to write something, I would lose interest almost immediately. I focused instead on working on Wordform and playing with Greasemonkey, and other odds and ends; even then, I didn’t feel like writing about what I was doing.

“What’s the use,” I told myself, and therein is the statement that lives in the core of learned helplessness.

The three most deadly words are not, “I hate you”, but, “What’s the use”.

I had a second interview with another major player on Friday, and this time, I felt very good about my answers. Rather than quiz me on specific uses of technology, he asked what I would do in this circumstance or that. Now, these are the types of questions I am very comfortable with, and which are equally good about determining how familiar you are with the field, the technology, and even how much you’ve thought about it and where are your interests. More than that, it was in a specific use of technology that has been important to me and my enthusiasm for the work was such that I probably could have talked his ear off for several hours.

I have no idea if either of these recruiters will follow up after the interviews. I have learned not to get my hopes up too high (being realistic is not being helpless). Regardless, though, I felt good about the second interview and this gave me a boost.

Looking around I see debates on technology and other topics that I want to be a part of, and though I have to fight my growing tendency to say to myself, “What’s the use”, I counter this with noting that if I’m ignored by the players, others are also ignored by the players and that sex isn’t always. the determining factor. This helps chip away at the helplessness when I realize that the ‘problem’, as such, doesn’t necessarily reside in me, as much as it resides among the players and the environment.

I am also getting more requests for help with individual and smaller company sites, so I am gainfully employed (thanks in no small part to the requests and recommendations I’ve received from many of you), and this helps break me out of not only the cycle of worry about money but a growing despondency. Even if I have to find work outside my field in order to make it month to month, this isn’t a sign that I’m not good at what I do or a failure in my field; it is a sign that times are tough. Most importantly, I can’t look at others and their successes and allow this to make me feel a failure–each of us has different times in our lives when things work…and when they don’t.

I actually want to find that point again where I get angry–furious–at what I read. I want to write scathing retorts and blistering diatribes, and sincere though strongly worded commentary. Then I’ll be the bird that burns, and people will be pissed and link and de-link accordingly, and I’ll just smile toothily at the results because anything is better than “What’s the use”.

But I don’t think I’ll ever burn quite as brightly again: over the last few years, I’ve had my deepest confidence in myself and my future shaken; there will always be a part of me ready to throw in the flag, a tiny voice ready to cry out, “What’s the use”. When you’ve gone down this road, you’re marked. It’s now up to me to make sure this was a one-time journey and not a repeat trip. In this effort, I’ll use any weapon, up to, and including, walking away from something important to me if I feel it gives harm.

Now I’ve aired my dark thoughts and my doubts, and time to focus on the light and the wonder, and there are new and interesting debates on the semantic web emerging, and I don’t think I’ve chastized the Men of Weblogging enough this week–and my cat wants me to play. Thank goodness for cats, chocolate, friends who can handle soggy shoulders, cuddlesome moments, nature, small children, music, good books, and new toys we can’t afford–not necessarily in that order.