Saturday, August 8, 2020

Soul of an Octopus


I recall entirely too much of the false narrative of American history as imparted by my big textbook, circa 1967: Columbus’ voyages of “discovery,” the delightful relationship of settlers and Native American buddies, etc. It’s taken me most of a lifetime to find the truth, and I’m still working on it.

There is a much better way to learn. I consider myself a connoisseur of nonfiction writers’ scholarship, and say “thank you for doing the heavy lifting on this or that topic! Your charming style has informed me about great apes, professional basketball, amoebas, orange groves! I am both enlightened and entertained!!” I do wonder why more schools don’t avail themselves of this terrific way of teaching (using the works of Jane Goodall, John McPhee, Annie Dillard and the like)—why they don’t scrap the often error-filled, usually snooze-worthy textbooks altogether.


The best nonfiction combines useful information with another, deeper dimension. And so we come to my favorite read of the summer to date, Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus. The writer encounters several octopuses (yes, octopi is incorrect), in the New England Aquarium and in the ocean, and learns to love these incredibly mysterious and beautiful and intelligent creatures. Athena, Octavia, Kali and Karma are eight-armed wonders who can open locked boxes and show affection for friendly people (and marked annoyance towards other folks). Their skin changes color constantly as they navigate their marine world, camouflaging to protect themselves, but also revealing their moods. A giant Pacific octopus can pour itself through an opening of just a few inches (they are real tank escape artists). Montgomery observes their sophisticated behavior and asks—do these amazing creatures, so different from us in so many ways, share a “universal consciousness” with us? Do they have souls?


She concludes, "(Some say) the soul is our innermost being, the thing that gives us our senses, our intelligence, our emotions, our desires, our will, our personality, and identity… ‘the indwelling consciousness that watches the mind come and go, that watches the world pass.’…I am certain of one thing. If I have a soul — and I think I do — an octopus has a soul, too.”


Just as I do not feel threatened by, for example, the possibility of universal salvation, I do not think my soul is in any way diminished by considering that all living creatures may possess souls as well. If we are all indeed God’s creations, doesn’t it make sense that we each carry some spark of the divine? I found myself weeping when I read about Octavia’s tender care of her thousands of eggs, her last duty on earth. I was mesmerized when Sy stroked the smooth skin of Kali, both human and octopus soothed by this simple, affectionate interaction between species.


Will I become a scuba diver? A marine biologist?  No way. But I know I'll look at these enchanting sea animals differently from now on, and respect their unique and important journeys on the planet we share.

Friday, July 31, 2020

Saint John of the Bridge


“Pray. Then move your feet.”

                                                                                                                                                                         --John Lewis


As a tenderhearted young boy, one of 10 children in a sharecropper’s family, John was responsible for taking care of the chickens. He fed them and read the Bible to them. He baptized them when they were born and staged funerals for them when they died. His siblings called him Preacher.


When he was 15, John heard about the horrific murder of 14 year old Emmet Till, and thought: that could be me. Then he listened to Dr. Martin Luther King Junior’s sermons on the radio, offering the possibility of another, better way for us all to live. This epiphany led young John Lewis to join King’s non-violent civil rights movement. He participated in sit-ins; he marched for voting rights. He was rewarded with a split skull from a club wielded by police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama on Bloody Sunday, 1965. But John was ready—this group of peaceful protesters had prepared for this possibility, practicing being hit, pushed, and spat upon. They were not na├»ve; they were just committed to the way forward.


John Lewis’ lifelong quest for justice continued. He served multiple terms in the House of Representatives before his death last week at age 80. Lewis was known as the Conscience of the Congress, his physical presence a bridge to history (he was an original Freedom Rider). His was a moral compass that never wavered; he always spoke with measured wisdom coming from his deep faith in God.


My friend Molly Newton’s son Sam interned for Rep. Lewis just a few years ago. Said Sam, "He was my first boss on Capitol Hill. He showed me not all politicians are conniving. He was genuine, he was humble. He was what all men should strive to be." It was so refreshing to hear that John Lewis really was exactly as he seemed.


One of Lewis’ final acts, just before entering the hospital for the last time, was to appear on Black Lives Matter Plaza in DC, to show his support. He recognized that the fight for justice is far from over. John Lewis left us with these words, from an essay in the New York Times published after his death:

When you see something that is not right, you must say something. You must do something…Each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.

Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble. Voting and participating in the democratic process are key.

There is a movement to rename the Pettus Bridge for this incredible man, and I hope it happens. In any event, it is sacred ground, where a modern-day saint named John stood up for freedom. It is our job to carry on, and to remember.


RIP, John Lewis. May your memory be a blessing, and a challenge.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Die, Spotted Lanternflies!! Die!!


Well, it figured. Our family has (so far, please Lord) been spared COVID-19, and we haven’t seen any murder hornets yet; therefore we were due for another kind of plague on our house/property. And here it is: our trees are currently infested with spotted lanternflies. For the unfamiliar, these are hideous insects that rather recently came to the United States. These most unwelcome visitors prey on several types of tree (including our black walnut). After feeding on the sap, they excrete a nasty sticky substance, that leads to mold growth. Eventually the mighty oak (or whatever) is killed. The lanternflies may be a new addition to the Critters of Southeastern PA, but once they arrived they were EVERYWHERE. And the thing is, they aren’t ugly, like tarantulas or scorpions. If you didn’t know better you’d think they were rather pretty and certainly harmless. Never judge a planthopper by its hindwings, I always say!

How to get rid of these pests? Short of using a powerful insecticide, neighborhood folks are putting bands of sticky tape around the trunks of their trees. The flies get stuck to the tape—in theory, problem solved. In reality, though, while our tape is loaded with the loathsome spotted l’s, there are plenty more who escape—and I’ve heard horror stories of butterflies and even small birds who have gotten stuck. Yuck!

I checked out the Penn State Extension website, and learned that we are in a race against time. In just a few weeks, the flies will begin laying their thousands and thousands of eggs. We have to act now, or our yard will be filled with baby lanternflies—and chewed and dying trees. I have never before felt a shred of emotion regarding flora and fauna, but I’m really bothered by this shameless assault on our landscape.

Ya-Jhu the farmer’s daughter is quite concerned; she is our #1 Tree Inspector and Tape Dispenser. Aiden and Peter understand that these are NOT like Very Hungry Caterpillars, that these bugs are pure evil. Aiden is on an eradication quest—he even has a special stick he uses to squash the ones who land on the deck or patio furniture, our brave six year old doing battle against the Arch Villains. We all cheer his kills, and I wonder if we feel extreme glee at the sight of dead insects because as yet coronavirus has no cure. By swatting and stomping on spotted lanternflies with abandon, perhaps we are releasing pent up anger at our current, rather helpless, situation. If we can’t kill THAT kind of bug right now, at least we’re doing our part to wipe out another.

So here we are, a house full of Loraxes, trying desperately to Save the Trees. And I, Mild Mannered Mom turned Cold Blooded Killer, will not rest until every last nasty bark eater is slaughtered. “Die, Spotted Lanternflies!” I scream, shaking my fist at a disgusting branch full, “Die!!”

It’s a whole new Elise. You better watch out.

The infamous sticky tape!

Saturday, July 18, 2020

The Gambler

Royal Flush--Never Have I Ever

You've got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em

                                                                –Kenny Rogers

I’ve done really well in the stock market over the years--that is, I’ve stayed miles away from it, and as a result I have lost zero dollars. Winner! Even if I had the disposable income, I have enough self-awareness to recognize what a disaster any foray into buying and selling would be for me. If I had to watch the ups and downs of a particular stock it would absolutely drive me up the wall—because I would watch, obsessively, throughout every day.


Growing up, there was only one Wall Street investor in the family. For years, my Great Aunt Rose made a huge deal out of her vast “holdings” in AT&T, and often hinted that we would be the recipients of a fortune upon her demise. Turns out, there weren’t that many shares after all, and what there were, disappeared as if by magic once my father, her only heir, cashed them in.


The phrase “I’ll take my chances” has never passed my lips, because I emphatically WON’T. I remember when we were young marrieds living in Mt. Airy, and it was suggested we buy our first house in downtown Camden NJ, because it was “sure” to explode in value. Still waiting for the big Camden boom, and glad we didn’t speculate. But I am sorry we didn’t attempt to buy even a tiny cottage at the Delaware shore in the 1980s, because those property values DID skyrocket, and have been out of our reach for a long time.


Right now we are holding onto our Europe plane tickets. Our trip was rescheduled from April to early September, and of course as of now it isn’t happening. But in order to get a refund of the ticket price, we have to wait for the airline to cancel the flight, and that's a bit of a gamble. Needless to say, as Americans we are understandably personae non grata to the countries who have gotten COVID under control, so I’m optimistic that we’ll get our money back. But it’s really stressing me out to wait.


According to philosopher Blaise Pascal’s famous “wager,” if we choose to believe in God, and God doesn’t exist, we haven’t lost anything. However, if we choose not to believe, and there IS a God, we stand to lose everything—so the wise person bets on God’s existence. While intellectually I get this reasoning, it doesn’t square with my concept of God at all. There are many wonderful people who, for one reason or another, do not or cannot believe in God. Does God send them tumbling down to Hell? Or does God never, ever give up on God’s beloved children?


I rest in the confidence that I have a heavenly home, and so do my brothers and sisters who struggle with faith, in an eternity big enough for all of us.


I’m no gambler, but I consider that a pretty safe bet.


A bettin' man

Saturday, July 11, 2020


Nectar of the Gods?
Searching for a topic for my Saturday post can be challenging, but not today! Because it’s July 11th. 7/11. Get it? And I’m thinking of convenience stores I have known and (sometimes) loved. Haven’t set foot in one since before the pandemic, and I wonder how they’re all getting on, those small purveyors of our to-go coffee and soda and candy bars—those necessities that keep us adequately sugared and caffeinated throughout the day. Not to mention the beef jerky, so I won’t.

My first experience of a 7-11 was in July 1968, in Atlanta. We had just moved down there from New York. Mom, my sisters and I were left on our own from Monday to Friday with no car, while Dad traversed the highways and byways of the deep South as a salesman. His herculean task was to sell weird-looking Danish modern chairs, tables and lamps to Granny Lou’s Furniture Emporium in Ruralville, Tennessee (as you might guess, Dad usually struck out).

Meanwhile, Mo, C and I had a sole outdoor activity: walking over a mile to the 7-11, for slurpees. We’d trudge back to our apartment in the blistering July heat, savoring the sticky blue sweetness of our drinks until the very last slurp.  Our lives revolved around that little daily trek. 7-11 became, looking back, the symbol of that long hot summer in a strange new place.

During our years traveling with children’s theatre, Steve and I became connoisseurs of the  mini-marts of the Northeast, learning which chains had drinkable coffee and edible food (and which did not). Sometimes these roadside spots were the only places still open when we’d stop for the night in a small town. They offered indigestible dinners of hot dogs, chips and Twinkies. Not fine dining establishments, but they filled the bill in a pinch.

I had no idea how important the 7-11 is in Southeast Asian culture until Rose spent a year in Chiang Rai, Thailand as a teenager. She reported that they were EVERYWHERE. I still scratch my head imagining the marketing genius who was able to sell this crummy food to people whose native cuisine is so spectacular. Let’s see, shrimp Pad Thai at home, or stale pimento cheese sandwich in plastic wrap @ 7-11? Tough choice, right?

Back in the Philadelphia region, along came Wawa, and the quick market landscape changed forever. We went there, not because it was a last resort, but because the hoagies were really delicious, as was the rest of their fare. When a new Wawa opens (as one did in Rehoboth Beach a few years back) it is truly cause for celebration. A new era indeed for the lowly convenience store!

The Oreland Quik Mart is right down the street, owned by a lovely family. I rarely patronize the store, save the occasional milk run. But when I’m in there, I’m suddenly 12 again, at 7-11 in Doraville, Georgia, when life was simple and a slurpee could turn the whole day around.

Friday, July 3, 2020

Of Bottle Rockets and Roman Candles

Mount Rushmore second trip, with 2015 Mission Team (Presidents in background)

I believe I missed the memo about the mandatory nightly fireworks lately. The showy displays of pyrotechnics happening all over the place are either a) a defiantly festive response to our current state of woe or b) set off by people who get a perverse kick out of making babies scream and dogs cower under beds. Any other rationale that has eluded me?

I confess that I’m not a huge fan of cherry bombs and firecrackers, even when they go off at the proper times (which are July 4th and New Year’s Eve. Period.) For many years, the ultra-wealthy Rollins family would treat the town of Lewes to a huge display over the Delaware Bay, right off the beach. We would dutifully drag the small Seyfrieds there, spread a blanket on the sand, and wait for the spectacle (as the bugs ate us alive and we dodged the sparklers being hurled dangerously around by our fellow beach sitters.) By the time the rockets and their red glare showed up, our kids were either asleep or terminally cranky, so we usually missed 99% of the show.

My first mission trip, and several thereafter, involved being away on the Glorious Fourth. In 2004, our group joined the thousands who arrived at Mount Rushmore at midday so that we could nab a “choice” parking spot only two miles from the park. Spoiler alert: one can see and appreciate (or not) the giant stone Presidential Faces in about 20 minutes. After that, we ate overpriced bison burgers from the concession stand, and waited. And waited. Shortly after 6 PM (and hours before dark), I volunteered to drive whoever was ready to leave, back to Rapid City, where we were staying. Most of the youth came along with me. Those who toughed it out later said it was awesome—but they also said the overwhelming crush of humanity leaving afterwards, was not. After a 10 year ban on fireworks there (sensibly, because of the huge amount of dry vegetation all around the mountain), they'll be back tonight, sizzling and popping for five presidents (four carved, one breathing) and a horde of socially proximate folks. Sigh.

Later July Fourths were spent in Alaska, Alabama, New York City and Texas. In each case, we were in the middle of mission trip weeks, and by then all horribly sleep-deprived. But of course nothing would do but go find the nearest booms and flares, and stare up at them for what seemed like eons, before returning to the “comfort” of sleeping bags on a church floor.

This year, I will observe Independence Day, independent of all but my immediate housemates. Even without fireworks, it’s been a pretty explosive year so far, and I doubt things will calm down anytime soon. And so, as darkness falls over East Oreland, I will send a little prayer Heavenward, perhaps hitching a ride on a Roman Candle:

Please God, get us all safely to 2021. THAT will be something to celebrate.


Fireworks over USS Alabama, 7-4-16 

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Not Going Gently

Can you see the gray hairs? Can you see them? I can!

“Do not go gentle into that good night
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
                                                        --Dylan Thomas

While inside I still feel like a 30 year old, my outside hasn’t matched that rosy image in—well—33 years. Signs of aging, subtle at first, began to pick up steam as I neared 40. There’s a photo of me with baby Julie at the pool. I guess Jules looks cute in it, but honestly? All I ever notice about that pic are unmistakable gray hairs (mine, not the baby’s). Shortly after that, I hit the dye bottle, and it’s been chug chug chug ever since. My hue of choice is a darkish brown, though during summers at the beach (a hundred miles from my hairdresser) the color fades to reddish. Before I am unpacked back in Oreland in late August, I always have an appointment to get the hair done.

For a while there, my wrinkles bothered me terribly. I spent well over $100 on a bottle of lies which was supposed to smooth out my face within weeks. I would pick one particular rough patch of skin (say, the “laugh lines” around my eyes), and check multiple times a day for signs of rejuvenation. If anything, my creases were deepening, but I finished every last drop, in desperate hope of a late-inning turnaround. No dice. When next I visited the cosmetics counter at Macy’s, I spent my c-note on perfume instead; if I was going to look like a prune, I might as well be a fragrant prune. Nowadays, I solve the problem by taking off my glasses when approaching a mirror. 

The pandemic has challenged us all in myriad ways, but notably those of us still fighting the Battle of Vanishing Youth. None of us who color our tresses have been able to see a stylist since mid-March. As a result, we look more elderly with each passing Zoom meeting. I finally got to see two of my best friends for a socially distanced glass of wine on a back porch the other night. We had a great conversation, the centerpiece of which was: “Should we give up at this point and just go gray?” Our buddy who is blonde, we concluded, should totally save her L’Oreal dollars, as the hints of silver are very subtle and attractive (she wasn’t convinced). My other friend, who has darker hair, was all for surrendering—until she got a call from her hairdresser that the salon was back in business. I am the same: I have an appointment on Monday at 8:45 AM, and it feels like Christmas is coming!

I guess going gently into that good night is not an option for me yet, and I’m a little sad that I can’t just enjoy looking my actual age. But, as Popeye so eloquently put it, “I yam what I yam,” so I’ll keep on raging.

If I’m over 90 during the next pandemic, however, I’ll definitely go gray.


A recent birthday (the lighting is perfect)