Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Dear John

Dear John, or, um, Grand Coulee,

As with most breakup letters, this one may come as a shock, but I wanted you to hear it from me first.  Small towns being what they are, I began to get worried that you would hear it from someone else before you heard it from me.  So I wanted to set the record straight and tell you that although we’ve had our good times, its time for me to move on.  In short, I’m leaving you.

As cliche as it sounds, and I’m sure you’ve heard others spout this well-used platitude, it’s not you, it’s me.  Fortune and fate are leading me in a different direction and regrettably, I just can’t take you with me.  And although it may be hard for you to hear this, I’m not simply leaving you, I’m running away with another town, another whole state, if you are so desperate for specifics.  

But, really, I mean it when I say it’s not you.  You have been nothing but kind and nurturing to me during our time together.  Your lake has seen me splash in your waters, your shores provided sunny picnics and warm embraces.  Your buildings have sheltered me during your, admittedly, long and dark winters.  I know you’re not perfect, and I’m sure I’ll look back on some of those more pesky quirks with sincere fondness.  Such as the way the Electric City air raid siren screams on a semi-predictable basis, scaring the bejesus out of my daughter every time, and making me wonder what it is signifying this time: a fire? a national emergency? a city council meeting?  I’m sure I’ll reminisce with fondness about the long drives to the nearest big box store in search of something on my list that I just couldn’t find in town.  

But for all your faults, there are times that you can really shine, and I will take that brightness with me, regardless of how many other relationships...or, ehm, cities, I fall in with.  I’ll remember the cheery fanfare that surrounds Colorama weekend, and the majesty of the dam in all its seasons.  The sparkly lakes and gentle peaks were poetry to my eyes and the quiet and solitude of Northrup Canyon and Steamboat rock were music to my ears.  I’ll remember the way my husband so thoroughly enjoyed his job here at the dam, proclaiming he’s never had a better job and co-workers.

Perhaps most of all, what I will hold closest to my heart despite our imminent parting, is that now, whether you know it or not, you are a part of our story.  And not just mine, but my daughters’, who doesn’t remember a time when we lived anywhere else, and yet will probably never remember living with you here.  But for the rest of her life, Grand Coulee will be a part of her story, and therefore a part of who she is, and who we are as a family.  

And so, even though this is a breakup, and what are breakups except a bittersweet goodbye, I want you to know that you will be remembered.  If we had this time together in another era, I might give you a forwarding address so we could write letters from time to time.  But alas, it is not, no one writes letters anymore.  In fact, no one even uses the telephone.  And since text messages are too long for a catch-up, I will leave you with my blog  If you are ever interested to see what I might be up to, you can check there, even if it is a little impersonal.

Even though this is a goodbye, and it’s possible we might not see each other for a while, or perhaps forever, goodbyes are never final.  There’s always the future to look to.

Thanks for the memories.

Previously published in "The Star," Grand Coulee, Washington. April 17, 2013

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

No Kidding, Nature Deficit Disorder is real

I recently heard a term in passing that immediately peaked my interest.  At first I thought it was a made up psychological disorder or simply a catchy term to describe a growing problem.  But after doing a little research, I found that Nature Deficit Disorder is, in fact, a very real condition that can affect our children’s health and future.  

The term was coined in the 2005 book Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv and encompasses the growing disconnection the current generation of children experience with their natural surroundings and nature.

Two weeks ago I wrote my column about the benefits technology can have on children.  While I still think that this is true, keeping those screen time limits may now be more important than ever.  By stressing the importance of technology on our children’s future, are we subtly implying that other things, such as nature, are not important too?  

Louv makes it a point in discussing Nature Deficit Disorder that increased screen time is definitely one of the main problems in the growing disconnection with nature, but the real problem lies with parents.  Overprotective and over scheduled parents ignite in children a real fear of the outdoors.  By constantly demanding that children stay within sight of us, we may be imparting to them that nature is scary and unsafe, thereby instilling in them a disinclination to really explore and interact with nature.  

When children do get into nature, parents and teachers often tell children to “look but don’t touch.”  This mantra was introduced when our increasingly overpopulated planet began to infringe upon fragile natural places and protecting the environment became a mainstream idea.  But Louv argues that we are keeping our children separated from nature at a cost.  Children are very physical beings and thrive best when using all their senses.  Literally putting their hand in a pile of mud or running their fingers alongside the bumpy underbelly of a fern will do much more to develop a relationship with nature that simply looking at it could ever do.  

When we do succeed in tearing our children away from the screens, we tend to shepherd them toward structured outdoor play like soccer or baseball.  And while these are important activities for developing motor skills and getting good exercise, we should not depend on them as the only outside play a child needs in any given week.  A recent study by the University of Michigan studied children aged 3 to 12 over a 16-year period and determined that their free time declined by 7.5 hours a week and that outdoor free play was down 50%.  

Current trends forecast for the first time in human history that this generation of children will have shorter lifespans than their parents.  Much of this is due to the prevalence of obesity among our adults and children.  Recent numbers put 36% of american adults as obese and 9 million children.

But quality of life will also be different.  Children who experience Nature Deficit Disorder are more prone to attention and mood disorders, depression and even have lower grades in school.  A recent study at the University of Illinois proved that interaction with nature reduced symptoms of ADD in school aged children.  Conversely, other studies in California at schools that use outdoor education showed significant gains in social studies, science, language arts and math.

There is an organization pushing now to develop the No Child Left Inside Act, increasing environmental education in schools and in children’s lives across the country.  Their hope is that by providing education about and in the outdoors, it will naturally lead children to wish to explore it outside of school hours as well.

Although psychologists still don’t quite understand it, there is widespread acknowledgement that we as humans still need on a biological level the direct interaction with nature.  Some remnant from our hunter-gatherer existence, no doubt, but perhaps a good reminder that we were once very closely tied to our natural environment.  Now, the first stirrings of spring outside my window remind me that it is the season of renewal.  I can’t think of a better time to reconnect to that natural world.

Previously published in "The Star," Grand Coulee, Washington.  April 3, 2013

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Something to celebrate

This year, my daughter celebrated St. Patrick’s Day in her preschool.  I find this holiday to be fun and festive and in fact would have been surprised had they not marked it in some way.  It would never occur to me not to celebrate such a day, even though I am not Irish.  

As we prepare for Easter, a mere two weeks after St. Patrick’s Day this year, I find there is a strange correlation in the way we celebrate these two seemingly unconnected holidays.  I know many families that celebrate Easter in their own way, regardless of religious affiliation.  Like St. Patrick’s Day, Easter has also become a holiday that is for everyone, bringing with it traditions and events that may or may not have much to do with the original significance of the day itself.  

Celebrating holidays and events that are not traditionally ours is not unusual in the melting pot of America.  In a country founded by immigrants, certain holidays have become simply a part of the American identity, regardless of the original country our ancestors came from.  For one day, we all can pretend that we are a part of a tradition, be it hunting for Easter eggs, or wearing green, having a margarita on Cinco de Mayo or Chinese food on Chinese New Year.  Even March Madness has the national interest.  For those among us, myself included, who aren’t basketball fans, getting involved and interested is fun.  There is something to be said for the enthusiasm of a mass of people.  It can make you feel like a part of something that technically you aren’t.  

This got me thinking about what other holidays this month are worthy of celebration.  It appears that in the month of March, there is much to celebrate.  In addition to it being Irish American Heritage Month, it is also Music in Our Schools Month, National Nutrition Month, National Women’s History Month and Red Cross Month.  All worthy causes to celebrate and recognize.

To my surprise, I also found a very extensive list on the website recognizing specific days that are worthy of our holiday-loving attention.  

Some of these days are genuinely important and have a place in American history, such as Employee Appreciation Day (first Friday in March), Girl Scouts Day (March 12th), Freedom of Information Day (March 16th), International Earth Day (March 20th), National Mom and Pop Business Owners Day (March 29th), and National Doctor’s Day (March 30th), celebrating the first use of general anesthesia in surgery.   

Some celebratory days are legitimate, but seem as if they could be made up, such as National Pig Day (March 1st) or Ear Muff Day on March 13th, celebrating the day the Ear Muff was patented.  There is National Pi Day celebrated on March 14th (get it?  3.14).  Then there is Near Miss Day on March 23rd marking the anniversary of the day in 1989 when a very large asteroid narrowly missed hitting the Earth.

Some celebration days are touching, like Hug a GI Day on March 4th (if this day passed you by without carrying out its mission, I imagine a GI would be appreciative of thanks on any day).

Some of my favorites are simply hilarious like If Pets Had Thumbs Day (March 3rd), Worship of Tools Day (March 11th), Extraterrestrial Abductions Day (March 20th, sharing the day we celebrate Earth Day...coincidence?), and Something on a Stick Day (March 28th).  Some days caution us to beware of even our friends such as Be Nasty Day (March 8th) and the Ides of March (March 15th).

Some of these days are created just for fun, such as National Popcorn Lover’s Day on the second Thursday of March.  A truly “National” day takes an act of Congress, and clearly, regardless of the fact that some of these celebratory days promote themselves as such, they are not.  

After perusing this list and finding great enjoyment in it, I think celebrating such an important holiday like St. Patrick’s Day without being Irish is just fine.  If we can celebrate Ear Muffs and Popcorn, Doctor’s and Girl Scout’s, why not an Irish saint?

Previously published in "The Star," Grand Coulee, Washington. March 20, 2013

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

An app for every occasion

This Christmas, with some trepidation, I received my first smartphone.  I was very excited about the larger screen size (so I could more easily view pictures) and the ability to connect to the internet when I needed to.  But it wouldn't be stretching the truth to say I was a bit reluctant to be connected to the virtual world at all times.  

For one thing, the very idea of choosing the right app for the right moment is overwhelming.  Without the help of more technologically savvy friends and family, I’m not sure I would even venture into the apps store on my own.  Some apps I find to be quite useful, like the ones that tell you the weather or the very useful flashlight app, but to the uninitiated like me, it seems like the endless array of apps and games are just another way to distract from the life in front of me.

As a parent, I understand that a well-placed app can be great entertainment.  As a baby, it was easy to distract my daughter with the car keys to rattle around or shove in her mouth.  But toddlers can be more demanding creatures, and as my daughter has entered the preschool age, I was shocked to see that my daughter learned to navigate my smartphone faster than I did.

Apparently, this hasn’t gone unnoticed by big companies either.  In the education section of the iTunes app store, 72% of the top-selling apps are designed for preschool and elementary age kids, making it the most popular age category in the education section.

In a recent study by Parenting magazine, they state that 58% of kids ages two to five know how to play a basic computer game, while only 52% can ride a bike.  Although these numbers are surprising at first, on further inspection it may not be as terrible as it seems.  The basics, like tying shoes, are still being learned but just a little later.  On the other hand, kids are learning some more complicated things earlier.

My generation was brought up with our “screen time” being Saturday morning cartoons.  But this generation can also spend their screen time using interactive media.  A recent study at Georgetown University found that interactive media lets kids retain information better than passively watching.  This should come as no surprise.  When you ask a question about what a kid might have learned on that program they were watching, it’s a rare event when they can tell you something concrete that was learned and retained.

Screen time is still something to be monitored, but the benefits of introducing kids to technology sooner are fast outweighing the negatives.  By interacting with a game or book during their screen time, learning becomes simply part of the fun of it.

But like any good thing, sometimes the world of apps and interactive media can be taken too far.  

Although those interactive games are pushing our children’s minds earlier and in creative ways, there is also a warning to parents.  A new study at Temple University says that when a parent lets a child play with a game involving technology, we tend to “spout” instructions rather than focusing on the content of the game.  Instead of playing together, we spend our time directing their actions and the outcome is not quite the same.

Increasingly, there are apps for almost everything.  Just focusing on the parenting aspect of it, there are apps for keeping your kid on track developmentally, monitoring their sleep, or keeping up with their nutrition.  A new app can decipher what your baby or toddler is babbling and tells you if they have just spoken their first official word or sentence.  There are even potty training apps that remind the parent to take the kid to the potty and then links the results to Facebook so all your friends and family can applaud your kid for their success.  

For now, my new phone is not being used to its app-crazy potential.  Maybe, when the time is right, I’ll monitor my life by the device in my hand.  But, for now, I’m happy simply with the larger screen size for pictures.

Previously published in "The Star," Grand Coulee, Washington. March 6, 2013

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Home grown

Growing up in Los Angeles, Academy Award night was a citywide celebration.  By the time my brother and I would tumble inside, ready for our afternoon snack, the glamorous stars were already pulling up in their shiny limousines to strut down the red carpet.  My mom would prepare special dishes and drinks, and family and friends would crowd around the TV together.  Mostly we would gossip about the stars choice of wardrobe, but we would also root for our favorite movies and argue the merits of each one.

Going to the movies has always been something I enjoy.  Seeing any movie is like a stolen chunk of time where we get to travel to other worlds and experience others’ lives, leaving our own lives and worries behind, if only for a couple of hours.  

As I’ve grown, my mother and I still make the effort to watch the award show together.  As silly as it may seem to some, one of us will travel to the other and make a special night out of it, eating and drinking and enjoying the display before us.  

At times I have agreed that Oscar night is far out of touch with the rest of America.  Especially in times of hardship or tragedy, a night devoted to glitz and glamour seems unnecessarily excessive.  But instead of looking at it as a night where the rich and famous pat each other on the back, I think of it as a night to celebrate a classic American art form.  

Technically speaking, the only true American art forms are jazz, comic books, musical theater and modern dance.  And while the history of motion pictures is long and complicated, the United States, along with Britain and France, were early pioneers.

But with the advent of World War I, European countries couldn’t devote time, men, technology, or imagination to the movies.  And by the time the war was over, American technology and innovation had catapulted us far beyond any other country.  When movie houses finally reopened in Europe, they ended up showing primarily imported American films.  Ever since, for better or worse, American movies are known throughout the world.

One constant throughout the history of the movies is the challenge to overcome obstacles.  In an industry founded and maintained on technological advances, the introduction of the next best thing is immediately seen as a threat to the way things are.  I’m sure if you work in the industry this is frustrating.  But as a fan, I find the push to be ever better to be to our benefit.  Feature length films threatened the original short film.  Talkies threatened, and eventually eradicated, silent films.  Television shut down a fair share of movie houses across the world.  Computer generated animation threatened traditional animated movies.  And now, the industry is challenged by the availability of free digital media.  It should be no surprise that in the past decade domestic movie theater admissions are down almost 20 percent.  Why pay to go to the movies when you can stream it online for a fraction of the price?

As a fan, the details behind the movies are interesting, but not essential to know.  I loved Toy Story without knowing the monumental effort it took to make a feature length computer animated film.  I was awed by Avatar without getting caught up in the technology that got it to that point.  Knowing it is at its core a business that is subject to bottom lines doesn’t concern me as much as being transported into a different world for a couple of hours after a long day.

So when Oscar night arrives next weekend, I will gossip about the stars fashion choices and applaud those amazing new technological advances that make my movie-going experience that much better.  But mostly I will be cheering for an iconic American art form and tradition.  I will celebrate the passion it took to get an idea from a piece of paper to the big screen so it can transport me into another world.  If only for a few short hours.

Previously published in "The Star," Grand Coulee, Washington.  February 20, 2013

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The mythology behind parenting

 One day about a year ago, my daughter and I were in a pool at a hotel.  While swimming, I overheard a mother tell her son not to put his head under the hot tub.  “It’s bad for you, sweetie,” she told him.  I chuckled, remembering hearing something similar when I was a child.  But now that I’m a grown up, I disregard such a statement as myth.  It may be slightly gross to put your head under the water in a shared hot tub, but truly bad for you? 

The mother’s casual insistence made me wonder.  How much of what we tell our kids is simply a convenience to get them to follow our directions, and how much is actually true?  If we perpetuate a myth like that to our child, are we lying?

There are some classic parenting myths that are passed down the generations and almost every parent uses at one time or another.  Put your jacket on, you don’t want to catch a cold.  The store ran out of ice cream, honey.  If you make that face too many times it will stay like that.  They don’t make diapers in your size anymore. 

Most of these little white lies have a purpose.  The jolly man in the red coat is little more than a happy legend, but perpetuates important traditions.  Putting a coat on, or not eating ice cream after dinner every night are important boundaries parents must implement for health or safety reasons, but the true explanations for them might pass for over the heads of little ones.  So we spout off the one-liners we heard as children, and chances are, we get our way pretty easily.   They put their coat on, or stop complaining about dessert.

But when do we make the crossover from a myth into simply lying?  Is the act of passing down a myth you know to be untrue simply another term for deceit?  On a recent survey on, more than three-quarters of parents admit to having lied to their children at one time or another.  Frankly, I’m surprised it wasn’t more.  But, at what age are children entitled to find out the truth?  Some myths fade on their own as children grow up, or their cover is blown by their peers, but what about things that might stick, like catching a cold or putting your head underwater in a hot tub? 

In fact, maybe many of the myths we perpetuate are in fact wrong, even the ones we believe to be true.  A recent study at the Common Cold Center in Wales found that if you get too chilled, you actually could catch a cold.  Last week weather forecasters across the nation tuned in to hear what the nation’s favorite groundhog would predict.  And although we were all cheered to hear Punxsutawney Phil predict that spring will come early, in actuality, he only has a 39% chance of being right.  A fun tradition, but hardly something to base any sort of truth on.

At some point in the past these myths we pass on to our children were developed.  Sometimes it is clear: the mythical Greek gods developed from legends about actual extraordinary human beings.  But not many among us believe that Zeus is an all-powerful god.  However the stories behind these legends, or the myths we tell our children almost always impart some important message. 

As children we believed our trustworthy parents.  Now that we are the adults, we use the same myths on our own children.  Is it lying?  Maybe, if you want to get technical.  But there’s not a parent among us who isn’t thankful that our children genuinely believe the grocery store ran out of ice cream.

Previously published in "The Star," Grand Coulee, Washington. February 6, 2013

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

What you can get for free, if you’re willing

With the holidays in the past, it seems that the darkest, coldest days of the year are upon us.  But any student will tell you that with the advent of the second semester of school, it is just a quick downhill slide towards summer.

For high school students, especially those who are just about to graduate, there might be a level of anxiety that comes along with this rapid approach to the end of school.  What will you do after school?  Some of you, undoubtedly, will be looking for work to fill those long summer days.

When I was in high school, my peers and I started to think about our resumes, whether for college applications or an internship, or what we referred to as that mythical “real job.”  The first things generally to go on one of these resumes were babysitting jobs, or perhaps lifeguarding at the local pool.  Because I was relying heavily on both my athletic and academic abilities to help me to get into the college of my choice, I brushed off the importance of those resume-filling jobs for another day.  

Then one year just after the holidays, I realized it would be to my benefit to get a good job over the summer break, one that could go on my official resume, something that a future boss might be impressed at even after I finished school.  But who would be willing to hire me?  I was still in school, and my job experience was limited to the babysitting and lifeguarding category.  In other words, nothing having to do with my chosen career path.

It was then that I stumbled across an organization called the Student Conservation Association.  A non-profit group, the SCA is charged with giving young people hands-on experience working in outdoor stewardship or conservation-related jobs.  A strictly volunteer organization, they place both high school and college age students in jobs that match with their interests or career paths.  

For the first time, I was offered an opportunity for a real career boost, to really get something worthwhile to put on my resume.  Even then, I knew this opportunity was available because I was willing to do this work for free.  In fact, just being accepted into the program was a life lesson: never underestimate the chances people are willing to give you if you are prepared to do something for free.  

From my dorm room in Massachusetts, the prospect of spending a summer in the mountains of Idaho, based in the exotic-sounding town of Coeur d’Alene sounded like a dream come true.  The work I would do was free, but my compensation included a free place to live and a $50 a week stipend for food.  The free room turned out to be an RV I shared with another volunteer.  Cramped quarters and a very minimal food budget, but we were only blocks away from the beautiful Lake Coeur d’Alene, and as a student, my food expectations were fairly low.  

The summer I spent there turned out to be more than just a line on my resume.  It was a life experience that I would never change and gave me valuable insight into the career path I had chosen at that time.  I spent most every day that summer deep in the woods doing menial work, but the exposure to the forestry career I had chosen at that time was eye opening and very educational.  

If conservation programs aren’t your interest, there are innumerable other ways to get your foot in the door if you are willing to either volunteer or get paid very low wages.  In other countries, taking a gap year between high school and college is the norm, and young people take the opportunity to work or volunteer in career areas that interest them.  And although my experience working for the Student Conservation Association limited to just a summer, the experience it gave me was invaluable.  

If nothing else, dreaming about how to creatively spend long summer days in the depths of winter is a nice way to pass the time.

Previously published in "The Star," Grand Coulee, Washington. January 23, 2013

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Life lessons go both ways

Someone once told me that the first five years of a child’s life is remarkable in its ability for rapid change.  Every few months brings about a new life stage that change how a child sees their world and how they interact in it.  As my daughter moves through these stages, I have had to change with her.  And change, as always, is challenging.

My daughter is now almost four, and for some time we have been moving out of the moment-by-moment living that is the life of a toddler.  At that stage, I found parenting her to be very clear.  Her life unfolded right now, so depending on the needs of that moment, I gave her food, shelter, nourishment, and as much unconditional love as I could squeeze into our day.  Teachable moments were also quite clear: sharing is caring, say please and thank you, kindness is king.

But as we have moved out of the reactionary toddler stage, I have seen her transitioning into a much more complex world where there is genuine purpose to her thoughts and actions.  It has become my role to explain people’s motives and reasons behind disagreements.  Not surprisingly, I often find myself at a total loss.  

Luckily, I’m not alone in trying to explain this complex world of other people’s thoughts.  It turns out reading a story can lend insight that a simple explanation from a parent does not.  Research has shown that the more inclusive thoughts and feelings are in the characters of stories we read, the more my daughter will understand the emotions in others.  

I’ve always been heartened by the pure kindness that I witness in children.  In fact, recent research on shows that “kids come into the world programmed to be helpful and cooperative.”  From what I’ve witnessed as a parent, it seems that a kind intent often gets lost in translation.  Perhaps it is simply our job to help to relay the message and teach them how to express their own thoughts and actions clearly.

I’m not implying that children are pre-programmed to be perfect and we as parents are screwing them up.  Sharing, especially of a prized possession like a toy, is not something any kid will willingly do.  Without knowing when, or if, they will get that toy back, letting a friend play with it seems to a kid like they are giving it up forever.  However, new research out of the University of British Columbia shows that when toddlers share a treat, such as crackers or candy, they actually experience an emotional high and there is a boost of genuine happiness. Maybe it is our job as parents to remember to ask for things that are within the realm of understanding.  Sharing goldfish is something they understand, whereas sharing a doll is terrifying.

My nearly-four-year-old is just on the brink of understanding the vast materialistic world that is just beyond her fingertips.  Sharing toys has become easier as she has gained a deeper understanding of time and patterns.  Never has a child come over for a play date and taken her favorite doll home with them, and by now she is picking up on those patterns.  But as she has gotten older we have moved out of only being interested in what is directly in front of her eyes.  

But, thankfully, there is enough of the toddler still in her to be delighted by what is directly in front of her.  And here is a trait from children that even the most materialistic among us can learn from.  Research in the Journal of Positive Psychology has firmly proven the old adage, “wanting what you have is more important to health and well being than getting what you want.”

It seems, as I’ve suspected from the moment my daughter first batted her baby blues at me, she is teaching me as much as I teach her.
Previously published in "The Star," Grand Coulee, Washington. January 9, 2013

Friday, December 21, 2012

A year in review

It’s a typical practice around the new year to examine the year we are leaving behind.  Sometimes it’s worthwhile to examine any personal gains or losses, or to assess a resolution made at this time last year.  Sometimes, it’s interesting to wonder what, if anything, from this year was truly memorable.  Did anything happen that will live in your mind, or the mind of the country, for years to come?  

Earlier this year, I wrote a column about the coincidental fact that both the Oreo cookie and the Girl Scouts of America turned 100 in the same month.  Since that time I couldn’t help but notice whenever I came across another mention of a noteworthy anniversary.  To my surprise, there were plenty, both of products and events.  Not only was 1912 the founding year of the Oreo and Girl Scouts, but also of L.L. Bean and Paramount pictures, all products and institutions that are still impacting modern life.  One hundred years ago, along with the opening of the great Fenway Park in Boston, the Beverly Hills hotel opened its doors for the first time.  On a darker side, 1912 was the year the Titanic sank and also marked the largest volcanic eruption in the 20th century with the eruption of the volcano Novarupta in Alaska, producing 30 times more ash than the eruption of Mount St. Helens.

Centennial anniversaries aren’t the only ones to be marked this year.  One hundred and fifty years ago the Morrill Act was signed into law, creating the land grant college system, which was an important milestone in creating affordable higher education for young Americans.  One hundred and fifty years ago, our country fought against each other at the Battle of Antietam, yet we were also optimistic enough to pass the Homestead Act, which was very significant in shaping much of our country.

There were a number of 50th anniversaries this year as well.  Close to home, this year marked a half-century for the Space Needle, as well as the countrywide networks of KoA’s.  Not to be forgotten is the little orange goldfish cracker, of which children everywhere, my daughter included, have been enjoying for the last 50 years.  

As I gathered this list, it made me wonder, what made people in our past so industrious?  I’ve spent time in other cultures where an innocuous church across the street can be 500 years old.  In times like that, I’ve felt that America is a baby.  But here is proof that things we create in America can last.  And while maybe the Oreo or the Space Needle doesn’t have such a concrete tie to history that a centuries-old church does, we can still celebrate the spirit of our industrious ancestors who came to this country looking to make things that would last for generations.  

In our modern world of immediate satisfaction and viral communication, it might be assumed that everything might last forever.  But among all the chaos, will there be anything worthwhile?  Are we short-changing our creative selves by investing so much time into immediate gratification?

One hundred years isn’t as long as it sounds.  One hundred years ago my great-grandmother had just arrived in this country, looking for a better life.  One hundred years from now, maybe my great-grandchildren will look back on 2012 and be amazed that I was around for such a year, as I have often felt about my great-grandmother.  If we had a crystal ball, would we be surprised by the things that are remembered 100 years from now?  Will it only be remembered as a year where too many innocent lives were unfairly taken from us, or will there be something else--anything, please,--that will last?

Thinking about these things that have lasted for so long makes me feel just how enduring some things can be, and also how short the years really are.  Our time here may be short, but here is proof that the time we do have can be enduring.  Here’s to another memorable year.  

Previously published in "The Star," Grand Coulee, Washington.  December 21, 2012

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

One ending is another beginning

This year, in the midst of a typically festive holiday season is what many have considered to be a very auspicious date.  December 21, 2012 does not simply signify the winter solstice, but also a very important calendar day in the ancient culture of the Mayans.  I’m referring, of course, to what many in popular media have referred to as Doomsday, the Apocalypse, or simply, the End of the World.

A chuckle or two at this thought is not completely out of line.  Imagining the end of the world occurring in simply a matter of days could be slightly comical.  But many around the world have considered this date, if not the ultimate End, at least something worth marking.  

For some time, this date has loomed in the future as some kind of prophesy, a tip from an ancient culture that something fishy was coming, and that it would happen on a precise day.  Looking for secret knowledge from ancient cultures is a popular theme.  It has been assumed that ancient peoples were more in touch with the land and Mother Earth, and therefore more receptive to information regarding wisdom or prophesies.  

While I’m skeptical about ancient cultures prophesizing far into the future, I do believe they attained wisdom and knowledge in ways modern society doesn’t anymore and I do believe these cultures still have much to teach us.  To name just one such intriguing idea, I find it fascinating the way such separate cultures around the globe and across time used what tools they had to calculate such abstract ideas as the calendar.  After all, what practical good does a long-term calendar hold for such people, besides spiritual or intellectual wisdom?  

Today we have the luxury of everyone on Earth using the same method of marking time.  But in ancient cultures, this wasn’t the case and the way these cultures marked cycles of time varied greatly.  The Maya of Mesoamerica had a number of different cycle levels, each one encompassing the ones before it.  Their longest cycle, the baktun, was 394 years and they wrapped each baktun into a grouping of 13, a significant number in their culture.  The current “Great Cycle” of 13 baktuns is coming to an end this December 21st.  

I recently saw an advertisement at a popular outdoors store for a preparedness class for the coming “Zombie Apocalypse” that was sure to occur following this important Mayan date.  I originally thought this great fodder for a column about a prophesy of the end of the world, but the more research I did on the Mayan calendar and what this date actually signified piqued my interest in a different way.  

Proof that the phenomenon this “end date” has created is the involvement of NASA in their attempt to debunk the idea that an astronomical cataclysm is headed toward Earth.  And while I may think it intriguing, and maybe a tad funny, many around the world are taking this calendar date very seriously, and some are quite fearful.  As one NASA official put it, if we put the fear factor aside, there is another real concern that this looming date has brought forth: a lack of regard for science education and skeptical thinking in our schools.  

The spreading of fear of this date is not unlike the Y2K fears that ultimately amounted to nothing more than hype.  And while it may be great cocktail party conversation to talk about how to prepare for the end of the world, it is perhaps more productive to learn about what this date really meant to that culture, and what, if anything, it might mean to ours.  Learning to think outside the box of fear is a skill that is, apparently, learned.

Most experts now agree that next week will mark an important milestone in a very ancient calendar system, but it doesn’t signify a prediction of the end of the world.  Instead, it would likely have indicated a time of great celebration, and maybe a time of contemplation as well.  This is not unlike how many typical celebrate our modern holiday season, and I hope this year we continue to have cause for significant contemplation and celebration.

Previously published in "The Star," Grand Coulee, Washington. December 12, 2012