March 20, 2016

The times they are a-changin’


Long-time readers have heard many stories about my oldest son Boy-in-Black. They might remember the time he rewrote the lyrics of a Bob Dylan song and played it as his valedictory speech. The time he rescued the stray kitten. The time he was in charge of cleaning the kitchen and made up crazy rules to go with his chore. The time he memorized all the Q words in the dictionary so that he could beat me in a game of Scrabble.

Ten years ago, Boy-in-Black declared his career goal: he wanted to get a PhD in Physics and then become a hobo who hung out on the street corner with a guitar. He figured people would walk past and say, “See that hobo? He’s mad good at physics.” The career hasn’t turned out exactly as he planned. Oh, he’s got a PhD in Physics, and he still pretty much dresses like a hobo, but he’s got a full-time job doing research. He’s a respectable grown-up and all that.

I don’t think Boy-in-Black’s approach to the upcoming election will surprise anyone. Like the research scientist he is, he first spent hours looking up facts and statistics, reading widely and checking his sources carefully. He went especially to primary sources, actual footage of the candidates. “You don’t have to watch much Trump footage to see what he’s about,” he said to me, grinning.

Once Boy-in-Black found a candidate he felt strongly about, he threw his whole self into the campaign. He’s been phonebanking and facebanking, signing up for events, donating time and money and emotional energy. He’s passionate about getting young people to the polls for the primaries. “If just every person between the age of 18 and 30 voted,” he said, “we could make a difference.”

In the past, Boy-in-Black has been willing to sit on the sidelines while everyone else argued about politics. "That's because normally, I feel like I can't make any real change," he explained. "This is the first time there's been an honest candidate that I genuinely agree with."

It’s been fun for me to talk politics with my grown-up sons. Yes, that’s plural because With-a-Why has been just as adamant as Boy-in-Black. They keep presenting rational arguments in favor of their candidate. It’s funny, really, that all the young people I know are so obsessed with a candidate who is 74 years old. With-a-Why’s girlfriend, Shy Smile, said that Bernie Sanders is “like a cool grandpa.”

“I want to get that shirt that says Talk Bernie to me,” With-a-Why said.

“I love how the Bernie’s campaign has pretty much been a kickstarter project,” Boy-in-Black said. “I think the average donation has been $27. He’s crushing the internet.”

I’ve long been a supporter of Clinton, but my sons are pulling me into the Sanders camp. They know how to sway me. Boy-in-Black was quick to point out that Sanders has a good record when it comes to feminist issues. And of course, he knows that I am appalled by the idea that someone as sexist and racist as Trump could ever become president.

“Bernie Sanders beats Trump and all the other Republican candidates by a sizeable margin,” Boy-in-Black pointed out. “Clinton barely beats Trump, and loses to the others, according to all the polls so far.”

They know that environmental issues are my other major concern. “Well, if you’re gonna vote based on just one issue, that issue should be climate change,” Boy-in-Black said. “If the earth is destroyed, none of the other stuff really matters.”

“You can’t have meaningful action on climate change when you’re funded by the fossil fuel industry,” With-a-Why said. (Yes, With-a-Why is all grown up now, a young man in his twenties who gets into political debates. I know!) It says something about the sway of the Bernie Sanders campaign that With-a-Why has been phonebanking: he's an introvert who HATES making phone calls.

This will, in fact, be With-a-Why’s second time voting in a national election. He turned eighteen just a month before the election four years ago. And he’s done his research. “People say Bernie won’t be able to get anything done with a Republican Congress, but he’s known as the Amendment King for passing amendments tacked onto other bills,” said With-a-Why. “Look at this quote here,” he motioned to his computer screen. “A Republican senator praising Bernie’s willingness to compromise to get things done.”

Once Boy-in-Black and With-a-Why get on a roll, they begin spouting statistics and facts like crazy. Here is a typical sentence from Boy-in-Black: “Bernie Sanders has the highest approval rating of any sitting U.S. senator – 83 %. The average approval rating of U.S. senators is 14% and their average re-election rate is 95%. Because no one votes in local elections.” He's obsessed with facts, numbers, and statistics. That's what happens with a physicist gets into politics.

Whenever I go onto the internet and see some of the downright nasty conversations going on, I’m heartened by the young people I know who have figured out how to talk about politics in a way that’s a calm and rational sharing of facts. I don’t know how this election will play out, but the process has given me faith in the next generation.

The photo above: Boy-in-Black and With-a-Why phonebanking together.

March 18, 2016

Monks, sheep, and quiet

Walking down to the chapel

The route we take is familiar to us by now. We drive along the crest of a hill that gives us a view of cornfields and stands of pine trees. We drive past farms with silos and red barns. We drive though little towns where the gas stations sell both firewood and ice. And last, we take the long road that curves up through the woods, higher and higher, until we come to the edge of the sheep fields and the big monastery barn, with its white cross, comes into sight.

I’ve been going to this Benedictine monastery on retreat for a couple of decades now. As soon as I step out of the car, I can feel myself relax.

My friends and I stayed in the old farmhouse that serves as the women’s guesthouse. I took the bedroom at the top of the stairs, the one with the big wooden desk. I do love to spread my journals and books out on a desk. I hung my clothes in the closet, set my camera on the bookshelf, and then went down into the kitchen for a cup of tea.

A monastic retreat gives me time to think, to pray, to meditate. I took a long walk Saturday morning, going to all my favourite places: the sheep barn, the pasture behind the sheep barn, the bookstore, and the crypt below the chapel where the votive candles are. I spent a lazy afternoon in my cozy room, writing.

Monastery barnyard

Compline is the last service of the day. The monks wear their black robes for this service, and Brother Tractor plays the harp in the candlelit chapel. After compline, my friends and I gathered in the living room of the guesthouse, and I built a fire. The crackling flames kept us company as we chatted, catching up with family news, drinking hot tea. When the fire died down, I said good night to my friends, heated a cornbag up in the microwave, and went up to bed. I fell asleep listening to the winds blowing through the tree outside my window.>

March 03, 2016

February travels

Morning walk

February, which is usually a month I dread (because it lasts FOREVER here in Snowstorm Region) zoomed by this year.

I began the month by flying to my niece’s wedding, which was on a humid, tropical island where I began each morning by walking the beach and spent every afternoon eating snacks by the pool. Forty family members and friends in all came to this destination wedding, and it seemed unreal to hang out under palm trees on a February day. The wedding was a very happy occasion: we all love Red-haired Niece’s new husband, who is a former student of mine. (Yes, that makes two former students who have married into the family. It’s become a trend.)

Palm Trees

Shortly after I returned from that trip, I flew to the hot, dry desert to go hiking with my husband. We spent our vacation walking through the blazing sunshine of the Sonoran Desert, admiring cacti and returning each day for a swim at the hotel pool.

Sonoran Desert

Of course, the reason I was able to get away twice during February was that I’m on sabbatical. So in between these excursions into the sunshine, I’ve been writing and thinking and doing research — all activities that I love. I’m firmly convinced that every job should include a sabbatical. Everyone needs some time off for rest and renewal.