Monday, April 19, 2010

Paper or plastic?

Yesterday I bought groceries. I always try to use reusable bags with my groceries. I first started doing this in the mid-90s, back when I lived in California, and it was a perfectly normal thing to do in the Bay area. Back then people just used whatever reusable bags they had around, whether they were canvas, cloth, mesh, or old paper bags. None of the bags were the same size and no one cared. None of the stores had thought of selling reusable bags emblazoned with their logos on them yet. Over time I acquired a collection of odd bags consisting of old cloth book bags, canvas bags that once held swag from a major Bay Area tech company, a couple of premiums from the Nature Conservancy, and even a semi-fashionable cloth tote bag or two. Some of these bags are almost thirty years old. I don't mind if they get stained or dirty; I just run them through the wash every so often. I try to put them in the trunk of my car as soon as I empty them so I'll always have them with me. Now I use them at other places, too, like Goodwill or the fabric store. In fact, I feel insanely guilty if I forget my reusable bags and will return to the car to get them if I remember before getting inside the store.

But then I moved back to Virginia in 1997 and when I tried to use my re-usable grocery bags at a grocery store, the employees acted as if I had asked them to ride a unicycle while wearing a chicken suit. They were perplexed by the idea that I might not want to use their plastic bags. Some of them were utterly confused by the bags I had brought in with me. I had one cashier tell me that she didn't know how to use "those other bags." She seemed offended when I suggested that she just open one up and put my groceries in it. Thankfully enough people use reusable bags now that cashiers no longer seem put off by the idea of not using their store's plastic bags.

However, I ran across a new situation at the grocery store yesterday. The cashier was young, tall, and skinny as only as a geeky man in his early 20s can be. He looked at the pile of reusable bags I put in front of him as if he didn't trust them. As he hung up my bags by their straps to start filling them, he commented that some of them were "awfully weird." I asked him what he meant by that, and he gestured to the one of the smaller bags and pointed out that the straps were almost as long as the bag and they didn't fit on the rotating plastic bag dispensers very well. I suggested that he just use the smaller bags for smaller items. He shrugged and asked "Where'd ja get these weird bags anyways?" I politely told him that I'd been using my own reusable bags for a long time and that none of the stores sold their own reusable bags back then, so of course none of my bags were the same size, shape, material, or color. He mulled that idea over for a minute before asking me, "Have you ever watched old reruns where they're in a grocery store and the cashier just puts the groceries in a *paper* bag? Man, that's like ancient history or something."

I wanted to tell the guy that I remember when the cashiers would even take your bags out to your car for you, but I was afraid the concept would be more than his little brain could handle, so I just paid for my items and left. Well, fled is more like it.

Friday, April 16, 2010

April 16, 2007, as seen from 2010

I was working in the greenhouse complex at Virginia Tech that day in April 2007. We had heard sirens racing across campus earlier that morning and finally the sheer number of emergency vehicles speeding down the street prompted us to turn on the radio. We were stunned to hear the campus radio station playing an unending loop of nondescript instrumental music while the announcer broke in every minute or so to say there had been a shooting on campus with casualties and everyone should stay where they were. Campus is big, and without any other information it wasn't difficult to imagine that whatever had occurred, it must have occurred someplace distant from where we worked. An exaggerated lovers' spat with perhaps only an injury, or maybe just another rumor. After all, we had just gone through the drama with William Morva, the escaped prisoner who shot a deputy and a security guard to death before being captured close to campus at the start of the fall semester just last August. Lightning couldn't strike twice so soon again, right?

It wasn't long before the radio announcer began to state the number of dead and we were incredulous at how the tally kept growing. The facilities manager for the greenhouses knocked on the back door, startling us. We let him in but he only wanted to tell us to keep all the doors locked and not to let anyone else inside before he left to lock himself into his own office. It was a raw, brisk day with snow swirling around. The wind kept catching the heavy metal door to our lab and slamming it against the lock as if someone was trying to force his way inside. We spent the morning in shock and disbelief, nominally working but really just going through the motions. Finally at noon we were instructed to leave our building and go home directly. As I drove the 460 bypass towards Christiansburg, I saw state trooper after state trooper speeding towards campus. It wasn't until I got home that afternoon and saw the news coverage that I fully understood what had transpired on campus early that morning. The first murders occurred in a dorm only several blocks down the street from where we worked. I couldn't really react or talk about it, but I cried in the shower that night. I was nearly 8 months pregnant and the idea of not being able to protect the baby from danger, even though no one could predict something as random as a massacre by a deranged student, scared me deeply.

Even now, three years later, the memories are still fresh and weirdly surreal, as when you wake up suddenly from a nightmare. There's no sense in railing against the gunman, Seung-Hui Cho, who took his own life after killing 32 others and causing injuries to more than 20 others. We don't know why Cho selected his victims or exactly what his motive was. Cho was clearly a deeply fractured individual. We'll never know if counseling, therapy, or hospitalization would have healed him in any way if it had been given to him. All we do know is that there are 32 limestone markers placed in a semicircle as a memorial in front of Burruss Hall and we hope that we never again experience the horror of that day in April 2007.

Weeping Cherry, VT campus, April 2009

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Coconuts for Squirrels

Despite knowing better than to be out in the sun without putting on any sunscreen, I've spent the past three hours digging holes and transplanting perennials in the front bed. It's a warm day for mid-April, with strong sunshine and temperatures in the mid-70s. I can't help but think of this time in April three years ago: a cold, blustery day with swirling snow and a madman on campus. I'll talk more about that day tomorrow; today is too nice for the stuff of nightmares.

This week I've been moving my favorite plants from the old house to their new home in the front bed at our new house. When we bought the new house last November, one of my first reactions was concern over my garden. I can't help it, I'm a little insane about my plants. I couldn't bear the thought of leaving my garden behind, but it was the wrong time of year to try to transplant anything at the new house. Not to mention that much had died down to the ground and I would have had a hard time finding anything without the telltale foliage to indicate where anything was. So after a long, LONG winter with lots of snow, it's finally warm and sunny again and I'm finding all my favorite plants very easily as they emerge from the ground. I can pop them into a plastic shopping bag, transport them to the new house, dig a good hole in the bed I prepared, and pop the plants back into the ground. Instant garden, easy-peasy. All my plant-related stress and drama over the winter has fizzled out, which is good.

What isn't good is me setting a bad example for Ally, my almost 3-year-old toddler, by being outside with no hat and sunscreen during the middle of the day. She's very fair skinned and it's only a matter of time before that first sunburn if we're not careful. Telling her to be careful about sun exposure doesn't make a whole lot of sense if we, as parents, don't show her how to be careful. And that's true about a lot of things in life. I can't expect her to limit junk food in her diet if she sees me plough through a bag of sweet potato chips in one sitting, or for her to develop patience for others when I'm beside myself with how long it takes her to eat her breakfast. And I'm really going to have to start biting my tongue the next time a crazy driver starts to merge into my lane without signaling or checking her blind spot, unless I want Ally to add some choice words to her vocabulary at this young of an age.

But what about the positive things I want to encourage Ally to do? I want her to be creative, expressive, and confident. If I want her to get physical exercise by playing on her slide, I can't complain about the dirt and grass stains on her pants while she's learning to land on her feet. If she's going to learn to play by herself while I fix dinner, then of course she's going to have toys spread all over the living room by the time we eat. What's the point of her making up a story all by herself if I don't take the time to listen to how her stuffed black dog Thomas chased an orange dinosaur that wanted all the cookies? And yet the daily requirements of keeping a toddler clothed, cleaned, and fed often seem to get in the way of taking the time to nurture her character.

Last night I was preparing dinner while Ally entertained herself by looking at all of my cooking spices in the pull out drawer beside the oven. Steve's out of town on business, so juggling playtime and dinner after I pick up Ally from daycare is something of a highwire act. I was concentrating on getting something for us to eat before Ally got so hungry that she threw a fit. It only seems to take about five minutes for her to go from the mild announcement of "I'm hungry" to astonishingly whiney howls of "I'm really, really HUNGRY!" While I cooked some pasta, Ally was telling me that this container was salt, and this one was pepper, and the salt was white while the pepper was black. She continued by telling me the salt was in her left hand and the pepper was in her right one. Then she moved on to the oregano, ground mustard, and cayenne pepper, describing their colors and containers and what they might be used for. I must admit I wasn't giving her my full attention until she stopped and said, "These are coconuts for squirrels!"

Huh? I looked up and saw that Ally was proudly holding a container with two whole nutmegs. Coconuts for squirrels, indeed.

I think we might be okay.

Monday, April 12, 2010

As I was walking through the park one day....

Last Monday I headed over to Midcounty Park to see what wildflowers were blooming yet. I was concerned that I had missed the trillium, but as it turned out, not much had emerged just yet. I expect to see lots of wildflowers in bloom when I return next week.

fiddleheads, Spring 2010

I did find some fiddleheads coming up. I love how the fronds look as they unfurl: something akin to snails on curved sticks and hooded cobras.


Bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis, was out. One of the earliest wildflowers to bloom in southwestern Virginia, bloodroot has an interesting lobed leaf.

That's not to say that I had an uneventful hike. You can pick up the main trail behind the picnic shelter beside the Frog Pond swimming pool. It runs along a ridge before heading downslope to a wet area that's home to skunk cabbage and lots of annoying gnats. There's a short little wooden footbridge crossing the mucky spot. I had just stepped out on the wooden footbridge when my eye spotted something slim and reddish brown moving in the area directly under my outstretched foot.

Around here, slim and reddish brown means "snake" more than anything else, but it wouldn't have been unusual to see a salamander either. I didn't want to step on the critter, whatever it was, so I jerked my foot out father than I normally would, over extending my stride. That wouldn't have been a problem except for the wet, mossy surface of the wood boards. I slipped and landed hard on my butt and left elbow. Pain shot through my arm like I've never felt before, followed by a ringing numbness. I was certain that I had broken my elbow and spent several minutes gasping at the pain before I could even look at it. There were a couple of parallel scratches under my arm, but there wasn't any blood to speak of. After a few more minutes I cautiously tried moving my fingers. They seemed to work okay, but that buzzing funny bone nerve hurt like hell. I decided that my arm wasn't broken and gingerly got to my feet.

Then it occurred to me to look for the creature that had caused such drama. No more than a foot to the side of the bridge was Mr. Toad, blinking his eyes unconcernedly at me.

Mr. Toad

That night my arm and butt hurt so much that I could only sleep after taking some pain relievers, but it wasn't until later in the week that the bruise on my butt finally came up. It's a glorious contusion, at least the size of a saucer. A spectacular riot of purples, yellows, and greens. It's as if I have my own wildflower bloom on my backside. I was tempted to take a picture of it to post, but my better judgement led me to refrain from this. Besides, this baby is worth at least 50 cents for a look see. It is, by far, the ugliest bruise I've ever had in my life. I only hope that I don't have to go to the emergency room any time soon, because I just know the nurse is going to see this bruise and then asked me in a hushed, concerned voice about my personal safety.

And I don't know if I can admit to the nurse that a toad was responsible for this.

Mr. Toad II

He could have at least thanked me for not squishing him instead of just sitting there like a bump on a log.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

A Nest of Snakes in Topeka, KS

Members of the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) of Topeka, KS, will be picketing in Blacksburg this Friday, April 9. This group often pickets the funerals of American armed service men and women, as well as the victims of hate crimes or random acts of violence. Members of this group proclaim that God hates America because Americans live sinful lives and we all deserve death and destruction because of it. In particular, the group suggests God allows terrorism against America and that God is actively punishing us through violence, destruction, and terror. WBC has all the earmarks of a hate group, and clearly they do not approve of you unless you are American, white, heterosexual, and one of their members.

The purpose of their protest in Blacksburg is described on their website (, accessed 4/7/2010) as:

Virginia Tech N. Main St. & E. Roanoke St. (SW Corner) WBC to picket Virginia Tech to connect the dots. God sent the killer because of your proud sin! You raise your kids to believe they can disobey God with impunity, and that His commandments are all on the table to be disposed of whenever you please. That's why they think fornication, adultery, and sodomy are all just in good fun (instead of the filthy practices they are), and that's why the wrath of God is on them. God is cursing you by killing those same children that you have lied to all their lives. VA Tech was just GodSmacked -- another of your students murdered -- and you still refuse to heed and obey the standards of God. Woe unto you! "Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness...!" Isa. 5:20. You're going to Hell, and you're taking your kids with you.

I cannot describe how disgusted I am with the agenda of this organization, or how revolting I find their practices. To even suggest that I, along with the rest of the Virginia Tech and Blacksburg community, deserved the events of April 16, 2007, is incendiary, hateful, and ridiculous.

It's times like this that I must remind myself that I am a big fan of the First Amendment to the US Constitution. I firmly believe that the WBC has the right to spew forth their hate and invectives, although their speech turns my stomach, just as I have the right to speak out against their racism and bigotry. Still, while they have the right to say what they wish and I believe that right should be upheld, this doesn't mean I don't think they're the biggest bunch of jackasses I've seen in a long time.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010


I must admit that spring is not my favorite time of the year. My heart and soul belongs to fall, when the air is clear, the leaves turn colors, things calm down, and cooler temperatures arrive. To me, spring is all about rising warmth and humidity, a haze of pollen in the air, and an increasing sense of a busy, busy, hurriedness. This strikes me as funny given that I love to garden, and there wouldn't be any new growth, flowers, warm soil, or home grown tomatoes without spring.

But there's a brief period of spring that I adore. We're right in the middle of it this week in southwest Virginia. It's when the temperatures warm up enough to wake up the spring peepers and their calls create a cacophony in the early evening. It's when the sarvice and maple flowers wash the ridges with white and red, heralding the incipient arrival of white dogwood and pink redbuds. Birds absent all winter suddenly reappear and baby calves seem to arrive in the pastures overnight. It's when the trees put out a flush of fresh, delicate leaves that epitomizes the color spring green. After a long, hard, bleak winter I walk around for several days whispering "Welcome back, welcome back" to the world.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Rattlesnake plantain

One of my favorite native plants in Virginia, rattlesnake plantain (Goodyera sp.). This is actually an orchid, but the leaves on this species are far showier than the blooms. I was pleased to find it growing in the woods on our property this spring. Wish we had ladyslippers, too.

Rattlesnake plantain