30 July 2011

The Reluctant Gardener

The thing I like best about gardening is eating. I am an ever-grateful, ever-praising recipient of meals prepared from fresh ingredients grown thirty feet from where I am typing this. Stepping into my backyard, I can always smile at the sight of eight-foot corn stalks, a jungle of green beans and rows of herbs. I get a little thrill to see the progress of the eggplant and wait impatiently for the tomatoes to ripen. Yes, watching a garden grow is very satisfying.

But there ends my motivations as a gardener. Getting my hands dirty, cultivating for months and then preserving the inevitable excess for storage, I could pass on. If gardening were a book, I’d rather just watch the movie.

Like most food consumers in modern America I have to go through remedial produce school to remember that the picture perfect products at the fruitage fashion show that is a supermarket fresh food section are manufactured merchandise. I can muster appreciation for the end product, but it’s the nurturing, tending, and encouraging that I feel only obligation towards. Not until the weedlings outgrow the seedlings do I get down on my hands and knees to gain back some ground for my future meals.

I’ve always heard that gardeners that talk to their plants see increased growth and generally healthier specimens. This theory was first recorded by the German professor Gustav Fechner in his book Nanna: Soul-life of Plants, printed in 1848. This idea is so still so popular that Adam and Jamie of Mythbusters tested the theory in 2004. Their results suggest that it’s “plausible.” Research conducted by scientists at South Korea’s National Institute of Agricultural Biotechnology found that two genes involved in a plant’s response to light – rcbS and Ald – were turned on by music played around 70 decibels. “This is about the level of normal conversation,” said Rich Marini, head of Penn State’s horticulture department, in an article on

I’ve been known to talk when weeding. I say things like, get the bleep out of here, I’ve been out here a bleeping hour already, and bleep-bleep it, stop biting me. (That last one is to the mosquitoes that prey on me while I prey on the vegetative garden invaders, as they are affectionately known in my house.) I can’t argue the tone conveys inspiration for the vegetables, but they're still growing so it can’t be all bad.

I want to be more involved in gardening, which is why I told Richard I would be in charge of our plot this year – a responsibility that I have all but reneged on. I’ll make it out there when my guilt jacket gets too warm, but I’ve seen evidence that my tolerance to heat is increasing.

Ultimately, it’s a matter of reasoning. Once I connect the dots in my head between food and where it really comes from, my inner MichaelPollan shows up for a bit. I just have to hope that happens with enough frequency to keep things growing.

26 July 2011

Cents and Sensibility

As soon as the conversation started I thought, I knew this was going to happen. After mooching off my partner, Richard, for just over a month, and though I hate to admit it, pretty much taking advantage of his generosity, we had “the talk.” “The talk”, when you’re unemployed, covers your motivation to get a job, your worth without one (ex. willingness and competency at doing chores around the house), and your general deterioration of time management skills. For me, this talk concluded that I was spending too much time getting nothing done. And while I couldn’t deny my loafing bout, I argued that some of what Richard viewed as time wasted was, to me, time spent researching. I may be sitting idly at my desk jotting the occasional note, but my brain is churning. If I was getting paid, the process would still be the same, I just don’t have that luxury yet.

When discussing “the talk” with another writer, we identified an acute difference in perception of work. Richard, a fellow who views sleep as trifling, qualifies work on product – how much is done. While I find value in a completed job, I feel the process – particularly creative – is more important. All our modern innovations like computers and software have undeniably increased the speed of production. But the process inside the head of the artist still sifts, gathers and molds at the same old clip.

After an hour of frustrated comments, sighs and tears, I think we came to a conclusion that will suit for the time being: I will try to find a part-time job to help funnel my time spent at home according to both Richard’s definition of idle, and mine; he will try to remember that we move at different speeds in the production line; and we will both try to acknowledge the others' efforts.

Idle, I mean, research mode.

Afterward I spent some time researching “process versus product” and found discussions spanning from toddler development to business models to spirituality. Whether or not I self-identify with either group, I will always be curious about the specific decisions that progressed into elements of the finished product. I want to know why an author chose a particular word; what interview strategy the journalist used to question their source; and how many times the writer rewrote a sentence. Deconstructing the creative process is an enduringly fascinating journey that I find interesting and inspiring. If idle time makes the product I want, then idle I will be.

21 July 2011

Dementia Dog: My Introduction to Canine Alzheimer's

The first time I noticed a change in Henri (pronounced Henry, I’m not fancy about it) was after we had leashed up to go outside. Instead of standing, nose at the corner of door where he knew it would swing open and release him, he rushed to the hinge. His posture was the usual one, shaking with anticipation of what fun waited on the other side, but he had the layout backwards.

I figured it was just that we were at a new house and he hadn’t gotten his exits figured out yet. But similar actions continued. I noticed it next on doors that he had been using for a decade, like his crate and at my parent’s house. Then he started missing the door altogether, ending up in the closet or lost in a corner.

A few months later another new behavior began. Henri took up nighttime pacing. Instead of sleeping soundly, a talent he had always possessed in spades, he would wake up around 2 or 3 a.m. and pace from the door of my bedroom to the opposite wall. The patter of his paws on the carpet would wake me up too. If I turned on the light, it would startle him. He would see me in the suddenly lit room and react with excitement as though he had been looking for something and had finally stumbled upon it. Then he would settle down, at least for a few more hours.

By this point I was curious, but simply attributed my observations to the idea that Henri had never been an especially bright dog. He was getting older (I started noticing changes when he was 13), and maybe hearing and sight loss were making him disoriented. Then I heard a Fresh Air episode on National Public Radio where Terry Gross interviewed animal behaviorist Nicholas Dodman about his lastest collaborative book Good Old Dog: Expert Advice for Keeping Your Aging Dog Healthy, Happy and Comfortable. One of the topics covered in Dodman’s book was Canine Alzheimer’s. He recommended an online test you could complete if you were suspicious of dementia in your dog.

I instantly pulled up the website and put Henri through the test. Although he didn’t get full marks, his newly acquired habits were all on the list. Symptoms like soiling the house hadn’t shown up…yet. The website recommended a medication such as Anipryl, similar to human treatment of Alzheimer’s, that would help to slow down the degenerative process and plaque buildup in his brain. But like all preventative treatments, it’s best to start early and Henri was pretty well on. A February 2011 article in USA Weekend Magazine recommends regular moderate exercise to help slow down the effects of canine dementia. So I have made it a priority to walk Henri a couple of times a day. For the time being, I feel better about this treatment than giving him a pill. I reasoned that until his appetite changed, something that has yet to happen, than he’s still the Henri I know and love.

I will mention here that since the day I got Henri over 10 years ago, he has only refused food of any kind once. That time he had gotten a hold of a couple pounds of pure deer fat the night before. To my relief, after he regurgitated the fat the following afternoon, he was back to his normal, voracious self. So while he may not always come when I call, partly because he can’t hear me and partly because he doesn’t always seem to remember his name, he still knows that I’m the keeper of the kibble.

Henri still requests time in my lap on occasion, but now that dementia is changing him, it’s more often that I seek him out. After hours at my computer, body stiff from inactivity and brain depleted from over-activity, I look for Henri. I usually find him on the cushion of the old chair that was once my grandfather’s. When I got it, the upholstery stank of cigars. Now it smells of dog as I’ve formally donated it to my aging, four-legged friend. His long body is curled in a tight ball and rumbles with snores. So not to disturb him I mimic his shape and curl around him. Wrapping my arm over him, I bury my hand under his warm chest and my nose in the nape of his neck. Breathing deeply I am comforted by his scent, sweet and nutty, just like always.

18 July 2011

Hiking: a great opportunity for some fracking research

It was a beautiful day in the Pennsylvania woods. So perfect that every description seems cliché: blue skies, birds chirping, calm breeze. It all applies. Beneath my feet was the Quehanna Trail (QT), a 75-mile backpacking loop in Moshannon State Forest and Elk State Forest. Out for an overnight hike to get away from the city and explore our new state, (and to take advantage of the most rare scheduling phenomenon in medical resident life: the three-day weekend), Richard and I set out from the trailhead at Parker Dam State Park in Clearfield County.

Less than a mile from the car, we cross a clear-cut swath of hillside running 50 feet across and as far I can see up and down. Similar to space made for power lines, but sans towers, the first thing that I think is: ski hill? Wrong. Welcome to the great state of Pennsylvania where the Marcellus Shale natural gas race has been underway since 2007. It was a pipeline, the first of three pipelines that we crossed eight times in 23 miles of trail.

Not virgin to the concept of utilizing natural resources for public benefit and government profit, I thought little of the pipeline and kept walking. But less than a mile from the pipeline, we found a notice stapled to a tree that said, “Attention Quehanna Trail Hikers: There has been an industrial incident in the area. It is recommended surface water (springs and streams) not be used for potable use.” No date, no specifics.

When I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2009 I saw many similar signs from natural resource managers warning of bears or water quality. They all gave a vague message including just enough information to warrant curiosity, but not enough to change one’s plan mid-hike. If nothing else, I would request that dates be added to these signs. That way if the sign is cautioning occurrences from over a year ago, as I would later learn the QT sign was, I could make a decision for my circumstances whether to heed the warning or not. While I understand the logic of leaving off the date so to avoid people disregarding the message because they’ve reasoned the content is too old, if you really want to warn people it’s probably best to give as much information as possible.

Dates aside, this QT notice didn’t mention the type of “incident”, what substances might be contaminating the surface water, and what other options backpackers might have. It is reasonable to assume, I believe, that a hiker would begin their trek with a couple of liters of water. But it is also reasonable to believe that they will need to refresh their supply at some point along a 75-mile trail. After a few miles of hiking, we found a matching sign facing the opposite direction on the trail and concluded that we were exiting the contaminated area. But wouldn’t it be nice to know that the area of potential harm finite and you will eventually pass through it?

The number provided on the sign is for the Pennsylvania Department of Forestry. As we didn’t have cell service at the time, the number wasn’t much help. When I called the following Monday I was told the “incident” was a natural gas mine blow out from June 2010. The Forestry Department was concerned of contamination, but after extensive testing found nothing in the water along the QT. I was also told the signs should have been taken down.

Since little information could be gathered from the sign, I did my own research. A 16-hour, uncontrolled flow of fracking fluid and natural gas spewed from a well operated by EOG Resources. While the PA Department of Environmental Protection claimed that no polluted water had reached a waterway, they did find the operators at fault for the accident. While this incident is uncommon in its lack of severity, it is most definitely common in the natural gas industry that has exploded in Pennsylvania in the last few years.

According to a report from This American Life that aired on July 8, 2011, Penn State’s Professor Terry Engelder estimates 50 trillion cubic feet of natural gas under Pennsylvania and the surrounding states. Since the announcement of his calculation, industry, politicians, and the universities of the state have banded together to get the most out of this resource as possible. But at what cost? There are very few government regulations on Marcellus Shale drilling. By putting so much effort into extracting this fuel we could be delaying the more pressing issue of developing more renewable resources for the future.

So much for just a taking a walk in the woods.

14 July 2011

Unemployed or Mooch?

To summarize: I’ve had my Masters Degree for one month, my job search is ten applications deep with no leads, I’m in the middle of my first round of bills paid with a savings account, and the prospect of staying under the covers all day rather than facing my circumstances would sound better if it wasn’t 95 degrees every day. I’m not yet to the point where it would be more useful to burn my diploma for fuel, but I can see it in my future.

Like most recent college grads I have very few opportunities to score a job. Last month’s unemployment numbers hit me in the gut. Nine-point-two percent is sad, but for college grads that number is 12.1 percent, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. Every job description I’ve seen states that a qualified applicant will have experience, years of experience. I don’t have experience I have an education. But I know what would get me experience…a job. I should probably work on that.

While my lack of employment means I am living off of a rapidly dwindling bank account, I am fortunate enough to have avoided the move back to my parent’s house. This is not because I am independent and solvent. I would be living at home mooching off my parents if I wasn’t living with my partner mooching off of him. I don’t believe this is any better for my self-esteem. Parents, for the first stages of life, are legally obligated to care for you. And by that I mean pay for you. So by the time you’re finished with school and ready to get a job they’re in the groove, they’ve done this for years, you’re still a part of the budget. But a partner is supposed to pull equal weight, not weigh you down. I should be helping to pay the bills, not merely contributing to their growth.

The moral support is nice, though. “Take your time,” he says. “Help around the house and stuff. We’re not desperate yet.” Sweet, right? I’ve spent the last decade of my life, and enough money to buy a house, trying to educate myself so I could land a job that would raise my self-worth above cooking and cleaning for a man. I don’t want this statement to claim that I see no value in caring for your family by making sure their needs are met. But I do firmly believe that one’s personal needs are just as important. And what I need is a job.

But until that happens I will tend the garden, clean the bathroom, do the laundry, cook dinner, and email out another application.