Monday, August 30, 2010

Summer's End

The Rat's Nest has been on hiatus (just letting the three of you who read this blog know) during these last few weeks. It's hard to muscle through the summer doldrums while being in the city and NOT on vacation somewhere, but others have found solutions to the August blues. My friend Lu has been riding on the newly cleared LA River bike path into Frogtown at dusk; another friend in NY has been writing a play about war (a nice summertime activity); while still other friends have been producing magical giant tomatoes and runaway squash in their urban gardens. 

I decided to take a day off work last week, which lifted my spirits, but then I had to face the fact that summer's almost over and my daughter's heading back to college—which she did on Sunday. My lone out-of-town trip was to Missouri to visit my brother in St. Louis, and travel to Boonville (Boooooonville!) and Arrow Rock to see cousins. What a thrill to walk in late afternoon and hear the roar of cicadas in the vast canopy of trees overhead. It reminded me of childhood summers, when the roar was deafening. My brother and I'd collect the cicadas' empty casings and march them around like soldiers before crushing them between our fingers. Their protruding blank shell eyes always gave me the willies.

While visiting Arrow Rock, I asked my cousin about this ancient stone work on the side of the road. He said it was a slave gutter— that is, a gutter made by slaves.

When I heard that word, "slave gutter," however, my mind conjured up all sorts of imagines: slaves being swept asunder in rain filled gutters, made to walk on hands and knees in the streets, digging trenches and laying heavy stones while dogs ripped at their heels. Although Missouri is considered Midwestern, it was a border state like Kentucky, and like Kentucky, half the population defended its right to own slaves. During the Civil War, as in KY, brothers fought brothers, dividing families between Confederate and Union right up to the grave. Boon's Lick, says an Arrow Rock historical plaque, is across the river (which, oddly, changed courses and is no longer there), where Daniel Boone's sons boiled salt in 1806 and expanded westward along the Sante Fe Trail. 

After Arrow Rock, I went canoeing with my brother and his girlfriend Christine on the Meramec River, and I realized, while floating somewhere between St. Louis and the Ozarks, how important water is to one's sense of summer. Without it, there's none—only sweat and dry land. Water is summer, summer is water. We need it to survive the heat, and its healing powers distract us from our woes. Water heals, water calms. The word "Maya" derives from the Sanskrit word meaning water, alluding to the illusory nature of our world.

Christine floating on the Meramec River
(photo credit of river and cave: David Hildebrand)

At one point, we stopped to explore a cave, of which there are many along the Meramec, but it was closed.  

A sign at the entrance warned of the spread of a disease called white-nose syndrome, which has decimated over a million cave-dwelling bats from New York to Oklahoma since 2006.  

The culprit, a white fungus, attaches itself to hibernating bats, agitating them and causing them to wake early. Without food, they use up their energy supplies and die. An editorial in the NY Times reports that in two decades we may see the extinction of the little brown bat. "According to bat conservation experts," the article reads, "this is 'the most precipitous decline of North American wildlife in recorded history....'" 

Coincidentally, or maybe not so, bats in Russia are also being threatened as a result of global warming. Moscow's summer fires burned tens of thousands of hectares of protected forests, home to more than 30 species of migratory bats. Scientist warn that bats are our canaries in the coalmine—our environmental health depends on these flying mammals (unbelievably, bats eat up to 5000 mosquitoes a day!). EUROBATS, an org that promotes bat conservation, warns of the dangers to bat populations worldwide and urges countries to take urgent action. They're calling 2011 "The Year of the Bat!" 

We paddled back in the late afternoon with bats on our mind, and the hope of getting a beer— given the 114 degree heat index— at the little Mexican cafe down the road.


A flying fox (a type of fruit bat)
Oh, what a beautiful face!
(photo credit:

Saturday, August 14, 2010

David taking a whiff of the Missouri sky

Friday, August 6, 2010

Road Trip!

Road Trip!

My daughter left this morning for Oklahoma to visit her grandma and her grandma's new rat terrier, with her friend Dylan, the guy in the red shirt. Here they're saying good-bye to Henry, with backpack, and to me the mom taking the picture, who just lent them her car and gave them enough gas money to make it to their first stop, the Wigwam Motel in Holbrook, AZ. 

Wigwam on Route 66
(photo credit: LA Times)

I didn't want to embarrass Maya and her friends (and believe me, they would be too!) with exploits of my road trip with my old friend Sally Wilder in the seventies, when we drove from Louisville, KY to Redwood City, CA, but the road was long, the wind fierce and the icy creeks in Utah where we bathed utterly bracing (not to mention we ate all our food before crossing the bridge into Indiana). Despite traveling with a cat and ending up in dorm rooms with strange men, it was a rite of passage that every young person was taking at the time. So Maya, I'll miss you, I'll worry about you, but you're fulfilling your duty as a free spirit and pursuing what's been laid out before you by generations of nineteen and twenty-year-olds, and that, I'm all for.



Mina M., a Persian Jew from Tehran, has been my student for the past eight months; she's always cheerful, always first to class, so it came as a complete surprise when I asked her the other evening what she was going to do after graduation and she burst into tears. We all sat there totally bewildered: what had gotten into Mina, the cheerful one?

Mina's struggled more than other Farsi-speaking students to learn English (married at 17, first baby a year later), but you can't say she hasn't tried, and lately her comprehension has taken off in leaps and bounds. Now when I ask her how she's doing, she's actually able to say, just fine.  But she recently found out that if she wants to continue, she'll have to pay a lot of money, which brought on the stream of tears.

What must it be like to make progress in another language— to suddenly comprehend what's going on around you—and then be told to stay home? She complains that no one in her family—three children, two grandchildren and an older husband—will speak to her in English. Los Angeles' Farsi speaking community is the second largest Iranian community outside of Iran (estimated at 500,000 to 600,000 residing mainly in the Pico, Westwood area, dubbed "Tehrangeles"). Mina lives in the middle of it and has no other contacts outside its borders; she doesn't need to speak English to survive, yet these classes have given her a form of independence she hasn't had before— being able to navigate this city on her own.

Last night Mina came to class her old cheerful self. She told me that she's going to ignore the directive from the office, and continue class under the radar. She didn't exactly put it that way, but she did say her English has never been "more better," and so she's not going to stop. She must, she will go on.