Monthly Archives: April 2010

What’s Up With The Ants?

Attention entomologists: The ants in my kitchen are exhibiting strange behavior.

Here’s how I discovered it. A few months ago I bought a coffee pot cleverly designed to make one cup at a time. I was intrigued by the television sales pitch, purchased it from the shopping channel, and for several idyllic months brewed my convenient  java-for-one without incident.

Then one morning I noticed that the gadget was a little sluggish and not all the water was getting through the coffee filter into the cup. I opened the reservoir and made a horrifying discovery: hundreds of ants floating in the water.

In the coming days I noticed a steady stream of ants marching single file into the coffee maker. I saw them scurrying around the grains of coffee in the filter, gathering at the edge of the reservoir, skittering on top of the spilled drops of coffee on the tray. I realized grimly that the reason my coffee maker no longer worked was that it was clogged with thousands of swarming or dead ants, and that there was a line of the doomed critters from the pot clear out to my garden.

OK, I am not a scientist but I feel quite comfortable saying that I know something about ants. Over my lifetime I have acquired some field experience with the species, especially with their eating habits. I have observed, for instance, that ants like sweets and meats: a glob of honey or a spoonful of stew on the counter brings a million ants whereas, say, a jar of cream of tartar or a bunch of parsley do not.

Moreover, in decades of coffee brewing and drinking I have never noticed a single ant taking any interest in a cup of bitter unsweetened java.

Like I said, I am no entomologist. I have read a small amount about the tireless dedication, discipline and great strength of the female worker ants.  I know that ants live in a highly structured society under the governance of a huge Queen who is fed by the working girls and fertilized by male ants who lounge around the colony and die shortly after mating.

Now it seems some force in the ant world is raising the bar and driving these poor beleaguered underlings to a caffeine-addicted lifestyle. Could the Queen be giving orders for the ants to go to my kitchen coffee house and fuel up? Are they falling behind on their work quotas? Do they need a chemical kick in the exoskeleton?

Maybe the desperate insects have developed a taste for caffeine. Perchance they find they can work harder after ingesting some microscopic portion of Sulawesi at my brewing station. They are willing to line up for yards, risk their lives on the perilous coffee tray and face an even greater chance of extermination while trapped inside the percolator.

Whatever is causing this storm to brew, the whole grisly picture makes my heart weep for my poor ant sisters. Perhaps it is because they appear to be acting out in miniature our own senseless, scurrying human lives, fueled by too much pressure and caffeine.

I think I will probably retire my nifty new coffee pot in favor of a simpler one that is better barricaded against the ants and their possible caffeine addiction.

I refuse to be an ant enabler.


Why Mea Culpa Matters

Did you grow up with siblings? Remember when Mom or Dad broke up a fight? How about the finger pointing and choruses of “He started it,”  “Noooooooo…SHE did. NO FAIR!”  Or maybe you discovered the blame game in the schoolyard or on the playing field.

Small wonder that as adults we find it hard to take responsibility for our actions in a relationship. Who wants to be the bad guy? Who wants to take the blame? Who wants a time out?

The good news is that there is a big difference between taking blame and accepting responsibility. Blame means being shamed and scolded by another person. Responsibility means holding yourself accountable for your own actions. Blame leaves you feeling weak, while taking responsibility strengthens you.

One of the most difficult lessons I have had to learn as an adult is that accepting responsibility for one’s actions doesn’t mean a punishing trip to the principal’s office or a lonely weekend of grounding.  Owning up, apologizing and offering compensation lead you out of trouble, not into it.

When I first encountered this idea, in a book I was reading for advice on loving an alcoholic, my response was outrage. “What do you mean I have to take responsibility for MY actions in this relationship? No fair. He started it. He’s the drunk. He’s the screamer. He’s the one who breaks promises.”

Clearly I had not learned the difference between taking responsibility and blaming. I was angry because I thought the book was telling me that I had to blame, shame and punish myself. Actually, the advice was just the opposite.

The epiphany that arrived at last is that when recovery gurus talk about taking responsibility, they are talking about looking out for yourself. Taking responsibility doesn’t mean beating up on yourself. It means recognizing the part you play, which is the part you can change in order to take care of and protect yourself. Taking responsibility gives you the power to change the things you can–a core precept of  the Alcoholics Anonymous program.

When you blame, you let out your anger, but beyond that you leave yourself in the role of a helpless victim. If it is HIS fault then you are at HIS mercy. Only he can make things better.

There are other benefits to taking responsibility for your actions. If you apologize for being wrong, you alleviate feelings of guilt. If you don’t admit when you are wrong, you open yourself up to all sorts of negative feelings from the other person and from within. If you apologize for the mistakes you have made you will feel good about yourself no matter what the other person says or does.

Best of all, because you are a grownup, there won’t be any parents, or hall monitors, to scold you. You won’t miss your dinner or be sent to a corner for a time out.

You will feel like an adult, and a sane one at that.


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Lessons of the Garden

Everything is budding and blooming in the small hidden garden behind my house. Purple jasmine flowers droop decorously from delicate green vines, shedding their sweet smoky fragrance. The last of the white cherry blooms float soundlessly to the earth, while tender green sweet woodruff and lilies push upward. I am grateful to see that most of the bamboo and the Japanese maples survived the snow.

Today, the warmest so far this spring, is dedicated to repairing and restoring the corner fountain, a stair-shaped structure of multiple basins set into the ground and framed by a stand of bamboo. This task, an annual spring ritual, tends to be frustrating because the winter ice and snow usually break one or more parts of my water feature.

This afternoon I have to replace a pump, and then attach its hose to a larger hose coming out of the fountain. Changing pumps is a delicate business because the placement of the pump determines how effectively it will circulate the water. Hoses must be leak free, straight and positioned so that the stream of water flows correctly and does not splash too much or spill over the sides of the fountain.

I set everything up, certain that I have it right the first time, turn on the pump and stand back to admire my work. No water emerges from the spout. There is a leak at the juncture of the hoses. I have to replace two hoses with one, which means foraging in my basement for a longer length of rubber hosing, finding something to cut it with and fitting it correctly.

Finally I get the water to flow. Problem now is that it isn’t filling the first basin. Something is causing it to drain out. I get down on my knees for closer inspection and find that there are two little rubber plugs in the basin, like miniature bathtub stoppers, that have been dislodged during the winter. I reinsert them, turn on the fountain and soon water is flowing prettily in my garden.

The whole thing takes two hours. What a lesson there is in the process!

Learning to tame water and get it to flow in a contained and recirculating fashion takes patience. It also takes studying the ways of water: how it moves, what pushes it, what stops it, the angle at which it flows and strikes things. If you study it, if you get it right, you can create a fountain and fix it every time without any special degree in landscaping or engineering or plumbing. You just have to be observant and patient.

Not only does the garden teach patience, but it also teaches one to respect  life forces outside of oneself. To work with water you have to learn how it thinks, so to speak, you have to learn its ways, and forget about your own, and, especially, your wishes for how it is going to work. Plants are the same. You have to learn what pleases them, what beckons them to grow, what hurts them. You have to be flexible enough to move them if they are unhappy, give them more water or less, turn off your pretty sprinkler if they don’t want it.

If you learn the ways of plants, trees, soil and water and work with them, they will give back to you astonishingly. Vines and trees will emerge from initial dormancy and present you with the sweetest most brilliant flowers. Bulbs will multiply. The jasmine, rose and honeysuckle will return with their fragrance. The flowering shrubs and bamboo will rustle prettily for you in the wind.

You will understand not only patience and empathy but also gratitude. You will find magic, find God, in the gifts of the garden.


Posted by on April 6, 2010 in Garden, Meditations on Nature


Chick Flicks Forever

I just saw the movie Dirty Dancing for the first time. I have known for years about this feel good romance but had not seen it until I found it on Youtube a few days ago.

Now that I have seen this gem, in which an adorable resort guest named Baby (Jennifer Gray) loses her heart to a steamy dance instructor named Johnny (Patrick Swayze),  I know why it is considered by many women to be the uber chick flick of all time. I also think I am beginning to understand why we women, or at least many of us, adore these shamelessly idyllic, unapologetically romantic, sweetly sensual, fairy tale films.

Take heed fellas (the few fellas, that is, that might read this blog): If you want to understand the female psyche, and answer the hackneyed question “what do women want?”, watch Dirty Dancing and other famous chick flicks (your wife, sister or girlfriend can give you a list). Then, if you want to please your woman, adopt some of the moves, mannerisms and character traits of the princely male protagonists of these movies.

Are you capable of teaching your lady a dance, any dance? Or any other physical skill that requires that you put your arms around her or position her body as part of the instruction. Archery? Fishing? Shooting pool? Tennis? Swimming? Big turn on. You will become Patrick Swayze in her eyes. Or can you master the hat in hand self-deprecating sweetly masculine mannerisms of Hugh Grant in Sense and Sensibility? How are you at picking up your wife, wrapping her in a cloak and carrying her out of a rainstorm Jane Austen style? Taking her to a doctor’s appointment on horseback or motorcycle might do as well in a pinch.

There is a female form of being turned on that doesn’t respond to pornography or plastic things that buzz. It is the most magical of romantic female feelings and, fellas, if you conjure it, you’ve got her forever. This smoky blend of intense emotion and sexual arousal is mimicked by the chick flick.

Romcoms are equally useful in pointing women in the direction we really want to go when it comes to love. Of course there is hyperbole in Hollywood, exaggeration and perfection you can only attain as a director playing God. If you deconstruct chick flicks, however, you discover the basic elements of female fantasy and desire. Using Dirty Dancing as a guide, these include:

1)Sloooow courtship. The love part has a chance to sneak up behind you and say BOO.

2)Getting physically close without sex (see above). Very important, big turn-on.

3)A lovely setting for the romance (think water, woods, beach, rolling countryside, small town, wide city boulevards with space to ramble). Noisy disco, fluourescent lit Big Box Store , strap hanging on the subway not on the list.

4)Respectful treatment. In the case of Dirty Dancing, the heroine’s position as an innocent young guest at the resort insures that the hero, employed as a resort dance instructor, will handle her with restraint (until of course he can’t contain his FEELINGS anymore).

5)A very light dose of ruggedness, or athleticism. NO roughness, rage or cruelty. Scarface need not apply. Some harmless masculine element, however, like horse riding, soldiering or physical mastery of some sort, is essential. In Dirty Dancing, it’s a soupcon of the streets and of course the muy macho moves of the dance-instructor hero that make it work. In Jane Austen, there’s horse riding, soldiering, brisk country walking and rescuing damsels who have tripped on their petticoats and toppled over in rainstorms.

Not only are chick flicks useful in deconstructing what turns us on as women. They perform other functions as well.

For instance, the best chick flicks soothe broken hearts. That might sound strange at first. I mean, isn’t it difficult to see scenes of happy love when one is in romantic despair? Actually, no. The secret of the best chick flicks is that they are inclusive. The heroine is someone one can identify with. She’s a girl’s girl, a regular person in some sense. She’s goofy, or quirky, or makes mistakes. She’s human, she lets us in on the relationship. Indeed if the chick flick is successful, we have occupied her body by the third scene and cannot distinguish ourselves from her. If we are lonely and lovelorn, she gives us hope and a vicarious thrill or two.

They also help rehabilitate those who have recovered more or less from heartbreak and want to get back into the game. Watching a chick flick, one has a chance to remember, in a safe environment, what love felt like. It helps us recall why it is that we want to stand up and try again. No, I am not talking about getting hot and bothered. I am talking about remembering the feelings that we women really want to feel. The slowly building heartbeat, the dance that gets closer and closer over time, the sensuality and excitement that cannot be separated from a feeling of growing intimacy, budding affection and yes, that four-letter word: LOVE.

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Posted by on April 4, 2010 in Chick Flicks, Essays


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