Prairie Dogs

Every workday morning I drive through a gate onto a U.S. Air Force Base. The lines of traffic creep forward to the guards who view our badges and give us permission to enter. While I’m edging toward the base gate, I watch a colony of prairie dogs foraging, tumbling, scampering, and, seemingly, guarding their territory. Some of the critters stand upright, looking like fat-bottomed meerkats, with their backs to the colony’s home turf. It’s possible they aren’t on guard duty. I suppose they could be watching the cars go by, maybe figuring out when it is safe to cross the four lanes of pavement (never!), or maybe they are asking themselves why one human needs so much metal, glass, and noise to move really slowly into and through their limited, ground-eye view.

Their territory, by the way, is the front yard of an elementary school. School buses use the circular drive that surrounds the yard on the north side of the building. The playground is on the east side of the school and the teachers’ parking lot is to the west. Except for the morning and afternoon bus trips, the yard is a peaceful place for the prairie dogs to dig their underground homes, raise their young, and munch on the weeds and grasses.

The size of the colony has changed over the years I’ve been making my way through the gate. I don’t know if its size is self-regulating or if occasionally humans decide to reduce the numbers. Right now it is pretty small, with maybe a dozen individuals roaming around in the morning. I suppose colony size could be seasonal. Youngsters are born in the spring and stay underground until they are big enough to fend for themselves, usually at about six-weeks old.

My work is useful and good for our country, but it isn’t warm and fuzzy. Watching the prairie dogs go about their business as I get ready to go about mine gives me a boost and puts a smile on my face. I’m sure the guards appreciate that.

Strong Opinions

I generally keep my strongest opinions to myself. It wasn’t always that way, but now I am a mild person in social intercourse; more interested in hearing your views than in expressing mine.

Some folks know how I feel about equal opportunity, economic safety nets, and turn signals (for); and Citizens United, high-cost college sports programs, and the radical right (against). I’m usually willing to discuss current events, political positions, human nature, but I don’t enjoy arguing.

So I was surprised to find myself a few days ago hammering relentlessly away at a friend with whom I rarely disagree. The point of contention doesn’t matter, except to say that it was minor. Some little switch in my mind was thrown, though, and I was in full-on debate mode. After several minutes of strengthening but not raised voices, we wound down.

Here is the interesting part: I was energized by the exchange and felt closer to my friend. I wonder if hanging back and not expressing my strong opinions does my friends and me a disservice? Is my mildness an overlay that masks my authenticity? Does a courteous, dissenting discussion allow you to see me more honestly than when I smile and slide away? Is it worth the risk … what have I got to lose?


Several months ago I decided to stop eating meat for ethical reasons. A month or so after that, I decided to stop eating all animal products for health reasons. That foray into veganism lasted until I bumped into a breakfast burrito at the Los Ranchos grower’s market. Back to eggs and cheese. Then fish swam in. Now my dietary rule for myself is to not eat meat from anything that walks on the earth (I thought about making the rule “nothing with feet,” but I wasn’t sure where crabs fit in.). Eggs are a little iffy under that rubric, but I don’t feel like adding a clause excluding embryos.

Caring About Politics

Excerpt from “Caring About Politics” by David Brooks and Gail Collins, New York Times, July 11, 2012

David Brooks: I was going through the decades of the 20th century to try to see which of them were primarily political decades. That is to say, was the most important thing that happened that decade political or not? In at least half the decades, politics was the most important thing that happened, though to be fair in the happier decades politics took a back seat. I think this vindicates my feeling that anybody who is not paying close attention [to politics] is not paying attention to the one of the main arenas of life in their time.

You can try to ignore politics, but it won’t ignore you.

My results follow:

1900s — Industrialization. Not Political.

1910s — World War I. Political.

1920s — Consumer culture and beginning of mass prosperity. Not Political.

1930s — The New Deal. Political.

1940s — World War II. Political.

1950s — Suburbanization. Not Political.

1960s — New Frontier, Civil Rights, Vietnam. Political.

1970s — Feminism. Not Political.

1980s — Reagan Revolution. Capitalist Revival. Semi-Political.

1990s — Silicon Valley. Not Political.

2000s — 9/11, Afghanistan and Iraq. Political.

Road Trips

While autumn is my favorite season, summer’s not too bad either. I suppose I think fondly of summer because it used to be the time when I got to sleep late, laze around the house, play kick-the-can with my friends until it was too dark to see, eat popsicles, catch fireflies, and celebrate my birthday. We don’t have fireflies in New Mexico and my orthopedist doesn’t want me playing kick-the-anything, but otherwise I can still treat summer – at least the weekends – as I did when I was a kid. One big difference for me between then and now: vacations.

My family did not take vacations – ever. Most summers my mother and I would spend several weeks with my grandmother and aunt, but my naval officer father didn’t take time off from work – ever. The closest thing we had to a family vacation was the car trip from one duty station to the next. Those were not relaxing “let’s go look at the big ball of string” escapades. The car was packed the night before and we got on the road before sunrise. My father wanted as many driving hours free of other travelers as possible. These were the days of the two-lane highways, where getting stuck behind a dawdling driver could be a teeth-grinding, steering-wheel pounding, and ultimately, risk-taking experience.

It should be no surprise that my family had a cadence, a military precision to these roughly bi-annual excursions. Breakfast (bought the night before) consisted of sweet rolls and milk for me, coffee for them. A mid-morning rest and gas stop usually included a small second breakfast. Fast-food restaurants weren’t as ubiquitous as they are now, but we did have quick-service cafes. Lunch was timed to the next gas and rest stop. The end of the day’s driving was 12 hours after we started. By the time I was 10, I was campaigning for motels with pools; and if there was one 12 hours after our morning departure, I got my wish.

Our cars had bench seats, AM radios, and wing windows. They did not have air conditioning until I was about 14. No seat belts, either. After my sister married when I was five, I had the back seat to myself. I read my way across big chunks of America. I also colored, counted birds on the wires, looked for red cars, and whined when we couldn’t leave our route to visit the string, cave, Indian village, alligator farm, gorge, or any national park.

You would think those early experiences might sour me on road trips, but they didn’t. I love to get in the car and go somewhere, anywhere. I’ve spent most of my adult life in the western U.S. and we have a lot of territory out here to drive around in. Over the years, I’ve developed road-trip patterns and preferences of my own. Lots of music: first AM, then FM, then cassettes, CDs, and now XM. Frequent food: two types – fast food and car food, the latter of which is best when the passenger feeds it to the driver. Side-trips: any sight that cares enough about itself to have a big, honking highway sign deserves a detour.

Not all our vacations these days include a long drive, but many do. I can usually manage to squeeze some driving in even when the main conveyance is a plane or train. We once circled Puerto Rico by car and then drove back across the middle of the island from south to north. We spent a week in Virginia Beach before driving to New York for a wedding. I’ve put hundreds of miles on rental cars by flying into Tahoe and then driving to San Francisco and by taking the train to LA and then driving to Paso Robles. I guess early habits die hard, and maybe I’m doing a little bit of getting even with the past by making today’s journeys at least as important as the destinations.

Coming Out … or just Being Out?

When I discovered that I could be a lesbian, I went for it wholeheartedly. Up to that point, it hadn’t occurred to me that my crushes on girls and women were crushes. Once I noticed that kissing a woman was better than kissing a man, I made a quick and comprehensive transition from wife to girlfriend; from Gordon to Marsha.

I was nearly 40 when I came out and so had a lot of years to look back on when my friends and I got together to share the part of the coming out story that addresses: when did you know? The answers I heard ranged from being 7 years old and watching Annette Funicello on the Mickey Mouse Club through high school sleep-overs that turned into something more to my middle-aged story of feeling the thrum when I heard a moan in my own key.

I wonder if today’s young lesbians have their own “when did you know” moments? Did they always know? Did they ever have to deny their feelings or have they always felt free to be who they are? For them, is it Coming Out or Being Out?

How I Met Hubert

I’ve mentioned that I develop mystery dinner parties for our friends. In the play “Catnapped!” each character had to tell a story about something that happened to her in her 20s. This is the the story told by the ditzy Lady Agatha during the dinner party.

My dear friend Ginny Blossom and I had finished our studies at Lady Dragomere’s Academy and were preparing for our debut into society. Mama had taken me up to London to begin assembling my wardrobe for the many, many social events of the season. We had just left a fitting at Mr. Worth’s salon, and were on our way to the Ritz for tea. Because it was just two blocks from the salon to the hotel, we decided to walk. OH, FATEFUL DECISION!

Mama was talking, as was her habit, constantly. Papa said she was the only person he ever met who could talk on the inhale. She was searching through her reticule for something, speaking all the while, and not watching where she was walking. We had stepped off the sidewalk and were crossing the avenue, and I will confess I was distracted by the memory of the beautiful gown I had just tried on, and FROM NOWHERE!  A HORSELESS CARRIAGE! In a heartbeat, I attempted to turn back, pulling Mama with me. BUT IT WAS TOO LATE!  THE MACHINE WAS UPON US!

Just as I was sure we would be crushed, I felt two strong (oh, so manly!) arms grasp me and Mama and lift us bodily from the CERTAINTY OF IMMINENT DEATH! When I regained my breath, and ascertained that Mama was safe … which I was assured she was by the steady flow of words issuing from her … I turned to thank our benefactor. MY DEAR! What a handsome man he was. Tall, strong, elegant. And with an intensity of expression that I later came to learn bespoke a certain cruelty.

He said, “My God, Girl, what were you thinking, stepping out in front of the Lagonda like that? Don’t you know that is one of the most powerful motorcars in the world? Are you and your mother both daft?”

I knew right then that this was the man I was fated to marry. No one had ever spoken to me in that way before, and I found it quite thrilling. Of course, I couldn’t let him know that.

I said, “How dare you speak to us in that impertinent manner! We were merely walking from Mr. Worth’s salon to the Ritz for tea when this horrid device bore down upon us. I’m sure we would have been quite fine without your ministrations. Certainly, the operator of the motorcar, as you call it, would have been able to rein it in.”

He said, “Idiot Child! Motorcars don’t have reins, and if I hadn’t been quick off the mark, you and your chatty mum would be lying beneath its wheels. You should be thanking me, not criticizing my manners. However, speaking of manners, allow me to introduce myself: Hubert Charmondelay-Featherstonehaugh at your service.”

With that, he bowed sharply and shallowly, more of a little dip than was quite proper, but I nevertheless appreciated the effort at propriety.

Next he said, “Please allow me to see you ladies safely to the Ritz.” I protested that we had already taken up enough of his time; no, he assured me, he was on his way to his club and would, in any event, be passing the Ritz.

He crooked first his left arm for Mama, and when she had taken it, bent his right arm toward me. I slipped my arm through his and we began strolling and conversing. Mama had finally wound down and was listening to Hubert and me with interest and a speculative glint in her eye. Hubert, she thought, might save Papa the cost of a very expensive debut season.

And so it came to be. By March, Hubert and I were engaged; and when I might have been attending the Prince’s Ball, I was instead dancing at my own wedding as Lady Agatha Charmondelay-Featherstonehaugh.

Higher Power

My father ruled our home and my mother did everything she could to keep him happy. Because he hated to be kept waiting, she and I never dawdled, delayed, or dragged our feet. We moved through our lives at home with a no-steps-wasted precision and a deep, abiding respect for time.

I’m phobic about tardiness and the fear of keeping someone waiting makes me rush just about everything I do. I thought about this today as I was folding laundry. Hurrying is my default mode and when I realized that I didn’t have anything on the schedule after the laundry was folded, I consciously slowed down. Some folks need to be told to step it up; it’s just the opposite for me.

One way I slow myself down is by appreciating the details of the task. As I folded the laundry, I focused on the feel of the fabric — smooth t-shirts, nubby towels, fuzzy socks — and the neatness of my gestures as I folded the items and placed them in the hamper. I learned this attention to my actions by exploring Buddhism. Mindfulness. Being here now. These concepts were as foreign to me as the actual practices of Buddhism — the formalities of sitting, walking, breathing, chanting, listening. The concepts are still useful long after I stopped the practices.

I believe that’s how religion works for some of us. The practices are the means to a spiritual end, however one defines it. For me, the end is loving kindness, another concept I encountered in Buddhism, but one that appears in all the religions I’ve ever heard about.

Over the past quarter-century, I’ve done a lot of searching for the God of my understanding. Recently, I’ve given up the search. I’m content today that I understand the purpose of religion, a deity, a church, and that I can get to the spiritual end without resorting to anyone else’s means. It’s a relief to acknowledge that while I am awed by the Creation, I don’t care at all about the Creator.

Welcome, Audra!

Some time today my great-niece, Lauren, will give birth to her first child, Audra. In some families, a great-great niece might be a distant relation. For me, she is a meaningful connection.

My half-sister, Judy, was Lauren’s grandmother. My nephew, Tom, was Lauren’s father.

I was seven when Tommy was born on Valentine’s Day, 1956. Judy and Larry were living with my parents and me in Washington, D.C. I remember my mother waking me up and telling me that they were going to the hospital because Judy was going to have her baby. I was taken next door to the Clopton’s house. Marsha Clopton put me back to sleep in a little attic room but it was so cold that I came down to her and Ned’s room and she let me crawl into bed with them.

When I woke up in the morning, I had a nephew. I went to school and told everyone that I was an aunt. In second grade, I was clearly ahead of the family curve.

Judy and Larry had one more child, Tracy. Tom and Julie had Lauren and TJ. Tracy and Don had Casey. My parents, Maxine and Casey, only had me.

Time passed and my family dwindled. Now I have Lauren, TJ, Tracy, and Casey. And Audra.

We are all links to our past and our future.

Welcome, Audra, to my chain.