Category Archives: General

A View of the Universe (from Schroon Lake)

Standard
nebula

Pictures from the Hubble Telescope Archives

We stood on the shore of Schroon Lake after the sun had set. A fingernail moon and a single star hovered above Adirondack foothills. Up the bank, toward the house, a three piece band played Django Reinhart-like jazz, the kind of quick upbeat notes that make you dance in spite of yourself. I had come down to the shore in search of my husband and found him talking and walking with man with a cloud of white hair. I could barely see the man’s face in the dusk, only the faint glint of glasses.

It had been humid day, but as soon as the sun went down, a breeze began to blow off the lake, sweeping upland and inland, cooling our brows, stirring our hair, reminding us of the luxury of skin.

He told us he lived in the woods and loved being surrounded by the trees, but missed this kind of view, gesturing to the broad sheet of water and the mountains beyond.

Together we tried to name of the star above the moon. Venus? Mars? He said he had little telescope that he could see the moons of Jupiter with. “That’s how Galileo figured out we were circling the sun. He saw the moons circling the planet.” He smiled as he told us this, and we nodded, taking it in. The breeze blew.

My husband said he just couldn’t get his mind around the idea infinity. It hurt his brain.

I couldn’t imagine anything but infinity. If the universe stopped somewhere, there would have to be nothing after it. “How could that be?” I asked. In nature there is no such thing as nothing. My husband and the man nodded and smiled. We looked up at the sky. The moon sank closer to the hill. The breeze blew.

He lived in Malone, up near Canada, a small town struggling since its businesses had left America, a shoe business and something else. Like many small towns, it had accepted the building of three prisons. They provided a few jobs, but nothing else.

He was a painter and owned a gallery in the town. He wanted to do some work with the inmates, but the warden didn’t like the idea.

He told us about a man he’d known, who had once worked for Sunmount—an institution for the developmentally disabled in Tupper Lake, where a staffer was allegedly stabbed in the eye with a fork and three other staffers were recently found guilty of abusing residents.

Sometime in the 90s, there was an escape attempt, and the man was run over by the escape vehicle. He was awarded only a 20 thousand dollar settlement, though he had to stop working and was hobbled for the life.

He could have spent it on a chair lift or a new car. Maybe he should have used it to pay off a few bills. It might have been wise to invest for the future. Instead, he spent the entire settlement on a powerful telescope with a computer attached that would give him a view of the universe. Our new friend said, “He used to invite a bunch of us over all the time to look through it. We could see suns rotating in the nebulae.”

nebuI’d always wondered whether those pictures of prismatic nebulae swirling in stellar winds were real, yet this man had seen them with his own eye because a crippled man had helped him to.

Tourmaline sky resolved into black, and the light of long lost stars parted the darkness at a million points.

“He used to say the telescope was too big not to share.”

Standing on the shore of that shimmering lake, looking up at the sky, while the wind brushed us clean, we shared a moment of limitlessness.

Academic Language is Ugly

Standard

Academic 2As I dove into research for my sabbatical last year, I was confronted by two conflicting responses: 1) God, this article is hard to understand. I’ve gotten rusty; and, 2) This article is syntactically tortured and needlessly obtuse.

Case in point: “The ethics and efficacy of explicitly teaching disciplinary discourse conventions to undergraduate students has been hotly debated.” (17 words from an author who shall remain nameless.)

What the author is really saying is, “In composition studies, people hotly debate whether it would be more effective and ethical to make clear to undergraduates how writing conventions vary in each discipline. (26 words)

My version takes more words, but the meaning is more quickly grasped.

While academic language sometimes covers more ground, more precisely, with fewer words, that doesn’t make it more efficient to read. In fact, it makes it much more time consuming.

It sounds elitist for very good reason: It is. It creates and maintains an academic in crowd and an academic out crowd.

This kind of language may be partly responsible for America’s anti-intellectual culture. Of course, the larger reason for American anti-intellectualism can probably be traced all the way back to Puritan distrust of any book other than the Bible, and then forward through the rampant capitalism and consumerism that sprang up in Puritanism’s stead.

But getting back to academics. To be fair, sometimes philosophers use complex terms to denote entire pages or books of thought explained elsewhere in the field, so they are not always writing in tortured sentences just to be torture us. They are actually taking short cuts – having a quick dialogue with experts.

I’m certainly not advocating that everyone should write for fourth graders. It’s okay to write for specific audiences. It’s okay to use big words and long sentences.

But if academics want a lot of people to read them, they might want to brush up on style and try to meet their readers halfway.

Meanwhile, we might want to challenge ourselves to read above our reading level once in a while. I find that if I keep at it – whether reading insurance policies, building codes or legal contracts —  my brain clicks into gear about halfway through the document, and I understand even if I don’t enjoy it.

Lessons From a Mouse

Standard
Tilly sucking kitten formula from a paintbrush my daughter holds.

Tilly sucking kitten formula from a paintbrush my daughter holds.

I was cleaning out a closet in our summer cabin at the end of a dirt road, pulling aside boxes and vacuuming up mouse turds, when I looked at the shelf below and saw a baby mouse clinging to a white plastic bag.

Every year we have put out poison for them when we leave for the winter, regretting their death by dehydration, but finding the alternative infestations of our clothing, mattresses, towels and pantry unsustainable. Last year, on the advice of a friend, we bagged all our cloth items and left bags of mothballs here and there. No poison. This worked better than poison, which may have been luring them in just to kill them. Usually the place was overrun with mouse turds, now there were only few.

I must have shaken this baby out of a cloth, but I couldn’t find the nest or its siblings. It had fur, but its eyes were still sealed shut. My guess is that it was about a week old.

I had a debt to pay for all that poison, so I showed the baby to my 14-year-old daughter, knowing she would melt and want to keep it. Bucky Goldstein’s Deer Mouse Ranch website gave detailed information on how to care for orphaned mice. It’s a dicey proposition at best. And if we succeeded, we’d have two cats, a dog and a deer mouse.

Usually, I leave injured or baby animals where they are, figuring nature’s plan is better than anything I could cook up.

But I rationalized that it would be a good time for a life lesson. My daughter Tess was about to enter high school and was looking forward to meeting boys. Nursing a baby mouse would act as a form of birth control.

The mouse’s head was no bigger than a child’s fingernail. Out in the country after most stores were closed, we had to settle for nursing her with very expensive infant soy formula purchased at the gas station mini-mart. Cows milk can kill them. The website said to feed the baby every two hours with a syringe or a fine-point paintbrush. You have to warm the formula in a bowl of hot water, hold the wiggly baby firmly but not so firmly as to crush it, then introduce the paintbrush into its mouth without getting it up its nose; respiratory infections can be fatal. After you feed it, you have to stroke its belly to stimulate digestion and probe its little anus with an ear swab to stimulate bowel movements. Then you have to keep it in an aquarium at an even 80 degrees. We had one of those back in our city house from our last adventure with gerbils, but for now, she stayed put in a little basket of fluff. We named her Tilly, after Matilda, a voracious mouse orphan on the website videos. Matilda means warrior maiden.

Our Tilly was a much fussier eater than her namesake. She squirmed, clamped her mouth shut, raised her head and refused the baby formula. It was astonishing how difficult it was to hold this baby that was no bigger than a child’s thumb.

By morning, Tilly had shrunk some and her tail looked segmented, a sign of dehydration, according to Bucky’s website. Back in civilization, I rushed out at 6 a.m. to buy Pedialyte, something you give your children when they are dehydrated from diarrhea. Tilly took it! Her little body knew what it needed and overcame the alien lemony taste. She grasped the brush with her tiny hands and sucked the bristles halfway down her throat. As soon as the pet store opened, I rushed out to buy raw goat’s milk and kitten formula, then went home to mix and warm them for the next feeding. She ate the formula, too. Dehydration abated, she began to move around more energetically, no longer staying in the tiny basket I’d placed her in. Her hairless belly skin was almost transparent so you could see her stomach fill with milk, and later you could see the dark waste in her intestines.

She grew stronger for a few days, and began to crawl around the cage every two hours when it was time to eat. My daughter, Tess, doing most of the feedings, was better at it than I was. Tess herself had been a fussy eater in her infanthood. She was a tiny baby and had trouble latching on, and when she finally learned, she developed colic. After much stress, engorged breasts and much handwringing and baby fretting we discovered she couldn’t digest cow’s milk, which goes directly into breast milk.

At six months, Tess was a weepy, wiggly, energetic and easily frustrated child, so I admired how calmly, firmly, yet gently this graceful 14-year-old grasped the mouse and, with a look of concentration, plunked the brush into Tilly’s mouth. If Tilly squirmed too much, Tess would put her down, take a deep breath and pick her back up again with a more confident grasp. I stood at the ready with a chopstick, adding one drop of milk at a time to the brush so that we didn’t have to struggle with getting Tilly to latch again. Tilly sometimes fell asleep nursing, and Tess had to prod her gently to wake her up to eat. Sometimes Tilly would bite down on the brush and hold on with her baby teeth, and Tess would have to stroke her tummy until she let go. Her body knew clearly what it wanted and what it didn’t want as its needs changed, now formula, now Pedialyte, now formula.

When Tilly was done eating, she’d curl in a ball in the palm of our hands, her full belly nearly as big as her head, and sleep, making the tiny clicking sound that Bucky’s website informed us is the equivalent of mouse purring.

Tess did the first half of the night feedings, then I gave Tess a six hour spell to sleep while I took over 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. feedings. Tess and I were both exhausted by day three. I remembered sitting up at night nursing Tess, scribbling crookedly in a journal balanced precariously on my knee, delirious with exhaustion, panic, love, and grief over my own lost independence. It’s an obsessive state of mind where you’re acutely aware that a fragile being’s life is depends on you. No matter where you are or how much you need a break, all you can think about is, what time is it? Where’s the baby. Is she okay? How had I kept it up for a year and a half?

Now it was taking the energy of two huge human beings to keep this tiny mouse alive, and all the while, we knew that a mouse mother could do a much better job with much less energy. Was this the lesson we were to learn, that when you go against nature’s order the input and output of energy is completely out of whack?

Somewhere along the five-day journey, Tilly began to weaken and become fussier and more resistant to eating. She began to fall over more when she tried to walk.

The last night, I spent an hour at each feeding trying Pedialyte, and different concentrations of formula and goat’s milk, but I could only get Tilly’s belly about half full. At the 3 a.m. feeding, I went to bed, knowing my daughter would probably sleep through the 5 a.m. alarm. I decided it was okay. I was pretty sure Tilly was dying. At 7 a.m., Tilly barely stirred when I picked her up, but she started clicking as she curled in the palm of my hand.

I woke Tess gently and told her I thought Tilly was dying, but that she was happy right now in my hand, and that I thought we shouldn’t bother her any more. Tess wouldn’t hear of giving up. She sat down and plied the brush, and at first it seemed to be working, but halfway through the feeding, Tilly died.

What was the lesson? Maybe we didn’t keep the cage warm enough (I had a thermometer and a light bulb shining down on it, but the temperature varied between 77 and 83 degrees. Maybe the formula wasn’t quite right. Maybe we let her get too dehydrated and she got organ damage. Maybe the mother had ingested some of the mouse poison we used to put out the year before (I still find caches of it here and there). Or maybe Tilly was just a number in the normal infant mortality rate for mice. Trees put out thousands of seeds to grow a few trees, frogs lay thousands of eggs. It is just nature’s way.

Maybe the lesson was that if I find another orphaned mouse, I’ll leave the room for an hour and wait to see if the mother is in the process of evacuating the litter and is coming back for it. We certainly won’t put poison out in the cabin again.

But what will I do if the house in the city becomes infested with mice, as has happened once before? Would it be less cruel to let my cats take care of the problem? I don’t think so. Perhaps I will put out mousetraps that snap their little necks quickly instead of causing them to die slowly of dehydration from poison. I’ve heard it’s just as cruel to catch them in a “Have a Heart” trap and put them out far enough away that they won’t return, because they usually starve or freeze to death. Whatever I choose, it will be another in a series of contradictory drives we call life.

I don’t know what it all adds up to, all I know is, for a few days, we lived very closely with a tiny beautiful being, saw her organs working under her transparent skin, heard her click-purring in our ears, and felt her tiny feet and hands press against our finger tips.