I Hate/Heart Maine

This is an excerpt from “Humor Me”, Book 2 in the Life without a Field Guide Series which is available at Amazon for $4.99. 

In previous essays on the topic, I might have given the impression that I hate Maine winters more than anything. This is definitely not the case, although I must admit that I think they should come with a “best if used before date” sometime in March, and it should be strictly enforced. If we knew that the snow was going to be only up to our knees, the wind was going to be merely a mild gale and the ice was going to be off at least the shallowest part of the lake by, say, March 21st, I’m sure we could all cope a little better with having our ayuhs frozen off every time we go outside.

If, for instance, I could write in red on the calendar on March 21st, First Crocus, or Golf Date with Freddie, I’d be very happy. (And very surprised. I don’t play golf. And I don’t know anyone named Freddie, come to think of it.) Well, anyway, it would be really nice to be able to put some spring things on the calendar before June, but it doesn’t usually work out that way in Maine. April may be the cruelest month, but May is Blackfly Season and please note the capital letters.

We have to crowd all the spring things into the first part of June, because if we didn’t, they’d run into summer, which is so short in Maine, that we can’t fit all the summer things into it without running smack dab into autumn. Since our first frost is usually sometime in August, this results in a good amount of overlap, as you can imagine.

That’s why, around here, you often see people out on their decks, hunched over a grill in a snowstorm, wearing shorts, a winter jacket and a hat with earflaps, with a beer in one hand and a cup of hot coffee in the other. (Grilling tip: If you find flipping your burgers difficult, omit the coffee and substitute hot buttered rum for the beer, thus freeing up a hand.)

In order to deal with this Seasonal Afflictive Disorder, Mainers have become adept at denial. Just today, I was making the bed and got all chuffed up, because I realized it’s time to put on the summer quilt. Summer. Quilt. Two words that don’t even belong in the same sentence. That’s so sad. Worse, I didn’t see anything odd  when my son came in to tell me that he had to stop digging the garden, because six inches down, the soil is frozen. This is in April on a day when it’s 78 degrees out.

This is a cruel joke that Maine pulls on us at least once every spring, when it throws us a really hot day or two, just so we’ll complain, so that Ma Nature can feel justified in giving us another six weeks of winter weather afterwards. (I always think that the hot April days that bring out the beautiful apple blossoms early are a nice contrast to the April blizzards that freeze them solid.)

No, in spite of what I’ve said about Maine winters, I don’t want to give the wrong impression and make you think they’re at the top of my hate list. I can take Maine winters when you balance them out against the many good things that Maine has to offer. Maine has nice, low key people who hardly ever shoot anyone over traffic incidents. There are town offices in people’s trailer homes where you can register your car and get laundry tips or even free kittens at the same time.

Several years ago, I scored a cute little stripey kitten, learned how to remove hard water stains, got some advice on soothing the colicky baby I had with me and registered a minivan, and the town clerk even held the baby while I signed the papers. Try to get that kind of service in a city.

I miss it now that we’ve moved to a town with a real town office, albeit it shares a space with the volunteer fire department and our tiny library. When there’s a fire, the town clerk, her assistant and the two librarians and a janitor take off like bats out of hell, which is a tad unsettling. Not as unsettling as the fire siren, which is on top of the roof of the library part, though.

There are Annual Town Meetings where 34 people decide what to do with the town budget of $600,000 and the other 166 registered voters, who didn’t vote, show up to gripe about it at every Selectman’s meeting for the rest of the year. (Who needs Reality TV when you have Selectman’s Meetings?)

No, I want to make it clear that, while I dislike winter in Maine, I don’t hate it with a vengeance. Long, cold and snowy though it may be, there are worse places to be in winter and I’ve lived in some of them. One of them is Washington State, where I learned that they tell you about the rain, but no one mentions the wind until you’ve moved there.

There’s upstate NY, where it’s so cold and dry that the snow squeaks underfoot and trees explode every once in a while from ice trapped inside them. While we do have the occasional random exploding tree in Maine, our snow hardly ever squeaks and you don’t have to worry about rain in the winter here. Nope, just snow and cold and wind and … Have I ever mentioned how much I hate winter in Maine?

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What Color is Your Beard? Mine is Green.

St Patrick's Day Green BeardWell, I should have known better than to diss Richard Dawkins in a previous essay, although I don’t think saying that I’m uncomfortable with his confrontational style of atheism is really dissing. I doubt very much that it would bother him if he knew that his style isn’t my style. But because one of my most trustworthy critics was upset by the comment, I’ll make Geekdaddy the Nameless Critic happy by writing about a subject that is near and dear to Richard Dawkins’s heart – or maybe his mind.

Beards. Well, to be more specific, green beards. And if I may take this a bit further, let’s slide right into slime molds with green beards. Daughter and Son and I have recently been exploring this subject, because it’s slime mold season in Maine. (Other states get to have Cherry Blossom season, Cheesemaking Month and Raspberry Festivals to celebrate spring. In Maine, we know it’s spring when we have to replace all the fly strips because they’re full, we can’t sleep for the caterwauling of lovesick porcupines in the tops of pine trees and can’t take three steps without slipping in what looks like dog vomit, but is, in fact, slime mold. Tra la la.)

I would like to say that our slime molds all have green beards, but that would be a lie and Richard Dawkins would probably come down on me like a load of bricks, followed by hate mail from E.O. Wilson (one of my favorite science writers, by the way) and the shades of W.D. Hamilton and Stephen Jay Gould. As I’m sure you know, only some slime molds have green beards and even those that do only have figurative green beards, so you may wonder why I even bring up the subject.

Actually, at this point in this article, I’m starting to wonder why I brought up the subject, which seemed so straightforward when I started writing the darned thing. Well, let’s start with altruism and its place in evolution, which is what my kids and I were delving into slime molds after, so to speak. We all know that altruism is that quality which makes parents run back into burning buildings to rescue their kids, turns bystanders into good samaritans, and got David Crosby his liver transplant. (Well, being rich and famous probably didn’t hurt, but the person who donated the organ, or his or her family, was altruistic.)

It’s understandable that parents would save their children and that siblings would save their siblings, because it would help insure that their “kin”, people who contain their genetic material, their genes, would be more likely to survive. But why do strangers, the good samaritans and organ donors, help other people, often risking their lives to do so? How does that further the chances of their genes floating to the top of the gene pool?

That’s where the greenbeards come in. W. D. Hamilton, the British evolutionary theorist, originated the concept. Richard Dawkins, in his book, The Selfish Gene used a hypothetical example in which having a green beard is a marker that lets individuals with a gene for cooperation recognize others with the same gene. So, to quote Dawkins, ” the greenbeard gene (or genes) must do three things: establish a signal (the green beard), enable recognition of others that share the signal, and promote cooperative behavior towards other greenbeards.”

What can this possibly have to do with slime molds, you ask? Plenty! The individual cells that make up slime molds usually just mooch around by themselves, digesting cellulose and minding their own business. But when a crisis arises, when their moisture source dries up or the supply of wood runs out, the individual slime mold cells that are cooperative and altruistic exude a protein (cAMP, if you must know) that other altruistic slime mold cells can follow.

Gradually, as more and more slime mold cells follow this trail, a “slug” of slime molds forms and actually begins to move like a single organism, as it searches for a source of light. When it reaches it, the “slug” cells change to form a fruiting body that rises on a stalk to discharge spores into the new environment, where they will likely form new cells. Then the “stalk” dies.

If you’re not thoroughly knackered by reading this harrowing description of life and death at the cellular level, you may want to pursue the subject on a slightly higher plane on Google where lizards often get into it. I will warn you though, that things get more complicated and several new colors are introduced when you bring lizards into the equation. But the central tenet holds true. In lizards, slime molds, and probably in humans, nature tries to filter out the less-altruistic members of society with mixed success, as far as I can tell. I’d say that Nature needs to concentrate on the Washington, DC area a little more, or at least on the human population in seats of power there, but as far as I know, most of the Capitol-area slime molds are still giving each other a leg up (or I guess I should say, a pseudopod up) just like they’re supposed to.

So what did my kids learn from all this? Well, they didn’t write reports, but apparently it made a deep impression on them, because they’ve both been talking about it and noticing examples of altruism in animals and people. It’s led to many a trip to the bookcase to check out something in our science reference books and Daughter was going to draw slime molds but gave up when they all came out looking like blobs. It did me no good to remind her that they are blobs. Artists are so temperamental.

Dawkins, Gould and Hamilton all got looked up in Wikipedia and we’ll be taking out some of their books from the library tomorrow. We broadened our knowledge of evolution, cells and simple organisms and how nature recycles plant and animal material. We’ve had many lunchtime discussions about how belief or lack of it affects scientists and the way they look at the world. In short, we’ve wrung about as much out of slime molds as we can and will probably be leaving them behind for more evolved organisms like bacteria. (Heady stuff!)

And to think that it all started when Daughter slipped in the leaves and said, “Oh crap, the dog threw up and I just stepped in it.” It really is true. Everyday is an adventure with Unschooling.

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Help! I’m Stuck In First Grade and I Can’t Get Out

This is an excerpt from “Funny You Should Ask”, Book 1 in the Life without a Field Guide Series which is available on Amazon 

If you want to feel completely stupid, go to www.ixl.com and try to ace all the activities in anything above Pre-K. I don’t know when you went to school, but I started first grade in 1957. There was no kindergarten in our town and my birthday is in April, so I had to wait until I was almost 7 to go to school. I had been reading since I was 3, but I still had to take off my shoes to count past ten, which Miss McElroy, otherwise a very nice teacher, refused to let me do. Still, back then, first grade math pretty much stopped at simple addition so I didn’t have any trouble with it.

Apparently, things have changed in the educational world since then, if IXL is anything to go by. Daughter and I have a little friendly competition going there, as she reviews her math skills preparatory to launching into 8th grade algebra. Me, I may have to settle for a spot behind Jethro Bodine of the Clampetts, who, if I remember correctly, was a proud graduate of 3rd grade. I can’t get out of first grade, thanks to something they call “Geometry: Count vertices, edges and faces.”  It’s a diabolical little exercise that can lead the spatially impaired amongst us to teeth grinding and hair pulling. I mean, would YOU be able to figure out how many vertices, edges and faces a 3-D triangle has? Hmm? Do you even know where all those things ARE on a triangle? Well, I thought I did, but obviously I was wrong.

I did manage to guess my way to a score of 58, but most of that was pure luck and 70 is a passing grade, so I’m still stuck in first. I thought I’d just ignore that little section as a fluke that I could have pulled off if only my blind spot wasn’t… well, vertices, edges and faces, I guess.  So, enough of the baby stuff, and I went on to logic problems in third grade. Crikey! Here’s the first question:

Lisa is 4 years younger than Gale. Suzanne is 36. Hiram is 2 years younger than Suzanne and 4 years older than Gale. How old is Lisa? I thought I was really hot stuff when I figured out that Lisa is 26, but I really question whether the average 3rd grader would be able to figure out this problem without some heavy help from someone older. I couldn’t have figured it out in 3rd grade without someone giving me the answer or Lisa telling me, herself. Back then, I was still working on my multiplication facts up to 12, not figuring out logic problems that would have appeared in the NY Times at the time.

Daughter, of course, just sails through this stuff while I slog doggedly through it like I’m wading through treacle with Crocs on. I don’t think I’m revealing any secrets when I say that the little brat snickers up her sleeve every time we compare test scores. She’s probably going to be done with what she needs to review way before our month-long membership is up, but I’m not canceling it until I battle my way to the upper grades. Well, at least to fourth grade. No! Make that 8th grade and I won’t stop until I get passing scores on every damned one of the practice areas.

Back in 8th grade, I failed algebra, but a kind teacher gave me a C-, because I had A’s in all my other subjects and he didn’t want to ruin my report card. I floundered through math until I quit school to get married halfway through my junior year. I never “got” algebra and only got a weak grasp on geometry until about five years later when I trained to be a welder and found that my lack of math smarts was holding me back. I could weld with the best of them, but when it came to the math part of the training, I was lost. So, like the stubborn idjit that I am, I went out and got a math tutorial on algebra and geometry and completed the course, along with two hefty workbooks, inside of 6 weeks. At that point, I “got” algebra and geometry with a vengeance. I also got my GED and aced the math portion, much to my surprise.

Since then, I’ve completed about 3 years of college classes, here and there and in no coherent fashion. I just took what I wanted for my own purposes. Creative writing, philosophy, science and women’ s studies. I never took math again, which is probably why I’m shaky on vertices and other geometric wossnames. Starting tonight, however, while Daughter thinks that I’m playing games on Pogo, I’m going to do what I did lo those many years ago. I’m going to go online and learn what the heck a vertice is when it’s at home, scope out geometry and logic until I’m blue in the face and burn through 8 grades of math at IXL. The fact that IXL costs 19 dollars and change a month is all the incentive I need. I may be a little slow at some math, but not when it comes to dollars and cents.

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