Archive for the ‘Who Knows What All’ Category.

Burning Woman: Art and Initiation in Hot, Dry Places

Following is a profile essay written in June 2011 for my English 1A class.


The elfin, middle-aged woman is curled into a fetal ball on the ground, her T-shirt pulled over her head to protect her eyes and face while a ferocious sandstorm painfully scours her slender limbs.  It’s the first hour of Sharon Armstrong’s first time attending Burning Man, the social and artistic experiment held each August in an immense desert valley in Nevada.  The scorching, utterly flat plain of the valley is known as “the playa.” Today, apparently, the playa wants to play rough.

Sharon Armstrong small portrait“I’d just arrived,” Sharon Armstrong, local artist, clinical psychologist and community activist remembers.  “I walked out on the playa just to kinda see what in the world is this?  What am I here for?  A terrible sandstorm blew up and it was hotter than hell.  I think I had on some cutoffs and a T-shirt.  I felt like my skin was being sandblasted.”  Her eyes widen behind her silver-rimmed glasses, marveling at the memory,  “I could see nothing.  I could remember reading something in their survival manual that, if you can’t get to a safe place, close your eyes and get down.  So I just hit the ground, put my shirt up over my head and waited.”

The few people passing by in the storm were far more sensibly outfitted than she for life in Black Rock City, the temporary metropolis built by Burning Man attendees.  Wearing protective clothing and eye goggles, a few of them checked on Sharon’s condition before fading into the hammering, sand-saturated gale.  Radical self-reliance is a key principle at Burning Man, but so is interdependence and community.  “One guy stopped, and I knew it was a guy from his voice, and he said, ‘Are you okay?’ and I said, ‘Yeah.’  He took off his shirt, put it over me and rode off.  I will never know who it was.”

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The Owl Who Wanted to Be A Real Boy–I Mean Owl

In our never-ending quest to discourage the local woodpecker gang from slowly turning our home into swiss cheese, we ordered a fairly realistic plastic owl to stand guard and hopefully fool the wood**ckers into thinking that they are being watched by a terrifying predator.

This life-sized plastic owl has motion and sound sensors, and when it detects movement or sound nearby it hoots repeatedly and rotates its head to peer in the direction of whatever it senses.

So far, the woodpeckers are not terribly impressed.  The owl has perched mute during the day as the hoodlums fly about.  They don’t go too near it, or anyway not near enough to set it off, but I don’t think they’re exactly scared.  Cautious, perhaps.

The owl apparently has other ideas.  It seems to want friends.  For several nights in a row, we have heard a wild owl trading hoots with the plastic owl.  I am not kidding!  We haven’t heard an owl for a long, long time, so I have no doubt that the realistic hooting attracted the real thing.  On one particular night, we heard two real owls alternating hoots with each other and the mechanical owl, which was quite entertaining.

The plastic owl is embarrassingly limited in vocabulary, being equipped with only one short hoot sequence to say over and over and over.  My daughter Tasha commented on the comic potential of the situation when I told her about it and imagined a rather one-sided hoot-versation:

Plastic Owl: “Hey!”

Wild Owl: “Hey!”

Plastic Owl:  “Hey!”

Wild Owl:  “What’s up?”

Plastic Owl:  “Hey!”

Wild Owl:  “Hey?”

Plastic Owl:  “Hey!”

Wild Owl:  “Dude, we said hello.”

Plastic Owl:  “Hey!”

Wild Owl: “Seriously, wtf is wrong with this guy!?”

Poor plastic owl.  He apparently needs to learn some life lessons or something before he can become a real owl. However, even though he pretty much sucks at scaring wood*?#!$!%!!’s, I might keep him around just to encourage the wild owls.  Perhaps having *actual* owls zooming about will make the rotten woodpeckers want to move on.

The Onion, rotflmao and Crying at the Same Time

Articles on the “news” site The Onion usually inspire me to cringe, roll my eyes, shake my head in bemusement, gasp and cover my mouth with my hand in shock, or rotflmao.  Sometimes all of that at one go, which must be a sight.

And sometimes, The Onion calls it right on the money.  Twisting and mocking facts, they are capable of mercilessly aiming a light of razor-sharp clarity onto ourselves and our culture.  It can pretty much bring tears to your eyes.

Especially when viewed from the future.  Ouch.

Thanksgiving Comes Early to Murray Creek

From my perch on the steep slopes of Mt. Zion, as the Elliott family has named the peak above our home at Murray Creek, I have the luxury (so far) of watching the American economic fracas from a distance–literally and figuratively.

Our home is paid for. We live modestly, our freedom more than making up for any lack of shiny toys. We don’t own a car, sharing a fuel-efficient 2000 Honda Civic and the old ranch Blazer with Conal’s mom. We carry no debt, though we came within a whisker of borrowing money to do some major home improvements last year. Knowledgeable people advised us that using someone else’s money rather than our own was good financial sense. Thank heavens we got the willies about letting go of our debt-free status and went against that advice. We pulled money out of stocks to build our deck (now one of if not the best feature of our house). As Conal pointed out to me the other day, those stocks were worth a lot more then than they are now. We would have to fry up a much bigger hunk of nest egg to pull that off today.

My mom and I sold our big house in Seattle back in 2007 just as the market there was having a final peak of excitement. I don’t think we could have timed that sale much better if we had traveled into the future and then gone back, armed with the knowledge of what was to come. I still shake my head in amazement, wondering at our incredible good fortune. Ours was one of the very last bidding wars in our area, and a very merry, profitable war it was for us.

Though we value our life of freedom very highly, Conal and I are relatively young and can go back to work if we need to. Conal’s skills are highly marketable, and interest in his research is building around the world. His knowledge and expertise allow him to get paid well to pursue his passion. My professional skills are not nearly so unique or highly valued, but are broad-based and widely transferable. If it came down to it, I would not be worried about finding some sort of at least mildly enjoyable job. And that honestly would be the lazy way to go, ironically. We’re resourceful enough to figure out interesting, alternative ways to make a living, if we really put our minds to it.

My heart goes out to those who are losing their homes, or staging garage sales, taking on second jobs, cutting back on doing the things that give them joy, or all of the above in desperation to pay the mortgage on a house that may be worth less than they owe. I’m troubled and saddened to think also of those whose retirement plans have gone sideways, dreams evaporating along with the worth of their 401k’s. I can’t even imagine the stress and pain folks these situations must be going through. I have, however, had the experience of being laid off from a job that I depended on, and thus can viscerally relate to those many thousands who’ve lost their jobs. I wonder how bad it will get and how many people will sucked into calamity.

Even if things get a lot worse before they get better, Conal and I will be okay. If things were to get really weird, our property has an excellent well, tillable soil, and plenty of sunshine that could be harnessed to create electricity. With a big garden, some fruit trees (there are already a few growing down in the meadow) and perhaps some goats and chickens we could go “off the grid,” as the saying goes. Conal’s mom’s expertise in the area of animal husbandry and self-sufficiency would give us an invaluable resource of knowhow should the worst happen. Surviving and even thriving will be possible for us even if civilization as we know it ceases to function.

Here on my perch overlooking our private slice of paradise, you’d never know that anything was amiss. Conal is heading off into the cool of evening to gather kindling from the ample supply of downed wood that’s lying around, taking a break from working on his research projects. The evening sun is slanting streams of warm honey through the rich green boughs of the forest, while squirrels chatter and chase each other merrily about. The deep, gentle hiss of the breeze through the valley sounds like a far off, powerful river. Birds zip hither and thither among the craggy oaks doing their fall chores, and furry bees bumble about the rosemary hedge below the front porch. So much to enjoy and be thankful for.

I’m swept by a wave of gratitude for my life, my beloved cuddle buddy Conal, my family, the warm sun, clean water to drink, healthy food to eat, and a snug nest on a mountain to call home.

Why Seattle is Awesome

Sparkling sapphire water + emerald hills + clear fall sunlight + Mt. Rainier + seaplanes + sailboats + family + friends + the smell of fresh and salt water on the breeze + other real mountains + fast wifi everywhere + my sweetie Conal with me = Awesome.

The view from lunch:

Autism Service Dog for James

My friend Kate in Seattle has a young nephew, James, who is coping with autism. Today, I received an email Kate forwarded from her sister-in-law requesting financial help in obtaining an autism service dog for James.

The family is seeking 1350 people to donate ten bucks in order to raise the funds needed by June 6th.

Details from James’ mom Raven are as follows:

Hey All:

James and his dream dogWe need your help. For about the third year in a row, James has had a very difficult April and May which ultimately resulted in increasing his anti-anxiety medication. He is finally doing better, but he has lost a lot of his skills. Apparently, May is a very difficult time for many Autistic children in this area as the seasons change and things get a bit more frenetic at school.

After talking to James’ Neurologist, teachers and therapists, Mark and I have decided to apply for an Autism Service Dog for James. The Neurologist, Dr. Stobbe, has seven other Autistic clients with service dogs and says that James is a perfect candidate. These dogs help relieve anxiety, keep kids from running away, help keep the children focused at school, and provide a constant in the child’s life as the dog goes everywhere with the child. Dr. Stobbe is even hopeful that we can wean James off his medication once he is used to working with the service dog.

Even though there is usually a one to two-year waiting list for programs, we have found a highly-recommended program that has room in its February graduating class for James IF we can raise the necessary money ($13,500) by June 6th, 2008 (TWO WEEKS FROM NOW). (This covers less than half of the cost that the organization puts into the dog and includes two weeks of training - one week at the facility and one week at our home!) Here is the link to their website:

Our hope is to get 1,350 people to each donate $10.

We’re asking YOU to do TWO things for James:
1) If you are able, please donate $10.
2) Please forward this email to anyone whom you think might be willing and able to also donate $10.

Checks should be made out to ASDA (for Autism Service Dogs of America, a 501(C)(3) organization). GIFTS ARE TAX DEDUCTIBLE TO THOSE WHO ITEMIZE.

If you are OFF-ISLAND (or prefer the mail), here is the address.
James McCrackyn
PO Box 1451
Vashon, WA 98070

If you are ON-ISLAND, you can drop off your donation at any of the following locations:

R. Peter Lake, CPA, Bank of America, Beachcomber, Bob’s Bakery, Cafe Luna, Fair Isle Animal Clinic, Green Ginger, John L Scott Realty, Little House, Minglement, Monkey Tree, Pandora’s Box, Thriftway, True Value, Vashon Book Shop, Vashon Print and Design, Vashon Tea Shop, Windermere Realty, Zoomies

I have also attached a flyer.

Thanks so much!


I did not know there even was such a thing as an autism service dog and I think it’s totally awesome! I hope you’ll be inspired to contribute, too.

Cutest Cars Evar

I’m excited that the tipping point for electric cars may be finally approaching. The Tesla, the Volt, and the Aptera, to name a few, are all getting flurries of blog attention, as is alternative fuel technology in general.

TriacSan Jose-based Green Vehicles has been popping up in various tech and auto blogs lately, seemingly out of nowhere. Who are these guys, anyway? Reviewers are generally of the opinion that the company’s fully electric three-wheeler, called the Triac, is huggably cute.

I couldn’t agree more and I totally want one. Actually, I like the Microwat model, too, and may be hard pressed to choose between it and the Triac. One of each? Hmm, with reported prices approaching twenty G’s, I might have to restrain myself to just one. Well, that and my suspicion that my 6′5″ sweetheart wouldn’t be able to fit so much as a shoe inside any of these little cutsie-poos. Oh, well.

Be sure to have the sound turned on when visiting so you can enjoy the shiny happy noises that serenade your every click and mouse-over.

California Earthquake Map

Today on the phone my dad asked if I had heard about a recent earthquake in Northern California. I hadn’t. In searching for information online, I found this USGS site that maps recent earthquake activity with a combination of shapes and colors to indicate strength and time. I liked getting a visual picture of the shakin’ going on in our state. Clicking on any event brings up a page with detailed information on a specific quake. Known hazardous fault lines are included, and all the activity centers on these lines. None of which, thankfully, are near us.

You can also view an animation of quake activity for the last seven days.

I was happy to note that what I’d heard about our area might really be true: that we are (in spite of our town sharing the name of the notorious fault line) in an area of relatively low quake risk. Quake activity surrounds us, but isn’t local.

As long as the whole Central Valley doesn’t dislodge and sink into the magma, we’re golden. Yay.

Awesome Dream

I rarely remember my dreams. Mostly I remember feelings or a mood, or maybe just snippets. Conal remembers his dreams really well, and they are often weirdly coherent in a wacky dream-logic kind of way. I’m jealous. Mine are usually so weird they only make sense while I’m asleep.

Once in a great while a good one comes along, and I treasure it.

Sir Sean ConneryLast night, I dreamed was in a hospital-like place. I don’t know what its being a hospital had to do with anything. I had a sense of belonging, as if I worked there or something. I also sort of lived there, as if it was the whole world, hallways and lights and doors and shiny floors.

I was aware that I had a choice to make. There were two men who wanted to marry me, and I had not yet said yes to either one. It wasn’t a stressful thing, but rather pleasant.

One of my suitors was a young, kind of dorky guy. I don’t remember much about him other than a kind of sweet, inept dweebishness. Thick, rumpled brown hair, glasses and an earnest expression, now that I think of it. He had a puppyish youthful energy going for him.

While I was walking down a long hallway, the other gentleman came striding up behind me. My perspective was through the curtain of my long bangs hanging in my eyes. They were kind of annoying me. The other guy was… wait for it… Sean Connery. I kid you not. He looked dashingly craggy with salt-and-pepper hair, mature yet virile, still completely magnetic. Say, Medicine Man era. He didn’t have a ponytail, though.

SEAN CONNERY, 1962 - ADVERTISING SHOOT FOR SMIRNOFF VODKAI turned to speak to him as he came up alongside me. He saw my face and said, “Now, don’t Sandra Dee me!” I think he was referring to the hair curtain, but I don’t exactly know what he meant, and was puzzled even in the dream. I woke up not even remembering who Sandra Dee was. Googling the name as I write this, I wonder if he was referring to the actress, or the character/song in Grease that I read was inspired by her? And either way, dubya tee eff?

But the accent, oh my. The eyes!

Sir Sean (did you know he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 2000?) then set about making his case as the better candidate for marriage (still not kidding). He apparently knew I was worried about his age, and we had a very gracious and lively exchange as he described his excellent qualities as a lover and husband. “I can turn your body in ways…” he said (including the ellipsis), implying some kind of wonderful lovemaking technique, apparently. But it wasn’t icky, truly, he was just very elegantly and passionately lobbying for me to choose him over Dweeboy. He really thought he had a lot to offer me.

Phew. Is it getting warm in here? (Kidding now)

I stumbled on this black and white photo searching for the one above. He didn’t look like that in the dream, but it’s such a cool shot I had to share it anyway.

I woke up before I got to choose between Sir Sean and Dweeb Puppy, but I wasn’t sad at all. Who do you think I ought to have picked?

Spring Tickles

click to view larger versionThe sun-warmed branches of the tree outside my window are festooned with pink buds. I’ve watched them day by day, swelling from tiny bumps on the bare gray branches to adolescent pods bursting with pink petals. The dominant local hummingbird has a favorite branch where he stands guard over the nearby feeder, swaying his head rhythmically in complete absorption with his riotous songs. He’s a thumb-sized tough guy unconcerned with the frilliness of his chosen perch or the over-the-top gaudiness of his iridescent feathers—the Eddie Izzard of hummingbirds.

click to view larger versionSpring’s exuberant pull seems to tug at me too, with a vague, tickly restlessness for I don’t know what. The steep meadows above the house are thickly coated with orange California poppies, lightly peppered with other wildflowers in blue and white. Furry little bees are bumbling gently about in the sky-colored rosemary blossoms, and white lilac thickens the air with a sweet, heady perfume. Life, life, life, expressing jubilantly and calling my name!

click to view larger versionThe intense warmth of the sun, the soft scented breezes, the swiftly lengthening days, the bright blossoms nosing up through tender green grass, it’s all such a shock to the senses coming on so swiftly after the long, scorched fall and the cold dampness of winter. Perhaps I’m hardened to the teasing springtime habits of the Northwest weather gods, where heady warm days in March inspire unwary humans to don lightweight clothing and plan outdoor activities, only to be doused with freezing rain or coated with heavy frosts. Or even sprinkled with snow.

Is there someplace I’m supposed to go? Some appointment I’m late for? Or am I simply a mammal among hordes of other mammals and assorted critters nudged by Nature into doing their spring cleaning, traveling, and flirting like clockwork each year? After our hibernation through the dark of winter, spring trails its glorious, petaled raiment across our senses and tickles us to life and love and new beginnings. Who am I to resist?