VIRTUE OR GOOD LUCK?

It’s easy to confuse good luck with virtue.  I learned that lesson this month in a tiny airport in Zambia. I had my heart set on buying some beautiful African textiles there; our plane was about to board and I rushed towards my purse and tripped.  I landed on my outstretched right arm and immediately felt like someone had taken a blowtorch to my shoulder.  (Nevertheless, I hobbled my sorry self over to the counter and paid for the cloth—you know–“shop while you drop!”)  I knew I was badly injured because I could barely raise my arm.  When we got home a few days later, the doctor confirmed that I had two serious tears to my rotator cuff.

Which brings me to the subject of luck vs. virtue.  I have had the good luck to be healthy and physically strong my whole life.  Until now, I set luck aside and went with the smug idea that I am in good shape because I am a good (i.e., virtuous) person.  I eat well and exercise regularly.  This ignores the fact my parents were both slender, never exercised at all, and yet lived into their late 80’s.

It is easy to unconsciously blame other people for some of their disabilities.  People who are overweight or can’t walk well because they have sore hips or knees are everywhere and it has nothing to do with virtue and much to do with bad luck and normal aging.  I have been lucky until now, but as the surgeon told me last week, “You look good for 74, but remember that your ligaments are still 74.”  I laughed because I can’t believe I’m 74, but the guy did have a point (which he could have kept to himself, in my opinion).  Next time you see someone in a knee brace or a big sling, remember that they are either unlucky or lucky to be living long enough to age.

HAVE A LUCKY WEEK!

Photo courtesy of absolutvision via Unsplash

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BABY ANIMALS

No matter how carefully I craft the weekly blog essays using everything I can do to make them timely, clear and well-constructed, photos of baby animals outnumber the popularity of written blogs by a ratio of about 100 to 1. So here are some pictures I took on our recent trip to Kenya and Zambia.

I have never seen a lone baby elephant. They are always with their mothers and
often with siblings, aunties and cousins of their large elephant herds.
This photo was taken in Zambia near the South Luangwa River.
We spent hours watching these lion cubs in the Masai Mara.
I wished I could jump off the jeep and play with them.
Even wildebeests are pretty cute when they’re young. Later? Not so much.
The same can be said for young hyenas,

whereas hippo babies just look like smaller versions of their parents.
Baby Vervet Monkeys are adorable,
and baby baboons have tantrums like human two-year-olds when Mom tries to clean them up. This one was so loud, I thought it was being murdered outside our tent.
Another astounding African sunset.

HAVE A GOOD WEEK!

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THE GREAT MIGRATION II

Last month I had the good fortune to view one portion of the Great Migration of wildebeests, zebras and other grazers crossing the Mara River in Kenya. I took these photos of part of the crossing and its aftermath.

It is bedlam. The wildebeests trample each other in their rush to cross the river and get up the opposite bank before they are killed by a lion or a croc. They have reason to be afraid.
Lions wait in the grasses up top, while…
crocodiles lie in wait beside or under the water.

One wildebeest was quickly drowned by a crocodile while another looked on.
Most of the zebras waited until the rush was over and the predators had eaten.
On the other side of the Mara, one wildebeest celebrated a successful crossing (sorry, Mom).

Next week: Zambia!

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THE GREAT MIGRATION

Ever since I was a little kid, sitting on the floor in front of that terrible TV my family owned, I have been fascinated by The Great Migration. Just the words “Serengeti Plain” got me dreaming about the vast space so far away. Luckily, in late August I got to fulfill my childhood dream to go there.

The Great Migration is a continuous motion of grazing animals that moves in a clockwise direction from the Serengeti Plains in Tanzania through the Masai Mara Reserve in Kenya in a big circle. The grazing animals are following after the rains, which in turn produce the fresh grazing material the animals depend on. FYI, the BBC has a new series, Nature’s Great Events, which features The Great Migration. Unfortunately, last night’s episode was about sardines. I couldn’t care less about sardines, though I’m sure they are quite interesting in their own fishy way. But keep a lookout for the episode on The Great Migration.

Meanwhile, here are some unretouched photos I took last month–all from the first 24 hours of arrival in “The Bush” of Kenya. We were unbelievably lucky. In the late afternoon, our guide Jakob took us for a drive near our camp. We came across a weary lion and followed him from a distance for a while. He was a slow walker, so we drove to another area and found a second male lion, hanging out with a female. This meant nothing to us, but Jakob, who grew up nearby, decided it was worth waiting to see what might develop. Plenty developed, as soon as the males caught sight of each other.

It wasn’t pretty.
and it was LOUD.

Both lions survived, apparently without serious injuries. They walked away as if nothing had happened.

The next morning, we set out to see if any of the thousands of animals around us were going to cross the Mara River that day. It turns out you can sit in a Land Rover for days at a time, baking in the sun, and no animals cross. But we had come a long, long way and so set off, hoping for the best.

It didn’t take long to find wildebeests standing around. They’re not the brightest bulbs.
There were thousands of them.

We made our way to the river, where about 30 other vehicles were already parked, waiting for animals to cross, but there were no animals nearby. Jakob found what I considered to be a hopeless location and we got ready to wait. However, instead of waiting we had to rush to get our cameras ready. The wildebeests came stampeding right past us.

The dust, the sound of hooves and the “gnu” sounds were terrific.
The crossing began.

NEXT WEEK: The exciting conclusion!

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ROMANCE AND MY GARDEN

From the archive:

Joe Pye is always late to the party.

Joe Pye is the tall, handsome one in the back.

I tend to romanticize my garden during the winter. In February, looking out my window at the snow, icicles and gray, leafless trees, I dream of my Marion garden with its beautiful Dogwood, Peonies and faithful perennials. I picture myself in attractive garden apparel, basket in one hand and shears in the other, tripping along the walkways snipping day lilies that have passed their prime, occasionally interrupted by oohs and ahs from passersby.

That was then; this is now. It’s hot. It’s sticky. There are ticks carrying dangerous diseases. I have to dress in Hazmat attire just to pull up weeds. It gets worse. Despite all my precautions, one morning last week I found a tick nestled behind my left ear. Luckily, it was a Wood Tick, not a carrier of Lyme Disease, Babesiosis and worse. But forget about day lilies; it’s the weeding that never ends. Thanks to the humidity and frequent rainstorms, weeds run rampant in ways that prized blooms never will. I was once told that painting the Golden Gate Bridges is an endless job: start at one end, paint to the other, and by the time that’s done it’s time to circle back to the start and begin again. It’s the same with weeds. Two weeks ago the vegetable garden looked great when I had finished weeding. Today I went outside to see how the zucchini was coming along and could barely find it among all the weeds.

There’s more. It’s late July now and the flowers that have started blooming are the ones that herald the approaching winter. My favorite is Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium purpureum). I don’t know who Joe was but I was drawn to his tall, dark and handsome lavender blossoms when we first moved to New England. Eventually I noticed that Joe Pye makes his appearance as summer is waning. I guess the garden is a metaphor for life: beauty is transient, it pays to be persistent, and sometimes the ones we like best–like Joe–arrive late to the party.

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CATMANDEUX and URSULA K LE GUIN

CatmanDeux, My Framing Assistant

On Saturday Catmandeux and I took the long trip across the country, from the East Coast to the West. Southwest Airlines has many advantages for flyers, including being able to change reservations without penalty, which is why I like it.  What Southwest does not provide is ample space for a 16-pound cat to fit comfortably under a seat.  Then somehow I forgot that Saturdays are when families—large families with lots of children—travel.  So between inadequate room for the cat and my feet and all the kiddie hubbub, it felt like the longest trip of my life.  And then this morning Catmandeux woke me up to feed him at 3:30 a.m., because he was still on East Coast time and thought it was 6:30.

With all that behind me, I decided to do something I enjoy, which in this case was framing large photos and prints.  I put on the news to catch up with the world while I was working, but after 15 minutes of conspiracy theories about Jeffrey Epstein’s suicide and horror stories about El Paso, Dayton and the Mississippi workplace raids, I turned to PBS for solace. The American Masters series has a new episode, The Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin, about the life and work of the famous science fiction writer. 

 I have never read science fiction; it isn’t a genre that has interested me.  Well! After an hour of listening to and about Le Guin, I must look into her work now. And I hope you will, too.  She was so much more than a writer of science fiction; her work reflected her knowledge of cultural anthropology, Jungian theory and Taoism.  She is considered by Michael Chabon to be the greatest writer of her generation.

Ursula Kroeber Le Guin was the mother of three children, married to the historian Charles Le Guin for  65 years. During all that time, she wrote and wrote: short stories, poetry, many books of fiction and reflections on life.  I cannot begin to explain how complex and forthright she was.  You need to watch “The Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin” on PBS and listen to her yourself.  And did I mention she loved cats?  I’ll end with this wonderful Le Guin quote on the absurdity of denying your age:  “If I’m ninety and believe I’m forty-five, I’m headed for a very bad time trying to get out of the bathtub.”

Have a good week!

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E. B. WHITE AND WEEDING

Japanese Knotweed

I have been taking time off weeding each day to read The Essays of E.B. White.  I have read that book many times but White can still make me laugh harder than any other writer, even David Sedaris. Consider this excerpt from the chapter, “Coon Tree,” about a mother raccoon and her kittens, who live in a hole in a tree just outside his second floor bedroom window:

If the kittens are young and quiet,…she finishes her bath without delay and begins her downward journey.  If the kittens are restless, she may return and give them another feeding. If they are well grown and anxious to escape, she hangs around the opening in an agony of indecision.  When a small head appears in the opening, she seizes it in her jaws and rams it back inside.  Finally, like a mother with no baby-sitter and a firm date at the theater, she takes her leave, regretfully, hesitantly.

Last week, while stabbing and yanking weeds, I thought that maybe I could write this blog about weeding in the manner of E. B. White–why not aim high?  Perhaps I could make the plucking and digging hundreds of weeds out of our driveway amusing somehow.  Maybe if I could get past the heat, humidity and biting insects, I could write something clever.  But weeding a long driveway in a New England summer is a thoroughly unpleasant task.  It’s like painting the Golden Gate Bridge– a process that never ends.  By the time I get to the end of the driveway, the beginning is weedy again.

Maybe weeding is better described through poetry:

Ragweed, Knotweed, Purslane, Plantain–
Don’t forget the Poison Ivy.
Prostrate Spurge and Hairy Crabgrass
Silly names but kind of jivey
Don’t forget the sexist labels:
Creeping Veronica—is she really?
Chickweed patches—don’t be silly.
Wipe that smile right off your face
‘cause you admire Queen Anne’s Lace.

This is the best I could do, given the sunstroke and all that….

Have a good week!

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MONKEY MIND

I took this photo at the Belize Zoo.

When I first heard the term “Monkey Mind,” I was pretty sure I knew what it meant and that it applied to me.  Here is one definition, from pocketmindfulness.com:

Consider that we humans have around fifty thousand separate thoughts each day, many of them on the same topic.  You might imagine that each thought is a branch, and you, or at least the attention of your conscious mind, is indeed a monkey, swinging from thought-branch to thought-branch all day long.

It’s no accident that the definition I chose is from “Pocket Mindfulness.” Its web address implies it would be a short definition, not requiring much time or attention.  That is the hallmark of monkey mind behavior:  trying to accomplish too much in a short time, seldom sitting still,  seldom giving a thought or feeling its due.  

The next time you are in a waiting room, look around and you’ll see that nearly everyone is looking at a cell phone. It seems that most of us are incapable of being with our own thoughts. Adam Conover (of Adam Ruins Everything) posted a video years ago about the difficulties of doing nothing for three minutes.  I often think of Adam’s video when I am sitting still, twitching while thinking of the next thing to do.  My thoughts swing monkey-like from branch to branch.

As readers of this blog know, my friend Amy diedhttp://alexisrankinpopik.com/remembering-amy/ in May. She didn’t expect she would not have a normal life span and neither did all of us she left behind.  It got me thinking—am I going to spend the rest of my life keeping my house tidy and the laundry folded?  Jumping from project to project that doesn’t really come to much? I have a plan.  It’s a modest plan but no harm in trying.  I am going to (1) set aside time during which I can’t be interrupted; (2) read more fiction; (3) watch less cable news;(4) spend more time with my family and friends (5) finish that short story I keep putting aside.

To quote Robert Reich—“What do you think?”  I truly want to know.

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FUN AND PHOTOS

It’s summer–a time to kick back and enjoy the good weather, freedom from routine and the leisure to take new photos and review past ones. I think of most of these as funny photos, but maybe “unusual” or “weird” might be a better description. Some of them are unusual simply because they are from other cultures; others just struck me as I was walking by and had my iPhone at hand.

Photo of Catman stuffed into an airplane carry-on.
This is what it looks like to take a cat on an airplane.
Photo of sign for a dog-washing company.
Is the dog wicked AND clean? Who would want a wicked dog? However…this is Massachusetts, where “wicked” is a good thing, as in “wicked good beer.”
Gilda Downey outside her jazz club.
This is Gilda. She is 94, owns and operates a jazz club and has a song written especially for her by the Southcoast Jazz Orchestra. The band ends each of its club performances with her song, which she accompanies by performing a wicked good pole dance.
Man enjoying a summer night on a Saigon thoroughfare.
This man obligingly posed for me one warm summer night in Saigon. He is actually wearing bermuda shorts, but you’d never know it from this picture.
Sign on a Belizean bus that was anything but "express."
I believe this is what is called an “oxymoron.”
Photo of a sign in a toilet stall in Vietnam.
What is there to say?
CatmanDeux watching a TV  show made especially for cats.
Whiling away a summer day, CatmanDeux style.

ENJOY YOUR SUMMER WEEK!
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What’s So Funny?


People Laughing

“Talk Dirty to Me,” the funny sign read. I burst out laughing, alone in my car as I drove past the new town business—a cleaning service. Later that afternoon, I came across a letter in the local paper complaining about the sign. A second entry noted that others had also complained that the message was inappropriate and not in keeping with town signage.  The author didn’t think it was funny at all.

This little controversy got me thinking about how what one person considers funny can be viewed as offensive by another. On an entirely different level is Roz Chast’s recent cartoon memoir, “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” A chronicle of the decline and death of her parents, Chast’s story manages to be both moving and funny—or, at least, funny to some of us. I shared the cartoons with my sisters and friend Heidi and we laughed so hard we literally (and I do mean literally) cried. To me, that summed up our mutual bittersweet experience of being with our mothers in the long month before they died.

Many people are put off by talk of death (note the name of Roz Chast’s piece), especially in the context of humor, but when a very old person has lived a long, fulfilling life, death may be sad but not tragic and even, at times, funny. An example: Chast’s mother’s health was declining rapidly and she visited her at the nursing home, expecting the worst. Instead, one day she found her mother dressed and sitting on a couch, eating a tuna sandwich.

“I knew her retreat from the abyss should have filled me with joy, or at least relief. However, what I felt when I saw her was closer to: ‘Where, in the five stages of death, is EAT A TUNA SANDWICH?!?!?’”

I know exactly what Roz Chast means. After months or weeks, when death is imminent, when you’re prepared to lose your mom and you’ve had the most intimate, heartbreaking conversations of your life, when she wakes up, as our mother did, and asks for a cup of coffee and some scrambled eggs, you are at once delighted, dismayed and even (shamefully) let down because all that painful emotional preparation for death seems wasted. But when it happened, when she asked for the eggs, we all burst out laughing, our dying Mom included, because it was just so darn funny.

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