Thursday, July 24, 2008

Sufferin' Sandals

I can be a little hard headed sometimes. 

This is especially true when it comes to letting go of things. I am a fanatic about leftover food, for instance. I hardly let anything that's in the refrigerator make it to the garbage can. I eat it all.

This philosophy has led to some questionable decisions. One time, I left an iced coffee with cream on the back door stoop while I was doing yard work on a blazing summer day. Hours later, my throat parched, I came back to it and gulped it down without a second thought. A neighbor practically went into convulsions as she watched me, no doubt thinking how nearly curdled milk would react with my gut.

No problemo.

Then there was another time when I left the remains of a chicken curry dinner in the back foyer overnight. I didn't notice it until the next day as I was rooting around the house around lunchtime. I opened the container, sniffed it, pronounced it non-toxic, and began to dig in. That's when my wife walked in.

"Did you leave that out all night last night?" she asked.

"Yeah," I said as I was about to shovel in the first bite.

"It's got chicken in there, right?"

"Yeah," I said.

"You can get salmonella from chicken gone bad."

I took a last, forlorn look at the curry dish, and with all the moral strength I could muster, tossed it into the garbage. I think I actually winced as I did this. People have shown less emotion at funerals than I did to that trashed meal.

Those tales are a long way of me getting to the main story here, which has to do with parting with my first pair of sandals – a real tearjerker of a goodbye. I used to abhor sandals; vowed I'd never wear them. I was a tennis shoes kind of guy,  a dude who dressed athletic and that included the shoes, too, thank you very much. Sandals were for biblical figures and pansies. I'll be dead before I exposed my toes to humanity.

Three summers ago,  the Lutheran church we had begun to attend held its first summer service, which are on Saturday evenings. I dressed as I usually did – long-sleeve, buttoned-down shirt, khakis and loafers. Maybe even wore a tie. Can't remember. In any event, I was relatively sharply dressed. We arrive for service and lo and behold, our pastor comes out in shorts and sandals. I just gawked at him. 

I realized, if my pastor, whom I admire so much, think it's alright, maybe even cool, to wear sandals, perhaps I should reconsider? 

That week, I bought my first pair of sandals. Nothing special, mind you. I aim for utility and comfort when it comes to footwear. So, these were simple, brown sandals, with a velcro flap in the front and a velcro flap in the back. And, boy, were they comfortable! Once summer came, you couldn't get me out of them. I wore them everywhere. I loved how my feet were cool, how they breathed, and how I could swim with them on in the bay, listen to them scrunch as I walked home and within hours they'd be dry again. 

They were super. So super, in fact, that I couldn't bear to get rid of them.

But shoes, unlike diamonds I guess, are not forever. And, despite the fact that I had nearly worn through my sandals and was pretty touching pavement when I walked, I needed a nudge to tell me it was time to let go.

So, my wife got evidence. That's the picture you see at the beginning of this post.

That picture needn't tell a thousand words. It told me: Time to get some new sandals.

So, last week, I did. The new pair doesn't feel as comfortable as the first pair (before they got worn down), and we're still getting used to each other. But we trudged home today in a downpour, and they squished as I walked.

I smiled.  This pair may last after all.

Monday, July 21, 2008

It ain't summer if I'm not battling crabgrass

As the headline says, it ain't summer if I'm not out there battling crabgrass.

Not with herbicides, mind you. No, I'm down on my hands and knees plucking those suckers from the ground, from the garden, from crevices in the driveway, cracks in the walkway and tucked beneath the pea and green bean plants. I growl at them, grimace as I grab the roots and yank them out, enjoy the passing power of ripping it from its home, tempered by the realization that my victory is fleeting at best.

If I were really smart, I'd prepare by following some simple guidelines that knowledgeable gardeners have come up with.

Instead, I stew. But I also have developed a grudging admiration for the little devil.

Consider the general attributes of
Digitaria ischaemum: It is a fierce competitor, a plant that can root in poor soil or rich, grows quickly and appears to do best when it's hot and dry – periods when other plants are stressed and weak. It seeds prolifically and colonizes new areas with startling rapidity.

Consider its structure: After a crabgrass seedling thrusts its roots into the soil , its shoots fan out like spokes on a wheel, hugging the ground as they radiate outward. The effect, at least to me, seems clear: The shoots blanket the surrounding plant life, literally asphyxiating it by blocking the sunlight.

Consider its staying power: It grows feverishly in hot, dry weather, as I mentioned above, a double advantage when you consider crabgrass seems to strengthen in just the kind of weather that causes other grasses and plants to wither. Once it roots, it is hell to pull out. Ever tried? Pull at the "spokes," and you'll get a fistful of grass, while leaving the center "spoke" intact. And that center will grow back, just as hardily as before. The key, I've found, is to grip the center bulb, dig your fingers into the soil around it to gain leverage, and to tug slowly, taking care to extract the entire bulb and the roots dangling from the bottom. If you miss the roots, you won't remove the crabgrass.

So, here we have a summertime scourge that carpets and kills that fine grass you've been growing, overruns your vegetable and flower gardens, likes it hot and dry, and is a royal pain in the rump to pull out.

Yet I can't help but admire it for being such a fine competitor, engineered to do best when other species are at their worst and designed to literally snuff out its opponents. It's fascinating, really.

Still, I'd be happier if I could pull all those plugs and be done with them.

Won't happen. If it's summer, then I've got crabgrass.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Iceland Bound

I had a wacky proposal not too long ago.

I was shooting the breeze with a planetary geologist at Brown. We were at a reception in April marking the opening of an exhibit on the Moon, the wine was flowing, and hey, all of us were a little chatty.

The geologist, one of the newer folks on the faculty, told me that he and some others in the department were going to Iceland this summer to study land features that offer the best comparison to some surfaces on Mars.

"Ooh, I'd love to go!" I gushed.

"Well," he said, "I think you may be able to. We've got an extra seat in the vehicle, we'll be camping and the food will be paid for already. All you need is a plane ticket over."

That got me to thinking. I had been at my job at Brown for about two months. I had a long way to go before my trial period ended. Should I ask to go?

Hell yes.

I mean, after all, how often does one get invited to Iceland?

So, the next day I emailed the geologist – a subtle nudge in case he had forgotten our conversation. The offer still stood.

Over the next few weeks, we talked more about it, sketching out where the research team was going, how long they would be in the field, what they would be doing, and what I would be doing.

After a couple more weeks, I ginned up a proposal. I met with my supervisor and gave my best shot.

It would be great learning experience, a chance to observe scientists in the field and participate in the experiments, I said.

I would learn more about Mars and the importance of terrestrial analogs to better understand the Red Planet, I argued.

I can file regular dispatches, take pictures and compile photo slideshows for the school's Web site, I added.

It would help broaden Brown's image by showing what faculty are doing around the world, I concluded.

My supervisor hardly blinked an eye. He was on board. It was like love at the first salvo of my presentation.

I bought the plane ticket last week. I mailed the form to renew my passport today. I'm looking for a place to stay in Reykjavik.

I am going to Iceland. Hot damn.

I am a lucky man.