Archive for January, 2012

Pecan Harvesting
Image by lierne via Flickr

When was it that I began to perform work toward some positive result?  Not an easy answer.  Gather up my toys?  Make my bed?  Put those dirty drawers in the hamper?  Most of my early toil seems to have been compensating for the mess I had made of my surroundings.  Such strivings are at best unremarkable.  It was only when I began to see work as labor of love that it became worth thinking and writing about.

I first experienced creating sweat equity with my Aunt Judy harvesting paper-shelled Texas pecans.  “Picking-up-pecans” is something most all Texans do, and are proud of it.  They are the best pecans in the world, with shells so thin and crisp they can be cracked open by placing two nuts in your fist and squeezing.  They crack each other open, exposing the golden nodules of deliciousness hidden in those thin dainty shells.  Unlike the wizened desiccated carcasses purveyed in supermarkets, these freshly opened nuts are light blonde, and frankly plump, straining to surround the moist and oily life they contain.  The taste of Texas pecan is complex and rewarding above all other nuts.  Maybe bragging about native pecans is how Texans first developed that unattractive braggadocio so often complained about by visitors.

Picking up pecans is a leveler of persons.  Anybody can be a whopping success if they have the “stick-to-it-ive-ness” required to fill their bucket.  It puts everybody on their knees, a metaphor for the humility requisite to a mature humanity.  Picking up pecans puts everybody in their jeans.  Rugged cotton dungarees are called for, without apology.

Pickers start out close together, kneeling companionably in the challenging mix of newly fallen nuts and leavings from past seasons that cover the late persisting green of St. Augustine grass.  It takes articulate hands to stir the jumble, and good eyes to spy the prize.  Squirrels and previous pickers have shucked early nuts leaving the detritus of outer casings, stems, and even a few of last year’s crop ignored by last years’ extra-picky pickers.  Not all nuts are equal: some waited to fall until their outer cases opened, drying, and curling away, jutting prideful like a new-formed woman-child leading coyly with her breasts, the perfectly ripe pecans ready and waiting, offering themselves to the whims of wind and gravity.  Those nuts are the best, tasting ripe and ready.  Others, shaken or beaten down with poles, still tightly cased, can be shucked and harvested, but will have a flavor that hints of greenness, not quite readiness, a stingy resentment at being taken before their time.

As the day flows, the pickers spread, seeking solitude or far-fallen nutty treasure.  Their shared subtle excitement recalls Easter egg hunts, with the predictable joy of spying a colored egg beaming its improbable spectra from left-over winter deadfall and drab.  The day chosen for the pecan harvest is always dry, mostly clear, a bit windy, with scraps of cloud scudding before the irritable breezes that portend the harsh bluster of Halloween night, shuddering stripped cornstalks, bound, standing straight and sere, amid the sturdy roundness of pumpkins waiting to be taken for pie or lit candles.  The loveliness of the autumn day is all the more beautiful compared against approaching winter storms roaring down out of the north.  We pickers don’t want to think about “Blue-Northers” just yet and pick harder and faster.  Those long winter nights are when we’ll gather by the fire and shell our pecans for the coming year’s pecan pies, pecan fudge, pecan divinity, pecan pralines, and pecan you-name-it, whichever of thousands of cherished family recipes.

Finally comes the time that distinguishes the men from the boys.  In Texas they still say such things.  Eventually the children, distracted and bored, drift away to flirt with whatever excitement can be found.  Adults, enjoying a task that provides time for meditation without the guilt of idleness, continue until buckets are filled to overflowing.  Knees protest, and oldsters regain their feet with groans and aching joints. 

The task completed yields satisfaction and gratitude to the trees for their bounty.  Some departing pickers, given to considering the poetry of nature, stop to admire the giant trees, their lovely symmetry, the fractal geometry of their branching, the stability of their bold expression, the love manifest by their root systems in intimate conjunction with the mother of us all.  Others, more practical, load the full buckets, round up the kids, chide the laggard poets, and head for home.  There’ll be pecans again next year, both to eat and to rhapsodize about.  Picking up Texas pecans is a perfect example of work becoming its own reward.

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Wild Hares

As a pre-teen, I visited for two weeks every summer with my Dad’s parents in the farm country west of Ft. Worth.  In the pasture beyond the fenced front yard there was a giant oak tree with several generations of farm detritus strewn about its roots.  There were wagon wheels, rims, chain, wire, lanterns, gears, pails, and innumerable miscellany.  Most were rusty, but all were full of imaginative possibility.  It was my special place.

With these junk components I assembled many marvels of invention.  I constructed a bicycle with wheels that turned.  There was a rocket ship, a loom, and an escalator.  There was even a horse and buggy, but you had to imagine the horse.  I filled the hours in between Grandma’s meals with my serious work.  A scrawny child but growing aggressively, I never lost track of the possibilities of breakfast, (eggs, sausage, steaming buttermilk biscuits with fresh churned butter, pear preserves and red-eye gravy).  That was soon followed by high noon farm hand dinners spread on the dining room table, the old oilcloth clean but sticky, and quiet evening suppers, retrospective warm-ups of the noontide feast.  Those meals must have been inspired by her memories of men, strong, hot and dripping sweat, just in from the hayfield and powerful hungry.  The hours under my tree were peopled with those laborers’ ghosts and empowered by their implements laid aside just in case someday they might prove useful to the work at hand.  Fortified with Grandma’s cooking, I toiled.  Grasshoppers buzzed.  Dragonflies chased and caught each other, then lit all-coupled on the quiet creek skim, celebrating the marvels of surface tension.  Cicadas shrilled a solid wall of scream.  With all that company it never occurred to me to feel lonely.  I had all I needed to do my work.

Every object had a right place where it fit; each necessary to the whole.  All the parts went together, mechanisms incarnate.  They lived.  Wheels turned.  Bearings screeched.  Rims rolled.  Chains pulled.  Pails frothed with warm buttery milk.   Old harness became pliant and slick with horse and sweat.  Square nails and rusty rings coupled dreams, as once they had bonded boards and leather strapping.  Time shrank into the single moment of now as I embodied pure happiness.

One evening Grandpa came to visit me under my tree.  I showed him my wondrous creations, demonstrating how each one worked.  We spoke of future projects.  I confided my worry that since everything had already been thought of there would be nothing left for me to invent.  He assured me there were marvels yet to come, and said to keep an open mind for wild hares passing.  As light faded to the west and early stars blinked on, we walked together toward the house and rest.  I slipped my hand into his.  “Grandpa,” I asked, “you know, don’t you, that I don’t really believe my machines are real?  They are just pretend like the mud-pies Grandma and I made when I was little.”  He looked down at me, eyes twinkling but with a face full of serious. “Sure,” he said.  “I know. But you can never tell with those jackrabbits.”

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Blowing Smoke

(This started as a dream.   Dreams can lead to strange places.)

I looked up and there was a building, inverted and emitting a plume of pink smoke__ bright, bright pink.  I stood in the street and everywhere there were children.  I pointed up to the smoke.  The children had better things to do. They looked up, shrugged their shoulders, and went on their way.  I wanted to stop them and make them see this strangeness with me, but it was useless.

I once asked my dad, Kelsey, why he was so reticent.  “Easy,” he shrugged.  “If you don’t say anything people think you’re smart.  As soon as you open your mouth and start talking, they know better.  Maintain a knowing silence, and they think you’re a genius.”

_Dorothy Jeanette Martin

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One reason why Alzheimer’s is so ugly is that it mimics Narcissism in its deconstruction of the self.  Narcissism might well be defined as the inchoate fear of disintegration.  What can be more frightening?  This wonky insight is something that accrued to my fascination with the important psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut who is agreed to have broken the code of Narcissistic Personality Disorder.  I learned that narcissism is far more complex and ubiquitous than the classic myth of Narcissus, gazing into his pool , provides to the general run of popular psychological understanding.

I believe there is a connection between Alzheimer’s and the mechanisms of human thought.  Why is there now an epidemic of dementia?  I suspect it is because we just plain folks know way too much about it, and we are terrified.  If we indeed create each other’s minds through our interactive gaze, (See previous posts entitled “Gaze” and “Catching Corelle”.) We may be initiating the shutdown of the mental processes through our cooperative hypochondriacal interactions and paranoiac expectations.  We used to say, “He’s just getting old and forgetful.”  Now we say, “He has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Dementia”.

Who in 2011 cannot describe in grisly detail how people of advanced age are expected to cognitively decline?  There is the science, the graphs, all slip-sliding down, all predicting what will, must, should occur.  Why “should”?  Because it is expected.  What is expected must occur; if it does not, we will make it occur.

My mother, deserted by my genius father when I was nine, fell into a distraught paranoia.  I too began to anguish, not about all the missed meals, but that I might come to be like her.  She made this wish to detach from her a natural, holding and stroking my hands, telling me that I was just like “Him”, exactly like “Him”, totally like “Him”, that I would surely do great things, like “Him”.  I saw the lunatic gleam in her eyes, and knew she was not there, but was somewhere else less frightening than being left to care for her child all alone with no-one to share the silent scream that chased its tail in her head

I submitted to her gentle stroking of my bi-lateral upper appendages, feeling wrong, feeling violated in some down and dirty way, soiled because at some dark and hidden level I believed I was like “Him”, wanted to be like “Him”, prayed to be like “Him”.  This was a Faustian transaction: I could let my Mother disintegrate, dragged away by the raging tide of her obsession and I could become “Him”, or conversely, I could mount a quiet rebellion.  It was my choice.  In my prior little twerp healthy narcissism, I had thought I created my own world, was thus all-powerful and omnipotent.  When my parents fought, it was always about me.  Mother shrieked at Daddy for his ever longer absences, leaving us bereft of money for basic earthly requirements such as food and shoes with room for growing feet. He loved me conceptually, even poetically, but failed to translate me into a meaty, bony, messy, inconvenient incarnation of all those lovely thoughts and words.

I affected a compromise: I chose to try but never succeed to become “Him”, never to be the son he wanted.  The wisest part of me knew that I must fail.  There was always a way to deny myself the hoped for success that would secure my fathers devotion, and in so doing, validate my mother’s incestuous desire to make me into a “Him”, a creature she could create and adore.

There is no doubt I did inherit an aptitude for understanding and manipulating the physicality of my realities, offering themselves to the joy of creative play.  However, I am not my Father.  I will never be fine enough, smart enough, dear enough, amazing enough.  It is better that I should just be me and let that be good enough.

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I had a dream last night.

When I woke, it stayed behind.

I lay with it, sang with it,

rocked it, ruminated on its truth,

netted in the hammock

of its subtle implication.

It snared me in a knot of gnosis,

knitted stitch by stitch

cast about my eye of mind,

an irony of blinding sight

wanting just to hide from light.


I rose and washed and dressed,

reaching for my “qwerty” board,

confident this was a perfect day

to be committing thought to page..

Seat to chair, fingers stroking keys,

shoulders hunched in readiness

for incipient amazements yet a-birth.

I held my breath, and……nothing.


Where did it go____the dream?

It was there, floating on my breath,

poised on the sensing lip of mind,

hiding in the hooded shroud of thought.

Mind, that haughty hoary hawk,

perches on her cliff-side aerie,

soft-ruffled in her brittle nest

of straight-line reasoned snips of real,

sure that snatching

this or any meaty fact

will garner all the difference.


I lean out, far, far out,

stretching out beyond

the hard cold gravitas of cliff-side stone,

beyond the vacuous emptiness of quest,

stretching ‘til my neck and arm and hand

ache toward abdication to,

the yearning inevitability of,

the glorious finality of…….abstraction.


And then……..nothing.


But wait!  “Dream” was here.

That sneaky pesky Coyote

has come and been and gone,

He’s left his calling card

tucked into the subtle gap of Niche.

“Just notice,” it instructs, scribed

in crisp self-conscious script.

I turn. I note, and yes.  I see!

The “A-ha!”, the insight,

that lovely glimpse of surety still waits,

sitting silent on the cliff’s hard edge.

Hunched on hairy human haunches,

he has taken up a part of me.

Is that how we benefit from dream?

Have we assigned to Morpheus

The context and content of our ken

but incorporate the distillation

of all that gnarly knowing

into the who and what we be?


The dream has drawn for me

a different kind of Dorothee.

I will never yet again

wake to nascent magic morn

without the surly bite of “got it”,

prickling on my tongue,

given and taken on this very day,

etched on marbled stone in poesy,

a tableted memorial to word.

Even should my mind implode,

and neurons, blinded, tangle

in their own dendritic paths,

I will be the who I am this day

until I, laughing, ride the tide,

the surge, the frothy crest,

of the forever-after wave.


Tomorrow, first I write; only then

will I wash, having seen what it is

that we, though blind,

shall surely see.


-Dorothy Jeanette Martin

                    January 15, 2012

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Catching Corelle

There is a magic moment that exists between the plate falling and the brain’s conscious decision to do something about it.  Cognitive function just isn’t fast enough.  The plate hits the floor.  The autonomic nervous system, however,  is perfectly capable of stepping into that magic moment, telling the hand to reach for the plate, even as it is falling, and in the same fluid instant, plucking it from the inevitability of destruction.  I don’t understand scientifically how this works, but I know it has saved many a dish in my kitchen.  Surprisingly, even as most other functions are slowing, I am still catching Corelle as it hurtles to oblivion.  It’s a mystery.


Understanding this to be a verifiable phenomenon, I have been motivated to study and utilize it in my own behavior.  I have never been able to remember names and faces.  Since I am indeed a visual learner and with language skills so far intact, this deficit is a puzzler.  Observing my thought process led me to an astounding discovery.  When presented with a human face, my first response, the one that clogged the magic dish catching moment, was the thought, “I can’t remember faces.”  In every instance, I was wasting the magic moment wherein I might have effortlessly linked the name and the face.  Based on this observation, I formulated an hypothesis:  The lag time that exists between autonomic perception and purposeful cognitive response is predictable and can be put to use to improve memory and performance.


Since 2007 I have been watching a lot of cable news trying to understand my culture beyond the purview of my lifelong geeky concerns.  I have watched hundreds of talking heads pontificate for way too many hours.  No notes.  Just watched and listened. Usually when a face would flash on the screen it was several seconds before the name and mojo of the speaker would appear.  I decided to utilize the situation and see what would happen.  Internalizing Nike, I told myself, “just do it”.  When a face appeared, I refrained from telling myself “you can’t”; I just spoke the name.  The amazing result was that I did know those people’s names and faces and could match them up amazingly well for a geek with a self diagnosed learning disability.


The next thing to do was to examine my learning process both past and present.  From the time I could prattle letters and numbers, I was convinced that only so much information could be stored inside my little noggin.  I guarded my mental capacity assiduously, refusing to memorize what I regarded as extraneous.  What possible use could be found for adding numbers, or worse still, multiplying them?  I would never have learned my times tables had a savvy teacher not taken away my library privileges until the deed was accomplished.  The problem was so bad that it was only in the seventh grade at boarding school that I began  sneaking down into the first grade classroom during the wee hours and using their flash cards to memorize addition and subtraction facts by flashlight.


My parents were complicit in this farce.  Mother told me that girls weren’t good at arithmetic, so I shouldn’t fret over it.  When I asked my dad for help, he showed me the all time best method for counting on my fingers.  I used that ruse until I invented a unique method of counting up visualized dots, unique to every numeral.  The number one had one dot at its base.  The number two had two dots, one at each end of its base.  Each number displayed its commensurate number of dots positioned for ready visualization, the larger ones distributed in domino patterns.


All this functioned marginally, earning me B’s but denying me the A’s I wanted.  I had created a monster.  A big ugly secret.  Guarding the secret became a knot of anxiety centered in my gut.  It moved in and took over my way of seeing the world of performance, like a cancer eating my ability to sing, play an instrument, speak before an audience, and of course doing arithmetic spontaneously in the presence of others.  While as a child soloist I had sung before large audiences, as a teen I abdicated that spotlight and became one of a gaggle of choir sopranos.  I had once played the piano with remarkable expression, but eventually gave up solo recitals altogether.


While arithmetic was ever my bane, conceptual mathematics tantalized me with its beautiful mysteries.  As a pre-schooler, I had spent my time on the potty tearing up squares of toilet paper into ever diminishing progressions that approached but never achieved zero.  I marveled at the fact that each unit alternated between being a square and being a rectangle.  There was surely some truth there lurking in the diminishing and alternating shapes. It was like standing between two mirrors and trying to count the images that replicated to infinity.  In the second grade I discovered the fun of walking to school using every available hypotenuse, amusing since I had not yet been introduced to Pythagoras.


Then came Algebra, and I fell in love.  Algebra was letters.  Friendly letters.  Numbers were involved, but peripherally.  I was the duck; Algebra was the water.  An elegant proof could bring tears to my eyes.  It was time to make those A’s, but of course I got tangled up in the under-drawers of my arithmetic anxiety.  It slowed me down and added a boat-load of fear to the mix.  I was stuck in the purgatory of being a so-so math student.  One day my teacher provided a life-changing insight.  He took away the pressure of performance.  He put an equation on the board and announced, “No one will be able to do this, but I’m letting you people try it just for fun”.  Silence.  All the smart-ass straight A students sat pondering, but I confidently walked to the board and chalked the entire solution.  The teacher smiled and said, “I always suspected there might be more to you.”  So I accepted myself as retarded at arithmetic but promising in mathematics.


That quandary haunted me through thirty-five years of a BS degree, and a career, though admittedly checkered, in engineering.  I was a rip roaring CAD jock and inventor, but never if somebody was watching.  Twice I made A’s in differential calculus, only to go on to twice make D’s in integral calculus.  Go figure. Now it’s all over, and I am free to puzzle out what that was all about.   I have learned not to believe people when they say “You can’t do that.”, “What will they think?”, “But you’re a girl.”, and the absolute worst, “You’re just a little old lady.”  I have started reconciling my bank balance without a calculator, adding and subtracting, though haltingly, in my head.  The secret: I use my magic moments.  My job is to “just do it” and to pass that winning algorithm on to those of my progeny who will listen, along with my still functioning set of Corelle.

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While on a church sponsored retreat and tucked into my cot at night, I began humming. The array of bare coiled springs under the mattress hummed back, but only when I hummed certain notes.  Later I asked my dad why.  He explained the concept of sympathetic resonance specific to the precise (tuned) frequency of that set of springs.  He explained that all flexible structures are capable of bending in response to external pressure, then returning to a relaxed state.  When subjected to a discrete frequency of vibration, a structure will attempt to flex and relax at that frequency, and at a directly proportional amplitude; the stronger the signal, the stronger the responding vibration.

The physical world is amazing, this case in point being the simple coiled set of springs supporting my camper’s mattress.   Everywhere I looked there were wonderful things to learn about.  In this case, the resonant frequency was determined by the composition, shape, and size of the spring wire, by the form and additive effect of the coils, by the fixed locations and terminations of the individual elements and by the nature of the coupling at the points of fixation. Not to be ignored is the length, width, and breadth of the integrated construct.  I have a suspicion that my presence, a weighted shape pre-loading the system, had an implication, but I hesitate, not wanting to spoil what I have understood as a lovely reality by introducing yet another complexity to obfuscate clarity of insight.  (Keep it simple, stupid!)  Visualizing, much less calculating, the whole concept would be difficult, but I was eager to try and see if I could be one of the relentlessly curious who would figure it out.

Equally interesting, imagine a still pond impacted by a single pebble.  The waveform generated propagates outward concentrically at a frequency specific to the viscosity of the fluid, and to the size, shape, surface texture, and weight of the pebble.  A second pebble, dropped at a distance from the original, sets up a pattern specific to its own unique entry.  When the two patterns intersect each other, a new (interference) pattern is created, and a whole new set of observations and inferences can be appreciated describing the additive (diffraction) pattern.  Though any number of waveforms and interstices can be introduced, a multiplicity of added pebbles, rocks, and boulders, creates great beauty and confusion.  Keeping to the simple truths fosters clarity, so I set aside the lovely complexities and pray over the bones of what is laid bare.

When I graduated from high school in 1956, girls didn’t go to engineering school, but that fact meant nothing to me.  My father said I could do anything I wanted to do.  Growing up resisting my mother’s confused realities was good training for resisting peer pressure that said that above all I must please the boys and play dumb.  That struck me as a very condescending attitude.  I wouldn’t like a boy anyway who would fall for such stupid manipulation.  I applied and was accepted at Carnegie Institute of Technology, with a major in Engineering Physics.

First week on campus, I bopped into the office of the head of the Department of Physics, introduced myself, and explained my intense interest in sympathetic resonance and the  spectra of frequencies interacting with physical structures.  A wise and gentle man, full of encouragement, Dr. Winbourne welcomed my innocent enthusiasm and assigned to me a small laboratory usually reserved for graduate students.  He piled it high with black boxes, high frequency oscillators, oscilloscopes, tuning forks, bridge platforms for vibratory analysis of tensioned wire, and pipes of adjustable length to experiment with vibrating air columns.  It was like having my very own toy store.  I jumped in and began trying to learn how it all worked and what to do with all that sophisticated instrumentation that was supposed to answer my questions.  I had a lot of class work, but I could still do this during free time.  It was a perfect setup.  I had two keys, one to the science building front door and one to my lab.  I kept to myself, bothering nobody.

Then one Saturday night before Christmas, as I was leaving, I stopped at the Physics Office to leave a note for the professor telling him I would be off-campus over the holiday.  As I scribbled on a notepad, I suddenly realized that I wasn’t alone in the office.  Five graduate students had slipped in, blocking both exits.  The eldest, a doctoral candidate I had seen in the halls, spoke first:  “We know why you’re here.  You can’t fool us.”

“Fool you?  What do you mean?  I‘m just leaving a note for Dr. Wilbourne.”

“That not what I’m talking about.  What are you doing in Lab 127?

“Doc assigned me that lab to do some experiments,” I snapped.  “What’s wrong with that?”

“You’re here to get your MRS degree.  We know what you’re up to.  You can forget about us.  We aren’t interested.”

“You?” I squawked.  “I‘m here to learn physics.”  My hands squeezed so tight my knuckles turned white, and my breath started coming in gasps.

“You’ll never learn this stuff.  We don’t like you being here.  Get it?   Hand over that lab key and don’t be inside the building except when you have a scheduled class.”

“I don’t have to do what you say.  Let me out!”  I pushed against the shortest creep who was blocking one of the doors with his blubber butt and belly.  It was pretty stupid of me to choose the biggest one to push against.  Did I want to get away, or did I want to prove to myself that it really was hopeless?  I’ll never know.  Sometimes even hindsight is less than 20/20.

Even the smallest of them was stouter than I was.  He grabbed my arm, smirking, and pointed toward my lab instructor.  “Robert, there, has your section for freshman physics lab.  An F in there would finish you.  Is that what you want?”

Robert piped up then, basically a wimpy geek but now emboldened by the others, “You didn’t get the picture, did you, when I wouldn’t let you check out materials and made you just watch the others do the experiments?  It’s a waste of lab space to let a girl do the set-ups, and it takes learning time away from the boys.  I really meant what I said.”

I assessed the dangerous possibilities of my situation and equivocated, “OK.  I’ll give the key to Dr. Wilbourne but not to you.  I‘ll do it.  I promise.  Now get out of my way.  I’m going to start screaming if you don’t let me out of here.”  They sneered and filed out then, heading down the hall.  They called back demands to remember what they had said, yuck-yucking to each other as they went.

The next day after class, I returned the key to Dr. Wilbourne.  I squirmed, full of shame, afraid to tell him what happened, and muttering that I just couldn’t spare time for extra lab work.  My stomach dropped like a rock, like it does even now when I think about the time I had my very own Carnegie Institute research lab but was dumb enough to let five bullies take it away from me.  I hate those assholes but not nearly so much as I hate myself for letting them do it to me.

I was part of the first tide of fearful but courageous young women who beat and broke bodies and brains against the irresistible flood wall of male science.  Now women take it as a given that they are welcomed and often even appreciated.  It’s tempting to hate them as well for giving no credit to those of us who made it possible for those who followed.  I do resist that temptation and feel only pride and happiness in their achievements.  That lovely confidence they claim as their natural right, makes me a retrospective winner in my own right.  Sounds like resonance to me!

__Dorothy Jeanette Martin

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