Saturday, June 30, 2012

My Backyard Garden

When I wake up on a summer morning, and look out my bedroom window, I see this little corner of my back garden. It's a bit of a mishmash today - the chairs are pushed back willy-nilly, the flowerpots still look a bit bare, that far corner of the bricks definitely needs weeding. And of course, I have a few dozen ideas for how to make it better, cleaner, prettier, more interesting. My imagination works overtime.

But that's okay. This does not have to be a fancy or stylish space - just a cozy place to sit on a sunny day. If it's warm enough, it's perfect for dinner. I feel quite lucky to have it, just as it is.

Arizona Adventures: The Heart Of The Campus

I love university campuses. Probably because I grew up on the edges of one campus, and spent my own cherished college years in the heart of another, I have always felt comfortably at home in these spaces. Over the years, I've visited my fair share of campuses, small, medium and super-sized, and find them all charming in their own ways.

And while it's true that each campus is unique, it is equally if oppositely true that campuses are all inherently alike. Oh, I love a good paradox. 

What is true is that each and every campus has a heart, a physical location that expresses something good and true and meaningful about the institution that is centered there. This physical place is most often a building, but might also be a statue or a quad or a fountain or a looping walkway or a bell tower. It may be located within a sprawling complex of buildings or even multiple campuses, or it might house the entire institution. 

Most importantly, these special places reveal the heart of the school, the traditions that its members uphold, and what they value.

So when I was visiting at University of Arizona for the first time last week, I sought out the heart of its campus to see what it might reveal to me.

What I found was a long strip of green grass. They call it the Mall. Now that might not sound like much excitement, but remember, this is the desert. There is precious little grass on this campus; while most of the grounds are a showcase of native plants worthy of any arboretum, the primary ground cover is simply natural gravel. To keep a several-blocks-long stretch of grass green in that baking heat is no small matter, and the grass alone revealed to me that I had found the right place.

At the west end of the Mall stands the original building that once housed the entire university, dating back to 1891. Known as Old Main, this elegant beauty has seen some troubled times, including a narrow escape from demoliton in the early 1940s. Recently restored to her full glory, she now shines as a beacon to tradition, resilience and surprising good fortune.

It's a long walk down the Mall, especially in the 104 degree heat of a June day. But I wanted to take in every inch of this space, to see what it might say to me, to see what was waiting for me at the eastern end. 

Plus I was tired of sitting in boring workshops on a gloriously sunny day. So off I went. Here are some of the sights I saw along the way.

When I arrived at the eastern end of the long grassy Mall, I discovered a new treat: a modern metal sculpture that looked like a series of giant wishbones towering over me in the grass. Looking through the archways they created, back up from where I had come, I could see Old Mail at the far end of that ribbon of grass, highlighted by the mountains in the background and the gathering monsoon clouds up above.

It seemed to me that these two endpoints of the Mall serve as a perfect metaphor for a university that values its roots and traditions, while viewing them through a contemporary lens. That is a noble goal for all of us, and a valuable reminder to be found at the heart of this campus.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Arizona Adventure: My Desert Hero

Tucson, Arizona, is located smack dab in the middle of a desert. The climate is hot and dry, and I am totally unsuited to deal with it.

Nevertheless, deal with it for two days I must. So as I rode through that dusty, dry town for the first time, I was searching for inspiration and positive coping energy.

I found just what I needed by looking up.

The saguaro, a massive cactus and hardy survivor of the Sonoran Desert, has just the attitude I was looking for. How something so sturdy and strong can survive on 11 inches of water per year, I don't fully understand. It is a wonder to behold.

Certainly, there are other amazing plants that thrive in this hostile (at least to me) climate. There are several that I truly admire:

The oputnia, or prickly pear, whose precious polka-dotted paddles I adore:

 This fancy filigreed little number know as the Washingtonia filifera or Desert Palm has a festive charm, especially when its base is filled with colorful cast-off petals:

And then there's this poor unfortunate thorny fellow, know by his friends as ocotillo but formally named fouquieria splendens.  During the dry months, his branches are grey and lifeless but when the monsoon rains kick in, little green leaves spring forth.


Of course, I'm always drawn to sweet pink and white blossoms over deep green waxy leaves.  

But among all these desert beauties, for me, the saguaro stands head and shoulders above the rest. Designed so cleverly to survive in this inhospitable place, I'm fascinated, for example, with the intricate pleats that expand, thereby allowing him to absorb extra water when it's available. As the water is slowly used, he gradually shrinks back down, and the pleats neatly hold the extra surface area in place. Very efficient.

Look at the photo below. See those itty bitty little bumps sticking out up there near the top? They will eventually develop into the long, upward-curving, iconic arms that make this cactus instantly recognizable for anyone who's watched an American western. The new arms will give the plant more blossoms and more fruit, thereby increasing its reproductive capacity. Very clever. 

As if this impressive cactus isn't working hard enough to ensure his own survival, the saguaro offers shelter to others. A number of desert birds make their homes within the saguaro, using holes such as this one to nest deep inside. Very generous.

Mr. Saguaro, I admire your determination to survive in this harsh world. I will be here with you in the desert for only a few days, with my sunscreen and water bottle and sunglasses and air-conditioned hiding places. But when I see you, standing tall and brave and completely open to the elements, I am inspired to stop whining and cope. You are my desert hero.

For more Arizona adventures, go here.

Arizona Adventure: Flying South

It was just the first step on a two-day adventure in Arizona, but my flight south was a fun little journey all on its own.

Flying out of Seattle is always delicious. I love to see good ol' Puget Sound in all its glory as it loops and cavorts around the various tree-covered islands, peninsulas, and funky bits of land. Honestly, the view from the air is just so rich and lush that as usual, I pressed my nose to the window to take in every glorious inch.

Then we climbed up above the low layer of clouds that we Pacific Northwesterners like to call the "marine layer." See? That sounds so nautical and jaunty, doesn't it.

With the high layer of clouds up above us, I felt like I was in a cloud sandwich. 

And with a few more bumps and jolts than usual, our trusty jet zoomed up to cruising altitude, where we could see all the clouds far below us, and the deep blue outer atmosphere up above. 

These sights give me chills every time I fly. 

Within a half hour or so, we left our lush green corner of the world and spent most of the next two hours crossing over the wastelands of eastern Oregon, Nevada, Utah and Arizona.

This part of the world is oh, so very dry. And dull. And uninhabited. And unrelentingly brown.

Now I love to fly. I enjoy everything about it - the flight attendants' routines, the variety of interesting buttons around my seat, the delightful fun of being served a cool beverage in cute little cup. I am intrigued the power of the plane's engines and the mechanics of flying - I listen for the landing gear to go up and down, I watch the flaps maneuver this way and that, I am fascinated by all the sensations of being lifted, dropped, and occasionally tossed from side to side in this tiny tin can of a miracle that hurtles me through the sky. In all honesty, I have a healthy fear of this mode of travel, and that makes the experience all the much more exciting to me. 

Of all those wonderful things, my favorite part of flying is looking out the window. I love to see the world unfolding below me, and I usually find the scenery to be endlessly fascinating.

But on this flight, after a while, I have to admit that I got a little bored with all the brown ridges. There is not much else to see in this landscape, and I was in need of some novelty.

Happily, snack time diverted me. I munched on the contents of my shiny snack packet and gulped down with a big glass of icy orange juice. This meager heap of salty treats wasn't much of a meal, but it filled me up quite nicely.

And then I could no longer help myself. I fell asleep.

I am a champion plane sleeper. The droning engines sing their lullaby to me, and I drop off like a baby in a cradle. 

Now if the scenery is interesting, I'll try to fight off my drowsiness. But on this trip, I figured that there would be nothing worth seeing till we dropped down into Tucson, so I let my eyelids fall and drifted off to sleep.

I slept soundly for at least ninety minutes until I felt a sharp dig in my arm. As my eyeballs flew open, I immediately saw my daughter pointing out the window. "Look," she commanded.

I looked. And this is what I saw.

Holy moly. That's the Grand Canyon!!

What a beautiful, glorious, commanding vision. We both stared at it in silent awe. 

Brown scenery is not always boring. Sometimes, it is stupendously fantastic. 

You just have to know when to look.

Then my plane gently fell from the sky and deposited me in Tucson. I rented a car, bought myself this cheeseburger and began exploring the brown town.

Next time, I will show you the stupendously fantastic things I found.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Return Of The Queen

One of the worst parts of being away from home is missing my pets.

One of the best parts about coming home is welcoming each other. My dog and three cats all greeted me with abandon when I returned home in the wee hours of the night, and this morning they continue to be especially sweet and affectionate.

Ranger has not left my side since I walked in the door. Currently he is sleeping with his head under the bed. Faithful and true.

Sirius the tuxedo cat has been sitting on my pillow and watching me Instagram. Then he allowed me to rub his tummy for eight hours.

Tiger-striped Cedric is asleep on his throne aka the top bunk bed. When I went in to take his photo, he woke up, looked at me, yawned, and cranked up an ear-splitting purr.

Luna, the black shadow, is the only rebel. After giving me the hero's welcome last night, and few wet nose-to-nose kisses, he has gone outside to play.

Now that we are all back together again, we are ready for life to go on.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

A Calming Pattern

I'm in the Tucson airport, waiting for a plane to take me home. My brain is whirling from the excitement, emotion and all-around overstimulation of this visit. I tried to slow my mind's pace by eating, staring out the window, watching a baseball game, and reading, but somehow, those diversions just amped me up even more.

In a last-ditch effort to settle myself down, I took my camera and adventured around the mostly deserted waiting area, snapping pictures of whatever interested me. I found myself drawn, as you can see, to little geometric patterns and grids. And as I photographed and edited this series, I could feel my brain slowing down, and my thoughts returning to a more orderly progression.

It feels good to be calm.