Order of Increasing Chaos

Naive Chaos by Dr. Motte (2006)CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via Flickr https://flic.kr/p/i3DUy
Naive Chaos by Dr. Motte (2006)CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via Flickr https://flic.kr/p/i3DUy

In the Norwegian fairytale East of the Sun, West of the Moon, a young woman accidentally spills three drops of wax as she peers at her sleeping husband. (Whom she’s never actually seen in his human form before because he spends the majority of his time as a giant polar bear.) Anyway, this is a major plot point in the story, because in order for the couple to be together, the heroine must ultimately wash the wax stains from the spill out of her husband’s shirt. (It could be a commercial for laundry detergent! Wait, maybe this is the real origin of the soap opera?)

Meanwhile (while the heroine is off solving complicated quests in order to get back to her sometimes-human, sometimes-polar bear beau), three troll women each try their hands at washing the stains off the shirt. However, as much as they try, the shirt only gets dirtier and dirtier.

I came to a realization today: I am a troll woman. No, not literally, but everything I do to increase order seems to only produce more chaos. I have been sorting and donating stuff for the past several days in order to prepare for my move out of my parents’ house. There is a lot of stuff. Alot.

Some of these items were retrieved from my parents’ storage unit. (After 2 1/2 years of not noticing their absence, I finally decided it was time to get rid of them.) Other of these items have been accumulating in slow drifts around my bedroom and closets. Some of these items were originally my possessions. Others acquired by my siblings, but have been deposited in clutter middens co-mingled with my stuff. All of them need to find new homes.

It would be simpler if I just stuffed everything into gigantic trash bags and was done with it. Sayonara, stuff! Bon voyage to the landfill! (But that is not how I roll.) Instead, I am trying to maximize the utility and lifespan of the items (some of which are quite nice pieces of clothing, books, and art supplies). You can check out my list of KC-area reuse and recycling resources. Only after items have been assessed unfit for donation or recycling, are they deposited into the Black Trash Bag of Doom!

I have made quite a few donations since Monday (books, clothing, household items, art supplies, etc), but even as I get rid of many boxes and bags full of items, the place only seems to get messier and messier. I despair of ever hitting bottom. So instead of actually cleaning, sorting and packing, I have decided to drink tea and compare my frustration to the lot of troll women in a dimly-remembered fairytale.

This process is rather time and effort intensive. Part of my problem is that though remorseless, I lack method. I get easily distracted by each new treasure trove I encounter (“So that’s what happened to my essays from sophomore year Western Civ…”). Instead of strategically clearing one area before starting on the next, I’m falling all over the place: Tripping on overlapping piles and conflicting intentions, in a miasma of dust and misplaced nostalgia.

Maybe it’s best to get some sleep and start over in the morning. I just wish I had some tangible notion of progress, instead of the vague idea that my room is just becoming more and more filled with things. (Mysteriously multiplying like tribbles when my back is turned!)


Rotten Tomatoes

Tomato rotting on vine
End of Season by TimLewisNM (2010) CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr https://flic.kr/p/8KxiHj

One the downsides of an abundant tomato crop is that the tomatoes ripen faster than humans can organize to pick them. This is especially true of a volunteer-run community garden project. Sunday morning, I agreed to come to help harvest ripe vegetables and to arrange logistics of delivery to food pantries. I hadn’t been to the Mitzvah Garden, a project growing food for local pantries, all summer. I discovered that after working all week at the Children’s garden, I couldn’t force myself to get up early on Sunday morning to … work in another garden. Only a special request from our usual organizer (who would be out of town) got me into my garden clothes for a 6th day of the week.

When I arrived Sunday morning, it was great to catch up with other volunteers whom I hadn’t seen all summer. However, it was finally time to get to work. Other headed for the bell peppers and the cucumbers. I grabbed a “slush bucket” and “good tomato bucket” and headed for the tomato forest. We were both blessed and cursed with a bountiful harvest of tomatoes. The tomato plants burgeoned with ripe fruit, but the humans weren’t fast enough to get them before overripe tomatoes became food for various invertebrates and microorganisms.

As the only tomato harvesting volunteer at first, I realized I need to move methodically down the rows, putting mushy tomatoes in the compost bucket, while keeping the solid citizens in a separate container. Then, I would transfer the good tomatoes to the flats I put strategically at the end of each row. Physically, it was pretty challenging, squatting or kneeling between the rows to reach low-hanging tomatoes.

However, I hadn’t taken into account the sheer … gloppiness of the endeavor. As I reached for tomatoes on the plants, it wasn’t always clear which ones were good tomatoes and which ones were rotten. Putting my hand around rotten tomato often resulted in its explosion, coating my gloves and clothing with stinking, rotten tomato juice. I tried to keep the stinky slush off the good tomatoes (which occasional got splattered) by wiping them off on my pants. Soon, I was completely marinated in a coating of fermented, rotten tomato slime, sweat and dirt.

Eventually, other volunteers joined us to help harvest tomatoes (and then some of them snuck away to do other activities.) I let other people deal with the good tomatoes and focused on the slushy ones. I made 4 separate trips to the compost pile to re-empty my bucket of rotten tomato paste. I also hadn’t counted on the sheer volume of tomatoes I was dealing with: Even with perhaps a 3 to 1 ratio of mushy tomatoes to good tomatoes, we still ended up with 8 flats of tomatoes for delivery! Though there was a silver lining to our adventure, I was too miserable and smelly by the end of the harvest to appreciate the mitzvah.

As I walked in to the house, I stripped off my filthy shoes, hat and clothing. Then I made a beeline for the shower. Maybe scientists will some day discover that rotten tomatoes are actually an excellent skin tonic. However, now I think I know why bad comedians are pelted with them: Soaking someone in rotten tomato slime clearly indicates the depth of one’s displeasure with the object. That is all.

Seeding the Brassicas

PPJ using a “dibbler” to create indentations for planting seeds in soil trays.

It was a dark and stormy … week. Monday night brought the first Tornado warning and take-cover-in-the-basement interlude of the summer. Thereafter, it rained almost every day. Our Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday tours all cancelled due to inclement weather. However, even without kiddos to be entertained and educated, there was plenty of work to be done.

It was time for seeding the fall brassicas! We have to plant seeds now in order for little cabbage, kale, collards, broccoli and cauliflower plants to be ready for Community garden members to transplant at the end of August. I have been part of seeding missions before when I worked at Adamah. But this was the first time I saw the process through from the very beginning.

We assembled our crack team of seeders and divided up jobs. Some of us were filling up flats with soil (10 6-packs per flat). (Soil also had to moistened and tumbled before it malleable enough to lightly pack into the flats, which are kind of like cafeteria lunch trays or muffin pans.) We took turns using the “dibbler,” a template used to press into the trays to create indentations that evenly spaced and of uniform depth. (See photo at the beginning of this post.)

Then, we put seeds of each variety into the “dibbles” (indentations) in requested number of flats. Twelve flats of Top Bunch Collards! Seven trays of Snow crown cauliflower! Three trays of dinosaur kale! (You get the idea.) … Until we filled up about 120 of the things. As we seeded, each flat needed to be marked with label containing the date and variety of seed.

The brassica seeds are these cute little round balls that are kind of tricky to handle. I would estimate each seed is about 0.2 cm in diameter.

Black mustard seeds by Zoyachubby (2007) CC BY-ND 2.0 via Flickr. https://farm1.staticflickr.com/217/464140864_f612c23556.jpg
Black mustard seeds by Zoyachubby (2007) CC BY-ND 2.0 via Flickr. https://farm1.staticflickr.com/217/464140864_f612c23556.jpg

Some of the seeds are coated with a hard, colored coating (fungicide? fertilizer) in bright shades of blue and silver, which makes them look like candy sprinkles. It also made it easier to see where you had dropped them into the soil. The brown seeds? Not so much.

At first, I would drop the seeds and they would roll all over the table. It was challenging to roll them through my fingers and get them into the dibbled holes. However, with sufficient repetition, I reached a rhythm and achieved a meditative, flow state. What could have been a tedious and frustrating process became actually very relaxing and enjoyable.

One of our coworkers at the garden pointed out that seeders have a special relationship with the plants and community members: By seeding, we get to touch every single plant that our members purchase through their garden membership. Hundreds of low-income people around the city will be eating fresh, healthy food because we helped seed the plants that they put in their gardens. I really like that feeling of connectedness, especially knowing that because of our hard work now, people will be able to enjoy their broccoli and kale and collards this fall.

After seeding, each flat is meticulously covered with fine soil (“fairy dust”), gently pressed down, watered and covered with a special clear plastic lid. After sitting inside (piled up in the stacks in the conference room) for a few days, the germinated seeds can finally go out to the greenhouse to continue growing into baby plants.

Carrying flats of plants seems easy before watering. Afterwards, the soil gets a lot heavier! Also, it turns out there is a lot of “tetris”-like spatial processing involved in keeping the various flats of a kind together, as well as figuring out how to stack them safely and effectively. I look forward to arriving at work next week to help transfer our brand new seedlings into the greenhouse. You go, baby kale plants, grow, grow, grow!

Tangents for this post:
More about developing organic seed varieties from National Public Radio.

Remorseless, but lacks method

July 30/10 cleaning by Judith Doyle (2010)  CC BY-ND 2.0 via Flickr https://c1.staticflickr.com/5/4148/4845751420_860c2648ce_b.jpg
July 30/10 cleaning by Judith Doyle (2010) CC BY-ND 2.0 via Flickr https://c1.staticflickr.com/5/4148/4845751420_860c2648ce_b.jpg

By that time Sophie had swept and scrubbed herself into a state when she could hardly move. … That was Sophie’s trouble. She was remorseless, but she lacked method.

– Diana Wynne Jones, “Howl’s Moving Castle.”

Yesterday, I appeared to pledge to the internets that I would spend the weekend in a state of jellified ooze, absorbing nutrients and entertainment by osmosis, to enter of state of s(ub)lime relaxation.

That did not happen.

My parents were scheduled to return from vacation Friday afternoon. Friday morning, drinking my first cup of french pressed coffee, I noticed the bare soles of my feet made “sucking” sounds as I moved across sticky patches of the kitchen floor. “This is not good,” I thought.

As in every teen movie (possibly ever), I said to my brother, “We need to clean up before the parents return.” (The difference in this case is that we are both college-educated adults, who *should* be responsible enough to maintain a home in a relatively livable state for a week or so.) We have been washing the dishes, taking out the trash and recycling, bringing in the mail and newspaper.

But there were still drifts of detritus/crumbs/sticky spots on the kitchen table, the counters and especially, the floor. First, I cleaned off the crumbs and sticky stuff from the table and counters (figuring whatever fell onto the floor would be picked up by the vacuum.) Then, I vacuumed the kitchen floor. Finally, I spritzed the sticky spots on the kitchen floor (around the sink, fridge, stove, table, trash) with hardwood floor cleaner. Since I couldn’t find the dust mop, got on my hands and knees to wipe the floor clean with old towels.

Then I drank a 2nd cup of coffee and:
1) cleaned out the kitchen sink and backsplash
2) folded laundry
3) washed all the towels/rags I used to clean the kitchen
4) worked on my mom’s knitting project that involved double-pointed needles that had been vexing her.
“Can you take it into the knitting studio and ask for help?” she said.
“Ha, I bet I can figured it out,” I replied nonchalantly.

The process resembles what the sheep in the drawing is doing:

Alice and the Knitting Sheep by John Tenniel, from "Through the Looking Glass" (1871)  via Wikimedia Commons
Alice and the Knitting Sheep by John Tenniel, from “Through the Looking Glass” (1871) via Wikimedia Commons

After some trial and error, I finally figured it out. Working on double-pointed knitting needles (in the round) is a somewhat advanced skill. You have to be able to maintain the appropriate amount of tension on the yarn, while juggling 5 double pointed needles in a circle (instead of the just the normal two knitting needles.)

Then I realized we didn’t have anything to eat for dinner and my parents would be home in an hour! So I defrosted a package of frozen chicken quarters in the microwave (yay autodefrost poultry settings!) and threw it in the oven with garlic powder and paprika. Then I cut up a salad of cucumber, tomatoes, radishes and bell peppers.

And collapsed into a chair.

While I was pleased with my knitting victory, some edible food and a clean-ish kitchen, I was now absolutely exhausted, but still twingeing with my caffeine-induced productivity.

I took a look at the newspaper (which I finally brought it by late afternoon). My horoscope said:
“You intuitively know what to do. Pace yourself and recognize that you are not a superhero. Tonight: Know when to say, “Enough is enough.”

To which I said, “Amen.”

Oozing towards a holiday weekend

garden slug on brick path
Garden Slug by Protopian Pickle Jar (2015) CC BY SA 2.0

“Summer” is a strange, nebulous construct, especially for adults currently untethered to the school year. It’s more than just a season of lightweight clothing and hot temperatures, watermelon and “beach reads.” It’s not quite a vacation, because I think I’m working pretty hard. Well, I’m exhausted at the end of the day, covered in frosting of soil, but happy.

I love my summer job at the children’s garden (which I will leave at the end of August), so I’m about 1/3 of the way through the season. However, the days are starting to flow together in a haze of SPF 50+ sunscreen, sweat, mulch, silly songs and fun facts about plants. I mutter, trying to orient myself: “Did we have that group on Tuesday or Wednesday? Were they big kids or little ones? Was it sunny or raining?” I don’t even know any more. Thank goodness we are taking pictures (mostly of staff, but with media releases only for kids), because I’m not sure I would be able to place any given event in a particular order.

So as I approach the cusp of the 3 day weekend, I must admit I’m feeling a little viscous. Boneless. Like I’m oozing along a sluggish slime trail. Or the malevolent metamucil monster than murdered Tasha Yar. But not hostile, just … colloidal.

My inertial inclination is to melt into a puddle of goo this weekend (creating a human impression of chia pudding) and read novels. My intellectual ambitions aim at researching and writing more blog posts. The nearly dormant organization itch tries to rouse my physical form into cleaning up stuff. My spirit was sort of willing, but only sort of, so I checked out a library book about cleaning up. Maybe this will prove inspirational.

I just accepted a job offer that starts at the end of the summer in another city. More on this story as it develops, but it will eventually require packing, donating or trashing a large portion of the stuff that has accumulated under my auspices. This is a daunting prospect, but also an exciting one.

So I’ll spend a little time as a mucilaginous blob this weekend. Maybe by Monday, I’ll be ready to firm up into a solid citizen again.

Living Downwind

Bitterroot Forest Fire by John McColgan (2000) CC BY-NC 2.0 via Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/catherinetodd/3326323876/in/album-72157614683116861/
Bitterroot Forest Fire by John McColgan (2000) CC BY-NC 2.0 via Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/catherinetodd/3326323876/in/album-72157614683116861/

While the Kansas City area has received some serious rainfall this spring and summer, other parts of North America are battling drought and wildfires. Today’s hazy weather in Kansas City was due in part to smoke blowing from wildfires in Alaska and Canada. Per the KSHB Channel 41 Weather Blog, “the smoke at 20,000-30,000 feet from massive wildfires in Alaska and northwest Canada. We are in northwest flow and this smoke is being transported right into the middle of the country.”

I wanted to get a better visual grasp of the scale the wildfires were occurring. Looking at the Canadian Wildland Fire Information System interactive map, I clicked “show active wildfires” on the overlay option. A screenshot of the CWFIS map as of June 30, 2015:
wildfire screenshot 06.30.15

I was pretty impressed (okay, kind of shocked) with the size of the area that is affected by the fires.

U.S. Wildfire maps can be found at the USDA Forest Service Active Fire Mapping program, with data populated from the National Interagency Fire Center.

Tom Yulsman at Discover Magazine has a blog post describing the path of the smoke, along with satellite images.

Update (July 1, 2015): More satellite images of smoke from wildfires via i09.

Sorting Lego Meditation

multi colored lego bricks
Bricks by Javier Belloso Martinez (2014) CC BY-ND-NC 2.0 via Flickr. https://c2.staticflickr.com/4/3937/14915304913_52dc8e29fe_k.jpg

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to participate in a Lego sorting event sponsored by The Giving Brick, a KC area nonprofit that collects, cleans, sorts and re-assembles kits of donated Legos for kids going through the CASA system. (My brother and I went through his closets back in March to make our own Lego donation.)

The event was being held in the main conference room at a local public library. When I arrived, I saw the family that run the Giving Brick schlepping these enormous carts and tubs from their minivan into the library. In the conference room, a motley collection of adults and kids nervously milled around waiting for directions.

The organizers (helpfully wearing green Giving Brick t-shirts) set out two tables of unsorted Lego, then several smaller tables with plastic cups/tubs/zip lock bags. They explained: First, we will rough sort the pieces by type using the cups. Then, we will sub-sort the pieces (by color, type, etc) and put into plastic bags.

This sounded pretty straightforward, so we all got to work around two tables filled with what looked like thousands of Lego pieces. I grabbed a plastic cup and started gingerly picking out “2 x 4” bricks (2 dots by 4 dots). Then I made a cup for “round things” that I didn’t really have a better name for. The lady next to me was make cups for long (1 x 8?) bricks, so I gave one to her for her cup. I was chatting with the other people at my table, trying to figure out if there were already cups made for some of the more novel pieces I was finding.

The main sorting table was getting pretty crowded, so I took my cup of assorted “round” pieces over to one of the sub-sorting tables to see if I could make sense of my collection. One of the kids (maybe 11 years old?) wearing a Giving Brick t-shirt explained that if I could find 3 of a one kind of piece, I could make a bag for it. Of my round pieces, I had several things that could be parts of wheels, small cap-like pieces, domes and round cylindrical segments.

I sub-sorted my cache into smaller and smaller collections of like objects. It was supremely satisfying. I have always been a fan of taxonomy, and even if I didn’t have the real names of the pieces I was sorting, I loved the challenge of figuring out “like” and “not-like” objects. (When I was student-teaching 9th grade biology, we did an activity called Caminalcules, which challenged students to create a phylogeny of various imaginary creatures based on their shared and differing characteristics.)

There was also a meditative quality to the sorting, a “flow state,” in which two hours of Lego sorting (which sounds incredibly tedious) went by extremely quickly. When my cup was emptied, I was soon handed a new cup to continue sub-sorting. I got to talk with all sorts of people: Teens, tweens, parents with kids, couples who like to volunteer different activities, single adults who were all captivated by the process of sorting Legos. “It really appeals to my OCD tendencies,” one lady sitting across from me at a sub-sorting table said, as she presided over many cups of meticulous categorized pieces.

We didn’t want to stop, so when the next community group came to use the room at 3pm, there was a mad dash of volunteers cleaning up. We had lingered just a little too long trying to find the right bag or cup to put those last few Lego pieces. It was very satisfying to see all the neatly stacked bags of sorted Lego. Other volunteers will assemble the sorted Legos into kits that the Giving Brick will repackage for kids.

The pieces that didn’t get sorted just went back into the general collection to be sorted at the next gathering of volunteers. I can’t wait!

Yes, there are actual names for those pieces. Check out Rebrickable’s part sorting database. We were definitely picking up some of the lingo by the end of the 2 hour session.

Classification and Evolution of Caminalcules by Robert P. Gendron