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!)


The Portulaca Protection Program and Other Stories From the Children’s Garden

white and pink moss roses with bee
Moss-rose flower by Naomi Zhong (2013) CC BY-SA 2.0, via Flickr.

I recently started a summer job as a garden educator at a nonprofit community garden. The organization's main focus is providing access to locations, water sources, and low-cost seeds and plants for low-income urban residents to grow their own food. One of the programs, The Beanstalk Children's Garden, is an educational garden that encourages kids and families to explore plants, nature and healthy eating. Summer camps and children's groups schedule time to take a tour of the garden and participate in experiential learning activities.

Most of my job this summer will be as a tour guide and educator for the garden, but I am also involved with garden planting, harvesting and maintenance. For example, the last 2 weeks (since I started) have been a hubbub of frenetic activity. We have been caring for the perennial plants in the fruit garden (berry bushes, fruit trees, strawberry patch), as well as those in the vegetable, herb and curiosity gardens. We have been frantically tilling, planting annuals and flowers and tucking them all in with a liberal layer of mulch across the entire garden. (Oh, Cotton Burr Compost! You may be a bit stinky, but you and I are becoming close allies in our battle to enrich the soil and protect against weeds.)

And then there is the weeding! The Beanstalk Children’s Garden consists mostly of raised beds linked by bricked paths. We did some pretty solid “clean-out” work in the beds before the tiller went through. However, the most challenging aspect is weeding between the bricks of the garden paths. Since it’s been raining for days, the damp soil makes it a little easier to pull rooted plants from between the bricks. Still, it can be really hard to get a grip on the tenacious weeds that manage to root themselves in tiny cracks- I’ve already worn through one pair of garden gloves from the bricks.

I did find some helpful weeding tools in the painting (not gardening) section of the hardware store: the 6 in 1 painting tool (which looks like something a Klingon might bring to cook dinner) and putty knife. Both are skinny enough to get between the bricks and pull up crabgrass, dandelions or other things that may have rooted there. These tools are also helpful to removing what my supervisor lovingly calls “garden boogers”: mixtures of sand and soil that wash out of the beds into the cracks of the brickwork, bound together with a thin membrane of algae and moss.

Garden booger in situ.
Garden booger in situ.
Removed strip of garden booger
Removed strip of garden booger

I have a certain admiration for the perseverance of the plants that manage to spring up between the bricks – if they’re tolerated, we call them “volunteers.” If unwelcome, we call them “weeds” and pull them out. One of the tenacious plants that falls in between these categories is the portulaca, also called the moss rose.

Each year, the garden purchases a several flats of different colors of Portulaca to plant in the gaps between bricks around the end caps of the beds. They add a lot of color to the garden, especially at kids’ eye height at the base of the raised beds. They are also tough as anything and can take pretty much whatever weather conditions a Midwestern summer can throw at them. Last year’s portulaca babies have reseeded themselves between the bricks of the paths, and are popping up in their beautiful succulent glory. Normally, we would treat any plant growing from the bricks of the path as a weed and pull it out, it order to keep the garden looking nice. However, we started saving the portulaca plants we pulled out with intact roots, instead of chucking them with the rest of the weeds into the compost.

I have started referring to this covert process as the Portulaca Witness Protection Program. We find portulaca volunteers while weeding the bricks, gently pull them out with intact roots and rehome them along the edges of the beds.

The Portulaca Witness Protection Program:

Step 1: Find a baby portulaca

baby portulaca growing between bricks
Example of baby portulaca growing from bricks. Note substrate of “garden booger.”

Step 2: Gently remove the portulaca from between the bricks, keeping roots intact. This requires some practice, especially determining how much slow steady pressure to maintain in pulling on plant.

Portulaca plant with exposed roots resting on person's palm
Portulaca with exposed roots.

Step 3: Find a new home for portulaca. Remove existing weeds and enough soil to cover roots.

A new home for the portulaca, a gap along the edge of the bed.
A new home for the portulaca, a gap along the edge of the bed.

Step 4: Tuck portulaca into soil, cover roots. I have also been using the discarded “garden booger” strips of sandy soil and algae as “tape” to cover edges of portulaca roots and keep plant from washing away.

Portulaca in new home. Note strips of garden boogers used to secure soil around plant.
Portulaca in new home. Note strips of “garden boogers” used to secure soil around plant.

Step 5: Observe the relocated portulaca plants. We have been placing the transplants around the edges of the beds for maximum visual effect. Hopefully, some will survive the trauma of relocation to produce blooms for the rest of the summer.
portulaca along edge of bed

Into the Woods…

blue toy dinosaur on top of red ukulele
Blue Dino & Red Flea by Protopian Pickle Jar (2015).

Attention fans of Protopian Fermentation!

Blue Dinosaur and Red Flea the Ukulele are ready for Spring Teva! This means Auntie Bat will morph into Morah Batsheva and go hang out in the woods with kids for the next few weeks. The propagation of new posts will be limited during this time, but feel free to browse our archives.


Stacked colorful plastic storage boxes
Storage Boxes by Valerie Everett (2007) CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr

“It is very hard to be brave,” said Piglet, sniffing slightly, “when you’re only a Very Small Animal.”

Rabbit, who had begun to write very busily, looked up and said: “It is because you are a very small animal that you will be Useful in the adventure before us.”

― Benjamin Hoff, The Te Of Piglet

Now when I made my reservation for this working vacation, I had more than a source of potential blog fodder in mind. In fact, I planned to be Useful. As a very Useful Auntie Bat, I can entertain my nephew, make chicken soup and hard-boiled eggs, go grocery shopping and be trusted with a variety of assignments. I also ensure my sister eats food and gets some sleep. This is especially crucial this week because my sister, after a week of working nights at the hospital, is moving into a new house this weekend.

Yesterday, I upped my utility when I was able to wait at the new house for the delivery folks to bring the washing machine and dryer. Strangely, the laundry room is on the second floor of the house (something new to me). The delivery guys had it covered, though. They used this contraption called a shoulder dolly to carry the appliances upstairs. If you haven’t clicked on the link, a shoulder dolly is a kind of 2 person harness system that allows you to sling something heavy between you. Now that’s Useful!

I also stopped by the store and purchased 12 large clear plastic bins with lids to aid in packing random stuff. Also, packed some of aforementioned random stuff. (Luckily, my sister is not planning on packing entirely by herself, but has hired a moving company that will also pack up and more importantly, unpack for you.)

I have noticed I need a lot of reassurance as to my Usefulness.
I told my sister, “I am trying very hard to be Useful. I hope this is helping and not making you more stressed out.”
“You are very Useful!” she exclaimed.

(I realized that I also have this conversation every couple of days with Mom, too, when I’m back in KS, upon completing various tasks.)

I’m not sure when being Useful became my raison d’etre in life. I have always been a fan of tangible accomplishment: Getting stuff done, receiving verbal accolades, earning letter grades and stickers. Surely, being acknowledged Useful just another form of “Well Done!”

I also really enjoy the concept of social utility, a la Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. As far as I remember, though, the Utilitarians didn’t require you to constantly justify your continued existence based on your sum Usefulness. (That sounds like a set-up for a particularly grim dystopian SF novel. “So how were you Useful today, atomized widget of the totalitarian state?”)

I was in a relationship for many years with a person who was a strong believer in personal utility as an indicator of human worthiness. (This may have been shaped by his being an engineer, with an emphasis on systematization over empathy as a guiding principle in life.) He loved this joke about college majors:

The scientist asks, “Why does it work?”
The engineer asks, “How does it work?”
The English major asks, “Would you like fries with that?”

The idea being, unless you were producing something of measurable value, you had no value. We only really talked about this implicit value system toward the end of our relationship. At that point, I was beginning to understand that I had unconsciously absorbed many of his attitudes about personal utility and they were making me miserable. I felt like a failure because despite my law degree, I wasn’t a lawyer. I hated the job I had in financial services, I was unsure about my ability to be an effective teacher (my career change)and felt like “a waste of space.” Based on my perceived utility to the world, I was completely unworthy of the oxygen I was breathing, much less happiness or self-determination.

In the years since that breakup, I have begun to re-engage with the concept of what it means to be Useful. I have not completely shed the underlying anxiety that if I’m not being Useful, I am not worthy. Yet, little by little, I am redefining Useful in ways that include intangibles such as love, connection and imagination. So on this trip, I know that I am quantifying Usefulness in extra hours my sister sleeps, extra calories she eats, and extra snuggles I can share with my nephew. It is also measured in the reduced stress of all the parties to this topsy-turvy mode of existence and the strengthening of our bonds as a family. I got your back, sister.

Tangent for this post:
The brand name for the plastic storage containers in the picture: Really Useful Boxes.

Have Opposable Thumbs, Can Operate Can Opener

Puppy Dog Eyes
“Outside of a Dog…” by Soggydan Benenovitch (2007) CC BY 2.0, via Flickr https://farm1.staticflickr.com/199/465878311_42af0629eb_s.jpg

This pet sitting hobby of mine is becoming a thing. Since my parents’ last dog went to the happy hunting grounds* a few years ago, the house has been free of pee stains and doggie fluffies, but has been seriously deficient in dog snuggles. The parents have declared there SHALL BE NO MORE DOGS, which is fair, because they would have the bulk of care responsibilities. Still, a girl needs to get some “fur therapy” somewhere. Hence: The Pet Sitting.

I have a diverse portfolio of animal care experiences, ranging from the invertebrate to the reptilian, from fluffy dinosaurs to fluffy mammals. I have finessed finicky worm-friends, vitamin-powder-coated confused live crickets for a discerning gecko palate, and defrosted frozen mice for cuddly corn snakes (yes, they really do like to snuggle, but not while eating.) I have mucked out barns with mama and baby goats, and shattered tenacious chicken poopsicles with a blow of my shovel. I have catered to cats (“Yes, my human slave!”) and canines (“I don’t know you, but I love you!”) I have even taken care of some aquatic acquaintances of the fishy and amphibian varieties.

Recent critter care adventures have mostly been of the doggie sort. It’s amazing to come to the door and be greeted with the boundless enthusiasm of dogs and small children. (Does marvels for one’s self-esteem.) Also, the documented stress-relieving properties of dog petting are legion. In dog care, my principal advantages as a substitute human are that I have opposable thumbs and can work the can opener and/or tricky snap-on lid on the container of doggie kibbles. I also use my manual dexterity to operate the aerosol dispenser on the cheez whiz can (to take with dog pills), and pick up poop into baggies on walks. In return, my furry charges are usually happy to sit with me (or near me) on the sofa to bask in companionable bliss.

The humans belonging to one of my recent clients, a toy poodle, also asked me to also feed their fish while they were away. I envisioned sprinkling some flaked food into a goldfish tank. When I actually went to meet the fish (who have their own fishy kingdom in the basement), I was startled to realize the human had eight tanks of fish! Luckily, the fish did not need much more than their food cubes (frozen bloodworms in packages that suspiciously resembled Dorot frozen herbs) every other day. (I also think the fish didn’t know about the dog and dog only suspected about the presence of the fish in the house.)

While I still don’t see pet sitting becoming my ultimate career destination (Or in the words of another client’s humans, “Speaking for your mother,” the human said, “Don’t.”) it is an excellent way to play with dogs and play Goldilocks in other people’s houses (with permission, of course.) The venture capital market thinks that dogsitting may be the next big thing.

I was trying to think of a name for my imaginary pet sitting business: Responsible Substitute Human. Look, Cheez Whiz Lady! Dog & Child Approved. Batsheva’s Multi-Species Services. (But they all lack that “ring” of respectability.)

One of my favorite books growing up was James Herriot’s Dog Stories, a collection of stories about dogs from a Yorkshire England country veterinarian. In addition to the exotic setting of 1950’s rural England, I loved the obvious affection Herriot had for his furry subjects. One the stories I particularly liked was about Tricky Woo, the obese Pekingese, for whom Herriot stages a diet and exercise intervention. James Herriot takes Tricky Woo away from the cakes and treats of his doting human, and takes him home with him, to eat normal dog food and run around. Not that I plan on staging any interventions – the dogs I have cared for have all had pretty strict diets and/or exercise programs in place.

In my Shmita Adventures, I will take all opportunities for dog snuggles that come my way. I just can’t resist those puppy dog eyes.

Tangents for this post:

*The Happy Hunting Grounds is a euphemism for doggie death I learned from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House Books. The reference is to the passing of Jack of the faithful brindle bulldog, who trotted underneath the family covered wagon on the Ingalls family’s various migrations out West. I think it must be akin to the ancient Greek Elysian Fields, but for dogs.

Fuzz Therapy with Calvin and Hobbes.

Saturday Afternoon Mah Jong Club

Maj Jong tiles with visible red dragon
Red Dragon by Rebecca Siegel (2012) CC BY 2.0, via Flickr.

“What’s the difference between Jewish and Chinese Mah Jong?” I once asked my mother. I couldn’t tell by her answer if the games were different or just her attitude towards Chinese and Jewish people.

“Entirely different kind of playing,” she said in her English explanation voice.
– Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club (1989).

Until I played my first round of mah jong over Rosh Hashanah, the above quote from Amy Tan’s novel was my sum total knowledge about the game. However, my aunt is a dedicated player of the American (or Jewish) mah jong variety, which she plays every Saturday afternoon with a bunch of ladies in her neighborhood in a suburb of Washington, DC. Mom had also just started playing with a group in Kansas City. My grandmother and her sister had played years ago and my aunt had inherited Grandma Fanny’s mahj set.

Over Rosh Hashanah while visiting in DC, Mom & Auntie M. decided to teach me how to play mah jong. “It’s sort of like Rummikub,” Auntie M. explained, “but not.” Strangely, this explanation actually made quite a lot of sense to me.

Without going into too much detail, mah jong is a game played with tiles by 4 people around a card table. The tiles are divided into suits and numbers (like playing cards.) There are various combination of tiles (“hands”) that you create to win (yelling “Mah jong!”) In the Jewish version of the game, players are almost always women. Refreshments (“nosh”) are always served, and games are played around exchanges of local gossip. (Actually, paying attention to the tiles being played as well as following the flow of the gossip is a highly nuanced skill!)

There are several rounds of dealing and trading tiles to set up, then each player takes & discards a tile during her turn during the round of game play. The goal is to match tiles you have to one of the “hands” on the mah jong standard hand card, available from the National Mah Jong League & updated yearly. There are versions where you keep track of points, and bet money, but the Sabbath observance by many players in the Saturday afternoon games prohibits use of money or writing things down. Also, different Mah Jong groups develop their own idiosyncratic practices and rules.

So when Auntie M. and Mom taught me to play, there were only the three of us. We had an imaginary 4th person (“Mattie”) – which I figured was because she was only a place mat- and we played her tiles for her. I got my first mah jong (winning hand) after a little coaching and practice. We also ate almost an entire coffee cake.

Since returning to Kansas City, I’ve had the opportunity to join my Mom’s mahj ladies for Saturday afternoon games. For the first couple of times, I was the 5th player, so I was perfectly content to sit outside the game and observe. After a little coaxing, I usually would join in for a round or two. When there are 5 players, we rotate, the 5th lady (especially if she’s an experienced player) taking the role of “mahj coach” for some of the more befuddled. This past shabbat (saturday) marks my 5th time playing. I was particularly pleased with myself for making Mah jong on the first round (Flowers, Dragons and more Dragons, baby!) Luckily, my mom’s group is pretty laid back and tolerant of beginners. In me, I think they see themselves seeding “the next generation” of American Mah Jong players.

I can totally see hipsters getting into this. It’s fun, relatively cheap (except for the initial cost of a mahj set), and is an excellent way of building community. I think the ladies should also open it up to young men who want to learn to play – it’s the 21st century, guys can totally play mah jong if they want to! For me, it’s a fun way to spend some time with my mom and eat interesting snacks.

Tangents for this post:

How Mah Jong Became American and Jewish from Chicago Public Media
From “Sports & Judaism” topic at My Jewish Learning
New Generation of Mah Jong Players from Haaretz
History of Mah Jong in America from Stanford University

Learn MahJongg with Susie DVD (which was actually pretty helpful, too.)

Bisy Backson


The House at Pooh Corner by A.A. Milne

While I’m not sure “busy-ness” is necessarily a laudable goal, it provides me with both blog-fodder and myriad excuses for not posting.

Some of my activities over the past week (in no particular order):

  • Accompanying Dad to the Kansas City Home Show at Bartle Hall.
    Dad’s new project is interviewing contractors to determine what they have to do to update the bathrooms at the house. He got tickets to the Home Show from one of the contractors who came to give him an estimate, so we went to check it out. There was a presentation on bathroom renovation that turned out to be DIY bathroom renovation (Parents are not DIY people) that was not as helpful as we had hoped. Still, I had a pretty good time wandering around all the exhibitors booths, especially the ones for environmental things like geothermal heating/cooling, solar panel installation & a mushroom farm selling Grow-your-own mushroom kits. (I was tempted to purchase one, but resisted due to my unpredictably nomadic status.)
  • Playing Mah Jong with Mom’s Mahj group. (I think this will require its own post.)
  • Gathering up my brother’s extensive childhood LEGO collection (and sorting it out from other random plastic pieces that were mixed in) to bring to The Giving Brick. The Giving Brick is local KC nonprofit that was profiled in an article in last week’s KC Jewish Chronicle, which is where I saw it. The Giving Brick accepts donations of old LEGOs, which volunteers clean, and sort into sets for kids going through tough situations. (Many of the recipients are kids in the Jackson County (Mo) CASA system.)
  • Pet Sitting. (Well, not actually on the pets. That would be mean.)
  • Helping a friend clean out closets in preparation for a move. I mostly sat there and did research on my phone for places to send her excess stuff rather than just putting it all in the dumpster. (The results of my research will also require their own post.)
  • Confirming my post-Passover gig as a Spring TEVA educator!
  • Listening to Welcome to Night Vale podcasts while making a small dent in my own clutter collection. Then I gave up and just listened to Night Vale while making upcycled envelopes.