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Natural Phenomena

What is that smell?

In late July, the greater Des Moines community fell in love with a flower, a stinky flower. The unbelievable Titum arum (aka the Corpse Flower) thriving under the tender care of curatorial horticulturist Derek Carwood at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden defied expectations and settled in to bloom several years ahead of schedule. En masse people visited, people watched the live feed, people talked all over town about the advent of the bloom’s arrival.

Having watched the live feed with (now) Ninety-Three, having thought I would be out of town during the twenty-four hours or so when the plant was actually in bloom, having woken up one morning to discover that I had the time to zip downtown and see the plant for myself on the very day that it finally burst (okay, unfurled achingly slowly) into bloom, and having the opportunity to smell it for myself, I, too, fell in love. I went to see it twice.

The first visit I dropped Fifteen at Driver’s Ed and went solo. With extended hours, the Botanical Garden was open at seven that morning. By a little after eight, the parking lot was already busy. I bounced in with a crowd stopping through on their way to work, camp, and a hot summer day.

I had seen the flower that morning on the live feed and very beautiful pictures of it on Facebook trumpeting its arrival. As I followed the winding path through gorgeous banana trees and fantastic blooms, like everyone else I had eyes only for the whimsically named Carrion My Wayward Son, Carrie for short. My first glimpse, I confess, was slightly disappointing. Set down below the grade, it looked small and lost in the other foliage—hard to distinguish from the rest of the lush garden. But as the path wound around and we edged closer, I could see that the plant was indeed every bit as remarkable in person as it was on camera, made more so by the undeniable odor.

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Carrie in full & stinky bloom

The plant’s flowering structure looks nothing like the plant, a tree-like stem with small leaves at the top. When it gets ready to bloom, an enormous heavy bulb sends up what’s called the inflorescence, a stem of sorts that spouts flowers revealed for just a short time when the gorgeous outer spathe—green on the outside—finally unfurls revealing its lush purple lining. In the wild, these can be nine feet in diameter. Whatever the size, it’s a stunning and unusual sight; but what everyone was talking about was the smell: “Like raw chicken gone off,” said one lady, nailing it. “Like a mouse died,” said another. I saw children walking in, wrinkling their noses and covering them with their shirt collars before they got close enough to actually smell the thing.

It was not, however, overpowering. In my experience the Corpse Flower earns its stinky reputation, but it’s not horrid. At least under the great glass dome of the botanical center where thousands of plants filter the air, Carrie’s wasn’t a fresh smell, but it was a naturally rotten one. Carpet glue, fresh tar, and garbage trucks in the hot summer sun all smell far worse to me.

My “I saw Titum arum” sticker granted me repeat admission, so when I picked up Fifteen from her class, I asked her if she’d like to see Carrie. “Sure,” she said merrily. “Let’s go see the smelly flower.”

In August the whole nation fell in love with the solar eclipse, making elaborate plans to witness totality in a path that striped the country. Fifteen, Eighteen and I took the day, making our pilgrimage south to find ourselves in Plattsburg, MO, where the eclipse viewing party in the town’s City Park offered free parking on a wet, muddy field. We arrived in time to don our glasses and check in with the sun, watching the curved shadow block progressively more and more of the sun even as the show dipped in and out of the clouds. We ate our snacks and marveled at the size of the gathering, so many people lured out of their Monday routines to experience the lining up of our brightest star directly behind our moon. At totality, the cloud cover was significant and we weren’t treated to the corona or the diamond ring, but we experienced darkness at just past one in the afternoon, darkness that fell from west to east and light that returned along the same unreasoned path.

Witnessing the eclipse, we decided, was an intellectual exercise. We had to keep talking about how it was the sun that looked like a waning then waxing moon. But when darkness fell it was straight-up cool. Our biology knew it wasn’t normal. And we weren’t the only ones. As we navigated the winding side roads home, seeking paths at a remove from the intense traffic, we marveled at how the cows were all lying down, pointed in the direction where the sun had disappeared.

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Darkness an hour past noon.

In September a smell we did not love moved into our garage. It wasn’t Carrie, but it could have been, about as strong and about as dead smelling. At first I thought it was something in the garbage (“broccoli,” opined Fifteen), so I moved the bin outside. But the smell continued, occasionally ebbing, but getting really pronounced when the afternoon sun warmed the garage.

“I’m afraid we have something dead in here,” I said one afternoon as we arrived home and were greeting by a particularly strong waft of rot.

“Ewwww,” said Fifteen, racing inside.

Baking soda in open containers seemed to help. Cooler temps arrived and the smell abated some. Eventually, and fortunately, the smell became significantly less intense—more of an occasional waft than a full-on assault. Only lately did I find her, a small bunny that had for whatever reason crawled between a fold-up table and a stack of flooring to die. There was very little left of her, but cleaning up the remains was unpleasant work. After, I cried in the shower.

I could float some theories but the truth is, I’m not certain why bunny’s death has hit me so hard. Several days post clean-up I’m still oddly searching for what became a not unfamiliar smell in the garage when I arrive home. Bunny is gone, the eclipse is over, Carrie’s fifteen minutes have ended. And with their collective departures, the summer of 2017 is waning. As sad as Bunny’s death makes me feel, the great eclipse escape and Carrie’s bloom made me so happy. As a collection, they are reminders to me that as we walk on this earth, it is vital to be astonished.

The new moon launches at 12:29am CT 9.20.17, and with this post I’m a wee bit closer to being back on track here at overneathitall. Thanks, as ever, for being astonished along the journey with me. Namaste & big love, Rxo

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Phone Tag

Phone Tag

Can you sub for me today?

The request arrives via text message at 6:22 a.m. I’m in my morning flurry: packing my children’s lunches for school; getting my mother her meds and tea; making hibiscus tea for the peeps’ breakfast; calling for Twelve to hurry downstairs to eat; managing the cats and their various needs for food, water, and a turn in their pen; and shaking off sleep. My initial reaction is to stop everything, pick up my cell phone and punch in a hurried reply—hang on, let me check. I’ll let you know—something of that ilk. I put my cell phone down and ponder how technology has changed the hours during which we communicate. Take a breath, I remind myself. Just because the message arrived right at that moment, I can wait to compose my day and thus a coherent answer.

When I was growing up, my mother taught me not to place phone calls before nine in the morning, and I was prohibited from being on the phone after nine at night. Family might call late, especially after the long distance rates went down at eleven, but otherwise a phone call late at night or early in the morning was an intrusion at best, more likely an emergency or very bad news.

About the time I got interested in talking to my friends during every waking minute, we had two phones in the house. One was on my mother’s desk and the other, a rotary-dial black box with a heavy handset, hung on the wall in the between the kitchen and the bathroom. There was a phone across the road in the barn, too, that for a while had a horn that blasted so my father could hear it ring in his garden. I spent a lot of afternoons and evenings during junior high coiled in the extra-long phone cord attached to the kitchen phone and secreted into our one bathroom for privacy. Later, when I was in high school, my parents added a line and I had a slimline avocado green touchtone phone in my bedroom. I still wasn’t supposed to talk to my friends past nine, but I’m sure I did sometimes. Okay, more than sometimes.

No answering machine in college meant my roommates and I took messages for one another. I’m sure I sound like a nostalgic Luddite when I remember message taking fondly—a quality message includes the caller’s name, number, message, and a good time to return the call. One of my housemates even brought us “while you were out” message pads purloined from her father’s office. Technology and personal communication devices have sent the fine art of taking a message the way of a passenger leaning across the inside of a car to unlock the driver’s door after being let in by the driver. Who had to use a key. Inserted into the lock. Of the passenger’s door.

We exchange such niceties for the convenience of handheld devices that go everywhere with us and keys so smart they can roll down the windows to air out a car as the driver approaches. My phone actually links right up to my car when it starts, so the whole thing is like a brilliant orange rolling phone booth. (Just think—when was the last time you saw an actual payphone?) The car announces incoming calls, mispronouncing most names naturally, and I push a single button on my steering wheel to answer.

I actually resisted having my own cell phone for a long time because somehow between junior high and now, I learned to dislike the phone. I feel like phone calls are at best an interruption, and I hate calling people to ask for things. I will go to great lengths to avoid calling a store or someone in a professional capacity, preferring to show up on person, search via google or send an email or even a snail mail letter. Nonetheless, none of my electronics are ever very far away from me, even though I do make an effort to turn them off.

In contrast, this very week I noticed a box I could click when printing from Preview that told my printer to automatically print two-sided documents, saving me from having to print one side, flip the paper and then print the other. On the very same day I saw for the first time the outline of an arrow on my online banking site that lets me rearrange the entries in all manner of ways, making data reconciliation much simpler. And my phone, the same one that can shatter my morning with an early text, woke me gently this morning so that I could view the full lunar eclipse from the beginning. Watching the luminous moon turn ashy and then gray and then red, looking up with awe as the stars twinkled brightly, and then checking the moon frequently as another lively morning started in my house, I had to remind myself that as so often the case, it’s all about balance. So I may struggle sometimes with connectivity, but I confess: I like the fact that I can walk outside, watch the eclipse, and then remark publicly via my phone on Facebook and my computer right here on my blog upon the wonder and magic of the night sky.

full moon rise

Oh what a moon!

Did I sub that class? You betcha. And the day that briefly unraveled as a result of an early morning contact rolled back into a manageable bundle, events rearranged under the sparkling sun and a gorgeous moon rise.

The full October moon rising and perching playfully atop a traffic light as Fifteen drove his sister to ballet and me to our Tuesday evening writing date.

The full October moon rising and perching playfully atop a traffic light as Fifteen drove his sister to ballet and me to our Tuesday evening writing date.

Happy full moon; happy lunar eclipse day. Oh, and watch those electronics—Mercury is in retrograde until the end of the month. With love & gratitude, Rxo

Moving Pieces

Where are my keys?

There is only one teller at my credit union I hope to avoid. All of the others are cheerful, and mostly professional, although I’ve caught more than one trying to deposit money into the wrong account or making a payment to my Visa when I specifically handed over my mother’s payment coupon. This one teller sees red anywhere on her computer screen and goes into accusation mode: “Did you know your mortgage payment is overdue?” She’s done this to me twice, putting me on the defensive even though if she looked a little more carefully, she’d see I had pre-scheduled a payment on a given date within the grace period.

Recently, my deposits laid out in front of her, I saw her brow furrow and she begin the familiar, “Did you know.…” I felt my own hackles rise. Then she stopped and the furrow became quizzical. “Well, it looks like … um …” She was caught because she was still trying to figure out the issue in my account while speaking. Finally, “It looks like you owe ten cents on the Dodge Dart.”

“Ten cents,” I smiled, “Really?”

As it turned out, the automatic transfer number I had keyed in was twenty-nine rather than thirty-nine, ten cents short. It had taken the bank’s computers two weeks from the due date to notice the error and add a hefty late charge to my account.

“Can we pay it now?”

“We can,” she frowned, “and I’ll take the late charge off of your account. I mean, it’s ten cents, right?”

“Right.” I was on my way to teach a class and I must have stood there shifting my weight, obliging smile a bit frozen on my face as she worked and worked trying to figure out how to undo the late fee. Finally, “I’m so sorry. I can’t figure out how to make this work. You can go. I’ll take care of it.”

And she did—when I checked my account online late that night, the ten cents was paid and there were no fees in evidence.

As a rule, I don’t like online banking and my slip of the finger is precisely why. If I had written a check, I would have written the number twice, once in words, once in numbers. I might have been looking at a payment coupon with the amount printed in front of me. A discrepancy, if there was one, would have been caught by the person entering the payment into the bank’s system.

So I still do write checks for many of my bills, but I slide into online banking because I am often scrambling to pay on time, sometimes for lack of funds, others for lack of attention to due dates. It is both a convenience and a frustration of modern life.

Modern life is full of moving pieces. Most of us have more than one credit card, for example, and each card has a bonus system designed to incur loyalty. Try to figure out how to convert your points into miles or other goodies, then multiply by the number of cards you have. And this is a productive time sink to have—what happens when I can’t make a website work and need customer service help? Oh right. Push number 1 to wait for the next available customer service agent … your call is very important to us …

Often, like everyone, I get so far behind that the only time I can steam the studio floor before hosting a visiting instructor is ten p.m. the night before she arrives, or I end up editing against a deadline during the time I’m scheduled to be writing. Sometimes I have the various moving pieces well-enough organized such that when Fourteen reminds me that he needs two-dozen chocolate dipped strawberries for biology the next day, I can slip into mommy mode and help him with his extra credit homework. I feel lucky then. In rare moments things are clicking along so well that should I make a mistake and leave the sugar out of the birthday bundt cake I started at nine a.m., I can meet my obligation to teach, stop at Target to purchase more chocolate chips and pumpkin, and get home in time to remix and bake the cake before the afternoon birthday tea party. It’s moments like these when the moving pieces of modern life become the moving parts—parts connected to a whole. It’s not always pretty or tidy, nor does it generally tie up in a neat package with a bow, but it feels good and moves me forward at a manageable pace.

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Two cakes, one with no sugar …

And in the next breath, I misplace my keys …

It’s a full eclipse of the full moon tonight, and Mars is a mere 57 million miles from earth. Even as the planets shift and cast shadows, they are many of the sparkling, moving parts that comprise the whole. I’m so glad we’re along for the ride. Namaste & love, Rxo

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