Sarah R. Callender

Archive for August, 2011|Monthly archive page


In General on August 21, 2011 at 7:41 am

This past Tuesday, on my way to put the garbage cans out on the curb, I noticed a small, amber-colored house spider loafing in the center of one of the most beautiful, intricate, delicate webs I’ve ever seen.

“Hey there, little cutie,” I whispered, bending to make eye contact, with, I hoped, one of the eyes on her cephalothorax.  “That’s a really pretty web.”

(This was not the web I found in my yard. It was easier to just steal someone else’s via Google Images. Plus this one has dew drops.)

But the moment my compliment slipped from my lips, I remembered what all the parenting books say: compliments (such as “That’s a really pretty web / drawing / picture / poem.”) are terribly, horribly detrimental to the child.

If, all the parenting books warn, we constantly offer pithy praise, praise that is roughly as nutritious as cotton candy, the child will not grow artistically. The child will only make art when she knows she will receive external praise. The child will start to make art based on what she feels the teacher likes and admires. And eventually, the child will simply stop making art.

That’s right. If you tell a kid she’s just made a “really pretty drawing,” you might as well snap on a set of handcuffs and head on down to CPS.

But never fear! There is a Right Way to compliment someone’s art:

[A]cknowledge the child’s effort and also empower the child to enjoy the work process without the external influence of others. Next time your child shows you his finished artwork try one these open-ended phrases:

“Why did you decide to use these three colors?”
“Where would you like to hang up this drawing?”
“What were you thinking about when you painted this picture?”
“Who is the figure that you have created?”
“How did you make that gray color?”

So. I pretended I hadn’t just told this spider she had a very pretty web. I pretended I had been talking to myself about the very pretty web of veins that, as I age, are appearing on the outside of my left calf. Spider veins, I believe they are called.

Because I do not care to be the wrecker of a spider’s ability to grow as an artist, I bent down even closer to the web. “Look at that,” I said. “Tell me . . .  how did you decide to use this color of . . . web?”

The spider remained silent.

“OK, um . . . what were you thinking about when you were spinning this particular pattern?”

Still, only silence. I wondered if she was perhaps trying to take a nap. The kids and I are reading Charlotte’s Web right now, and man, that Charlotte is no slouch. It would make sense if this little spider was trying to take a nap. So I shut my pie hole and admired her art in silence.

As someone who has trouble rolling out a pizza dough that’s the right thickness, never mind the proper roundness, I find it marvelous that a spider can spin a web that’s the right thickness, one that’s sticky in all the right places, one that’s so perfectly geometric.

I marvel at the tenacity, the dogged determination of nature, insects and arachnids especially. It’s quite beautiful really, that single-minded stubbornness to survive. To me, it’s the smallest, the “least” of creatures that are the most impressive in their desire to survive.

Take the humble ant. If I were an ant, I’m not sure I’d be jazzed about my life, but darn it, ants get up each morning and haul that grain of sand or crumb of sandwich or, with a bit of teamwork, an entire elephant. All in the name of survival.

There is a homeless man, a particularly down-trodden soul whose mouth lolls open and eyes roll back in his head as he stands in the narrow concrete berm between rushing traffic. He holds his Please sign as he waits for a red light to capture an audience for his plight. He doesn’t appear to be physically or mentally healthy, but his eyes are kind, and there he is, every day, holding his sign even as he can barely hold up his drooping head.

It’s heartbreaking and disturbing to see this man each time I drive this stretch of street, but he is programmed to survive. There is beauty in the moxie of that, in his decision to survive for that whole day. And then, to get up the next day and survive all over again.

I looked at my spider’s web, the art she created to ensure her survival.

“Good work, little girl. That’s a totally beautiful web,” I whispered, so the parenting books wouldn’t hear.

But then, through the open window, I heard Buddy and Sweetie starting to argue about whose day it was to dress up the cat, and I remembered why I was outside: to take out the garbage cans.

At this moment I realized my spider had cast her web’s anchors in a way that totally blocked my trash cans.

Suddenly, her web was not a work of art, an example of The Beauty of Survival, but a huge hassle.

I put my hands on my hips. Really? Out of all the places in our yard, you chose to build your apartment-restaurant in the low-rent neighborhood that is our trash can area?

But when still, she didn’t respond, I realized something. Trash lures flies . . . a spider wants flies to fly near its web . . . she’s brilliant.

“Oh,” I said, knowing full well that what I was about to say was NOT on The List, “of course you chose to build your web here. Because you’re a major smartie-pants, that’s why. From now on, I will call you Mensa.”

And then I explored my options. Mensa’s web was blocking all three cans, BUT if I could just do a little shimmying and a little limbo-ing and kind of drag the yard waste can a little horizontally, then maybe . . . yes, there was a chance I could get all three cans under the web without destroying her home. Her restaurant. Her means of survival. Most important, her artwork, possibly her most important body of work heretofore.

Well. Just so you know, dragging a full Yard Waste can horizontally is not for wimps. I can bench press at least 14 pounds, and believe you me, I could just barely master this maneuver. Plus, the smell! Ever since the City of Seattle started accepting fish, meat, chicken, whatever, into its yard waste program, one needs to be very careful not to open the lid when fish and meat and chicken have been yard wasting together for the week. Especially in summertime.

But I was determined to get the cans curbside without disturbing Mensa’s survival-art. So I heaved and ho’d that yard waste under her web. Next came the recycling can, filled to the brim, but with cardboard, not week old, sun-warmed food and yard clippings.

I saved the easiest for last, the small-by-comparison trash can filled with a bag or two of cat litter and maybe a piece or two or three of Sweetie’s mixed media art that’s neither yard waste nor recycle. Nor is it survival art. Trust me.

But as I was coming back for the trash can, I overheard the kids, their voices like cherubims and seraphims through the open window:

“But YOU got to brush YOUR teeth first on MY DAY so I should get to dress up the cat first on YOUR DAY. That’s only fair!”

I rolled my eyes. Buddy gets to be first (with tooth brushing, showering, violin practicing, dressing the cat) on odd days; Sweetie on even days. She hasn’t figured out the lack of fairness on months with 31 days. When she does, we’ll have to return to the Edwardian Calendar or whatever calendar didn’t have a situation where it’s possible to have two odd days in a row.

But, alack and alas! As I was concentrating on my eye rolling and the sounds of Buddy and Sweetie’s voices rising higher, I forgot about Mensa.

And I walked right into her web. Right into it. Like my torso was a big ole’ wrecking ball.

There it was, her beautiful work of art splayed across my sweaty gym top.

“Oh, carp! Oh carp, carp, carp! I’m so sorry!”

But I couldn’t even find her. Nor could I move, for fear that I would step on her. So I just stood there, and boy, did I ever feel like a jerk. While my children were clearly attempting to win a bickering contest, I tried to remain calm and not cry and above all NOT listen to the voice, Ron, who likes to tell me I’m a carpy writer and mom and, today, a spider assassinator.

So I elbowed Ron out of my brain and instead reminded myself of this:

She’s resilient. The girl spins webs, for crying out loud! The girl shoots silk out of her BUTT or wherever! How amazing is that? She’ll pick herself up, get right back up on her eight feet, and start shooting web-silk from wherever it is that silk is shot. Probably not from her butt. Probably out of her wrists. Like The Amazing Spiderman. Only smarter.

And I felt a little better.

Even Buddy and Sweetie must have started to feel a little better because there was sudden laughter coming from inside. Probably because Sweetie had farted or maybe because Buddy had stuck his smoothie straw up his nose. Which is, actually, quite funny.

Siblings are resilient too. Just like spiders. Just like that homeless man with the lolling eyes.

So go, little Mensa. Start rebuilding your apartment-restaurant so you catch food and get big and strong and then have lots of babies and then, well, die.

And please accept my most sincere apologies by way of a haiku.

I am so sorry.

I ruined your work of art.

But keep on, keepin’ on, little Mensa. Keep rebuilding your web, even after some clod walks right into it. Might I suggest, however, you spin your next web at the trash cans of my neighbors to the south? That couple is gentle and kind and they have three boys who are all grown up so their bickering won’t cause their mother to decimate your masterpiece. OK. I’m so sorry. Don’t be a stranger!

(Yes, I know that last line has more than five syllables. Mensa is smart, but no spider can count the syllables of a haiku apology blog post. Because spiders don’t have fingers.)


In Body Stuff, General on August 8, 2011 at 7:25 am

Oy! First off, let me please acknowledge (and apologize for) my recent focus on depression. It’s just that, in case you didn’t notice, my depression has really sneaked up on me and given me a major wedgie. A major wedgie and a few swirlies. Heck, I’m tempted to refer to this as the Summer I Was Bitch-slapped by Depression, but I don’t think my cute mom and her cute friends appreciate terms like “bitch-slapped” (Hi, Mom! Hi Mom’s cute friends!).

Unfortunately, when depression sneaks up on me and slaps me in the face, I really do feel like this:

So let’s compromise. Since it’s summer, let’s call 2011 The Summer I Was Beach-slapped by Depression. Getting slapped by a beach? Well, that doesn’t sound very comfy. It sounds gritty. And exfoliating in that Korean spa kind of way.

It doesn’t take a brainiac to grasp why depression is difficult. Of course it’s difficult. No matter the degree and form of the depression, I’ve never heard anyone say how fantastic it feels to be beach-slapped by depression.

Which is why, whenever I stumble across anything that talks about the benefits of depression, I feel tiny bubbles of hope and pride and gratitude.

One particular article is “Depression in Command” by Nassir Ghaemi, published in the online version of the Wall Street Journal, July 30, 2011. Ghaemi, a Professor of Psychiatry and Pharmacology at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, seems really into the idea of removing the stigma of mental illness. And for that, I love him. I really do. Not as much as I love Abe Lincoln and Bono and my well-voiced Safeway checker, but Dr. Ghaemi is definitely a close fourth.

(Buckle up, friends; this is going to feel like one of my digressions, but just be patient, and it will all make sense.)

Speaking of my love for Abe Lincoln . . . my Facebook Friends might recall the status update where I casually mentioned that I thought Abraham Lincoln was hot. I believed, when I admitted my affection for an assassinated, melancholy, 19th century U.S. President, I would be greeted with tons of “Really? Me too! I thought I was the only one!” kinds of comments.

I was wrong.

I got lots of “Eeew, gross!” and “Really?!?!?” kinds of comments. My Friends’ responses made me wonder: Are they nuts to think Abe’s NOT a tall drink of water? Or am I nuts to think he is? That’s the problem (one of them) with having a mental illness; it makes you fear that you’re actually crazy.

Anyway. In this very hopeful article, Dr. Ghaemi starts with this thesis, referring to what kind of leader is necessary in times of peace and prosperity, as well as during times of upheaval and uncertainty:

“When times are good and the ship of state only needs to sail straight, mentally healthy people function well as political leaders. But in times of crisis and tumult, those who are mentally abnormal, even ill, become the greatest leaders.”

Of course, in his book on the same topic, A First-Rate Madness, Ghaemi clarifies that certainly, there are types of mental illness that do NOT lend themselves to leadership. Duh. Whatever mental health issue Gaddafi’s got going on, it’s NOT the one that makes a good leader.

But Ghaemi’s article explains that leaders such as Winston Churchill and my sweet Abe Lincoln, two who acknowledged their struggles with major depression, were just what their country needed given the tumult and uncertainty of the time. Leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. experienced depression too, each attempting suicide in their youth and having at least three rounds of major depression as adults. They, too, were highly effective because of their illness.

I don’t know about you, but I had NO idea that Gandhi and MLK, some of the greatest pacifists and biggest dreamers of our time, also had been beach-slapped. It breaks my heart. It is also deeply comforting and reassuring to me, someone with equally fragile wiring.

But the reason why it’s good to have a Crazy in power (I can say that because I am one) during times of trouble is also really encouraging. Apparently,

“Depression also has been found to correlate with high degrees of empathy, a greater concern for how others think and feel. . . Depression seems to prepare the mind for a long-term habit of appreciating others’ point of view . . . their weakness is the secret of their strength.”

Right on! It’s like a little party favor that Depression gives those of us who attend its not-very-fun party: the ability to feel deep concern for others. The ability to empathize. The ability to not shy away from others’ pain.

These revelations have, I admit, made me wonder about my love for Abe Lincoln. My crush on the Safeway checker makes perfect sense: a nice voice is sexy. My crush on Bono makes even more sense: nice voice AND global humanitarian.

But what about Abe?

I admit I don’t really care for his beard. I also think his photographer/Dagguerreotyper should have had Abe brush his hair and maybe straighten that wonky bow tie. But whatever. We all have photos we’d rather forget. I don’t have any idea if Lincoln had a nice voice (that shaky voice we have all heard doing his Four Score and Seven Years Ago thing was not Lincoln) so that’s certainly not the cause of my crush.

When I really examine Abe, I realize it’s his eyes that really get me. Those soulful eyes filled with pain and wisdom. Here, take a look:

But. Then I read this article, and I wonder. Maybe I don’t actually Love love Abe Lincoln. Because my fragile wiring means I have “high degrees of empathy,” maybe what I feel for Abe is Connection rather than Love. Maybe, when I see Abe’s soulful eyes and think, Come here, baby. what I’m really thinking is, Yeah. I get it. But let’s not give up. You and I both have lots of important stuff to do.

If getting beach-slapped over and over means I have some super-human ability to empathize, a mile-deep concern for others? Well. There are certainly worse crosses to bear. Weary-making crosses, yes. But others have had to carry much heavier.

So how about this: as we muddle through life, we (all of us) should try to acknowledge and accept our weakness and THEN  find a way to make that weakness our strength. Our secret weapon. As long as we are all clad in badge-covered capes, we should also have a secret weapon. One that, needless to say, is to be used for good and for justice and for laughter.

In the mean time, I’m going to see if Schmidtie will make me a cape badge that looks like this:

Because I don’t care what you all think. There really is something rather cute about him.