Hella Proud To Be An American

I love voting. It makes me feel hella proud to be an American. But, let’s be honest. Sometimes, voting can be a headache.

I’ve never been a vote-by-mail voter. I like to go to my polling place on election day and cast my ballot. I love getting my sticker on election day. I make it a point to wear red white and blue on election day, so my outfit matches my sticker. I usually get there first thing in the morning. I like to sign my name and see the volunteers who help with the polling booths. My polling place is at the Vet’s Hall this year. That’s what my sample ballot tells me. I can’t wait to cast my ballot. And I can’t wait for election day next week.

But when I got my sample ballot, about a month ago, I was surprised to see about twenty boxes that I was supposed to check. I live in a rural county in California. Who the hell were all these people? What the hell were all these offices? I haven’t met every person on my ballot and it is hard to know who to vote for.

California voters changed the primary election process so that, no matter what party you are registered with, you can vote for any candidate (regardless of party) in the primary election and the top two candidates will appear on the ballot in November. This means that there are more than a handful of choices for Governor, Lieutenant Governor, California Attorney General and so forth.

As I skimmed through my ballot, I started to feel frustrated. I didn’t know what the Board of Equalization was. I had never heard of any of the people running for the Superior Court Judge. I noticed that, for a lot of my local elections, for positions such as Sheriff, the candidates were listed unopposed. What if I didn’t like the choices?

There is less than one week until election day in Nevada County, California, and I have been mostly baffled about my ballot. Because of the recent change to California primary election laws, now every yahoo who qualifies to run for office is listed on the ballot. I had a lot of questions.

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Tonight, our friends, Max and Rose, hosted an informal forum at their kitchen table to discuss the upcoming ballot in our small county. It was honest and informative. I know Max, and I know his politics, and I know that his politics don’t necessarily align with my own. But I also know that Max is a fair and open man, and that a night at his house, even discussing politics, is guaranteed to be nothing but fun.

I made lasagne for the gathering. And, just to be non-partisan, I made two lasagnes—one vegetarian and one with meat. To put myself in the mood for the evening, I played Garth Brooks’ “We Shall Be Free” on my iPod at high volume over the car stereo as we drove to Max’s house. I was pumped for democracy when we got there.

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The evening was perfect. We sat around Max and Rose’s kitchen table. We drank wine and ate lasagne. We had a civil and friendly conversation about politics. It was important and poignant. We went through our entire ballots. We discussed every candidate and issue. We came to conclusions.

There were nine of us total, most of us acquaintances who had met before, and there were very few absolute agreements. We had strong dissension on several candidates and issues. We argued civilly and intelligently. We ate dinner together and we decided on the candidates and issues that best suited our values.

I think that all of us left the evening knowing firmly how we wanted to vote. There was no uniform party or slate. There was no absolute. We had heard the arguments. We had heard the issues. Some of us were voting one way. Some of us were voting another way. All of us who left Max and Rose’s house will be voting with sound information and a clear conscious. I feel hella proud to be an American.

 

 

 

 

Magic Bees

Beekeeping isn’t what it used to be. If you ask any old-timer in the beekeeping business, he or she will tell you that, in the past ten years, beekeeping has become much, much harder. It used to be fairly easy. Not too long ago, a beekeeper could throw bees into a hive in March, add an extra box (called a super) in May or June, and walk away until August when it was time to harvest the honey. That’s just not the case anymore.

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Bees are struggling. Between disease, pesticides and mites, entire honey bee colonies are dying en masse. Much of the bio diversity that bees desire for food, and need for a balanced diet, has either been covered in Round Up, or is gone, after pollution and over-use of the land have left fields barren.

Bees rely on a revolving door of forage for their food. They will travel 2-3 miles from their hives to find the nectar and pollen that they want. Here in the Sierra Foothills, bees usually start with the manzanita, then move onto the stone fruit blossoms and wildflowers, then the blackberries and so on through the summer until the star thistle in the fall. With the increase of radical weather, many of the flowers that bees used to rely on for sustenance have become scarce or have started blooming at the wrong time. This year, the stone fruit trees flowered February after a heat spell. The wildflowers started coming up in March. Then it snowed in April.

Today, if you pass a yard of beehives along a country road, you are likely to see upside-down mason jars on top of the hives. Beekeepers who wish to keep their bees alive have started to feed them sugar water as a supplement for when the usual nectar flow has dried up.

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I lost my last two hives at the end of 2012. After several weeks of very cold weather, and some snow, we had a few mild days. When the thermometer hit 74 on December 27th, all the bees left the hive to look for food and “use the bathroom”. (Bees won’t go in their hive.) Since nothing was blooming and there was nothing to eat, the bees starved and the colony became weak and died. If I had been a better beekeeper, I would have put pollen patties in the hives to give the bees something to help them though the winter. Some lessons are harder than others.

We didn’t buy more bees because we knew that we would be relocating. I didn’t want to start a new yard and have to move it. I didn’t really clean out the frames or bother to remove the wax. Sometimes wax moths will come into a hive and lay eggs, creating an infestation. We get enough days of freezing that, as long as the equipment is kept outside, it’s not really a problem. I kept my eye on the equipment.

We moved in July of last year and I piled up the beekeeping equipment next to the shed when we moved in. It stayed there until last week, when I finally started to clean up all stuff we had piled up next to the shed: tomato cages, bee boxes, gopher wire, irrigation equipment, planting pots etc.

Last week, I went through all of my beekeeping equipment. I checked the frames for moths and mold. Everything looked good. There was even a little honey left. I moved the bee boxes against the fence under the fig tree and set up a hive just to see how it would look. I wasn’t really sure about the location but it was a good temporary home for the boxes until I could find a permanent place to put them and get ready for bees next year.

I have made a significant effort to plant bee-friendly flowers in my garden this year. I have been planting native flowers along with some culinary plants that bees enjoy. I wanted to be prepared for when the bees get here. I want my garden to be healthy for the pollinators.

Yesterday was the third day of a heat spell. During this time of year, if beekeepers don’t regularly check on their beehives, and add extra boxes to make more room, the bees will hatch a new queen and the hive will split into two—the new queen will stay behind with half the colony and the established queen will travel with the other half of the colony to find a new home. When the queen and half the colony leave, this is called a swarm, an image popularized by Winnie the Pooh as a cloud of traveling bees.

Yesterday afternoon, my orange cat was outside on the porch and started to meow like crazy. He is usually pretty vocal but this was something different. When I opened the door, he darted to the edge of the porch and sat upright, staring off towards the fence. I checked his food and water and both were full.

“What is wrong with you?” I asked him.

And then I heard it. The faint, low hum of buzzing.

I looked towards the place that my cat was staring, over at my stack of bee boxes. My jaw dropped. There were bees everywhere, but mostly, they were covering my bee boxes. A wall of them. A swarm of them. They were clamoring to move in.

I called my friend Janet Brisson of Country Rubes Farm, a well-known beekeeper and supplier of bee equipment. I explained the situation and asked her what I should do. She asked me if it looked like they were walking into the boxes. I told her that they were, they were slowly filing into the frames inside the boxes. She told me to do nothing; The bees were moving in.

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 I spent all of yesterday afternoon watching a swarm of bees inhabit my bee equipment. They didn’t go into the hive that I had set up. They, instead, went into the left over boxes I had leaned against the fence. This morning, I got up before dawn, put on my bee suit, and moved the boxes of bees to the neatly stacked hive that is now buzzing under the fig tree.

I feel like the luckiest beekeeper in the world. I have spent all morning watching my magic bees buzz in and out of their new home.

The Most We Can Hope For

And so, with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees, just as things grow in fast movies, I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer.” -F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

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Every spring, as the rain comes, and then the sun, and then the rain again, a weather pattern ideal for growing weeds, I have the same revelation: tending a garden requires constant attention. I looked around at my garden last week, a landscape that, just a month before, was dormant under the chill of winter, and I wondered where all the weeds had come from. Hadn’t I spent all of summer and fall and the first part of winter (which felt like summer) pulling weeds? And now, after just a short break, the weeds were back with a vengeance.

Last year, around this time, I was living in the middle of nowhere and was regularly attending a weekly meditation group. We would get together every Tuesday at a rich guy’s mansion in the woods, a house that looked like a combination of a Frank Lloyd Wright design and something from Smurf Village. We would sit in silence on the bamboo floor of the living room for 40 minutes and then talk about the meaning of life, ancient wisdom, and staying present. Meditation was probably good for me. I might go back to it one day. I just have a hard time with people who are completely full of shit.

There was a 20-something hippie who regularly attended the meditation. He called himself Meadow and never wore shoes. (It wasn’t like he took them off at the door like the rest of us. He arrived not wearing shoes.) He was from the east coast somewhere and had hitchhiked and squatted his way to the Sierra Foothills. From what I could gather, he was technically homeless but found gigs “house-sitting” and kept a roof over his head. He was vegan and gluten-free and only ate organic, locally-grown, non-GMO food. When we first met, he was more clean-cut and less dewy-eyed. As the weeks went on, his beard grew longer, his smile grew wider, and his signature outfit—corduroy cut-offs and a canary-colored Mexican wedding shirt—grew more and more tattered. He had the kind of unfaltering cheerful attitude that made me wonder what strain of marijuana he smoked and whether or not I should pick up pot-smoking for the first time since community college.

Last winter actually felt like winter. It wasn’t like this winter, which was more like summer, only tapered off. Last winter, we had rain, and snow that actually stuck around for a while. It was gray for months. We were living in a place with no insulation and only space heaters. It was very cold. And it was depressing. Maybe I went to the meditation group because the mansion had heated flooring and it was the only thing that made my feet warm for a few moments.

One night, at the mediation group, Meadow asked me how I was.

“I’m ready for winter to be over,” I replied. And I meant it.

“Are you though?” He feigned breathlessness for dramatic effect. He raised his bushy eyebrows at me, lowered his voice, and waxed poetic. “Are you really ready for winter to be over?”

I wanted to sock him.

This spring, as the weeds came up in my garden, I could hear Meadow’s goofy question echo in my mind. “Are you really ready for winter to be over?”

I knew what Meadow was trying to get at when he asked me the question last year, but his presentation was just so ridiculous that I couldn’t take him seriously. Winter is a time of dormancy, a time where we can cocoon against the cold and reinvent ourselves, ruled by the weather and the quiet darkness that winter dictates. There is something about the calm and cold of winter that I don’t think I’ll ever get used to.

The unruliness of spring isn’t easier though. The sudden invasion of weeds in my garden makes it hard to concentrate on the flowers I wish to grow. (And I mean that in the most ridiculous, new-agey, hippie-ish, and metaphoric way possible.) Spring is a time of distraction. There are flowers and bugs and a number of immodest squirrels making love in the tree outside my window. It is a time of dreams and hope. And then, just to squander all of those things with distraction, everything smells like jasmine and apple blossoms.

But summer is worse. Trying to build on the loose foundation we laid in the spring is pointless because it’s too hot and there is just too much fun to have. There are barbeques and swimming holes and vine-ripened tomatoes and summer vacations. The dust kicks up and life becomes a hazy sense of confusion in the midst of sunshine and fun.

And then fall gets here and we have to prepare for winter all over again. It’s still dusty but the cold season of winter is looming. In defiance of winter, we bring large squashes into our homes and, instead of storing them, we carve funny faces into them and set them aglow for passing children. We live in constant disbelief that storms will race in. It’s not because we’re confused or dysfunctional; It’s because life is always forward movement. And most of us live in defiance of life. For most of us, defiance of life is our natural state of being.

Maybe our attempts at defying life are our attempts at defying death.

I looked down at a blackberry bush in my garden this morning and thought, “I pulled this out last year.” And it’s true. I had definitely pulled out that same blackberry bush last year.

Life is not about getting rid of the weeds forever. That’s why we are in a constant state of defiance. Life is about constantly chasing back the weeds for now, pulling out the bad in order to make room for what we hope to nurture and what we want to allow to grow. Life is a meditation.

Every moment of every day of every season gives us an excuse. Every moment of every day of every season tells us that life is hard, that life is a constant struggle. Even when we think we’ve tackled the weeds, they find a way to come back. But every moment of every day of every season gives us an opportunity, a chance to move forward, a chance to do better and to be better.

I’ve been pulling out the weeds in my garden. It’s a pain-in-the-ass and a daily annoyance. But I have also been planting flowers and vegetables. I have been raking the weeds away to make room for the things I want. Life is a constant struggle. And I think, on most days, that’s the most any of us can hope for.