How to be a dog walker

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What you’ll need: a leash, a multitude of plastic bags

Songlist: Who Let the Dogs Out? by Baha Men, Salty Dog Rag by Red Foley

Further reading: The Hidden Life of Dogs by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, Marley and Me by John Grogan

Dogs: the best thing ever created (not that I'm biased)

Last year, my doorbell rang. A thin man with oiled hair stood outside with a clipboard in his hand. Upon seeing me, he launched into a narrative of redemption. He was trying to sell me something—a magazine subscription or ecstasy or Jesus, I couldn’t tell which—but first he had to draw me in.

“Ma’am,” he said, “What’s your profession?”

“I’m a teacher,” I said. Minnesota Reading Corps-Americorps Literacy Tutor at Barack and Michelle Obama Service Learning Elementary—my official title—was more information than he needed.

“And what was your first job?”

“Um, walking a dog.”

“So, think about it. You’ve gone from picking up shit to educating our young people, arguably the most important profession in the world.”

In fact, I had gone from making ten dollars for each half hour walk to a position where I calculated my earnings to be about four to five dollars an hour. And I went from picking up a small pile of literal shit to dealing with the metaphorical shit of ineffective bureaucracy, difficult coworkers, and the special needs of homeless, neglected, and mentally disabled children. Metaphor trumps literal.

Iberian ham in a handy ham-holder. Yum!

Since I graduated college in 2008, I have somehow managed to make successively less money every year. My first job was as a Language and Cultural Assistant at an elementary school in southern Spain. Compared to my fellow Dartmouth graduates’ starting salaries of 70Gs at consulting firms and financial institutions, my 700€ a month stipend didn’t seem like much. However, I was placed in a tiny town where the only items in the grocery store more expensive than about three euro were the cured pigs’ legs. Plus, I was only required to work twelve hours a week (thank you, siesta culture), and, after all, these were euros we were talking about.

Then came the AmeriCorps job. Service to our country cannot be underestimated, but it sure can be underpaid. Daily, I came home exhausted, unable to do much more than read my horoscope for the day already past and fall asleep. I was in awe of two of my co-tutors who held other part-time jobs in addition to our forty-five-hour weeks at the school. They soon quit their other jobs.

AmeriCorps ended last July, and I decided not to renew my contract for one more year. I now work as a receptionist at an oriental medicine health clinic. Besides the bonus of free acupuncture whenever I want—who needs health insurance when you’ve got needles!—I make ten dollars an hour. However, the clinic is small and my help is needed only four to eight hours a week. I now have plentiful time and energy to write.  So far, though, I haven’t found anyone to pay me for that, and my funds are running low for the trussed up coffee drinks I buy during my café writing sessions.

Maybe I should just go back to dog walking.

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The garden as paradise

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Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights

As I was walking my dog today, I admired the state of gardens in my neighborhood. I had just come back from the Linder’s Garden Center, which has everything a Minnesotan gardener might need: Zone 4 hardy perennials, bright annuals, evergreen trees, even Koi fish for ponds. In my walk, I saw combinations of the these same elements: blooming petunias, fading tulips, lush hostas and ornamental grasses. All beautiful, but somewhat repetitive. Living in Minnesota, I sometimes forget that a garden can mean so much more than a fragrant interlude between house and garage.

The English word ‘paradise’ comes from the Old Persian pairidaeza, which means ‘walled garden.’ Of course, one of the primary creation stories of humankind takes place in the earthly paradise known as the Garden of Eden. This garden was a place of safety and innocence and order; when Adam and Eve were expelled they were confronted with danger and chaos and longed to return to the garden.

Gardens attained the highest of statuses in ancient civilizations, such as Nebuchadnezzar II’s Hanging Gardens of Babylonia, labelled one of the seven wonders of the world. Islamic culture gave rise to fabulous gardens that provided a metaphorical and literal escape from the wildness of nature. These gardens were walled off and cultivated as verdant spaces with shade and water elements to contrast the surrounding arid environment. Their geometrical design harkened back to the Garden of Eden’s location at the intersection of four rivers.

In fact, I should not use the past tense when describing these gardens. I visited many such gardens in southern Spain, which was in the hands of Islamic rulers longer than it has since been under Catholic control. The most extraordinary gardens I visited were the Alcázar in Sevilla and the Alhambra in Granada.

The Alhambra at twilight

I visited the Alhambra for the second time this past July. A friend of mine and I chose an evening entrance time when the Spanish summer heat was at a low. We walked through the Palacio de Nazaries in twilight with bats swinging over our heads and water trickling through grooves in the stone steps. After the palace we strolled to the Generalife gardens (from the Arabic Jennat al Arif, or Garden of the Architect). It was dark by this time, and thus we could not see the vast Moorish garden, but the warm, damp air was full of the scent of jasmine and lavender. This truly was paradise.

Art in bloom

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In early spring the Minneapolis Institute of Arts puts on a three-day show called Art in Bloom, which is consistently my favorite event at the museum. Floral artists from around the Twin Cities create interpretations of paintings and sculptures in the MIA’s permanent collection, which are then displayed for one weekend next to the work of art that inspired them.

The weekend of Art in Bloom 2011 was a busy one for me, but my mom and I were able to squeeze in a thirty minute trip through the galleries. The floral creations are scattered throughout the entire museum so we raced from room to room to see as many as possible. I felt like we were on an Easter egg hunt, in that the bouquets are bright and barely camouflaged and ubiquitous.

My mom and I agreed that the best arrangements were not overly literal and beautiful independent of any association of the painting. Here are a few of our favorites:

Allegory of the Four Elements by Cornelis Jacobsz. Delff

Calypso by Karl-Ernest-Rodolphe-Heinrich-Salem Lehmann

St. Severin, Paris by Emmanuel Rudnitsky

Small Buddha statue

Chinese scroll

Monet’s garden

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Monet's garden would make anyone an impressionist painter

The summer after I graduated from high school, a friend and I travelled to Europe to spend a week each in London and Paris. On our last day in Paris we took a train out to Giverny to see Claude Monet’s garden which he created with as much artistry and devotion as any of his paintings. Monet was a master gardener who once said, “Apart from painting and gardening, I am good for nothing; my greatest masterpiece is my garden.”

Knowing Monet’s oeuvre moderately well, I had the uncanny sense while walking through his extensive grounds of being in a new yet completely familiar environment. Here was the aisle of irises leading up to his house, there the pond filled with water lilies, and arching over it, of course, the famous green Japanese bridges. I could imagine that if I spent enough time in those lush, beautiful gardens, I’d emerge an impressionist painter, too.

Some of Monet's paintings from Giverny

How to be a master gardener

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What you’ll need: sun/rain/soil/seeds, correct pronunciation of calibrachoa/weigela/crocosmia/lisianthus

Songlist: Roses by Outkast, Octopus’s Garden by The Beatles

Further reading: The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession by Susan Orlean, Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

I do not have a green thumb. When I lived in Spain I bought a hibiscus plant which died within two weeks. My knowledge of flowers is only average. Yet, when I interviewed at Linder’s flower mart this past bleak midwinter I got the job. Now I work part time selling flowers.

Inside a Linder's greenhouse

I was terrified my first day, expecting to feel like a total dunce. But when customers asked me questions, memories of working alongside my grandmothers in their gardens would surface or tidbits I gleaned from my garden-enthusiast parents would enable me to answer correctly. Yes, impatiens are great for the shade. Yes, deadhead those petunias and they’ll keep blooming. Obvious stuff for a master gardener, but enough to suffice for the beginning gardeners who make up the majority of Linder’s customer base.

In fact, at the Linder’s training, they told us not to bother the master gardeners: they know more than we do. They come in knowing what they want and if they see our plants are in proper condition they’ll buy them. End of story.

Some of my coworkers are master gardeners themselves, and I love overhearing them talk to the Horticultural Society members; I also envy them their knowledge. As I make my rounds through the aisles of perennials, herbs, vegetables, and annuals I hope that some day I will understand plants the way master gardeners do. And as I rearrange the marigolds and group the begonias I plan out a vast garden of blooms perfectly balanced, weeded, colorful. Then someone comes along and asks me for insider tips about how to avoid blight on a specific tomato plant and I remember that I have a long way to go.

It’s my birthday and I’ll scry if I want to

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I was born on May 20th, 1986, making me a Taurus by astrological standards and a Tiger in the Chinese zodiac (I’m therefore a Bull-Tiger, a creature as awesome as it is fearsome). This also means that today is my 25th birthday.

My lovely fortune-telling cards

On Monday I said that I had given up reading my Tarot cards, but today I pulled them out again to check how being 25 will treat me. When I dealt out the 36 cards for a “full” reading and began to interpret their meanings, I remembered how seductive these cards are. For one thing, they are quite beautiful: unlike actual Tarot cards, my deck doesn’t include the arcana or suits and therefore the images are more stylized than pictures on the original Tarot. Also, an overwhelming majority of my cards are distinctly positive and therefore it is quite easy to interpret every reading as very uplifting.

Here are my highlights from the year ahead, just as vague and optimistic as you might expect from fortune telling cards:

  • An important man will bring good news that will lead to a significant change–don’t worry, this change will lead to great things!
  • Good omens surround your relationship, and love will continue to blossom!
  • Your career will become very important and give you great security.
  • Trust that your wisdom will allow you to handle any awkward circumstances.
  • Your road is in the hands of the gods. Everything you do this year will be blessed.
Sounds like a pretty good year, no?

The end is near, as usual

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Homer Simpson, doomsayer

A favorite activity of humans since the dawn of consciousness has been predicting the End Times. Everyone wants to believe that their lives are more significant, their iteration of the world relatively more important than the other several millions of years and billions of lives that have passed by before. If your life happens to coincide with the end of the world, you are then part of the remarkable final generation of humans.

This morning while I was reading my horoscope at my local Caribou coffee shop, I overheard the employees talking about the end of the world. It’s either coming this Saturday if you’re to believe Harold Camping’s extremely obfuscated set mathematics* based on the Bible or perhaps December 21 of 2012 if you want to believe Hollywood (the Mayans have since spoken out to contradict the idea that their calendar predicts a doomsday in 2012).

I was talking with a friend last summer about the end of the world. We agreed that it would be a bummer if everyone knew that the world was about to end, because then everyone would quit their jobs and take off on world-tours (but then not be able to eat at any restaurants, sleep in any hostels, or fill up on gas in any stations). Basically, it would be anarchy. So we stipulated that we would be the only ones to know the world was about to end (and could maybe tell a few friends and family members). He thought he would buy a motorcycle and bike around the world, and I decided I would spend the rest of my time lying on a beach drinking margaritas, so long as all the most important people in my life came along.

If you knew that you had exactly two years left, how would you spend them?

*Excerpted from the San Francisco Chronicle:

By Camping’s understanding, the Bible was dictated by God and every word and number carries a spiritual significance. He noticed that particular numbers appeared in the Bible at the same time particular themes are discussed.

The number 5, Camping concluded, equals “atonement.” Ten is “completeness.” Seventeen means “heaven.” Camping patiently explained how he reached his conclusion for May 21, 2011. “Christ hung on the cross April 1, 33 A.D.,” he began. “Now go to April 1 of 2011 A.D., and that’s 1,978 years.”

Camping then multiplied 1,978 by 365.2422 days – the number of days in each solar year, not to be confused with a calendar year. Next, Camping noted that April 1 to May 21 encompasses 51 days. Add 51 to the sum of previous multiplication total, and it equals 722,500.
Camping realized that (5 x 10 x 17) x (5 x 10 x 17) = 722,500. Or put into words: (Atonement x Completeness x Heaven), squared.
“Five times 10 times 17 is telling you a story,” Camping said. “It’s the story from the time Christ made payment for your sins until you’re completely saved.
“I tell ya, I just about fell off my chair when I realized that,” Camping said.

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