31 March 2009

Going mobile

It's not quite an adventure. Well...it'll be an adventure, alright, just not my kind of adventure.

I don't really consider any place home. I've lived in many places, but this one claims me as its own. People there claim me as their own.

I haven't been there in quite a long time. A lot of water under the bridge. Under all the bridges. Scars on the landscape, changes in how things are done. I tried to enumerate for my children what has changed since I was a child. So much is so different, but the time and distance are greater now.

People are gone, people I loved and will never see again. I tucked E.'s death away, stored it for future consideration. I save grieving for when I am ready, and sometimes I'm never ready. I think of her, and then suddenly, she is gone. I know it will hit me when I see her daughter, four years my senior. I'm still not ready.

I will have to suffer S. The last time I saw her, her behaviour was unforgivable. Is it "I forgive but I don't forget," or "I don't forgive nor do I forget?" Generally the latter.

Who will I be? They see one person, everyone else, another. As I said a couple of weeks ago, it all fits while none of it does.

I am excited. I am terrified. I am anticipating.

I'd like to hide under the bed.

I think I'd rather have surgery.

On the subject of adventures, CL and I are once again off to the wilds of Sunset Boulevard Thursday evening. The enchanting Heather Armstrong will be signing her new book at Book Soup.

Should be a hoot.

Go listen to some good music: "Going Mobile" from the album Who's Next by The Who. My most enduring Who memory: working a PBS fundraiser at 16 and being asked by the producer to sit on the stage while they set and color corrected the cameras a couple of hours before going live. He played "Won't Get Fooled Again" very loudly over the PA and started switching the cameras on the monitors in time to the music. It was weird.

30 March 2009

Dance in smarty pants (ooo-AH!)

Last week, out of the blue, the spouse made reference to Arty Smartypants' seminal song "Dance in Smarty Pants," from WGBH's educational kids' show Between the Lions. If you didn't have little ones in the early part of the century, you probably have no idea what I'm talking about. Sadly for you, through the magic of YouTube, allow me to introduce you to the earworm I've suffered from for the last three days.

I found this video tonight, and played it for the kids. The daughter was a big fan of the show when she was very tiny, and immediately began to sing along. The son appeared and murmured, "I remember this. It is messed up."

As is my wont, I reworked the words countless times over the weekend (mostly for the cat: variations on "dance in kitty pants") and finally, tonight, the spouse said, "I am so sorry that I reminded you about that song."

So am I. Oh, so am I.

Go listen to some questionable music: "Dance in Smarty Pants" from the TV show Between the Lions. A very catchy little tune, so very catchy that I may have to go visit Disneyland and ride Small World several thousand times to get it out of my brain.

25 March 2009


This white crowned sparrow decided to be a holy terror this morning.

The house finch didn't give up, however, and got a bath in.

(Click on any photo to enlarge.)

Go listen to some good music: "Territories" from the album Power Windows by Rush. I didn't catch them, but a black phoebe, and what looked like a California towhee were in on this little territorial battle, too. I don't know where the male Anna's hummingbird--who believes he has sole ownership of the fountain--was when all this was going on.

24 March 2009

Make your own kind of music

I picked up this month's Discover magazine with my morning coffee (YES! I was/am one of those dreadful people who will read the cereal box if there's nothing else to read, even if I've already read it) and found an article that came from a panel discussion with a group of neuroscientists. Now that, to me, is breakfast.

The first part of the discussion to catch my eye was how it seems the brain stores musical memories better than visual ones. Panelist Daniel Levitin noted, "The big story of memory revealed by music is that you tend to remember those things that you care about or that you have some deep emotional connection with...there appear to be neurochemical tags associated with memories that are highly emotional." What a cool idea that your brain will chemically tag an emotional memory. This probably explains the morning I woke to a bass line playing in my head, one I can still call up in memory when I'm sitting around somewhere without any music playing. A less happy example revolves around Suzanne Vega's song "Pilgrimage." It was a song I happened to be listening to quite a lot at the time that my father died, and in order to keep it together during his funeral, I mentally played back a section of the song over and over, isolating different instruments every time I "listened."

I guess the question here for me is why would your brain go to the trouble? Certainly, being able to access the Vega song reduced my stress that morning, but I am the sort of person who will assign myself a mental task to clamp down on an inconvenient emotional response. Conversely, that bass line always evokes an emotional response, a visceral sense of joy that goes along with memories that never fail to make me smile.

Levitin goes on to say that he's found musical memory is extremely accurate, and people can hear about 10 seconds of a piece they know and be able to correctly name it based on that tiny snippet. He also comments on how music has long been used to encode knowledge, how, for example, English-speaking children learn the alphabet through song.

Added later because I was still thinking about this when I went to collect the kids: Does the fact that music encodes knowledge answer the question I posed above? Does the brain inherently believe that there is value in the strong emotional response evoked by a piece of music, that one should be able to have quick access to the memory because there is knowledge involved? Is my brain saying, for heaven's sake, play "Digital Man" when you're down because you know--in more ways than one, evidently--that it will make you cheerful?

I wonder what the ability to extemporaneously adapt songs says about the brain, though. This is something I've always done, from changing up the words to the Rice-a-Roni jingle to turning the Rolling Stones' "Paint it Black" into a diaper-changing ditty (I'll leave my version of the lyrics to your imagination). Another family favorite is derived from feline forays into the catbox, sung to the tune of Foreigner's "Juke Box Hero."

I'd best leave that to your imagination as well. Given the intricacies of memory and the brain...you know, I just don't want to be responsible for creating any negative emotional responses in anyone.

Go listen to some music: "Make Your Own Kind of Music" by Cass Elliot from the album 20th Century Masters--The Millennium Collection. I remember this song from childhood, though not the context, but it evoked a strong sense of dislocation the night we heard it in Lost.

23 March 2009


After doing a survey for the kids' school that just set my teeth on edge (no, my children need no further diversity training, thank you! They are highly diversified and have friends from all walks of life, as well as religious and cultural backgrounds. You might consider teaching the other half of the kids in the school--and their bloody horrifying parents--some manners, however).


In recent months, I've stopped reading the paper or listening to the news just to avoid an instant plummet in good spirits. So, when my personalized Wall St. Journal alert pops up to notify me of the news of the day, I try to avert my eyes. Already annoyed this morning (I also forgot to send the son's course choices back to school this morning, which exasperated me), I didn't avert quite fast enough and caught the headline Ban on Feet-Nibbling Fish Leaves Nail Salons on the Hook, which looked too good not to read.

I've long been leery about manicures and pedicures, especially after reading about outbreaks of boils on the legs of salon patrons after they'd been exposed to contaminated footbaths. Stress-relieving pedicure? Nothing says stress like cutaneous tuberculosis. There is also the risk of contact with contaminated tools unless you take your own (always a good idea if you're not interested in acquiring blood-borne diseases or fungal infections). There was one nail tech that I trusted completely. I knew her disinfection routines, and she is the most cautious of practitioners. Sadly for me, she decided she'd make better money as a massage therapist, so while I still see her regularly, she now just makes loud comments about how I don't exfoliate my feet as well as she did.

So it goes.

Now, however, I can have fish exfoliate my feet. If I go to Virginia anyway.

In theory, it sounds like a cool idea. Certainly, stories abound of medically-approved critters used to remove necrotic material from wounds to promote healing. (That link is probably not for the faint-of-heart. What a great science fair project, though...!) In practice, however, who is minding the fish? How does one ensure that any given salon is using the correct fish? Are you paying for a real fish exfoliation or are your feet just swimming with minnows? The fish clearly cannot be sanitized, but how do you know the water is being changed frequently enough? Do patrons' feet need to be sanitized post-fish treatment in order to ensure that bacteria (fish do poop, you know) isn't introduced during the pedicure? Think of all those nail techs who like to cut cuticles. I know no one actually cares about the welfare of the fish...

The nicest thing about reading about the fish pedicure, though, is that I have a choice to do it or not. Rather unlike the rest of my life where I'm watching my hard-earned money being portioned out to AIG execs and nutjobs who think they have a right to raise 14 kids on my dime.

Back to choice, though, I've been invited to go to the Amazon. The timing isn't good, so I probably won't, but the amusement value is endless.

Just think of the possibilities. Kayaking with piranhas...

Oh wait, I already do that every day.

Go listen to some music: "Barracuda" from the album Little Queen by Heart.

22 March 2009

Always something there to remind me...

On a day when it seemed there was only bad news, Arizona brought me two things to smile about.

First, the Wildcats very improbably made it to the Sweet Sixteen. When I was in high school, and even for years afterward, I followed college basketball simply to watch the Cats. When I was growing up, no one really paid any attention to UA's football team, but the basketball team...I'm not sure even the Lakers had so rabid a following. More recently, I've just kept a weather eye on the Cats, and this year's weird and sad loss of former coach Lute Olsen looked like the start of a really crushing season for the team. But, Sweet Sixteen. I am that pleased for them.

Second, while reading the paper tonight, I came across a column on longtime Tucson fashion maven Cele Peterson, who celebrated her 100th birthday this month. The idea that she was deposited by a forklift into a wagon for the Rodeo Parade five years ago made me laugh. I saw her once in one of her stores--oh she was the creme de la creme for formal wear when I was young--and I just remember her as so upright and regal and elegant.

I didn't always dislike shopping, you know. Back when family department stores reigned, not the homogenized shopping "experience" that's forced on us today, it was fun to go to stores to browse. Every store had its own character and architecture and decor and merchandise. The older stores in the Downtown area had shiny brass railings and intricate tiled entryways, chandeliers and red carpets. There was a lovely little department store, Goldwyn's, next to the grocery store, not so fancy as the larger ones but with a nice selection of nicer casual clothing, and I loved looking in their windows, especially at night when the spotlit mannequins seemed both magical and terrifying. I remember precisely the outfit I received from that store one Christmas when I was about the daughter's age, one of the few fashionable outfits I had as a child.

Steinfeld's was both glorious--I remember being overwhelmed by the grandeur of the Downtown store when I was small--and tragic after the elder Steinfelds were killed in the Pioneer Hotel fire. Levy's was especially gorgeous at Christmas and I enjoyed walking through the wide, uncluttered aisles, just looking. Levy's also kindly bestowed upon me my first ever credit card (that's another story).

They are all gone now: Goldwyn's and Steinfeld's, Levy's and Jacome's, even Goldwater's. Some of the smaller boutiques like Cele Peterson's survive, but other stalwarts like Korby's and The College Shop have long since vanished too, replaced by the likes of Forever 21 and Wet Seal, cookie cutter clothes for today's cookie cutter lifestyle.

Go listen to some music: "Bachrach/David Medley" from the album Carpenters by The Carpenters. This album was given to me as a gift when I was just a little kid. It was "approved" music.

21 March 2009

Too much information

Me, after five hours of removing Trojans and viruses from the MIL's computer: "Look, I'm just grateful that the downstairs computer didn't infect that computer," pointing at the machine across the room.

MIL, who is 79, and has a significant German accent: "It can do that?"

Me: "Sure. They're on the same network, and the computer downstairs isn't up to date with anything: anti-virus, anti-spyware, patches. It's like unsafe sex."

The son, crimson-faced, quietly: "Moooo-oom."

The in-laws stare at me with mild incomprehension. The spouse tries to disguise his laughter as a cough. I realize what I've just said, but figure in for a penny, in for a pound.

Me: "And the security on your wireless connection had been disabled. That's like unsafe sex with the whole neighborhood!"

FIL, who is 81: "Whooo-EEEEEE!"

Go listen to some good music: "Too Much Information" from the album Ghost in the Machine by The Police. And if you think that was the worst thing I said all day, think again.

20 March 2009

Keep the car running, pt. 2

I almost pulled it. I may still pull it. I don't do angsty well. It makes me itch. I don't want to be an emotional black hole, sucking the life and color out of the world around me. I prefer that my goat not be gotten.

It's the small things. I didn't even mention the big things.

I tell the son, who is excelling at being a teenager some days, find the one good thing. The girl you like who smiles at you, the amazing cloud in the sky, the happy coincidence of that good song popping up on your iPod.

(I said some other things, too, about birds and cars and schadenfreude because I am only human. I mean, I shoot for superhuman always, but I do miss the mark.)

So, the week stank for a lot of reasons. The one good thing is that we'll go to our Friday night Mexican joint tonight and all the staff we have known for years and years will stop by our table to say hi. This is what they do. It is friendly and nice and reassuringly familiar.

And thus, I paste on my non-committal smile once more and move forward.

Go listen to some good music: "Keep the Car Running" from the album Neon Bible by Arcade Fire.

Keep the car running

Last night, I got something akin to real sleep (meaning I went to bed before midnight, fell asleep and stayed asleep, all of which is a sad rarity in my life, especially in the last few months), and rose at my usual crack of dawn almost awake. I had a fairly full day planned, which involved the most boring bits of life that I don't usually talk about. Things like grocery shopping.

So at 8:30, buttressed by two cups of coffee, I got into my car.

It didn't start.

I'm not exactly at the place where I can continue to go along quietly with being thwarted.

It's a small thing. I know it is. I know the battery just needs to be recharged.

But all the small things have added up. That's when I turn into a nitro-burning rush of trouble.

I have to make the trip up to Pasadena, Center of the Universe, tomorrow to check in on the in-laws. This involves lunch at a restaurant, what amounts to a welfare check, and some more prodding about getting them into a gerontology program, after which, I go to their house and fix the computers. It is very difficult to watch people you've known for so long as strong and vital individuals suddenly catch old. Before my eyes they are becoming frail and unreliable, easily confused and combative as a result. I would say they are like children, but they still drive cars and they have credit cards. This makes them dangerous, mostly to themselves. And then I get provocative emails like the one I received this morning that said, "I have to go to the dermatologist to get the stitches out of my neck," while I'm left shrieking, "WHAT stitches?"

Four hours judging the science fair Wednesday morning, smiling and nodding at middle school children who spent a week pouring energy drinks on flower seeds.

I go to mow the lawn, have it done before the weekend, when it is supposed to rain. There is no gas in the mower, none in the gas can. The nearest gas station is miles away and I haven't got a car. I know how to siphon, but haven't got a hose.

I had a small window of escape. I missed it, and it closed. It's going to be closed for awhile. I know what I want, and at present, it's out of my reach. I know what I need, but I have to be patient. I know I am my own worst enemy.

Go listen to some good music: "Keep the Car Running" from the album Neon Bible by Arcade Fire. I cannot stand the sound of my own complaining. I'm generally good at being stoic, but enough already! I am incredibly bored, which does not mean I haven't anything to do.

17 March 2009

Time passages

I was born in a sprawling metropolis, this nation's capital, but I spent my later childhood and adolescence in a small desert town. While I have connections to both, neither ever felt like home any more than the place I live now does. I have been told that I am a desert rat at heart, a true mid-Atlantic girl, a product of the West Coast. Ultimately, I am a creature of the disparate cultures that have shaped me, so it all fits while none of it does.

Traveling the beautiful old neighborhoods of my birthplace, avenues filled with overarching trees, I feel a part of that dense canopy and the surge of the strange life that informs that city. Under the hot open sky of the desert, I learned to find hidden life in out of the way places.

Born in sight of National Cathedral; came of age at a desert mission.

Ritual informs our lives whether we want it or not, and time is marked and measured these by events, those that are formal inductions into the ranks of our peers, and those less formal, rites of passage. When we are young, we squander time, kill time. Time is on our side. Time is all we have. Time is endless, infinite, as huge as we are small.

The sun was dropping toward the mountains in the west as the school bus rocked and rattled over the potholed roads crossing the desert on the south side of town that April Friday evening. The sun sets in the desert in a way I've never seen it set anywhere else, whether I've been near the North Pole, the Equator or out in the middle of the ocean. Darkness starts at the eastern edge of the sky, creating a near seamless horizon with the mountains, cerulean to indigo, and it slowly spreads west, the tiniest diamond-bright stars following the darkness, chips of sparkling light. Crep├║sculo, in Spanish. Twilight.

That spring evening, my best friend SCK and I chattered and giggled as we bounced in our seats, both of us in sixth grade, both of us just short of the age of 12. Because we'd been moved up to junior high early and were deemed suitably mature for this adventure, we were en route to the mission along with all the other junior high age girls the Diocese had been able to round up.

The instruction sheets we'd been given were mysterious. We were to wear dark skirts and white blouses with flat shoes, we were to meet at school in the late afternoon, and we'd be returned to the school by 10:30 pm.

The mission was a local fixture, a place to drag visiting relatives, and to occasionally attend Mass. It was far enough from town to require a special trip, part of that infinite time/space of childhood that made a nine-mile drive on uncertain pavement into the dusty sage and greasewood of that section of the Tohono O'odham reservation a real trek. We would wait, breathless, for the moment that the white church came into view, rising pure and sparkling from the desert floor.

To the east of the mission was a small hill that, again with the perspective of childhood, seemed a huge mountain. When we visited the mission, we'd always climb the path up the side of the hill, fine dust dirtying our sneakers, to the small re-creation of the Grotto of Lourdes, which stood in a fenced, shadowed recess, cool and dry and filled with photos, flowers, trinkets and requests for intercession.

Photo of San Xavier del Bac from the hill taken by Thelmadatter, who has licensed its use in the public domain.

As we got older, my brother and I would wander off the proper trail onto the tiny animal track that led to the three crosses at the top, a mini-Gethsemane, mindful of snakes and scorpions and slippery scree below the little cliffs.

This night was different, though. This night was a mystery. All the years that I'd lived in this area, all the times I'd visited the mission, I'd had no idea that a pageant was held one spring evening annually to commemorate the founding of the mission. And my friends and I were going to be in it.

Go back in your mind to that time of your life when you were 12, that in-between age when you stood with one foot in childhood, one foot in adulthood, both at the mercy of adults and expected to demonstrate the responsibility of one. Remember what it felt like to crave the security of childhood even while you yearned for self-determination?

The bus pulled into the unpaved parking lot of the mission, throwing up that fine brown dust behind it. We were herded off by the chaperones, mothers, if I remember--I don't think any of the nuns were along for the ride--and reminded of our bus number, and where we were to meet up if we became separated from our group. We gathered in the midst of other buses, other groups of girls our age with their own chaperones, shivering in the breeze as the warmth of the day left with the sun. Boxes filled with fluttering blue fabric sat in the lot, and we lined up to receive a cape and scarf, along with a wax taper with a paper ring to catch any drips. In later years, we would carry the ubiquitous Our Lady of Guadalupe glass candles which were infinitely safer than the congregational candles and a lot easier to keep lit.

Already, the mission looked different in the failing sun, not just sitting unaware of its own beauty, but regal, gorgeous in the flood of light washing its facade. Huge crowds were gathering in the area normally reserved for everyday parking, and gigantic teepees of wood stood at intervals with smaller stacks along the front wall.

We trudged up the hill in our good shoes and skirts and blouses, thin blue capes affording little protection from the light wind that tugged at us, raising goose bumps--the high desert is cold at night--and making it difficult to tie the cheap scarves over our hair. There was a momentary tussle over the scarves: we naturally tied them at the backs of our necks under our hair, attractively and fashionably, but the woman in charge of the school girls told us no, no, tie them under your chins. We balked, of course, not wanting to look like old ladies, but eventually capitulated sulkily.

The woman in charge, her instruction sheet crackling, pushed us all--and we were probably more than 50, fewer than 100--to the portion of the path at the back of the hill where we were to hide until we joined the procession down to the mission proper. We would walk in pairs behind the men on horseback representing the Spanish conquistadors, behind the monks. We were pilgrims, devoted to the Virgin in our blue. It would be dark, she warned us, but easier to see once we headed down toward the bonfires. And most importantly, she admonished, "don't scream if you fall over the side." Once the procession was done, we would return our capes and scarves, and we could join the fiesta, watch the dancing.

But we were still reeling from the injunction not to scream, looking at one another goggle-eyed and giggling, not having even considered the possibility of going over the side, more worried about a random rattlesnake. "She can't be serious," one of the mothers murmured.

Oh, but she was, and before she left us, one final instruction. "You may talk among yourselves, but I'd better not hear you!"

And there we were, a group of girls ages 12 to 14, left to our own devices on a chilly hillside until darkness fell. Time passed slowly, as it does when one is anticipating something. When darkness came, it was black dark, moonless, no distant light in that long ago completely undeveloped area. We were afraid to sit or lean against the rocks that jutted from the hillside since we couldn't see what else might be lurking there. The breeze had changed to a frank wind and we fussed over walking down the hill in our nice shoes with slick soles. Getting up here had been hard enough. We waited.

The wind carried the smell of woodsmoke to us, and suddenly the waiting was over. Capes and scarves were adjusted. Chaperones fiddled with matches as we tried to light the tapers, and keep them lit. We paired up, and SCK and I shivered next to each other, arguing over who would get to walk nearest the edge of the path and who would walk on the portion next to the rocks. Snakes and scorpions versus falling off. I chose falling off and she was happy.

"Don't forget we'll be behind the horses," I teased her.

"Oh yuck," she moaned.

We began to move, quivering with excitement. The wind brought us the sound of the mission's bells pealing.

"Don't scream," one of the mothers whispered, and we could hear the humor in her voice. It was a little consolation that they were wearing the capes and dumb scarves too.

The wind hit us with some force as we rounded the hill, causing our light capes to billow out behind us. Suddenly, our greatest concern wasn't falling, it was not setting the pair in front of us on fire. We carefully cupped our hands around the tapers, stumbling over rocks in the dark, sharp pebbles finding their way into our shoes, scarves slipping on our heads.

The world below us glowed orange through the acrid pinon smoke coming up the hill, and the cacophony of the crowd, the bells and the ancient sound system blaring a choir singing the Ave Maria was overwhelming. How to describe something that was at once so miraculously beautiful and simultaneously a vision of Hell? The men on horseback, carrying lances, their mounts prancing and arching their necks, silhouetted black against the spectacle of what seemed hundreds of blazing bonfires, were almost nightmarish.

We slipped and slid down the hillside, avoiding the horses' leavings as best we could, relighting our candles from one another when they invariably went out. My foot caught in one of the innumerable gullies created by water washing down the hill in rainstorms, but I didn't fall, I didn't scream.

We passed through the first pair of towering bonfires, the welcome heat offset by the smoke that burned our eyes. Fireworks erupted in the sky over our heads, adding to the light and noise, and behind us on the hill we'd just left, a fireworks representation of the Virgin of Guadalupe was lit, sizzling blue and white for just moments. We circled the front areas of the mission, walking along the low perimeter wall that separated the mission from the parking lot, and I looked up at the facade of the church itself, cat and mouse awaiting the end of the world, the towers, finished and unfinished, brilliant against the night sky. In the swirling smoke, in a procession of many, I felt completely alone, though very much a part of something huge, swept along on a human tide, walking through time and history, reenacting something very old.

It is my memory that the Tohono O'odham and Pascua Yaqui dancers were performing as we made the final circuit of the procession, though I'm not certain that's accurate. By that time, I was overwhelmed by the magnificent confusion of light and noise, and the faces of watching strangers, red in the firelight.

We returned to the boxes, removed and neatly folded our capes and hated scarves, no longer anonymous pilgrims, but schoolgirls ready to join the fiesta, prepared to buy the best frybread we'd ever tasted, drenched in honey, and washed down with icy soda. We watched the dancing and warmed our hands over the dying fires until it was time to once again pile onto the bus and set off for home, reeking of smoke and sticky with honey, tired and quieter.

No one had fallen over the side. No one had screamed. But we came away different for having walked through cultural history that night, a rite of passage for us that was a reflection of a passage for the entire area more than 200 years earlier. The history of the desert Southwest, often fought over, revisited, rewritten, was no longer just dust under our feet, but a part of us. Over time, the pageant itself became a part of history; it hasn't been performed for something close to two decades and now just lives on in the memories of those who once walked through that night.

Go listen to some good music: "Time Passages" from the album Time Passages by Al Stewart. I was in the pageant for several years and then was a chaperone when my younger sister was old enough to go. It was a truly amazing event. I was able to actually watch it once in the late 1980s, and the spectacle brought tears to my eyes.

15 March 2009

Burning down the house

And like Mrs. Dalloway, the preparation for the party was probably more interesting than the party itself.

Most of the day, I was falling off things and dropping things and cleaning things and trying to remember what I was supposed to be doing and trying to convince myself to complete one task before I moved on to the next. I was a whirling dervish of activity, most of it probably pointless. The party was just a party compared with what went before.

Well, except when I lit the fireplace. I don't think I've ever forgotten to open the damper before, and the house rapidly filled with smoke while the fire alarms blared cheerfully. At least I know they work. One of the guests of honor threw the French doors wide, while others murmured with concern. Another guest ran down the hall and ripped open the bathroom window, nearly ripping the frame off the glass (it's an old window). The spouse beat impotently at the damper with a fireplace tool until I pushed him out of the way, and actually opened it. Possibly the best part of all (once the smoke had cleared. Fortunately, I have good cross ventilation in this place) was when the pyro expert showed up shortly thereafter and couldn't even smell the smoke. I can still smell the smoke.

But I have a good nose.

Really, it was very embarrassing.

People seemed to be in an unusually good mood, and I think it had a great deal to do with being diverted from what's become the stress of the every day. It was nice to see people standing in groups together, talking and smiling, though I found it interesting that they tended to stay grouped in two rooms when usually, they spread out and into the back garden. Last night seemed to be comfort in numbers (and food. Comfort food was definitely the way to go).

Though yes, I did find at least one person in with all the books.

Two members of the group were headed out to South America today on a job, and were getting razzed about what diseases they were likely to bring home. Chagas Disease seemed to be running high odds (and you thought I was the only one who talks about weird diseases at cocktail parties). One gentleman also has a penchant for grazing, literally, and came home from one job with a very upset digestive tract.

"What do you expect," I asked him, "when you just eat whatever you see growing on a tree?"

A CD of Mozart's divertimenti played in the background in stark contrast to my Keep Moving! Keep Moving! hard rock playlist of earlier in the day.

And wine! Everyone brought me wine, not for the party, but for me. Upon arrival, people were sidling up, presenting bottles like votive offerings.

(There is a dreadful misconception that I "know something" about wine. I don't, I swear. The guests of honor are oenophiles, so when the holidays roll around, I go to a bit of trouble to find a nice bottle of wine for the spouse to give them, and it's also why I constructed this menu around wine and vice versa. Just something fun. But honestly, all I know about wine is what I like (and equally importantly, what I don't), and that you never cook with wine you wouldn't drink. I'm willing to be adventurous, I'm certainly willing to learn and to take advice from those who are knowledgeable about it--for me, that's the fun of going to wineries and tastings, and talking to the people who run wine shops--and I've learned not to be intimidated by wine. But I definitely can't claim any special knowledge of it.)

One guest arrived a bit later in the evening, and apologized for his lateness, explaining that he'd been at an event earlier in the day, and suddenly the SWAT team had appeared in full regalia. The attendees had to wait until the team had cleared the building, and it had set him back a bit, timewise. I gravely told him that I understood and that I was sorry he'd missed my attempt to set my own house on fire, but that if he craved more excitement, I would be happy to phone the SWAT team to see if they were up to a repeat performance.

The merits of artichoke dip were discussed. CL had offered to bring hers (famous), and I told her that was fine, allowing hers to supplant mine (also famous). And it was fine. Also one less thing for me to cook, which was even better.

"The invitation said hors d'oeuvres!" said EM. "No one needs to eat after this!"

I know this group. I wasn't going to send them away hungry.

Speeches were made, the cake was cut, good wishes were offered, goodbyes said.

"I've really known you for 15 years?" I asked one of the guests of honor as she left. I knew it had been through 3 companies and lots of years. Fifteen sounded like so long.

"Yup," she said.

Having this party felt like the right thing, and usually if it feels like the right thing, it is.

Except for the fire part, perhaps.

Go listen to some good music: "Burning Down the House" from the album Speaking in Tongues by Talking Heads. By the time everyone left, I WAS speaking in tongues. And then today, it was all the clean up and helping the daughter get her board ready for the science fair, which had been postponed from earlier in the month...

14 March 2009

It's my party...

I am randomly Twittering today, just because.

Well, mostly because I can only think in twit-bites.

Twit-bites? I think I'll be regretting that.

Anyway, you can follow the chaos here. Can't actually promise how long it will go on but it's a nervous breakdown every 140 characters!

Go listen to some music: "It's My Party" by Lesley Gore.

13 March 2009

Whatever's left

I have the impulse to write, wild and mischievous. The drudgery of the last few days has made me a bit stir-crazy, and ready to move forward.

(I am told you can hear my teeth grinding 1000 miles away.)

But last night I looked backward for a moment, reading of the plans I'd made for myself over the course of the last few months. Nothing has come to fruition. Nothing. It's no wonder that my frustration has peaked. Six months of treading water is not my idea of a good time.

I knew that this year would be rough. There's no going back.

My days are extremely full but that doesn't make them interesting. I don't care for the idea that instead of making plans, I'm marking obstacles and overcoming them.

In today's Wall St. Journal, Peggy Noonan wrote of the same disquiet that I noted a couple of weeks ago:

"I'll admit that I'm [throwing a party] as much as a morale booster as I am a sendoff for a couple we've known for many years. I really don't know the mood of the rest of the nation, but here behind the Orange Curtain, it's bad. Between the job losses, the fall of the housing market, threatened cuts in everything, that woman, everyone is just in a state. And there is a terrible sense that we are all waiting for something. Armageddon, maybe.....Even the kids are feeling this. Not pleasant."

We often laugh (in something akin to disgust) at the TV ads: take a little pill. As Ms. Noonan rightly points out, there is no little pill for this ailment. But I find positive action, even if it's pulling weeds, helps.

Obstacles. Postponement. Enough already. I don't squander, but I'm ready for some irrational exuberance.

Go listen to some good music: "Whatever's Left" from the album Final Straw by Snow Patrol. And yeah, tomorrow's P-Day. Then it's done.

11 March 2009

Boris the spider

(I did not squash any spiders in the course of this adventure. Just saying.)

Today, very early, cleaning the outdoor furniture, a long and fussy job. The chairs and loveseats all have cushions that had to be retrieved from the shed and washed. Yes, washed. By hand. Although everything is stored in the winter, or is in a sheltered place, the wind and dirt and ash gets in everywhere.

So do the spiders.

Our lot is large compared with what you usually see in Orange County, and it's large compared with some of the neighbors. This is great in many regards, but there is the upkeep, which is significant. Right now, I'm in the process of rehabilitating the landscaping in the back (the less said about that, the better, and no, it won't be ready for Saturday). For some reason, spiders, all shapes, sizes, colors, love our backyard. My arborist surmises it's because we have so many trees (you would not want to pay my tree trimming bill, I tell you), which provide shade, food and shelter. Whatever the case, spiders. Everywhere. So I clean the outdoor furniture frequently and thoroughly, because yes, we do get black widows.

Today, I also took the time to get the fountain ready. The birds are everywhere at the moment, and they like having the water available. We have, in particular, a male Anna's hummingbird who believes the fountain is his, and he frequently bathes there. He will dive bomb me if I pass too close to it when it's running.

Of course, when I started to fill the basin and the tub beneath, everything that's been living in the rocks came running out. The usual suspects: ants, earwigs, and of course, spiders. I turned the fountain on, and suddenly a very small jumping spider emerged from the rocks.

I saw my first jumping spider a few years ago when I harvested a bunch of artichokes and decided to soak them in a bowl of water before bringing them indoors. Earwigs like to hide in the inner leaves and Milton likes to chase earwigs, but invariably ends up with them attached to his nose, and then I have the fussy job of removing them. Not much fun for anyone. On this occasion, I was submerging the third of six artichokes, when suddenly a half dollar-sized black spider came flying out of the water, obviously not pleased with what it saw as my rude attempt to drown it. It turned its bright green, headlamp-sized eyes on me and leaped. I fell over backwards, shrieking, not having ever been so brazenly attacked by a spider before. It fell short of the mark, and eventually, it got tired of terrorizing me, and took off for greener, probably drier, pastures.

As a general rule, I don't squash spiders (black widows excepted and those I always squash) because they are good about eating bad bugs, and it turned out jumping spiders are no exception: they like to eat earwigs, among other things. So an artichoke probably looked like a good place to hang out.

Today's jumping spider was the itty bitty baby cousin of the artichoke spider, not too much larger than a pencil eraser. I watched as it climbed up on a rock, and used its front legs to clean off its head. Its motions were catlike, and it seemed quite irritated. Using its back legs, it cleaned off the remainder of its body in similar fashion. Then it hopped to another rock, and I was astonished to see it walk back up to the fountain and stick its head directly into the flow of the water, almost as if it had decided it was going to walk up the side of the pot. It stood that way for several seconds, head completely submerged in what must have seemed similar to Niagara Falls. Eventually, it thought better of the idea, backed out of the water and cleaned its head with its front legs again. Then it wandered off to do whatever jumping spiders do on a normal basis.

I sat back on my heels for a moment, wondering if I'd just witnessed a spider taking a bath.

Go listen to some music: "Boris the Spider" from the album A Quick One (Happy Jack) by The Who. No, as a matter of fact, I don't like spiders, and just digging up a picture of the green-eyed spider made my skin crawl. I do respect them, though, because they help to keep garden pests down. And my kids love this song. Go figure.

10 March 2009

I can see clearly now

I spent the day washing windows. I know that I can well afford to hire someone to do this job, but I actually sort of like doing it. There's something fairly zen about wiping the glass, and rather satisfying about washing all the dirt and ash away, though I'll admit I don't want to do it more than once a year, and right now, my arm feels like it's going to fall off.

Washing the glass inside is another matter. There are places in my house that I don't visit often, some of which I evidently don't visit often enough. My house is small, so there isn't much excuse there.

I have two sets of glassed-in cabinets. One is a china cabinet and sits in the dining room, while the other is built in to the kitchen. Both contain various odds and ends, mostly knick knacks that have been given to me over the years, as well as some small items I've inherited from various family members, largely worthless but their for familial value. I don't really collect things, though occasionally I'll pick up a small remembrance when I'm traveling, but only if it's unusual and not something that I can get at home.

I decided that as long as I was cleaning glass today, it wouldn't hurt to do the cabinets, particularly since I couldn't remember the last time I'd washed the glass shelving in the cabinets in the kitchen.

Both sets of cabinets have lights, and if I'm going to use the lights, obviously, I don't want dusty streaky glass. When I turned on the lights in the cabinets in the kitchen, I noticed that one of the halogen pucks had dropped out of the ceiling, probably when the earthquake hit over the summer, so I climbed up on a ladder to put it back into place, resting my hand on the lower wooden part of the cabinet for support.

I should have actually looked before I rested. I felt a dry crunch under my thumb and recoiled, disgusted. The sere corpse of a large spider lay where my fingers had been nano seconds before. It had obviously lived well and died of old age, based on all the little partially consumed spiders lying around the bottom of the cabinet.

"EWWWW!" I hollered in disgust, and even after I disposed of the bodies and washed my hands, I could still feel the nasty crunch as my thumb landed on the spider.

I have no idea how said arachnid got into that cabinet--Milton is a mighty spider hunter and usually only leaves legs as evidence of his late night snacks--but I can tell you that I'll at least be opening the doors to check inside a little more frequently.


Go listen to some music: "I Can See Clearly Now" By Johnny Nash from the album Radio Hits of the '70s. C'mon, you knew it was going to be about windows...

09 March 2009

The rite of spring

I stepped out the door this morning into the dark and cold but the air smelled of flowers and the mockingbird sang his riotous song of love.

Harbingers of spring.

I spent yesterday planting out flowerbeds and window boxes, clearing out the weeds inspired by the winter rains. You can't actually tell that the back garden was thoroughly cleaned out before the fall.

Unlike today's cold wind and fog and passing clouds, yesterday was clear and warm, low 60sF, but very sunny. In the kitchen window box, I planted basil, variegated peppermint, variegated sage and three strawberry starts. The strawberries like the window box and went wild there last year until a well-meaning neighbor smashed my drip system while we were away. Drip system has since been replaced and strawberries restarted.

In the other two window boxes, I planted pansies, a good choice for this time of year. I like their little faces, and I particularly like the old-fashioned colors of this variety: mauve, copper, burgundy. I planted more in the front beds, along with gerberas, ranunculus, impatiens, and Iceland poppy. I planted out pots with English daisy, nemesia and lobelia, and a hanging pot with sunset-colored million bells and lobelia. Already, things look more cheerful, more welcoming.

Go listen to some good music: "The Rite of Spring," composed by Igor Stravinsky. Such interesting music, and the story the ballet tells is not what you'd expect. In much the same way, a small story of planting flowers tells absolutely nothing about how I'm really feeling at the moment. But that's a good thing, I think.

06 March 2009


I considered the weather, strategized layovers, the best place to fly in and out.

I considered the places I planned to see, routes, directions, times to travel, where I needed to be and when.

I considered appropriate clothing (dress like a grownup? Why, yes!) for weather, luggage and activities.

I didn't consider illness.

I admit to chaos, but I keep it orchestrated, and if chaos can said to be under control, mine is. I believe in keeping promises; I dislike "circumstances beyond our control." It's a plea bargain, and not always, but often, a copout. I have trouble making excuses. Even when they're true, they often ring false in my own ears. I always believe there was something I didn't do, didn't see, could have managed better.

My fractious mind tries to calm itself with words that sound reasonable: "There'll be other times." But I know from experience that some missed connections are missed forever.

Go listen to some good music: "True" from the album Concrete Blonde by Concrete Blonde. It's really not a good sign that I'm still up at 1:30 in the morning.

03 March 2009

Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show

Parties can take on a life of their own (just read Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway), and this one certainly seems to be living up to that idea.

The invitation list appears to have exceeded 75, and evidently, just about everyone is planning to show up. Remember what I said about people seeking comfort? Yikes.

I am glad that the whole idea seems to please people, but right now I can't help but see it as one more obstacle to get past.

Right now, I'm rereading Mary Hood's Familiar Heat. One of my favorite books ever. My mother was working in a little library in north Georgia, and I can't remember how she came to hear that this author was signing her novel, but she made the effort to get me the book, and Ms. Hood kindly signed my copy, and what she signed is rather hilarious and takes up the better part of an entire page. It makes me wonder what my mother said about me.

The novel itself is a bit odd in its structure, and the story doesn't always hang together perfectly. But struggle is struggle and struggle is universal, along with love and death. Life and love are mysterious, the human heart is anything but tame. And the story is compelling enough (someone I gave a copy to said, "but it's so depressing...!" Well, life is depressing. Tragedies happen, people die, words are never spoken or heard. Whales beach themselves and innocents are harmed. But there is beauty for all that, there is humanity for all that, there is common purpose for all that. And I am in a place right now where I'm having great difficulty seeing any good amidst all the bad.)

What I enjoy most about this book, why I reread it, is the language and the character studies. I like the cadence of her voice, I like the choice of words, I like the structure of her sentences. I like authors who trust their readers to get it. And I like the characters. I like the richness of their lives, I like the integrity of their construction. I believe in them. This isn't a cast of characters, it is an ensemble, people from all walks of life, all backgrounds. Terrible things happen in this book, but the characters gather strength from one another, hilariously sometimes, poignantly at others, and there is the promise of sun after the storm.

The moral of this post? Be there. Be the port in the storm. Have a potluck, invite your friends. A couple of weeks ago, we just chatted with friends over a glass of wine for a couple of hours, and everyone relaxed and had fun. Everyone walked away refreshed.

Go listen to some good music: "Soolaimon/Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show" from the album Hot August Night by Neil Diamond. I was given a copy of this album, along with a number of others, when I was very young, maybe the daughter's age, by my older cousin F. before he left on a deployment to Southeast Asia. The iTunes remaster doesn't quite live up to my memories of the original, but I can still belt this tune out at the top of my lungs. And did. And I got through the entire post without talking about how frustrated and unhappy I am right now. The problem with this stuff is that the longer I don't write, the easier it becomes not to write, so I end up with an awkward post like this. And I'm at a point where I can't fake the optimism, or talk myself into belief in it. This is at risk of running longer than the post. And I'm terribly tired.