31 August 2009

Smoke from a distant fire (still)

The Station fire continues to dominate everything down here, from the weather to what passes for television news in Southern California. The forecasters kept telling us it would get cooler, but now the heat is expected to remain through Thursday. Last night, some talking head said that the fire wouldn't be contained until mid-September. And watching it rip toward Acton, I don't think anyone doubts that prediction. Although crews are coming in from other places, I cannot imagine how wearing this is for the men and women fighting the fire on the front lines. The fire is burning in very rugged territory.

Early fire season, early flu season, and a hurricane that is nearing Category 5 heading toward Baja. I'm just waiting for the earthquake, and don't for a minute think I'm joking.

Though everything else is early, school is starting late this year. Usually the kids are back at the end of August, but by some amusing twist of fate (or more likely, economics), school does not start until tomorrow. My two are dragging themselves around rather mournfully, as they did for a good part of last week, while we shopped (my favorite!) for uniform pieces, school supplies, and books, and I rebuilt the daughter's computer's operating system. Which only took 4 days.

So here we are. Tonight, I make lunches. Over the summer I trained them (by not offering to feed them) to make their own lunches. As I'd hoped and planned, their skill sets did increase, with more cooking and more cleaning and learning how to grocery shop. But when it comes to school lunch, it's just simpler if I do it. There is no murmuring or fuss; they get what I put in the box. Which is usually wholesome and plentiful, though not excessive. Tomorrow, the daughter will have pasta with marinara, a Granny Smith apple and chocolate milk, while the son will have ham and cheese on rye with lettuce (his request), lemonade, dried apricots and Newman's Own chocolate mint cookies. I remember the pleasure of biting into the cool crunch of the lettuce on my own sandwiches as a kid, the distinctive but not wholly unpleasant taste of not quite cold, but nonetheless thirst-quenching milk. Frequently boring, but always eaten with gusto: the school lunch.

After lunch today, the daughter and I were lolling on the couch in the family room, talking and wondering if we should watch TV. It was hot, and I'm a cheapskate about the air conditioning eco-conscious, so keep the thermostat set high. I looked at her as she fiddled with her PSP--she and the son both know that today was it and computer time will now be only a weekend pleasure--and said, with a little surprise, "I'll be alone tomorrow."

She looked at me, startled, and I continued, "And I'll be lonely."

"Really?" she asked, looking slightly sorrowful and more than a little pleased. "You'll miss me?

"Of course, I'll miss you," I told her as she hugged my arm. And I will. We do have fun during our summers, and my time with my children is precious because I know they are mine only for a limited time, and that time is eaten as quickly as a fast-moving brush fire consumes fuel.

It's true, though, that I didn't tell her about the little frisson of excitement that ran up my spine as I thought alone.

Followed by adventure.

Go listen to some music: "Smoke From a Distant Fire" from the album Smoke From a Distant Fire by Sanford & Townsend. This school year brings more assorted terrors than I generally have to endure, but I'm trying to maintain my aplomb. The destruction wrought on my last year is not something I'd like to face again.

29 August 2009

Smoke from a distant fire

For those looking for up-to-date information on the current Southern California fires, the L.A. Times has been one of the best sources. For those with specific interest in the Station Fire, you may also want to check the La Canada website, the Incident Information System or the sites of other affected communities.

The air is sour with smoke and heat; the sun is obscured by an ashy, greyish white haze.

When I climbed out of the car in Yuma a couple of weeks ago, the sizzling day melted my muscles down to my bones. I find Arizona heat luxurious and my body relaxes into it like it relaxes into a bath. It's a heat to be wary of, it can be a heat that kills, but if you know it, it can be a heat that welcomes you.

Today, the California heat is merely oppressive, surly, filled with fire and fear, and plumes of smoke so enormous, they can be seen from space.

We're watching the progress of the Station Fire with no little fear, though not because we live nearby, not anymore. But we have family who lives in that area, right at the evacuation boundary. We used to live just a street below the evacuation zone.

(I say below because the boundary is on the top of a ridge, and our street was one street below the ridgeline. Only a few days ago, lunching with a friend, I noted that I really don't miss living on a hillside with only one very narrow street as my way out.)

I find myself testing the idea of that old house, the infernally crabby house, reduced to ash and wooden bone and lonely chimney, testing the idea the way one would probe a tooth that might be aching. I didn't like living there, but there is history in those walls, my story, the story of my children who began their lives within its confines. What would its erasure mean?

It's a terrible house, a ranch house thrown up like so many of its compatriots in the area as cheap housing in the 1950s. The wind screamed through it; earthquakes shook it to the foundation. It had a septic tank, for crying out loud; the sewer didn't come to town until after we left.

But there are good memories, too, of dinner parties, and sitting on the front lawn with the son on summer evenings watching the birds come home to trees while we waited for his daddy to get home too, and walking the curving road around our mesa, on the lookout for deer and quail.

We are no strangers to this whole process. When I was pregnant with the son, we watched as the fire of 1993 crept closer and closer until it was only half a canyon away, standing at the same chain link fence bordering the national forest where the news crews stood reporting a day ago. It seemed the fire was very much a living entity, something I would see again when we were piloted through a mountain pass in Montana while a forest fire raged around us. I walked away from the fence that night and I remember how real the possibility of losing everything was. But my thought processes were crystal: with few exceptions, everything was replaceable. I quietly gathered the things that couldn't be replaced: photos and documents and our few valuables and put them by the door to the garage, along with the dog's leash and the cat's carrier, our car keys and wallets, in case the call came in the night. I stared at the tiny pile, and went to bed with no qualms.

So why the sentimentality now?

I suppose if it were my job to rebuild, it would be one thing. Oh, it would be a nightmare, I know, but the memories would be mine and new memories would be a part of the evil sewage-filled ground. It saddens me to think someone else, some strangers, might lose everything they have to random bad luck. Sad, too, that the part of the house that was us would become nothing more than just another ghost on the California landscape.

Go listen to some music: "Smoke From a Distant Fire" from the album Smoke From a Distant Fire by Sanford & Townsend. It's so hard to know, based on media description, what exactly is going on. All we really know is that 31 sq. miles have burned thus far. As usual, it's watch and wait.

28 August 2009

The lizard chase: catching that lizard

I really hadn't planned to write about this today (or ever), but I get Google searches...

How I catch a lizard (and you're on your own on keeping a lizard out of the kitchen, but window and door screens are a good start):

You will need a clear plastic container, like the inexpensive Gladware that is sold here in the U.S., or a shoebox. You will also need a thin, flat piece of cardboard, plastic or wood that is larger than the opening of your container. You will probably not want to keep the container or board after you've captured the lizard, so think disposable.

Go quietly and gently after your quarry. I can't help you with cornering it, but quiet and gentle are good. The object is not to kill the lizard, but to return it outdoors. When you've cornered it, cover the lizard gently with the box, and slowly slide your flat board under the box opening. You want to do this slowly so that you don't mash the lizard or its toes. Trust me, it's more frightened than you.

Take the whole shebang outdoors, as far from dwellings as is feasible (meaning it won't run directly in again), put it down on the ground, remove the box and let the lizard hightail it.

For you more visual types (no, I am NOT an artist. Yes, you can click it to make it bigger):

Go listen to some music: "The Lizard Chase (Contradance no. 3, Beethoven)" from the album Baby Einstein: Baby Noah by The Baby Einstein Music Box Orchestra. I wasn't planning on worrying about evacuating elderly relatives from a brush fire, either.

26 August 2009

It's the evening of another day

I'm so tired. The son kept me up after midnight chatting. I suffer this willingly, I admit: he's 15-1/2 and he still talks to me. Voluntarily. There is no way I can squander that, not after reading about yet another teen suicide up north, not when I knew 4 boys who committed suicide while we were in high school.

But I did request that maybe he schedule his heart-to-hearts for a little earlier in the day. He laughed, completely good-naturedly, and agreed.

So I'm yawning.

The bonus for you is that I'll have to put off swine flu. But seriously, there is so much misunderstanding surrounding the report that was just released that I do feel like there's stuff that needs to be addressed, especially after reading some of the truly dopey and misinformed comments on news reports. A key talking point: people! You aren't immune to a flu that attacks pigs! And yeah, I'm studiously avoiding references to human pigs here...I wrote a rebuttal to a comment this morning that thank God I did not post. Something about the effects of the virus on Neanderthals not being known yet, and the fewer people like him that didn't get immunized, the faster the overall IQ in California would increase.

It really wasn't very nice. Even if I only thought it.

Just be grateful pigs can't fly.

Anyway! That's for when I'm awake.

So despite lack of sleep, it was off early to Big Office Rip-Off Store...er, Superstore. (They really did rip me off on the back-up hard drive I bought).

*counts to 10*

Anyway, I bought everything on the list for school supplies, plus whatever I could anticipate since I'm experienced in this game. This is what our (very expensive private) school does: sends home a list prior to the start of school, and then after about three weeks, the kids start coming home panicked because they need Item X tomorrow, and the teachers are irritated that none of the kids have Item X yet!

Because you didn't tell me they needed it until NOW.

(As a matter of fact, to a limited extent, I can read minds. But quantities of poster board usually doesn't enter into it.)

And the books. No one gives the parents the literature list until the kids need the books yesterday! Let's panic and raid Barnes and Noble!

*counts to 20*

Next post: Why homeschooling looks so attractive...

*excuses self to go count to 30*

Hmmm, I'm going to go investigate the sunset.

Go listen to some good music: "Some Other Time" from the album I Robot by The Alan Parsons Project. No, really, it's ok. I'm happy! The sunset was beautiful because, unfortunately, fire season has started early--and it's supposed to be upwards of 100F tomorrow. The "grr argh" was mostly for effect--I've played this game of disorganization and school supplies for so long that now I just treat it with resignation even though, YES, I RESENT BEING TRANSFERRED THREE TIMES when I had to call the son's school on Monday and heard "Oh, we made a mistake and he'll get his schedule the day he starts school," which is a giant WTF for what we pay--and uh, yeah, I'm still working on the daughter's computer... But really, It's All Good.

25 August 2009

Some other place, somewhere, some other time

I've been trying to post for two days. Honestly, I've got things to talk about!

I started teaching the son to drive.

I had lunch with a friend I haven't seen in 25 years (that was our best guess, anyway).

Swine flu! We've definitely got to talk about swine flu (yup, I see you cringing).

But the down side is that the daughter's HP laptop has suddenly decided not to boot. I've spent the last two days trying to make it work again--in between the lunching, and the driving, and the talking about novel H1N1, of course. And walking. And the interminable exercise bike. Not to mention the buying of school uniforms, new shoes, books, and tomorrow (*sigh*) school supplies.

You get the picture.

I'll be back.

Go listen to some good music: "Some Other Time" from the album I Robot by The Alan Parsons Project.

22 August 2009

In God's country

Monument Valley, Arizona/Utah
August 2005

I need new dreams tonight.

Go listen to some good music: "In God's Country" from the album The Joshua Tree by U2. This was taken with a Canon ELPH, which was roughly a Kodak Instamatic compared with my Nikon.

19 August 2009


The spouse is a kind man, and during the school year, he brings me coffee in bed if I don't manage to drag myself out early. Since we aren't quite back to school yet, I was a little surprised to be wakened with a cup of coffee this morning. The spouse was trying to dress for court, and he was a wreck. He does not enjoy being called to testify. Despite knowing his stuff, despite his confidence in his work, presenting one's findings in this sort of setting is better suited to a particular type of personality, and neither of us have it. So I empathized with his discomfort because when reports I have helped to prepare are submitted as part of a legal proceeding, I feel a sort of faintness. There is usage I've insisted upon, structure I've suggested, words I've lobbied for or against. Part of me goes with that item, and I feel the weight of it, the seriousness. It is not that we take ourselves seriously, but that we are respectful of our part of a larger process, mindful of our responsibility.

Hiding my head under the pillow did not quiet the din he made, and I gave up trying to pretend to sleep once he turned on every light in the room and started throwing dark socks on the bed.

"The son has taken my black socks," he said, sounding aggrieved.

"These are black," I told him, waving a sock like a flag.

"They're blue," he told me.

"This is blue," I replied, performing additional semaphore with his sports shorts.

"Oh," he said, taking the black socks from me.

"What tie do you have on?" I asked, squinting.

He obligingly held it out for my inspection. Blue. From about 1990. With a black, grey and white striped shirt.

"Erm," I murmured, "you can't wear that tie with that shirt."

"I can't?" he looked shocked.

"Well," I considered. "You do look like a geologist."

He glowered at me, and I retreated to get his charcoal tie.

"Here," I told him.

"Now I look like an engineer," he snorted.

It took three tries, but he finally got the charcoal one tied. Which is better than I can do, and the son might well be better at it than either of us.

The spouse sighed mightily.

In the kitchen, he took one of the nut bars I keep for the kids' snacks. I silently got out a paper bag and put a bottle of water, aspirin, and Pepcid into it, and handed it to him.

"Oh," he said looking into it.

"Just in case," I told him.

He loaded it into the back of the car.

"Do you have your laptop?"

He nodded.


He nodded.

"Change of clothes?"

He nodded.

I patted the side of the car and waved him away.

I learned--the hard way--to send extra clothing with him. There have been circumstances beyond anyone's control: exploding plumbing, and court proceedings that ran far longer than anyone anticipated. So I learned.

I know the eye-aching insanity of preparing someone to give a deposition; I know the hysteria that goes into finding that file prior to sending someone off to testify. I know what it's like to eat pizza 4 meals in a row, not ever having left one's desk, catnapping in situ. And people wonder why I feel no need to watch reality TV.

There is much I wouldn't change, but much I have changed. And like the Holy Trinity, much change yet to come.

Go listen to some music: "Testify" from the album The Battle of Los Angeles by Rage Against the Machine. Sometimes the words win.

18 August 2009

(Kind of) True

From AP via Yahoo:

Studies: Merck vaccine safe, promotion unbalanced

"Two studies by federal and academic researchers have found low rates of side effects with the blockbuster cervical cancer vaccine Gardasil, but a total of 32 deaths — and questionable promotion tactics by maker Merck & Co......Merck's marketing strategy, [Sheila M. Rothman and David J. Rothman, authors of the second study] wrote, sought to 'avoid limiting the vaccine to high-risk populations' and instead promote it for all women, and 'secure government reimbursement and mandates,' such as state requirements that schoolgirls have the vaccine."

As it happens, I am a proponent of vaccination in general. My family has avoided a number of potentially deadly or disfiguring diseases because we've been vaccinated against them, and vaccination initiatives have protected the lives of many others throughout the world. I heard terrible stories from my parents and grandparents about polio and measles and diphtheria, and those who died or were left permanently crippled by them. My children have never had chickenpox or mumps, the misery of which they heard about from me.

I have to admit that I was astonished--and more than a little disturbed--by the vast array of new vaccines that pediatricians presented to me when my children were born. It seemed that there was a vaccine for everything except stupidity. The chickenpox vaccine was approved for use in the U.S. about a week before the son had his 15-month well child visit, and our then pediatrician couldn't wait to stick the kid with that needle.

Which precipitated a tremendous argument between the pediatrician and yours truly.

I see chickenpox as a inconvenience, not as a disease that requires vaccination. And although both my children have since been inoculated against it, I still see it as an inconvenience, and believe me, I know exactly how much of an inconvenience because I was in high school before I finally contracted it. Yes, it's true that those with compromised immune systems are at greater risk from varicella, and it's also true that people can develop complications, but in all my life and of all the many, many people I've encountered therein, I've never met anyone who had trouble with chickenpox. By the same token, a family member was made sterile by mumps; I know two women who became deaf because they had measles; and I've met several who suffered complications from polio.

Of course, part of the reality of today is that parents send their sick children to daycare and to school regardless of illness because daycare and school are their childcare arrangement, and the parents either can't or won't take off from work to care for the children. My son and a number of his classmates became very ill in preschool after a parent dumped her extremely sick child at the school and then made herself unfindable for the duration of the day.

(It's been years, and this still rankles with me, in part because the school administration was completely up in arms about the situation but wouldn't dismiss the family because they didn't want to lose the tuition. We ended up walking because of it, though, so they still lost tuition.)

So, with this situation, for the population at large, varicella becomes not an inconvenience, but a reason to vaccinate.

While I don't believe the whole vaccination-gives-your-kid-autism argument (and I won't engage that topic here. You are free to believe what you will), I do believe in due diligence with regards to any health care choice. And that led to my next enormous argument with our then pediatrician: OPV vs. IPV. He was incensed that I wouldn't follow his guidance and allow him to give my daughter live polio vaccine, that I insisted he inoculate her with killed vaccine, and he seemed further annoyed by the fact that I was completely willing to pay for the more expensive IPV. But I'd done my research on the matter, and my mind was made up: the daughter would get IPV.

Funny that the American Academy of Pediatrics came to the same conclusion only a few months later.

Which leads me to Gardasil.

I have a daughter who is nearly 12-1/2 years old. When she went in for her well child visit near her twelfth birthday, our current pediatrician (who is the most brilliant and fabulous doctor ever), talked about what vaccinations and boosters she should receive, what he recommended. I go into the doctor's office armed to the teeth with information, not to be argumentative--in fact, the disagreements with our previous pediatrician caught me completely off guard, because I see it as a responsibility to be a well-informed parent and consumer--but to be able to understand the situation from the doctor's point of view and to be able to ask rational questions if I need to.

As I was already well aware, he told me that Gardasil was being recommended for all girls 12 and up. As I'm sure he knew I would, I started asking questions. And we agreed.

My daughter is not in a high risk population for HPV at this point, so he understood my reticence about vaccinating her at this age. He also recognizes that I'm not a fool, that I know the statistics about active teenagers as well as any parent.

It's not just the daughter's age nor her station in life nor her response every time we talk about intimacy (an unrestrained "GROSS!") that is stopping me from getting her vaccinated. To my mind, there are still significant questions regarding Gardasil's efficacy and safety (you can read some of the news reports here and here. The latter is particularly eye opening with regards to reporting--or lack thereof--of adverse effects. You can also read the CDC's VAERS report here).

This is not a head-in-the-sand issue either. As the varicella vaccine became a necessity with the social changes in parenting and work, so HPV is a real health issue. I am well aware that at some point, both my children will decide they want to explore intimacy, whether I approve or not. But I'm also well aware that I have to assess the risk of illness versus the benefit of a vaccine. Today? Today, the risk is low that my daughter will contract HPV, so I see little benefit to inoculating her, and her doctor concurs. But my assessment is predicated on the knowledge that the daughter and I have discussed the issue at length, and that she is aware that she has to be a partner in protecting her health. As unsavory as the whole idea seems to her today, I for one know that frequent reassessment is required.

For today, I'm unsurprised but annoyed that Merck has tried to take Machiavellian steps to force me to vaccinate my daughter, and perhaps that is what enrages me most. This vaccine might well be a boon to girls in high risk populations, and I'm not just talking about those who choose to be active, but the young girls no one talks about: the ones upon whom activity is forced. So why so much effort directed at targeting my daughter, other than the obvious: she can afford it.

So today, we are holding off on this one. But don't doubt I'll be watching the vaccine information closely. It's my responsibility to the daughter to do so.

Go listen to some good music: "(Kind of) True" from the album Visions of Excess by Golden Palominos.

17 August 2009


Fifty years ago, the Hebgen Lake, MT earthquake triggered what is now generally known as the Madison Landslide near West Yellowstone. I don't often rerun posts, but this one--written several years ago and first published here in 2007--seems worth revisiting.

I. September 1988, Idaho

I am sitting on a playa, in the dry grass, on a warm September afternoon, high above the car & the cows milling about it. High above the man responsible for bringing me here, but watching him trundle over the hummocky ground, in search of some elusive piece of the coring device that we’ve dropped somewhere between car and landslide. I am supposed to marry him in three months. The wind whispers, stirring the clump of trees behind me to the left. Above me, a small group of cows grumble gently, shifting, mooing softly.

I like involvement, but I also like solitude, and this is a rare moment to myself, sitting on a landslide. I think of the times I’ve sat in a coffee shop, allowing others’ conversations to swirl about me, and the pleasures to be had in the voices and stories of those I don’t know. The wind lifts my hair and I feel the back of my neck prickle. Something is in the trees, and it is watching me. The chill feathers up my spine as I hear quiet movement. I was long a desert dweller, but I believe in the secret lives of trees. My greatest fascination on long car trips has been to look between the trunks for what lives within. I always thought that when I grew up, I’d finally have the chance to pull the car over to the side of the road, and venture into the trees. Today, my courage fails me—cow? bird? ghost?—and the trees will have to wait for another day.

Landslides have become interesting to me, by default. It is what he is studying and now I’m learning their ways. Cows are wise in the ways of sturzstroms, and smart enough to know they can’t outrun the fall of rock, mud or ice, and so run sideways. Humans are stupid and try to run away, and so die.

We core the playa, hoping for organic matter than can be carbon dated, leading to a time line for the landslide. The good weather doesn’t hold, and by next day, I’m pushing the hydraulics to keep them from freezing, and hoping an errant lighting bolt doesn’t hit this metal pyramid that peaks above my head. But our persistence paid off, and the cores yield ash from the Mt. Mazama eruption, giving us a date range. I am pleased to have added to human knowledge with this small bit of science.

II. September 1992, Montana

I am sitting in a car, huddled in the seat, looking at the desolate vista through the windshield, while the wind whips and moans, causing the car to rock slightly with each gust. The Madison Landslide occurred in the 1950s, when an earthquake struck this valley in the middle of the night, causing an entire mountain to fall, destroying a campground and the families sleeping there, and damming the lake below me. The wind ripples parts of the lake, yet the center seems still, mirror to the sky.

Driving up here, we stopped to look at the fault scarp created that night. I ran my hand over the broken, ridged rock. Six feet of displacement, a violent rupture indeed.

But sitting here, looking at the blasted mountain face before me, I feel sorrow that could make my heart break. Sitting here, easily several miles from the base of the mountains opposite, I am atop the landslide, which jetted across the valley, washing up against the other side like some demonic wave of rock and soil. The wind seems to cry with the voices of those who died that night, overcome and overrun by forces they couldn’t begin to dream of, and I sense in them the confusion of those who simply don’t know what hit them. I am isolated here, so truly alone, as the small life that will now go unrealized ebbs from my body. That small soul joins the chorus: “Don’t forget us.”

And years later, visiting Mt. St. Helens, I realize that the blasted landscape there at least shows the signs of rebirth, something conspicuously lacking at Madison, where the dead trees and bare dirt might just as well be on the Moon.

III. August 2003, Montana revisited

After an argument held in a hissing undertone, I am back at the Madison, a place I never wanted to see again. Where I sat in a car 11 years earlier, there is a now a parking lot, attached to a small visitor’s center. Where I sat contemplating the loss of a child unknown, there are now two, running up the path toward one of the enormous boulders that once comprised a mountain. One child only slightly more precious than the other because I nearly lost her too.

I agreed to come back only out of curiosity. I wondered if the desolation I felt that long-ago afternoon was a product of my own loss or if sorrow had been ground into the soil with the bodies of the dead. It’s an odd day, today, August 17, and a freak winter-like storm is pelting my face with icy rain. The lake is dark, storm tossed, almost angry. It happens to be, quite coincidentally—though I don’t believe in coincidence—the anniversary of the earthquake and subsequent landslide. Those watching the video in the visitor center stir uneasily as they realize this.

The loss is mine, but it is also of this place, a sorrow discrete, but forever connected with my own.

Go listen to some good music: "Landslide" from the album Fleetwood Mac by Fleetwood Mac.

14 August 2009


A trick of light, dust and water. The golden cloud enveloping the peak is actually rain and some blowing dust. The sun was shining in under the clouds from the west. (Click on any photo to enlarge it).

After a night of monsoon, everyone is out. Many people are of the mistaken idea that the desert is a dead place. The desert teems with life, particularly in the wake of a storm. The Sonoran desert is particularly beautiful. Here, you should be able to easily spot 4 Gambel's quail--2 male, 2 female, though you can only see the butt of one of the girls--and a white-winged dove (yes, that white-winged dove). There were also two good-sized lizards present, though tough to see in the photo, and three jackrabbits, but they'd disported themselves behind the prickly pear.

And friend bunny makes a cameo appearance for the camera. The chipmunk might be in there somewhere, too. A couple of black-chinned hummingbirds were flitting around as well.

And a day later, the rain has thoroughly cleared the air to make for a lovely and very early morning photo at a well-known hotel.

Go listen to some music: "Vacation" from the album Return to the Valley of the Go-Gos by The Go-Gos. No, there will be no bowling photos.

09 August 2009

The other way of stopping

It's a bit like a nightmare, the sort where you revisit a place that you know too well, a place where you can trace the contours with unerring accuracy, a place where you recognize a divot in the mortar between the bricks.

What possessed me?

That's always the question.

There are places in this world where I do not travel, places too well known to me. I turned my back years ago, and I haven't returned. This is called moving forward. It is also called survival.

It's just photographs, I thought. Siren call. But we know what the sirens did to those who heeded their song.

I clicked on the map, and traveled down Swan Road.

There once was a small strip mall, a place that I spent a considerable portion of my childhood in the company of my grocery-seeking mother. The grocery was there, next door a small department store, further down a pharmacy. In the other direction, a variety store, where I spent countless hours mooning over items that I would save all summer to buy: Barbie dresses, craft supplies, a paint-by-number kit for a friend's birthday. They always wrapped the packages for free, and made the best and most beautiful and lavish ribbons.

All gone of course. No more grocery where SH, who went to my high school, but bagged groceries on weekends, would deliberately push a line of carts into me, and then blush violently. Ah, the joys of teenage affection. My mother was always amused that he would make a point of carrying her order out to the car, inquiring as to my whereabouts if I was AWOL of a Saturday.

Lucky Wishbone is still there, and I wonder briefly if the light in the center of the neon sign still flashes intermittently as it once did. They had the best French fries.

My high school. The park behind it now fenced in and gone to dirt. The tennis courts where I dramatically splattered myself one morning playing tennis with a friend. I still bear the scars on my elbow and knees. I remember not the pain, but the certain humiliation of being a teenager with scabby knees. The baseball diamond where I'd sit on spring afternoons alternately reading Dickens and watching the varsity baseball games.

If I turn up that road, I will find the house in which I spent 15 years. I am not tempted.

Traversing north, I am struck by the gracelessness of this place where I once rode my bike back and forth, traveled endless miles to and from school. It is unkempt and charmless. Buildings, though familiar shapes, are no longer places I recognize. That one was the "Insurance Place," so called by my brother and I who could see it, all aglow at night, from our bedroom window. Once, there were two palm trees in front of the facade, uplit, and we learned, through observation and boredom, that the lights went off at precisely 10 pm, the same time that we could hear the announcer on the television in the living room intone, "It's 10 pm. Do you know where your children are?" Somehow, watching the lights go out became a summer evening event, one we looked forward to with glee. It seemed like such a wonderful secret to hold.

The "new" Circle K (as opposed to the "old" Circle K on Fifth Street) has since become a paint store. When we were preteens and ran in packs, collecting bottles to turn in for a nickel that could in turn be spent on a Hershey bar or sour apple gum, we watched the construction of the new Circle K with pleasure. It was closer to home. Its frozen drink machine was new. The displays were prettier, which somehow made the sunflower seeds more alluring. The concrete walkway was clean, not yet marred with circles of discarded gum.

The funky little row of shops on the east side of the street remains, but I can't tell if the Coffee Pot Cafe is still at the end. The hair salon endures, still bearing the same name. We'd look at it in wonder as we passed in the station wagon en route to Sunday Mass, carefully reading the signs in the windows showing the services that were available. We didn't know what "rolfing" was, only that it sounded vaguely disturbing.

I am sad that I never thought to go into the Coffee Pot Cafe.

There is the bank that always seemed to get robbed, and the funny little house with the pretty red and white awnings. It used to have a cupola on the top that put me in mind of a widow's walk, but some unimaginative owner has long since removed the tiny lookout.

The blue gas station--did it used to be Ernie's Garage?--is still across the street from the church. The church itself is there, changed but not, yet somehow diminished. I travel down the street, looking at the exterior, what used to be the convent. The camera has captured a car pulling out of the driveway. The line of eucalyptus that used to run between the parking lot and street is gone. I prowl along and turn right, skirting the back end of the school and the yard--all fenced in now--where once we played kickball and keep away, where I ran track. I spot the window that was in the late Sister AM's room, from whence we would sell snacks at recess. I can almost smell the brine from the enormous jar that held the big, soft dill pickles, a nickel each.

Another right and I continue south. Mrs. T. used to live across the street from the school. She was one of my mother's professors when my mother started back to school, and Mrs. T. hired her to clean house. It was mostly a kindness, and I would go along, to help my mother finish faster. Mrs. T. had enormous shopping bags full of books, mostly goofy romances, and she offered to let me borrow any that I wanted to read. I read hundreds of them.

When I turned the corner, the lighting changed, and it is suddenly sunset at my old school. The light is low in the sky, and it looks so right, it almost gives me a chill. As I move along, I marvel over the fact that the school yard now has actual play equipment. We had four-square on the blacktop in my day, standard Catholic school recess option, bouncy red ball included. Further south, the buildings housing classrooms start again, and I see what time and generations of children have done to the venerable red brick of the walls. Again, the grass is gone, which befits a desert, but I feel slightly bereft. We used to play on that grass on the rare occasions we were picked up from school.

It strikes me as I look how pretty the buildings seem. I always liked the little details in the brick but I find myself catching my breath abruptly when I see the old wrought iron gate. How could I have forgotten those gates, which were not only functional, but almost whimsical? Someone had had fun creating the curlicues that made the gate look light and lacy, and they looked even more delicate than I remembered, though I know from experience and trying to uncurl them that the beautifully fashioned iron was anything but delicate. They never gave way to even our most strenuous exertions.

My heart catches on the memory of standing at the gate, running my finger round and round the iron until I came to the final curl where I was left with nothing but a faint stain of rust on the tip of my finger.

Go listen to some good music: "The Other Way of Stopping" from the album Zenyatta Mondatta by The Police. What a terrible thing Google Street View really is.

07 August 2009

Ceiling unlimited

Despite everything, I've been highly productive this week. Hours in the garden weeding, trimming and staking; rain is forecast to come early this winter. I may get one set of crops in before the summer ends, not that summer really ends until some time in October.

Or this year, September, if the forecasters are right about early rain.

Finished a book chapter that I needed to edit. Out the door, off to the publisher. It always amazes me and thrills me that I can and I do work on that stuff. It's a completely different mindset, another way of thinking, and something wholly different turns on in my head when I'm working on science. I love it.

The last months have been a struggle, which I realize has not been even slightly obvious. It's been like jumping off the diving board into the deep end: falling, falling, falling. Then you hit the water. About half the time, that's painful if you haven't hit the dive right (and rarely did I, so some body part always smacked the surface of the water). Then you're plowing through the water, down, down, down. Eventually, you hit the bottom of the pool. Traveling back to the surface of the water seems to take forever, and then you break through. I think that this week, I found my way back to the surface.

Time for another deep breath.

School starts September 1. The kids and I have had a good summer, a lazy summer, but what seems to be a necessary summer. We have been at ease with one another, and the exhaustion seems to have abated somewhat. You can only hold your breath for so long.

Tonight, I strolled out at twilight, as the sky darkened and the stars began to appear. It has suddenly cooled, and the temperature was probably 15 degrees lower today, which was quite pleasant. The air was very clear, the ceiling unlimited. September is coming, and I felt a tiny chill of anticipation in the pit of my stomach, apropos of nothing. Autumn has always seemed more like the start of my year, possibly because I've always equated it with the start of school, and I've spent more than a third of my life in school. So, I found myself looking to the future: a concert in L.A. in September. Once he learned that I travel solo, T. started talking about me taking another trip to D.C., and I'm trying to make arrangements to do that in October. It's time and past time.

There are things I've yet to do. Ceiling's unlimited, and life is too damned short.

Go listen to some good music: "Ceiling Unlimited" from the album Vapor Trails by Rush.

05 August 2009

Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme

It's been bird-o-rama here this summer. I'm not sure why we seem to have more flitting around than usual, but we've seen multiple varieties of hummingbirds, finches, sparrows, the Western bluebirds and for the first time in a long time, scrub jays. Plenty of others as well, and they've all been highly entertaining, particularly the finches and a rufous hummingbird.

I grow a lot of edible things in my kitchen windowbox: basil, sage, peppermint, strawberries, and whatever else I remember to throw in there. The basil and strawberries have been quite productive this year, which is good, because we tend to use a lot of both.

One reason I like growing strawberries in the windowbox is because the slugs and snails can't get at them, and generally neither can the birds, though I've caught some of the smaller sparrows taking fly-by bites of the fruit they can see. It's made for some great cat TV for Milton.

But the big winner of summer? Basil! The plant was starting to get a little unwieldy, so I finally let it bolt, and the hummingbirds came in droves because they liked the flowers. Whether they actually get anything from them, I don't know, but they do enjoy visiting them. The real surprise came when the stalks started to go to seed:

It turns out the plant is just hardy enough to hold a small finch. And evidently, finches are fond of the seeds if this one and its mate (not pictured) have been any indication.

They are also protective of their food. When I went out a bit later to pick some basil for the pasta salad I was making, the two of them sat up in the magnolia tree yelling at me.

I suppose I won't be seeing any volunteer basil plants in the windowbox next year.

Grilled Vegetable Pasta Salad

6 oz. penne pasta
6 oz. whole wheat penne pasta

Italian salad dressing

2 large portobello mushrooms
2 bell peppers, 1 red, 1 yellow, halved lengthwise
2 zucchini, halved lengthwise

8 oz. black pepper feta cheese, crumbled
1/3-1/2 c. slivered fresh basil leaves

Prepare bbq (medium-high heat). Cook pasta according to package directions; drain. Place in large bowl and toss with desired amount of dressing, 1-2 tablespoons. Brush vegetables with additional dressing, and grill until tender and slightly charred, turning occasionally, about 5 min. Cut vegetables into 1-inch pieces.

Add vegetables, cheese and basil to pasta, toss to combine. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

4 servings.

(This is an adaptation of a pasta salad recipe that appeared in Bon Appetit, August 1994, p. 84).

Go listen to some music: "Scarborough Fair/Canticle" from the album Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme by Simon and Garfunkel.

04 August 2009

All good gifts

Today has been a rollercoaster.

It was cool-ish in the morning, and I had an early afternoon date to have lunch with a friend, the estimable Mrs. R., who is an administrator at the daughter's school. I thought that the most productive use of my morning would be to do some much needed gardening in the side yard, which always tends to look a bit wild and overgrown, though in a small way, I like that about it. It always appears cool and green and a little romantic.

Still, something has been crashing around out there late at night, a opossum or raccoon, and I figured that a bit of grooming would likely produce a tad less crashing. For two hours, I trimmed and pulled and dug and generally made things tidy, the heady scent of the stephanotis wafting every time I passed the vine.

It wasn't nice for long. The weather's been a bit tropical and humid without the pleasure of rain to break the heat, and the breeze died off. Soon I was steaming and sweaty, batting away the bee that buzzed unhappily around my damp hat. Ants ran around in circles, and spiders of all shapes, sizes and colors ran for their lives while I worked. As I ripped out the last of the bacopa (lovely hanging from a basket, loathsome as a ground cover), I discovered that someone had shed its silvery skin. It was roughly the size of the alligator lizards that make my garden their home, but I'm not sure if they lose their skins. It might have been a small snake. The former owner was nowhere in sight, at any rate. So I sat and took in the details of the translucent shape that so perfectly mirrored a small reptilian shape. It felt like finding an unexpected treasure.

Halfway through my labors, I heard the daughter's bedroom window open and a small voice said, "Good morning, Mommy!"

And that was quickly followed by, "Can I have some zucchini bread for breakfast?"

After filling four bins, I was surprised to see it was after 11, and decided that it would be a good time to shower so I'd be fresh to meet Mrs. R. When I was drying myself, I heard the daughter call me, her voice small and a bit frightened.

"Your cousin LL called," she said. "She needs you to call her back."

My heart sank. LL and her husband PM only call me when it's bad news. Otherwise we shoot emails back and forth. I called the number the daughter had taken down, fearing the worst.

"You know," LL said when she answered, "it really sucks that I only call you..."

"When it's bad news," I replied. But I took heart from the fact that she didn't sound hysterical, so probably PM and their kids were all okay.

And they were, but it was bad news.

I read the paper every day, and every day there is some awful story, a few paragraphs long, and I stop for a moment to think of the family who was left behind, who have to live with the loss of the loved one. It never occurred to me think that one day that family would be mine.

My cousin B.'s youngest son had been found dead, the victim of an apparent accident. The boy's body had only been identified this morning; his father had just received the news from the coroner. It's been a difficult time for B.: his wife, the boy's mother, died a couple of years ago from a degenerative disease.

Usually, even when we have to share bad news, it's news of an illness or the death of an elderly parent. The loss of a 20-year-old who'd gone off into the mountains on his own, and who as near as anyone could tell, fell off his skateboard, is unfathomable. Seeing it in black and white in the newspaper did not make it more real, just more horrible.

During the few minutes that we spent talking, both LL and I realized how long it had been since we'd seen each other. I hope that we hold to the promises we made to get back into contact once they return from the boy's funeral, because life is simply too short.

I thought again of the shed skin I'd found in the garden just a few hours earlier, the intricate whorls and patterns on the discarded husk. How quickly people slip out of this life, leaving behind their own whorls and patterns, their part of the design finished.

Both my own children needed reassurance once they'd heard the sad story. After I'd returned from my luncheon with Mrs. R., the daughter was prowling around the kitchen, alternately hugging my head and looking in the pantry.

"I want something sweet," she announced.

But I hadn't really bought anything like that at the store, so I told her we would bake a cake, which made her ecstatic. She did the work while I just provided guidance, and together we worked in the kitchen, step-by-step, creating a cake.

While the cake baked, I put dinner together--halibut marinated in yogurt and tandoori paste, raita, salad and naan--and because time was short, I quickly whipped together the buttercream frosting, leaving the daughter the job of icing the cake after we'd eaten. She was pleased, and finished it off with rainbow sprinkles. We ate it and applauded, while the daughter sat and beamed.

It was the hottest day of summer to date, 99F when I glanced at the thermometer, and I never bake when it's that hot so as not to waste electricity trying to cool down an overheated kitchen. But today, the daughter and I made a cake. Because that brief moment is a treasure. Because life is too short.

Go listen to some music: "All Good Gifts" from the musical Godspell by Stephen Schwartz and John-Michael Tebelak. I can't explain why this song immediately came to mind when I got off the phone with LL. Perhaps because B., who is years and years older than I am, was the family hippie. He hitchhiked out to our house to be my youngest sister's godfather. Curiously, this song was frequently used as a hymn at the same church when I was a child.