Thursday, June 30, 2011

Topic 182: First Impressions

The Tricks Old Dogs Can Teach Us
On first impression, you might think Prescott is a sleepy little town full of old white-haired folks who drive too slow (or too fast) and spend their afternoons searching for the best early-bird dinners.  In reality Prescott is full of old white-haired folks –31% of the population is over 62 years old. But Prescott is anything but sleepy these days and people over 62 (of which I am one) have a lot to teach us about the quality of the “senior years.” In fact, a visit to two local organizations show just how energetic and varied the retirement community can be.

The first is the Rowle P. Simmons Community Center, home of the Adult Center, which   provides a wide range of activities and services for all adults but particularly meets the needs of a senior population for a gentle-on-the-wallet $50/year membership fee. Sure, you can sign up for the typical senior center activities such as bingo and bridge, but the Adult Center also houses the Veterans History Project (part of a national oral history initiative), provides one-on-one tutoring sessions for PC and Mac users, schedules numerous health and fitness classes—from gentle yoga to high-energy Zumba-- the Meals-on-Wheels program, and hosts political forums. And, the parking lot is always full. 

The second is the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute(OLLI)  on the campus of Yavapai College. The Bernard Osher Foundation, headquartered in San Francisco, provides funding for higher education and the arts, including OLLI programs at 118 college and university sites geared to older learners, who the Bernard Osher Foundation refers to as “seasoned adults.” A wide range of learning groups reflect the interests of OLLI members, who have a voice in choosing the curriculum and in facilitating the groups as volunteers.  In between a morning learning group discussing modern China or current events and an afternoon group studying Gilbert and Sullivan opera, OLLI participants gather in the college food court for lunch and talk, their own brand of non-digital social networking. OLLI members make a lot of noise, have a lot of fun, and epitomize the notion of “lifelong learning.” No grades, no required homework, but they show up for class, ask questions, engage in hearty discussion,  and let their facilitators know when they appreciate a topic—or not.

 So, what’s the message here for our daily theme readers who are at the other end of the demographic picture—under 62, not retired, not ready to get old (who is?). What can these “old dogs” teach you? Learn something new everyday, not because you have to but because you want to. Take a class. Don’t want the homework or stress of grades? Most cities have community education programs. Don’t have time? Turn off the TV. Don’t have the money? Many community education programs and activity centers such as the YMCA have sliding scale fees and offer scholarships.

My essay is on the short side today. That’s because I have to get ready for my OLLI class on mythology and human experience.  As a co-facilitator for the learning group, I have  research to do on trickster figures in world cultures, and the 25 participants in the class will have lots of questions.
Loki, the Nordic Trickster

A Second Chance to Make a First Impression
Yesterday my mother wrote about our trip to New Orleans, so today I think I will fill you in on my experience. We made this trip so that I could attend the American Library Association’s Annual conference. For a week, more than 20,000 librarians converged on the city. Everywhere you looked you could see determined and sensibly dressed women (and men!)  carrying red ALA tote bags, and checking schedules on their smart phones. I’m sure the city, which has a huge convention center, is used to large professional conferences, but New Orleans has a special appreciation for librarians.
The ALA plans its conference years in advance, and in 2006, the Annual (as it is known) was scheduled to be in New Orleans. After Katrina hit, the ALA debated moving the conference but ultimately decided to proceed as planned. I spoke with people who’d attended the Annual that year, which was the first conference to be held in New Orleans after the hurricane.  One librarian told me that most of the stores were closed, and whole city blocks stood empty. She said that the city had bussed people in to work in the restaurants and hotels. Another woman told me how she would sit in a café reading and would be approached again and again by locals asking for her magazines. At that point, almost a year after the storm, nothing but essential mail was being delivered by the post office.  “Some people didn’t want to come to the conference,” she said, “but I thought it was our duty to come and just spend as much money as we could.” At the opening ceremony this year, Mayor Mitch Landrieu personally thanked the ALA for all it had done to support the city.

I didn’t attend that conference in 2006 because I was in England getting ready to start working at the prison. Though I had followed the news closely when it happened, it was hard for me to imagine the level of destruction and devastation Katrina had wrought on the gulf. And I’d sort of assumed it had been rebuilt by now. Certainly that was my first impression of the city, from the downtown area where we stayed on the edge of the French Quarter. From the pictures my mother posted yesterday, there was little evidence of the storm. The beautiful houses in the garden district all had a freshly painted look to them –as did the buildings in the French quarter. Aside from the slightly “new” look on old buildings, everything looked perfect.
As part of the conference, I spent one day volunteering in a school library. It was downtown, just off Canal street and a group of us were bussed there from the conference center. The bus driver either misunderstood our destination or decided to deliberately take us the long way, but we wound up taking what the school director called “The Misery Tour.” The bus headed uptown, beyond where the street cars stopped and drove through a lower-income residential neighborhood. These homes, though smaller than the Garden District mansions, were still average sized older family homes, with porches and yards and playground sets. It would have looked like a nice place to live except that half of the homes stood vacant, boarded up and caved in. On many doors and walls it was still easy to read the spray-painted code used by rescue teams in the days following the storm: an X with the date the home was searched, and number of dead or living inhabitants. 

I understand why it was necessary to rebuild the tourist areas first. New Orleans relies on the convention center and the tourist industry to fuel its economy, which has also been harmed by last year’s oil spill. And everywhere I looked in that damaged neighborhood, I saw signs of construction – houses had been lifted onto cinder blocks or simply rebuilt high off the ground. While we were there, local news reported the final safeguard to prevent another breech of the levies had just been put in place. A lot has happened in five years, just not as much as I’d expected. The ALA Annual is not currently scheduled to return to New Orleans, but no doubt we’ll get back there eventually. I hope I will  see more houses like this:

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Topic 181: On Recovering from a Love Affair

Trains and Boats and Planes and Trolleys and Feet

I have never really shared most Americans' love affair with the automobile.  When I travel, I really enjoy seeing new places and watching new faces while learning to navigate subways, busses, and trains. You might say, I recovered from my love affair with automobiles by forming a new attachment to Bart and Max.  
Our trip this last week to New Orleans (aka The Big Easy Crescent City, Saint City, Paris of the South, Birthplace of Jazz) reminded me that there are lots of places in the US where a person can live quite happily, thriftily and conveniently without owning an automobile.  

One of the best deals in town is the day pass for $3.00 that gives unlimited passage on city busses and the three trolley lines that operate along Canal Street, St. Charles Street, and the esplanade bordering the Mississippi River, Once passengers debark   at the terminus, conductors walk through the old-fashioned car, reverse the directions of the wooden seats --no need to turn the streetcar around. 
The Canal Street line goes through the heart of the city where most of the tourist venues, businesses and major medical facilities are located. One branch ends at the   above-ground cemeteries 3 miles from the streetcar’s starting point; the second branch ends at City Park and the New Orleans Museum of Art. The walk from the streetcar stop  can be either direct along the wide, European-style avenue leading to the Museum, or indirect along the meandering, lakeside shaded paths of a park that is twice as large as New York’s Central Park.
The St. Charles Avenue Line advertises itself as the oldest continuing operating street railway in the world, but large sections  were closed for several years after extensive damage from Hurricane Katrina to both the tracks and the cars. The seven-mile route shows off the best of New Orleans, from the majestic homes of the Garden District to Audubon Park and Zoo to the campuses of Tulane and Loyola Universities. The leisurely progress of the streetcar affords the rider a chance to view the little details of New Orleans life that become a blur to an automobile rider: moss-draped trees sparkling with gaudy beads from last year’s Mardi Gras, ornamental statues and elegant porch swings, late afternoon dog walkers.
The Riverfront Line is the shortest (at two miles) and newest (built in 1988). It is a popular route that takes the Convention-goers along the waterfront with views of the French Quarter and French Market before it ends at the foot of Esplanade Avenue. A tourist can hop off just below Jackson Square and spend a couple of hours on the River itself,  lunching on southern fried chicken and chugging cold drinks on the deck of the Natchez Queen, the last steam-only operated Riverboat on the Mississippi. A cheaper alternative is the ferry that crosses from the riverfront over to Algiers on the west Bank, free for pedestrians.
Now that I’m back in rural  Arizona, it’s back to relying on the automobile…and the kindness of the family chauffeur. There is a bus company in town, but it starts about six miles from where I live and has both a limited schedule and limited routes, The good news is that if I really can’t recover from my love of Bart (Bay Area Rapid Transit) or MAX (Metropolitan Area Express), I can head down to Tempe and try out the METRO Light Rail--$3.50 for an all-day pass. On second thought, I think I’ll wait a few months. The day we flew back to Phoenix from New Orleans, the temperature was 114 degrees.  

“Streetcars in New Orleans.” Wikipedia


There are many ways to recover from a love affair. Some people get in shape – I know of someone who split up with his girlfriend and started walking his dog five miles a day. He’s lost 80 pounds. A good friend of mine used his breakup as an opportunity to try new things – he bought a motorcycle, learned to ride a horse, took a pottery class. Both those guys took their pain and tried to form better selves. When I was in their situation, I chose to emigrate.

Some of my relationships only came to pass after I’d already made plans to leave the country. When the time came for me to go, we’d parted amicably and said something about the timing and how it was wrong. Only once did I hesitate and consider staying, but the relationship ended anyway. I went back to England and stayed for almost 6 years.

The problem with running away is that, in order to make sense of a strange, new place, one’s mind becomes occupied with comparing the present situation with the previous. Even after putting 6,000 miles between you and the former object of your affection, you may still find your mind wandering back to the what if’s and if only’s, replaying it all in your mind and wishing things were different. Believe me, this can really ruin your experience abroad.

I sometimes  think the best way to get over a relationship is to start another. This probably isn’t the case with everyone, but I don’t have the capacity to maintain deep and emotional connections with more than a few people at the same time. I have friends all over the world, but, with a few exceptions, my closest friends at any moment are the ones who I see the most. Simply put, I’m kind of a ‘love the one you’re with’ sort of person.

The last time I fell in love, it ended badly for me. For a long time, I thought something had permanently broken inside me. As time passed, I realized I was just young and naive and I finally emerged from that pain a better person (I hope). But I worked with that man and saw him every day. I watched him meet and then marry someone else. The week their child was born was the week I moved back to the United States. I had plenty of other reasons, which have been described at length in these essays, but those relationships bookend a very significant part of my life, and I like that there’s a symmetry to what drew me to England and what brought me back.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Topic 180: Fashion Bondage

Of Human (Fashion) Bondage
I suppose this topic cries out for a sophisticated X-treatment of behaviors that create a niche for black, leather, chain, fishnet  and skimpiness, I know about those things only because my husband tried to take a photo in San Diego of his old apartment building from the 1960’s with his new Android phone, and he took one of” the black, leather, chain, fishnet and skimpiness” store below the apartment. Oh yeah, so I’m not really that naïve, but I do have a nagging concern that someday I will put the wrong combination of words into a daily theme that will link to that huge subterranean digital world of people who take photos of people who buy things from “the black, leather, chain, fishnet and skimpiness” store.
So, yesterday was Father’s Day and we took the Father out to dinner at a nice but fairly empty restaurant around 5 p.m. I guess today’s topic was on some of our minds because Megan and I got into a discussion of the evolution of stockings and garters to pantyhose and tights. When I was in high school, panty hose had not been invented and teen-age girls wore girdles, which are to me one of the worst forms of fashion bondage. By the time I was ready to graduate from college, panty hose had been invented and they increased in popularity as more women entered the workforce. The contortions involved in puttiing on a pair of pantyhose were even worse than pulling on stockings and a girdle, and sometimes a fingernail positioned in the wrong place would start a ladder up the leg of the hose before I had even finished dressing. For emergencies clear plastic nail polish could stop a ladder from expanding.  By the time I was working full time as a college teacher, I was buying 10-packs of pantyhose (nude, suntan, black and off-white) via catalog. I was also wearing heels and professional suits, another form of fashion bondage that was expected in the 80’s and 90’s.
Somewhere along the way to the 21st century, “work clothes” took on a new, relaxed meaning and apparently pantyhose are on the decline, replaced by bare legs, “dress down Friday” and leggings. I embraced the transition to more casual clothes because that also meant a transition to comfort. By the time I retired last year, I had one pair of pantyhose in my drawer. What a relief.
So, what does the Father do on Father’s Day when his wife and daughter take up the dinner table conversation with stories about women’s fashion bondage? He could share his own experiences with trying to wiggle into a pair of women’s pantyhose on a San Diego beach, an extra layer for warmth underneath his wetsuit for winter scuba-diving. Or he could recount the iconic advertisement Joe Namath did for pantyhose. Or maybe how hard he laughed watching Mel Gibson shimmy into a pair of fishnet pantyhose in the movie What Women Want. Instead, well, his problem is not with the fashion bondage of too tight but the fashion embarrassment of too loose. For now, I’ll respect his privacy on the details and allow our readers to imagine what might happen when someone—who has been begged to throw out his old underwear, nagged even—realizes the waistband has given out on a pair of…. briefs, boxers?... and feels them slowly descend towards his knees underneath the trousers of his business suit.
I’ve got my suitcase out ready to pack for our trip this week to New Orleans. I’ve got just enough room in the pocket where I used to put two or three pairs of pantyhose for an extra book, a good mystery about vampires and murder and Mardi Gras.

Here we have another topic that could quite possibly attract traffic to our site outside of our usual demographic. In fact, reversing the title to Bondage Fashion was a joke I was making all weekend. Outside of the leather straps, whips and stiletto heels, my mother has already talked about how fashion has restrained women in the past with corsets and, in China, bound feet.

I’m distracted today because we are leaving tomorrow night for New Orleans (via Phoenix), and in addition to needing to assemble my conference schedule and paperwork, I also have to pack. According to the weather predictions, the temperature will be roughly the same as here (early 90’s), with thunderstorms expected every day. I love thunderstorms, but not so much when I’m wandering the streets of a new city. Anyway, I might as well try to make this essay about the ways I have tried to make myself fashionable for the trip.

I dyed my hair yesterday. It’s the same color I’ve been dying it for the past 4 years, but because it fades so much from the initial purplish red to a lighter auburn, people who see me only occasionally, and at different stages of the fading, always ask me if I’ve changed the color.  I dye my hair myself for several reasons, but mostly because I enjoy the process. I like standing in the aisle the store and looking for the lady on the box. If they ever change the model, I’m going to have problems because I can never remember the brand or shade I prefer. I like putting on the rubber gloves, mixing the various chemicals together and then methodically parting my hair to ensure an even and consistent application. The only part I don’t enjoy is the cleanup process.  After unsuccessfully scrubbing the dye from my ears, neck and shoulders,  I didn’t try very hard to clean all the residue out of the shower because I knew the cleaning service was coming today. It was only as they pulled into the driveway that I realized the stains in the bathtub look very much like blood.

I went to Walmart with some friends of mine over the weekend. I try not to shop there, but I was looking for a variety of items and we were in a hurry and it seemed like the one place I could find a dog leash, a Pilates ball, a child’s swimming pool and self-tanner all together.  I’ve never used self-tanner before and my friend suggested a slow-developing brand that applies like a moistureiser. I’d be pretty satisfied with it except that my impatient self found it too slow, so I applied more often than instructed. But this morning I was distracted by the dog and one leg got a double dose but I can’t remember which.  I’m waiting for it to develop so I can figure out which leg is darker and avoid the problems experienced by Ross from Friends, and this entire experience is not worth the trouble.

I’m going to have to leave this essay here because a large group of men have arrived to install solar panals on our roof and I change into pants before they notice that one of my legs is darker than the other.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Topic 179: On Being Worth Knowing

                Vocabulary Lessons
Things are worth knowing as well as people. 

I think it’s worth knowing how to read cookbooks.I have lots of cookbooks, some of which I bought for their photographs or drawings-- like my cookbooks from Provence. I still have the first cookbook I ever owned, Betty Crocker’s Cookbook for Boys and Girls (1957), which I  use once in a while because the recipes are uncomplicated and jargon-free. The vocabulary of cooking can be daunting, an extensive polyglot when we evolve from basic to gourmet, from child’s play to Childs’ play : Bechamel, Bernaise, Bordelaise, Hollandaise, Meuniere.  The serious cook learns how to move from “eggs in a frame” to “egg soufflé,” how to master the wrist movement for flipping, folding or whipping an egg.  And the master chef learns the difference between a dash of this and a soupcon of that, a pinch of this and a hint of that.
A Tort. In case you didn't know.
I think it’s worth knowing how to read music. I enjoy looking at a piece of music and being able to read it just like a book because it has its own vocabulary, tells its own story.  The composer not only shows us which sound to sing or play, but how quickly or slowly to play it, how long to hold the sound, and even what mood to express. The writer gives us less to work with although descriptive words like adjectives and adverbs help create the mood. I like looking at a piece of music and hearing it in my head, imagining my fingers picking out the notes on a piano.  I can tell by looking at the following piece of music by Chopin that I would butcher it if I didn’t practice a little bit at a time. Its speed “andantino” is a little faster than andante, which has “vigor or spirit.” The piece also has three sharps, which adds another layer of difficulty for me as my fingers are required to stretch ever so slightly up from the white to the black keys.

I also think it’s worth knowing how to read maps. I love maps, and my family teases me because I pour over maps and prefer  a wrinkled and torn paper roadmap to even the most soothing computer voice of a GPS.  Reading maps is like reading music. There is a vocabulary of sorts to map-reading, knowing what the thickness and color of a  line says about the condition of the road, whether or not its route is scenic or speedy, whether it bypasses a major city, etc. City maps are not only useful for navigating new places, but they  show a “mood” by how the streets are laid out (mathematical grids or whimsical snakes), how many parks and natural spaces are incorporated into the design of the city, where the public transportation lines go.
I guess I am passionate about all kinds of reading: the vocabulary, notations and abbreviations that translate the three-dimensional world of sound, sight and taste onto a flat page. I may not be a gourmet cook or a world-class musician, but I think it’s worth knowing that a torte differs from a cake in that it contains almost no flour, that I can find  my way from a cheap hotel on the outskirts of Vienna to the five-star Sacher Hotel to indulge in a piece of delectable chocolate Sachertort before I plan the shortest route to from the hotel in the first district to the third district  Konzerthaus  for an afternoon concert of Viennese waltzes.
Oh, yes. I absolutely believe it’s worth knowing another language. Vocabulary Lesson #1:

Sachertort: Simfan34. Sachertort, Café Sacher, Vienna. Wikipedia 

Networking for (Insecure) Dummies

I suppose, on a social level,  most people consider themselves worth knowing. I certainly do. I’ve said before that it takes some effort to get to know me. As is probably the case with a lot of writers, I’m more confident on paper than I am in person. I find small talk with strangers excruciating. I’m trying to work on that because I hate being the person at the party alone in the corner or hovering around the one person I know. I don’t want to stand around with the other outsiders; I want to participate. As usual though, I’m starting slow. I made a joke with the barista at my regular coffee house. I comment on the weather with my softball teammates (most of whom I don’t know). By the end of the season, I might ask about their weekend.

But there’s another way to look at this topic, and that is being worth knowing career-wise. I’m talking about professional networking.

To aid in my job search, I have “liked” and subscribed to a number of advice columns and library list-servs. I followed the advice about “branding” myself and establishing a professional presence online. I joined relevant groups on LinkedIn and followed big names in the library profession on Twitter. I made business cards.

What I haven’t done is joined in the conversation. In the job seeking circles there are numerous threads and discussions about the effectiveness of personal branding etc. There are also a lot of complaints about the economy, library closures and long-term unemployment. I find these topics depressing and unhelpful. If I sit around participating in the whining circle, I start to remember that in addition to being unemployed,  I’m turning 30 in a few months, I live with my parents and I am single. The male version of this cliche would be playing video games in the basement. But I’m writing blog posts in the shed about how I have nothing to contribute.

This is all the more frustrating for me because I used to be worth knowing. The community of prison librarians in the UK is  small, but  active. When I worked at the prison, I was on the national committee. I was a person other people called for help, for advice, and for information. I helped plan and execute training days and annual conferences. Professionally, I had a lot of potential and I was ambitious and … I totally burned out. But that was because of the prison, not the job.

Anyway, next week I’m going to New Orleans for the ALA annual conference. I will be volunteering in a school library and attending a job fair. I will make jokes and talk about the weather. I will go armed with a fistful of resumes and business cards and if anyone follows the address to my website they’ll be directed here.

Um.  I may not have thought this through.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Topic 178: Earth Odors

Hawaiian Holiday       
A honeymoon in Hawaii seemed out of reach as my law student fiancé and I planned our wedding.  We would have been happy with a camping trip to Sequoia; but, thanks to a resourceful travel agent, we got a package deal to Honolu for $50 extra that included a stop-over in California for the wedding. Most visitors to Hawaii will talk about the vibrant colors of the vegetation, the deep and clear pools of water, and the dramatic vistas from atop the volcanic islands’ highest peaks. I remember the smells.
The first smell I remember is the fragrance of flowers.  The lei I received as I stepped off the plane in Honolulu was a surprise, part of the honeymoon package.  I think the lei was made of white plumeria, and its fragrance filled our hotel room that first night.  The sweet scent was already familiar to me because in high school I had been asked by a neighbor to write an advertisement for a Hawaiian perfume she was selling in her Canadian gift shop. Everywhere we went on Oahu and Kauai, we were met with the scents of blooming plumeria and orchids.  I wore a flower in my hair from the lei for several days.
Another smell I remember is dead leaves, the rich loamy blanket of decaying vegetation that nonetheless smells clean and dusty in a good way. While visiting a park near Honolulu, Marc decided that it would be fun to venture “off the beaten path” of the designated walkways (smooth and asphalt-topped therefore “boring” I guess). As he pulled me into the bushes beside the path, I looked down at my flowered muumuu and pink suede clogs and thought for a moment that maybe I wasn’t dressed for adventure, but hey it was my honeymoon and my new husband assured me it would be exciting to explore the forest of tropical trees and plants in search of…birds, insects? As I gingerly made my way through the heavy growth, the vegetation under my feet grew deeper and “spongier,” and my feet sank deeper into the leaves the farther we moved. When I inevitably fell face down into the bed of leaves and branches, I was already perspiring from the humidity and ready to return to the safety of the walkways. As I pulled myself up and tried to scrape off the dirt on my face and dress, I saw a foot away a discarded beer can. So much for adventure “off the beaten path.”
I should have known better when later in the week Marc took me sightseeing to an area near a volcanic crust. Where that spot is I can’t recollect after 38 years, but it was probably somewhere along the Pali highway near the Koolau Volcano. I may not be able to remember the place, but I remember the smell, the powerful odor of sulphur and rotten eggs. Despite warning signs, Marc convinced me that it would be a unique experience to walk out onto the lava crust—just a little ways—to get a closer look at a steaming, yellow-green deposit of rocks. The first few steps onto the dark volcanic rock were firm, but suddenly I could hear the crunch as the ground underneath sunk an inch or two with each step. As the odor of the sulphur became overwhelming, I suddenly imagined the headlines as the Honolulu newspaper reported a young honeymooner falling to a hot death through a crack in the volcanic crust. Another tourist who ignored the warning signs—and common sense—in search of adventure.
The strongest odor I remember from our Hawaiian Holiday is not the sweet fragrance of the plumeria but the not-so-sweet odor of …FEAR. 


Bella Smells
A few weeks ago, I took Bella with me when I went to Cornville to babysit my cousin’s kids. When I let her out of the car, instead of going to greet the kids she ran haphazardly through the big yard, nose on the ground, tail straight up in the air. It wasn’t the first time I’d brought her there, but it was her first time off leash. My cousin’s son, who hadn’t met her before, asked why she was running around smelling everything. I said to him, “Imagine if you went to a new place and it was full of toys and food and kids you never played with before, and everyone was calling your name.” That’s what I think it’s like for dogs sometimes.
Chasing a fly

I don’t always understand how Bella chooses what to be interested in although sometimes it’s obvious. I know that, as a retriever, bringing me long dead animals is instinctual for her. She’ll dig through a pile of laundry to find an used tissue or a handful of dog treats I left in a pocket. But I don’t know why, when she stops to sniff poop, she’ll ignore one kind and eat another. I had to pry the same (progressively smaller) ball of manure out of her jaws three times this morning.

Sometimes in the middle of a long drink of water, she’ll pause, growl and then start digging in the bowl, knocking it over and spilling everywhere.  When I took her to Cornville that day, she reacted the same way in Oak Creek, snapping at and digging in the water. I want to get a kiddie pool and see what she does, but my father is not interested in paying for one just to satisfy my curiosity. Bella was too timid to get all the way in the creek,  and was content to eat the remains of a crayfish she found on a rock. Of the four of us, I was the only one who managed to get caught in the current and swept down stream. I was still holding onto Bella’s leash, so she trotted along the bank with me while I tried to grab something or catch my footing. The kids thought this was funny.
Before I got swept away

After we went swimming, we got some fast food to eat in the car and Bella made herself an enemy to those children forever. They were already nervous around her because she’d jumped on them, but when she smelled the grilled cheese and popcorn chicken she went into a frenzy. I was driving so I couldn’t react right away and the kids screamed and cried as she first stole the sandwich and then buried her face in the container of chicken. The children’s tears were nothing compared to mine on the drive home as she produced odors that made the little hairs in my nose burst into flame.
Similar to what happened to the chicken

Bella’s grown so much the past few weeks that she’s almost as tall as Milo. She can stretch and span the width of the bed and it’s harder for me to sleep well when both dogs are with me. We always start in the same position: me on the right, Milo curled up on the pillow next to me, and Bella down by my feet.  But In the middle of the night, she still likes to scoot up next to us, and usually wakes me up with a wet nose in my armpit.  I guess she’s comforted by the familiar smells of her teachers and friends. She stays there for a minute and then moves again, this time resting her nose by Milo’s butt.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Topic 177: Making up one's mind

Eenie Meeny Miny Mo
Megan and Marc and have taken the dogs on an extra early morning walk. They are both trying to increase their exercise and decrease their protein intake while taking a nutrition class at the college. Meanwhile, I am feeling a little bit of pressure to get this essay underway before Megan gets back and starts asking me how far along I am. It isn’t that I don’t have any ideas or that I am particularly slow as a writer. It’s just that I often have a problem making up my mind about what to write about.
For instance, the first thing that came to my mind for today’s essay was coin flipping. What was the history of using “heads or tails” to determine an outcome? Or, even “rock, paper, scissors,” which I usually played with someone to decide who had to take out the trash, or the dog, or do the dishes.  Drawing the short straw is another “device” for helping people make decisions.
Another idea that came to my mind was hung juries. Megan had to report for federal jury duty yesterday, which she used as an excuse for not writing her essay even though she got herself eliminated by 10:30 a.m.  A few years back I made it all the way to the final jury selection and opening arguments because the judge, prosecutor and defense attorney—all of whom I knew—thought I could be fair and impartial.  When they were conducting the “voir dire” on the panel of prospective jurors, they didn’t ask what I think is one of the most important questions, “Do you have trouble making up your mind?”  I thought about that at the time as I had a certain fear that we would end up in a Twelve Angry Men-like protracted deliberation while 11 men and women stared at me as I tried to decide “guilty” or “not guilty” Luckily, the case settled in one day and we were excused from jury duty.
Just as a point of interest, my intensive research on Wikipedia uncovered an unusual trial that used “rock, paper, scissors” to determine an outcome. In 2006 a federal judge in Florida who apparently got tired of the protracted and petty bickering between the opposing sides over where a deposition should be held.  Judge Gregory Presnell subsequently crafted an elaborate ruling that the two sides should meet in a kind of “hand duel” using rock, paper, scissors to determine the location of the deposition. According to Wikipedia, the ruling was intended to “shame” the litigants by showing just how extreme their dispute had become (source: “Rock-Paper-Scissors”).
Currently, being retired, I don’t have a lot of pressure on me to make up my mind on anything other than a choice of restaurants and menu items.  I get around that by letting the other people in the car hash out where we will eat, and then by always ordering last so that I have just that little cushion of a few extra minutes to “eenie, meenie, mo” the menu options—burrito or taco, burrito or taco.
The dog walkers are back, and I can hear the sound of spoons hitting bowls as Marc and Megan consume their healthy morning helpings of oatmeal. I like oatmeal, but for me it’s a winter breakfast and I can already tell this is going to be a hot day. When they asked if I wanted some, I didn’t really have a problem making up my mind.  “No thanks,” I yelled down, “I’m too busy right now to eat. I can’t make my mind up what to write my essay about.”

Rock-Paper-Scisorrs. Wikipedia.

I Changed My Mind
I thought we’d written on this topic already. I searched the archives and although this is a new topic, I’ve already written on it a number of times. When we started this website, I didn’t want to call it a blog because I associated it with online journaling and this wasn’t supposed to be a journal. Except that writing familiar, personal essays by its very nature involves writing about the familiar and the personal, so it’s sort of turned out like a journal anyway (well, my essays have).

So, I’ve already written about how I made up my mind to quit the job in the prison, how I decided to move back to the USA (one year ago today), how I made up my mind to write The Book, to apply for an MFA, to get a puppy, to become a vegan and get in shape.  I make up my mind a lot. I also change it a lot. Sometimes after it’s too late.

I’ve been having more days where I changed my mind about quitting that job and moving back to the States. I found out that there was a surprise inspection of the prison back in January, and that the report had just been published this week. I downloaded it and skipped right to the part about the library. There were no recommendations for improvement. I’m not going to say that I’d hoped the library had failed in my absence, but since I’m having such a difficult time finding a new job, I sort of wished there was evidence that my old one missed me.

I’ve changed my mind about writing because I’m not in the mood, changed my mind about the MFA because I’m afraid of not getting in. I’ve changed my mind about going vegan because even though I watched a very compelling video last night in class about how dairy proteins cause cancer, I came home and ate cheese and crackers at 11 at night because the garbanzo bean salad I had for dinner was not adequately filling.

I changed my mind about the puppy because she’s causing problems in the family. I want to blame the set back in her housetraining because we were gone for four days and although my father walked, fed and watered her, he’s just not a dog person and she probably didn’t get the level of attention she needs. But the fact is, she wasn’t completely trained before we left on our trip. Also, she’s weird. I can walk her for an hour in the morning and she won’t squat once, but in the hour before bedtime she has to go every five minutes.

Anyway, I’ve been changing my mind a lot. And I’ll change it back again. I’m still going to do all those things (and keep the puppy).  And maybe some day I’ll look back on this frustrating and transitional point in my life and think of it as the point where I finally got it together.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Topic 176: Backyard Gardens

Why I Don’t Have a Backyard Garden
I have had a subscription to Sunset Magazine for over 30 years. I originally bought it for the person I wanted to be someday, and I still read it for that fantasy woman who grows heirloom tomatoes in container gardens, weaves baskets to harvest the tomatoes, and has all the latest tools carefully arranged in a quaint potting shed. June’s Sunset cover article is “Create a Dreamy Backyard Retreat,” which set me off on another imaginary trip to a future where I actually have a dreamy backyard retreat for reading, meditating, and munching  healthy snacks featured in old issues of Sunset Magazine.
Brother's garden, Phoenix, AZ.
I guess it’s time to just admit that I enjoy reading about my fantasy life more than actually doing the work to make it come true, including  the notion of a little haven of zen-like quiet and English country, blooming color built off the  the cement pad behind our basement.  Here is why that will never happen:
(1)    Irrigation: water is a big issue in Arizona, and we have had our share of water problems in Williamson Valley. We used to have spigots in the back to attach hoses to water the apple tree my green thumb father planted behind the house in 1983. The tree died in 1984, and we disconnected the spigots a few years later  after a winter freeze that cracked the pipes and spewed water through the basement into the non-dreamy backyard. An irrigation system would solve the problem, but it would also  send our water bill skyrocketing and completely offset the effect of the various water-conserving appliances we have installed.

(2)    Labor: our back property slopes downhill, giving us a nice view from the top floor of the San Francisco Peaks but also  three flights of stairs to the basement, which has the only direct access to the backyard. Walking around the sides of the house to get to the backyard means tripping through the rough, granite-strewn terrain and risking injury from cat claws and cacti, the natural botanical  inhabitants of our yard. Not to mention the hard work of bending over with my creaky knees to pull thorny weeds or hauling buckets of water during drought season.
Other brother's garden, Newbury Park, CA.
(3)    Skill/Talent:  whatever you want to call the knowledge and creativity that makes a green thumbed master gardener, I don’t have it. My parents had it, my siblings have it, their children have it. My husband doesn’t have it, nor does he want it. (He was greatly relieved to buy a property without a blade of grass). My own efforts to maintain a primitive front yard garden of drought-resistant local plants are sporadic at best, and I celebrate when a single Iris blooms after a May frost.
Niece's garden, Newbury Park, CA.
(4)     Critters: those granite rocks and native plants attract all kinds of high desert creatures. Visitors to our yard have included javalina, skunks, snakes, lizards, rabbits, owls and road runners, tarantulas, scorpions and deer. We enjoy even the scary creatures from afar, but I don’t like thinking about them as part of a “dreamy backyard retreat.”

My backyard.

You get the idea by now that I can concoct any number of excuses for not having a backyard garden. The main reason is actually pretty simple. I love visiting my green thumb family and friends. I like sitting in their gardens sipping iced tea or reading Sunset Magazine while they stoop or stretch and prune, complain about their water bills, show me the bloody scratches from their thorny weeds and announce that they imagine themselves someday—after winning the lottery-- relaxing in a “dreamy backyard retreat” while a professional gardener does all the work.  

I did not write today because I was busy thinking of an answer to the above question. I have since been dismissed because of my employment history, family connections to the legal profession and a confessed, innate mistrust of law enforcement. I am relieved because I am going to New Orleans next week for a job fair and jury duty would have interfered with those plans.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Service Interruption

We are in California for a few days and will be back on Tuesday. 

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Topic 175: Late Arrivals

Warning: Baby on Board           
Dear Readers: if you are the kind of person who gets bored when women tell birth stories, this essay is not for you. Mothers never forget the events and emotions surrounding childbirth, and I simply could not pass up the opportunity to tell one that so perfectly fits today’s topic. I realize that the “normal” range for the gestation of a human baby is really a couple of weeks on either side of 40 weeks (259-294 days). But, Megan was really late. Three weeks.
I’m talking about 3 weeks after my obstetrician told me at my mid-August check-up that there was a 50-50 chance I would go into labor within the next 48 hours. So, what happens when a first-time mother gets news like that? Does she go into a frenzy of last-minute “nesting,” obsessively refolding stacks of tiny baby clothes in the brand new nursery, furiously cooking and cleaning so that the house will be in order when she arrives home with the new baby? I took a more placid approach and packed that little suitcase for the hospital and pretty much sat down to wait.
I felt  a tremendous relief that very soon—50-50 chance within 48 hours—I would be freed of sleepless nights in the California heat of August, continuous indigestion and swollen feet.  I contacted  friends and family  in expectation of a new baby within a week.  But, most of all I remember the mounting frustrating as that 48 hours went by, then a week, then two weeks. Meanwhile, the phone was ringing as well-meaning friends and family checked in to see if this baby was ever going to come.
The waiting, of course, spilled over into Marc’s routine.  He was a public defender whose office was about a half hour from the house, and this was before the advent of the cell phone or even pagers really. Sooo, I started going to court with Marc everyday, sitting in the back of the room while he handled a variety of cases. I could only fit into one dress at the time, so I’m sure there was a lot of talk at the courthouse about that crazy pregnant women in the flowered muumuu hanging out at court.
Right about the time that a woman gets to that outer end of the “normal gestational range,” official things start to happen. For me that meant driving about 15 miles down the coast to Scripps Hospital in La Jolla for stress tests that would check the fetal heart rate for signs of distress.  By the second test, my obstetrician decided it was time for medical intervention, and September 26, 1981 was scheduled for inducing labor.
Wednesday, September 24 was pretty peaceful and Marc and I were looking forward to a relaxing evening in front of the TV as we counted down to our final day as a childless couple.   The contractions began mid-afternoon, we drove into the hospital parking lot at 11 p.m, and  Megan was born by C-section at 4 a.m on September 25.
That might be the end of the story of how our first child was a late arrival for her own birth-day. But, she had another surprise for us and that three-week delay was just a warm-up. At 7 a.m. on September 25 our red-headed curly-top baby was transported by ambulance to a neonatal intense care unit in San Diego.  Our supposed-to-be August baby slept in her  brand new nursery for the first time in  November. Six weeks after her birth.
But, that’s another story. And my late baby girl hates it when I’m late.

 Please check the arrivals gate 
for any friends you forgot to collect

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I am a compulsively early/on time person. This quality came in handy once when I was on the way to the airport a few years ago. I was flying from London Luton airport to Prague to spend Christmas with a friend.  Not far from the airport, my car stalled in the middle of a roundabout and wouldn’t start again. A helpful police man pushed the car onto the median and then went on his way. I would have been quite happy to abandon the car  as long as I didn’t miss my flight, but the policeman didn’t offer to give me a ride. My point though, is this: even after the tow truck arrived and took my car to the garage, jumped it and checked it out and then gave me directions to the airport, I was still 3 hours early for my flight.

I’ve missed a number of flights in my life, but it’s never been because I overslept or didn’t get to the airport on time. Usually, I’ve missed connecting flights on international trips after the original flight was delayed. Most recently,  my New Years travel plans to Colorado (to meet the same friend who used to live in Prague) were delayed by unexpected snow fall here in Prescott. That was extremely frustrating, but I still managed to make it to Vail before midnight on New Years Eve.

Although I am meticulous about confirming travel plans and getting to the airport on time, I have friends who are not. Twice I have arranged a visit, once to DC and once to LA, only to have my friend not show up to meet me. In fact, my friends had forgotten I was coming that day at all. Both times were before cell phones became ubiquitous, and tracking them down was difficult. When I finally reached my L.A. friend (Kelly!), not only had she forgotten I was coming (all the way from England), she had taken her own trip to San Diego and wasn’t due to return until the next day. I wound up taking a shuttle to my uncle’s house in Thousand Oaks, where I was welcomed by my surprised relatives who hadn’t even realized I was back in the country.

The DC friend, who is also the Colorado and Prague friend, had to borrow a car to come get me after she’d forgotten, and I sat at the Baltimore airport for 3 hours. In her defense, that was the first time I’d visited her, and on the countless times we’ve since arranged to meet all over the world, she's never forgot me again.  And neither has Kelly. But I always call or text ahead of time, just to make sure.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Topic 174: The Humor of Cartoons

    The Laugh’s  On Us
I was going to write about Gary Larson today because he’s one of my favorite humorists.  But, over the years I’ve spent a ton of money on Gary, giving out Far Side memo pads and Far Side calendars to friends and family members as gifts. He doesn’t need my money or my publicity, so today I pay homage to several more of the family whose Gemini birthdays I mentioned earlier this week in Topic 173.

Brother Hugh (June 9) was born on his maternal grandfather’s  birthday. I don’t know when Grandpa Fike started scribbling in words and pictures, but his letters from the 1930’s and 40’s showed an almost whimsical flair for language.  And, he loved Hugh’s cartoons.  In 1945, Grandpa Fike wrote to my mother in Texas: “Hate to have you so far away.  We will just be a name to your boys.  I expect to see Hugh develop into an artist or cartoonist even if it is hard working crawling up hills.” In 1947 Grandpa Fike sent Hugh and Doug a birthday letter typed in red (For a Red Letter Day) along with  “a little money so that you can have the fun of spending it just as you wish, foolishly or wisely, as you prefer.” Hugh’s thank-you note included illustrations of his purchase:
By the early 1950’s, Hugh had gone public—with cartoons for the “Queensboro Quack” newspaper and then as art editor for his high school newspaper. His drawings also began to take on political overtones.  In response to the McCarthy hearings, Hugh created a fake ID that made him a “card-carrying member of the Communist Party,’ almost getting himself expelled when the Principal found out.  By the time, Hugh finished College, my mother had started a collection of his illustrated letters which she put in a box with the letters she kept from Grandpa Fike.

Brother Doug (June 11) is a scribbler too although he is more of a word guy than a picture guy. He designed a fake ID in high school too; it made him a "card-carrying member of the Mickey Mouse Club,” and it matched the large Mickey Mouse he had painted on the front of his junkie old sedan. And, that same box of treasured letters that belonged to my mother contained hand-made Valentines and birthday cards Doug had sent over 30 years.

I guess it was inevitable that he and Hugh would find a way to combine their talent with words and pictures to start a greeting card company. They conducted their own market research at a family gathering, waiting until my mother was busy in the kitchen before unveiling some of the more risqué messages for our review. Hugh designed the cartoons, Doug designed the messages, and they achieved enough success to catch the attention of a major card company and national distribution.
That box of letters and pictures my sentimental mother kept eventually came to me when she died, and I keep it next to the boxes of letters and drawings I saved from my big brothers and other family members. My two children may not be Geminis, but they also have a unique gift for capturing humor into word and picture.

Somewhere in all of those complex maps of human DNA, there has to be a marker called “scribble and doodle.” I would create a cartoon to illustrate—a humorous doodle—but I only got the “scribble” part of that DNA inheritance.

Cartoons are distractions too
If you've spent any time on this website, you've probably gotten to know me quite well. 
(If you spend any time on this website, there's a good chance you already know me quite well).

I have problems with motivation and procrastination. For quite some time now (like since I was a teenager), I've intended to get in shape and generally be a healthier person but I haven't been properly motivated. There's just too much to distract me:

Like spending time with my friends.
And going to the movies.

And now that I'm planning to take the GRE and apply to MFA programs, I've suddenly lost all interest in writing. It's sort of like how I'll go days without doing basic chores like laundry and the dishes, but as soon as there's a job to apply for, I have to get all the cleaning out of the way. 

So, this is what I've been doing instead of working on my MFA applications (or applying for jobs):

I take the dog for a walk every day.

I'm taking a Pilates class.

And a nutrition class.

I am so uninterested in writing right now, that I've resorted to exercise and eating healthy.
(Not that I'm particularly enjoying it.)

Monday, June 6, 2011

Topic 173: Dangers of Narrow-mindedness

June Star-Gazers
In America, June is the traditional wedding month although I can’t think of a single person in my family who got married in June. Not that June isn’t a big celebration anyway—six family members have birthdays between June7-15, their ages ranging  from six to seventy-six. We are celebrating the 50th birthday of one family member next weekend in California, all those Geminis in one place.
I confess a certain fascination with Astrology, enough that I kept the newspapers with the astrological forecasts on the dates my children were born. And, I do take a quick peek at the daily horoscopes, which I only share with my husband if they back up a brilliant idea I have concocted or make dire predictions about my Libra spouse’s day.
We got behind in our schedule today (as always happens when the cleaning people come), so I promised another Libra in the family that I wouldn’t spend too much time lingering over the dangers of narrow-mindedness, keeping my research to a minimum. So, I thought I was on pretty safe ground choosing astrology because I do know my Sign. So, what do I find out? That I really needed to have my birth chart cast to examine the alignments between the planets for a more accurate analysis of my “predispositions” and that I not only have a Sun sign but a Moon sign and an element and a ruler. Too much for my brain to handle this afternoon.
I did find a site I like, which means the description of Geminis is to my liking.
A pure Geminean is a person with whom it is almost impossible to argue for any length of time. His/her mind is so subtle, moving ahead like quicksilver, that one can never be quite sure what one is arguing about. Gemineans have golden tongues as well as quicksilver minds; like the monkeys of Chinese Astrology, they can charm the birds off the trees, induce others to follow courses of action which they don't really think advisable, and fascinate almost anyone they wish.   (source:

Well, I can tell you that we June borns’s DO like our debates and WILL argue for any length of time on any subject. My mother, who was not a Gemini, used to start every family gathering with the admonition “No arguing, no politics, please.” Yeah, right! And since the Geminis in my family not only represent a variety of ages but a variety of political and religious viewpoints, we have lots to argue about. And, we do it loudly. Just ask the family members who don’t have June birthdays.
Apparently, astrology wasn’t all that popular in American until after World War I when a British astrologer named Nayor started putting horoscopes in the daily newspaper. An interesting website called “North Texas Skeptics” notes that 90% of Americans under 30 know their astrological sign and that there are 10,000 astrologers in the United States and only 3,000 astronomers. And, according to the same website, Americans spend over 200 million dollars a year consulting those 10,000 astrologers while only about 100 million dollars is spent on non-space related basic research in astronomy. Now, that’s scary!


This is one of those topics where I think it’s gonna be a good one until I actually sit down to write about it and everything I want to say is obvious and cliché. Being narrow-minded limits a person, makes informed decisions impossible, and contributes to discriminatory practices. Broadening a mind can be done through reading and research, but is probably best achieved through action. For example, one can read about other countries and cultures, but travelling and meeting new people in real life is much better.

So, there. Essay done.
 *   *   *

What’s that? Ninety-two words isn’t sufficient?

Ok. I’ll tell you why today’s essay is so late (it’s almost related).  Now that I’ve been unemployed for a year, I’ve decided it’s time to take some classes and acquire some new skills.  I’m starting slow though. I’m starting with PE.

A few weeks ago, my father emailed me a brochure for a weight loss and nutrition class. He never emails me, and I took this as a hint, so I deleted said email and cursed him loudly in my mind. This was not a complete overreaction on my part as he has a history of encouraging me to lose weight (or as he puts it, “eat healthier”).  There was also the time when I asked him how much it would cost to go to Hawaii, and he said “It ‘s free but you should put a dollar in the basket when it passes.“
I paused and then said, “What is it you think I just asked you?”
“How much does it cost to go to OA?”

See what I mean?

Anyway, after the anger subsided, I whined about the email to my mother who told me that my father had been hoping we could take the class together and that softened my heart towards him a little bit.  So I went ahead and registered, had a look at what else was on offer and signed up for Pilates too.

The first Pilates class was this morning, which is sort of the reason the essays are late (other reasons include but are not limited to the early arrival of the cleaning service, an emergency load of laundry, and a sudden desire to rearrange the furniture in my bedroom).The last time I took a Pilates class was about ten years ago, and I weighed at least 60 pounds less. Pilates is so much harder than it used to be. I almost died.

It will be interesting to see how the next 8-10 weeks go with the two classes. If I  am able to apply what I learn in the nutrition class, then Pilates will get easier. And I might end up with a narrower waist and a broader mind (I told you I could make it relate).