31 December 2008

Same procedure as every year, James ...

We've reached the year's end and stand, tired and a little apprehensive, at the cusp of the new one ahead.

I decided to share the wonderful "Dinner for One" with you again this year. Every Silvestre, or New Year's Eve, Germans watch this delicious old British skit, televised for the first time in 1963 in Hamburg, and laugh uproariously as it unfolds. They've seen it countless times, but that hardly matters. It just tickles them. Interestingly, it's hardly known in Great Britain, where it originated, and now only comes to America via the Internet.

When I lived in Northern Germany, we spent each New Year's Eve with our friends Colin and Marian, walking the four or five blocks from our flat to theirs. He was British; she German, and there was just no way that the New Year could be born in their company without many, many glasses of Champagne. At least two glasses would be toasted and quaffed before 8 p.m., but as the clock chimed the hour Marian would turn the TV on, Colin would fill each of our flute glasses, again, and we'd watch "Dinner for One" with 90-year-old Miss Sophie, her loyal (and amazingly dedicated) butler James, and her four dear old gentleman friends, all of whom had long since passed on to the Great Beyond.

And we'd laugh. Each time Miss Sophie proposed a toast, we'd raise our glasses to her in tandem with James, and by the time the short skit ended, we'd be gasping with laughter and like the butler, more than a little tipsy.

For Colin and Marian, watching the skit every New Year's Eve was an old tradition. For us, it was new but a tradition we quickly came to love. We looked forward to joining Miss Sophie and James each year, just as we looked forward to celebrating the change with our friends and braving the sub-zero temperatures to bang pots and pans on the balcony at midnight. We added our noise and shouts to the ships blowing their foghorns in the harbor, the cars and trucks laying on horns and all the other people just like us throughout the city, ringing in the New Year with laughter, hope and joy.

We saw the turn of six New Years before we left Germany. During that time, the Berlin Wall fell and East and West Germany reunited. The Cold War ended. Much has changed in the 20 years
since the first time I saw James trip over that tiger rug, yet even without the benefit of a glass of bubbly, it still makes me giggle and before long, laugh out loud.

"Same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?" Well, of course. Happy New Year, everyone.

30 December 2008


The year slips quickly away. Tomorrow is New Year's Eve, and then it's 2009, an auspicious year for many reasons.

It's the year Barack Obama takes over as President of the United States and George W. Bush slinks out the back door with a shit-eating grin, having failed at yet another endeavor. It's the year America starts cleaning up George's mess, but it's going to take a long time. A whole string of years.

And 2009 is a year of unknowns. Yes, all new years are like that. We don't know what the future holds. But we know that the world's economy is in recession, that the world's oil supplies are running out, and that global warming is causing dangerous climate change. 2009 ushers in, I believe, a lot of drastic, shocking change. We'll have to learn to be patient with each other.

Perhaps we'll learn how to get to know our neighbors, and be better friends, and reach out to help others less fortunate than ourselves. Because we'll all be facing the same problems, and we're going to need each other for help and comfort.

As far as I'm concerned, 2009 can't come fast enough.

24 December 2008

Ho Ho Ho

Merry Christmas!

23 December 2008

Gentle Christmas ...

My Solstice season wish for all of you
is for a happy, peaceful and very gentle Christmas Eve
and Christmas Day.

May this magical season be filled with
love, warmth, and joy
as we look ahead with hope to the new year.


21 December 2008

We're cool, either way


Tip-o-the-cap to Sullivan.

16 December 2008

Snowy memories ...

The snow has stopped for now. It’s cloudy, but there’s some blue sky and a little sun. The forecast calls for a little more snow today. Tomorrow should be sunny, and then snow again on Thursday.

As I shot the photos above out my kitchen window, the scene – snow, branches, evergreens, blue sky and thin white clouds – brought up some memories. So I made myself a cup of coffee, cleared the hot ash from the dying woodstove fire and started a new one. As I watched the hungry flames lick around the dry wood, I let my mind wander ...

It was January, 1988. I was working as a civilian writer/editor with the U.S. Army Norddeutschland Public Affairs Office in Bremerhaven, Germany. Winter in the north of Germany is a long, drawn-out season, filled with frigid wind, rain, occasional light snow and ice. Lots of ice. By this time, after living there for two years, I’d learned the hard way how to dress for the weather, and every morning was a ritual of donning a hat, gloves, a thick wool coat, a knit scarf and warm, sheepskin-lined boots over several layers of clothing that included ski socks and at least one sweater. I carried my dress shoes in a tote to change into once I’d reached the relative warmth of my office.

I’d made a good number of friends since arriving in Germany, and a couple I’d grown close to suggested that we get a group together and go skiing. Now, Norddeutschland is flat as a pancake, except for the dikes that hold back the North Sea, and there’s not enough snow to ski on, really.
So I asked, innocently enough, “but where?”
“The Alps!”
The Alps. I’d heard of them, of course. I’d seen stunning pictures of those snowclad, craggy peaks and swooping valleys. I’d even seen Clint Eastwood in “The Eiger Sanction,” though it wasn’t exactly encouraging, all those climbers falling off the mountain and all. But my friends were insistent. Civilian DoD workers, they’d lived in Germany for many years and were avid skiers. They were tired of the wind, the rain, and the flatness of the terrain. And they convinced me that not only could this be done, it would be a blast.
So we put the word out. Before long, we had a group of 12 who wanted to go skiing for a week in the Alps and had both the money and the vacation time accrued to do so. Somehow, it became my job to organize the ski trip – find the right place, make our reservations and get everyone lodged, figure out the train schedules and set it all up.
I should say here that at this point in my life, my only experience on skis consisted of one horrifically cold, school-sponsored, day-long ski trip to Mammoth Mountain when I was a sixth-grader. I learned to snowplow, but once I fell down, I stayed down. I just couldn’t get the hang of standing up again on skis unless I took the damned things off. In addition, I’m afraid of heights.
The big day arrived. We met, the 12 of us, in the wee hours of the morning at the Bahnhof in Bremerhaven, loaded down with suitcases, skis, poles and ski-boots. We were headed for St. Veit, Austria, via Bremen, Franfurt, and Munich in West Germany, and then on to Salzburg, Austria. At each station we’d need to change trains.
It had all looked pretty easy on paper. In practice, it was chaos. Changing trains was a only minor hassle in Bremen, which has a medium-sized train station and only six or seven platforms. It helped that my friend R and her husband T, both of them ex-CIA agents, spoke German rather well. We humped our gear off the Bremen train to another platform and waited for the Frankfurt train to arrive. When it did, we all climbed on, found our compartments and got our tangle of gear stashed, and settled down for a pleasant ride to Frankfurt. We even indulged in a nice, hot breakfast with lots of strong coffee in the dining car. Yes, they really did have white tablecloths and roses on the tables.
The afternoon transfer at Frankfurt to the Munich train was pandemonium. We had a very short time to make our way, carting all our stuff, to the new platform and train. And the Frankfurt Bahnhof is huge – a crowded, noisy hub with what seemed like hundreds of platforms, row after row of shining trains, and thousands of people of all colors and nationalities. The train we were booked on, of course, was at the other end of the station. We made it, but barely, and by the time we found empty compartments and storage, everyone was puffed, sweaty and tired. There was talk of driving the whole way in caravan next time, if there was a next time.
We had enough time for plastic-wrapped sandwiches off a cart and a rest between Frankfurt and Munich. Spirits, both emotional and literal, were raised. The transfer at Munich was much simpler – we didn’t have so far to hike to find our train and by now, we’d worked out a system for dealing with skis, poles and luggage. On we went to Salzburg.
The whole journey, so far, had been lovely – the Germany countryside is picturesque and colorful. But now, the scenery turned beautiful. The hills and meadows, with their small villages, were glorious, dusted with snow, and of course in the distance there were glimpses of the famous Alps. The sun was headed down the sky by the time we arrived in the city of Mozart and the Von Trapp family, and changed trains one last time.
This final train was a local, a milk-run train that stopped in each little burgh along the way. The snow cover grew thicker. Finally, we reached our destination station. I can’t recall its name now, but it wasn’t St. Veit, as St. Veit didn’t have its own train station. We unloaded once again. This was a very small Bahnhof, with just one track and platform, and a tiny, empty hall. Except for the stationmaster and a bundled-up woman behind the magazine and candy counter, the 12 of us formed the entire crowd. It was breathtakingly cold.
We’d booked our week with SiegiTours, a ski school, resort and lodging operation in St. Veit. Within 15 minutes two vans arrived at the station to take us there. We all piled in and off we went, winding along narrow mountain roads that were clotted with snow and ridged with ice.
When we reached the village of St. Veit it was dark, but the fronts of the chalets and the village square were all lit up, including the magnificent, 1000-year-old church that dominates everything. All around us rose the Austrian Alps. Snow stood two feet deep. Icicles hung from the eaves and underfoot, the pavements were treacherous.
I felt like I’d died and gone to heaven.
Stay tuned … there’s more to come. Also, please pardon the lack of spaces between paragraphs or even indents -- Blogger is not cooperating.

15 December 2008

Old world ...

Just as I anticipated, the snow is falling and my world, such as it is, is nearly silent.

I can hear no traffic from the freeway down the mountain from us. Either the snow has closed the passes up above us, making it impossible to get over them, or people are just staying home.

What I can hear is the chip-chip-chipping of a small bird in the tree in my side garden, and the sound of the wind whooshing through the evergreens, rhymically, like ocean waves. I can hear, through my open window, the sound of the fine, dry snowflakes when the wind blows them against the glass, a sound like tossed sand. Now and then a neighborhood dog barks. His voice is muffled. No echo.

It’s just beautiful.

In the living room, the fire in the woodstove crackles and pops over a three-inch bed of hot, glowing coals. The stove-fan blows the super-warm air into the room, making it cozy, but as this is our only form of heat in the winter, the further away from the stove you go, the cooler the air gets. So we pad around the house in sweatshirts and sweatpants and thick socks. I wear my wool slippers over mine. The cat and dog both have decided they like the space five feet in front of the stove best of all, and it’s there that they nap, off and on, all day.
The dog also enjoys being outside in the snow, since he has the kind of thick fur that’s meant for this chilly weather. I let him out a while ago. When he came back in, his back and head were coated with snow and he was absolutely joyful. He shook it all off, nonchalantly, on the middle of the kitchen floor before heading for his water bowl for a drink.
I’ve been thinking about what it is about snow that delights me so much. First, it’s a stark, even startling change from the norm. We’ve had warm, or hot, or warmish weather now for nearly a year, almost constant sunshine, and few clouds. To those who live through harsh winters and chilly springs and falls, I know it sounds nuts that I could get bored with sunshine. But I do. I believe that, instinctively, we need to experience the natural change of seasons. Without that change we get discombobulated. Complacent. We need to be able to look forward to something, to prepare for the future, even if it means stacking firewood against the imminence of winter.
Second, I just prefer the cold weather to the warm. I’ve been like that for as long as I can remember. I’d much rather put on warm sweaters and thick socks than shorts and sandals. Perhaps it’s the Finnish blood that runs so strongly in my veins. I’m out of my element in the relentlessly mild California weather. I get bored with it. My personal sense of balance, of being, needs cold weather and snow to reach equilibrium.
And finally, it’s the way snow silences our noisy civilization and remakes the world into something old. It takes me back in time, this silence, to a world not filled with the roar of traffic and the constant jabbering of the TV. I don’t watch much of that even on warm days, but Mr. Wren does. When the snow comes, though, he sleeps in late, burrowed under the down comforter, while I wake early and with joy to the gloriously white, muffled world. I love that I can be inside, warm and cozy, and look out at it. I love the deep, crystal quiet.
I’d probably feel much differently about the snow if I had to be out working in it. But for the moment, this moment, I don’t have to be. And, while it’s freezy cold and snowing right now, within a few days the temperature will rise again and the snow will melt away. Snow is always temporary at this elevation. So I’ll be back to longing for the next snowstorm very soon. With luck, we’ll have several more of them before the California spring comes, way too early.
The first year we lived here was an El Nino year. We moved house in November, 1997. The weather was cool but dry. Within a week, though, it changed. First there was rain, and then it started snowing. And it kept snowing, day after day, week after week, month after month. It even snowed in May.
To say we were unprepared is an understatement. We discovered in the first month that running the electric baseboard heaters would cost far more that we could reasonably afford. The old iron woodstove insert that had come with the house was woefully inadequate. I’d stuff it full of firewood and get it so hot the that the stovepipe that ran up the chimney would glow red, but the stove only warmed the air a few feet in front of it and no more. It was a long and very cold winter for us.
The following summer we got rid of the old stove and, using our tax return money, bought a new, far more efficient stove. I call it Damnthing, a name it earned through no fault of its own, but because it took us inept snowline newcomers a while to learn how to tell seasoned firewood from green and how to start the fire and keep it going. Trial and error. Now, 11 years later, I’m an old pro with the firewood and the stove. I still call him Damnthing, but very affectionately. He keeps us warm even in the chilliest weather as long as we treat him right.
With the economy the way it is, I figure that we’ll live right here, in this house, for at least several more years. I dream of moving back up to the Pacific Northwest (I lived in Washington State for many years, off and on, and loved it there). But I’ll just have to put that dream on the back burner for a while. In the meantime, it’s snowing. There are four inches on the ground now and it’s still coming down. I’m content.

14 December 2008

Snow's arrival

Sunday, 1100 hours: Oh, Snow is here! He just belled my old wind chimes on the back patio!

Sunday, 1245 hours: Not sticking on the pavement yet, but everywhere else…

Sunday, 1330 hours: It seems Snow may stay awhile. The cat has taken up his position near the woodstove. Perhaps I should put his bed there. That slate has got to be cold on his undersides.

Still waiting ...

It’s like waiting for an absent minded-visitor, this waiting for Snow.

I keep looking out the windows, hoping to see those first, tiny, floating flakes that dance on the air, preceding the real snowfall, the one that sticks to the ground and the tree branches and coats parked cars in strangely cozy-looking, thick white blankets.

My visitor, Snow, was supposed to be here Friday night. But he didn’t show up. Instead, Rain and Wind swept through, staying only long enough to wake me several times, rattling the window over my bed as they danced around the house and left their calling cards in the form of dampened walkways and new drifts of wet, dead leaves underfoot.

Cold came Friday night, too. Unlike Wind and Rain, who moved on, she settled in, preparing to embrace her lover, Snow. Now she’s everywhere. When I go into the kitchen, away from the glowing woodstove, Cold whispers around my calves and raises prickling goosebumps on my lower back. She’s waiting, too, as impatient as I.

Because Snow is coming, I’m hesitant to leave the house. I don’t want to be away when he arrives, because though I love him, he can be a difficult guest. Snow brings me gifts, among them a deep quiet. When Snow comes, the highway a quarter-mile down the mountain goes totally silent for a while. My neighbors – the fellow with the noisy leaf-blower and motored, unmuffled go-cart; the shrieking children; the old man with the diesel truck that he insists on warming up for 20 minutes every morning, summer, spring, fall and winter – all retreat into their houses and stay near their hearthfires, like I do. The birds go invisible, huddling in the laurel hedge and high in the evergreens, sheltering until Snow moves on. When I venture out, bundled in my thick coat, my cap on my head and my achy hands protected by gloves, his stillness is weighty. He makes me hear my own heartbeat, makes me aware of my breath in my lungs, and how fragile my life is, really.

Yesterday, Snow sent his emissary, Frost. He mimicked Snow for an hour or so and moved on up the mountain, leaving a thin rime of icy, powdered sugar in his wake. Snow sent him to tease me, I know.

And so I wait.

09 December 2008

Anticipation ...

A glimpse into Wren’s mind as she learns there’s a good chance of rain and, possibly, snow during the upcoming week-end:

OMG! I’ve got to get ready! I should make a list! Snow! I need to cart enough firewood in to last a few days and nights, at least, and I need to find the ice-melter stuff and put it just outside the door, close at hand. I need to make soup and keep it simmering on the back of the stove just in case we get weary, snow-clotted, half-frozen travelers at the door. What kind would be best? Potato? Beefy vegetable? Chicken? Maybe all three. I’ll get started today. And I should probably make bread, you know? (I don’t know how, but I know I can learn between now and Friday evening.) I need to stock up on storm candles and make sure I have enough coffee and soy creamer to get me through the coldest hours. Hot cocoa! I’ll need some milk to make that. Forget the marshmallows, I’ll just add a dollop of whisky. And there’s all that whipped cream leftover from Thanksgiving. YES! OMG snow! I should probably toss those four, 25-pound sacks of cat litter back into the trunk of the Celica. That’s just in case I’m forced to try to go somewhere during the storm, like in an emergency or something. And I’d best park that dumb little muscle car up on the street or I’ll be stranded, stuck at the bottom of our steep hill as the snow and ice grows deeper and deeper and the wind whistles through the eaves …

Yes, this is a fantasy. The National Weather Service is warning of much colder temperatures, rain and possible snow, but I’ve lived here long enough now to know that the NWS is sort of like an excitable old auntie who thrives on crises, real or otherwise.

Still, I can’t help but to be pleased by this news, which was waiting for me on my Yahoo homepage when I got up this morning. You must understand – the last real weather I saw was back in February, folks. It snowed then, off and on for a week or so, and I was in absolute heaven. Then it stopped. The sun came back out. The snow melted.

Since then, it has rained maybe three times. The longest rainy period lasted a day and a half.

I am longing with every fiber of my being for gray skies, rain, wind, sleet, hail, and snow. I want that nasty weather to come and stay for the winter, like it’s supposed to. California is facing a serious drought and we need the snow desperately so the reservoirs will fill with water come spring. The whole state is dry as a tinderbox.

And those of us who thrive on interesting weather, which includes just about anything except the daily, dull blandness of clear skies, season after season, are just about to jump out of our skins.

Cold, yes! Rain, yes! Snow, YES! What a perfect early Christmas gift. I hope this first real cold front of the season brings a whole series of storms, real storms, all the way through April. Rain and snow. Come on, Old Man Winter! Get those silly Californian weather-haters complaining loudly, bemoaning the gray skies. Make them really appreciate summer when it comes.

That would be … fahhhhbulous, dahling. Just fahhhbulous.

Note: The photo is of the snow outside my kitchen window back in January of 2007. That snowy period lasted roughly two weeks. Then the sun came out again and stayed until February 2008. Sigh.

03 December 2008

Moral America?

I’m trying to get my head around the fact that George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, David Addington, John Yoo, Donald Rumsfeld, John Ashcroft and a small host of others may never be brought to justice for the war crimes they committed during the eight-year Bush Administration.

I’ve read all the arguments. Mr. Obama wants to look ahead, not back. He wants to move Congress, and America, toward bipartisanship and unity. Prosecuting the previous administration will only push Americans further apart, not bring them together. Mr. Obama has a full Thanksgiving turkey platter loaded with hot smoking crises in front of him, not least of which is an economy that’s in the dumpster and is rushing willy-nilly toward the landfill of history. Prosecuting the main players in the Bush Administration would take his attention, and that of Congress, away from critical issues that affect all Americans today, right now.

I read. I attempt to grok. But this disturbs me deeply.

This issue – the prosecution of Bush and his cronies as war criminals – is one I believe needs serious and sober attention very soon, and it haunts me. No, it’s not an unhealthy obsession. I go whole spans of hours without thinking of the crimes BushCo has committed against America, her citizens and the world. Nevertheless, each day it comes up. Each day I’m reminded. And each day I read, somewhere or other, that Mr. Obama isn’t interested in bringing these despicable criminals to justice.

That worries me. What does this dismissive attitude say about America? What does it say about us as Americans? What does the world think of us? What will it think of us if all we do, in the end, is pay lip-service to our war crimes without taking honest action?

In 1945 the United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union and France, having just won World War II, conducted the Nuremburg Trials in Nuremberg, Germany, at the Palace of Justice. The point was to publicly air the war crimes committed by high-ranking (and not so high-ranking) Nazis and try them fairly in a court of law. The trials lasted until 1949.

There were those, notably Sen. Robert Taft, who condemned the trials as “victor’s justice.” He had a point, just as those today who would prefer not to prosecute the Bush Administration, have a point. And yet, as a moral people, can Americans really just shrug off the actions of Bush and his cronies as if they weren’t all that important and blindly move on?

After all, we’re not talking about your basic, everyday petty crimes, here. These were huge crimes, monstrous crimes, committed against not just us as Americans, but against the people and governments of many other countries around the world. I say "were," but in fact, the crimes are still being commited and will continue to be commited until January 20, 2009, the day Bush steps down as President and Barack Obama steps up.

There must be a reckoning. In the illegal war in Iraq alone, we’ve lost more than 4,200 American soldiers. That’s 1,200 or so more than lost their lives in the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attack by al Qaida jihadists on U.S. soil. Iraq had nothing to do with it, but Bush lied America into war by implying that it did.

Far worse is the fact that more than a million Iraqis have also been killed because of America’s invasion of their country. The maimed and injured on both sides, totaled together, are in the many millions. Their lives, and the lives of their loved ones, have been altered forever.

When WWII ended in 1945, the Allies conducted the Nuremberg Trials because the Nazis had not only attempted to invade, occupy and take over the world, killing and wounding thousands and thousands of soldiers and civilians everywhere, but they also attempted coldblooded genocide. They tried to annihilate the European Jews, persecuting and murdering some 6 million men, women and children through a systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored program of imprisonment, torture and death. Other groups were included in the massacre as well, including the Roma, Soviet civilians and prisoners of war, the disabled, gay men, and political and religious opponents.

In all, an estimated 9 million to 11 million people lost their lives to the evil that was Nazism. It was important to the Allies and to the world that the men and women who perpetrated such a horrendous and inexcusable crime against humanity be made to face their victims, be fairly judged and be punished appropriately. Only then could the world attempt to move on and rebuild what was lost and destroyed in the war. Only then could the world recover its morality.

And yet America, it seems, may not undertake such an action in regard to its own war criminals – not for the sake of their victims, or for the sake a shocked and disgusted world. We may not prosecute Bush and his cronies even for our own sake, for our own morality and peace of mind. It’s as if our leaders would rather let the war criminals who ran the country for eight years just fade away into private life, continuing to profit from their crimes while their successors try, desperately, to clean up after and whitewash the disaster and the horrors they left behind.

Implicit in their non-prosecution is the sanguine acceptance of the damage they did to America and her credibility and standing in the world; of the fact that the direct consequences of their actions were the maiming and deaths of millions of people, most of whom were innocent of any wrongdoing; of their sneering disregard for the laws America was built upon; and for the international laws put in place since WWII to protect all the people of the world.

If we, as moral Americans, don’t insist upon a thorough investigation and fair, serious prosecution of the men and women who perpetrated these war crimes against us and the people of Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries in the world, we are, ourselves, willing accessories to the crimes. I understand that we have huge problems ahead of us which must be solved – many of which also can be traced directly to these same villains – but to ignore their crimes against humanity makes all Americans complicit. Those crimes will haunt us forever.

Doing the right thing will be extremely difficult. It will hurt and embarrass us. Doing the right thing – prosecuting our war criminals – may bring up ferocious new problems, and it may rock America to her foundations. But if we, as Americans, really care about freedom, human and civil rights, equality, our Constitution and our country, and the world at large, then we must do it.

Turning away from it, trying to forget it, letting the war criminals slip away without facing justice is craven and cowardly. It will be a disaster of far greater proportions than anything we’ve faced as a nation to this point in our history. I believe that Barack Obama is an honest, intelligent, good man. He’s surrounding himself with others like him as he prepares to take on the monumental job of President of the United States. I hope he realizes that America stands, here and now, on the edge of a historical precipice. It’s will be up to him to decide whether we step back from it or close our eyes and fall in.

We're depending on him to do the right thing.

02 December 2008

It's magic ...

My friend J is here this morning, sitting across from me in my living room. The fire is blazing in the woodstove. It’s cozy. While I write this on my laptop, J is talking to a couple of her entrepreneurial business buddies in Paris, a Frenchman and an Englishman, using her own laptop and Skype.

This fascinates me. It’s a little after 6 p.m. in Paris. She’s talking to these two guys on the other side of the world, laughing and making jokes. She’s talking to both at once – it’s a three-way, overseas telephone call. But there’s no telephone. She’s wearing a headset plugged into her computer. She’s lolling as comfortable as can be on my loveseat.

No “telephone.” Skype is free.

When I was living in Germany in another lifetime, calling home was something we did once a month. We arranged with our family and friends, via the original snail mail – it took at least two weeks to cross the ocean and the U.S. before arriving in their mailboxes -- a day and a time for a conversation. Or we’d make arrangements for next month’s phone call before saying good-bye, if we remembered. The reason the calls were limited to once monthly was the expense.

My German phone actually had a counter on it that rolled, quickly, during our long-distance, overseas calls. It was counting pfennings. Ten pfennings per minute, actually. So an hour-long call cost about $60. There was my family to call, and my husband’s family. Occasionally, we’d talk to old friends back Stateside. My phone bills were stunning.

But here’s J, right now, today, talking basically for free to her friends in France. Isn’t that incredible?

25 November 2008

Indulgence ...

I'm sorry, but Blogger doesn't seem to recognize returns or paragraph breaks today. I'll check later and try to add them. Sigh.

Just for fun, here’s a quick, terribly fattening and delicious favorite from the Wren family, with irreverent comments. I originally typed it up and e-mailed it to Daughter Wren, who’s been craving it and plans to bring it along to put a twist into the traditional Thanksgiving feast (turkey, ham, dressing, mashed taters, green bean casserole, corn pudding, apple pie with ice cream and pumpkin pie with whipped cream) here at the Wren’s Nest.

Gramma Wren's Tamale Pie

1 chili brick (available in grocery’s meat dept., in the frozen case);

1 can corn;

2 eggses, beaten;

2 cups milk;

1 can beef broth;

1 1/2 cups cornmeal;

1 lb. hamburger, sauteed and drained;

1-8 oz. can tomato sauce;

1 can whole, pitted olives, drained;

and 1 small can mushrooms, drained (you can leave these out, but Gramma Wren says "They're so good in it! She can pick them out!" Heh. When I was a fledgling, she used to tell me, "You're eating those mushrooms if you have to sit there all night!" Personally, I think canned mushrooms are slimy and horrible. If you're gonna use 'shrooms, buy them fresh, slice them up and add them raw. But the canned ones were used a LOT in White Male Patriarchal Society recipes in the 60s and 70s, which I think was when canned mushrooms were invented or something.)

But I digress. I'll get serious now. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

Heat the chili brick in the beef broth, slowly, in a Dutch oven over low/medium heat on the stove. It will melt. The brick is made of concentrated, beanless, traditional Mexican chili con carne. It's packed with yummy beef and authentic chili spices.

While the chili brick is melting, saute the hamburger (in a separate skillet, then drain off the grease) and put the hamburger and all the other ingredients into the Dutch oven with the melted chili brick. Mix everything up. Put the Dutch oven into the oven to cook. Check every fifteen minutes or so and stir. The mixture will thicken as the cornmeal bakes and the other ingredients heat through. You'll know it's done when the Tamale Pie is thick and moist, but not too wet and gooey or too dry. Gramma Wren thinks it takes about an hour to cook. Be patient -- the end result is hella delicious.

Calories: Twenty-hundred-billion. But Tamale Pie is a rare and greatly anticipated treat which must be indulged in once in a while or life's not worth living.

Note: The best and only chili brick still being made in California is Delores Chili Brick, made by Delores Canning Company in Los Angeles. The chili bricks are a bit rare at grocery stores anymore, but can still be found. Call around or visit http://www.dolorescanning.com/ to find it. Additionally, you could always add cooked pinto beans to this recipe, and finish it off with grated, melted cheddar cheese... with a dollop of sour cream on each portion ... oh, my.

Have fun...

23 November 2008


Sometimes there's just nothing to say except "Happy Sunday."

22 November 2008

Why I love autumn ...

Finally, the days are cool and crisp. And while summer is beautiful, in autumn everything goes flamboyant, one last, wild fling of color, tone and hue before it's all blown away in winter's winds.
I love my Japanese maple tree and the Yuletide camellia. Mr Wren and I planted both right after we moved here in the autumn of 1997. If you look close, you can see the season's first camellia bloom just under the kitchen window; the bush will produce those simple flowers well into January, even as everything else fades to black and gray as the winter gets a good, cold grip on the world.

21 November 2008

Setting a precedent ...

Students at Princeton have taken the concept behind Prop H8 and run with it:


I'd really love to post the actual video, instead of just the link, but for some reason, I can't copy the whole embed code for YouTube. Sigh.

The real meaning of turkey

Honestly, Sarah. Please, stop talking. Do it for the children.
(click, please. I can't get the video to embed.)

20 November 2008

... in the present moment

How strange to find myself so accurately tagged by a computer:

“The entertaining and friendly type. They are especially attuned to pleasure and beauty and like to fill their surroundings with soft fabrics, bright colors and sweet smells. They live in the present moment and don´t like to plan ahead - they are always in risk of exhausting themselves.

“They enjoy work that makes them able to help other people in a concrete and visible way. They tend to avoid conflicts and rarely initiate confrontation - qualities that can make it hard for them in management positions.”
I’m a “Performer,” according to Typealyzer, a Swedish website devoted to analyzing blog-writing styles as a way to get at how the author thinks and, in some cases (like mine) lives.
Typealyzer pegged me well. I do love soft fabrics and bright colors. As proof, I offer the photo above: It's my kitchen. Some scents, like cinnamon, are my long-time favorites and I don’t quite know what I’d do in a world without them.
And, I really do have difficulty with planning for the future – nothing seems “real” to me, except “now.” I’m living through the consequences, right now, of having exhausted myself for so long I’ve forgotten how to recharge.
All the other stuff that "types" me is spot on, too. The people who worked for me when I was a newspaper editor always told me I was the best boss they’d ever had, but the people I worked for often wished I’d been a little less likeable. My feeling was that if the work got done – and done well – and the deadlines met, then I wasn’t worried if my reporters showed up twenty minutes late for work in the mornings. I knew they often worked through lunch breaks and after hours on their stories, just like I did. They gave a lot of themselves for little reward. It was easy to cut them some slack.
On the other hand, my own bosses leaned hard on me to rigorously maintain traditional office discipline. This meant I had to compel (OK, implore) my reporters to show up on time for work each day, an action I hated and they knew I didn’t believe in.
Some of us just aren’t meant to be hardcases. I’m afraid I’m one of them.

18 November 2008

I'm confused, now ...

According to Newsweek:

According to a 2006 study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, a third of white evangelicals believe the world will end in their lifetimes. These mostly conservative Christians believe a great battle is imminent. After years of tribulation—natural disasters, other cataclysms (such as the collapse of financial markets)—God's armies will vanquish armies led by the Antichrist himself. He will be a sweet-talking world leader who gathers governments and economies under his command to further his own evil agenda. In this world view, "the spread of secular progressive ideas is a prelude to the enslavement of mankind," explains Richard Landes, former director of the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University.

No wonder, then, that Obama triggers such fear in the hearts of America's millennialist Christians. Mat Staver, dean of Liberty University's law school, says he does not believe Obama is the Antichrist, but he can see how others might. Obama's own use of religious rhetoric belies his liberal positions on abortion and traditional marriage, Staver says, positions that "religious conservatives believe will threaten their freedom." The people who believe Obama is the Antichrist are perhaps jumping to conclusions, but they're not nuts: "They are expressing a concern and a fear that is widely shared," Staver says.

Wait a minute, wait a minute! Time OUT!

Now, maybe I’m all mixed up about the sequence under which the Rapture is supposed to happen, but isn’t the Antichrist one of the dire things, along with floods, famines, great winds and the like, which must happen before a really pissed off God floats all the precious “saved” Christians up to heaven? And once they’re safely being issued wings and cloud blankies, Jesus returns to Earth in a huge snit to lay gory, disgusting and gleeful waste to the rest of us?
If that’s right, why are Christians so scared of the Antichrist, whoever he may be? I mean, wouldn’t they really want to welcome him right in? The sooner the better?

Don’t they really want to go to heaven?

11 November 2008

Veteran's Day

I was going to write something new for Veteran's Day, but while searching my files for inspiration, I found what I'd posted here in 2006. It's all the more relevant now, given the results of the election a week ago today:

It’s Veteran’s Day.

Here in the Wren’s Nest, this day represents more than a sale at TJMaxx. Mr. Wren and I are both veterans; he served in the U.S. Army, I in the U.S. Air Force. Both of us were fortunate that during the years we served, there were no active “hot” wars – only the long, ominous Cold War that began its end in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall and finished, finally, with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

I’m proud of my military service. But to my mind, the real veterans are the Americans who’ve served in wartime, the ones who literally put their lives on the line to protect their country. I know many of them and met and worked with many more. Some of them were drafted, others were volunteers, like the men and women serving our country today in Afghanistan and Iraq, South Korea and Europe. Some saw battle, but many served at the “rear,” supporting the fighting troops. They were vital, each and every one of them.

One of the things I loved about the military was its diversity. People from all walks of life form the Army, the Air Force, the Marines, the Navy, the National Guard and the Coast Guard. Black and white, Asian, American Indian, Hispanic – the military is a compressed American melting pot working and living closely together, all over the world.

If you’re a bigot, you’ll find yourself at a loss on an Army post. Nowhere is it more crystal clear that people are people, no matter their gender, the color of their skin, their economic status or where they’re from. They have a job to do, a common cause, and they do it together. Their hearts all look the same.

For this white woman who grew up in a mostly white, California suburb – my high school class had one, single black student in it – the Air Force was an eye-opener. One of my favorite memories comes from when I was in training in Texas as an intelligence analyst. The tech sergeant in charge of a work detail I was assigned to one day asked me a question – and I couldn’t understand what he was saying. He repeated himself, twice, and I still didn’t get it. Finally, he said, “Airman, where you from?” in a drawl that was as slow as cool honey.

I blinked. “California."

“The laaaand of the frooooots an’ the nuts,” he grinned, as if that explained everything. “I’m from Miss’ippee,” he said, relenting. “I’ll help y’out. Read mah lips ...”

It was the first time I’d ever heard that phrase used – and it was long before Bush 41 used it in regards to taxes. Because the sergeant was being very patient and speaking even more slowly than usual, I understood him this time, and before he was done giving me his instructions -- where to go dig rocks out of a corner where grass seed would be planted -- we were both laughing. He hadn’t insulted me, only teased, and it served to close the wide gap between our disparate cultures. I later learned that this man had served in Vietnam, a draftee, and when he’d come home, he decided to stay in the Air Force and make it a career.

Over the years I became very good at sussing out accents, drawls and colloquialisms. After I was discharged, and later went to Germany to work for the U.S. Army as a civilian, everyone sounded pretty much the same to me. My country, and the world, had become a much smaller place – a village.

I’m blathering on, here, so I’ll get to my point. Today is the one day of the year that America pauses to thank its veterans, our friends and neighbors who took an oath to protect our country in times of war and serve as guardians during times of peace. While there are as many reasons they signed up as there are colors, genders and cultures within the armed forces, all of them share a deep love for America – so deep, they were prepared to die for it. Many of them have seen war first hand, seen friends and comrades maimed or killed and have lived under dreadfully difficult conditions so foreign to American civilian life they might have been on another planet.
Many are still serving, all over the world. And there are thousands of soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines, right now, who are serving their country as volunteers – our future veterans.
All of them deserve our deep respect and our thanks.

05 November 2008

Mixed emotions

[Wren pads into the living room and sits down in her favorite overstuffed leather chair, the one that’s so big and plumphy her feet don’t quite touch the floor when she sits down. It makes her feel like a little girl. The chair is snuggly. She sips from the big mug of hot coffee she brought with her and sighs with pleasure as the steam clouds her glasses. To her left, the woodstove blazes, radiating cozy, welcome heat into the chilly room. Wren puts her feet up on the ottoman and covers her legs with an old throw. The cat hops up and fits himself between her ankles, his chin on Wren’s shinbone, his paws tucked beneath him. It’s fairly early in this clear, crispish, deep autumn morning; the sun is up but still stretching, the birds that haven’t already headed south for the winter are yelling at each other in the trees, and for the first time this season the temperature outside has dipped down into the mid-30s overnight.]

Hi there.

Did you hear? Last night, Americans chose Barack Obama to be their next President. I know – I shouldn’t say it too loud. I’ll jinx it. But I woke up this morning with these words: “Obama is President!” on my mind, and all the time I was feeding the dog, building the fire in the woodstove, boiling fresh water for coffee and considering (and rejecting) cold pizza for breakfast, the words danced through my head, providing breathless, giddy background music to my sleepy morning activities: “Obama is President. Hey! Obama is President!”

Yes, I know. He’s really President-Elect. He has to wait – we have to wait – until January 20, 2009, before he can take office. I’d like it better if he could just take over right this minute, since we all know that the President-Reject, George W. Bush, is doing his gol’-damndest to further fuck America before a disgusted history can drag him, grinning like a brainless maniac, off the world stage.

I must try to be patient. Obama needs this time to prepare for his new job. After nearly two solid years of campaigning, I bet he’d love a week or two at home, doing nothing much at all. He could sleep in, play with his daughters, eat homemade waffles and read a good book as the burnt-orange autumn afternoons fade to cold winter gray. He’s worked hard. He deserves a little time.

President Barack Obama. President Obama. Wow. A Democrat. And just in time. Bush and the Republicans nearly pushed the whole country off a cliff. Even now, with Obama representing our last, best hope, we’re teetering on the edge. We have a lot of work ahead of us.

And now, checking out the latest news, I discover that California’s Proposition 8 has passed, 52 to 48 percent.

As happy as I am that Obama won the presidency, this makes me equally as sad. And angry, too. It’s simply terrible news.

For those of you who haven’t been following California’s peculiar politics this election season, Prop Hate fixes in the state constitution that the only marriages that are or can ever be legitimate in California are those in which men marry women. In banning single-sex marriage, Prop Hate strips away, once again, the right of gay couples to marry under the law in California. It was only in May this year that the California Supreme Court finally declared the ban on single-sex marriage unconstitutional. Getting to that decision took years.

And now? Back to square one.

We took historic steps yesterday in this country when we voted for a young, mixed-race African-American man to become President of the United States of America. It was huge. Bigoted preconceptions were also shattered when Hillary Clinton ran for the Democratic nomination for President and later, Sarah Palin was chosen as John McCain’s running mate in his Republican bid for that office. Imagine: Women in positions of high power in America. Now, I believe Palin was a reprehensible choice for Vice President because of her general lack of experience and stunning lack of intellect, but I was heartened, nevertheless, that she was chosen at all. Next time, gender and race won’t be the deciding factor in a race like this.

And yet, right here in good ol' fruity, nutty, progressive, liberal California, many of the same people who voted with hope in their hearts for Obama also voted to coldly strip away a basic civil right – the right to marry whomever one pleases – from a minority. This makes our gay neighbors and co-workers, friends, acquaintances and family members … what? Less than equals? Less than citizens? Less than human?

As an American, I’m pleased and relieved at Obama’s historic win. As a Californian, I’m ashamed of my state for its continued, inexplicable, backwards bigotry and support of inequality, which was very well funded and fueled by those “good Christian” purveyors of hate in our midst.

Across the nation, Americans have taken a huge step forward and a few big steps backwards since yesterday morning. It looks like we still have a long way to go.

And President Obama. Oh, my.

03 November 2008

31 October 2008

Miracle dog

I’ve been dog-sitting for my Mom since Monday. Today is my last day.

Used to be that when my Mom and Dad traveled, they’d take their Boxer dog, Mugs, with them. But sometimes bringing a 75-pound bundle of goofy energy along wasn’t practical, so they’d kennel him at the local vet’s office. They never liked to; when they picked him up he was always sad, skinny, and had managed to catch a dog-cold. They felt guilty and it would be a week before Mugs got back to normal and fully forgave them.

Dad died in 2005. Mom hasn’t done a lot of traveling since then, but when she does, she can’t bear to put Mugs in the kennel. And so I dog-sit while she’s gone.

We always laugh when we do this. And it is sort of funny, the idea of baby-sitting a dog. But Mugs is very special. I know – all pet owners think their little darlings are special. Mugs really is.

In 1998, my dad had heart surgery. It was the second major heart operation he’d had – the first was a valve-replacement in 1986. This one, 12 years after the first, replaced the wearing-out replacement valve. Both surgeries were dicey and the second far more dangerous than the first. He was older. There was more disease. They had to do bypasses too.

Mom and Dad's previous Boxer had died two years before. They missed him – we’ve always had a Boxer in the family – but he and Mom traveled frequently and, finding themselves dogless, decided they didn’t want the hassle of kenneling yet another dog.

It was a rough surgery. Dad was on the operating table for nearly 10 hours while they replaced the valve and did three bypasses, discovering the need for those after they’d opened him up. At some point during those hours he suffered a small stroke.

Dad survived the surgery, but spent two-and-a-half more weeks in the hospital, recovering very slowly. There were several set-backs. It was a miserable experience for him.

We knew when he came home, his convalescence would be long and arduous. Dad was an avid golfer, and in the years since he’d retired following his first heart surgery, he’d become a very active senior citizen. He was always busy – doing taxes for seniors through the AARP, volunteering his time with the local Sheriff’s Dept. in their senior program, and getting together with his buddies. He played poker, he golfed three times a week, he gardened. And he and Mom traveled frequently.

Now all of those things would be out, at least for a while. The doctor estimated it would take him six months to a year to regain his strength, and at that point we didn’t even know how the stroke might affect him.

My sister and I decided that what Dad needed when he came home was another Boxer. Mom was a little reluctant – she didn’t want to have to look after a messy, rambunctuous puppy and Dad – so we decided to check out the local Boxer rescue organization, hoping to find a full-grown, house-trained, nicely mannered dog.

We found Mugs. He’d been picked up by the dog catcher. His owners had disappeared. He was pathetically skinny, about two years old, full of energy and friendly in the way that only Boxers can be. The rescue people had bailed him out of the animal shelter and set about finding new owners for him, people who really loved Boxers and would give him a loving home for the rest of his life.

That was us.

When Dad was finally allowed home from the hospital, Mugs was there waiting for him. Oh, was Dad surprised. He was absolutely delighted with his new Boxer buddy. See, my sister and I sat down with Mugs before Dad arrived and explained to him what his job would be – he needed to be gentle with Dad, keep him company, and make him laugh. Dad really needed to laugh. It sounds strange, I know, the idea of explaining such things to a dog. But we believe dogs can be very special people.

Mugs was. He knew exactly what to do with Dad. Though he was only a couple of years old and full of young-dog energy, he was incredibly careful – and incredibly gentle – with my Dad. When Dad regained enough strength to walk slowly without a walker, he’d go out onto the deck that stretched the length of the house and overlooked his garden. He'd walk from one end of the deck to the other, over and over again, enjoying the sun and the fresh air while rebuilding the surgery-wounded and wasted muscles in his legs. It was painful and exhausting. But Mugs would be right there with him, walking alongside. Not in front. Not behind. Right next to Dad. He walked slowly. Steadily. Dad talked to him and Mugs listened with his big silly ears cocked, his droopy brown eyes on Dad’s face. His ridiculous stub of a tail wiggled madly. He was Concentrating.

Mugs understood what his job was and he did it. It was amazing, really. He helped my Dad through that long, long recovery time, and when it was over and Dad was strong again, he remained central in both Dad’s and Mom’s lives. They spoiled him rotten. He was a “talky” dog, making the funniest “mwah-mwah-mworf-mwooo” sounds in response to questions, or when he wanted to be walked or fed. He cracked us all up. Both of my parents were delighted by him. They loved him dearly, and we were all convinced that without Mugs, Dad would have had a much harder time recovering.

The stroke hadn’t impaired Dad physically at all. We noticed a few small changes in his personality and the way he dealt with frustrations, but they were minor. Dad made a complete recovery. He got almost all his strength back. He started golfing again – twice a week! He walked on his treadmill every day, even though it hurt his feet and legs something awful. He picked up his volunteer work again. He and Mom traveled, together and with friends, all over the country.

And then, in May 2005, the chair Dad was sitting on slipped out from under him while he was tying his shoes to go play poker with his buddies. He fell and bumped his head on the tile kitchen floor. He was all right, but he had a big knot on his head. He went out and played poker anyway – it was just a bump, after all. He told my Mom it didn’t even hurt. But a few days later – after he started getting a little sleepy and disoriented and, finally, developing such a severe headache that he could barely hold still – Mom took him to the ER. And it turned out that there was a massive bleed between his skull and the membrane that protects the brain, caused by the bump on the head and the fact that Dad was on Coumadin, a blood thinner.

This was to be my Dad’s last stay in a hospital. Although the bleed stopped by itself, he never recovered. The damage to his brain was too massive. Two weeks later he died, peacefully, in his hospital bed.

As you might imagine, we were all devastated. We’d called Dad the “Miracle Man” because he’d survived his two earlier heart surgeries – and not only survived, but thrived. He’d refused to give up. Dad had a huge circle of friends and acquaintances, made during his many years as a CPA, and even more after he retired. We all knew we’d lose him someday, but we figured it would be his heart, not a silly household accident. He was 77 years old.

And where does Mugs come back into this story? Well, after the funeral, after everything was settled back down to something like normalcy (though it could never be truly normal again without Dad), Mugs turned his full healing attention on my Mom.

She was lost in grief. She and my Dad were one of those lucky couples who never fell out of love. They were together for 49 years, and he’d been her everything. Now she was alone, trying to figure out what to do with her life post-Dad. Mugs did with her just like he’d done with Dad seven years before. He never left her side. He was with her constantly, whatever she happened to be doing. He started “talking” even more, which made her laugh in spite of herself. He took her for walks. He curled up with her on the sofa for naps and hogged most of the queen-sized bed at night. He kept her company, filling her long hours alone and giving her a reason to get up each morning.

Mugs has this way of coming up to you and laying his warm, hairy cheek up against yours, just holding it there, being gentle. Understanding. He knows.

He's 12 years old now. He’s got arthritis in his hips and knees, and his muzzle has gone white. So when Mom decided this year, for the first time since Dad died, to go on the yearly trip to Monterey she and Dad used to take with several other couples, and asked me to baby-sit Mugs, I was delighted to do it. Spending this week with her dear friends, people who’d also loved my Dad, was a big step for her, a new step into life. Mom will be 78 in two weeks.

She's healing. And Mugs, that sweet old dog, is still doing his job perfectly. Keeping him company 24/7 while she's gone is the least I can do.

23 October 2008

Meme without politics

Lucy over at A Commonplace Book has a nice meme going in which she eschews speaking or thinking of politics. She’s burned out. I understand and empathize, so I’ve stolen her meme for use here. I don’t think she’ll mind too much.

See, there’s so much politicking and stress going on in the world right now, I’ve found myself at a loss for words again. I get overwhelmed. And I don’t have anything new to say about it all. It’s been about a week since I posted to Blue Wren, and I was out of ideas. Fortunately, Lucy came along just in time. She's my hero.

It took me a couple of days to decide to pick up the meme. I was thinking it would take too long or perhaps dig into personal areas I didn’t want to touch. But in reality, it was fairly quick and much easier than I expected. Painless, even. Feel free to have at it yourself:

What is your favorite thing to wear? I have an oversized, patchwork shirt made from lots of old, worn fabrics stitched together. It’s a wonderful hodgepodge of blues, muted purples, lavender and green. It’s soft and flowy. Not showy. I like wearing it with my comfy old jeans. And on my feet? Fuzzy chenille socks and German woolen slippers.

Last meal you had at a restaurant: It was a café, not a full-fledged restaurant. I had a so-so spinach and mushroom omelet, crunchy-creamy hash browns with ketchup (they tasted even better for being verboten), half an English muffin, and great coffee.

Name one thing that scares you: Being helpless and dependent. A close second? Wasps.

Who was the last person in your bed? Me.

What were you doing at 7:00 a.m.? I was filling the electric kettle with fresh water so I could make a cup of coffee. I did this while tossing lamb-flavored treats to the dog, who does not understand the words “wait a minute!” He was drooling on my knees, so I had to keep him occupied.

Last person you hugged? My friend J., for being so dear.

Does anyone you know want to date you? If he had any money, my cat would take me out on the town.

When was your last encounter with the police? About four years ago a young neighbor from up the street failed to make the turn at the end of our cul-de-sac and zooped headlong in his Toyota pickup down our short, very steep driveway. Apparently he forgot where his brake pedal was. He reached the bottom of the driveway at roughly 30 mph, where he crashed through the chain link fence dividing our property from our next-door neighbor’s. After taking out her second fence and heading into the forest, his Toyota finally stopped when it got stuck between two pine trees. The poor guy was, as you might have guessed, very drunk. Miraculously, he wasn't hurt, but he was dazed and disoriented. I helped him into our kitchen, gave him a cup of coffee and called the sheriff while he sat there alternately apologizing and complimenting the decor. The officer who showed up arrested him for driving under the influence. I felt bad – the guy was young and obviously messed up – but what do you do? There'd been damage done to our neighbor's property, and it was just sheer luck that I’d happened to park my own car up on the street the night before. Normally, it would have been right at the bottom of the drive, and he’d have crashed right into the back of it. At the time of morning this happened, my daughter and I could well have been getting into the car to go to work. We just happened to be running a little late, so we weren't walking up the driveway when he flew down it. So ... yeah. It was an interesting encounter. It was made even more memorable when the officer, who was sorta cute, flirted with me.

Have you ever driven without a license? Only by accident when I left my wallet at home.

What time of the day is it? It’s 11:43 a.m., by my laptop clock. I should probably try to be a little more productive than this today.

Who/What made you angry today? I haven’t been angry even once, so far. It feels good.

Do you want anyone? Not really. I’ve learned that what we want and what we get are rarely the same thing when it comes to people.

Do you like birds? I love birds because they make me smile, every single time.

Do you download music? Occasionally, through iTunes.

Do you care if your socks are dirty? Only when I don’t have any clean ones handy. In which case I’ll put the dirty ones on, wrinkling my nose, but I soon forget all about it.

Opinion of Chinese symbol tattoos? I’ll pass, personally. I’ve always loved the look and design of Chinese characters, but since I don’t speak Chinese, I’d be afraid I’d end up with a tattoo that said “Kick Me” (or worse) in Cantonese or something.

What are you doing tonight? I will attempt, once again, to progress a little further as I write the Great American Novel.

Do you like to cuddle? Briefly. Then I get too warm and start feeling claustrophobic, and I have to break free. Gently. With apologies. I think I like the concept of cuddling more than the actual action.

Do you love anyone? Oh, yes.

Whose bed did you sleep in last night? Mine.

Have you ever bungee jumped? Nope, and I never will, either. I’m a shivering coward when it comes to heights. I’d pee myself. It wouldn’t be a good experience.

Have you ever gone whitewater rafting? Once, by accident.

Has anyone ten years older than you ever hit on you? Yes. It was both flattering and distressing.

How many pets do you have? Two – my cat, who velcroes himself to my legs these days, and my dog, who loves me best at mealtimes. Oh, and then there are the five hens, but they’re not exactly pets.

Have you met a real redneck? Yeah, I’m married to one.

How is the weather right now? It’s really nice. Temp’s in the mid-sixties, there’s an intense blue autumn sky studded with clouds, plenty of cool, shifting sunshine and a light breeze. The Stellar’s jays are yelling in the trees just outside.

What are you listening to right now? The clock ticking over the hearth, the hum of the refrigerator and, through the open window, a firetruck siren, moving away.

What was the last movie you watched? That one with Kevin Spacey as the guy in the mental facility who thought he was from another planet. Maybe he was. Or not. It ended ambiguously. I was bemused.

Do you wear contacts? No, I wear bifocals. And they’re not working so well these days. I guess it’s way past time for an eye exam and new specs. Sigh.

Where was the last place you went besides your house? The tiny local post office a few blocks away. I needed stamps so I could mail a bill payment. The postal worker at the counter was very friendly and had a nice smile, which he used freely. I was pleasantly surprised, so I gave him my smile in return. And so the world turns.

What are you wearing? Don’t laugh. It IS noon now, after all. I’m wearing warm, comfy, black-watch-plaid flannel pajama bottoms and a very old, holey, Natalie McMaster "In My Hands" T-shirt.

What’s one thing you’ve learned this year? I’m much stronger, physically and mentally, than I would have believed.

What do you usually order from Starbucks? I rarely go there, unless it’s to meet my buddy J. When I do, though, I get a small mocha or a chai latte. The merchandise – the coffee cups, the coffeemaking paraphernalia, the music CDs, even the little tins of mints – always tempt me. “Waste your money!” it yells at me. It’s terrible. I have to tell myself to be strong before I walk through the door.

Ever had someone sing to you? Yes. When my daughter was six and we were living in Germany, we heard some music through the window of our third story flat one winter morning. We went out on the balcony. There on the sidewalk below was a very old man, dressed in a threadbare overcoat, a wool cap and baggy old clothes, playing an accordion. He saw us standing up there, turned our way, bowed and started playing a new song, singing to us in German. We were both mesmerized. Charmed. He sang two songs for us. We made him a cup of hot cocoa and took it down to him, along with all the German change I had in my wallet – about four Deutschmarks, I think. It was just lovely, one of those special moments that comes along now and then over the course of a lifetime. I’ll never forget that wonderful old man and listening to him sing to us in the cold.

Have you ever fired a gun? Yes, but only at target ranges. I fired an M-16 semi-automatic rifle in Air Force basic training, and then years later fired a sniping rifle (and hit a distant target on my first try, which was sobering), a .22 pistol, and a Magnum that kicked so hard when it fired I nearly knocked myself out with it. Except for the M-16, I fired the guns as research for a story I was writing at the time.

Are you missing someone? My Dad.

Favorite TV show? The only TV I watch is Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, and that’s only occasionally. So I guess that’s my favorite. I’m one of those annoying, self-righteous people who hate television and won’t watch it unless forced. Sorry.

What do you have an obsession with? Writing.

Has anyone ever said you looked like a celeb? Not even once. When I was a kid, I thought I looked a little like Hayley Mills. Now I'm not so sure.

Who would you like to see right now? My daughter.

Ever had a near death experience? No, and I’d rather not. I can just imagine the medical bills.

Are you afraid of falling in love? Not afraid, but I’d be very, very wary.

Have you ever been caught doing something you weren’t supposed to? No. I’m either really clever or deadly boring.

Has anyone you were really close to passed away recently? My Dad died in 2005, and my aunt and uncle died, several months apart, in 2007. It’s very strange knowing I’ll never see any of them again. Most of the time, I don’t think about it, but once in a while something will bring them all to mind, and I’ll miss them. Sharply, hopelessly, and with love. And then I move on, as we do.

What’s something that really bugs you? Hypocrisy.

Taco Bell or Burger King? When I was in my twenties, I liked Taco Bell better. Burger King was (and still is) off the list because I got violently sick right after eating a Whopper one time. I don’t think it was the burger that did it – I was coming down with the stomach flu, as it turned out – but for me, it ruined Burger King burgers for life. Today, I don’t eat fast food, period. It makes me fat.

Next time you will kiss someone? Does the cat count? I’ll probably kiss his fuzzy head several times today. Mr. Wren will get a few kisses, too, if he’s nice.

Favorite baseball team? Don’t have one. I’ve loathed baseball ever since I found out there was no half-time entertainment to relieve the tedium.

Ever call a 1-900 phone number? No.

Nipple or Nose rings? Argggh! Dang, both would hurt waaay too much. I had to be tricked into getting my ears pierced, you know. I'm a total wuss.

What’s the longest time you’ve gone without sleep? Years and years ago, when I was taking part in an Air Force training exercise, I stayed awake for about 48 hours straight. It’s a very odd feeling, that. I didn’t like it.

Last time you went bowling? In 1989, at the bowling alley on Karl Schurz Kaserne, in Bremerhaven, Germany. I rolled many, many gutterballs and two actual strikes!

Where is the weirdest place you have slept? In the dark, creaky wooden hold of a tall ship docked at the Embarcadero in San Francisco. I was doing a story for the newspaper about a group of local fifth-graders who were taking part in an historical “experience” during which they acted as the “crew” of this beautiful old schooner for 24 hours. The ship was authentic and had carried cargo along the West Coast until around 1910. I didn’t sleep in the ship’s hold alone, though – I shared it with 23 exhausted, overexcited, giggly kids and one very grouchy, 350-pound newspaper photographer.

Who did you last speak with on the phone? Mr. Wren, as I roamed the aisles at Costco searching desperately for the restroom.

What does your last received text message say? “New blog!” It was from my daughter, who writes the blog, Dream of the Dragon.

What’s the closest orange object to you? A pillar candle that , when lit, smells delightfully like cinnamon. It makes me think of autumn. Now I’m going to have to light it, you know.

15 October 2008

What's ... that smell?

The city down the mountain from me, in whose suburbs I did most of my growing up, has made the national news.

Oh, joy.

It would be nice if Sacramento had attracted the nation’s attention over something benign, like the Governator’s camp-outs in a big tent on the capitol lawn, early in his regime, so he could enjoy his cigars without breaking California anti-smoking laws. Or because there’d been a large tomato-truck spill on the freeway. The Sacramento Valley provides a good portion of the country with fresh tomatoes, tomato sauce and tomato paste, you see. This time of year, the semis piled high with red tomatoes are everywhere.

But no. It was nothing so mundane as salsa-makings smushed all over the freeway. My home town hit the national news today because, along with several other images nearly as bad, the Sacramento GOP put the disgusting, fear-and-hate-mongering image above on its website.

When I learned about it this morning, I was appalled, even ashamed. But not surprised.

I tried to leave Sacramento, and California, for good back in 1978. There were lots of reasons: The Sacramento Valley is sweltering hot in the March-through-October summer, and I hate the heat. That was reason Number One. Two: Back then there wasn’t much in the way of culture in Sacramento (and there’s not much more now). I’d decided I wanted some. Third, the suburbs were becoming increasingly unattractive, with strip-mall after strip-mall stretching as far as the eye could see. It was boring. Unattractive. Soul-deadening. Today you have to drive nearly 20 miles in any direction to escape the sprawl. Another reason was that I wanted my independence. I wanted to go far away from my family and see if I could make a life for myself.

And finally, there was this: An underlying sense of small-mindedness permeated Sacramento and the region. Like a whiff of sulfur, it disturbed me. But if they noticed it at all, most locals seemed inexplicably proud of that ugly, floating darkness that loomed just out of sight, but was there all the same.

To get away from it, I joined the military – a move you’d think would shape my young mind in a most conservative way. And the military is conservative. But back then, it wasn’t necessarily a political conservatism. Instead, it was, and is, an excellent, working example of successful integration and diversity. Within its ranks everyone had one common goal: to serve and protect our country. It didn’t matter whether you were a Democrat or a Republican. Or any other.

Joining the Air Force forced me out of Sacramento. And believe me, I immersed myself in that new, breath-of-fresh-air environment with enthusiasm, working and living with people of all colors, religions, cultures and social statuses, all of them from my own country. Sure, it wasn’t perfect. But it was just what I’d hoped for, and needed, even though I chose in the end not to make the military my career.

A few years later I moved to Germany, where I worked for the U.S. Army and the Department of Defense as a civilian. There I met and lived with and learned from an entire world of diverse people. Being exposed to them, to different languages, different cultures and different surroundings, even different histories, shaped my eager mind in ways I’d never have dreamed of before. I loved being a part of that fascinating hodge-podge of cultures and people. It fed something in me that had been hungry for a very long time.

I did a lot more growing up. I became a confident adult, far more sure of myself and my place in the world. And I’d grown politically, too. I voted for the first time while I was living in Germany, using an absentee ballot to cast my vote for Bill Clinton. My exposure to the larger world had turned me from a politically ignorant and apathetic person into a very sure Democrat.

But circumstances kept sending me back home in spite of my wanting to set my roots elsewhere.
I left Germany, with huge reluctance, when the Army post I worked at closed during the military drawdown of the late 80s and early 90s. I divorced, finding myself once again a single working mother. My family, including aunts and uncles on both sides, still lived in Sacramento. My parents were growing older. Living closer to them seemed the right thing to do.

By then, Sacramento’s old, festering stink was a lot stronger. So I just held my nose and, in time, remarried and settled in the mountains east of the city, far enough away not to be part of it, but close enough to visit my aging family members.

I like my little house and my rural, way-out-in-the-country community. The summer heat isn’t quite so bad up here, and the seasons are more distinct. The pollution isn’t as bad, either. When I was employed, my job was within commuting distance, but it was still a good 10 miles outside of the city. I liked my job. It kept me busy and distracted from the things I’d disliked about the Sacramento region all those years ago.

Still, it was hard sometimes to accept that creeping darkness, that narrowness of mind that still formed the undertone to life here. That ugly … smell.

Now, the stench is nearly overpowering. It has even reached up here, into the mountains. This county was, during the last presidential election, 80 percent Republican. It’s almost all white. I think there are, like, two Negroes in the whole county. The population of Latinos is a little larger than that, as there’s a lot of agricultural work around here. It’s a far cry from what I grew accustomed to while I was in or working with the military. But most people here don’t talk much about politics, and a good number don’t bother to vote at all. Most of those who do are Republicans.

My cousin, a suburban/city boy to his bones, told me once that he and his friends considered those of us who live up here in the mountains to be hillbillies of the “Deliverance” variety. Like me, he’s a Democrat. He lives in Sacramento and works for a Democratic legislator. But he won’t come up here to visit. I think he’s afraid the Republicans who live here may know what he is and … what, attack him? I laughed when he told me that.

I’m not laughing anymore. What the Republican Party has turned into is ugly. It’s filled with fear, with hate, and with barely disguised violence. It’s repressive and wants to be oppressive. It’s intolerant. It vilifies the “other.”

Under pressure, the Sacramento GOP has taken the hatemongering images off its website. But the stench remains and will remain until the way people think begins to change. I’m glad the Republicans are about to finally lose power in this nation. For 30 years, they’ve turned Americans against each other when what we needed to do was learn to live and work together for the common good.

Barack Obama couldn’t have come into his own at a better time for America.

Note: This video has been out for a couple of weeks, but I only got around to watching it this morning. The speaker is the AFL-CIO's Richard Trumka, and he's talking about racism, fear, and intolerance. It's nice to know that there are people out there like him, speaking the truth and working to make the world a better place for all of us. Watch the video. It will be worth your time.

10 October 2008

Sturm und Drang

I always know that fall has finally arrived here in the Northern California mountains when my Dr. Bronner's liquid soap turns from clear to cream-colored. Means the indoor temperature has dropped to 55 degrees – or below.

And indeed, that's what I found when I got into a hot shower this morning.

You'd think I'd know from the signs everyone else in the country goes by: cooler temperatures, the leaves turning fall colors on the trees, flocks of Canada geese headed south, the bloody calendar.

But here in California, even at 3,200 feet above sea level, these things take a little longer to happen. I've known the temp to break over 95 degrees in mid-October. I don't usually make my first woodstove fire until November, after waiting a few weeks to be sure that it's going to be chilly enough all day that the heat from the stove won't force us, sweating and swearing, out of the house by the mid-afternoon. Instead, Mr. Wren and I just break out the warmer clothes. Shirts with long sleeves, maybe sweatpants. My favorite warm, fuzzy socks on my feet, slipped snug into my wool slippers. Nice. See, since turning over the half-century-mark in my personal lifetime calendar, I get cold feet. Up 'til then, you could catch me barefooted or in sandals almost year-round.

But today, I know autumn is here. When I reached through the billows of steam in the shower for the Dr. Bronner's Lavender Soap, it was that milky color, rather than the clear amber I've grown used to seeing since, oh, around March. This pleases me, though my fingers are freezing.

I choose my shower soap according to my mood. It was sweet, feminine and flowery this morning. Tomorrow, though, I might choose the peppermint soap, as my mood will still be sweet but sharp, with a bit of burn and zing tossed in.

Or is that Sturm und Drang? Certainly, in the world outside my little house, the words "storm and stress" are a good way to describe the general mood. In politics, the McCain/Palin campaign continues to rile the crowds that come to see them speak, using words against their opponents Obama and Biden that turn crowds into mindless mobs. That a man that was once seen as honorable would use these tactics in a desperate bid for power is not only disgusting, it's frightening.

In other news, it seems that the American – and indeed the world's – economy is collapsing. Everyday people like you and me aren't just losing their homes or closing their eyes when the groceries are rung up now; they're losing their life savings. They're losing the money they hoped to retire on one day. Suddenly, next year's vacation isn't possible. Perhaps there will never be another vacation, period. Instead of looking forward to a time when we might finally relax and put our feet up after working hard for 45 years or more, we'll just have to keep on working. And many of us won't be able to. There might not be jobs. We might be physically unable. This is all frightening, too.

I know I have a Pollyanna-ish tendency to look for the bright side in everything. It's part of my nature, something I just can't seem to control. I stay calm when things turn chaotic. I look for the way over, under, or around obstacles. I compromise. I do my best to live by the Golden Rule, and I hope that the other people I encounter will do the same.

And I hope to be able to continue living that way, in spite of everything. I know we've got some hard – very hard – times ahead. We'll have to change a lot about the way we live now. We'll have to rethink what's important to us, and try our best to reach a helping hand out to those who are even less fortunate than we are. All my life, I've been told that this is what Americans do. When the going gets tough, the tough get going. I believe we'll do it again, which is why I'm planning to vote for Obama. His philosophy rings true to me, and if it's idealistic, so be it.

We've seen what unfettered power, greed, and dispassion toward others brings to all of us. It seems autumn has arrived. And the winter will be long and hard. But like all people, all over the world, from time out of mind, we'll set our hopes on the spring and summer. They'll come. They always do.