30 July 2008

On old-fartedness ...

My last post regarding the three young doctors who crowded into the exam room for my breast biopsy yesterday got me thinking.

More specifically, it got me thinking about age.

I was unembarrassed by the presence of two extra young men during what was a rather intimate procedure. We’re taught from a very young age not to expose certain parts of our body in public and in particular, to the opposite sex, unless we’re legal adults in private circumstances – and preferably married, as well. That early training snapped right into place, so that my instant first reaction was one of silent mortification. And as I said, it passed.

Now, these young men were doctors, and it was obvious that two of them were learning to perform the procedure. While I hadn’t been aware before they arrived that this was teaching hospital, the nurse informed me of the fact afterwards. And during the procedure, I figured it out for myself.

Nevertheless, the doctor who did the actual needle-sticking and tissue removal did the job gently, competently and with both care and compassion. I wasn’t concerned then, and I’m not now.

They’re doctors. They see far more intimate parts of both genders, daily, than just my one, 51-year-old mammary. It’s just part of the job. And yet I couldn’t help but be struck by their youth.

As they spoke to me and to each other, I was reminded of my 33-year-old cousin Jack, who was born a couple of years before I joined the Air Force. This young man, raised in California, talks like others of his generation – fast and cool, with that modified Valley accent that makes him sound hip and sort of jaded. He’s a handsome, stylish young fellow too, and he’s aware of his looks. He works hard to stay fit and strong. He’s a bit hyperactive, he’s super-smart and he’s kind down to his toes. And last summer, he became the proud daddy of a beautiful baby boy who looks just like he did when he was little.

Watch out, Jack. Heheh. Your time is coming.

When Jack was four he was a big Star Wars fan. Most kids were. He thought that because I was in the Air Force, I must have been on a first-name-basis with Luke Skywalker and Han Solo. Man, was he wowed. I didn’t set him straight – it was too much fun. And on a visit home during my first year, I brought my military-issue flashlight with me. It had a long yellow cone attached to the light end to make us airmen-in-training visible in our dark-green fatigues when we were marching around at oh-dark-thirty or after sundown. I gave the flashlight to my little cousin and told him, in earnest tones, that it was a light-saber. He was overawed. It tickled me to see his big grin and wide eyes, and it made me feel good to be so completely, unabashedly admired.

The memory of that moment is crystal-clear for me, but of course, Jack no longer thinks I can fly a starfighter. But it doesn’t seem like it happened nearly 30 years ago. My own 30s seem like they were, oh, last month. But 21 years have passed since I turned 30, and my daughter just turned 27 herself. It's hard for me to believe that it's been 16 years since I worked in Germany for the U.S. Army as a civilian. Heh. I was in my 30s.

It’s stunning.

And now, physically, I’m squarely middle-aged. My body has changed – I’m much heavier, I’m not as strong as I once was, I have laugh-crinkles around my eyes and a hint of that dreaded crepey skin on my neck. I run across the occasional gray hair. Gravity has, sadly, taken its toll on my figure. Some of that, like the extra weight and general unfitness, I’m working on and I’m changing, though the process is frustratingly slow. I celebrate each shed pound and extra half-mile covered on my walk, but I know that achieving a more healthy weight and body fitness, while good things in themselvs, won't make me young again. Some of the changes in my body are the inevitable result of age. Some of them are even beautiful, in their way.

Oddly, I can accept gray hair and wrinkles more easily than accepting that the gaggle of doctors I've gone to for health care are no older than Jack.

So I’ve been thinking about all of this. And I’ve decided that the reason I was so struck by our relative ages yesterday is that my mind is still 30. Maybe a lot younger.

Turning 50 shook me a little because of the number. Fifty years! Five decades! A half-century! It was a red-letter year simply because, well, I’d survived that long. I didn’t think of it in terms of physical age.

And until recently, I still didn’t. I’ve prided myself on not being shocked by the younger generation with their tattoos and body piercings. Their styles aren’t mine, but I understand why the girls wear hip-huggers (the word dates me right there) and the boys wear baggy pants that make them look like they’re giant toddlers with heavily loaded diapers.

Wait. I don’t understand that one. It just cracks me up.

Instead, I get a sort of gleeful satisfaction out of the fact that, like the 70s fashions I once wore and loved (and which I see now as some of the ugliest, dumbest-looking clothes ever), someday, today’s young people are going to gaze at pictures of themselves and say in disbelief, “OMG did I really wear THAT?”

I’ve heard all my life that old age is all in the mind. Who hasn’t heard some older relative say, sagely, "I might look 70, but I'm young in my head." Or, wistfully like my Mom said today, “I wish I was still only 51.” I’m getting older, and the evidence is becoming increasingly hard to argue with, but my mind is still as young as it ever was. How about that.

OK, I’m just rambling on now, so I'll stop. Because isn’t it just old farts who ramble on? And on?


P.S.: The next President of the United States will probably be younger than me. OMG.

29 July 2008

Three handsome men

Today was not an ordinary day.

Started in the wee hours with a two-hour drive to Vacaville and Travis AFB with my sweet grrlfriend J in tow. Parked at the USAF hospital there, found the Women’s Health Clinic and had a biopsy done on the lump(s!) the VA docs discovered in my left breast a couple of months ago.

Despite long needles, a small slice through the skin, and several metal-bite mouthfuls of my living self drawn from way down inside, I didn’t feel a thing. Numbed, of course. Thank goodness.

And there’s nothing more to say right now. I’ll know whether the lump(s!) are benign or malignant within a week, possibly sooner. My fingers are crossed for good news.

I’m home now. Numb is wearing off, and I’ve an icepack stuffed in my bra. I’m a little sore, but so far, so good, and I don’t expect it to get much worse.

Here’s the fun part (I always try to look for the bright side):

After the ultrasound tech located the lump(s!) with her scanner, and cleaned the area where the needle would go, the doctor walked in. To my surprise, he was young, quite handsome and dressed in a black T-shirt and camouflaged pants. Ahah… active duty Air Force! I experienced a moment of embarrassment. After all, I’m not accustomed to baring my breasts – one or both – to men 20 years my junior, even if more people of various ages and genders have seen my naked chest in the last three months than in the last 30 years. But I got over it. My young looker of a doc gave me a big smile, shook my hand, explained the procedure and then told me that his colleagues would be coming in any minute.


Whoa. Two more young, very handsome men dressed just like him walked in. Two more big, friendly smiles. Me and my bared breast were thinking, what? What? Shouldn’t we be, like, mortified or something?

But I wasn’t. Friendly as they were, they were also all business. They got to work. The first young man was the doctor who did the actual procedure. The second doctor assisted. And the third stood in the background, watching the whole thing, making quiet suggestions and offering advice.

I admired their nice faces and their nice muscles when I wasn’t watching the surreal action on the ultrasound screen. Fascinating. All of it.

And then it was done, and I got more big smiles and praise for being such a great patient, and then they were gone and I was putting the top half of my clothes back on and J and I were on our way home.

She said, “Why didn’t you tell them you needed me in there with you for moral support? I would have loved gazing at three handsome men for 20 minutes! I’m so jealous!”

And so we laughed. Found a place to have some breakfast along the way home, after which J would no longer allow me to drive, as I was a bit giddy and distracted. Gosh, wonder why?

I’m still smiling though, several hours later. And trying not to worry.

23 July 2008

McCain would ration VA medical care

John McCain, a Vietnam war veteran and POW who has supported Bush Administration cuts in VA health care funding and service for veterans in the past, has a new bright idea about how to save America money.

"Republican presidential candidate John McCain’s call to "concentrate veterans’ health care on those with combat injuries" is raising questions about the Arizona senator’s commitment to funding the ailing VA system."

Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., said a system that treats combat veterans and non-combat veterans differently is inherently unfair. “We can care for both combat veterans and non-combat veterans if we just decide it is an important thing to do,” Filner said Thursday, one day after McCain talked at a Dover, N.H., town hall meeting about the need to concentrate veterans’ health care on people with injuries that 'are a direct result of combat.'"

It's infuriating that people like Bush and McCain would even consider trying to economize by refusing or delaying health care to veterans who've served their country honorably and in good faith while at the same time spending billions on a war that was started through dishonesty, hubris and greed.

Count me in among those who responded to this news with an emphatic "You've got to be shitting me." I learned about McCain's ill-considered idea at the Carpetbagger Report website. I read the write up there, then the article it referred to, and then the comments. Before I was through, I submitted a comment myself:

"I’m a 51-year-old female veteran who served in the Air Force during peacetime. Once out of the military I got medical insurance through my employers. All was good.

"But now, I’ve been unemployed for 18 months. When I was laid off from my job, I lost my medical benefits and was unable to afford health insurance on my own. After more than a year, I finally turned to the VA for medical care, fearing the consequences should I become ill before I could find a new job that could offer me medical insurance as part of a benefits package.

"I am charged a co-pay (comparable to that I paid when I had medical insurance) for prescription medications and an additional fee if I am referred to specialists within the VA system. It’s very fair. I would be glad to pay more, within my means, if they should ask me to. I also want to point out that the vast majority of military veterans, regardless of when they served or whether they were injured during their service, never turn to the VA for their medical care. Most, like me, pay into the health insurance industry like other Americans and only turn to the VA as a stop-gap measure or as a last resort.

"The VA doctors found a suspicious lump in my breast during my initial physical. I will soon undergo a biopsy to discover whether the lump is malignant. Chances are good it won’t be, but if it is, I am deeply thankful that the VA is still allowed to fulfill the promise it made to me — and to all military veterans — to care for us in the future should the need arise.

"This medical care just may save my life.

"So I’m appalled that John McCain would even consider further cutting VA medical services. America’s all-voluntary military serves in peacetime and war, knowing that they could be called at any moment to risk their lives for their country. I was lucky. I served in the late 70s and early 80s and was never called upon to risk my life. But had I been, I would have. It was what I’d pledged to do.

"I have nothing but deep respect for the soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines serving now in Iraq and Afghanistan. They deserve our unbridled support, and they certainly deserve good, quality health care from the VA medical system should they need it. But so should the thousands and thousands of other veterans who’ve served and who have also made sacrifices, whether they served in peace or during war.

"Would Mr. McCain now deny my husband, who is a disabled veteran, or me, the medical care we were promised when we raised our right hand and took the oath just because we weren’t wounded on a battlefield? Would he deny care to the thousands and thousands of Vietnam and Korean War vets, most of whom also were not wounded in battle, simply because they also didn’t receive battlefield injuries during their service?

"American veterans come in all shapes and sizes, colors and genders. While I believe that those who were wounded in battle should always get a respectful and cheerful pass to the front of the line, all veterans deserve equal care. And all of them should receive the very best care a proud nation can provide for them. This was the promise our nation made to us in return for our willingness to lose our lives in defense of our country and fellow Americans.

"Shame on John McCain, one of America’s most famous veterans, for forgetting that all veterans took a terrible risk the day they joined up. Shame on him for suggesting that VA benefits be cut when America is spending millions of dollars every single day, paying for the war in Iraq, which did not need to be fought. Those millions could easily cover the costs of caring for America’s veterans, many times over."

21 July 2008

Filling time

Just read Blue Girl’s latest, in which she tells of an encounter with her Mother-in-Law and how said MiL always asks an out-of-the-blue question before even saying hello, every single time they meet up or talk on the phone.

My mother does something similar to this, except I always know what question she’ll ask. It’s the same every time.

“Hi. What are you doing?”

I’m always glad when I’m in the middle of doing something actually constructive when she calls. Then I can say, truthfully, “Hi Mom! I’m scrubbing the toilet!” Or “Hi, Mom, I’m just washing up dishes.”

Unfortunately, I’m usually not doing much that’s very constructive, at least to my Mom. Which leaves me grasping for something to say. I don’t like to lie, so I say, “Oh, nothing much. What are YOU doing?”

And we move on from there.

I’ve given some thought as to why the “What are you doing?” question always zaps me. See, as I was growing up, my Mom never sat around. She always had something constructive to do. She was scrubbing floors or vacuuming carpets or getting dinner ready or cleaning bathrooms. If she wasn’t doing that, it was her job to make sure that I was doing something constructive myself. This could take the form of “Clean your room up.” Or, “get that upstairs cleaned up.” Sometimes it was “Have you done your homework? Go do it.”

I’m sure she had some downtime. Everyone needs that from time to time. When I was living with her, I was gone most of the day in school, so for all I know, she flopped on the sofa when Dad headed off to the office and my sister and I caught the school bus and watched soaps all day, only to leap up and start toothbrushing the corners five minutes before we got home.

Yeah, I’ll bet that’s how it went.

Anyway, living with the neatnik that was my Mom left me, as an adult, with terrible guilt if I’m not doing something constructive. That means if she calls now and catches me perusing Sprawling Ramshackle Compound instead of steam-cleaning the linoleum, or reading Rushdie’s Satanic Verses instead of rearranging the Dreaded Pantry, I’m fucked.

Mom claims she’s not a neatnik anymore. She doesn’t make her bed every morning (I believe this is a healthy, truly a heroic swipe at the regimented Housework Mantra she’s lived with all her life). She insists her house is a mess. Well, I’ve seen her place. Her everyday surroundings are immaculate. I look for dust and can’t find it. Everything is in its place. And it’s like that whenever I visit, even unannounced.

My place, on the other hand, is a jumble of clutter. The floors are not clean. There is dust. There is floating doghair. My bed gets made every other day or so. Believe it or not, this is a vast improvement over the last 34 years of my life as an independent adult. When Mom is coming over, I go into a frenzy of last-minute Housewifery, I dust, I vacuum, I put away all the stuff that’s laying around. I know it’s not enough. I know that when nshe walks in, she’ll smell the dead stuff in the fridge that’s been there too long, the unmopped floor and the dogsnot-smeared slider. My kitchen is almost always clean, but it is not and will never be clean enough to match her standards.

I know she’s just dying to shriek, “Clean your room!”

Our perception of “constructive” is just different, that’s all. For me, “constructive” activity is any activity that occupies my mind and teaches me something new. It can be reading the news on the Intertubes or making yet another attempt at the Great American Novel. It can be fiddling around with haiku verses or laughing out loud at a Daily Show clip. Once in a while, “constructive” is synonymous with “housework” but that’s rare. Housework bores the living daylights out of me. While I enjoy a clean house, and I’m inordinately proud of myself if I achieve it, as a daily activity I find it severely lacking. I can always, always find something I’d rather be doing.

Before I was unemployed, Mom’s question “What are you doing” didn’t bother me. I worked 10 hours a day, often many more than that, and my at-home time was filled mainly with trying to find something to cook for dinner, or grocery shopping, or doing the laundry for the next week. I couldn’t not do those things. The house might be a mess, but I had an excuse, then, since I was working for money 50-60 hours a week.

Now, I haven’t got that excuse. Each day comes to me wide open. What will I do today?

Send out resumes. Go to a doctor appointment. Stop by the country vegetable shack up the road for fresh tomatoes and cukes, apples and broccoli. Read my favorite blogs. Write. Write. Write. Climb the long driveway to the mailbox. Pay bills. Think up something for dinner and get started on it with plenty of time during which to enjoy the process. Pet the cat. Feed the dog. Inquire as to Mr. Wren’s general health and mood, and adjust my comments accordingly. Read. Load the dishwasher and start it.

Note that with the exception of loading the dishwasher, housework isn’t on the list.

At 51 years old, I’m still the rebellious daughter, the one who just won’t tow the line. And when Mom calls to ask what I’m doing, the 18-year-old who moved out for good, finally having had enough of being told to clean her room, is the one who answers the question. And she’s humiliated if she can’t think of anything to say except, “nothing much.”

I always used to wonder when I’d finally grow up and feel like an adult. I don’t wonder any more. Now I know the answer is “never.”

11 July 2008

Whiner alert

I’m a pretty pragmatic person. I dislike whining. Or “whinging” as our friends in Old Blimey spell it. (What’s with that “g” anyway?) I try not to whine, or whinge, if I can help it.

But just the other day, John McCain’s economic adviser Phil Gramm called all Americans, including me, “whiners” because we seem to have economic recessional delusions and just can’t seem to understand that really, everything is A-OK, you know? Never mind that the price of oil has streaked like a Photoshopped Iranian rocket to $145 per barrel, making a gallon of gas in these parts of California cost roughly $4.50 a gallon, give or take 20 cents or so. Give, actually. I put ten gallons of gas in my 1988 Celica last week and it cost me $44. Diesel, which I don’t use but the truckers who keep our store shelves stocked with food and other goods do, is up to well over $5 per gallon. That means that a lot of them are going out of the trucking business. Which means … well. More unemployment, to start, but also much higher prices everywhere you look.

Yesterday morning I went to the grocery store to pick up, mainly, fresh vegetables for salads. It’s been so hot here for the last week that by 3 in the afternoon, my kitchen thermometer hovers at 82 and rises, slowly, until around 7 p.m., when the sun gets low enough that the house can cool down. No, we don’t have central air conditioning (couldn’t swing the utility bill if we did), but we do have a swamp cooler and house fans. Once the outside temp rises above 95, the swamp cooler can’t keep up anymore, and the fans just blow the hot air around.

So as you can imagine, cooking at a hot stove isn’t a particularly attractive activity right now. Instead, we eat a lot of salads and drink milkshake-like smoothies made with frozen fruit, ice and lowfat plain yogurt. But the crisper bin in the fridge was empty and we were looking at our last half-carton of yogurt. Time to burn some gas driving to the grocery store.

I bought the veggies: 2 bags of carrots, 6 cucumbers, 8 roma tomatoes (grown in California and not on the Salmonella list, yet), a couple of bags of Romaine lettuce, a packet of edamame soybeans, 3 ears of white corn in the husks, and because I’ve developed a raging sweet tooth (for the first time in my life) since being told I’m within a hair of being diabetic, some apples, white peaches, bananas, mangoes and red grapes. That’s so I don’t buy the greatly preferable Snicker’s bars instead.

I also got 4 big cartons of plain lowfat yogurt, some lowfat cream cheese, a block of cheddar cheese, a bottle of Caesar salad dressing, rice vinegar, a packet of Thai Ginger Soup to try out when the weather cools down (a lot), a wee thingie of bobby pins and, in a fit of what-the-hell, a pair of black flipflops with rubber soles and glitzy rhinestones on the straps for $7.99. I mean, ya gotta live a little once in a while, right?

The total at the checkout counter was – wait for it -- $83.17.

Allow me to pause as I catch my breath.


Now, I’m aware I could have saved a few bucks by buying the Romaine lettuce whole, rather than in those convenient bags. And really, the cream cheese was just unnecessary, except there’s Wasa cracker-bread in the pantry waiting for it. I could have bought the off-brand cheddar, too, rather than Tillamook, which I love beyond all reason. That would’ve shaved about a buck off the total.

Seems that from now on, looking harder for the bargains is what I’ll have to do, because this is getting serious, folks. The fruit and vegetables I purchased – which by themselves added up to $48.85 – will be gone in a matter of days. The other stuff will last longer, and I’ve got a pantry full of dried beans and pastas, and a freezer stocked with frozen fish and chicken. But fresh food for three or four days alone now costs what a grocery cart full of a week’s supplies, including canned goods and boxed mixes (which I no longer consume) used to cost.

And it’s not going to get better. Ever.

Well, I’m a grown-up. I can tighten my belt. Hell, I need to if I’m ever gonna do those sparkly flipflops justice. (Think Auntie Mame. Wait. No, don’t.) But the high cost of oil will also affect my utility bill, even if I am sweltering all summer and doing some serious layering in the winter. It’s already high. I can only imagine what it will look like this month, hot as it’s been. The poor old swamp cooler has been running day and night. And our water bill! Oh, my.

Still, for now, we’re managing, Mr Wren and I. We bought our house in 1997 with a conventional, 30-year mortgage and no funny stuff. Our monthly payment hurts, but these days, renting a house would cost us quite a lot more. We’ve already bought three cords of firewood for the winter, taking advantage of the lower, summertime price, and now we just have to get up the oomph to stack it all ready to use.

I’m not whining, Mr. Gramm. But I’m also not stupid. Or delusional. The Dow has lost, as of 12:30 p.m. as I write this here in California, 132 points and it looks like the Feds are going to have to bail out Freddie Mae and Freddie Mac, which have lost more than $11 billion since the housing crisis began. They don’t want to bail them out, like they did Bear Stearns, but they can’t allow Freddie and Fannie to implode, either. And who will pay for that? You and me. Oil rose to $145.08/barrel. Here in Northern California, people are defaulting on their mortgages and declaring bankruptcy all over the place. For sale signs fade in the glaring sun as no one buys. (I could say ‘I told you so’, because some of us saw this coming years ago and started running around with our hair on fire, but I won’t.)

And yesterday I spent $85 for a couple of bags of groceries.

Mr. Wren and I received our “government tax rebate” check last week. You know, the one the Bush administration hopes we’ll spend on Cheez Whiz, Rice-a-Roni dinners, iPods and flat-screen TVs (and OK, OK, blingy flipflops!) to help kick-start the economy. We kicked that pink-and-green check right into savings, where it’s losing value as I write.

See, we might need it for fresh vegetables and yogurt before very long. But I’m not whining.

10 July 2008

I knew that ...

Bubs is Will Riker. Heheheh. I'm just who I guessed I might be.

Your results:
You are Deanna Troi

Deanna Troi
An Expendable Character (Redshirt)
Jean-Luc Picard
Geordi LaForge
Will Riker
Mr. Scott
Beverly Crusher
Leonard McCoy (Bones)
James T. Kirk (Captain)
Mr. Sulu
You are a caring and loving individual.
You understand people's emotions and
you are able to comfort and counsel them.

Click here to take the Star Trek Personality Test

09 July 2008

Kind of scary ...

‘Twas another terrible air day here in Northern California.

No, it’s not the millions of cars on the highways, even though I was in one of them (without any other alternative) although that’s not helping. It’s the wildfire smoke again.

I drove down into the valley this morning to pick up my mom in the lower foothills. When I left my own house up in the mountains, it was only 9 a.m., but already the temperature was in the low 90s. It looked a bit hazy and I could smell smoke, faintly, on the air as I got into the car.

By the time I arrived at Mom’s place, 20 miles down-mountain, the haze was much thicker. I picked her up and we headed to Sacramento Metro Airport, where my uncle, who lives in Alexandria, VA, was due in at 1 p.m.

The airport – and Sacramento itself – sits almost dead-center in the Sacramento Valley, part of the much larger Central Valley of California. The lower the elevation, the worse the smoke got. When we arrived at the airport at noon the sky was a dull, gray-brown, and the smoke was so thick you could taste it.

In spite of the smoke, which was blocking the most of the sun, it was also incredibly hot, well into triple digits. A hot, useless wind was blowing.

“It’s almost kind of scary,” Mom said as we walked into the terminal. I agreed. I’ve seen smoke this thick before, but it was because I was very near a wildfire, chasing fire trucks for the paper. To see it cover an entire region like this is scary.

My uncle’s plane arrived. His first words when he saw us were, “You wouldn’t believe what it looks like from the air!” We got his suitcase and headed for the parking garage, trying not to breathe. Mom already had a headache, and I was getting one. My sinuses were clogged and my eyes were burning.

During the drive back, the air was even worse. The smoke had gotten thicker. It looked like a typical mid-winter day – except it was horrifically hot. We stopped in Folsom for a late lunch. By the time we were back at her house in the foothills, the air quality had worsened to the point it looked like it had at the airport three hours earlier.

On my 40-minute drive up the side of the valley into the higher mountains and home, I kept thinking the air would get better. I’d climb back up out of it. And I was right – it did get better, but only marginally. As I write this, the strange, smoky overcast remains. The sun looks like a pale lemon disk. It can’t break through.

In the summer the Sacramento Valley is typically a problem area for air quality because of its bowl-like nature. High pressure areas build up and stall, the sun glares down, the temperature rises and a phenomenon called an “inversion layer” settles in. The bad air – filled with car exhaust, can’t escape. The wind doesn’t blow. It just gets trapped in the valley where it just gets worse and worse, going nowhere.

Generally, this sort of thing lasts a few days at a time, then the high pressure moves through and the air clears up. There’ve been a few times in recent summers when the inversion layer has formed and stuck for a week or so. But this – this is far worse because there’s thick wildfire smoke mixing with the exhaust fumes to create truly hazardous breathing conditions, even for healthy people.

And there’s nothing, really, that can be done about it. According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, there are still 59 active fires in the state. There were more than 1000 of them burning after the thunderstorms that rolled through roughly two weeks ago, dropping little in the way of rain but zapping us everywhere with dry heat lightning. And they’re saying that the smoke could continue to be a problem until the end of the month, at least. If there’s more dry lightning, then we could be facing seriously bad air until the end of the fire season in October, when the rains finally come.

Trouble is, the last three years or so have been very dry in California, and there’s no guarantee that this season will be any wetter. The vegetation, from sea level to high in the mountains is tinder-dry. A good portion of the Nothern California foothills is chaparral, which is covered in toyon, chamise, Manzanita and buckbrush. It’s difficult to fight fires in it. These are all fire shrubs, meaning that they produce seeds in incredibly hard cases that require fire to burst them open. The branches and leaves of these plants are thick with inflammable oils. They go up like torches and burn ferociously hot. After the fire passes and the earth cools, the hardy seeds germinate and a new chaparral is born.

The community my Mom lives in was built, in the 1970s, right in the middle of steep, hilly chapparal. Needless to say, I worry about her every summer. She, in turn, worries about me up here in the evergreens, where it also hasn’t burned in decades and decades.

Under natural conditions – meaning a California sans people and firefighting equipment – lightning would kindle wildfires each summer, and they’d burn and burn and burn until they burned themselves out, or until the rains finally fell and snuffed them. New forests and new chaparral would eventually take the place of what burned.

But now we’ve built suburbs and stripmalls and McMansions with all this dry, flammable stuff all around them, and so we work hard each summer to put fires out and prevent loss of property and, of course, loss of life. As a result, many areas in California are unnaturally overgrown. Big Sur, where one of the worst wildfires is still burning, hasn’t burned in well over 60 years.

My greatest concern so far this summer has been the poor air quality, and I’m lucky enough to live high enough in the mountains that I’ve only had a few days so far when the smoke was really bad. But this is nothing compared to the loss suffered by those whose homes and businesses have been in the path of this summer’s fires. An area the size of Los Angeles has burned so far. The fire up in Butte County, 85 miles north of Sacramento, burned right through the small town of Concow today, taking 40 homes and 10 outbuildings with it.

For those people, the fires mean something far worse than smoke and a dark sky.

The photo above was taken on Highway 50 headed east, up into the mountains, at 4:20 p.m. July 9, 2008.

05 July 2008

Ukulele Orchestra of GB

Mr Wren gifted me with this little bit of hilarious gorgeousness recently, sending it by email. Little did he know I wouldn't get around to watching it until this morning, just as I recover from my weekly methotrexate life-force-draining. I endure this in hopes of arresting the progression of rhuematoid arthritis in my body, but it just flattens me for about 36 hours each week.

So now, here I am, sipping coffee after being unconscious for 12 hours ... opening my email from the flower-eating, flatulent and goofy, lovable Mr Wren -- and giggling helplessly at the moaning of the wind, the mysterious whistle ... the ooh-AH. Ooh-AH. "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" as interpreted by seemingly serious adults in tuxes playing ukuleles. Oh, my.

Now you get to giggle too. Enjoy.

04 July 2008

The Great Experiment

We've hit a few bumps in the road. The New Millennium has proven, early on, to be full of potholes. But we're still here, still strong, still independent, and we still have more rights, and more freedoms, than many other people in this big old world. It's worth fighting for. It's worth hanging onto.

Now I'm off to shuck fresh corn on the cob and make a fruit salad for the fambly get-together. Happy Independence Day!

Update: Morbo over at Carpetbagger Report put together a thoughtful post about what true patriotism is. Hint: It's not wearing a cheap pin in the shape of the American flag on your lapel.

A taste:
-- "Being a patriot means listening to those with whom one strongly disagrees and respecting their right to make an argument that may seem ill-considered, simplistic or even offensive."
-- "Being a patriot means we extend the full protection of the law to those accused of crimes – even when it looks almost certain that they are guilty."
-- "Being a patriot means understanding that “public” is not a dirty word and that we’re all in this together."
-- "Being a patriot means never accepting a measure of fear from the state."

-- "Finally, being a patriot means being a citizen of the world."

Here, here.

03 July 2008

When Bush hit

Bush Tours America To Survey Damage Caused By His Disastrous Presidency

Morning has broken

I wake gradually to the sound of a strangled rooster crowing.

“Eh-oo-ehhh-arrgh,” he gasps. “Eh-oo-ehhh-arrgh!”

There are still roughly 1,200 fires burning all over California, including the recent and emotionally wrenching one at Big Sur (some of the most beautiful coastline in the world is succumbing to flames), but a swirling high-pressure area over the ocean, high-level winds blowing north and the lower-level, inland-rushing Delta breezes have combined to vastly improve the air quality, at least around here.

So it’s not the wildfire smoke that’s throttling the rooster. “Eh-oo-ehhh-arrgh,” he cries.

My alarm goes off. I reach out and smack it. That pretty, thin, graydawn light flows in the window. I hear robins threeping madly, monotonously, in the laurals. Stellar’s jays shouting and cussing at each other in the evergreens down the hill a bit. And, undaunted, bravely, “Eh-oo-ehhh-arrgh!”

It comes to me, slowly, that of the five chickens we keep, not a single one is a rooster. They’re all laying hens. And although they’re getting a bit long in the tooth (beak? Wattles?) they’re still gifting Mr Wren and me with four or five eggs a day. These, in turn, we gift to friends and family. Truly, there’s nothing like a fresh hen’s egg for brekky.


Because there is no rooster, the only chicken that could be making this strange sound is the one I’ve privately dubbed “Ethel,” the alpha-hen in our coop. Over the years she’s gotten bigger than the other four girls, a robust red matron with strong, scaly yellow legs and an impressive wattle and comb, compared to her sisters.

I’ve thought I’ve heard her doing her damndest to crow before, but I was never sure. I’d hear the sound once, a sort of half-hearted, tentative yodel that made me pause, but only for a moment.

“Eh-oo-ehh-arrgh!” hollers Ethel at the rising sun, clearly stepping boldly into her role as surrogate Rooster-in-Charge. Someone has to do it, after all.

You can’t help but admire her cluck.