Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A Good Reminder

For Christmas, my adult children converted all the videos taken during their childhoods into DVDs.  I can’t stop watching them.  Four-year-old Evan “explaining” pistons, two-year-old Cara singing “Jingle Bells” the real way and also with the dirty words her dad taught her.  Me in high-waisted, stonewashed jeans with front pleats that do unspeakable things to my ass.  Evan playing drums and practicing for karate belt promotions.  Cara walking when she was just shy of nine months.  Both kids skiing like maniacs.  Me and my dog Henry at obedience school.  (What a waste of time that was.)   Family vacations with our great friends the Bruces.
 
An orgy of memory and nostalgia.

My son, who turns twenty-five today, dances in blues clubs five nights out of seven and regularly competes in west-coast swing competitions.  Last week, I said to him, “Isn’t it amazing to see how much time you spent playing drums and doing karate?  And now you don’t do those things anymore.”  (He still skis like a maniac.)  And he said, “Well, but dancing came out of playing drums and doing karate.”

Of course he’s right.  Playing drums exposed him to the intricacy of music, the joy of beat and rhythm.  And karate is all about controlling one’s body in space.

It’s nice to know that the things that gave him pleasure as a boy have morphed into something that has enhanced his life as a man.

It’s a good reminder that we are truly the sum total of all the things we have loved and hated, all that we have accomplished, the places we have been, the books we’ve read, the people we’ve known.  Everything.

Although it kills me to think that I am in any way a product of those jeans.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Mail. The Real Kind.

Remember when getting mail—like, in the metal box out at the curb—was the highpoint of your day?

For me, this was when I was about twelve.  I had a friend named Claudine, who was terribly exotic to me because she had long, dark hair that she wore in a thick braid down her back.  Also, her mother was Belgian and spoke with an accent.  (My mother was from Cleveland.)  Claudine was a brilliant artist who dabbled in calligraphy.  Add to all of this the fact that she had an older sister who introduced her to some of the accoutrements of late-‘60s Berkeley hippiedom: curtains of beads (instead of bedroom doors), incense, peace signs, Simon and Garfunkel records.  We saw each other every day in school, but I always had the feeling that at three o’clock, Claudine walked through an invisible portal and entered a different world where she sat in a garret lit with patchouli-scented candles and nibbled at afternoon snacks of pain au chocolat, brushing her hair until it glistened.

At about this time, my father made me watch a British television series called The Forsyte Saga, an adaptation of the novels of John Galsworthy.  At first, I was furious: The Forsyte Saga was in black and white, and it was on at the same time as Hee Haw.   Shortly, though, I began to be glad for my father’s persistence.  The Forsyte Saga was the very best sort of soap opera, featuring wonderfully drawn characters, magnificent costumes, grand explorations of family and loyalty, love and sex, money and class.  Plus, everyone had a British accent.  For the first—but not the last—time in my life, I was in BBC heaven.

I got Claudine hooked, and pretty soon, we began to write letters to each other, pretending to be various characters from the show.  In our  letters, we became Soames and Irene and Jolyon and Bossiney.  And Claudine’s letters were written in elaborate calligraphic script and featured the added bonus of relevant drawings, often on perfumed tissue paper.  Each envelope was sealed with a dollop of colored, stamped wax.  I couldn’t wait to get home from school and check the mailbox.  On a good day, I might have as many as three letters.

I kept all of Claudine’s letters.  They’re in an old steamer trunk in my garage, along with many others: from Amy, the girl I met at horseback-riding camp, from my father the year I went away to school, from old boyfriends, college roommates, from a girl I met in Washington, D.C. who died of anorexia in her twenties.  I almost never open that trunk, but I can’t imagine throwing away those letters.  They are among my most prized possessions.  They are a window onto my whole life.

I think it is unutterably sad that we don’t write letters anymore.

Monday, October 18, 2010

On Waiting For My Mother To Come Out Of Surgery

My ninety-year-old mother had major surgery this morning.

These are some of the things I thought:

--People talk too quickly and too softly to ninety-year-olds.  Really, they miss half of what you’re saying.

----A ninety-year-old waiting for the anesthesiologist to come talk to her looks vulnerable and small.

--People in hospital waiting rooms just want to sit and not talk.  The woman who kept asking everyone if they wanted coffee should have just shut up and sat down.

--Hospital lighting is not flattering to anyone.

--I really hate sitting close to people I don’t know, especially when they smell of cigarette smoke.

--While I am in the waiting room, I do not want to watch “Family Feud.”

--Or Dr. Oz talk about the lies women tell their gynecologists.

--An hour and a half is a really long time.

--The relief that comes with knowing that a ninety-year-old has survived surgery is short-lived and tempered with a sense that the future is highly uncertain.

--Sometimes it doesn’t help to remind yourself that ninety years is a long, long time to live, and that you are so lucky.  Sometimes, you just have to feel sad.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Road Trip, Days 13-15

Day 13

Mount Rushmore is amazing in the same way that an elephant is.  It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve seen the pictures—the first time you see it up close and in person, you are awed.  There is shock in realizing that something whose image is so familiar, so pedestrian, still reeks of majesty.  You stand there and think of presidents and history and why this flawed country and its strident, self-serving, uneducated, small, stupid people are still the world’s best hope, and it’s only later that you realize you didn’t think once about whether the couple whose picture you took were Democrats or Republicans.  And that is what you—I—came away with: that for once, it didn’t matter.

The Black Hills are thick with evergreens and what I think are birch trees: trunks as thin and white as bones beneath gold, syrupy leaves.   The hills dump you into the Buffalo Gap National Grassland and then, in Wyoming, Thunder Basin National Grassland.
 
It really is an awful lot of grass.
 
The high point of the afternoon was lunch in Lusk, Wyoming.  The café where we stopped was fully decorated for Christmas: plastic garlands were tacked over beams and doorways, and a lit Christmas tree, topped with a white cowboy hat, winked in the corner.  A sign near our table warned, No Firearms.  A really scary looking guy—gaunt, unsmiling, chinless—sat at the next table watching a TV show about some NASCAR driver’s 12,000 sq. foot house.  He didn’t smile or speak until an older woman came in and said, “Well, Ed, how you doin’?”  Then he beamed.  She sat down and they talked about hunting.  I distinctly heard the word “varmints.”  The cashier told us that next weekend, the town would be mobbed.  “Huntin’ season.”  “What do you hunt?” I asked.  “Lots o’ antelope,” she said.  “They gits in my yard, they bug my horses.  You wanna take ‘em out?  Go right ahead. Fine with me.”

(Right over the South Dakota border, but no hint of Scandinavian lilt.  This is cowboy country.)
Now we are in Casper, which is where Robert went to live after high school.  We found the post office where he worked as a mailman, and his first apartment.  (The post office is next door to the Dick Cheney Federal Building.)

He has had a life experience that is so different from my own.  He moved a thousand miles away from home when he was 17 and has supported himself ever since.  No help from anyone.  I am so proud of him.  And so happy to share Wyoming with him, even though Wyoming is practically my least favorite state in the country.  Cowboys and hunting and Dick Cheney and grass are just not my things.

Day 14

I’m tired.  I want to go home.  I don’t want to work out in a hot little hotel gym.  I don’t want to haul my suitcase and my laptop into the elevator.  I don’t want to eat roadhouse food anymore.
 
Today was more Wyoming.  Wyoming is too big.  There are no trees, unless you are in Yellowstone, which we are not.  There is no place to have lunch, except Cappy’s, in the town of Rawlins, which wins the award for Saddest, Most Beat-Up Town on this trip.  I will say that I ordered a Philly cheese steak at Cappy’s, which is highly out of character for me, because I have a thing about thinking that nobody outside of Philadelphia knows how to make one.  And it was pretty good.  The people at the table next to us prayed quietly before eating their enchiladas.  It was nice.  I decided in my own head that I was going to pray when my food arrived, but I forgot to.  It is a bad idea to attempt to become devout when you’re hungry.
I would like Wyoming more if I could ride a horse through it.

Now we’re in Salt Lake City, visiting Robert’s sister and her three adult children.  Her two daughters are friendly and giggly and beautiful, like “The Odd Couple”’s Pigeon sisters, only not British.  Dinner at a brewery downtown.  The Temple is hardly visible amid all the new construction.  I miss it.  The city without its severe, pinched silhouette is just any old city on an interstate, lit up with chain-restaurant signs.

Day 15

Salt lies on either side of I-80 in Utah, mounded and white.  Beyond it, the desert extends in all directions, drably beige.

Lunch in Wendover (or, as Robert calls it, Bendover, which is apt).  It’s just over the Nevada border, where all the Utahns go to gamble.  The marquee outside The Nugget advertised a Deer Widow Weekend special outside the Subway where we got sandwiches.  Chippendale dancers were involved.

More desert, although some industrious Nevadan planted lush, yellow-flowered plants along the highway and in the median.  We drove past Pumpernickel Valley and, two hours later, the Rye Patch Dam.  CDs of Itzhak Perlman, the Everly Brothers, and Billie Holiday alleviated silence but not weariness.  Pink mountains ringed the desert, looking like the carved end of a roast.   (I think I wanted to describe the mountains as meat because the valley and the dam made me think of sandwiches.)

Fifty-minute traffic jam outside of Fernley.  Weather : 94 degrees.  Boy, are we tired. 
Home tomorrow, after dinner with my mother.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Road trip, Days 10-12

Day 10

I love Wisconsin, which I have seen for the first time today.

These are some of the things Wisconsin has:

--Red barns.  Not dilapidated, sagging, Green-Acres barns.  Perfect, meticulously maintained red barns.  With silos.  They’re like the ones in children’s picture books that I used to buy to teach my kids about seasons and the weather.  We’ve seen a lot of barns on this trip, but Wisconsin definitely wins the Charming Red Barn Award.
--Rolling hills, i.e., landforms wherein elevation at the top is higher than elevation at the bottom.  Flint Hills of Kansas: take note.
--La Crosse, a college town of beautiful old homes, only some of which have been converted into student housing.  Driving to the hotel from the restaurant, we saw five shirtless young men through an upstairs window of a grand but slightly seedy house, playing ping pong.  (One hopes they were students.)  Bricks and wrap-around porches figure heavily.
--Beer-batter-fried bratwurst.  Yes, we had some.
--Culver’s frozen custard.  On the menu tomorrow.
--Bogs.
--Gas stations featuring live bait.
--Perfect 65-degree weather.
--People with charming accents.
--Kay Cashman Cahill, who it is killing me not to see.
--Proximity to other delectable AListers I am missing.
--Turning trees, leafed in orange and red, flaming against dark evergreens and a pale blue sky.
--Cheese.
--Fried cheese curds.
--The Mississippi River.
--A lot of geologic formations I am too tired to look up.
--Cows.  Everywhere, cows.

A note on exercise: I have not missed a day of exercise on this trip.  We stay in Holiday Inn Express hotels, which have decent fitness rooms.   I hate exercise, but I hate not exercising even more.  Hence, the bratwurst.

So, anyway, Wisconsin.  I adore it.  I could even live here if 1) it didn’t have snow and 2) it was in California.

Day 11

The fly in the ointment that is the perfection of Wisconsin and Minnesota in the fall is, quite literally, flies.  We stopped just over the border in Minnesota to take pictures along the Mississippi, and a swarm of flies (or maybe gnats, or midges, or something similarly unpleasant) rose from the grass.  You had the feeling they were looking for orifices.  Back in the car immediately to admire the trees—autumnally bedazzling—on the bluffs.  Windows up.

Lunch in Austin, Minnesota, home to Hormel, the Spam capital of the world.  We opted for A & W.  Ice cream is not my thing, generally, but I did splurge on a root beer float, which I don’t think I’ve had since Lamaze lessons, 1985.  (Nurse Nancy made them after class.)  After lunch, we drove through town, which charmed with leafy streets, porched homes, lawn-scented air.  


The weather was spectacular: 65 degrees, a broad, spacious, sunny warmth and, just under its surface, an undercoat of cold that was a promise of something, a hint of what is coming.

Now we’re in Sioux Falls, which is apparently the fastest growing city in the Midwest.  Lots of strip malls and road construction.  Seen on the marquee out in front of a State Farm office: I Just Took An IQ Test And Got A Negative Number.  And on the marquee in front of a computer repair shop:  We Fi x Typ ewriters.  The old section of town is dark brick (as is so much of the region).  Lots of Irish bars.  A huge Catholic church overlooks the town, reminding me of the Basilica of Notre Dame de Fourviere in Lyon.  Well, sort of.

Quite by accident, we found Falls Park, which is where the falls on the Big Sioux River actually are.  The falls are not high, but the currents are strong.   

I had such a lovely thought as I watched them: that I was only here because I’d met a man who likes to do the same kinds of things I like to do on trips: eat new things, drive on unfamiliar roads, laugh at signs directing travelers to eat at restaurants called Schmooters and Senor Wiener.
 
Lousy dinner at a fast-food place that’s all over the place here: Culver’s.  We ate there because they advertise frozen custard desserts.  I had chocolate with caramel sauce and fresh pecan halves.  I can’t remember the last time I ate two ice-cream-like products in one day.

Day 12

The middle of South Dakota is all sky and emptiness.  Corn fields morphed imperceptibly into grassland dotted with hay bales rolled up like carpets.  Are they still bales if they’re not well-packed cubes?  Fields of dying sunflowers faced east, bowed like mourners.

No hills or mountains on the horizon.  It’s like in mid-South Dakota, mountains haven’t been invented yet. 
Lots of billboards: for the Black Hills, Mount Rushmore, the need to manage wildlife populations (“WEAR FUR!”),the Reptile Gardens, Bear Country USA, something called Wall Drug.  For de Smet (home of Laura Ingalls Wilder—sorry, Little House On the Prairie fans—no time to stop), for the rights of fetuses, for caves and caverns, the power of prayer, various camp grounds and trailer parks, for the world’s only corn palace.

 
It is indeed a palace made of corn.  It’s been in the town of Mitchell, in one shape or another, since the nineteenth century, built by a guy who took umbrage at Lewis and Clark’s assertion that no one could ever make a living in South Dakota.  

Right now, it houses a small arena featuring a basketball court and a stage.  Murals (also made entirely of corn) on the outside of the building are remade every year.

Yes, corn.  The cobs and the husks.  This is one of the murals.

    
Just outside of Rapid City, I noticed the ‘Maintenance Required” light flashing on my dashboard, which really ticked me off, since I had the car serviced at a Jiffy Lube somewhere in the Ozarks.  We pulled off the road and found a garage.  The young man at the desk was friendly as could be.  He examined the car, figured out the problem, fixed it, and didn’t charge us a thing.  Thanks, Taylor, at Advanced Automotive Repair.

My stomach is upset.  I’m tired.  I will crawl into bed and read Lorrie Moore’s THE GATE AT THE STAIRS (excellent) and try not to feel homesick.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Road Trip, Days 7-9

Day 7

We stopped at a grocery store to buy yogurt this morning.  I waited in the parking lot while Robert went into the store.  While waiting, I realized 1) I have never seen a Same-Day Dentures in a strip mall, or anywhere, 2) in Missouri, 70-year-old women drive pick-up trucks as often as young men, and 3) California does not have grocery stores called Smitty’s.

I don’t really know much about St. Louis.  No one talks about it anymore.  So when we rolled in this afternoon, I didn’t even know what I wanted to see.

From the car, we saw a tall building that turned out to be Barnes-Jewish Hospital, located on King’s Highway and affiliated with Washington University.  The residential neighborhood there (Fullerton’s Westminster Place, on the National Register of Historic Places), is one of the grandest urban neighborhoods I have ever seen.

  Most of the streets are gated on at least one end, discouraging casual drive-throughs.  The houses are immense, close together with very small setbacks from the street, mostly in the Georgian, Romanesque, and Renaissance Revival styles.  (I’ve been checking out Wikipedia.)   The trees!  The trees!  So lush on every block, rustling in the hot breeze.
 
Then we crossed King’s Highway and drove through Forest Park, where the St. Louis World’s Fair was held in 1904.  More grand homes on the edge of the park, looking like the house in Meet Me in St. Louis (which, Wikipedia tells me, has been torn down).  The park ends at Washington University, which is surprisingly beautiful.  To anyone with pre-college-age kids: keep Washington U. in mind.  I wish I could go there.

For dinner, we went to Hodak’s.  Obscenely loaded plates of fried chicken.  Excellent cole slaw.  So-so fries.  Robert had two beers; I had an iced tea.  Total bill: $26.
 
Out of curiosity, I just looked at MLS listings for homes in the Fullerton’s Westminster Place neighborhood.  Several houses are listed for one-third (ONE THIRD) what we paid for our house in 2007.  These are homes with a full three stories.  Some have carriage houses. 
But none, I see, is a block from the ocean.

Day 8

Overheard on morning radio just outside of St. Louis:
Disk jockey #1: My doctor says there are only two things you should do in your bedroom.
Disk jockey #2: Fighting and crying?
Disk jockey #3: I thought it was begging and sulking.

Illinois is the land of corn.  And rhyming billboards: “Where danger lurks/Remember, sonny/That rabbit foot/ Won’t kill the bunny.”  Sponsored by Gunssaveslife.com.
 
Now we are in Joliet, about 40 miles outside of Chicago.  Robert grew up here.  Family lore has it that he ran away from home when he was two and was found several streets away, happily heading out of town.  He had to wait until he was seventeen to make another run for it.  Now, he returns for family visits and 40th high school reunions.
 
Tonight was the pre-reunion reunion, held at an Irish bar across from a football field where Joliet Catholic was playing to packed crowds.  Terrible parking.  Reunion planners are apparently morons. I am so grateful that I (and my children) did not grow up in a community in which football wields such a dominant influence.  There are so many other, more interesting ways to be in the world.

It is so much more fun to go to someone else’s reunion than to my own.  First of all, I’m five years younger than everyone.  Second, a lot of people stared at me, trying to place me, which was entertaining.   Third, there was booze.  Fourth, everyone called Robert Bob.  Five, all the men sounded exactly like Mike Ditka.  Lots of talk about disliked teachers, asshole coaches, who dated whom, who pulled Brenda Jackson’s wrap skirt off in the hallway, who got benched, who hung out at Jim’s Blast Furnace during lunch to smoke.
 
Robert looked handsome in his black Tony-Soprano shirt.  I was, once again, overdressed.  Why do I always overdress at these things?  Tomorrow night I’m wearing jeans. 

Day 9

A leisurely tour through Joliet.  First stop: Dan’s Candies, where I bought a caramel apple, and where I would have bought more if I hadn’t seen a framed, signed picture of Ann Coulter on the wall behind the cash drawer.  Then we drove past Robert’s high school, which is imposing and castle-like, his childhood home, the streets of a historic district where one of his old friends lived until recently.  Paid a visit to Elmhurst Cemetery, where his parents are interred (near actress Lynne Thigpen, who was four years ahead of him in high school).  Meandered through Pilcher Park, where elm trees shimmered in the wind.  It was cold, and the sky looked threatening.
 
We had a late lunch at Little Joe’s Pizzeria with Robert’s older brother, his girlfriend, and his daughter, son-in-law, and two high-school-age grandsons, whose genial politeness to me on the two occasions I’ve been introduced to them is worth noting.
 
Robert went to a working-class, racially integrated high school from 1966 to 1970.   Tonight, people mingled, talked, and laughed uproariously in a downtown bar.  There were no signs of old wounds or divisions, at least none visible to an outsider.  The din (enhanced by a pitiful live band playing sixties classics) was remarkable.  Robert (aka Bob) was popular across all groups.  His “posse” hung out at the bar.  I heard about how he was thrown out of Band for refusing the director’s order to cut his hair, how he and friend Buff got high in Pilcher Park, how he and friend Grant did some painting for an 80-year-old neighbor and managed to see up her dress (where it was determined that she was not wearing underwear).
   
It occurred to me as I was listening to the conversations around me that when one meets one’s significant other in midlife, it is especially nice to go to his high school reunion.  Tonight I got to know Bob the smartass, the rebel, the popular guy, the stoner, the hippie with long, thick, abundant hair.  It is nice to have the picture rounded out.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Road Trip, Days 4-6

Day 4

Seen from the interstate highway system in west Texas:
--Incredible frontage roads that allow one access to nothing and go nowhere.  They just run along the edge of the sparsely traveled interstate and then stop. 
--Abundant, beautiful black-eyed Susans.  (At least, I think they’re black-eyed Susans.  I never know about plants.)
--Just outside of Odessa, the second largest meteor crater in the country (and the sixth largest in the world).  Weird.  Glad we stopped.

--Also outside of Odessa, a billboard reading, Nancy Pelosi—Two Heartbeats Away From the Presidency: This is a Joke, Right?
--Vast oilfields under dark, low clouds.  The air smelled faintly of gasoline.  Surreal, ugly.  You can’t help but wonder what’s in the water.
-- Signs in Midland to The Presidential Library.  (This is a joke, right?)  We drove on.
--Several large wind farms in and around Abilene.  T. Boone Pickens?  There is certainly a lot of wind.

In Abilene, we got off the interstate and wound our way through west Texas back country.  Spectacularly beautiful.  Well-paved two-lane highway through charming Albany and Throckmorton.  Texas drivers are much better behaved than their California counterparts.  Green hills, cottonwood trees—which I only know because of a sign for Cottonwood Road—happy cows, hay bales.  Huge horseflies, but otherwise, really idyllic.

And then, quite accidentally, we drove into the next little town and decided to stop at the Dairy Queen for a Blizzard.  It was hot, so we parked behind the sandstone (maybe?  No better with rocks than plants) courthouse and got out of the car to sit on a bench.  I wandered over to a War Veterans Memorial and was taking a picture when I noticed a book store, Booked Up #4. Puzzled, I crossed the street.

I have never seen a bookstore like this in my life (across the street from the public library!).  Enormous.  Rows and rows of 12-foot-high shelves packed with used books—some leather-bound, some just old—extending the full length of the very long space.  I was the only person in the store; there were no other patrons, nobody at the front table, behind which a sign directed you to “Bring your purchases to Booked Up #1, on the other side of the courthouse.”  I browsed a little, but truthfully, I was afraid that if I started, I’d never stop. I felt like a soap bubble on the edge of an open drain, about to be sucked away.  I do remember a few random books: a compilation of ancient Turkish texts, an examination of 1950s Broadway musicals, and the autobiography of Mary Pickford.

I left the store and went back to Robert, who was still sitting under the tree, not feeling well.  “Where the hell are we?” I asked, and in the next breath said, “I could live here.”

It turns out that we were in Archer City, Texas, home to one of the premier rare and antiquarian book collections in the world, owned by the town’s most famous native, Larry McMurtry.  Here’s one of the articles I found online: http://donswaim.com/latimes.mcmurtry.html

Now, I’m kicking myself that I didn’t buy something.  But I’m so glad I stumbled on the town.  I don’t think I will ever forget that store.
 
This is why it pays to take the back roads.  And stop for Blizzards.
 
The only other thing I have to report is that on the outskirts of Oklahoma City, I noticed a turnoff for Anadarko.  And it occurred to me that in Saving Grace (the recently wrapped TV series starring Holly Hunter), the lead character’s name is Grace Anadarko.  Maybe a geographical joke?

Still reeling from Booked Up.  Now watching the Forty-niners/Saints game.  One minute 20 seconds left.  Robert may have a stroke.

Day 5

Oklahoma City’s National Memorial is located downtown, near other Federal office buildings.  It’s a moving, quiet, heartbreaking place.  Two tall, black, stone (marble?  Jeez.  Not sure) arches on either end of a shallow, rectangular reflecting pool.  Inscribed on one arch: 9:01; on the other: 9:03.  The attack was at 9:02; the inscriptions refer to our last moment of innocence and our first moment of grief and, ultimately, healing.  Tiered stone benches on a grassy rise overlook one side of the pool.  On the other: 168 chairs, each bearing the name of a victim.  Nineteen chairs bear the names of children.

It is shocking to remember the day of the attack, how naïve we were, how ignorant of what was coming.  Sickening to realize that fifteen years later, we are still a nation where zealots and freaks among us can procure weapons easily and with impunity, under the guise of exercising constitutional rights.  As Chad Ochocinco says, Child, please.

Onward, north.  Kansas interstate is bordered by yellow flowers (that are not black-eyed Susans) and lush prairies.  The Flint Hills are hills in the same way that I am a blonde.  If it were snowy and you tried to ski on them, you would come to a complete stop halfway down.  The gentlest of slopes.  Grasses that shimmer in the wind.  Vast and nearly treeless beauty ornamented with the occasional billboard: ACCEPT JESUS CHRIST AS YOUR LORD AND SAVIOR AND REPENT Or You Will Regret It.

You know you’re not in California when you are listening to a radio station broadcasting Walter Brennan singing about a mule.

Now in Kansas City’s Westport district, a Midwestern version of Noe Valley.  A tense moment at the front desk of the hotel while I waited in line behind a group of five middle-age men to check in.  One of them graciously allowed me to go ahead of them, and when I said thank-you, there was quite a bit of talk about me buying them dinner and them drinking vast amounts of beer and Joe needing to be careful because “uh oh, she’s got a camera!”  Very relieved when Robert came in with the suitcases.

Later, we walked down the street to the Jerusalem Cafe.  I meant to have fried chicken or a steak in Kansas City, but frankly, I’m sick of meat.   Yummy gyros on a balmy, breezy night.

And now it’s almost midnight.  Robert is sleeping.  Outside our window, the night is yellow with parking-lot light and occasional flashes of lightning.  The thunder cracks and roars, and the rain on the window is sizzling like something roasting on a spit.  I have never known a man who sleeps like this.

Day 6

Drove through the Kansas City neighborhood where Mr. and Mrs. Bridge lived (in the Evan Connell novels Mr. Bridge and Mrs. Bridge, two of the most significant books I read growing up).  Fun to see Ward Parkway and signs to the Plaza.  Then found Swope Parkway and drove to a more modest section of town, where Robert spent summers at his grandmother’s.  The house is still standing, although he says it looks smaller.  His grandmother was the light of his young life: the kind of grandmother who made hot breakfasts for fifteen people, had a freezer full of popsicles that could be eaten whenever you wanted one, and baked the best lemon meringue pie he has ever eaten.  (His older brother used to beg Grandma to make “one of those women meringue pies” when he was little.)

Left leafy Kansas City and drove south.  Narrowly missed running over a tortoise crossing the highway just outside of Harrisonville.  Stopped at an Amish store with “FUDGE” painted on the wall facing the highway in Rich Hill.  (Honestly, all any roadside business needs to do is advertise “fudge” and I will pull over.)  As we parked, two ladies in drab-but-patterned street clothes and black snoods were leaving.  Inside, we found locally made jewelry, jars of locally made chow-chow, eggs in pickled beets, mustard eggs, eggs in pickled jalapenos, butter “made from first cream,”  bottles of traditional Amish wedding ciders, and various kinds of candy and nuts.  We bought honey-roasted pecans, a taffy-like candy called Mary Janes (Robert loved them as a kid), and homemade peanut-butter fudge.  Passed on the pickled eggs, but with regret.

In Joplin, we picked up Interstate 44 heading east.  I’ve just finished a manuscript that takes place in a mythical town between Joplin and Springfield, and I wanted to check out the town of Mount Vernon, whose chamber of commerce website and real estate listings were useful to me as I researched the Ozark area.

Mount Vernon is home to Turner’s Calico Corner, a general store selling candy, fabric, notions, country kitsch, religious paraphernalia (passages from the Bible ran on the electronic neon crawl in the front window), homemade fudge (which I nobly resisted, still so full of Amish fudge that I could barely walk), and country/cutesy signs (“Chocolate, men, and wine are all better when they’re rich”).  I bought something called “MeeMaw’s Recipes” just so I could talk to the woman at the counter to hear her accent.  Then we went to the Red Barn and Grill.  Robert had a huge slice of lemon meringue pie (not as good as his grandma’s, but pretty close); I had a ham and cheese sandwich.  More talking to the waitress, so I could get the accent right.  Not quite southern, but not California-newscaster, either.

Now we are holed up in Springfield.  Too fat to eat a real dinner, but I had a salad downstairs.  Our waitress was a cranky woman in her seventies who lived in Santee, California for many years.  “Do you like it in Springfield?” I asked.  “I hate the winters,” she said, which made me think we were smart to plan this trip for September.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Road Trip, Days 1-3

Day 1

Beautiful day of fog and eerily warm weather on the central coast.  Tightly wedged into my ordinary car (which is not as zingy as Robert’s, but does have the advantage of being cheaper to fuel), we made the now-familiar drive down 101: past Salinas and Gonzales and Greenfield, past exits to Fort Hunter Liggett and Paso Robles, down the precariously steep Cuesta Grade into San Luis Obispo, through Pismo Beach and Nipomo (“Gary Bang Harley Davidson”) and the seaside splendor of Santa Barbara (which is starting to look like a strip mall for rich people).  On to Ventura (which always makes me think of Tori Amos) and the gloriously named western suburbs of LA: Oxnard, Thousand Oaks, Calabasas.
Eagle Rock is a funny little corner of Los Angeles: still full of neighborhood shops and small, well-kept bungalows that haven’t been McMansionized.  It’s a neighborhood that isn’t particularly pretty or quaint, but it’s a neighborhood—it has that kind of feel.  You can eat at the Oinkster or Auntie Em’s Kitchen, where the red velvet cupcakes are divine.  There’s a Baptist church, a Christian Assembly, a church for Seventh Day Adventists, and St. Dominic’s.  I overheard someone at Swork Coffee say that most of the parishioners at St. Dominic’s are Filipino.
We had dinner with both of my kids at our favorite area restaurant, Café Beaujolais, whose authentic French food is served by authentic French waiters.  One always wonders if they are out-of-work actors.  I ordered a chicken leg stuffed with cheese.  “I have a big one for you,” our waiter crooned Frenchly.  I said the only possible thing there was to say—“I like big ones”—which thoroughly mortified my daughter.  We split a bottle of wine.  This marks the first time I have ever had wine in public with both of my kids.

Lots of fun conversation, which involved discussions of relationships, school, work, west-coast swing, whether my daughter should text her boyfriend (who was partying with fraternity brothers in Vegas), why my son should date Jennifer Connelly, should she ever become available, how I have a huge personality and interrupt people when I am comfortable with them.  And how I am quirky. 
Now it is 1 AM and I am suffering from the insomnia that arises from a combination of an unfamiliar bed, the roar of an overzealous air conditioning unit, and the peculiar-but-ultimately-gratifying realization that my children think of me as an actual person rather than just their mother

Day 2

We drove down to Del Mar because Robert is training to ride his bike cross-country in a year or so, and we wanted to scope out the beginning of the trip from the safety of a car.  We wound our way through endless housing developments, none of which existed when I lived in San Diego in 1979 with my then-soon-to-be-husband.  Eventually, we ended up in Poway (“the city in the country” said the sign, which was lying, because “the country” is actually “the Godforsaken desert that no one in his right mind would live in”).  More driving up hills studded with brush and some sort of burnished grass.  Julian, at 4200 feet, is home to Mom’s Pies and a crowded biker bar, but we couldn’t linger. 
Onward through hot, desolate, mournful desert.  Twenty cars all afternoon.  Temperature hit 112 at 1:30 and remained there for hours. 

We passed a camel farm (selling milk, cheese, and rides for children).  It was like Afghanistan, except for the music we listened to: CDs of Buddy Guy and Andrea Bocceli, a couple of decent rock stations.  Weirdly, just east of Yuma, we heard part of a documentary on Count Basie narrated by Wendell Pierce (The Wire, Treme).
After descending the mountains east of Julian, we turned onto a road with a sign noting that it was the southern stagecoach route of 1849.  Apparently, no one has been on it since then.   Forty-seven miles from the turn-off to the town of Ocotillo.  The only people we saw were some Border Patrol officers about a mile outside of town.
I’m always fascinated by the kind of terrain that people find appealing.  I know lots of people who like the desert.  I do not.  I like farmland: old houses with porches, rolling, green hills which speak to abundance and self-sufficiency.  The desert is terrifying and angry and sullen: a surly teenager in a nasty snit.  Halfway through the afternoon, I started to wonder what I would do if one of us had a heart attack or (almost worse) if the car blew a tire.  What I realized is that there’s no margin for error out there.  One mistake and that’s pretty much it.  You’re done.  (In my head, I’m hearing my friend Jim saying, “A roast is done.  You are finished.”  But in 112-degree weather, I’m sticking with “done.”)
Robert is discouraged.  We have to find another way for him to get over the mountains.  More research necessary.
Billboards outside of Yuma: “Do You Miss Me Yet?” (over a picture of a smug-looking George Bush; “Remember When We Really Had Hope and Change?” (over a picture of Ronald Reagan).
Outside of Tucson, a jagged mountain looks like an open-mouthed fish emerging from the sea.    Who the hell lives here?  At 9 PM it was 100 degrees.  At Texas Road House, where we went for steaks, enormous TVs broadcast the Arizona-Iowa game.  Men and women all over the restaurant were riveted, silent.  I am so glad I don’t live here.
(Lest anyone think I am incredibly self-deluded, I would last about three days on a farm.  I am not built for chores that involve sweating, tractors, or smells.  I would like the pie, though.)

Day 3

Temperature as we loaded the car at 9 AM: 97 degrees.
Drove past Tucson developments in which all the houses look like clay adobes.  Lots of Saguaro cacti.  Sky a brilliant blue, except at the horizon, where it was tinted sepia, as though it had been singed.
Near the New Mexico border, we noticed a billboard advertising a winery in Fort Bowie, Arizona.  We couldn’t pass it up.  We drove into a sad, dusty town, past metal trailer homes, a wooden house painted pink, in the shape of a teepee (with windows), boarded up, a For Sale sign out front.  The only thing that seemed to be thriving was a beautiful orchard of tall, thick pecan trees. 
We found a little store by way of a sandwich board out front: “Wine, fudge, pecans.”  

Nothing else about the building looked remotely like a retail establishment.  But we went in.  There were shelves of wine made from the grapes of a local winery, “chocolate merlot” and “caramel chardonnay” sauces for ice cream, and a variety of fudge home-made on the premises.

I skipped the mint julep fudge and settled on peanut butter chocolate.  Quite wonderful.  We bought a  syrah and can’t wait to drink it at home.
New Mexico was all sky and puckered clouds.  Crossed the Continental Divide, where successive billboards advertised a trading post selling moccasins, saddle blankets, turquoise jewelry, Mexican pottery, cowboy boots, porcelain dolls (“from $18.99”), and leather whips.  Far-off, smooth-sided mountains with severe peaks looked like pyramids.  Temperatures in the high 90s all afternoon.  Happily, we had good CDs: Lightnin’ Hopkins, Jimmy Smith, the best of Sly and the Family Stone.  And just outside of Las Cruces, El Paso’s KOFX 92.3, playing 60s R & B.  Sang along to “Wooly Bully” and “Papa Was A Rolling Stone.”
Seen on the back of a semi: JESUS CHRIST IS MY LORD AND SAVIOR, NOT A SWEAR WORD.
Reached El Paso mid-afternoon.  Situated directly across the Rio Grande from Juarez, Mexico, where crumbling shacks and huts crowd the riverbank.  From the freeway, we saw an enormous Mexican flag flying proudly in the near-distance. 
Once out of El Paso, we drove through more high desert, then mountains, then more desert.  “Drive Friendly—The Texas Way,” warned the signs.  The clouds were different from those over New Mexico: scattered, but thick and dark.  Serious Border Patrol guys held us up for a few minutes while their dogs sniffed our car.  We had to open our cooler.  The agent, wearing a bullet-proof vest, seemed disappointed at our cache of Crystal Geyser Sparkling Waters and waved us on.
We saw a rainbow and what looked like dry lightning.  At sunset, the light against the clouds was very Sistine Chapel-y, which went well with the Marfa NPR show featuring West Texas swing from the 1930s.  We drove in the dark for a time, coming to rest in Pecos, Texas.  I can hear the semis out on the interstate, heading back to El Paso, or north to Odessa, where just today, a Vietnam Vet and rabid Republic of Texas supporter was finally captured by Rangers after a shootout. 

Sunday, September 12, 2010

What I Don't Blog About

Someone I know casually through my blog said recently, “Your life is so great.”  There was something about the tone that implied that 1) having a great life is unseemly and 2) I should shut up already.

I have a wonderful life.  I am happy.  But that is not to say that I don’t have problems, challenges, sadness, fear, generalized ennui, crankiness, angst, and moments of supreme irritation.  I just choose not to blog about those things, usually.  I’m not sure why.  I guess I exorcise those demons in my fiction, and with my friends-in-real-life.  Nobody who really knows me can accuse me of unfailing optimism.

Here are a few of the things I don’t blog about:
--anything that violates the desired privacy of people I love;
--anything I would be embarrassed for my kids to read;
--anything associated with chronic, treatable-but- nonetheless-extremely-unpleasant illness;
--politics (unless I can’t help myself);
--anything that would necessitate a lot of swear words (unless I can’t help myself);
--anything that lays bare the truly ugly, mind-numbingly-hideous-but-with-any-luck-fleeting thoughts I wake up with at 3 am and gnaw on until the sun comes up.

A note on swearing: I love to swear.  I believe in swearing.  But I write for children, and this blog is linked to my website.  So I try to keep a civil tongue.

Which is not to say that I didn’t swear in front of my own children.
 
When my daughter was three, she stormed in the back door, slammed it, then opened it again and yelled outside to her brother, “I’m never playing with you again, you idiot asshole dick!”

Okay, I couldn’t help myself.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Thoughts on Fall, School, and Being A Good Girl Who Occasionally Broke the Rules

I love the fall.  Coming as I do from California, I can’t say it has anything to do with the leaves.  I think it’s a holdover from my childhood, when I loved school.

I loved everything about school: order; the comfort of being told exactly what to do (even if I was told by Mrs. Parker, who had nine fingers, or Miss Pennykamp, who looked just like someone named Miss Pennykamp ought to look); the smell of chalk, the slow tick of the old wall clock toward 2:50; SRA readers, their color-coded bindings gleaming in the box at the back of the classroom (I still remember the one about Roger Bannister); the creak when I pulled up the desktop to retrieve my workbooks; the joy of producing a perfect row of lower-case, cursive ‘r’s; the collective ecstasy as we all waited for the film strip to start.

I liked summer well enough.  I especially loved its approach and its first days, which coincided with my much-longed-for birthday.  I had no use for Independence Day, a holiday that went unheralded by my parents, who were averse to crowds, traffic, hotdogs, the out-of-doors, and almost all manner of celebration.  But I did enjoy July.  We belonged to a swim club at the old Claremont Hotel in Berkeley, which, in those days, boasted a Jacuzzi, a sauna, and a high-dive.  My pre-adolescent self hadn’t yet learned to fear heights (or much of anything).  I spent my days jumping off the towering board and lying on the cement pool deck, leaving behind at the end of each lazy afternoon a watery, steaming silhouette of myself.

Most of the kids in my Berkeley neighborhood belonged to the Claremont swim club.  In addition to hanging out at the pool, we also liked to sneak up to the hotel’s top floor and slide down the old, covered fire-escape slide.  We only got caught once.  Hotel management was displeased.  But we kept doing it.  I still remember the delirious thrill of slipping into the darkness, defying authority.

At heart, though, I was a conformist.  The life of the rebel was not for me, which was why I so looked forward to the beginning of school, with its newly sharpened pencils, blank notebooks, and uncluttered expectations.  August crawled along.  I couldn’t wait for September, and I still can’t.  The leaves have nothing to do with it.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I have to say that I had my moments of school-related bad behavior.  In third grade, I passed a note—intercepted by the dour Miss Roach—to Laurie Bradshaw in which I made an indecorous reference to Batman’s wiener.  And in tenth grade, Bea Treinen and I were made to leave the classroom when another student blew her nose and we couldn’t stop laughing.  So yes, even I experienced the occasional bliss of breaking school rules.  Which, as a law-abiding, rule-bound fifty-three-year-old, I now know was not such a very bad thing.)

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Thoughts On the Music In My Ipod

This morning on my jog through the neighborhood, I listened to the following songs on my ipod: “Highway to Hell” (ACDC); “Get Low” (Flo Rida); “Garden Party” (Rick Nelson); “If You Think You’re Lonely Now” (Bobby Womack); “Tired Of Being Alone” (Al Green); “Take Me To the River” (Al Green); “Jungleland” (Bruce Springsteen); “Night Moves” (Bob Seeger); and “Oh, Boy” (Buddy Holly).
These are some of the things I thought about:
--My daughter and I used to drive through Briones Regional Park when she was in high school.  We would listen to a tape she made, and “Highway to Hell” was on it.  We would turn it up loud.
--Robert and I love “Get Low.”  “Them baggy sweat pants/And the Reeboks with the straps/She turned around and gave that big booty a smack.”  It just makes us laugh.  We like the guys in the background.
--No one except for me likes “If You Think You’re Lonely Now.”  No one.  It gives me chills.  It’s religion.  Except I don’t like the lyrics.  They don’t go with the music, which sounds like religion and sex together.
-- My ex-husband and I had a thing for Jennifer Holliday and went to see her whenever she was in the Bay Area.  Al Green opened for her at the Circle Star once.  “Take Me to the River” is just, well, amazing.
--“Jungleland:” Bryn Mawr College.  Freshman year.  Leslie Whitaker’s room on the third floor of Rhoads North.
--In 1977, I was a sophomore in college.  My father was dying. During spring break, I drove from Philadelphia to Fort Lauderdale with three male friends who were seniors.  (I am glad I got to experience spring break once, but really, once was enough.)  On the trip home, “Night Moves” came on the car radio, and two of my friends high-fived each other.  The air smelled like orange groves.  I have never forgotten.  It’s funny, what manages to worm its way into your brain for all eternity. 
--I imgine that no one else in the world has the same songs on her ipod that I do.  (“Get Low” and “Garden Party”?)  It is probably a reflection of the fact that no two people in the world have quite the same personalities. 
--I am always a little bit embarrassed when other people hear my music.  I used to think it was because I had lousy taste in music.  But now I think it’s because the music you like is so personal—so expressive of who you are—that it feels revelatory, confessional.  Whenever I drive with my window open, I turn the volume on the CD player down.  I just don’t think random truck drivers have to know that I harbor a secret penchant for “Runaround Sue.”

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

On Debutantes, Bruce Springsteen, and Why We All Need Lockers

Busy working on my next novel, so haven’t written here much in a while.
My thirty-fifth high school reunion is coming up, and one of the characters in my book is (very loosely) based on someone I knew in high school.  So I’ve been thinking a lot about high school, which is something I don’t usually think about all that often.
My high school was located in a very affluent, very small town in northern California.  I moved there at the beginning of eighth grade, which is a terrible time to move anywhere.  I always felt like an outsider: I hadn’t grown up with these people, many of whom had known each other since kindergarten. 
There was a lot of culture shock.  I’d gone to seventh grade in Berkeley, which, in 1970, was awash in hippies.  My new school didn’t have hippies.  It had social-dance class and school-approved sororities and debutantes. 
I cannot say that I liked high school very much, but I wasn’t someone who was abjectedly miserable there.   I had wonderful teachers and friends, some of whom I’m still in touch with today.  My closest friend is someone I went to high school with.  She introduced me to the joy of eating raw cookie dough.  I wrote her from college in Pennsylvania about a singer I liked who was unknown in California.  That was how she found out about Bruce Springsteen.
I think the thing about high school is that most teenagers—not all, but most—are inexperienced in the business of having their hearts trampled.  They haven’t yet learned how to weather anguish.  High school will teach them, if they are lucky.  If they are not lucky, they will have to learn out in the big, bad world, which is a shame, because by then their best friends will have jobs and husbands and children and be too busy to leave sympathetic notes in their lockers when something bad happens. 
In high school, people really care when bad things happen to their friends.  They are really paying attention.  Otherwise, there is just geometry and John Steinbeck to think about.  (Note to teenagers: once you turn 18, you will never think about geometry or John Steinbeck ever again.)
Actually, as we all know, there are no lockers in the big, bad world.  This is too bad.  Lockers were one of the things I liked about high school: a place that was just yours, to be decorated as you chose, where you could unburden yourself of books and binders that would otherwise need to be hauled around all day. 
That is what we all need now: someplace where we can put the heavy things down.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Ano Nuevo State Park

We are lucky enough to live 30 miles south of Ano Nuevo State Park, a preserve comprised of pinniped rookeries, native dunes and coastal terrace prairie habitats, and various inland plant communities, including old growth forest, freshwater marsh, red alder riparian forest and knobcone pine forest.  (So says the website.  My knowledge of the outdoors is limited to impressions related to weather [hot, windy] and smells [grassland: fresh, loamy; elephant seals: really, really bad].)  Today we drove up, passing participants—some in masks, one sporting a pink feather boa—in the AIDS/LifeCycle bike ride—on our way.

We got a map at the Visitors’ Center, a converted dairy barn, and headed out, through fields edged in cattails and bordered at their far edges by thick pines.  To our left: the ocean, littered with whitecaps, an impossible blue.


We passed a pond, the nesting ground for red-winged blackbirds and marsh wrens.

Lots of mock heather, lupine, lizardtail and coyote bush.   (Again, thanks to the website.  When it comes to plants, I [to quote my mother] know from nothing.  I think these yellow flowers are mock heather, but I’m not sure.)

Halfway, we stopped and spoke with a genial ranger, who advised us to stay 25 feet away from the elephant seals.
 
The path gave way to sand dunes.  We trudged on, hearing the bellow of the seals, which convinces you before you ever lay eyes on them that you would have to be some kind of prize idiot to ignore the 25-foot rule.
The seals themselves were sunning on the beach.  They are quite enormous (an impression not well conveyed in the picture).  Occasionally, one of them raised a flipper in the manner of a royal wave.  I wanted to wave back.  The presence of thirty Japanese tourists was inhibiting.

We stood at the viewing stand for a while, reveling in the sun and the sea, the proximity to magnificent animals, the sense that the natural world is glorious beyond description. 
On the drive home, we were quiet, and I knew without asking that we were thinking the same things. 
That we are lucky to live where we can breathe in such beauty. 
And that people—who can turn away unmoved from pictures of pelicans suffocating in oil, who expect their need for fossil fuel to be gratified no matter the costs—can break your heart. 

Sunday, May 16, 2010

For Robert, With Love and Thanks

This weekend marks Robert’s and my five-year anniversary.  We met via the Internet, Robert after fifteen years of what he likes to call “power-dating,” I after a dismal four months, during which time I met a variety of men clearly put on this earth to dissuade any woman from even so much as thinking about dating ever again.  Occasionally I wonder about them: what they’re doing now, if any of them found any takers.
 
This is what I would say to them, if I could.

--If you are 70, do not say you want to date women 47 and younger;

--If you are 70, do not say you are 53;

--Do not tell your date that the reason you don’t have any male friends is that men are jealous of how good-looking you are;

--Do not tell your date that you are giving away most of your possessions because “as long as I have my computer and my antique sword, I’ll be fine”;

--Do not meet your date through a Jewish dating service and then, over coffee, respond to her story about a skinflint by saying, “He’s Jewish, right?”;

--Do not call your date forty-five minutes after she tells you what an asshole you are for making anti-semitic remarks and start to tell her about a dream you had;

--Do not neglect to mention that you owe the IRS $100,000 in back taxes and also have a girlfriend;

--Do not initiate first-date banter by reminiscing about your ex-wife, who is bi-polar and likes to say she lives to make her ex’s life a living hell;

--Do not spend ten minutes explaining why the woman you are looking for must have clean fingernails;

--Do not, during the course of an introductory phone conversation, announce that you are wearing a Versace suit and a thong;

--Do not then say, “You like that, don’t you?”

To the other women these men have dated, I would say, Do not give up.  Because the world is wide and wonderful, the heart is resilient, and the extraordinary and the impossible can present themselves at any moment.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Pleasures of a Garden, As Told by One Who Is Gardening-Impaired




I love having a garden, but I hate gardening.  Over the years, I tried to love gardening, but I have finally had to admit that it is not for me.  The dirt, the sweating, the inability to do it while lying down compel me to leave the gardening to George, local barfly and raconteur extraordinaire.  He does a lovely job.

I am a little bit ashamed that I don’t like to garden.  I feel as though I should.  It’s an admirable, wholesome, healthful activity, plus you get to wear a floppy hat.  I console myself with the fact that George can’t write children’s books.
Our garden is at the front and on the south side of our house, protected from the street by a high hedge.  The woman who designed it made sure that something would always be blooming, no matter what the season.  Right now, we have roses.
 


Soon, it will be hydrangeas.

We have more lemons year-round than we know what to do with.  I make a lot of lemon bars and lemonade.  The scent of a lemon just pulled off the tree is further proof of divinity all around us.

I love these.  They grow at the back of the house.  I don’t know what they are.  They look like Dr. Seuss characters to me.

We have ferns in front of the enormous living room windows.  I grew up in a house in Berkeley that had a fern garden.  They lend shade and peace.  They are the garden’s gentle librarians, staking out a quiet corner (apart from the unruly roses), demanding whispers.

We have two Monterey pines.  Last year, two tiny birds flew in and out of a hole in the bark of one of them no larger than a mail slot.  We watched as they doggedly brought twigs and grass and straw into the tree.  Later, we could hear the chirping of baby birds.  We never saw them fly away.

Out by the kitchen door, Robert channels his inner Midwesterner and does a little farming.  Right now, we are all about the butter lettuce.

The bench is between the Monterey pines and is shaded by a wisteria-covered arbor.  When we first moved here three years ago, my daughter liked to sit on the bench.  “How do you like the trees?” I asked.  “Oh, we’re going to be friends,” she said.