Monday, February 28, 2011

Fitful Torpor

Just as I arrive at that luxurious place between awake and asleep and the only noise is the tree frogs in the back yard and the hum of the refrigerator, I hear soft noises under the bed.  The noises come from live animals that either watched Toy Story too many times or have simply deduced that the humans are no longer conscious and they are free to romp with impunity.  By animals, I mean Milo, the puppy, and Max, the orange cat.  I listen in earnest for the sound of teeth on leather, which would cause me to jump out of bed and save the shoe that Milo pried out of the closet.  If I’m especially tired and the sound is relatively indistinguishable, I’ll let it go and suffer the consequences in the morning.  You might not think that prudent.  And, indeed, it isn’t.  I have discovered shredded sandals, paper towel rolls reduced to bits the size of dried oregano, magazines—oh, the magazines, sunglasses through which I can no longer see. . .   You get my drift. 

Max has a way of egging Milo on by batting at whatever little object he has found—especially if the object is wiggling around in the chewing.  It’s a process of chewing, wiggling, batting, chewing, wiggling, batting until Max gets bored and hops up on the end of the bed to sleep.  Milo, of course, does not actually need Max to egg him on.  He’s utterly self-sufficient in the mischief department.

I remember when the children were small and I would scour the house looking for hazards to remove to keep them safe.  Those days are long gone, and I’m not the young attentive mother I once was.  I overlook things—clearly.  I push pens and books toward the center of the coffee table thinking that Milo can’t grab them.  But Milo is as agile as a rhesus monkey—up on his hind legs with his little snout pushing and pulling, his paws nearly prehensile. 

My sister bought a puzzle box for her dog.  The dog was frightened, so she gave it to Milo.  It’s a flat box with little cups for treats that can be covered to force the dog to search for them.  It’s intended to be a stimulating challenge.  Since bringing it home, Milo has not only figured out how to retrieve all the treats, but has tried to dismantle the box entirely—either to find any additional errant goodies inside or to make us stop such foolishness and give him the damned things.

As much as we try to stimulate Milo to the point of exhaustion, he is not wired for tired.  Now 23 years removed from my last round of sleepless nights and frenetic investigation of the dangers lurking in the house, I have returned to that fitful torpor that comes from a Bichon on an endless search and destroy mission and a house that can never be fully puppy proofed. 

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Genetic Wiring

I wear thin thong sandals around the house.  I shed my shoes as soon as I get home, replacing them with the nearest thing to naked feet possible.  The problem is that the sandals catch on the edges of the tiles in the kitchen.  We installed the tiles ourselves, so they are not quite as perfect as a professional might have left them.  But I have a special talent for tripping.  Fortunately, I rarely fall; but there’s something about the messaging that goes from my head to my feet that results in:  “Pick them up—oh, not quite so high.”  Maybe if I ate more carrots, my head wouldn’t talk quite so much, and would stop at “pick them up”.

There’s a history of clumsiness in my parentage.  My mother fell over things—parking barriers, uneven wooden decks.  And to make matters worse, my father moves more quickly than he should so he hits corners of things:  the corner of his desk, the door jamb, the refrigerator door, the edge of the sink.  It’s a good thing he doesn’t cook or he’d probably have sliced off his fingers long ago. 

My siblings are not clumsy.  I, however, am the lucky recipient of the fast and clumsy genes.   I would have preferred my mother’s iron teeth and ability to play any piece of music put in front of her or my father’s understanding of U.S. history.  And to be honest, I do have some of their good traits, but I am one clumsy dudette.  My body is liberally sprinkled with bruises.  I have even named some of them:  the bed bruise (where I round the corner of the bed too tightly) on my thigh and the dishwasher bruise (where I walk into the open door) on my shin.  These are marks that have found a cozy home on my body and rarely fade completely.  You would think that my pain sensors would educate me on the hazards of these particular pieces of furniture—especially since I hit them so often.  But these same sensors seem to be fouled up with the messages that are sent to my feet--genetically bad wiring.

Friday, February 25, 2011

World Affairs

I have been writing this blog since the beginning of the year.  In that time the world has watched as Tunisia and Egypt achieved a remarkable revolution, Bahrain and Morocco are still engaged in their struggle, and Libyans continue risking their lives to achieve independence from a disengaged and cruel dictator.  We are riveted to the television, watching helplessly while the news media feed us bits and pieces of information from these countries and their borders where we learn more and more about the courageous and often destructive struggles.  In the meantime, I am writing about my dog, my kitchen, my yard, my retirement.  Somehow in the total scheme of things, my life’s adventures seem utterly insignificant.  

While I acknowledge the sharp contrast between the world outside my neighborhood and the security of my home, my library, my friends and family, this is my world—for the moment.  My heartfelt sympathies lie with the mothers who want their children to grow up in a country without oppression.  These are women who want their daughters to be educated and their sons to embrace a gentler life without fear of confrontation.  I will continue to watch and listen and wait and hope for them.

Yankee Doodle

Before the birth of my first child, I participated in a series of Lamaze classes to prepare for a “natural” birth.  The premise of Lamaze is that breathing and relaxation in childbirth are an alternative to chemical intervention during labor and delivery.  I will spare you the details of any of my labors and deliveries.  But one thing about the Lamaze training that has stuck with me through the years--and that’s a lot of years since my youngest just turned 23--is Yankee Doodle.  One of the techniques used in the training and execution of the Lamaze method is rhythmic breathing.  And one way to achieve such rhythmic breathing is through music.  The premise is that the breathing will help to ease the discomfort of a contraction.  (I do not use the word “discomfort” comfortably as I believe the sensation would be more appropriately described as extremely uncomfortable.)  The music that was suggested is Yankee Doodle.  So for three labors and deliveries, I sang Yankee Doodle in my head while pretending not to notice that my muscles were contorting somewhere in my midsection in a manner that left me breathless and disoriented.  

It turns out that Mr. Lamaze made a lasting impression on my post-delivery life.  Every morning when I’m showering, I find myself softly singing Yankee Doodle.  Why?  There is nothing stressful or painful about showering.  On the contrary, it’s a pleasurable and habitual activity.  It doesn’t represent the beginning of a new life, but it’s the start of a new day.  Am I the only woman in the world who continues to sing Yankee Doodle in the shower beyond her childbearing years?    

Saturday, February 19, 2011


A fence used to span the back edge of our property.  It blew down years ago in a winter storm.  Since my husband and I grew up in the midwest and east where houses are not enclosed with fences—and because we are not energetic caretakers--we have not replaced the fence.  Backing up to our fenceless lot is a large grassy field with a nursing home on the other side.  The only activity at the far end of that grassy lot is the staff shift change and the weekly garbage pick-up. 

At least once a year, we talk about whether or not we should spend the money to replace the fence.  And every year, we surmise that it seems unnecessary.  There are so many other purposes for our funds that a fence just never rises to the top of the list.

There is travel, the panacea for any of life’s woes, stresses, anxieties, or difficulties.  There are drives into the agricultural central valley of California that leave me appreciating all the food I eat that grows in dirt or water.  The fields are green and brown and yellow and red.  They might stretch for miles toward the foothills of the Sierra range.  We see egrets strutting in the shallow water of the rice fields searching for frogs and little fish, kestrels waiting on fence posts for some small creature to emerge between the rows.  We might happen upon a winery with a tasting room where we are offered glasses of some unknown vintage in the hopes we will buy some and, better yet, recommend the label to our friends and family.
When we’re feeling especially needy for relief from the valley fog or heat, we drive to the Monterey Bay—our favorite spot in California where the only fence is the shoreline.  We’re not sun bunnies, but we gravitate toward a particular beach in Pacific Grove where the tide pools continue to fascinate us long after we stumbled across it many years ago when the boys were younger.  

At the end of the day, we always return to our fenceless home--renewed by the image of sea foam or fertile valley. 

Monday, February 14, 2011


The old-fashioned dictionary is in danger of extinction as the appeal of automated information grows.  I have on my desk a Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, published in 1976.  The binding is broken.  The front sheets are squished.  The cover is tattered with straggly linen threads.  I use it daily.  While others use the instant electronic version, I prefer the real thing.

There is no sentiment in computer-based dictionaries.  I open my dictionary and flutter through the tissue-like pages.  The whole experience combines the tactile sensation of the rough linen cover juxtaposed with the soft and fragile pages, the gold-embossed black and shiny finger tabs--two letters to a tab, the musty smell of the pages after all these years, and the sound of the flump, flump as many pages at a time fall on each other. I love to read the word, the pronunciation, the part of speech, the etymology, and the meaning.  The computer-based version provides a very narrow scope of information and no sound but the click of the mouse.

Words were well-honored in my childhood home.  My father, a minister, did his business through weekly sermons and newsletters.  His sermon was prepared in the hallowed privacy of his study, which no one dared enter on Saturday.  The weekly newsletter, however, was prepared without the need for quiet deliberation as we children raced through.  He would consult his five-inch-thick Oxford dictionary to check a word.  This dictionary--still in his office today--sat on a large wooden swivel stand, and he stooped a little to make his inquiry.

I would like to think that I have passed on my love of the dictionary to my children.  However, they are creatures of the electronic age.  When I said “look it up,” they groaned and beseeched me to tell them.  As a rule, I looked it up and put the dictionary under their noses.  It isn’t the same as thumbing through the pages themselves, but they were forced at least to experience the musty smell and peruse the page without the use of the mouse.  They may grow into this appreciation, I hope, as I will persist.

Friday, February 11, 2011


My brother and his family live in the greater Los Angeles area.  His home backs up to a hill full of wildlife in the middle of an urban area.  At night coyotes roam just outside the fence.  While sitting in his back yard, I looked up to see a hawk fly overhead—doubtless looking for a small rodent or a housecat.  There are none here, so the bird moves on.  Farther away in the sky is a turkey vulture, competing with the hawk for the local vermin.  The dog lies peacefully at my feet.  Nearby are birds pecking away at the ground for goodies invisible to the human eye.  The male birds make a little clicking noise—completely unfamiliar to me.  The stiff fronds of the palm next door rustle in the wind.

After years of working at a pace many would consider unreasonable, retirement is full of surprises.  I am learning to sit and listen and watch and smell my world in a way that has been unavailable to me until now.   I don’t mean to say that opportunities haven’t been available.  But I haven’t been open to these experiences as I am now.  We persuade—no convince ourselves during our working careers that there is no other way to do the work without adversely affecting the quality of the work, the product, the effect on our constituents and our reputation.  So we trudge on, leaving the office late, bringing work home, working on the weekends, worrying about it all the time, and worse yet—spending too little time with self and family. 

I was recently interviewed by students in a program designed to prepare individuals for careers in public policy.  Their final question to me was “If you had it to do over again, what would you do differently?”  I’ve been asked that question before and have not hesitated to say “nothing.”  I had a wonderful career in nonprofit and government service.  I was given exciting opportunities to be at the forward end of many innovative initiatives.  I sought advancement and was rewarded.  I worked with interesting and caring people whose commitment to the disenfranchised reflected my own.  Instead, I said “I would not have worked so hard.”   I explained that my family and I made many sacrifices in order to have the career I enjoyed; and I realize now that I could have worked differently and likely seen similar success.   It was an unexpected epiphany to hear myself speaking those words. 

My message?  Get a grip on your lives!   Look again at what you’re doing each day and assess the risk of change.  In all things, do no harm, but do something.  Retrospection is a useless tool unless it makes you whole. 

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Anthropomorphic Laptop

I’m not proud of the prickly relationship I have with my laptop.  I’m aware that the laptop does not have any human characteristics, but I find myself personally blaming the damned thing for all its transgressions.  On the other hand, I do believe it knows exactly when I really need performance—I’m in the middle of an e-mail, I’m searching for the movie time and have only minutes to make it out the door, I’m writing the beginning of what I think will be a masterpiece and it freezes before I have an opportunity to save, ad infinitum.  If only it would behave.  Now that I’m retired, I have more time to spend on the laptop writing such things as this blog.  And it means the laptop has more opportunities to turn against me at critical moments. 

I am an impatient person by nature.  I have fought against this character flaw all my life; and accessibility to the internet does not lend itself to enhanced patience on my part.  When I was still working in government, I would sometimes have 20 e-mails open on my desktop while searching for three pieces of information on the internet and composing an issue paper while editing another.  I left there with the same expectation of my own equipment.  And the equipment has failed me. 

This is not an unexpected revelation as the laptop was never able to achieve the same efficiencies as was my work computer—or our home desktop either.  The industry has perpetuated what seems to me like a myth that a laptop somehow lets us write, communicate, and educate ourselves anywhere in the world.  The fact is that unless you have the latest technology, it won’t go down like that.  My laptop was purchased just about four years ago—akin to the Precambrian era in geologic terms.  In fact, considering the frequency with which it freezes, the Ice Age may be more apropos. 

Given my enduring interest in creating calm in my retirement while at the same time being an active participant in the twenty-first century, I think I’ll buy a new one. 

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Jack and Winston

My oldest son arrived around midnight with his two dogs—a jet-propelled Boston terrier named Jack (Union Jack) that he acquired as a puppy and a teacup poodle named Winston that was left with him by a former girlfriend when it was clear in the break-up that the dogs considered themselves a “set.”  He called from his car in front of the house to give us warning that he had arrived so we could temporarily install our cats in the bedroom along with their food, water, and other necessities.  The terrier has made it his personal mission to gain access to the cats so we go to great lengths to segregate them. 

The dogs visited several times during the holidays and have already endured much attention from our puppy, Milo.  So now when they come, they endure it no longer.  They make it crystal clear that they are not about to tolerate any of that puppy nipping or mounting or herding.  He tries anyway, and sometimes we are forced to pull them apart and put them in different rooms.  That means we have the cats in one room and my son’s dogs in the other.  And Milo mopes around the house—friendless. 

Jack and Winston are a comical pair.  One moves like a torpedo when he is motivated.  The other prances about, picking up his feet like a Lipizzaner.  In fact, Winston is never all that motivated to get from A to B on his own.  He just waits until someone picks him up.  When we come home, Jack jumps a few feet off the ground like a kangaroo on speed while Winston dances around in circles—around and around and around.  If I think about them with human characteristics, Jack would be in a football uniform and Winston would be wearing a lacy blouse with a peter pan collar. 

Milo is a bichon frisé—a placid but well-rounded breed.  He’s equally adept at prancing and torpedoing.  Thank goodness for doggie diversity.