Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Another Day in Paradise

I have just returned from a week visiting a friend in northwestern Washington.  My friend lives on a peninsula that juts out into the sea.  From her living room, one can see the water of the North Pacific making its daily pass in and out, leaving in its wake ready meals for the otters, herons, egrets, eagles and other sea birds and mammals that move on and around the shores.  Far into the distance looms the northernmost of the Cascade mountains--Mount Baker, a sight to behold.  I spent most of my time in her living room concentrating on some work we were doing together; but each time I looked out, the mountain looked different—as if warning visitors to beware.  In a heartbeat, the mountain seems to move from rain to shine to snow to fog and back to shine again.  I can imagine being caught up there unable to backtrack and unable to move forward.  As it happens, I appreciate nature from a much more sensible vantage point.  

People who live in a place like this run the risk of either  being distracted by the spectacle or becoming inured to it.  Neither seems a good thing.  I have never lived in such a place as this.  I’ve lived in rural America, a remote university town, an industrial city, a suburb, and large cities on two continents.  I can safely say that I have never been able to look out my living room window at a vista like my friend’s.  But I make a choice each day wherever I live to find the paradise.  In the view from where I sit writing at my computer, I look out at the tops of the scraggly trees—the branches still discernibly naked against the gray early morning sky.  The one tree I focus on is unceremoniously framed by electrical wires.  The shed that sits in the corner of the yard is functional but not a thing of beauty.   The grass is beginning to look like a cornfield and desperately needs mowing.  There are several gardening tools scattered around next to the shed, which really need to be put back in their proper place.  And there’s that pesky barrel right in the middle of the yard—the one we use to transfer branches and other things from the yard to the large trash barrel—in the place where someone with a more sophisticated yard might see a graceful fountain.  But I see that the ends of the branches are growing fat and promise new leaves if only we could have a few days of warmer weather.  If you look with an eye toward finding the things of beauty in your life, you will always have that little piece of contented pleasure in the corner of your heart where the scourge of the world never strays and where you can always experience another day in paradise.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Selective Memory

Our memories are selective—more for some than others.  I’m of the selective variety.  My husband is not.  He remembers everything about our marriage, our house, our cars, our pets, our appliances.  He remembers everything he learned in elementary school through the completion of his teaching credential.  He remembers everything about his health, my health, our sons’ health, the pets’ health, world affairs.  I remember how many minutes per pound to cook a whole chicken, how long it takes to make a good soft-boiled egg, how to negotiate a round-about, how to parallel park, how to punctuate a sentence, that “i” goes before “e” except after “c”, and how to play Chopin’s Prelude in E Minor.  When we travel in Europe, I rely on my husband to tell me when a building was constructed, rulers ruled and fell, the wars began and ended.  He relies on me to navigate our hotels, meals, auto leases, miscellaneous purchases, and chit chat in French, Italian, Spanish, German, and Portuguese.  This describes a symbiotic memory of sorts.

My sons have brought me great joy.  I would have them again in a heartbeat and raise them with great pride.  The act of childbirth, however, comes equipped with an automatic forgetting mechanism.  Otherwise, why on earth would we bear more than one child?  I figure that Zero Population Growth was started by women whose memory was more acute than the general sisterhood.  Clearly, I am a member of the general sisterhood rather than the acute club. 
When our younger boys are together (younger meaning 23 and 29), they reminisce about things that make me squirmy.  They remember experiences that I have unconsciously, I think, chosen to forget—much like the pain of childbirth.  My contribution to these experiences, for the most part, would have been different if I could have a do-over.  These experiences include forced Sunday school attendance, forced rides in the country, forced this and forced that.  And then there was the occasional explosion that comes with childrearing--the one where I shout uselessly into the ether in the general direction of children’s ears.  These incidences most accurately account for “mother’s guilt.”  And while we hope to learn from the history in our experiences, I’m not sure it’s worthwhile to be bludgeoned with it.  Better to forget—or leave it alone.  But the boys received the memory gene from their father.  I wish they would remember more like me—selectively. 

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Globe Shrinkage

Every Wednesday, I go to a friend’s house to spend a few hours practicing my French with a group of Francophiles, like me.  My friend is a fluent French speaker.  She and her husband have spent several months at a time in France over the past few years enjoying a more intimate and concentrated experience—something we hope to do at some point in the not-too-distant future.  I have worked at learning French for many years—sometimes in formal classes, but more often with tapes, CDs, conversation groups, and watching French t.v., which we enjoy as an extra part of our cable package.  I am increasingly more comfortable when traveling in France.

The world becomes smaller through our increasingly efficient interconnectedness.  At the same time, our position in the world becomes smaller as other countries catch up technologically and economically.  In the last few months, we have witnessed crises in several countries in northern Africa and most recently, a virtual apocalypse in Japan.  Though less dramatic than these but equally as important are the European Union, which convenes in French- and Flemish-speaking Belgium; China as a formidable economic powerhouse; Germany hanging on to its reputation as a strong first-world leader; French-speaking Africa prominently featured in the news; and South America sharing its riches through wine production, tourism, and exports all over the world.  In the meantime, Americans continue to turn a blind eye to the importance of learning a foreign language.

When in the U.S., we expect visitors to attempt English and lose patience quickly when they are not proficient.  Conversely, any attempt to speak the language in another country is met with humor, enthusiasm, helpfulness, and a welcome.  Speaking English more loudly based on the premise that volume means comprehension is lost on host countries.  And yet the notion persists.  Even as far away as a restaurant in Porto Alegre, Brazil, I met a couple heading home to the U.S. after a two-year tour in Brazil where he worked for a U.S. company.  They asked if I could help them order a meal.  I was dumbstruck to think that they had been there for two years without even trying to learn the most basic Portuguese. 

Are we ready for this ever-shrinking globe?  When your language-learning efforts languish, consider this:  It isn’t waiting for us to catch up!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Motherly Devotion

I received a message from Facebook that said my son had claimed me as his mother.  It instructed me to aver that claim.  I didn’t immediately respond.  I wondered if it was some kind of scam.  I would affirm my motherhood, and suddenly I would be strapped with 17 unknown screaming children for whom I would be responsible for the rest of their young lives.  Or I would have to pay for some child’s debt or ransom or bail.  This is the kind of question only Facebook would ask.  My son knows who his mother is.  I’m sure he doesn’t need the confirmation; and yet, Facebook didn’t consider it enough that he might claim me as having borne him.  I replied affirmatively. 

Oh the lengths to which we will go to demonstrate devotion to our children.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Library Moments

I sat next to my father in the library.  I was writing and he was perusing the Sunday New York Times.  The last time I found myself sitting next to Dad in a library, we were in Paris at the Bibliothéque Historique de Paris.  We were waiting for our requested books and periodicals to be rolled out from the bowels of the library.  I had gone to great lengths to figure out the library system in France in order to look at some resource materials my father might be interested in for his research about Cadwallader Washburne who was the Ambassador to France in the mid-19th century.  Dad’s fascination with this man and his brothers, all of whom were wildly successful in one way or another, was based on their shared heritage as Mainiacs and Universalists.  
Most of us can walk into a library, look something up in the catalog, then wander around the stacks to locate the book—or wander around aimlessly in the hopes of finding something else interesting.  In France, the process is strictly scripted and requires authorization of this and that along the way.  The stacks are off limit to the public.  Libraries in France are vastly different from libraries in the United States.  

Before making the trip, Dad expressed an interest in visiting the national library—Bibliothéque Nationale de France—which is comprised of four buildings designed to resemble books that are open and facing each other.  They are large and imposing and very much evident in the Paris skyline.  I had read Adam Gopnik’s Paris to the Moon several years ago and was soundly discouraged from the idea of looking for anything at that library. But when we literally stumbled across the Bibliothque Historique de Paris in Le Marais, I could no longer refuse.  So we returned a few days later as instructed by the man inside and we could get whatever kind of authorization we needed to use the facility.   

Authorization required an identification photo—even though we were only using the library for the day.  After much explanation and pleading, the woman made do with our passports.  She gave us what we needed and sent me on my way to the card catalog—that is, the paper card catalog—drawers and drawers of it.  If you want to read more detail about that adventure, click here for the actual journal I put together after our return: https://acrobat.com/app.html#d=W1NCzZR6LSQBvkt3zd37mg.  There was nothing slam dunk about the experience.  But it was an experience.  

Despite the complications we encountered in the library in Paris, sitting side by side in our local library was comforting and satisfying.  These moments with Dad are as memory making as that trip to France.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Fowl Fans

We live in a suburban neighborhood, which stretches for many miles out beyond us to the edge of Sacramento County.  When we first moved here 25 years ago, there were some hold-out fruit orchards and horse properties; but those have long since given way to development.  We back up onto a large empty lot between us and a convalescent home and have the benefit of occasional wildlife sightings.  Last year we had a deer in the yard for several days.  I even called Animal Control because I was concerned it would cross someone’s back yard and wander on to the busy street.  They were unconcerned.  We used to have peacocks and quail until we acquired multiple cats.  Now they have found another place to hang out.  

Yesterday, I went to the car with Milo, the dog, and saw two turkeys strolling casually up the street.  Milo saw them, too, and barked ferociously out the front window.  I sat for a few minutes watching them go up the street.   And just as I was about to turn on the engine, I noticed the turkeys had doubled back toward the car with three more of their colleagues.  Evidently, they were the posse that had been sent up the street to round up the strays.  They approached the car, Milo barked, and they stood stock still gazing at us while Milo barked.  They finally meandered by in the other direction, I started the car and turned around toward them in the direction of my destination, and out of nowhere, the five became 14.  Fourteen turkeys strutting around in our suburban street without a care in the world.   

A turkey once walked right through our yard and out into the street and Spike, our cat, followed it all scrunched down close to the ground--stalking as if he were going to bring it down for a yummy oversized lunch.  We discouraged him from any attempt as we were pretty sure the turkey would render him available for somebody else’s lunch.  On this visit by the 14 turkeys, Spike kept his distance—riveted but respectful.  Smart cat. 

Monday, March 7, 2011


Cleanliness isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  I like my food clean, but I’ve never been a good housekeeper.  It isn’t something I enjoy and, in fact, see nothing but futility in it.  I clean, someone comes along—big boy or small boy—and drops a candy wrapper, a CD, some crumbs, an apple core, a pile of mail or books.  And now, of course, there’s Milo the dog, who collects all sorts of small dead things in his fur—leaves, small sticks, thistles, which he then rubs into the rug or drops onto the floor.  It would have been just as easy not to have cleaned in the first place.  I used to hope that the clutter perpetrators would eventually see the error of their ways and pick it up.  You know that expression:  “cold day in Hell.” 

My mother, a minister’s wife, entertained regularly.  I learned my deficient housecleaning habits from her.  Before the arrival of guests, which was frequent--and often unexpected, she would turn on the lights in the living room and whip around with a dust cloth, swiping all those places that were illuminated and ignoring everything else.  She didn’t bother with the backs or undersides of anything.  But she was a gracious hostess. 

I have always chosen to spend my time differently.  When the children were young, the evenings were spent with dinner, bathing, and reading to them.  And for years, I would work on what I had brought home from the office after the boys were in bed.  I was really lucky if the dishes were done before I turned in for the night.  And the weekends were taken up with soccer, errands, library runs, family, homework and food.  I was much more preoccupied with making sure everyone was well fed than with the dust on the lampshade.

But now that I’ve retired—and it’s spring--I feel obliged to clean out the detritus of my life.  When I left my office for the last time, I carried with me boxes of papers, pictures, awards, calendars, knick-knacks.  These boxes sit in our family room behind some furniture.  They’re waiting for me, though.  I sense them lurking behind the sofa—waiting, waiting, waiting. 

Last week, I cleaned our bedroom; and yesterday, I cleaned the hall closet and the bathroom.  I’m feeling quite smug about it, in fact.  I have not, however, cracked the boxes in the family room.  I think there’s a book I need to finish reading. . .

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Wedding Braids

Spring cleaning is a chore; but in the process, I came across photos from my number one son’s number one wedding.  He and his wife are no longer married, but the photos brought me back to that time when I was charged with the responsibility of delivering Taija, my then four-year-old granddaughter with the long, beautiful tresses, to her father’s wedding.  Though many years have passed since that time, I would like to emphasize that the experience left an indelible memory to share.  I’ve had short, carefree hair all my life except when I was five (I don’t remember, but it’s documented in a single photo).  And I have three sons whose hair, while periodically long, never needed more than a periodic suggestion of a brushing.  Imagine, then, the challenge of my Taija’s long hair.

I remember agonizing over the details—the rehearsal dinner, planning for a place to stay with friends and family; but my greatest preoccupation remained Taija’s hair.  I pored over books at the library, found one that showed me beautiful braids.  I envisioned two ponytails braided and beribboned.  I wanted it to be breathtaking.  My practice resulted in a straggly braid end that had nowhere to hide, no way to gather it all together, and no way to disguise the disarray under the ribbon.  And then there were little hairs that popped out of the braid in an irregular pattern.  My husband and sons—then 12 and 18--did not share my anguish over the problem. 

I bought ribbons to match her dresses.   I finally figured out how to wrap the end and tuck it inside the rubber band.  I hoped no one would discover the tangle of hair and elastic that lay underneath the lovely ribbons--much like the clutter you might find on the floor of the children’s closet.

My son delivered Taija to our house a few days before the wedding with lovely dresses, lacy socks and fancy shoes in tow.  He and his bride went up to the Lake to prepare for the wedding in the beautiful back yard of her uncle on the inclines of Incline Village at Lake Tahoe.  We arrived later in the week in time for the rehearsal dinner and wedding the next day.

I demonstrated my technique to my beloved sister-in-law and her long-haired 13-year-old daughter in the hopes they would be able to offer advice or possibly do it for me.  They were full of encouragement and approval.  I managed to complete the job--though not perfectly--but I anticipated that the filtered light in the restaurant, the confusion and business of the dinner, and the attention on the bride and groom would divert people’s attention from the errant hairs, the meandering part and the not-long-enough bows.

The dinner was a lovely event with the bride’s family and a spectacular meal in a lovely setting overlooking beautiful Lake Tahoe.  No one was focusing on Taija’s hair.  And all I remember is a lovely time.

The next morning, I dressed Taija in her pretty frock, lacy socks and pretty shoes, parted her hair, put it in ponytails, and delivered her to my sister-in-law.  Sisters-in-law are an all-too-unappreciated species.  But I can assure you that this sister-in-law is a gift.  She and her daughter took over the task of completing the coiffure and delivering the angel to the wedding site.  I left early with my father who was officiating at the wedding, my mother, my husband, and my bachelor sons.

Once there, I knew my job of hair cop was done.  I trusted my sister-in-law to complete the hair and deliver the goods.  I found a seat for my mother, helped Dad find a quiet place to collect himself, helped the bride’s mother distribute boutonnieres, snapped photos, hugged my son, checked my tears and generally allowed myself the pleasures of being mother of the groom.

The child in question arrived looking all a vision.  Heads turned, people whispered.  The wedding was perfect.  The sun shone, the bride was absolutely radiant, the groom wept in happiness. His grandfather spoke words as loving as the act itself.

By the end of the evening, my granddaughter’s shoes were scuffed.  Her lovely, lacy socks were soiled, her dress besmirched.  But the ribbons remained, the braids were shiny, and she couldn’t have been more enchanting.  We saw her father off to a new adventure and we returned to our rented home where Taija resumed her play with family and friends, unfazed by the ceremonious intertwining of the hair until she fell into a reluctant slumber.

We arose the next morning, bade one another adieu.  The bride and groom returned to start their new lives together--a sudden threesome.

All life’s challenges become memories.  Some are painful.  Some are joyous.  Some are both.  Whatever else, this one is a keeper.