Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Chocolate, Anyone?

Is it possible to have too much chocolate? Most people would answer with an emphatic "No!" and I would have to agree with them. Oh, I know some people don't care for chocolate, and people who make chocolates can grow tired of them. Remember the famous I Love Lucy skit where she and Ethel got jobs in a candy factory? Lucy and Ethel did not end up big chocolate fans. As a general rule, though, choclate is a favorite treat and people always want more.

Ordinarily, I would want more, too, but at this moment, Michael and I have hit the chocolate saturation point and just aren't enthusiastic any longer. "How did this astonishing change of heart come about?" you ask. "Well," I answer, "it all started in October ..."

When I visited my mother in Montana at the end of October, she had just returned from a visit with my brother and sister-in-law, Bob and Lynn, in Bismarck, ND. Lynn is a pharmacist and Bob runs the Medicine Shop pharmacy they own in Mandan, ND. In addition, they own a soda fountain store and the candy-making business that came with it. Every year since they became candy tycoons, Bob and Lynn have made the kindly gesture of sending family members a box of Lindy Sue chocolates. They are delicious and much appreciated.

This year, Mother had the box of candy with her upon her return from Bismarck. A bit early for Christmas, but it's chocolate candy so who am I to quarrel? I dutifully brought the box back to Houston UNOPENED and set it aside for the holiday season. Michael and I finally opened the candy around Thanksgiving, feeling that it was officially Christmastime when Black Friday hit.

Inside, we found the usual assortment of luscious chocolates with a bonus: a layer of chocolate covered potato chips that tasted absolutely delicious. Bob and Lynn hit one out of the park this year! We were happy. We ate the chocolates sparingly so they would last until we left for our Christmas trip.

A week or so after Thanksgiving, we attended a wine and chocolate pairing event sponsored by the Washington University in St. Louis alumni group. The party cost $20 each, which was tending out of our entertainment budget, but we decided to be sports and do it anyway. Good choice as it turned out. The evening, at Chocolat du Monde in Rice Village, delivered the goods.

We started with sparkling wine and champagne truffles, then moved on through three other wine-chocolate partnerships, each one delicious. While we indulged - and the Chocolat du Monde staff were very generous with the wine and candy - we heard about fine chocolates, sampled the mouth-watering canapes, and checked out the candy in the display case and on the store shelves.

Everything looked so good. The candies on the shelves were priced. Their costs were moderate to high, in our opinion, ranging from $12 a pound to $18. More than we usually spent, but this special chocolate was worth it. The chocolates in the case, which we had been eating all evening, were not priced, but I expected them to be about the same.

"Let's get some candy for Christmas gifts," I suggested to Michael. He readily agreed. I particularly wanted to get some really good, liquored up chocolate covered cherries for Nick. I try to send him some C-C-Cs every Christmas, but last year he suggested I get him some with alcohol in the syrup. A novel idea which had never occurred to me. Perhaps this year I would.

"How much are the candies in the cases?" I inquired innocently.

"The Neuhaus are $60 per pound and the Leonidas are $45 per pound," the proprietor told me with a straight face, such a straight face that I didn't have to ask if he was joking.

OMG! I thought. Who pays $60 a pound for chocolate??

That pretty much shot down our plans to buy people candy for Christmas except Nick, for whom I purchased six Cerisse candies by Leonidas, which are brandied chocolate covered cherries individually wrapped. It is his major Christmas gift this year! (Okay, I did buy a small bag of dark chocolate-covered, salted caramel balls for Michael and I, too, but they were from a $13 a pound jar.)

Right before we left, Chocolat du Monde had a raffle and awarded several gifts of wine and chocolate. Michael had the good fortune to win a one pound box of the Neuhaus. Yes, we left with a $60 box of Belgian chocolates to add to the candy from Bob and Lynn.

Last Friday, the Houston Women Writer's Co-operative held its annual holiday party, sharing dinner and exchanging gifts. I received a lovely basket full of - three guesses and the first two don't count - chocolates! In this case, the chocolates were more diverse and included cookies and cocoa as well as actual chocolate candies, but the overall effect was the same. More chocolate!!

Earlier the same day, Michael's office had hosted a holiday luncheon and gift exchange. He came home with - guess - yes, another box of chocolates. This time the loot was Ferrero Rocher chocolates. Wow. We had a lot of chocolate in the house. And mostly a lot of unopened chocolate. We are going away for Christmas this year, so we won't even have a chance to share with guests.

Yesterday, the mail came late and during a pouring rainstorm. Ordinarily, I would have ignored it until the rain died down, but I had to flag down the mail carrier on her trip up the other side of our street. (She had forgotten to take the packages I had scheduled for pick up that day.) While I stood huddled under a practically useless umbrella, I picked up our soggy mail. We received the usual appeals for money, sales pitches, and a large mailing envelope from my brother Bob.


Bob and Lynn sent this box with holiday greetings, so the candy I received in October apparently was not our Christmas candy. While I would never complain about receiving gifts of candy lest they be withheld in future years, Michael and I now do officially have too much chocolate. I guess we'll have to entertain more this year.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


At Christmas, a year ago, Michael and I had an epiphany: we were free at last. We no longer had children at home on Christmas morning. This is more significant than it might seem to casual observance. When we married, on December 21, 1976, I already had a child, Alexandra, who was two and a half. Our first Christmas together, four days later, focused primarily on her, on the wonderful, magical elements of wrapping paper and bows, stockings and their stuffers, and toys.

And that has been Christmas at the Devereux home for all the years since. Because I love Christmas, the elements of magic remained long after our children could have given them up. And we adopted Victoria when Alix and Nick were essentially grown, giving the magical a new lease on life. For thirty-three years, a child woke us up on Christmas morning, anxious to see what loot awaited under the tree.

Last year, our 34th together, we awoke late in a childless house. No one cared if we got out of bed. This is not to say we awoke to a home devoid of Christmas magic. Santa had come in the night, proved by the stockings brimming with stuffers, and our gifts, those opened with the kids the previous evening and those from each, other lay scattered under the tree.

As we celebrated, low-key and relaxed, the epiphany struck home. We could do anything we wanted at Christmas now that all three children were grown and gone. It was at that very moment that we conceived the idea of going on our dream trip to Costa Rica in 2011 to celebrate our 35th wedding anniversary.

Michael and I discussed the idea on and off for a couple of months until a chance conversation with a friend over lunch revealed the fact that she and her husband, as well as two other couples we knew, had gone to Costa Rica the previous year on a wonderful tour they highly recommended.

The rest of that story is pretty straightforward. I told Michael about it, we did our research, and, by March, we had reservations for a 10-day Christmas-time tour to celebrate our wedding anniversary. Deposits were made, plane reservations were made, a Fodders Guide to Costa Rica was purchased, and we started getting excited.

The excitement has built in the last nine months, our trip anticipated like the birth of a child. We had many conversations about what we would see, where we would go, and what clothes we would need. We talked about finally using our passports, applied for several years ago in the hope of overseas travel. We talked about how to conserve luggage space so we could bring back gifts for our family. What didn't we talk about?

Now, the birth is imminent. On December 23, a mere ten days from now, we are boarding a plane for Miami, where we will board a plane for San Jose, Costa Rica. We will be leaving the country for a place that is not contiguous with the United States. We will be embarking on a trip we have talked about since George W. Bush got elected president the first time.

I have most of my Christmas shopping and wrapping done. Presents are in boxes waiting to be sealed and mailed across country. I am finishing up my Christmas cards and putting up a few Christmas decorations to give the place a bit of holiday cheer. Michael and I have a plan for making our traditional cookies. And underneath all this seasonal normalcy, is a buzz of excitement and thrill. Our trip is almost here!

In a perverse way, I would like time to stop right now, for this moment of anticipation to linger forever. In three weeks, our trip will be over. Yes, we will have memories and photographs, but the buzz will fade away. I love this buzz. I especially love the fact that Michael and I are sharing the buzz so intimately, as a kind of connubial bliss.

I know already that one result from this trip will be the planning of another trip or event of comparable magnitude. It is way too much fun to be a one-time deal.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

What's Not to Love about Christmas?

I love Christmas. This is not to say I am religious or even Christian. As a Unitarian Universalist, my relationship to Christ is not as Lord and Saviour, but rather as mentor and wise guide. I don't celebrate the birth of Christ as a religious event, but I love to join in on "Hark the Herald Angels Sing."

In part, my love of the trappings of Christmas is a reflection of my childhood, of every Christmas pageant I participated in at St. Mary's and Holy Family, the elementary schools I spent second through eighth grade attending. (By high school, at St. James, pageants had lost their inclusive nature and morphed into performances by the choir and band, leaving me behind in no uncertain terms.)

I sang religious Christmas carols at school and secular carols with the Girl Scouts on door-to-door caroling expeditions. Caroling, in the cold countries it developed in and the cold country I practiced it in, is quite a testament to the power of the season. Who decided that trudging through snow in bitter cold and sing at the neighbors' houses constituted fun? We used to get hot chocolate and cookies at the last house, but a lot of frosty toes and red noses preceded those treats.

And speaking of treats, how about the seemingly infinite variety of Christmas cookies? I grew up baking fancy cookies with my mother. We made marzipan cookies shaped like apples, pears, peas, strawberries, and oranges. We made thumbprint cookies with gumdrops pressed into their hot centers just before they came out of the oven. We made almond crescents, delicate, crisp cookies, moon-shaped and rolled in powdered sugar, which melted on your tongue when you bit into them. We made peanut blossoms, peanut butter cookies with a Hersey's kiss pressed into the center, a Reeses's peanut butter cup without the wrapping. We made cut-out sugar cookies, frosted and sprinkled to perfection. We made Spritz cookies, extruding them from a metal tube in the shapes of stars, Christmas trees, and wreaths.

Mother and I baked all these cookies and put them in tins, then into the freezer. And after the baking was finished for the day, we made chocolate chip cookies for the other kids, masking, in theory, the smells of the not-to-be-eaten Christmas cookies, thus protecting them from marauding. I say in theory because it didn't take a genius to know that Mother would be making Christmas cookies and it was certainly no secret that she froze them in tins in the big, basement chest freezer.

Years of filching from the freezer taught me, and I presume my siblings as well, to regard frozen cookies a delicacy. As an adult, I discovered the practicality of having tins of assorted, frozen cookies available for the unexpected guest or for an after dinner treat. Frozen cookies stayed fresh and thwarted the casual impulse to snack that can decimate a jar of cookies practically overnight.

The same principle applied to Girl Scout cookies, I found, which could be purchased in quantities and consumed over weeks instead of days. It astonished Michael the first time a stack of Girl Scout cookie boxes disappeared overnight. ("They're in the freezer!?!? Why are the Girl Scout cookies in the freezer?") I really wasn't hiding the cookies from him, simply storing them for later use. And if I was the only one who appreciated the sharp snap of biting into a frozen cookie, well, then, more power to me for having a broad skill set in cookie eating. (Adaptation being a human survival technique, it is true that all my loved ones eventually developed frozen cookie eating skills.)

Back to Christmas in all its glory. What isn't to love about it? On Christmas Eve, we opened gifts one at a time in order of age, piles and piles of gifts in a family of nine, and then attended midnight Mass. And on Christmas morning, we awoke to stockings stuffed with tangerines and apples, candy and other small treats, and gifts from Santa Claus. I love Christmas gifting and I love Santa Claus. He still visits my home, often bringing gifts that would be verboten from anyone else.

Michael understands that household appliances are not suitable gifts for a husband to get a wive, but Santa may gift the family with appliances all he wants. Parents may disapprove of the latest hot gift item, considering it over-rated, inappropriate, or just plain silly, but Santa can give such gifts regardless of their deficiencies. Santa even provides children with the sugar cereal and soda pop and candy their cruel parents deny them. Santa Claus is a powerful reason to love the Christmas season.

I haven't even started on Yule food. And where would I start? So much food, such lovely place settings, such fine, hand-crocheted tablecloths, a glass of champagne by every plate, even of the youngest child. We ate and ate on Christmas Eve afternoon and opened gifts when the dishes were all done, a great motivator to the women and girls working in the kitchen. Which is one Christmas tradition I haven't kept; everyone who eats helps clean up. No gender-based chores.

As a child, I only knew about the Christian celebrations that take place at that time of year. As I got older and met a more diverse group of people, I discovered Hanukkah, the Jewish celebration that coincides seasonally with Christmas. It has its own assortment of delicious foods, gifts, and rites, well worth investigating. I have had the pleasure of eating latkes, collecting gelt, and spinning dreidels. The idea of eight days of gifts is appealing, although my Jewish friends tell me that the gifts are not as elaborate and plentiful as in Christian celebrations.

I love Christmas. Saturday night I attended a Christmas party, the only one on my social calendar this year. I spent a charming evening at the home of a friend, surrounded by friends, eating delicious food prepared by friends, and drinking a variety of festive beverages. How much better could it get, the sharing and caring of the winter holidays? I may not be Christian, but I am Christmasian, and expect to be for the rest of my life.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

I Have a Question

I am a person who always has questions. I wonder who the missing link was, envisioning a hairy, stooped fellow who wakes up one morning and announces to his cave mates, "I've decided to do something with my life." I wonder who decided the order of the lights on traffic signals. Did a committee haggle over this - "Red, green, yellow!" "No, yellow, green, red!" "I still think we should use blue instead of green." - until one stalwart member stood up and pronounced, "Enough of this, we're going with green, yellow, red and that's final." And did we give people the green light before or after the invention of traffic signals?

Questions. How could there be nothing, as in, 'Before the Big Bang, there was nothing but a void.' For me, even a void somehow implies thingness. It has a name, it must be something. Ideas are intangible in the same way that nothingness is intangible - you can name it. The naming does not create the existence of the thing, but it calls up the memory of it. When I name a table, for example, I can touch it's surface in my brain, I can see the crumbs left from a meal, I can hear the scrape of chairs being pushed under it.

What do I imagine when I contemplate the void, the no-thing of the no-time before the Universe exploded into existence? My brain balks at the task. It wants to imagine something, needs to imagine something, because humans are, after all, the essential imaginers. Not to imagine the nothing seems impossible to me. My human brain keeps trying to bring up memories of nothingness, to feel it under my fingertips, to hear its missing sound waves, to see across it vast invisibility.

More questions. Are the billions of cells in our bodies really citizens of human-sized universes, having sprung from the nothingness before the sperm collided with the egg? Each cell seems so intent on its task, and the tasks themselves seem so complex, so improbable. Could all these bits of aliveness really perform all their duties without some kind of sentience? I imagine one cell among the teeming masses of cells, pondering the same questions I ponder. "Where do we come from? What existed before the Big Bang that created this universe of which I am a part?"

And more questions. If I had done what my parents wanted when I graduated from high school and attended the local university, what life would I be living today? I try to imagine myself being someone else, yet essentially me. I would probably have married and had children, because marriage and children are part of the expectations I have always had about my life. But what husband, what children? What would Alix and Nick look like if someone else was their father?

I imagine Alix and Nick in different housings, the same people but with different skin color, or hair color, or eye color, but that's not how it would be, is it? My Alix and my Nick wouldn't be at all, other someones would fill my life, if there even were children populating my other imagined life. Perhaps in my different outcome, I would marry a man who was sterile, or I would miscarry every pregnancy, or I would abandon my husband and children, leave them behind.

In books and movies that tackle these questions, the lives we might have lived are often portrayed as parallel universes where things are just slightly askew, where a small change has small repercussions. But why would that be so? Why wouldn't a small change have a giant repercussion, make an alternate life that bears not the least resemblance to the actual life we live?

I love these questions. I love giving in to the absolute impossibility of following a metaphysical question to its conclusion, but trying to follow it anyway. What if we discovered the secrets of psychic phenomenon and everyone could participate in ESP and telepathy and telekinesis? Impossible, you say? But consider sound waves, consider explaining sound waves and radios or telegraphy to someone in the tenth century.

"There are these invisible waves, like the waves of the ocean, and they are continually emanating from everyone and everything that makes noise. And if you build a machine that can capture these sound waves and transform the invisible waves back into noise, then you can hear things from another village, or another country, or another continent." And the people you shared this insight with would consider you a lunatic or heretic or witch, none of which you'd want to be considered in the tenth century.

So, what if psychic phenomenon are just another kind of wave, waves we haven't discovered yet? What if the mechanism to decipher them exists in the structures of our brains, but most of us just don't know how to use those structures. If that were the case, then those few of us who were naturally inclined to pick up the psy-waves would be actually psychic, not loony or frauds or misguided.

I had an intensely psychic experience when I was sixteen, something so profoundly real and frightening that describing it to other people brings tears to my eyes 45 years later. How do I explain that experience in a rational world where ESP is bunk? I don't explain it, of course, it becomes another question for me to ponder.

Did I tell you I loved questions? I once asked my husband something like, "If I died in a car crash and my face was disfigured, how would you identify my body?" He did not respond well to this question. What I really wanted to know was this: do you know my body well enough to identify the scars and small anomalies I have accumulated in my life?

For many years, Michael became irate, and frustrated, and put out at many of the questions I posed. He had a moment of insight a decade or so ago, a moment he remembers with fondness and even relief. Michael has told me he suddenly realized that I wasn't necessarily looking for an answer to my questions, but that I just enjoyed playing with the questions. Bravo, Michael. It is not the answers, but the questions that I love. I will admit, though, that when I think of Heaven, of life after death, I envision a place where the actual true answer to every question I have ever asked or ever could ask is available, an infinite Wikipedia where no one has fudged or lied or misunderstood, and all the explanations can be counted on to be absolutely correct. Now, that would be Heaven.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

His Scruffy-ness

It feels like it's time for a cat update. In October, we officially adopted Scruffy, the tuxedo tomcat who had been begging to come into our house for months. Adopting him involved two trips to the vet's office, one for a check-up and shots, the other for a neutering procedure. That done, we began introducing him to our other cats.

Smudge, our alpha cat and also a tuxedo, did not like Scruffy one bit. Aside from the fact that they are both black and white with that distinctive "I'm dressed for a gala" look, the two have nothing in common. Scruffy is burly and, since he wasn't neutered until he was almost 2, has the full- faced jowly look that tomcats get. Smudge, on the other hand, is sleek and slender jawed.

Scruffy can be aggressive with our other cats. For the first several weeks of shared space, first Smudge, then Scruffy, received slashed noses. Smudge growls whenever Scruffy comes near, a deep-throated, rumbling that emanates from deep within his chest. Scruffy has stopped chasing Smudge and Smudge leaves the room if Scruffy shows up.

With Baby and Frankie, the dynamics are a little different. Frankie is definitely a lover, not a fighter, and he avoids Scruffy whenever possible, to the point of skipping nightly treats if the catmosphere is too tense. Frankie has always buddied up with Smudge in a pleasant, deferential way and he has always rough-housed with Baby in the big, overgrown kid kind of way. That remains the same, although Frankie seems edgier with Scruffy inside.

Baby is the only one who approaches Scruffy with any sort of camaraderie. They nose bump and butt sniff in friendly cat fashion. Occasionally Scruffy rubs up against Baby like he's looking for a friend, yet he also chases Baby around the house. This alarmed me at first, but now I've decided that it is playful rather than aggressive, so I ignore it.

For a while, I tried to intervene every time Scruffy got bossy or mean with my house cats. The funniest thing happened though. When I yelled at Scruff to stop or no-noed him in my tough voice, I scared the other cats more than I scared him. Occasionally trying to stop a stand-off resulted in a fight, because when I would startle the cats, one of mine would inevitably run, and Scruffy would then attack.

I quickly learned to leave them alone to sort things out, operating on the same principals that I used in childrearing. Things are quieter now days, with less in your face behavior by Scruffy and a little more tolerance by the house cats. Scruffy insists on being an indoor-outdoor cat, something we haven't had in 20 years, but it works well to give Smudge, Frankie, and Baby some relief from the changes he has wrought in our cat dominance hierarchy.

The downside of that is a increasing interest by the house cats in the outdoors. They want to see where Scruffy is going when he leaves. Last night, Smudge dashed into our bathroom as soon as I shut the door on Scruff, trying to get up on the windowsill (which isn't big enough for him) to check out the backyard. A few days earlier, Baby actually made a break when I held the front door open for Scruffy. I followed him, alarmed, and found him sitting on the front terrace looking bewildered. He advanced and retreated on several areas of the garden before dashing back inside, apparently overwhelmed by the sights and smells of his childhood territory.

I need to collar Scruffy and put his rabies tags on him so that he is protected from the cat police, although, if the feral colony is any indication, there actually aren't any cat police where I live.

Michael and I both intended for Scruffy to be his cat. That isn't working out as well as we hoped, although I am doing my part by ignoring him most of the time and petting him half-heartedly the rest of the time. Michael lavishes him with attention and, if Scruff is as smart as I think he is, he will figure out that the food and the love do NOT come from the same hands.

Scruffy would be happier in a one-cat family and we would be willing to give him up, so if you'd like a nice cat who isn't much trouble and who loves to be petted, let me know. Scruffy might be meant for you!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

McMenamins Kennedy School Hotel

I spent a long weekend at McMenamins Kennedy School Hotel recently, a bit of whimsy that I initially thought about last year, when we went to Portland for our first visit with Michael's son, MG, and his family. The hotel popped up on a Google search of Portland hotels and it looked interesting, a hotel in a school with a salt-water soaking pool. Last year, however, they were booked for some of the nights we needed and I put us in the Doubletree instead. (Gotta love those cookies!!)

This year, I determined to get into the Kennedy School and I booked early. Michael wanted to go to a hotel closer to MG et al, but the Kennedy School just appealed to me and I talked him into it. I was, therefore, the one on the hook when we arrived at the hotel and were underwhelmed by our first impression.

In fairness, we arrived late - two hours later by Houston time than it was in Portland - tired, and hungry. Our room, Thumbelina, had the vaultingly high ceilings of an old elementary school, a wall of windows at least eight feet tall, and a small space heater to combat the icy atmosphere. We put down our suitcases, jacked the heater up to high heat and max blower, and went to dinner.

Along the way to the restaurant, we looked out the window to get a glimpse of the saltwater soaking pool that had captured my interest online. It was outdoors, a fact that I knew but had not, until that moment, realized meant outside in the cold. And, because it was closed, it was swathed in plastic insulating tarps, making it look as uninviting as possible. What have I done? I wondered. This place is going to be awful.

The hamburger I had in the restaurant tasted great and the roaring fire in the adjacent courtyard looked inviting, but we were still cold and apprehensive. Walking back to Thumbelina, we noticed a plethora of artwork on the walls and signs pointing the way to the Honors Bar, the Detention Bar, and the Boiler Room Bar. There were quite a few people in the hallways and the premises looked very big and spread out, which, in fact, they were.

Unfortunately, Thumbelina had not warmed up appreciably in our absence. I did take a minute to notice the welcome sign written on the chalkboard, the lines from the story of Thumbelina inscribed on the wall, and the mural of leaves sprouting and spreading around the top of the room.

The chalkboard ranged across one entire wall. The headboard of the bed appeared to be an antique that may have started life as a door, the storage in the room consisted of a wardrobe and two bedside tables. The room offered a table and chair as a desk and a comfortable Victorian sofa for seating. Period pillows rested on the sofa and the bed.

We took care of personal necessities in a rather unimpressive bathroom, outfitted with a pedestal sink, a small, square shower, and two shelves to store our toiletries. The only decoration consisted of Thumbelina's leaves invading the bathroom walls like kudzu. Having done everything possible to delay undressing in our Arctic room, we gave in and got ready for bed. As I pulled my slinky, satiny nightgown over my head, I wondered why I hadn't thought to bring flannel jammies.

Day two began somewhat better because, when we woke up, the room actually felt warm. We had breakfast in the Courtyard Restaurant, which Michael enjoyed and I did not. I had muesli, which tasted okay, but the waiter served my steamer lukewarm. In case you aren't familiar with them, a steamer is frothed, flavored, steamed milk, a latte for people who don't like coffee. (I got a lukewarm steamer with a deeply frothed top in a latte cup on Friday and a piping hot steamer with no froth in a glass on Saturday. Call me picky, but neither one made me happy.)

After breakfast, we decided, with some trepidation, to try the saltwater spa. When we arrived at the changing room and got ready, I wondered what the heck we were doing. Walking out the door to the atrium produced chills on every square inch of my body, but, oh, the water was heaven! Soaking in that hot water, watching the steam rise lazily from its surface, occasionally wafted one way or the other by a stray breeze, and admiring the lush greenery, which included banana trees, I felt absolute contentment. This is why I came here, I thought, this is perfect.

The Kennedy School's place in its community unfolded for us when a play group of toddlers and parents began to assemble in the pool. They were not rowdy or unruly; perhaps something about the hot saltwater relaxed and soothed everyone as much as it did me, and we shared the pool contentedly until Michael and I felt ready to leave.

Over the four days we spent at the Kennedy School, I came to appreciate the atmosphere of community it fostered. The school auditorium had become a movie theater which was sold out every time we tried to see a movie. (The lesson there is to plan ahead, because guests can attend movies for free. Outsiders have to pay $5.00.)

The two-story Boiler Room Bar has fixtures and railings made from parts of old mechanical heating plants and a cute, little, waist-high, open-topped elevator to get disabled visitors downstairs. The place had a crowd every time we walked by. The Honors Bar, by comparison, fit into what had probably been a janitor's closet and had no customers when we visited. We did not ever get to the Detention Bar, but I imagine it had a bigger population than the Honors Bar.

Having stayed at the Kennedy School Hotel once, I have satisfied my curiosity sufficiently and may never stay there again. But I definitely recommend it to others. Just remember to pack warm pjs for the first night if you visit during cold weather, and plan to get your steamer fix at a nearby Starbucks instead of the Courtyard Restaurant.

Repurposing old buildings into something productive and community-building is a feat that I wish Houston businesses would emulate. Our wonderful Alabama Bookstore, an old-time movie theater turned into a Barnes and Noble bookstore for many years, might still be operating instead of facing a wrecking ball if Houston took renewal as seriously as Portland does. McMenamins would be a good source of information about conversions of old properties because they have successfully converted several in Portland and its surrounds. Hey, Houston developers, check them out!!.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Travelin' Times

2011 has been a year of traveling times for me. In February, I went to Omaha, where my brother Mark and sister-in-law Judy live, to visit while my mother stayed at their home. The cold weather and snow didn't bother me too much, but they did make me happy to live in Houston, where really cold days are rare and snow even rarer. We spent most of our time in quilt-talk and quiltwork, since Mother, Judy, and I are all quilters. And we spent time with extended family, too, including the energetic young sons of my niece Jenny.

In May, Michael and I traveled to Brooklyn to spent a long weekend with our son, Nick. We had the pleasure of meeting his special friend, Kate and revisiting a college friend of mine, Greg. Our days were filled with simple, but satisfying activities. We spent a morning at the Cloisters, a place I've wanted to visit sine the first time it figured in a novel I read. We walked across Central Park and to the MET, then cabbed our way to Times Square for a meet-up that couldn't have been more surprising - my niece Leslie, from Wisconsin and her husband were also visiting New York City that weekend. What are the odds? We also saw the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, the Brooklyn Bridge, and spent lots of time walking the Park Slope area of Brooklyn. Discoveries there were primarily culinary and delicious, most notably The Chocolate Room. I had the best dark chocolate sorbet there imaginable.

Two weeks later, we jetted off to Huntington Beach, CA for Luisa and Derek's wedding. The wedding itself was a delightful harbor cruise and dance party that lasted for hours, thank you L&D, but the weekend offered ample activities for quiet old folks like us. Beach walks, exploring Huntington Beach, drinks and meals with other wedding guests, and a spectacular dinner at Rockin Baja Coastal Cantina in Newport Beach. They served the best seafood dinner I have ever eaten in a tin bucket and, when the food finally ran out, I wanted to put my head in the bucket and lick the sides!

In July, we drove to Grapevine, Texas for the Mayborn Literary Non-Fiction Conference, an annual event that feeds the body and the intellect. We listened to good writers and great writers talk about their craft and bought book after book, providing ourselves with lots of wonderful fall reading material. Most recently, I finished The Zookeeper's Wife by Diane Ackerman. Excellent!!

In October, I flew to Helena, Montana by myself to visit my Mother and the large contingent of extended family I have there. Mother and I had a lovely time, mostly visiting with each other and being entertained by the great-grandchildren who seemed to be everywhere. We took a side trip to the Archie Bray Foundation where extraordinary potters pursue their passion and the gardens are littered with pottery "libraries." We also drove to Bozeman for another family visit. Altogether, I have eight adult relatives in Helena and eleven child relatives, making it the single most populous locale for descendants of my parents!

Two days after I returned from Helena, Michael and I left again, for Portland, this time to see son MG, daughter-in-law Shannon, and grand kids Olivia and Mackenzie. We're staying at the fabulous, funky Kennedy School Hotel. It has a heated, outdoor, salt water soaking pool that we braved this morning despite chilly weather. Marvelous, marvelous, marvelous! Steamy clouds drifted overhead as we sank into the warm embrace of the pool. We wondered if anyone else would try the pool out and discovered that it is popular meet-up spot for hotel guests and neighbor folk, too. If my bathing suit weren't still wet and cold, I'd go back now. Exploring the neighborhood this afternoon, we found the best gyros either of us has ever eaten, and we have eaten gyros in a lot of different cities, at a restaurant call The Blue Olive. Retail explorations took us to Monograph Bookwerks, a fine art books and objects store, where we found a lovely book on Wabi-Sabi, and to Six Days Art Co-op, where we saw many intriguing and beautiful art pieces, although we bought only two items (for gifts, so sshhhhh!).

Tonight the Portland Devereuxs join us for dinner and together we plot the rest of our weekend. Can't wait! And it is also hard to wait for the BIG trip in December, when we go to Costa Rica to celebrate our 35th wedding anniversary. Like I said, 2011 has been travelin' times for me. I wonder how 2012 can possibly compete!

Friday, August 12, 2011

Rocky Raccoon

We have seen the raccoon in our backyard twice before, although the evidence of his visits appear more regularly. Until he showed up, I didn't know that raccoons were so big, bigger than Scottie, the terrier we used to have, and burly, too. The last time we saw Rocky, it turned into an inadvertent game of tag.

Michael went out to turn on the sprinklers, not knowing that Rocky was on the patio. There was a momentary stand-off while they sized each other up and both considered options. Then Michael decided to get on with his task. Rocky didn't run away; he would sprint three or four feet ahead, then stop to check Michael's whereabouts. Unfortunately for both of them, Rocky's evasive maneuvers went straight towards the backyard faucet, exactly where Michael was going. When Michael got there, Rocky turned around and started his little sprints back towards the patio and our back door. Again, exactly where Michael was headed after turning the water on. There was a moment when I wasn't sure which one would come in the house.

Tonight, things took a different turn. We arrived home about 9 PM and Michael happened to flip on the patio light and glance out. "Lane," he called out, "you have to see this." I hurried to the living room windows, but I could have taken my time. There stood Rocky, hovering over a cat food dish and giving Michael a stare that looked threatening even from five feet away and through glass. After a moment, he turned his baleful eyes back to the subject at hand - cat food.

Just that morning, I had re-engineered the cat food dishes on our patio. Ants had begun invading the two containers, roiling over the food in such numbers that the kibble looked alive. The feral cats hadn't been eating much and I thought the ants were why. I tried putting the dishes up on lawn chairs, but guess what? Ants can climb plastic chairs. My next idea was a water barrier.

I used two cake pans, filled them with water, and set the cat feeders inside. It worked like a charm against ants, providing the cats with food that wouldn't bite back, but it also appealed to Rocky. As we watched, he scooped up kibble in first one hand, then the other, stuffing the food into his mouth greedily, perhaps afraid that we would come outside and chase him away. I say 'hands' because it looked so human, the way his paws powered towards his mouth one after the other. Just think of a movie where a ravenous person falls on a table of food and inhales it one handful after the other. That was our Rocky.

After a few minutes, he seemed to relax; obviously, we weren't charging out at him. In his more leisurely eating style, Rocky scooped up kibble with his hands held together monkishly, then dipped it into the moat of water surrounding the dishes. I knew from textbooks that raccoons washed their food, but kibble? Really?

Inevitably, the kibble escaped into the water whenever Rocky dunked it in and then he would plunge his snout under the water like a child in a shaggy coat dunking for apples. Periodically, he would look up at us with a quizzical eye. Is it really supposed to be this hard? I could almost hear him say.

While Rocky chowed down on the wet cat food, Michael and I went looking for cameras to take his picture, although the photos didn't turn out well through glass and in poor lighting. While trying to take a picture, Michael noticed something else on the patio.

"There's a cat out there," he told me. "Look behind the table." Sure enough, a cat was stretched out in pose of blissful sleep. "That's Blackie!" I said. Blackie, who we think is Baby's dad, is a homely thing. His coat has brown highlights, giving him a muddy look, and his big, jowly tomcat head just doesn't fit his long, thin body. He might might not be a pretty boy, but he was smart, the only one of our regulars we hadn't been able to trap for neutering.

"Oh, Michael, look at him. He's dead. The raccoon killed Blackie!" I knew that no cat would lounge so casually three feet away from a raccoon, and Rocky was that close to him. The raccoon stayed at the first feeding dish a long time, and Blackie never moved. When he had had enough of that one, he repeated his performance at the second one. When he had had enough kibble, he strolled over to the big dish of drinking water and thoroughly washed his hands and face, then strolled into the night without a backward glance at us or at Blackie.

"What are we going to do about Blackie," I asked from the kitchen. "Well, nothing tonight, that's for sure," Michael responded. "I'm not dealing with a dead cat now." "So, what then? I'm supposed to deal with it tomorrow after you go to work? I can't do that," I shot back. There was a long pause. "Neither one of us is going to deal with it," Michael said, "Blackie just got up!"

I ran to the window. There he was, calmly making a snack of the kibble Rockie had left behind. That Blackie is one smooth operator, that's all I can say. Or maybe Rocky and Blackie had already come to an accommodation, one rogue to another.

What a mess I had to clean up the next day; kibble really doesn't hold up well in water. It's been a couple days since Rocky put on his show for us. We haven't seen him and I haven't found any pans of kibble goo on the patio. Tonight I saw Little Mom, Baby's mother, eating daintily from an ant-free dish of cat chow. Mission accomplished for me.


Monday, August 08, 2011

The Doorstop

On the Trail of a Doorstop

Today, one of my cats brought the doorstop from my studio all the way across the house and deposited it on my bed. Made of heavy brown rubber, it is about four inches long, two inches high at the tall end, and an inch-and-a-half wide. DOORSTOP is emblazoned down its slope. This an industrial strength item which one of my cats picked up with his teeth and carried 30 feet or so.

I use the masculine pronoun because our only female cat, Trixie, is 17 and long past any activities except eating and sleeping. Of the three boys, Smudge, Frankie, and Baby, either Frankie or Baby is the likely culprit. Or should I say hero? For whichever one it is surely thinks that he vanquished a worthy opponent and he laid it on the bed in triumph.

I leave out Smudge, a well-muscled three-year-old tuxedo cat with a daub of black on his otherwise very pink nose, because he is the alpha cat and does not need to prove anything to anyone. And he apparently does not want to take any chances with his formal attire; he reigns elegantly over the premises and rarely engages the other two boys in play.

Smudge has dibs on me and likes to recline on my chest, where he rumbles deep, revved up purrs while I rub my chin on his head and cuddle him. This began when he was a sick kitten that I rescued after his feral mother abandoned him. A kitten on my chest compares in no way to a nearly-20 pound cat in the same place. By all descriptions, his snuggles closely resemble the medieval practice of pressing someone to death by piling large stones on their chest until they suffocate. I have never mentioned this to Smudge.

Frankie is Smudge's half-brother from a subsequent feral litter. He has not acclimated to people as well as Smudge, but he would like to overcome his fears. Not too long ago, the Houston Chronicle had a cat story that featured a photograph of a cream-colored, lightly striped Maine Coon cat. It looked like Frankie's twin. Their mother, known to us affectionately as Old Mom, has the same long, lightly striped fur in a styIish gray color. She has never let us close enough to know whether or not her coat is triple thick, soft, and silky, like Frankie's, or whether she has long tufts of fur growing between the pads of her feet, like Frankie does, but my bet is that she contributed the Maine Coon in his genes.

Frankie, who is two, likes me to brush him - as long as I stroke slowly and make no sudden moves. He likes one-handed petting, but becomes alarmed and bolts when there are two hands involved. Or a plastic bag swishes. Or someone speaks loudly. Or gets out of their chair. Or walks near his bowl while he is eating. What Frankie does like is to play with Baby, the youngest cat in our family at a year old.

Baby is a nephew of Smudge's and Frankie's. His mother was in the very first litter Old Mom produced. We call her New Mom, although neither of them will be moms agaIn because we trapped them, and a few other feral cats we feed, and had them all neutered. New Mom is even warier than Old Mom and taught Baby to be as well. He would bolt if he saw us through the window and his gray tabby top on a white bottom made him hard to see, but I kept as close an eye as I could on him. As soon as he started eating kibble, I began my cat whispering and, in a few weeks, coaxed Baby into the house.

We never intended to keep him and therefore refused to name him, a ploy that resulted in him acquiring the handle 'Baby Boy.' The problem with Baby was that he had unexpected charm and daring, and we couldn't give him away. The kitten who hid became the cat who wanted to know about everything in the house, including people. He had classic cat attributes, in particular curiosity and mischief-making. Even as a small kitten, he would take Smudge, or even-heftier Frankie, on in a friendly game of fisticuffs. And he frequently bested them.

aby and Smudge both like to be made up in the clean sheets when we change our bed. On one occasion, Smudge ended up under the bottom sheet and Baby ended up on top of it. And then the two of them chased each other back and forth, like two sides of a coin wrestling each other, until Michael and I dissolved in laughter. They didn't get the joke.

Baby also walked across the curtain rods in my studio, knocked knick-knacks off the top of my kitchen cupboards, and leapt from my dresser, across a huge gap, to the top of a seven-foot tower. Waking up to a loud thud and seeing the tower, with its shelves of keepsakes, swaying back and forth under Baby's feet terrified me, but not him: he continues to do it, usually in the middle of the night.

I have a Cat Game app on my iPad, which Baby enjoys playing. In it, a dot of light dodges and bounces along over any one of several floors, including wood, rocks, and grass among others. It responds to the pouncing paws that dance across the iPad glass so that the cat controls the game quite directly. If Kitty is getting too much dot-action, it slides to an edge and disappears. Baby soon learned to wait for the dot to 'escape' and then ambush it underneath the iPad. Such a good idea, although he hasn't captured the darned thing yet.

Frankie and Baby are my two playful fellows. When I contemplated the DOORSTOP in the middle of my bed today, I knew that either Frankie or Baby had nabbed it. I praised them both for their bravery and put the doorstop securely back in its accustomed spot, then went out with Michael to dinner. It had migrated to the living room by the time we got back home.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Flexing my Crone Muscle

I got to flex my Crone muscle yesterday and I discovered that it is very well-developed. Coming out of Hobby Lobby, I passed a young woman with a double stroller and a small boy perhaps 4 or 5 years old. The boy was crying and, from the mom's comments, it was clear she had just spanked him. Now, I've been known to spank a kid or two myself, so I didn't get alarmed about that, but what happened next really made me angry.

Mom got to the entrance of Hobby Lobby, put the boy up against the wall outside, and went in with the other two kids. I watched for a bit, thinking she would never leave him there, but she did. She strolled far enough away that I could no longer see her and, of course, the little boy couldn't either. That just made my blood boil. Besides being criminally stupid from a safety point, it was also a calculated terror tactic inflicted on a child too young to know that his mother wasn't really going to leave him behind. (And, you know, sometimes they do leave the kid behind.)

I walked back to the store from my car. I had given her quite a bit of time to return by the time I got to the store's vestibule. I walked by the boy, still crying, and said, "I'm going to talk to your mommy." Inside, I told her, in a calm, firm voice, "If you leave him there, I am going to call the police." You know, it didn't faze her as much as I expected. She told me she wasn't leaving him, she put him in time out. I pointed out that he was terrified and that she darn well knew it. She rejoined that she could see him, so everything was fine. I pointed out that he couldn't see her, so that was not fine. "Kids can't see there parents in time out at home," was her justification. "This is not your home and this is not a safe place," was my final comment.

Mom decided to retrieve the child and I decided to go to my car. I didn't get in it, though, until I saw mom walk away with all three children in tow. When I first approached her, the mother was at the far end of the Hobby Lobby vestibule from where she had left her child. If someone had driven by in a car and seen an opportunity, the little boy could have been snatched and gone before mom could have done anything more than yell about it. And, when I went in, she was bending over the stroller taking care of the toddler and baby she had in there. She wouldn't have even seen her son disappear.

Some people might consider this to be interferring or intruding; I consider it to be flexing my Crone muscles, that well-developed sense of wisdom that one achieves by living a long time and paying attention. Note to all young mothers, it is never okay to leave your pre-schooler outside a store while you go inside. Whatever lesson you think you are teaching is not worth the risk to the child and is not worth the terror of abandonment you inflict on the child. All the young mothers of my acquaintance probably already know this, but apparently no one pointed it out to this young woman prior to our encounter.

Since I turned 60, I seem to lookback on my own life more than I used to and I see many instances where I wish I had been smart enough to make different choices than the ones I made. About childrearing, I wish I had laughed more and gotten annoyed less. Is the wisdom of old age merely self-criticism? Do we understand how to do things better because we see the consequences in our own lives? Perhaps so. I have to say, though, that even as the rawest recruit to motherhood, I would never have left my child outside a store while I walked inside. I'm glad I was there yesterday and I hope that mom understood the "not safe" part enough to never do it again.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Time Flies

Time flies when you're having fun. It also flies when you are too busy, not paying attention, or having too many senior moments. I can scarcely believe I haven't written a post since last April. Ironically, I think about writing posts almost daily. Whenever things happen that I want to comment on, I begin composing a post in my head. I often think about them while I'm driving and when I'm trying to fall asleep. Why don't they get from my head to my blog? That is a question I can't answer.

To a certain extent, I have been in writing avoidance for a while. That began a couple of years ago when I realized I couldn't continue working on my memoir until some big issues related to it got resolved. Since the memoir is about raising Victoria, I needed to finish getting her raised, or at least getting her to a recognizable transition point, before I could understand the ending of the memoir. Since Victoria came home from her two-year sojourn away from us - first at boarding school and then in the Job Corps - she has gotten her own apartment and started attending community college. That feels like a natural place to stop a book about raising a child.

How I wish I was actually done raising her. Even with her own apartment and car, she is so much less competent than most young adults that it frightens me. But that is a different book than the one I started several years ago about the circumstances that led Michael and me to adopt a three-year-old when our other kids were nearly grown and the unanticipated problems of raising a child with mental illness that followed.

Bringing this back to my blog, I have been writing adverse for some time and I feel as if that block is lifting. I can look at my writing studio and think about clearing my desk off without my eyes glazing over and a bout of situational amnesia occurring. I have actually signed up for a writing workshop in February that includes a session on poetry and a session on memoir. And here I am, writing a new post for my blog.

Nothing fancy, just getting my hands back into it. I don't have any particularly deep thoughts to share right now. Earlier tonight, I attended a yoga class. It is my third week back in yoga after almost a year's hiatus. Could yoga and writing have something to do with each other? Yoga is good exercise for my body, but it causes me some angst. I had an incredibly flexible body in my younger years, the kind that allows one to tuck one's leg behind one's neck on the rare occasions one wants to do that. Does it surprise you to hear that I have significantly less flexibility now than I used to have? Probably not. So why does it surprise me?

I have an edge over most people in my age-group when it comes to the losses of aging. When I first became ill with lupus, 22 years ago, and for many years after that, I had very limited mobility. I thought of it as premature aging when it happened. In my early 40s, I needed assistance to walk, first a cane, then a walker, then an electric scooter. Although I am thankfully not that handicapped at the moment - I am knocking loudly on wood as I write this - I am usually more content to live with the gentler losses of mobility and flexibility that normal aging brings than are some of my friends. I have lived with a lot worse than being creaky and far-sighted!

Before my wandering thoughts become completely lost, I must stop writing. I feel pleased to have done this work tonight and hopeful that I will be able to keep it up at a considerably more regular rate in future.