Miracles and Signs

9/10/2010 (Fatima and Oporto, Portugal)

 Made it to Portugal–no delays although 6.5 hours over the Atlantic (after a 6 hour layover in Philly) was intense. On the first flight, our plane was only about 1/3 full-can´t remember the last time that happened.  Another minor miracle is that we noticed the exit leading to Fatima and spent an hour or so there.  We loved it–not having been to Rome or Israel, it was exciting for Mike and I to be near the site of real miracles.  It´s a bizarre mix of spirituality and commercialism.  We went into the church and looked at the burial places of the two children who died so young (with the 3rd one still alive at nearly 90) and then bought rosaries at a tourist shop. So we basically had the complete experience.

 Porto is beautiful– architecture reminiscent of the Monterrey area and the locals are very nice. The deep blue sky. so much like home, is the backdrop for every photo op. Our room is spacious, on the 14th floor with a balcony and a huge view of the city.  The streets all lead downhill to the Doura River and into the bay.  Last night we ate at the hotel (after wandering around the port and not being able to decide on a restaurant).  It was great and reasonable.  This morning we had a breakfast buffet like the one in Madrid.  You can kind of tell where people are from by what they eat.  The Spanish and Portuguese have the meats, fruits, and cheeses.  The Americans are eating eggs and cereal, and the French have a roll, a croissant, another roll, a muffin, and a roll.  There´s a bakery on every street here with a shoe store on either side.  I have to say the food is great–better than Spain, so far.  I´ve been looking at everyone’s feet and Continue reading

Kind of a cop out

Does anybody use that term (copout) anymore? And is it one or two words? Regardless, the next several posts are from a trip Mike and I took to Portugal, Spain, and Morocco in September 2010. I am working on some current pieces, but I wanted to post this travelogue to buy myself some time and to create a record of my travelogues so they are all together in one place. If you have your writing scattered around in documents, handwritten journals, emails, and sticky notes, you’ll appreciate my desire to at least have the travelogues in one place.
Because Mike planned the trip, we visited 5 cities in 3 countries in 16 days. Although this is not my preferred method for travel (it’s not relaxing), I do love the excitement of minimal planning and zero research. If nothing else, it encourages spontaneity, and by encourages I mean requires. Mike is the consummate “let’s see what happens” kind of traveler. If I ever unearth my handwritten journal of our 1995 trip to Ireland, I’m sure the first entry will detail how Mike wanted to switch our tickets when he found out our plane was delayed two hours. I had already consented to have nothing planned except reservations for our first night, but when Mike went to look at the list of international flights leaving before ours, I nearly panicked. Instead of flatly refusing to change our tickets (this was early in our relationship), I subtly poured cold water on Mike’s suggestions. Germany? That’s fine with me but then you won’t get to do any genealogy. Istanbul? Sounds good but…probably not a lot of pubs there. You get the idea. So we went to Ireland; I kept a journal of our activities (including getting lost by car, bus, bike, and on foot in Dublin) and thus began the travelogues. The one that follows is from 2010. Somewhere there exists the first Spain travelogue from 2008; hopefully it will turn up someday. I can’t even remember how I wrote it. These travelogues were emails to friends, which is an interesting method as I tend to be a little freer when writing friends. There’s no evidence that hoards of strangers are reading my current work, but one can hope.

The Rock(y) Road to Country Music

Some of us were lucky enough to come of age in an era of rich and varied music. My older siblings played Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and (later) Peter, Paul, and Mary; my parents played Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, and musical scores. Against this backdrop of pop, folk and early rock, my generation listened to pop and soul before, after, and during the British Invasion. To say that the Beatles defined my musical taste is a given. The early Beatles, with songs like “PS, I Love You” and “Roll Over, Beethoven” owed a lot of their style to the Everley Brothers and Elvis. They even gave a nod toward American musical theater (“Till There Was You” from Carousel) which probably reflected their parents taste in music. Other groups, like the Mamas and the Papas had complex and gorgeous harmonies, Simon and Garfunkel had lyrics that epitomized the American experience, and Dylan challenged all of us with obscure, vaguely upsetting songs that mirrored disillusionment. But the Beatles had something for everyone.

There was a time that choosing one Beatle as your favorite said more about your personality than all (or most) of the faddish Facebook quizzes (Which state are you? Which character from Downton Abbey are you? Which rock star are you? Which color are you? Which car are you? Which killer from “Game of Thrones” are you?) If you haven’t been bombarded with these from friends sharing on FB, you must have busier friends than I do. In brief here is what preferring one Beatle meant about you or more accurately about the boys you liked. If you chose George (and most of my friends did), you were drawn to the deep, soulful type of boy who would write you poetry and break your heart lyrically. If you chose Paul, you were a superficial girl going for flashy good looks and obvious charm. If you chose John, you were attracted to the intellectual, moody, self-destructive types. And if you chose Ringo, you had low self esteem. Or you figured you had a better chance with him. I chose John, but that was just to make Paul jealous (Hey, I was eleven).

My Beatles era never really ended because those were the songs I sang when alone in a car and the music I incorporated into various theatrical productions when I was teaching drama (I’m sure there would’ve been copyright infringement if anyone cared). And I know what I loved about their music–it was melodic and I could decipher the lyrics correctly–most of the time. Let’s just say that Eleanor Rigby did not pick up her eyes in the church where her wedding had been. Of course the deceptively clean cut Beatles led on to the excitingly nasty Rolling Stones, the Moody Blues, the Zombies, and more. I segued reluctantly into the so-called hard rock era of endless guitar solos and tediously repetitive lyrics. Because I was fortunate to grow up in the Washington Metropolitan area, I saw many groups: the Jackson Five, the Eagles, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Joni Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix, Steppenwolf, Jethro Tull (at the opening of a bowling alley in VA), Bread, Tina Turner, and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. I list these particular groups, among the many others I saw, to prove my musical experience was wide and varied. I even liked the classical pieces everyone likes (Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, the Nutcracker Suite, Beethoven’s Fifth, etc.) However, nowhere on this list or in my musical meanderings was country music represented.

When I was a kid and my family made an annual summer trip from Maryland to Michigan (10 hours, no air conditioning, few pit stops) to see my parents’ families, my father would play country music on AM radio as we drove through PA. We kids would groan in protest after being subjected to such classics as “Who Took the Knob off the School Door.” I kid you not. I think these twangy, whiney “tunes” preceded the lonesome – woman left me- took the truck and the dog blues. Regardless, it was torturous listening and inspired in me decades of contempt for country music.

And then a couple of things happened.

I would like to say that the fact my husband had always liked country music and often listened to it when I wasn’t around was a factor but it really wasn’t. The first crack in the embargo came when my sister asked me if I liked the Eagles (of course I did) and then mentioned in the condescending way only a younger sister can muster that what did I think the Eagles were playing if not Rock/Country? Okay, I would have to consider that, especially since I had recently seen the Eagles reunion tour concert. The second thing that happened is that I deliberately listened to a country music channel on FM during a long ride up I-5. I did this because my school had purchased air time on the station and I wanted to see how our commercial sounded. Well, I never heard the commercial, but I kind of liked Rascal Flatts by the end of that ride. Add to that you would have to live on another planet not to be aware of the surge in country music popularity in the last several years. Shows like “American Idol,” which I no longer watch, and “The Voice,” which I never miss, have helped to popularize not only cross-over country but country classics. All of these factors came together just in time for a cross-country road trip that included a visit to Nashville. From CA to TN I listened to country music on Sirius Radio and was ready to embrace my new found love. More recently I spent a couple of months in Houston, and heard both local country musicians and a few of the big names at the famous Houston Rodeo. I bought cowboy boots in Nashville and a cowboy hat in Houston so I’m good to go.

Now, how does all this relate to a past characterized by an exclusive relationship with rock music? First, there’s the fact that all those great concerts impaired my hearing so I can’t understand lyrics unless they are really clear and straightforward (like country music). Then there’s the fact that my favorite music (Beatles and their contemporaries) was very melodic (like country music). Finally, there’s the cute factor: Luke Bryan, Blake Shelton, and Keith Urban (Hey, I’m old, not dead). Yes, I really like Maroon Five, Alicia Keys, and Adele. And I listen to the classics (you can call them oldies) including Fleetwood Mac, Bonnie Raitt, and James Taylor. I’m not a fan of rap and hip hop although I’ve always liked Eminem. All of this is to present my credentials as one who has always had eclectic taste in music. And yet, it’s country music that plays in my head every morning.

Every morning I wake up and then tune into the song playing in my head. I have no control over the selection but for the last several months my head has been exclusively playing country music. It doesn’t matter if I’ve listened to music or not the night before. And my head is not necessarily playing my favorite songs or even replaying songs. Every morning it’s a new song that I gradually become aware of, kind of like background music. And then the tune comes to the forefront and I add the lyrics (someone has to) usually under my breath. And then the day goes on and the music fades until the next morning. Through this process I’ve gained an appreciation for the rightness of country music lyrics–the no bullshit take on life in songs like “My Mama’s Broken Heart,” which lays the out the pain of a breakup and the pressure to “hide your crazy.” I love the unapologetic sentimentality of songs like “I Drive Your Truck” and implied sexiness of “Cruise” and “Drunk on You.” Simple expressions of love (“Crazy Girl”) and heartbreaking endings (“I Wake Up Loving You” and “Why Ya Wanna”) are country music themes with a rock twist. Confusing and complicated relationships show up in songs like “Come Over” and “Kiss Tomorrow Good-bye.” Lines like “take off your leavin’ dress” are pure country poetry. And lately irony and social commentary have found their way into songs like “Merry Go-Round” and “Automatic,” and these songs, like most country music songs, are written by the artists who record them. My current favorite lyrics are from David Nail’s “Whatever She’s Got.” “She got the blue jeans painted on tight/That everybody wants on a Saturday night/She got the mood ring, she’s never the same/She’s sun one minute, then she’s pouring down rain.” These words sung over a sexy melody with a bluesy beat could have been written and performed in the 70’s–I see Mick doing nice job or maybe Rod Stewart.

All of these reflections take me back to the Beatles and my contention that what I call the Mid-Baby Boomers (b. 1951-1956-57-ish) are naturally going to like current country music. It’s melodic, catchy, easy to sing along with, heartfelt, and clever–like the Beatles. And to prove my point…I took a break from writing this and went into a small grocery store in Canyonville, OR. While I was there, two songs were played: “Hey, Jude” and “Honeybee.” Thank you, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, and Blake Shelton.

The “I learned a lot” Afghan

No one could ever accuse me of being mechanical or having a good sense of direction or of being able to sew.  My mother was a great seamstress and her mother could have been a professional tailor (she could sew men’s suits), so Mom had some expectations with regard to my sewing ability. Since my mother never seemed to actually enjoy sewing as I understand some people do, I never had the desire to learn.  To say I was unmotivated is an understatement. I also had no ability.

I first became aware of my mother’s plans for me in 9th grade when she made me take Home Economics instead of Art.  Since I already knew how to cook (thanks, Mom), learning how to cook bacon and make orange juice from (gasp) concentrate was a big yawn.  I cruised through the class until we got to sewing.  Our first project was an apron that consisted of a seam at the top for a plastic hoop that would go through it and a hem at the bottom.  Basically we had to sew two straight lines with a sewing machine.  I got a “C.”  The next project was a flip skirt made with a stretchy knit and consisting of 5 identical flared panels sewed together.  They were supposed to be sewed on the wrong side and then turned right side out and “voila”–a skirt!  Since I can’t even explain it now, you won’t be surprised to know that it didn’t work.  But Mom wasn’t done with me yet.

The following summer I was involuntarily enrolled in a Singer Sewing class and I made a (hideous) gold and navy checked dress with an empire waist.  My mother ended up making it after several aborted attempts and some hysterical crying on my part.  At the end of the classes there was a “fashion show” and we modeled our creations.  There were only 3 people in my age group category and 4 awards for each group.  One girl received first and second and the other girl received third and an Honorable Mention.  Given that they only had one item each, that was an interesting distribution.  My guess is that the judges (our hapless teachers) were so appalled with my dress that they wanted to send a clear message to me: “Step away from the sewing machine.”  After that Mom gave up and gave in and no one asked me to sew anything ever again.

My inability to read and understand a pattern should’ve also indicated that knitting and crocheting were out of my reach but I have tried both.  In college I knitted a gray scarf for my boyfriend.  It was approximately 7 feet long and in varying widths.  I was done with knitting after that.

Before I retired I was a little worried about keeping busy and so I asked my friend Laura, who sews and crochets and decorates, to teach me how to crochet.  Laura brought me a huge hook and some yellow yarn and taught me a basic stitch–a single crochet, I think.  That went pretty well so after a few inches I went out and spent $70 on yarn for an afghan for my husband Mike. (It is not my style to start with something small, like a potholder.)  I didn’t get a pattern or figure out in any scientific way how much yarn I would need.  I just threw several skeins of yarn in my basket working on the “that looks like enough” principal.  Then I crocheted a 70 inch row and began.  After I’d completed a couple of inches I could tell that none of the rows were the same length so I ripped it out and started over.  I did this several times and since I was working with two skeins at the same time, ripping out stitches was a challenge and sometimes I had 4 balls of yarn becoming tangled.  The worst time, Mike had to cut me out of the mess.  He found it all very funny.  I found it reminiscent of the time he tried to put up those Christmas lights that hang down in 3 foot lengths and I later found a ball of lights in the trash.

So I put the yarn away and didn’t take it out until February when we drove to Texas.  I knew the terrain in west Texas was not pretty so I decided this would be a good time to try crocheting again.  I approached the project with slightly more intelligence than previously, “slightly” being the significant descriptor here.  If you’ve read my Walmart rant (“All roads lead to Walmart”) you know I bought a smaller needle and actually worked from a pattern.  I also watched video demonstrations of stitches and I found this very helpful.  Then I proceeded to make every possible mistake:

  •  I used 4 different colors, 3 solid and one variegated.  The variegated skeins were not the same weight as the solid colors.
  • I paid no attention to the gage, just crocheted 16 rows in each color and figured each block would be the same size.  Uh, no.
  • I didn’t label the 5 strips that would be put together to form the afghan and so I put them together wrong.  Twice.  The second time I refused to rip out the strips so there is no discernible pattern as you will see below.
  • None of the color blocks matched up.  None of the strips were the same length. The afghan is more trapezoid than rectangle.
  • I forced the strips to begin and end together by “bunching” as I slip stitched them together.  I know “bunching” is neither a crochet term nor an approved technique.
  • I added a border which let me see up close how inconsistent my stitches were.

But!  I learned a lot and Mike loves it.  And I’m making another one with a different design and yarn that is the same weight.  In fact it’s a lot of the same yarn because it turns out I bought enough for several afghans….

the ugly truth

the ugly truth

Happy Mike

Happy Mike

Trying to look like a real afghan with judicious folding.

Trying to look like a real afghan with judicious folding.

The Puppy Dog Parade

They have the right idea in Lake Charles, LA.  Their small, annual parade is about kids and dogs and maybe about Mardi Gras.  Lots of dogs.  The costumed dog spectators may have outnumbered the official, costumed parade dogs.  When I asked one woman if everyone brings their dogs to see the parade, she said, “Of course!”  Everyone was having a wonderful time hanging out along the banks of Lake Charles and waiting for the show to start.    A jeep heralded the approach of the parade but there had been a lot of doggy action near us before it even started—dogs visiting and owners admiring.  No one seem worried about children petting dogs, which was a good thing because most of the time the parade route was blocked with children showering affection upon the proud canines.  Clearly these dogs knew they were in a parade, and, except for one tiny Yorkie who shook so much his owner picked him up and carried him, they exhibited behavior one would wish to see in every parade participant.  Heads were held high, costumes and jewelry worn with effortless grace.  There was virtually no barking and the occasional forays into the crowd for additional petting bothered no one.  Drooling was overlooked in the heat and humidity.  I can’t remember being at a parade where people were so happy—oohing, ahhing, chuckling, and being very mellow about the antics of children and dogs.  After the 20 minute parade was over, everyone hung out and continued to enjoy the doggy atmosphere. A good time was clearly had by all.

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Fiona the Wonder Dog

I miss my dog.

Of all the things to miss when away from home for 2 months, I miss my dog, the eponymous Fiona of this website. I anticipated this reaction before I left and everyone to whom I expressed my anxiety missed the point and told me how happy Fiona would be while staying with my dear friends Sally and Bob. Of course she will be happy there; it’s dog heaven at their house where Bob actually braised beef tips for her and Sally caters to her every whim. Sally and Bob often take care of Fiona when we are out of town and even host her for sleepovers when we’re not away. When Sally or Bob visit us, Fiona displays an embarrassing desire to leave with them that includes following them anxiously to the door and barking hysterically when it is clear she is stuck with us. Sally claims that Fiona just likes to go for a ride, but I don’t know if that’s true, so I’m going to make my case and you decide.

Here’s the difference between Sally and me. I have had a dog for much of my life and Sally, well, she’s really never had a dog so she treats Fiona like a little person, an intelligent little person. This seems to be very effective and requires long explanations from Sally while Fiona cocks her head and clearly pays close attention. Sally takes Fiona to visit friends, to church, to places of business, and to the homes of other people. We take Fiona to the back yard. When Sally has people over or takes Fiona on a visit, she explains (to the dog) what will happen and describes her expectations for Fiona’s behavior. We say “no!” a lot. It was Sally who bought a car seat for Fiona (although we use it, too) and accurately pointed out that a 9 lb. dog becomes a 9 lb. projectile when one slams on the brakes.

Our style of training also differs. When Fiona was very young, about 10 weeks old, I took her to dog training at PetSmart. This is perhaps the only smart thing I’ve done with regards to my dog because she was socialized early and as a result loves other dogs. She didn’t learn anything during the first class and spent the entire time jumping on her hind legs, clearly thrilled about the other 9 dogs. After 2 classes, the very nice trainer (Chris) called and suggested that Fiona start the class over with a smaller group (4 dogs); we wouldn’t be charged….

Mike and I found it hysterical that our dog was “held back.” At the end of the class, Chris suggested that Fiona repeat the beginning class before moving on to Intermediate. I guess I don’t need to mention that she didn’t receive a diploma, just a certificate of participation. Let me paint a picture of what it was like to work with Fiona. There is a thing (an idea, a concept, a dream) called “loose leash walking.” The idea is that the dog will walk before you without pulling on the leash. Chris instructed us to stop and make the dog sit every time she strained on the leash. After 15 minutes Fiona and I had progressed about a foot and a half. This is because Fiona has ADHD and is easily distracted, by everything. Do you know how many things there are to sniff at PetSmart? Besides the other dogs and the aisles filled with tantalizing and frequently smelly products, there were the random pieces of paper on the floor, which commanded all of her attention. I’m not kidding. Even Chris with her puppy crack (Pupperoni) couldn’t get the little girl to focus.

Enter Sally.

While Mike and I traveled across country in Fall 2012, Sally took Fiona to another puppy class where, apparently, she was the star pupil or at least earned a diploma this time. Mike thinks I’m crazy but I think the difference comes down to the way Sally interacts with Fiona. It’s not unusual to hear Sally talking to Fiona in a reasonable and measured tone. “Fiona, I”m taking you to County Schools tomorrow to see some people for Valentine’s Day. You’ll be wearing your red sweater and everyone is going to love seeing you. We’re walking there to bring Valentine cookies and I need you to be on your best behavior, no barking or whining.” And it works. Every time.

At a very basic level, Sally “gets” Fiona. She (Sally) thinks about what it must be like to weigh 9 lbs., although she usually weighs closer to 10 after a sojourn at Sally and Bob’s House of Treats. Anyway, Sally understands that the “heel” command is threatening to Fiona because no one has her back. (When Fiona walks in front of you, she tilts her ears back so she knows–at all times–what you’re up to behind her.) Sally also understood that Fiona was bored with the routines at the class she took her to last spring. It was a field events class or something (I can’t remember) and Fiona checked out half way through going through a tube. If this sounds a little like parents who attribute their children’s inattention/misbehavior in class to poor teaching, boredom, and not being challenged, I can’t help that. Our dog is gifted.

Tonight Fiona and Sally start their new class–an intermediate good citizen dog class–I kid you not. Fiona may have to do some remediation in heeling but I have no doubt Sally is up to the task. As always, they will have a great time together and I’m so fortunate to have friends who love Fiona and take such great care of her. I often say if were a better person, I would give Fiona to Sally. I say it but I don’t do it.

And I’m happy (really I am) that Fiona is so happy and well cared for. Still–I miss her. And in some ways, this surprises me because Fiona is not the perfect dog. The perfect dog was Molly, our 14 year old lab who died 4 months before I bid on Fiona at an auction (I couldn’t help it–she kept looking at me). Molly was a dog’s dog–loyal, affectionate, attentive, and low maintenance. Fiona is a person in the body of an adorable little dog; she is headstrong, persnickety, and smarter than anyone at our house. When I call her (“Fiona, come!”), I can see her considering it. Is it worth it? she wonders; will there be a treat or is this a ruse? Fiona is a picky eater who demands variety. Of course whatever I’m eating has her interest. Fiona does not like to walk in the rain or strong winds. She insists on a minimum of 10 minutes of slowly meandering and sniffing at the beginning of any outing. She enjoys doing the “worm” on the pavement, clearly channeling her inner aerobics instructor. Fiona’s outraged barking follows any person who leaves the house without taking her. In fact, outraged barking is her response to anyone walking or driving by the house and neighbor cats or squirrels cavorting in the yard. Hysterical, frothing at the mouth barking is her reaction to the mailman, UPS truck, and FedEx. What can I say? She’s complicated.

So back to the beginning of this overlong paean to the little girl, the baby dog, the pupska, Miss Fi. I miss her little warm body at the foot of my bed and the cursory lick she gives me when I come home. I miss the grateful licking that follows my providing a wonderful meal or helping her stop doing that choking thing. I miss the way she suffers my affection when I can’t sleep and waits for me to nod off before she returns to her blanket at the end of the bed. I miss the way she prefers my husband, jumping off my lap the minute he shows up and throwing me a triumphant and possessive look when she works her way between us and claims Mike. I miss the way she objects to people hugging (maybe it’s too California for her). Most of all I miss her willingness to hang out and just be.

Little dog

Little dog

The Contemplative Fiona

The Contemplative Fiona

You talkin' to me?

You talkin’ to me?

Got a bone and a sweater for my birthday

Got a bone and a sweater for my birthday

Guarding the bones buried under the tree skirt

Guarding the bones buried under the tree skirt

Breakfast was acceptable

Breakfast was acceptable

The Worm

The Worm

Kicking back in the carseat

Kicking back in the carseat

Favorite toy--the hedgehog

Favorite toy–the hedgehog

Halloween: Angry Tinkerbelle

Halloween: Angry Tinkerbelle

Not leaving without Fi

Not leaving without Fi

Not napping, just thinking

Not napping, just thinking

Baby Fiona

Baby Fiona

Molly, the perfect dog

Molly, the perfect dog

All Roads Lead to Walmart

Every time I am forced, through life’s exigencies, to enter a Walmart, I relive the many reasons why I hate Walmart.  I object to the store and to the corporation on every level: physical, emotional, political, and cultural.  Which begs the question: why am I heading once again into a Walmart when no one is apparently holding a gun to my head?  The short answer is that I am a spoiled, impatient American.  The long answer involves excuses and rationalizations, which I’m happy to offer here.

First of all I only go to Walmart under duress.  I’ve been in the Walmart in my hometown less than 5 times in my life and all of them were traumatic.  Even before I knew about Walmart’s off shore activities, poor treatment of employees, and imperialistic business plan, I hated the store.  I hated the aisles that aren’t quite wide enough, the shelves that look like they’ve been through a minor earthquake, and the way you can only get to some departments by going through several others, creating a “forced march” feeling.  An uncommunicative pre-teen and desperation led me to Walmart the first time.  My son told me the day of the evening choir concert that he needed a white shirt.  After scouring Penney’s, Sears, Target, and K-Mart, I called a friend in desperation and she said, “Go to Walmart-duh.”

There it was—a wall of white button down shirts for the young, the slim, and the under-dressed.  As I roared by the women’s clothing I spotted a red zip-up sweater with a black, fake fur collar for $12.99.  Yes, Reader, I bought it.  And I still have it 12 years later hanging guiltily in my closet, ready to wear every Christmas season, looking as good as the day I bought it—and why not, there isn’t an ounce of anything that occurs in nature in that sweater.  I have been to my local Walmart two additional times: once to purchase school supplies for students who cannot afford to buy their own and once to buy a going away present of cute office supplies for an employee who abruptly quit working in my office to take a similar job in her hometown.  I don’t regret the school supplies, but when I decided that I really didn’t want to give a present to someone who had left our office in the lurch, I gave the items to a friend to return and keep the money herself because as I told her, “I will never go into that store again.” And I haven’t.

Fast forward to retirement and cross country travel where sometimes Walmart is the only option.   Just before leaving my sister’s home in Maryland, I mentioned how uncomfortable certain undergarments (okay, my bra) become after several hours in a car.  She let me try on a comfort bra of hers (I can’t remember the name, but it didn’t push up or enhance anything) and I wanted a couple of my own.  What was the source of this comfortable
alternative? Ordering it during one of those “As seen on TV” ads or going to Walmart.  So I went.

On the same trip, my husband suddenly realized he had left the white short-sleeved shirt he wears under sweaters somewhere in Tennessee, so we needed to buy a new one.  No big deal.  Except in Santa Fe, the only choices are boutiques (white shirt $400) or Walmart.  I am not kidding.  The nearest Macys or Target is 80 miles away.  I don’t know if it’s because the stars have homes there (Julia Roberts to name one), but there is really no shopping that isn’t outrageously expensive.  I don’t doubt that the white shirt in the men’s boutique would have been the white shirt of Mike’s life, but come on.  So off we went to Walmart where we actually did not find a short-sleeved, white shirt, this being November and even Walmart observes the seasons.

I hadn’t had to face a Walmart in more than 15 months, but all that changed recently as Mike and I traveled across Texas on our way to Houston. Western Texas may well be the spiritual center of all that is Walmart.  It is ugly, dry, desolate, unwelcoming country.  No one seems happy to be there.  Sound familiar? Somewhere between Van Horn, TX, where we actually had bad Tex-Mex food and an Egg McMuffin that will put me off eggs for another 30 years, and San Antonio, where everything changes and the terrain starts looking like people live there, I voluntarily went into a Walmart.  The proof is in the pictures below taken by my talented husband, otherwise known as the thumb.  For a couple of years I have been trying to learn how to crochet with limited success, my main problem being that I can’t keep the yarn tension consistent so there’s a waviness to my rows that isn’t lovely.  Somewhere in Texas I found on my iPad an online source for easy patterns that included demonstration video.  Armed with new skills and a whole bunch of yarn that I optimistically brought from home, I wanted to buy a new crochet hook.  That meant Walmart as there is no other place on Route 10 until El Paso.

It was a typical Walmart experience.  The crochet supplies were hidden in an obscure row next to the automotive section.  I asked three people (all of whom wore red tops and some kind of name tag) for help: they claimed not to work for Walmart.  Okay…  The crochet supplies themselves were unlabeled and old.  When is the last time you saw something priced in cents?  I did find a hook that was labeled “I.”   It might have been an “i” or an “L,” which is what I needed. I went with it.  There were 9 checkout stands; 2 had checkers.  On my way to the one at the end for 10 items or less (shouldn’t it be “fewer”?), I crossed in front of a man who didn’t seem to be in line but apparently was if his enraged gasp was any indication.  I stood in line for a while and then a new checker announced that she was opening another line.  She looked at me as she said this but I didn’t grasp her message quickly enough and 4 other customers, ones that were behind me moved into the new line.  I was able to be philosophical as opposed to homicidal because by this time there was only one person in front me.  One person, that I now noted, had way more than 10 items.  Not to worry, though, she was doing 3 transactions of 10 items each.

All of this brings me to my observation about what Walmart apparently does to its employees and its customers.  I think many perfectly nice people enter the store, but after the trauma of fighting through the aisles, trying to decipher what the signs really mean, seeing products that they paid a lot more for in other stores and feeling the rage/chagrin that comes with paying too much plus listening to the worst music ever played (the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s farm team singing “Satisfaction”), the average person goes to the dark side.  This includes behaviors like snarling at perfectly nice women who pass in front of you saying “excuse me” while you wait in line.  Just saying.

What Walmart does to its underpaid employees must be worse.  Each cashier has clearly just lost a beloved pet a half hour before having to punch in at work.  This manifests itself in mournful sighs, slow motion ringing up, occasional lifeless inquiries (“Did you find everything you wanted?” “No! I’m in Walmart for God’s sake.”), and a genetic inability to open the paper thin plastic bags supplied by corporate.   Before you have picked up your items the cashier has already turned her deadened gaze onto the next hapless customer.  I know my Walmart experience hasn’t been extensive (Thank God) but there is a quality of Hotel California hopelessness that emanates from the store.  By the way, I have never experienced a greeter and I think I’m happy about that.  From what I understand this is a manic and friendly person who is apparently on a lot better drugs than the cashiers.

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Maryland and California

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October 13, 2013

My dad is 91 years old today and celebrating with most of the family in Maryland as I write this in California.  He was supposed to be here visiting but a bout of vertigo made flying unappealing, to say the least.  (My brother Mike and sister-in-law Peggy did make the trip and we had a wonderful three days exploring the region around Redding: Mt. Shasta, New Clairveaux Vineyard and Winery, the Sundial Bridge and River Trail.) I was looking forward to my dad’s visit as it’s been more than 10 years since we saw each other on this coast.  Last year on this date I was with almost all of the family in Maryland, including my son who flew in for the occasion of Dad’s 90th. It was a great party sponsored by the children (food) and grandchildren (drinks). Entertainment was provided by the 6 great-grandchildren, ages 2 months to 5 years.  They just ran or crawled around a lot, but they were cute. This year’s party is missing my mother who passed away last December and I know Dad is missing his wife of 69 years. I miss her, too.

Below are the travelogues from October 8 and 9,2012. I took a break from writing while I was with my family so these are the last two until October 22nd.

Oct 8, 2012: Elyria, Ohio

This morning we drove to Lemont, IL—not far from Chicago and visited the cemetery at St. James’s church.  This is where several McCulloughs (Mike’s paternal grandfather’s line) are buried in a family site down the hill from the church.  This was wonderful for Mike, kind of a peak experience for a historian and amateur genealogist. I enjoyed the beauty of the place and took several photos trying to capture the autumn light on the trees.  Fall is flamboyant in Chicago; brilliant colors, crisp and cold air and light that makes the leaves glow.  Growing up on the East Coast, I dismissed Redding’s more subtle season.  Later I realized that autumn is the shift in the intensity and direction of sunlight.

We stopped in Elyria, Ohio (home of author Sherwood Anderson) for the night and I finally threw away the cheese.  It could have been a sentimental moment; after all this block of cheddar had traveled from Redding to Ohio without us ever snacking on it. Still, keeping it cold had lost its charm … and for some reason we didn’t feel like eating cheese and crackers (I still have the crackers). While Ohio no longer has the Howard Johnsons of my youth, the buildings remain and are reminders of the past glory of fast food in the 1960s.  Today the long structures with the “rotunda” at the front have been converted into food courts—Starbucks, Sbarros, Burger Kings, etc.  The cool vending machines and white chocolate lollipops with a milk chocolate puppy or kitten in the center are gone forever.  Which brings me to a brief rant about the many “outlet” malls and freeway stop areas in our country.  You literally cannot tell where you are when you turn off the freeway into one of the tan stucco Starbucks, Chipotle, Applebee’s, Chevron, Subway, etc. strip malls.  As for the so-called outlet stores, how can there be so many Gap/Old Navy, Edie Bauer, and Dress Barn outlets?  They clearly outnumber the parent stores, and I’ve never seen a Dress Barn that wasn’t an outlet store.  Explain that!

Still among all the homogenization of the American landscape are the unique eating establishments of our country.  Tonight we ate at Reuben’s, which the 20 year old hotel clerk at the Elyria Best Western assured us served “awesome food.”  I don’t know about you, but when I’m confronted with a huge menu that serves everything from omelets and falafel to Amish style pulled turkey and fried sauerkraut balls, I get a little nervous.  Some of that tension diminished when the waitress brought me an 8 ounce glass of wine… okay, it was Sutter Home, but we’re a long way from California.  We passed on the sauerkraut balls; my parmesan chicken was edible and Mike thoroughly enjoyed the hot turkey with gravy and mashed potatoes.  Why is the gravy yellow?  Just asking.

Full Disclosure: part of the reason the cheese didn’t get eaten in the Midwest is that Mike and I bought a couple of bags of chocolate caramel corn in Iowa…  Tomorrow we drive through Pennsylvania (Cracker Barrel Country) and into Maryland to my sister’s in Mt. Airy.

St. James, Lemont, Il.

St. James, Lemont, Il.

Cemetery at St. James in  Lemont, Il.

Cemetery at St. James in Lemont, Il.

McCullough Family Tombstone

McCullough Family Tombstone

Oct 9, 2012: Mt. Airy and Silver Spring, Md.

We arrived at Noni and Dale’s about 5:00 before either was home from work.  Dale had left us a key and we had time to drag all of our stuff into the house before Mike took off to wash the car.  I suppose this is as good a place as any to talk about Mike’s obsession with the car.

Whenever we get a new car, there’s a breaking-in period.  By this I mean, breaking in Mike. Since I know how this process works, I successfully got a few concessions from Mike before taking off on the trip with the Santa Fe Sport.  Yes, we would be able to have drinks in the car and Mike would not freak out whenever I was driving. Except for the exaggerated pantomime of fear when I have to brake quickly (see “Road Rage Fridays”) Mike has limited his mania to cleaning the windows—twice—every time we stop for gas or get ready to leave in the morning (or if I leave the car unattended for too long).  He has a process.  First he sprays the windshield with Stoner’s Invisible Glass and cleans off the bugs (and worse) with a paper towel.  Then he sprays the windshield with Stoner’s Invisible Glass and polishes it with a micro-fiber cloth.  Then he looks through the windshield from inside the car and asks me if it’s “better,” which I concede.  That’s our routine…

Anyway, shortly after we arrived, my sister came home from work.  I just love my sister; we are so close and so similar.  Our lives have not been the same—she married and had children young; I married and had child late.  Put it this way, when I was 36 I had an infant; when Noni was 36 she had a 17 year old.  But we share a sense of humor and a practical, get-the-job-done way of looking at life that is the legacy of our parents.  I always say that Noni, who is 6 years younger than I am and the youngest in the family, is the guardian of my youth.  She has the memories that come with the vantage point of watching older siblings tangle (I mean interact) with parents and she had what my brothers and I consider the great advantage of being raised by parents who were more relaxed about rules.  And by more relaxed I mean she got to spend the night at her friend’s house on school nights.   Really.

Noni is one of my top three favorite people on earth.  My son Max thinks his aunt (and godmother) is hysterical and that he gets his sense of humor from her (thanks, Max).  She is the person who always got along with everyone even through the years when I defected to the West Coast and my brothers lived in Europe.  She has always taken great care of my parents, and now, even though my brothers live near, she is the one who worries most about them.

PA Turnpike

PA Turnpike

Autumn in Maryland

Autumn in Maryland

Seems like a dream

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October 6, 2013

Back from San Francisco and knowing that I won’t have time to post tomorrow, here are the posts from Oct 6 and 7, 2012, from our cross country odyssey…

Oct 6, 2012: Carol Stream, Illinois

Another long day of driving.  Breakfast in Des Moines was better than usual so Mike and I drove without any significant stops until we almost reached Chicago.  Both of us had worked on the iPad looking for motels/hotels/whatever.  Turns out there isn’t anything within a 30 mile radius of Chicago that isn’t booked solid.  I think it was almost 7 PM before we found the Holiday Inn Express in Carolstream by using Hotwire.  Once again we are so wiped out by traveling (why are we keeping this pace?) that we retreated to our room to lick our metaphorical wounds in our own unique ways.  Mike turned on a sci-fi Western and fell asleep; I stated pounding out my experiences in this journal.  To each his own.

I’m so angry that it never occurred to me that in Chicago it would be as hard to find last minute accommodations as say, San Francisco or NYC.  Once again Holiday Inn folks proved to be helpful and supportive.  I am now armed with a list of local restaurants and directions to the train so we can go into the city center (known as the Magnificent Mile) tomorrow.  The young woman who checked us in actually blanched when I asked her about driving downtown.  We are forewarned.

Things I’ve already discovered I would do differently:

  • Bring more warm clothes—I’m going to get very tired of the 2 long-sleeved tops
  • Quit trying to live in two places simultaneously—on the road and at home (also known as taming my inner control freak)
  • Bring all those magazines I never have time to read
  • Bring my dog; so far every place we’ve stayed has been dog-friendly*

*If I had brought the dog, I couldn’t have brought Mike and he’s better at driving and conversation….

Oct 7, 2012: Chicago

So… no one is staying in Chicago tonight unless they’re people with booked rooms months ago who knew that Notre Dame was playing in Soldiers Field or that the famous Chicago Marathon was happening.  We’re staying in Carol Stream at a very nice Holiday Inn Express for our second night (it’s time to slow down).  I’m becoming a fan of this chain as it was a young man at another Holiday Inn who helped us find this room.  By the time we checked into our room, we were wiped out.

Today, Mike and I took the Metra into Chicago’s Ogilvie Station, ending up in the financial district and close to what we wanted to see.  We took a cab for about 15 minutes—in that time we ended up going round the block in slow motion because of the Marathon traffic.  After about $8 we got out and started walking toward our destination, about 3 blocks further away than when we started.  We trekked through s few seedy blocks and finally succumbed to hunger at a cafeteria style deli.  I ordered a Polish Chicago style hot dog and had to convince the guy I really wanted the “hots” (hot peppers); I almost had to trot out my California jalapeno credentials.  For $1.99 we got a “side” of about a pound of macaroni and cheese.  Not knowing how big the portions were, we ordered way too much.

Several blocks later we arrived at a museum I have wanted to visit for decades: The Art Institute of Chicago.  What an amazing place!  The Impressionists collection is stunning AND they let you take pictures as long as you don’t use a flash.  After about 3 hours, we were on aesthetic overload; even I was ready to seek different visual stimulation so we went back outside.  Have I mentioned that it was cold in the Windy City?  Still it was sunny and gorgeous and the skyline is spectacular.  I would love to spend about 5 days in Chicago.  I like the energy of the city and the friendliness of the people.  I would also enjoy being by Lake Michigan during a warmer season. Next time we’re going to take the ferry that cruises around the lake to view all of the different architectural styles.

Ah...Monet's water lilies

Ah…Monet’s water lilies

Sunday in the Park (with Georges and Mike)

Sunday in the Park (with Georges and Mike)

Hologram sculpture in Millennium Park

Hologram sculpture in Millennium Park

Lake Michigan shore (Chicago side)

Lake Michigan shore (Chicago side)

In the Heartlands

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October 5, 2013

Even though I’m spending this evening in San Francisco I am currently riding south on I-5, the north end of the great interior valley, which spans California and is its agricultural heartland.  Last year on this day we were driving through Iowa,  which can claim the heartland title in the geographical (and probably more valid) sense. I have feeling that dinner tonight will be better than at the Holiday Inn Express in Des Moines a year ago.  Tonight we are meeting old friends from my hometown (Silver Spring. MD).  I love San Francisco and am excited to share a little of it with my friends.

The timing of this trip could be better.  We are remodeling a bathroom with all the mess and bother that implies.  Added to that, my brother and his wife are arriving for  a visit Tuesday and we already know the shower glass won’t be installed by then. Add to that the painter decided to paint the ceiling blue and I am determined to repaint it white before Tuesday.  This is a good place to interject an explanation about  how we get projects done at our house.  First of all, we are solely motivated by company and parties.  So of course we tried to squeeze the remodel in before a family visit.  There is a genetic component here.  I vividly remember my father caulking the new bathtub in the main bathroom in our house as my aunt and uncle and 6 of their 10 children pulled up the driveway in the family station wagon. in my memory parties at my parents were always preceded by major cleaning including washing walls (who does that?).  This genetic mania has affected my siblings as well. Ask my sister who marshaled her friends and family to move and arrange all of the furniture in a new home (including hanging pictures) in one day and then threw a party for the workers in the new place that night! Ask my brother who purchased a table that seats 24 people right before the annual Thanksgiving dinner at his house. Ask my niece who can work all week as a vet, manage two active little boys and their dogs, and throw a Lego theme party on the weekend.  None of these things would be possible were it not for the patient, some would say long-suffering, forbearance of our spouses.  None of whom fully understood what they were getting into when they married us.  So tomorrow morning we will leave San Francisco, less than 24 hours after arriving, so that Mike and I can get home in time to paint, clean, rearrange furniture, garden, shop, change the air filters, fix a sprinkler head….

But tonight–my favorite city, my favorite man, old friends, good food, and great conversation.

Walnut, Iowa--the Antique Capital

Walnut, Iowa–the Antique Capital

Everyone has an opinion...  so "fun" traveling during a presidential election season

Everyone has an opinion… so “fun” traveling during a presidential election season

Oct 5, 2012: Des Moines, Iowa

I had just mentioned to Mike that I hated antique shopping and hoped never to be in another antique store when we saw the signs for “Walnut-Iowa’s Antique City.”  I’m not kidding.

Walnut is a picturesque town—old homes in tree-lined lanes, an adorable downtown with brick streets, a bakery featuring homemade jams and pies, and…(wait for it) at least a dozen antique stores.  Shoot me.  In the mood to be a good sport, I slogged through several shops of collectibles; including a disturbing amount of Aunt Jemima products (actually any amount is disturbing).   I did get some good pictures including a sign for Aunt B’s—no Opie, though.

I don’t know why, but this was a tough day emotionally—sometimes the process of leaving the school and 35 years of being an educator is wrenching.  It didn’t help that Des Moines is huge and we went several miles out of our way before circling back to a Holiday Inn.  I must have looked as bad as I felt because the manager who checked us in gave us a break on the room and included a free (full) breakfast and a goody bag with water and snacks.  We were so wiped out that we didn’t want to venture into downtown for dinner.  Plus it was 35 degrees.

Sidebar—a week ago today, I was leaving Playa del Carmen, south of Cancun, after a wonderful, fun, relaxing week with 3 friends.  I had a pale tan (not an oxymoron when you’re mainly Irish and German) and my hair was full and curly from the humidity. Today I’m upset and tired, my tan is fading in ugly patches, my hair is limp and dry, and I have a trip pimple on my chin.

Back to Des Moines: Mike and I headed immediately for the bar, ordered martinis and indulged in complaining.  We decided, before the trip, that we would have “Road Rage Fridays”—a cocktail hour in which we could freely complain about the things that annoyed us the previous week.  All we could really come up with was the truck driver that almost killed us and the exaggerated way Mike grips the door and braces when I’m braking…  Mike didn’t mention my tactless remark about antiquing (he loves it) since Karma had dealt with that…  After that we had a mediocre dinner surrounded by teams of U13 soccer girls.  It took us both back to the days we traveled to soccer tournaments with Max and both endured and enjoyed the relentless energy of youth.