Sunday, July 31, 2005

Letter from California.

I'm back from a trip that lasted, basically, 32 hours. It was my high school reunion, thirty years.

LAX is a horrible airport. It has all the detractions of LA and none of the city's virtues, which is to say, all heat, all smog, all sprawl, whereas no beach, no cooling morning and evening fog, no surf and no nostalgia. In the petri dish of the Hertz Rental Car lobby (note to self: is it worth it to become a Gold Member?), anger was a-brewin'--there was a long line, about forty-five minutes' worth. When we got to our our agent, however, he was nothing if not helpful, charming, and efficient, including an upgrade when the keys to our economy car were not immediately forthcoming. Hello, Taurus!

However, I was triumphant in navigating from the airport to Redondo Beach. The directions I printed out from the handy Hertz interactive computer said I needed to get on two different freeways, but really, it's just Sepulveda Blvd., which turns into Pacific Coast Hwy., which turns into all the streets that lead to the ocean.

The reunion hotel was just across a skinny little street from our hotel, so we had that going for us, which was good. The 20 year reunion was at the very same place, which is odd, I think, since I didn't go to high school in Redondo Beach. We did have proximity going for us--I went to Rolling Hills High School (we are the Titans, the mighty mighty Titans), on Palos Verdes Peninsula, the hill to the south of Redondo Beach.

As predictable, there were a lot of the usual suspects peopling the reunion--former athletes, homecoming royalty . . .--but that wasn't the whole story. A couple of women (hi there to Debra Millar and Kathy Lewinson! --not their married names, sorry--) had the kindness to say hello to me, and we made one another's acquaintance essentially for the first time, it felt like. We ended up sharing a table for our sorrowfully not wonderful dinner (note to self: the vegetarian meal is almost always abhorrent, but then so was the chicken, according to my table mates). We all agreed at the conclusion of the event that meeting one another again was a real highlight for all of us. Also, Eddie Skinner, with whom I sang in the Madrigals, was there, this time with his lovely wife Linda, bearing pictures of a charming young son. Todd Bishop also sat at our table, he of a great, infectious laugh, on his way with his partner Troy across the country in an RV with four dogs. Finally, I did have the great satisfaction of seeing James Hitt, high school crush (one of the people I hoped to see at the last reunion, though I was denied), and having a very interesting conversation. Basically, I realized that in some ways I'm still exactly the person I was in high school--a little intense, and with a little more knowledge about some stuff.

Which leads me, then, to today, which we spent driving around Palos Verdes. I moved there right before 9th grade, from Tucson, where I'd gone to half of 6th grade and both years of junior high. I was utterly clueless about a SoCal high school. For the first day, I actually had a school dress, as in a dress you buy for the first day of school. It had a sailor collar. I had knee socks. Basically, I was dressed like Sandra Dee for my first day at Sodom and Gomorrah High. I'm pretty sure I'm not over the shock of that, lo these many years hence.

Last year, I traveled with my best friend--our Reunion Tour--to the area. I realized that, not having grown up there, I lacked the kind of memories and connections to that place that she had. She told me that she and her brother had visited the Malaga Cove Library, and they could still go straight to the books they rememebered checking out as children. That library, for me, would exist on an Air Force Base in Japan--if it's even still there.

What this means, really, is that the location of all my rawest memories--the ones of when you felt like you would break open with feeling and longing and urge, the ones that form your sense of who you are in the world--is a place that feels profoundly strange to me. My husband and I drove around Palos Verdes today, and although it's crowded with affluent people, there's still a wildness to the landscape that still calls to me. But a road I thought certainly led to a house my parents once lived in dead-ended. There were gated neighborhoods I know I've never seen. Lunada Bay Elementary School--who do I know that went there?--had some sort of bells that pealed at noon over the empty schoolyard.

I wish I knew this place better. I realized that I want to know its history, so we bought a book with a sort of florid style that starts with Don somebody in the 1700s, then moves directly to the Sepulveda family. It doesn't, however, tell me what I want to know: where did the field go where Brent Robinson kissed me? How about that beautiful ravine--where is that? And the high school my best friend attended--where is that now?

Cheers to this beautiful and alien place from my past, for which I long and to which I do not, and will never, belong.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

By Hand.

There are plenty of things that I'd rather do by hand, even if there exists a more efficient and even more efficacious tool or technology: mixing and kneading bread, making cookie dough, chopping vegetables. I used to make butter cakes by hand, too, but now I use a hand mixer. James Beard says that in 19th century America, bakers had to have a strong arm, as they would often make large cakes, or even more than one at a time. Either I used to have a stronger arm, or else I just got tired of beating a cake for 500 strokes, or however many it was. Still, it's nice to know how. A few years ago, I got a decent chef's knife, and still find great pleasure in sharpening it and preparing all sorts of vegetables with it.

I also have occasionally made myself an item of clothing by hand--a couple of skirts, for instance. There was something good about the enterprise--very slow, meditative, I guess.

I'm noting this fact because I just bought myself a swell new kitchen tool--a mandoline. For those of you who don't know, it's basically an implement to slice vegetables and fruits. It has a fold-out leg, but the operating part of it slants. The blade is very sharp, and you can also insert a little julienne tool. You use it to cut carrots or potatoes or whatever into even, fine slices, matchsticks, or shreds. The day I got it, I immediately took just one small potato--a Yukon gold, in case you're wondering--cut it into even and beautiful circles, thin slices, and fried them in small batches. Voila! potato chips, the best possible potato chips. I love my knife, but there's no way it could match the mechanically-assisted quality of my mandoline-engineered potato chips.

My kitchen has entered a new phase in the age of mechanical reproduction.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Jobs I would like to have, and might possibly be qualified for.

1. French baker. (preferably in France)
2. Senior policy analyst. (also preferably in France)
3. Supreme Court Justice. (why, oh why didn't Bush nominate me?)

I would like to know what my readership would rather be doing than the jobs they are doing now (preferably in France).

Monday, July 18, 2005

The 'Burbs.

I grew up, until the 6th grade, on Air Force bases. Perhaps that fact explains another: that I like the suburbs. I like a little bit of lawn, and I like a suburban street in the summer time. I remember a summer when we used to get together with our across-the-street neighbors, sit on their lawn and watch TV. I don't even remember what we watched, but the grass was cool, the air got cooler as the evening wore on, and somehow TV seemed mesmerizingly entertaining because we watched it outside. At that house, when we moved in, the whole subdivision was new--it was west of Airport #2, so close to the west side of the valley that the Oquirrhs seemed, like, your backyard. We planted our trees--cherry trees, peach trees, a Lombardy poplar (known derisively as a trash tree because it grows so quickly) that was in short order the tallest tree in the whole neighborhood. We laid our own sod. It took a couple of years to lay it in the back yard, that's how poor we were. Our Vietnamese neighbors, who made the most awesome egg rolls (they'd deliver a plateful, hot, at Christmas and Thanksgiving, like other people brought cookies), used to borrow our poplar's shade to sit in during their huge family get-togethers.

I can get a little exercised by my very hip peers (maybe I'm not their peers, because I don't live downtown?) who deride the burbs. I hear the complaints, okay, I know that the word "suburb" connotes homogeneity (in architecture, in lifestyle, in politics . . .). And it's not like a tract-style ranch house is exactly inspiring, in the way that an early twentieth-century cottage is. All I'm saying is, don't stereotype my 'hood, man. You don't know me and you don't know my neighbors. Don't lay your hegemonic superior urban fetishization on me. I'll take my cool, late-night backyard with its over-planted flowerbeds, the stripmall around the corner and the school just a couple of blocks away, and the Mormon churches popping up at the rate of one every half-block. I'll take it, because I live here, and I like it.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Dog Park/Dog Days.

Aren't the dog days supposed to come later in the summer? I remember when I realized that even just a few degrees of heat--say, from 96 to 100--could make a huge difference. One hundred degrees makes you want to lie down wearing few, loose clothes, with a book and a glass of iced something, and it's pretty much a slow race to see if you'll finish the drink before the glass sweats all the way down to the bedside table.

That's me, anyway. I had some cousins whose dad was in the Foreign Service. They lived in many, many hot, sweaty places--Venezuela, Panama, the Philippines--and swore that we all whined way too much about the heat. "Take a nap," they urged. "Then stay up late, when it's cool!" This ingenious manana-style system did not accomplish one of my major objectives, that of warding off my inevitable post-lunch-nap headache, which follows hard on the heels of the siesta hour (or dos).

Also, in the days before AC (dark, dark days), I used to have terrible summer allergies. You'd have to keep the windows open to have air circulating, but then the madness began: dust, chaff, pollen. The horror. I distinctly remember lying with wet washcloths over my entire face. This when I had young children who only wanted to play all day long.

Bruiser, it turns out, feels the heat, too. Too bad he can't lie around in loose clothing and drink iced drinks. He does, however, take his ease under the direct flow of the swamp-cooled air. Occasionally he'll take a dip into the heat for approximately three and a half minutes, then bursts in the door to have another helping of cool.

When it's this hot, people tend to bring their dogs to the dog park later in the evening. There's a real influx around 8:30 p.m. or so. When we're within a couple of blocks of the park, Bruiser loses his mind, whining and crying in the back of the car. If I were the kind of person who translated dog noises into human speech, I'd say he's saying, "You guys, if you don't let me out when we get to the dog park, that would be SO UNFAIR!" (Actually, we took him to the park last Tuesday, only to realize when we got there that it was closed on Tuesdays for routine maintenance. It was Bruiser's worst nightmare realized, as my friend J says.) So we get to the park, go in through the double gates, and he runs like crazy. Meanwhile, we circumambulate the park, admiring all the dogs, little and big, while congratulating ourselves on having the best, handsomest, most noble dog. The dog with the best character. The most poetic dog. The smartest dog, the one who lights up a room, the dog who has the most to offer, the dog who looks beautiful when he runs in the cooling, darkening day.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Bruiser, Pillow Shredder.

Things dogs do that humans don't generally even consider doing:

1. Tear throw pillows up and shred their stuffing.
2. Eat an entire bowl of brioche dough.
3. Open a sixteen-year-old boy's backpack with their teeth.
4. Chew open a half-full bottle of flavored water, then lick the spillage from the carpet.
5. Gnaw old basketball shoes into a fine julienne.

High School Imaginary.

I'm going to my 30th high school reunion, don't ask me why. I was talking to my brother last night, who did not go to his 20th (I did); he said, "You had more fun in high school than I did," hypothesizing about why I would spend $200 on a plane ticket (my brother had an extra Southwest fare that they couldn't use before it expired, so donated it to the cause--otherwise it would be $400, since my husband has graciously agreed to accompany me), $150 on a hotel room, and $86 per ticket (including a memory book), in order to go.

It's true, I did have some good times in high school. I was in a singing group, and that was good. I sang all the time back then. I was a pretty good girl, though; when I went back to the area last summer with my best friend MS, she pointed out places in one little beach town where she'd gone to a party, whereas I have absolutely no sweet memories of youthful wild times. None. It's possible I might harbor a few regrets over this fact.

The thing is, when I went to my 20th, I saw only a handful of people I wanted to see: a friend who went to Stanford on whom I had a half-crush for awhile, a couple of people I used to sing with, a guy who's a doctor now (also had a half-crush on him), my friend Joe who's married to Catherine and lives in France. One girl had become a writer for TV--there was a Tony Danza sitcom that lasted just a little while. The big star of all the plays in HS looked very Vegas. A guy who'd been sort of a stoner-surfer combo looked pretty business-y. Sure, there's some interest in seeing what I just described. But where was the one I loved, the one who made me a dulcimer, with whom I had a love affair that ended in sorrow? Where was the boy I wanted to ask to the dance and who wrote the passionate comment in my yearbook?

There's a certain small pathos to it, I guess.

Anyhow, maybe the dulcimer-maker will be there this time. But in any case I'll be there with my husband, staying near the ocean; the morning after, we can take a little tour of the beautiful, wild place where I lived when I was young.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Summer School.

I spent half the morning at the alternative high school in our local district, in order to get my son registered for a quarter credit of Intermediate Algebra, which he failed last term and which he must make up in order to be eligible to run cross country in the fall. As I feebly joked to the guy holding the class cards (nothing, and I mean nothing, is digital in the registering for summer school project--you fill out your papers with a pencil, and apparently one finds out only through the ear-to-mouth process of lore-swapping that you should show up at 6:30 a.m. to be eligible to get in at 8 a.m., when the registration is supposed to start, though when I arrived at 7:45, they had been registering people for a half-hour!), "I actually passed Intermediate Algebra." He gave me a charity laugh--but nicely--and gave me the card. So my youngest son will be attending Intermediate Algebra for three weeks starting next Monday.

He's hoping to keep this fact a secret from everyone except me and the dog, I think. It's a testimonial to my fantastic mothering that this is only the second time a child of mine has had to attend summer school (either that, or it's a testimonial to something else--the lovable yet wrath-of-god-inspiring presence of a high school teacher dad, maybe?). Anyhow, he's hoping that he can make up the credit and run this fall without anyone giving him grief. And I, I suppose, am enabling this grand attempt at secrecy.

It was quite an assortment of kids there this a.m. registering for these make-up classes. Some moms and dads, but clearly a group of kids for whom making up courses is just a part of the great adventure we call high school. There's also the path of packets--the way you can make up courses during the school year, but you have to have a teacher around to complete them. Hence summer school. Anyhow, there were some kids who were clearly, like my son, needing to make up courses in order to make the eligibility requirement; a small but impeccable group of tight-pants-wearing, mohawked punks; many girls in their pajama pants; and plenty of people commenting on the whole deal on their cell phones.

It took me nearly three hours to actually register. Most of that was waiting. I found some shoes to buy at Target, planned a course for the fall, made a to-do list for the rest of the day, and wrote notes for two new poems, one of which will be called "Summer School." Check back here for a draft one of these days.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

F***ing Productivity and the Productive Producers Who Produce It.

Short version: aka, not me, not this summer.

On the other hand, right now my kids are all either living in Scotland (hi, Amelia, Miriam, and Raymond!) or in California camping on the beach with their dad and an assortment of family and friends. That means it's me, my husband, and the dog. Some would say this is time handed to me as if a gift from the heavens, like manna in times of famine or rain in time of drought, so that I can write. Others, the slacker angels, would say it's time to eat tapas at Martine and see Cinderella Man and assorted independent films, to watch semi-competent romantic comedies on DVD, to do the NYTimes Sunday Magazine crossword puzzle while drinking diet Coke, and fall asleep in the middle of it. Time to make and drink iced tea by the quart. Time to take Bruiser to the dog park and admire his doggy character as he runs, nay, prances with the other dogs. Time to pick up merchandise, consider its virtues, consider whether I'm willing to stand in line for the time it'll take to pay for it, and put it back. Time to bake a cherry pie.

In other words, I haven't written much since Friday afternoon.

However, the kids'll be gone till next weekend, so I may manage to marshal my inner resources, gird up my loins, fresh courage take, and do some writing in the meantime.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005


I just got back from a trip through the intermountain west. To start, my son was doing a whole Mormon thing with his church youth group, trekking over the Mormon trail in Wyoming. This trek was planned at the exact same time as our family deal, which occurs every summer in Idaho, Island Park, where my father and grandfather built a cabin in the late 1940s. The unfortunate overlap of treks meant that my husband and I drove first to scenic Rock Springs, where we stayed overnight in a Motel 8, if you can call it overnight, since we slept approximately five hours, this so that we could arise and drive to Farson, WY (home of the Big Cone--ice cream, I'm presuming, from the illustration painted on the Farson Mercantile), then to Lander, WY, then just shy of the Sweetwater Ranger Station, to the Hudson-Atlantic City Road, a dirt road which we traversed for a dozen miles, to the Sage Creek Campground (no creek in sight, but a lot of dirty kids dressed in pioneer garb), in order to pick up my son by 8:15 or so in the morning.

That accomplished, we headed back through Lander in the direction of Jackson, which meant that we drove exhausted through some of the most beautiful country I recall ever driving through exhausted. For instance, the Tetons, right close up, and the Wind Rivers (best as I can tell). All told, however, where getting to Island Park usually is a 300 mile or so trip, we travelled around 600 miles. The plus side: a witty, gangly sixteen year old was a part of this vacation. There were ten of us--my grown son and his wife, me, my husband, daughter, and teenage son; my aunt and her two sons and a girlfriend.

Wildlife [aside from above-listed personnel]: elk, countless ground squirrels, etc., pelicans, trumpeter swans, moose, and a blue bird that I believe might be a pinion jay (after consultation with the bird book). Many rounds of card games played at high speed and volume. A hike around Silver Lake in Harriman State Park, including a quarter mile or so through what seemed clearly to be a freshly turned horse sign/soil mix. I cooked up a storm. It took me about five tries to get through articles in the New Yorker, but hey! I did read a lot of cutting-edge fashion advice, so there's that.


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