Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Dragon Dancers

After a year's absence, Bernie and I made a trip to San Francisco on Sunday.

Our goal was Francis Ford Coppola's restaurant Cafe Zoetrope, as Bernie had heard that it was an interesting place with good food. Duh, why else would we go there? I had more or less picked the locale for our search for an Italian restaurant in North Beach, the section of San Francisco around the vicinity of the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul. I had an urge for Italian, and since I more or less remembered the streets there, FFC's place seemed a good bet.

Our review of the restaurant will be in next week's Piker Press. The picture that you see came about as a result of having ten minutes to kill before the restaurant opened for lunch.

We walked up the street a block and presto! we were in Chinatown. Another block, and we turned a corner to find a crowd growing, blocking a narrow street, and young men in the trousers of dragon costumes milling about in front of a store. To promote their new big sales event, dragon dancers had been hired, and a Chinese band of traditional instruments were there to play the background music for the dance. Marvelous! (Each of those dragon costumes has two men in it, by the way. Quite the acrobats!)

It was a cool experience on a number of levels. One, I liked how the store owners were unafraid to use a traditional ritual in public to celebrate their sale. Most communities want to hide their roots behind closed doors or forget them completely. Two, I liked how the community swarmed into the street to watch. Cars got through the intersection slowly, but it was apparent that the people were more important than traffic. Three, after only a few minutes of the acrobatic dragons, a funeral unexpectedly drove through, with a band marching ahead of the hearse, and giant incense sticks mounted on the cars -- and the neat thing was, the performance STOPPED and people waited reverently until the procession was past before starting up the entertainment again.

Cultural awareness, community participation, and civility. Where else do we see that nowadays unless it's orchestrated by some huge group? And then you don't get the civility! I would like to see my town mill about in the streets. I'd like to see parents sitting on chairs on the sidewalks, watching their kids play kickball in the street.

I'm a dreamer, all right.

Thursday, August 25, 2005


There it is, the winter's heat source.

My neighbors all think I'm insane to burn wood for heating our house. Wood is dirty; wood is inconvenient. Wood requires some splitting (which is hard work) and it all has to be carried in a few pieces at a time. Ashes have to be emptied when they get too deep -- dirty and inconvenient again. The neighbors all have gas-fired furnaces, and some have gas-fired fireplaces. Our house has a furnace like that too, so am I crazy to tend a woodstove when I could just set a thermostat and forget about it?

In fact, I doubt that my neighbors really believe that we can heat a four-bedroom house with a fireplace insert in the kitchen. And they're right, at least in terms of how people are taught to heat their houses. "Even" temperatures throughout the home are what these gas furnaces are designed for. They heat up a body of air, and push it through ductwork. Voila: the back bedroom and the kitchen are the same temperature. Warm, dry air is blown into a room, floats to the ceiling, and leaves the person on the couch shivering until he goes and turns up the thermostat again. $$$. When the cost gets too high, they wear heavy sweaters -- or go to the shopping mall, where the temperature is a balmy 72 degrees, and they can spend more money.

Sometimes it gets too hot in the kitchen where the stove is, but except for mealtimes, we don't usually hang around in there. The front room of the house is quite comfy. Two of the bedrooms are perfect temperature for sleeping, cuddled under a comforter. My studio is warm enough that I'm comfortable, and the bedroom I use has the window open all winter because I'm always too hot at night. My winter fuel bill is paid when the wood is delivered; the cost of that pile of wood dumped in the driveway is about what my shivering neighbors will pay in a month.

Yeah, I guess I'm insane. But there is a pleasure to stacking my wood, a satisfaction in seeing the odd-shaped pieces fit together; there is time to spend in prayer, in praise for the wonder of the renewable resource, in thanksgiving for the warmth it will provide. I've taken a week to stack the wood, a few wheelbarrows full at a time. God Who is Kind sent cool mornings for me to work in, and provided all the pieces to fit in each niche. Looks to me like being crazy has some value after all.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Two Cuties

Both of them love attention.

Both of them love playing ball. But try to take a picture with both of them in it, and what you get is a shy little dog and a distracted kid.

The picture I wish I could capture is the one where Lil goes shrieking through the room holding the tennis ball aloft, with Howie breathing on the back of her neck as he chases her. Both of them look so happy when they play like that.

I look at them and see two reasons that I find so much happiness around me.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Another Moment of Grace

This child of nature was resting on a branch above the sweet lantanas.

She watched the wasps sip from the edges of the tree on which she was sitting, tilting her head as they flew past. As I crept closer with my camera, she alternated watching them with watching me.

Under those feathers is a body the size of the last joint of one of my fingers. So tiny, it has a fully developed digestive tract and blood vessels that carry nourishment and cleansing to every millimeter. The eyes can detect the smallest movement; the brain and nervous system compensate in flight for the gusty afternoon winds effortlessly.

This creature, with a body less than the size of a bite of hot dog, is beautiful. Even though its brain is the size of a pea (if that), no one would say that this creature is worthless, and ought to be torn apart and thrown out, not even if it was asleep, in the insensate sleep that birds are prone to.

Sorry, readers, I just look at the size, and how much people love to see hummingbirds, and wonder at a world that will abort human fetuses far larger than this bird, and say, "Oh, whatever it was, it wasn't really alive, anyway."

I don't want anyone to kill this bird, even if she's inconvenient, or not appreciated, or if there might be a drought next year and she won't have enough flowers. She is alive, and beautiful, and she watches the wasps and the flies, and that is enough to warrant living. She will never write a sonata, or discover the secret of sustainable fusion, or successfully market fuel-cell technology. But she doesn't deserve to have her life ended, even if all her days are spent as a bird-brain.

As Kris would say, "May peace prevail."

Friday, August 19, 2005

Crop Duster over Suburbia

This morning, while I was reading the daily comics on line and savoring the miraculously chilly morning, a growing noise turned to a window rattling roar.

I've lived in this town for 8 years now, and I know that sound: the sound of crop dusters! I ran out of the house to the sidewalk just in time to see the plane make another pass right over the tree in our front yard, incredibly, deliciously, thrillingly close. Bolting back to the studio, I shouted for Alex and Lillian to come look, and grabbed my camera. Bernie joined us in time to see a pass of the plane, awakened from his sleep by Lillian's shouts of "Do it again! Do it again!"

It was like starting the day with a party. A beautiful day, laughter and wonder, a stunning air show. The time is evening now, and I'm still grinning and glowing from this morning's treat.

Sadly, we were the only family who came out of their suburban houses to see what the noise was about. A couple children walking to school early pointed at the plane in surprise, but other kids never even bothered to give the plane a second glance.

You know, I hear people crabbing and bitching about other people every day. I see folks take offense where none was intended; try to pick fights for the sake of excitement in their lives; sit and sulk in the flatulent miasma of their pointless grudges; get angrier still when others don't want to be dragged down by their hatred of their own lives. I truly wish everyone could feel the happiness I felt this morning, the awe, the presence of the moment.

There was nothing else in the world but the smiles, the fresh breeze, the yellow and red biplane against the blue sky. My heart felt opened to the Joy in Existence that is the Creator's grace.

There will most likely always be poverty, war, pestilence, greed, and all manner of cruddy habits and crimes people don't want to turn from. I can't change the way the traffic lights are set, or the shoddy customer service at the local grocery store, or the destruction of elephants' habitats. But I can accept that there are instances of sublime delight in life, and throw myself into the choice of happiness -- and be happy.

P.S. The photo was taken looking straight up from our driveway.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

His Name is Deceiving

Baby, Baby, you're so sweet
You're like the alligator
With the yellow feet!

Baby, Baby, you're so cute
You're like the crocodile
With the fur suit!

(Babe's Song)

Howie is the little dog. Babe outweighs him by about 40 pounds, and towers above him. When I walk with Babe, I feel like I'm walking with a black bear.

I remember seeing him for the first time, tied in the back of a small pickup truck, his owners giving him to me because they could not stand him. They hadn't bothered to train him to be polite or obedient. They'd bought themselves a pretty little pup and then abandoned him to his own psychoses in their back yard. You just can't do that with dogs, German Shepherds in particular. They NEED people. Being alone makes them crazy.

So there Babe was, 'way too big for that little pickup, barking and prancing and making the truck shake up and down, and I knew I was crazy for agreeing to take him on as a pet. But I did, anyway. He was too beautiful for me not to try.

Training was hard. He'd had few manners taught to him; fortunately I'd had some experience training a horse prior to getting Babe. Getting a 1200-lb equine to mind gave me some insights, and they were needed when dealing with Babe.

He's been well worth it. He's such a sweet natured dog. I've always felt comfortable grooming him, trimming his nails, examining his teeth, his ears, his eyes. He's a patient and trustworthy pet.

More on Babe a little later.

Monday, August 15, 2005

A Custom-Made Dog

If you had asked me four years ago what traits I would like in a dog, I would have listed:

1. Sweet temperament; a dog that I could trust not to bite anyone, especially kids.
2. Intelligence; a dog that could be trained to walk at heel, to fetch the paper, to attack invading insects.
3. Health; a dog whose breed is not plagued by hip dysplasia, or epilepsy, or sinus problems.

My list wouldn't have contained the things I secretly wanted, because they are selfish things: soft fur, a pretty face, a huggable size, ears that can stand up or flatten out, a playful nature. More selfish still, I wished I could have a dog that was loyal to me, not the whole household. A dog that would follow me around, and watch me to see what I wanted to do, a dog that would rather be with me than with anyone else. And ever since I had seen a brindle bulldog when I was a little kid, I deep, deep down inside wished I could have a dog with stripes.

In July of 2001, after our German Shepherd, Babe, had once again playfully attacked me as I tried to walk up the north side yard (resulting in a strenuous game of Big Bad Wolf Meets Red Riding Hood and Her Quarterstaff), Bernie and I talked about getting Babe a little brother to keep him company and "take the edge off him." It was a Wednesday afternoon, and we had been swimming (along with Babe, of course.) Bernie asked me, "So, if you were going to get a second dog, what would you want?"

The experience of having Babe as a pet influenced me, of course. "I'd want a German Shepherd mix," I told him, "I love Babe's personality and that his family orientation is a breed characteristic -- but I have concerns about the Shepherds being too inbred. I'd want a male, about four months old -- big enough to play with Babe but young enough to be trained."

That evening, Bernie called me from work. "You're not going to believe this. The Manteca paper ran an ad for adoptable pets, and there's a dog called Howie that's a German Shepherd mix, four months old, and male. Is that a coincidence or what?"

He brought the paper home with him, and sure enough there was the ad, showing a bewildered young dog with light-colored fur and a timid demeanor. "Well, we can check him out."

We drove to Delta Humane Society the next morning, July 19th. We got there just as the shelter opened, and most distractingly, the doors opened, and a young woman tugged a dog on a leash to their exercise area. The dog was a large, fat pup with black stripes on an orangey-tan background. He leaped and ran when she let him off-leash, grinning with black lips, his ears alternately flopping as he galloped and pricking to stand up when he saw something of interest.

My heart did double-backflips to see him fling himself onto a bench in abandon, but I kept myself to our goal. We were nearly to the door of the building when we heard the woman say, "What are you doing, Howie?"

Bernie and I turned and said together, "THAT'S 'Howie?'"

"Can I see him?" I asked, already stepping into the exercise area. After that, the only clear memory I have is of spreading my arms and having "Howie" hurtle into them to lick my face and nibble my earlobes. And signing papers, any papers, and sitting in the back seat of the car with my striped pup in my lap.

Babe and Howie were prime playmates, as Howie loves to run and Babe loves to chase. After their first prolonged romp, we gave Howie a bath with flea shampoo (he didn't like that) and when night came, I slept on the kitchen floor with Howie's leash looped to my hand.

I can't believe that was four years ago already. That up there is a picture of Howie trying to nap in my chair.

Incidentally, it's Pets Week over at the Piker Press.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Things taped to the desk

I have taped to the "hutch" portion of my desk various things that I have wanted to remember.

One is a small sheet of paper that says simply "The Story is the Thing," and is there to remind me that tale-telling is about tale-telling and that I shouldn't worry about if telling a story is great art or Nobel Prize quality. It's the stories we have to tell that should be told so that they are not lost or forgotten as we grub about for worldly possessions and $$.

Just below that is Shel Silverstein's inspirational poem: "Draw a crazy picture, Write a nutty poem, Sing a mumble-gumble song, Whistle through your comb. Do a loony-goony dance 'Cross the kitchen floor, Put something silly in the world That ain't been there before." That's an important one for me, because I worry all the time if what I create isn't just taking up space. When I stop and think about Existence, I have to pinch myself to remember that Life is about Joy in Creation. It's just that simple, regardless of what hard times you encounter.

To beat myself, I have a quote (could it have been from Socrates?) taped up that says, "We are what we do repeatedly. Excellence, therefore, is not an act, but a habit." Is as does is my personal motto, not too far from that quote. There is the whip that drives me in circles: what if I repeatedly turn out crap?

Behind my computer is a quote from James Baldwin that says, "If you are going to be a writer there is nothing I can do to stop you; if you're not going to be a writer nothing I can say will help you. What you really need at the beginning is somebody to let you know that the effort is real." When I'm proofreading or editing, I really need to hear that I'm not wasting my time. My effort is real.

There is a note on the side of the hutch that lists a neighbor's name, and that of his son, and that the neighbor is nice; above that is my expired CA license with a photo of me 10 pounds lighter and radiant with my successful diet; there is a picture of Howie watching me from behind a lovely planter, and one of our friend Bill and his wife Maureen. Bill died last year about this time.

A piece of notebook paper has all the letters of the alphabet on it for help when I try to make rhyming poetry; a photo of Bernie and me sitting on Santa's lap (Santa was our friend Jim dressed up for a church party) -- Bernie had hair and a dark beard, and I (still a smoker) was only about 115 pounds. Another photo of Sarah the bartender and her husband Cody. A note that contains the inspiration for this year's NaNoWriMo, and finally, a printed copy of an odd card I found 30 years ago -- I don't even remember in what the card was found. The copy says, "Have I not commanded thee? Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed: for the Lord thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest. (Joshua 1:9)"

That's the one that provides me with the strength to keep on going every day. I'm a believer, and in spite of my irritable nature and built-in suspicion of everything, I try to listen for the voice of the Creator every day. And even when I can't hear that voice clearly, I remember, "... the Lord... is with thee withersoever thou goest."

Thursday, August 11, 2005

It's Like a Pennsylvania Screw

I'm screwed here, too, in Perseid-viewing.

I never saw the Perseid meteor shower in its glory when I lived in Pennsylvania, not only because of the frequently-overcast sky and heavy haze of humidity, but also because the gnats and mosquitoes would carry one off piecemeal if one tried to sit out to view them.

Here in California, the air is (normally) relatively clear at night, and the bugs could be thwarted by layers of clothing that also kept one warm on the (normally) chilly nights. Forget it this year. It's still hotter than the bejabbers outside at dusk; no way am I going to don a robe and thick socks and a long-sleeved shirt tonight. And that would be a necessity, as all the papers and radio news are full of warnings about mosquito-carried West Nile Virus, that has killed a few people this year. (Bernie's commute partner's neighbor was recently admitted to the hospital with West Nile Virus.)

Sleeping indoors last night, I not only did not cough in my sleep, but also did not cough after waking. Until the weather changes, indoors it is for me, alas, and that will also preclude me waking at 2 am and watching the sky through the roof of the tent. What a bite. Well, maybe I'll be alive next year to try again.

One night, back in 1990 or '91, Bernie and Alex and I were lying outside in an evening, watching for meteors at the end of July. We were all bundled in warm clothing and quilts and sleeping bags and such (oh, those normal summers!) and as we watched the sky, Alex and Bernie saw something in the sky that they found unusual. "Did you see that?" Bernie asked his daughter. "Yeah!" she replied, "What was it?"

A good researcher, I separated them immediately and interviewed them both individually. "A blur seemed to move across the stars, distorting them," Bernie said. Alex reported, "It was like the alien in Predator in how it refracted the light, making it seem almost transparent." Both of them saw something, but what it was eludes us to this very day. I know that a night or so later, I saw three odd lights moving against the wind that were NOT conventional aircraft (Bernie saw them, too) and that was the last time I sprawled out under the open stars looking for things in the sky late at night.

Well, of course I love my tent, but I don't open my eyes when I'm alone. And Howie is usually there with me if Bernie is not. And I have Babe, who is a match for any alien invasion.

But oh, well. Tonight I will be inside, loaded with painkillers for my back, hiding from the pollen and the heat, the geriatric Babe guarding the hallway rather than the sky. And not at all looking forward to the morning, when two cords of wood will be dumped in my driveway, awaiting me to stack it for the coming winter.

Winter. That's like some sick fantasy itself.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

And the heat goes on

A high-pressure air system continues to dominate the Central Valley, making it impossible for the Delta breezes to cool the Valley at night. Add to that the noxious crepe myrtle blossoms, and myriad palm blossoms, and hey presto, you've got a pollen-laden air lying thick as over-cooked soup. Bernie told me to sleep indoors tonight because of how badly I've been coughing in my sleep. I had thought I was only coughing badly after I got up and came inside. Oh, well. Indoors it is.

Howie will be pleased, as he will get to sleep on the bed beside me.

In normal summers, we would sit outside to watch for the Perseid meteor shower in heavy robes, flannel pants, and thick socks, with a fire in a little twig-stove to keep our toes warm. This summer is the first summer that I threw the quilt out onto the patio for the older dog to sleep on rather than have it inside the tent as a necessity. What a freakish summer this has been.

Tomorrow night is the Perseid Meteor Shower climax. May the mercy of God grant us an opportunity to see it.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Fiction Based on Reality

In downtown Santa Cruz, there is a delicatessen called Zoccoli's.

It's a smallish place, with tables on the sidewalk in front of the store (nice wide sidewalks in Santa Cruz) and a few tables inside. Busy! Many, many people eat there or purchase food there every day, all day. When you walk in the door, the smell of baking bread lifts you from your feet and wafts you all over the store to look at the wines, the teas, the deli case. The menu boards are on the wall behind the counter, and any time you are at Zoccoli's, you'll see people just standing back, reading them.

Their sandwiches are wonderful, their lasagna is great, but what I always HAVE to buy is their feta vegetable salad.

Those of you who have read the novel Time Traveler are now thinking, "Oh, wait, this sounds familiar ... "

And it should be. I renamed the deli "Giammarino's" and placed it in the city of Port Laughton instead of Santa Cruz, but the descriptions are pretty much from the life. Bernie and I laugh when we talk about that delicatessen, because we have a hard time remembering the real name of it, and refer to it as "Giammarino's" instead. (I remembered the real name after having a look at my collection of business cards from hither and thither.) When we go to Santa Cruz for a weekend, we always go to Giammarino's -- whoops, Zoccoli's -- to stock up on their tasty food as soon as we've got the suitcase in the hotel room. (And we look to see if a certain character is sitting there, reading a newspaper while he waits for his sandwich ... )

Today, perhaps inspired by his thumb-through of the newly delivered copies of Time Traveler, Bernie was cruel enough to speculate on the feta vegetable salad tossed with farfalle pasta. Now I can't get the thought out of my head.

Guaranteed, that suggestion is going to cost him a pretty penny when I show him when on the calendar we can get away to Santa Cruz!

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

The Dream Come True

From the earliest moment I can recall, I wanted a horse.

My favorite toys were little plastic horses, an inflatable plastic horse that I wore completely out (but for months searched the house for its remains, certain that it had to be there somewhere), and broomstick hobby-horses until, of course, I was old enough to ride a bicycle, at which point I imagined that I was riding a horse rather than a bike, keeping my heels properly down and my seat balanced. I dreamt of riding horses, drew pictures of horses and girls riding horses, was dizzied with pleasure even while being utterly unsatisfied with the pony rides at carnivals. At the public library, I read all the Marguerite Henry books about horses (with their charming Wesley Dennis illustrations), all the Walter Farley books about The Black Stallion, and any book that had information about tack, grooming, and training of horses.

Standing in 100-degree (yes, it cooled off a little) heat today, holding the horses' heads for two hours while the farrier trimmed and shod them, with flies trying to get into my ears inspite of the thick coating of insect repellent, and the horses pawing and tossing their heads to try to discourage the flies, the smell of citronella and horse dung and sweat all around, one could wonder if this was what I'd had in mind when I made tiny saddles from scrap leather at 10 years old. Had I taken into consideration that horses smell strongly of sweat, that they bite and kick and try to step on your feet and have brains the size of a walnut? That when they rub their heads against you, it leaves bruises? That when you hold the horse's head while the farrier works on the hind feet, you also have to use the free hand to hold the horse's tail so that he doesn't whack the farrier? Do you think I remembered that childhood dream of owning a horse?

You better believe I did. Because the alternative to all those discomforts would be to NOT have a horse, and that would be miserable indeed. I learned that by the time I was five years old.

However, it's only okay if it's one's own horse. I didn't mind Dink's fidgeting and switching himself back and forth. BUT when I had to hold my friend's mare, Cameo, I quickly ran out of patience as she lurched forward and back, threatened to rear, and finally got "comfortable" leaning on me for balance while the farrier worked on her feet. I'm glad she's not my horse, because I would surely have to kick the shit out of her for such ill behavior.

Between the heat and wrassling with Cameo, I'm exhausted.

Exhausted but elated, as my copies of Time Traveler arrived today, and that's one beautiful book. Mmmmmmm.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Best I Could Do on Short Notice

Terri expressed a (possibly depraved) curiosity to see what I look like with very short hair. I promised to try to upload a photo. The light in the studio is rather dim at this time of day, and I wasn't very interested in using a flash (flash makes me look shiny), so the picture is the teensiest bit (okay, a lot) blurry. Oh well.

Here ya go, folks. Keep in mind that the haircut was obtained nearly a week and half ago, and has grown enough to tickle my ears. The longer stuff on top keeps my scalp from sunburning.

What do you think? Do I look more, or less like William Shatner now that my hair is short?

Incidentally, this is about as close to a Mohawk as I think Bernie can tolerate. And I have to admit, this hair-do is just about as easy as they get. Towel dry, comb top, squish bangs back so that they stand up a little -- done.

And it's going to stay this way until the weather becomes bearable.

PS. I tried to link to Terri's blog but the FilthyPiker sites are all down for maintenance or wrecking or something. Sorry.