Monday, December 28, 2009

Full House


We had twenty-four people at our house for a Christmas buffet on Saturday. Or to be more specific, we had 16 adults, 7 kids, and 1 baby. Writing this, I wonder at what age we start counting a baby or kid as a full person on a guest list...when they can walk? When they can eat a full meal? When they can contribute to conversation?

There was also one dog at the gathering...George, of course. In the early morning, George saw signs that people were coming over soon. We were in the kitchen early, moving constantly, cooking and clanging dishes. When George wasn't under our feet waiting for crumbs to fall, he was at the front window waiting for cars to pull up.

George's perspective of our get-together must have been confusing. Instead of getting his afternoon nap, he saw the house fill with feet and noise, then he chased kids from room to room (and humped them when the opportunity arose). Instead of having quiet, cozy time on the couch, he was petted by strange hands and fed crackers by a sly three-year-old. After the last person left four hours later, and after the mountain of dishes had been surmounted, George crashed with us in front of the TV, too tired to look up.

We were tired, too. I hadn't sat down or even eaten during the whole thing, fueled by adrenaline that kept me filling glasses and monitoring the activity in each room. I guess the fun of hosting a party is watching everyone else have fun, right?

And like George, we crashed on the couch, satisfied with our foray into the Christmas Party scene. 16 hungry adults, 7 hyper kids, 1 spitting-up baby, 1 spastic dog, and us. I'm glad we have a year to rest before the next one.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Mini Mice


This weekend, in the middle of Tech Week of Nevada Ballet Theatre’s production of The Nutcracker at Paris Las Vegas, I managed to find a few minutes in my schedule to sit in the audience during dress rehearsal and watch a bit of the Battle Scene in the first act.

Onstage, Clara fell asleep after parents’ Christmas party and the stage went dark, causing creepy shadows to fall around her. The music became sinister, and Drosselmeyer swirled his cape as Clara’s dream began. Then from a corner of the stage, a tiny mouse – a five-year-old child in a fluffy mouse costume – scampered across the stage, ran around Drosselmeyer and his cape, and then exited to the opposite side. And I began to cry.

Okay, I didn’t sob or anything, but the tears sure welled up.

I’ve always been a crybaby when it comes to live theatre or any type of live event that brings people together. When Jim Nabors sings Back Home Again in Indiana at the start of the Indy 500, I cry. When amid thousands of stranger in the stands of a baseball game who all stand together silently and respectfully for the National Anthem, I cry. And the Opening Ceremony of the Olympics? Forget it…I am a mess the whole time.

And sitting in the audience of a live performance always gets me (if it’s a good show, of course). There is a special magic in the air, when the composer’s creativity, the orchestra’s mastery, the performers’ enthusiasm, and the audience’s awe combine to give us…well, the best of humanity. In this age of automated phones, texting, TV, and mindless video games, we need more chances to come together and celebrate humankind’s creativity.

I sat in the audience this weekend, my eyes filled with tears, as the stage filled with tiny mice who scurried in well-rehearsed circles and fell to the ground and shook their feet in the air in fear of Drosselmeyer. These were the kids who had looked at me wide-eyed from their makeup-covered faces as they waited patiently in a line for their entrance. I adjusted their mouse ears and helped them find their lost ballet slippers. I marveled at their parents who volunteered hours of time to coordinate and corral a cast of 100 kids during the lengthy rehearsal process. This was the kids’ first live performance, and they were on the same Las Vegas stage where countless celebrities had entertained thousands.

I looked over at the Director who was giving notes over the microphone and hoped he wouldn’t look over at me. The Artistic Director of NBT also sat nearby, and I prayed he wouldn’t come talk to me and see my tears. But I couldn’t help my emotion – not only was it these kids’ first experience in the theatre, but it was also the show that my Mom took me to every Christmas – the music alone can bring me to tears because it encompasses all the memories and magic of Christmas.

I may be a slightly jaded ex-professional singer/dancer, but the magic of theatre still gets me. And I’m so glad that these kids are lucky enough to experience it.

I wish you all some tears of joy during this holiday.
Merry Christmas.


p.s. I watched the whole production on Sunday night and cried every time a new group of kids entered the stage. Boy, I’m a mess.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Happy Birthday


I hate cheesy, overly sentimental stories that are written solely to make the reader get all weepy, but this is the time of year when TV movies, shows, and radio programs pour on the sappy sweetness. In spite of myself, I have an appropriately heartwarming story for you.

My birthday was this weekend, and I reminisced about past birthday celebrations and tried to pick out my favorite memories. One of my favorites was when I turned 18 in London, and my aunt & uncle took my cousin and me to a Mexican restaurant in Leicester Square, where we celebrated my legal status with sugary margaritas and rides on the carnival attractions outside.

But the most touching birthday was when I was in high school and turned 16 or 17. My Drama Club had a Traveling Troupe that performed at local business clubs and organizations and took an annual trip to Madison State Hospital, a mental hospital where we met the patients and performed in each ward, sometimes with the doors locked behind us. We met shy teenagers who reminded us how lucky we were in our relatively-normal lives, sang songs in dingy rooms of senior citizens who joined in our choreography if they were so moved, and sometimes received marriage proposals from patients who hadn’t seen women in a long time. It was an eye-opening, meaningful trip for us privileged teens.

We happened to make that trip one year on my birthday, and we sang Christmas carols in a ward full of patients who had a tiny Christmas tree perched atop the piano. After our set of songs we mingled and greeted the patients, and someone happened to say that it was my birthday. This was great news to them. A man took a seat on the piano bench and played Happy Birthday while everyone sang to me. I sat on the bench next to him and smiled, surprised by the sudden attention.

Then a woman approached me and held out her hand. “Happy birthday,” she said shyly, and she gestured for me to open my hand. “Happy birthday,” she repeated, and she placed in my hand a shiny nickel. Surprised, I quietly thanked her and then watched her return to her chair by the window where she sat and watched the festivities in the room.

A nickel. It has to be the most selfless, meaningful, valuable gift I have ever received. I kept that nickel for a long time.

This year, to celebrate my birthday we went up to Mt. Charleston to build a snowman. He had curly “hair” on the top of his head, stones for eyes, and a small carrot for his nose, and we left him there in the forest to survey a nice view of snow-covered trees. He is probably covered in more snow by now, and I wonder if an animal has eaten his nose yet.

For my birthday, we also went to a movie, went out for high tea, and ate dinner at an expensive restaurant. But the simple snowman is what I’ll remember.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Christmas Trees


On Sunday we decorated for Christmas, and now the house has that festive vibe and a faint smell of pine. George spent the day following us from room to room as we unpacked boxes and climbed up and down ladders, and he finally fell asleep under the table during dinner because he didn’t get his usual afternoon nap.

I hadn’t planned on buying a real tree this year. Tired of the same decorations going in the same spot every year, I thought I would just make do with the small fake tree we usually put in the dining room. But at Home Depot on Sunday morning I had to walk past the area where all the trees were displayed and employees were cutting and wrapping trees, where families were picking out the perfect one to tie onto their car and take home.

It was the smell that got me - that sharp pine smell that suddenly made it feel like Christmas and put a warm, cozy feeling in my belly.

So I bought a tree in Home Depot. A small one that we put upstairs on a table in our TV room to be different this year. It’s short and fat and fun, and we covered it only with the ornaments we’ve bought when we’ve traveled, to make it personal and different.

Picking out a tree has to be at the top of my list of favorite holiday activities. It was always fun to go with Mom to the tree lot in the freezing cold and pick out just the right one. When I was little, my Grandma used to cut down a tree from the woods behind their house – usually a cedar whose branches were so flimsy that they would fall over like Charlie Brown’s tree when we hung anything on it. And before I was born, my Mom once used a tumbleweed as a Christmas tree, when she lived in New Mexico.

When our schedules cooperate, my husband and I go to Utah with our friends to get a tree from the forest there. And it is so much fun – her whole family piles into several trucks and we drive forever on bumpy unpaved roads to the location that her dad has scoped out already. And we walk, freezing, spreading out through the trees, searching for the perfect one. The great thing is that no one is rushed. No one gets impatient when I need to walk 100 yards back to the tree I saw before, just to see if it is better. They understand the fun of the hunt. And when everyone has their perfect tree, we throw them into the back of their pickups and head back to her parents’ house for hot soup and to warm up by the fire.

Tonight my husband and I will have our annual tradition of sitting by the Christmas tree after it’s decorated, with only the tree lit, and we’ll listen to Bing Crosby, sip eggnog, and sit and enjoy the calm of cold December night. I hope you all can find some quiet time by the tree, too.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Guitars


Family get-togethers on my Mom’s side of the family always involve guitars. After everyone is stuffed from the meal, and the leftovers are sitting on the table waiting to be cleared, one by one someone goes into another room and reappears with a guitar in hand. And soon the living room is full of music and all the toes in the house are tapping.

When I was a kid, the adults used to cram around the piano and sing in harmony to old favorites like the Everly Brothers’ Dream, or any of the Beatles tunes. At Christmas, we always sang The Twelve Days of Christmas, and one family member was assigned to each day. I was always "Nine ladies dancing," and Uncle W.C. always ended each chorus with “and a par-snip in a pan-try,” causing my Grandma to roll her eyes from the kitchen. Every year.

I usually was just a witness for the guitar jam sessions that erupted in the evening, but when I was in seventh grade I learned to play Dan Fogelberg’s Run for the Roses on the flute and got to be a part of the music, at least for one song.

Now we live across the country from my family, but every now and then our house in Las Vegas has that old-home-feeling, because my husband is learning to play the guitar. He will sit on the living room couch and slowly pick out Beatles melodies while I clean up after dinner, his brow furrowed in concentration. He may only know a few chords, but hearing that familiar strumming adds something to our house that nothing else can.

This Thanksgiving was no different from any other get-together among the Wheeler clan. While the leftover turkey cooled, a group of guitars formed in the living room, giving the day its familiar acoustic soundtrack. I tapped my foot from the kitchen table where my aunts and I looked at old family photos, now and then adding a line of harmony to the music in the other room. Grandma snacked on a pumpkin cookie and watched her great-grandkids play with Lincoln Logs on the carpeted floor. Outside the day turned to evening and Christmas lights began to appear on the neighborhood lawns. Anyone passing by on the sidewalk would have heard some rockin’ Duane Eddy coming from the house at the end of Yarmouth Road.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Search for Home


When I was a teenager I gave my mom a Mother’s Day card that said, “Wherever I travel, Wherever I roam…Wherever my Mom is will always be home.” And because of the special connection she and I had, she knew I meant it, and she framed the card in a black frame and hung it above the piano in her collection of family photos and artwork.

That framed card is in my house in Las Vegas now, and whenever I look at it I wonder exactly where home is for me now. Mom passed away over ten years ago, so if that card’s sentiment is still true, I am a little lost.

I’m writing this from Indiana during Thanksgiving Week, in the town I grew up in, where memories (good and bad) lurk around every corner. And the whole time I wonder, where is home? When I’m in Las Vegas, I refer to my hometown of Paoli, Indiana as “home.” But when I’m in Paoli, Las Vegas gets that title of honor. So, what is home to me? I’ve lived in Las Vegas for over 15 years, yet I don’t feel that it will ever feel like home. And it has been twenty years since I’ve lived in Paoli…I appreciate and miss the family history I have there, but it doesn’t feel like Me anymore.

So, if Paoli isn’t home but neither is Vegas, where would be the ideal place for me? My husband says no to anywhere he would have to shovel snow, so that limits my choices. Lately I think we would really like it in the Northwest, maybe Portland, Oregon, but the funny thing is that I’ve never been there! I’m looking for a place with open-minded people, people who appreciate nature & culture, a university, and access to city life and natural beauty.

But would that finally feel like home? The location would be great but still there would be no family connection or history, none of the friends from Vegas we’ve known for years, and my mom still wouldn’t be there.

I don’t think there is an answer. Instead, I will go on making memories, enjoying life, and making our current place a home. And then finally, someday, I’m sure I will suddenly realize that Home has a definite location for me. Someday.

Or maybe I should just be thankful that I have several places to call home. I’m lucky to have fond memories of the hometown where I grew up and the city home where I’ve led my adult life, and maybe many more places will earn that title of honor, even temporarily. If home is where the heart is, I can just spread the love around, right?

I write this from the only place in Paoli where I can get an internet wireless connection, with a view toward the southeast side of town. Let's see what memories I can stir up from my view out this window - memories that happened while Paoli was my home:

I can see the back of the library building, where I used to go in the side entrance to the children's section in the basement, where Mrs. Ott used to read us stories.

The market I sit in right now used to be the Variety Store, where as a child I loved to go because you could buy lots of cheap things - candy, toys, sewing projects, kitchen trinkets. Mom received many Christmas gifts that I purchased here, and when she was a child she used to come here with her mom.

My Grandma's church would be in view if it weren't for a large semi trailor that is blocking my view. During my childhood I spent summers in their basement for Vacation Bible School. It's also where we gathered for a free dinner with family and friends on the day of my Mom's funeral.

Farther on is the liquor store, where we never went, since my Mom was a teacher and this is a small town in the Bible Belt. I went in there once a few years ago and couldn't shake the feeling that I was being bad!

I can see the roof of Crockett's Flowers & Gifts, the florist from whom we ordered flowers for Mother's Day or birthdays or funerals, and where I would run inside to pick up my friend Pam for a playdate in elementary school. Just up the hill was where Jennifer C lived in a large yellow brick house...I think I may have spent the night there once or twice.

The highway that heads out of town to the southeast logged thousands of miles during my life in Paoli, when Mom and I went to Louisville to see musicals and ballets, to Kentucky to visit relatives, or to Florida or South Carolina for summer vacations.

And through the trees I can see the roof of the old brick Stalcup building - now converted into a business, where my Grandma, and my Mom and her sister, went to high school. Tall and stately above the trees, it was on its grounds that we rehearsed for the musical Oklahoma! when I was a kid, and I still refer to that time as "the good old days", when I began to love the theatre.

All of the above memories, just off the top of my head, from this one tiny window view.

I feel lucky to have called this place home, even if it was only for a while. And I think it will always stay on my list of places to call home. I'm thankful for that, no matter where I end up.

Monday, November 16, 2009

One Day in Paris


For some reason, most of my foreign travel has happened in the Fall. It's a great time to travel - fewer crowds, cooler weather, better prices. Recently I remembered we were in Paris in November, many years ago...

One day in Paris. We planned to zip from London to Paris on the first train of the day and return on the last train that night.

But the day held many challenges: the tube station in London was closed that morning, the French taxi driver stiffed us on our change, and all of the Musee de l’Orangerie’s most famous paintings were away on tour, which we learned after having purchased our tickets. And at about 10am, the rain began – bad news for us since we planned to walk everywhere, and it was November, and cold.

But our one day in Paris is still our best travel day to date. While the cold rain completely soaked our pants up to the thigh, we huddled together under our umbrella the whole length of the Champs Elysees, stopping to duck into a café for hot chocolate and the best chocolate doughnut ever, and into a small silent church where the clink of our donation into the wooden box echoed through the stone interior.

The best paintings in l’Orangerie may have been away, but we found a large oval room downstairs where Monet’s water lilies were displayed in panorama, and we sat on the center benches, entranced.

After nearly being blown off the top of the Eiffel Tower by the cold gusts of wind, where we were so wet and freezing that I said, “I’m so cold I don’t care we’re in Paris anymore!” we found a cozy café and ended our day by warming up with a warm French dinner and oversized glasses of beer.

Travel days that go perfectly aren’t nearly as fun.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Those Bleepin' Stickers


This week as George and I drove back home from the dog park, we sat at a traffic light behind an SUV that had stickers on the back window which proudly boasted that they have a husband, a wife, three tall children, one short one, and two dogs. Even as I write this, my upper lip is curling up in disgust at the memory.

So, why do I have such a strong reaction to these family window stickers that are so common nowadays? Yes, part of it is because my husband and I do not yet have a family of our own, and that issue contains a lot of emotion. But I know that these stickers would annoy me anyway.

Let’s also put aside the fact that it’s not safe to put your kids’ names on the back of your car for just anyone to see, inviting weirdos and rapists to call your three-year-old by name and take off with him.

My issue is this: Why do they think I care about the makeup of that car’s happy little family? These stickers remind me of the reality TV phenomenon that has given the population the idea that the little details of their life mean something to strangers. Watching hours of TV where grungy people sit around and complain that their roommate used all the toothpaste or that they can’t stand so-and-so’s attitude has made people think that their details are important, creating a mini-celebrity status in their minds.

Or you could compare these stickers to the guns-for-hire in the Old West, in that parents put a sticker up for each kid like old gunslingers put notches on their gun barrels for each kill. Or like crews of WWII planes who painted an airplane silhouette on their plane for each enemy they shot down. Or like Pat Benatar’s notches on her lipstick case. These stickers are emblazoned on the back windows of cars like there’s a worldwide competition to see who can have the most kids.

So, what can I do to counteract these smiling stickers that mock me from their lofty position on their gas-guzzling SUVs? I wish there were something in response, like those bumper stickers that say “My kid beat up your honor student,” or the Darwin fish that eats the symbol for Christianity. But even if there were such a sticker, I wouldn’t post it. I don’t like to put things on my car that outwardly provoke people – I prefer a simple “Obama” sticker over one that rudely attacks Bush or the Republicans. There’s enough negative energy out there already.

So I guess I’ll just have to ignore them. Or if they’re parked nearby, George can conveniently pee on their tires. That’ll show ‘em.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Halloween


I wish I had a front porch to put a jack-o-lantern on. Setting them out by our front door in the warm Vegas sun doesn’t have the same effect as the pumpkins from my childhood. Then, I remember creeping out onto the chilly porch with my mom to light the candle at dusk, the sweet smell of burnt pumpkin still hanging in the air from the previous night’s burning.

And costumes were better back then. They did have those cheap plastic costumes at the stores in town, but I snubbed my nose at them, preferring the challenge of creating my own costume from the closets in our house and at my Grandma’s. Most kids made their own costumes, probably because of financial reasons, but this made us care more about what we wore, because we spent the weeks before Halloween planning and scheming and coming up with the perfect costume. The immediate gratification of buying something at a store would have robbed us of half the fun.

I grew up in a house on a country road outside of town, so there were no nearby neighbors to walk to for trick-or-treating. Instead, we got into the car and drove to all our family members’ houses, stretching the night’s fun longer into the evening. In contrast, a few years ago I went trick-or-treating with a friend and her family, and I have to say the difference between Vegas trick-or-treating and my rural childhood’s made me a little disappointed. I had expected a leisurely stroll from house to house, but because Vegas houses are crammed so close together, the kids ran like banshees from door to door, sometimes hitting three houses within a minute.

As a kid, half the fun of Halloween was giving out candy to trick-or-treaters who came to our house. But since we lived in the country, hardly any ever came. In fact, I remember one year when I was about 10, and Mom bought special little individual treat bags that I painstakingly filled perfectly with equal amounts of several kinds of candy and then tied with a black and orange bow. I excitedly waited for the kids to come, but no one did. The pitfalls of living in the country. But all I needed was one trick-or-treater to be happy, and usually I got that.

One unusual year Mom and I had several trick-or-treaters, and we had to quickly drive into town to buy candy. While we were gone, someone soaped our windows in clever pictures of smiling jack-o-lanterns and the words “Happy Halloween!” Mom and I laughed about it afterward, happy to be living in a town with such wholesome pranksters.

Enough reminiscing about my childhood and how much better things were back then. After all, back then I didn’t have a patient dog named George who allows me to dress him as Superman. Things are good.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Cleanliness is next to Godliness


This week George got a bath at our local groomer, and after we got home, my husband petted him and told him he loves him more now that he’s clean. And sometimes I think he means it. If George has gone without a bath for a while, Lance doesn’t want George on the couch as much, and he doesn’t like to pet him as much. I, on the other hand, could care less what George smells like, and I’ll hug him and give him a kiss on the top of his head no matter what.

This difference of opinion regarding cleaning has caused some conflict during our relationship, because we have different definitions of clean. For me, things are usually clean enough, and I can go for weeks without noticing the dust ball in the corner, while Lance notices right away. I clean the things that matter and leave the deep cleaning for later.

I guess I wish I were a little more like him, but on the whole, I have better things to do than obsess about cleaning. A clean house isn’t going to get me ahead in the world. I’d rather finish my novel with piles of dirty laundry around me than take years to finish it in a spotless house. It’s all about priorities.

A family member of my husband’s was once referred to as a “good wife” because she was such a good housekeeper. I’m sorry, but I’d rather be remembered for my great deeds and great works of art than for my clean towels.

This feeling of mine can be attributed to two things: my Mom, and my travels to other countries. Mom’s family taught me that if you’re having a really good discussion at the table after dinner, the dishes can wait. If it’s a beautiful day outside and the green grass is calling, the laundry can wait. Or you can kill two birds with one stone and hang the laundry outside while enjoying the fresh air. Even better.

When I was in high school, my Spanish teacher planned a trip to Spain for her classes, and she said we didn’t need to pack shampoo because we would only be gone for two weeks. Being spanking-clean, shower obsessed Americans, my classmates were shocked. And while two weeks does seem to be a stretch, my experience of living in England sure put things into perspective. They didn’t shower every day, and they were still good looking and popular. Their socks didn’t match their shirts, and the world didn’t come to an end. I came away from my time there with the impression that Americans are a little neurotic in their clean-frenzy, with their prissy sanitizers and two-shower-a-day habit and huge hosed-down backyards.

I’d rather take a cue from other countries and lighten up. Take the plastic cover off the couch, pet the dog even if he’s dirty, skip the second shower, let the dishes sit for just a little while. What are your priorities?

Monday, October 19, 2009

Four-Letter Words


Hope is a four-letter word. To those of you who reply, “duh,” let me clarify by stating that the word “hope” is one of my least favorites in the English language. I know, most people think hope is such a good thing to have. It helps us through trying times; it gives us strength to overcome obstacles; it reassures and comforts us; yadda yadda.

But I believe that hope can be blinding and can keep us from facing reality. We can hope for miracles. We can hope for success. But hope seems to imply complacency – we sit and hope for a good outcome, instead of grabbing life by the horns and doing something about the situation. A gambler hopes his next hand will win, and he loses thousands in the process. A businessman risks an investment, and he loses everything instead. A couple sinks thousands of dollars into fertility treatments, hoping the next time it will work. At the end, they’re all left worse off than they started, because of hope.

Maybe it’s better to have faith than hope, whether it’s religious faith or just plain optimism. To me, these words imply a general outlook about life, instead of giving an image of a weak person sitting at home, hoping that things will turn out well. Having faith implies certainty. People can have faith that things will work out, instead of just hoping that they will.

My other least favorite word is “should.” Can you think of any use of this word that is good? I should clean the bathroom. I should work out more. You should call your mother. This word is only used to instill guilt! You should have been nicer, better, more confident. Even in “It should be a nice day today,” we leave room for a negative outcome and disappointment. Yuck.

Well, I’m off now. I should get off the computer and be more productive. I hope you all have a nice day.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Travel Bug


My husband says I have a “jet-fuel ass.” This eloquent description is supposed to depict my love of travel. And I have to admit that lately I have been dying to get out of the country. Well, maybe not dying, but the feeling has begun to gnaw at me and could escalate to such extremes if my need is not met.

Last week I met the passport-carrying dog Cowboy, but he is not what got me into travel mode. It’s just a desire I get every so often when I haven’t taken a trip in a while. I know my husband will read this and say, “But we just went to Laguna two months ago!” but that is not what I’m talking about. And yes, we will be going to Indiana/Kentucky/Tennessee for Thanksgiving, and to Disneyland in December, but that’s not what I’m talking about either. (A trip to visit family isn’t an actual journey, and Disneyland is, well, Disneyland.)

What I’m talking about is the need to connect with a world that is bigger than myself. To challenge myself by speaking other languages and getting out of my comfort zone. To step out of daily life and see that our way is not the norm, globally. To be anonymous and mysterious, away from myself.

I have a Bucket List, although I hate that term. I call mine a Life List, and it has nearly 100 entries, half of which are places I want to go. By the way, since listing my wishes on paper, many of them have actually happened, instead of remaining in my head as a “someday I’d like to…”

The top travel item on my Life List is to walk the length of the Thames Path. It’s the trail that starts in England at the source of the Thames and ends somewhere past London, meandering along the river as it gets wider and wider, ending at the Thames Barrier. How cool would it be to walk the leisurely path every day, stopping to explore castles or cathedrals or to have lunch in a riverside pub?

Other travel items on my list are to go to Thailand (to the beaches and inland), to visit my family’s origins in Ireland, to un-touristy Latvia and Estonia, on a safari in Africa, and to New Zealand. My domestic wish list includes Alaska, Key West, and a bike trip through Wine Country. Believe me, my list is endless. I constantly hear of new destinations and add and add.

In fact, I just thought of another item to put on my list. Someday I want to go to the airport, passport in hand, and pick a destination right then. Then I’ll frantically research the destination country during the flight and then step onto unplanned, spontaneous soil. How fun! Watch out husband, my travel bug is growing as I write!

So, I invite all of you out there to change your wish lists to To-Do lists. Make them things you plan to do rather than things you wish could happen. It will change your mindset about your dreams by changing them into something attainable.

And whenever I book that trip to walk the length of the Thames, I will extend an invitation to you all to meet me for a pint in that riverside pub. See you there!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Encounters


Going to the dog park, and sitting at Starbucks as often as we do, presents George and me with many opportunities to happen upon interesting people. And this week we had three interesting encounters.

At the table next to us at Starbucks early in the week, a girl and her grandfather sat waiting for a meeting. The girl, in her early twenties, was dressed in business attire, her hair smartly styled, and the grandpa wore a t-shirt and baseball cap. I typed at my computer and tried to act like I wasn’t paying any attention, but I noticed that there was an important vibe to their Starbucks visit that day. And sure enough, soon a young man came in the door, dressed in a tan military uniform, and they introduced themselves and sat together at the table. I listened while she told the recruiter all about her background, including a story about wanting to be a dentist since she was five years old. Every now and then the grandpa interjected with an anecdote from his military days, sometimes which related to the conversation but most often did not. The interview ended, they all shook hands, and after they left I sat and wondered what would become of this girl whose important moment I had witnessed, but who I would never see again. Her enthusiasm for her future put me in a good mood.

Later in the week I happened to speak to a man at the dog park whose dog was named Cowboy. Cowboy may look like a normal Yorkie, but in fact he is a seasoned traveler with his own passport. He and his owner will be going to Italy for a few months, and I couldn’t help but be envious of Cowboy, who has been to the Caribbean twice already. Now that I think about it, he did strut around the dog park with an air of self-importance.

The third encounter happened at home instead of at the park or Starbucks. One morning George followed me to the front door when I planned to walk outside and get the mail. I opened the door, and about two feet in front of me, hovering motionless in the air at chest-height, was a hummingbird, staring straight at us. He stayed in that spot for about 20 seconds, just looking at us, as if he had been waiting there for us to come out and play. I love encounters with nature.

I think a week that includes a caring Grandpa, a motivated young woman, a Globe-trotting Yorkie, and a feisty hummingbird is pretty good, don’t you?

Monday, September 28, 2009

Motivation


At the dog park on Sunday morning, I watched a group of older men form in the soccer field that stands between the park and the middle school nearby. It was 8am, and slowly the team members arrived, most already dressed in random, mismatched soccer uniforms, their movements slow in the early morning quiet.

One of the men took a solo lap around the field to warm up; another did toe-touches by the farthest goal. They greeted each other while nearby a few women set up lawn chairs, an umbrella, and ice chests.

I sat on the bench with George and wished I had the motivation to get up early and exercise. Sure, I do get motivated sometimes, but the least small thing will get me out of the notion. For example, right now my bike riding is on hold because I’m angry at my bike. I had gone on an early ride recently, with my new bike that seems to be temperamental, and in the middle of an intersection when I stood to increase my speed, the gear slipped and I almost had a huge crash. I don’t know how I didn’t fall to the ground, but I did end up with bruises and a horribly stiff neck the next day.

Motivation to exercise should be in my blood, because I have some extremely athletic family members. My half-sister runs marathons, and so does my cousin Dan, who even moved to a new city just to train in the best location possible. And my Uncle Jim used to get up super early every morning – no matter how early it had to be – just to get a run in before work every day. He's in his late 60's now and plays on a hockey team with his son.

When I performed for a living, I stayed in shape because my job gave me exercise every day. And boy, was that nice. Now I take a ballet class now and then, or walk George for a couple of miles, or ride my bike when it doesn’t piss me off. But I sure wish I were one of those athletic types who doesn’t feel slightly out of place when wearing cycling gear.

There is another dog park nearby where recently I saw a group of senior citizens running a 5K race. I happened upon the finish line, where one at a time a runner crossed the finish to the spattered applause of a couple of race workers. I couldn’t help but be inspired by these motivated seniors – they obviously were out there for the personal accomplishment, not for the glory!

I have professionally-fitted running shoes, a new bicycle, drawers of ballet tights and leotards, and if I dig hard enough I might find my old rollerblades. But still I sit at the park and just watch the other more motivated people run by in their jogging gear or sweating out on the soccer field nearby. So if any of you see me sitting there, would you please tell me to get off my a--?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Only-dog


Some people might see me with George and think that he is spoiled. But have caution in saying that to me, because I absolutely hate that notion - and the actual idea of “spoiling” someone. So, today I present my case for having caution when using that phrase.

Recently someone saw George lying on the back of our sofa, from where he likes to monitor the happenings in the house, and she laughed and said, “Boy, he sure is spoiled!” So, I guess she thinks we are bad “parents” and he is a bad dog? I had to bite my tongue from a strong response. I mean, George is on the sofa because we allow him to be - because we like for him to lounge around with us and get snuggly. It’s not because he makes it that way. We allow him to do whatever we’re comfortable with - not what he dictates.

And for the record, the definition of “to spoil” is to impair, damage or harm. I know we aren’t hurting George by allowing him on the couch, or by giving him an extra treat now and then, or by making him occasionally wear a sweater. And it’s not hurting us, either. So how, then, is he spoiled?

And since I am an only child, people have often assumed that I am spoiled, which I hate! On the contrary, I feel that being an only child allowed me to mature, and because I didn’t have siblings at home for social activities, I learned to meet others more easily. My home life taught me to be independent and comfortable being alone. To this day it drives me nuts when people don’t have the confidence to do things by themselves.

And why is it that people find it so easy to tell someone that their child (or pet) is spoiled? Can’t they see it is an insult, to the child and to the parent? And if you don’t mean it in the true sense of the word – that the child is being damaged or hurt – then what is the reason for the label? How did it become such a negative thing? Was the “spoiled” label started by kids in a big family who were jealous of the kid who didn’t have to share? Hmmm…

So, why the big rant today about being spoiled? Maybe it’s because this week I created a facebook page for George. But that doesn’t mean he’s spoiled – it just means I thought it was a funny idea. And he’s so damn cute, how could I resist?

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Playing It Safe


I wear grubby clothes to the dog park – pants that can withstand muddy paws, shoes that don’t mind a little poop. It’s a good place for people to learn not to be so uptight.

Today a pretty, curly-haired lady wheeled into the dog park with her tiny dog and two small children in a jogging stroller. The kids were completely zipped in, protected from the world by a roof and walls of plastic and mesh.

The mom unzipped the front, allowing the kids a glimpse of the dogs and an occasional pat on one of their heads, but she told them, “No, you can’t get out. You can get out later at the kids' park.” What was she afraid of? Getting their clothes dirty? Being knocked over by a chihuahua? Running and playing in the grass?

I saw the older boy – about four years old – looking wistfully through the back window into the face of a friendly beagle. What was he being taught - to play it safe, at all costs?

In less than five minutes, the mom zipped the now-crying children back into their safe cocoon and headed for the kid’s park, where I wondered what safe activities they’d be allowed to do. George and I walked through the grass toward the car.

In the shade of a tree, George plopped down onto his belly to cool off. He often does this on hot days, and he roots around through the grass like a gopher, getting soaked in the process. I usually just stand there and laugh at him, but today I saw things differently. As a kid, I wouldn’t have hesitated to join him in the grass, but as an adult I don’t because I’d get my pants wet and would have a wet rear end for the ride home.

How many simple pleasures of life do we miss because we have excuses? We don’t sit in the grass because we’d get dirty. We don’t get our hair wet in the pool because we’d have to restyle it. We don’t let our kids play with the dogs because they might get knocked over.

Tired of people making excuses for living, I sat down with George on the grass. Yes, my legs got wet, but they’d dry. My pants got stained, but they’d wash. Today I sat in the grass in the park with George. How many people can say that?

Monday, September 7, 2009

Yard Sale-ing


As a kid in rural southern Indiana, I was told that we lived in the second poorest county in the state. And I guessed it was probably true; houses in my northern Indiana relatives’ neighborhoods were bigger and newer, and it was harder to find trailers with couches on the porch when driving through their towns.

Yard sales were common on hot summer weekends, and sometimes I’d jump in Grandma’s big green car and we would go find the sales she had circled in the classifieds of the Paoli News-Republican. I loved going to yard sales and always saved up change to spend on little glass trinkets or new toys. Yard sales meant I could buy whatever I wanted, because it was so cheap, giving me freedom and responsibility and childish excitement.

My inner snob, however, had already begun to develop back then. After all, we lived in a town of 3,500 people, and you never knew if the sale you drove up to belonged to someone you knew. In that case, I walked around the tables embarrassed, not wanting to feel like a poor person who treasured someone else’s trash. Sometimes after we held a garage sale under Grandma’s carport, I would see a classmate wearing an old coat or dress of mine, and I felt sorry for her.

The best sales, I found, were at my aunt’s in northern Indiana, when her community held its annual sale. There, we walked from house to house incognito, and all their stuff was newer and nicer. I couldn’t help but notice the difference.

I’ve thought a lot about these sales lately, because my friend Laurie and I have initiated Yard Sale Saturdays every six weeks or so. They begin as early as we can stand to get up (usually 8am) when I jump in her bright red pickup and with a squeal of tires, we’re off. George is always left at the front door, pissed that he wasn’t able to go, too. The back seat is filled with water bottles and Ziploc bags of treats, and we follow every Yard Sale sign we come across.

We take Laurie’s truck for a reason: we often fill it up! But we don’t buy junk; we’ve found like-new patio furniture, lamps and bookshelves, novels to read on our next beach getaway, jewelry, and even brand-new shoes, still in the box, from a family whose shoe store closed. An example of what I buy, from this Saturday morning’s adventure: a book of Emily Dickinson poetry, an outdoor lamp to install under our patio, a concrete sundial & stand to put in our yard, an unopened 4th of July tablecloth, yards of fabric to make into a table runner for the dining room, and a cookbook.

I used the word “adventure” to describe our Yard Sale Saturday for a reason. It’s more about the fun we have than what we buy. High on Starbucks coffee, we suddenly swerve at random for every sale sign we see, yelling remarks to the signs we pass. “Crappy sign!” we yell at one that is written in pencil and tiny 16-point type. “Good signage!” we yell to the one that is painted on yellow cardboard with balloons attached. “Bastards!” we yell to the signs that lead to nowhere. We’ve discovered that half of the people who have sales never take their signs down afterward, leading us on many a wild goose chase.

These sales also give me the sense of community I’m always searching for in Las Vegas. What other opportunity are we given to walk up to strangers’ houses and be welcomed? And we’ve met some real characters, like the elderly man who was convinced that we needed to buy his fishing poles, and the deaf man who playfully pretended that we hadn’t yet paid him. At one sale, a woman gave us a tour of her oddly-shaped octagonal home after we complimented it. She explained that her roommate had passed away, and she gave us some of his potted plants, glad to give them to someone who cared. At another sale a group of kids sold Rice Krispie treats and a smiling chubby boy handed them to us with his sticky bare hands. Another time we went inside an Air Force pilot’s house to see a table he had for sale, and we stood in his kitchen for thirty minutes - his wife with a baby on her hip - and talked about his upbringing in rural New Jersey after I commented on a framed aerial photo of his childhood home.

Sure, my inner snob sometimes kicks in at these sales. I still can’t bring myself to buy clothes, and I’m often astounded by what people think has value. (Why on earth would I buy someone’s old electric toothbrush???) But you can’t put a price on the fun Laurie and I have, out in the sunshine, talking and laughing, filled with the freedom of a weekend morning. And by the way, if you’re in northwest Vegas on a Saturday morning, you might want to watch out for a little red pickup truck!

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Early Morning Play-by-Play


Laguna Beach, CA, August 30, 2009

6:15 am Alarm goes off; hit snooze.

6:20 am Get out of the snuggly bed and notice the sound of the waves coming from the open window.

6:35am Discover that the hotel’s complimentary breakfast room is still locked. Head to Starbucks, not at all disappointed.

6:40am Order a hot chocolate and vanilla scone, and notice that all the customers at this hour are older men. This must be the local’s hangout? There are no tables and no restroom – obviously a tourist town where they don’t want the beach bums using their restroom!

6:45am Walk along the boardwalk back to the hotel, past four people playing volleyball (at this hour?!), one man doing jumping jacks, and a sanitation worker who is emptying the trashcans in preparation for this summer’s last August weekend. See a white fluffy dog who looks like George, on a leash by the still-closed lifeguard tower.

6:50am Find a table at the hotel’s beachside restaurant, closed and deserted, except for two workers who are opening all the umbrellas and wiping down tables.

6:52am A flock of seagulls who had been sitting far down the beach, camouflaged among the piles of seaweed, suddenly take flight and head south along the coast.

6:58am Notice that the waves are calmer than yesterday, but they still form long, perfect curls of water as they crash in waves the length of two football fields.

6:59am Take note of the people on the beach at this time: A man is standing at the edge of the surf with his dog and keeps gesturing toward the waves with his arm, encouraging the dog to get in the water. The dog looks at the water, then at the man, and then he barks - it’s just too cold. Farther down the beach is a lone fisherman. He hasn’t caught anything. Three older Asian women are taking their morning walk on the beach with shoes in hand.

7:00am Think how nice it would be to be able to include a walk on the beach as your daily morning routine.

7:07am The first surfer arrives, climbs aboard his surfboard, and heads far out, past the huge waves.

7:15am Get up to take a photo of this fabulous morning location, and have a nice conversation about photography with the Spanish-accented man who had been hosing down the patio.

7:16am See two swimmers far out in the water, their black arms (in wetsuits) arcing above the water like distant fish. They swim out to a buoy and the turn back toward shore.

7:18am The surfer catches a great wave and rides it for about five seconds before it overtakes him. The fisherman re-baits his hook.

7:19am The hotel workers move to the beach to prepare the private beach area for their hotel guests. They begin pounding stakes into the sand which will hold the ropes and signs that say “Private Beach.” (We sat there yesterday and had drinks and lunch delivered to our chairs. It was nice, but I think I prefer the freedom of having our own blanket and umbrella out in the middle of the action. Being behind a rope, while luxurious, has a sort of animals-in-a-zoo quality.)

7:22am The swimmers head out to sea again. One stops midway and treads water. A man with a camera squats at the edge of the water, setting up the perfect shot.

7:25am A man jogs by with his dog, a black lab who patiently trots by his master, who runs barefoot in a sprightly torso-twisting trot. (When they get nearer, I realize it’s a woman.)

7:26am Two people walk down the concrete steps and sit at a table nearby.

7:28am Spot a lone swimmer far out from shore. Where did he come from? How long has he been swimming? Make a mental note to work out more.

7:34am Notice a dolphin swimming along shore, surfacing now and then in a fluid arc. He surfaces again, in another location. Are there more than one? Watch longer, until suddenly two dolphins jump out of the water side by side, in perfect unison, like at a Sea World show, but infinitesimally better. A few moments later, four or five can be seen at once, their fins black against the sun’s morning glimmer.

7:40am A huge black dog on a leash forces his owner to stop so he can dig. He digs frantically and then they move on. Farther down the beach, he stops again to dig in another spot. And then another. Wish George were here to dig, too.

7:41am Decide to turn off the computer, because deep down, computers and beach vacations don’t mix.

7:41am Look up for one last thing to write, and see the surfer far out past the waves. Others have joined him by now, but he sits on his board alone, slowly bobbing up and down, staring out to sea.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Cousin Larry


This week there has been a lot of activity at the hummingbird feeder outside our kitchen window. One bird in particular likes to sit in the vines growing up our patio cover, and one day he sat there for probably ten minutes, grooming himself.

Have you ever seen a hummingbird do this? He ruffled up his feathers as if he was airing them out, and he kept shifting his weight back and forth, using his beak to clean under his wings. I could even see his long tongue retracting every time he took a break and turned to the other side.

This hummingbird must have had an itchy neck, because suddenly he raised his tiny hind leg and scratched his neck like a dog. He kept scratching, and his feathers ruffled up in scraggly peaks until he turned to the other side to satisfy another itch. I don’t know that it truly was an itch, but I couldn’t help comparing him to George, whose furious neck scratching verges on ecstasy.

We always had a bird feeder in our rural Indiana backyard when I was a kid, and there are many photos of bright cardinals or blue jays at our wooden feeder in the snow, or at our back door where Mom sometimes spread birdseed so the birds would come closer. Now, after a year of filling the feeder at our house in Vegas, we finally have regular hummingbirds. It took them that long to claim our yard as their territory. Every winter I put up a finch feeder (a regular feeder would attract pigeons) and enjoy the feeding frenzy outside our door. I take it down in the Summer, however, so I can get rid of all the bird poop on our patio! (Grandma calls bird poop “bird dirty.”)

When I had my first apartment in Vegas, there was a sparrow who regularly came to my balcony railing to sit and torment my cats. He would face my sliding glass door and sing loudly as if calling to my cats. When they finally showed interest, he would fly away to a nearby tree and then start the game again about an hour later.

Having birds come to my house makes it feel like home, bringing nature to a nature-starved girl. And they connect me to the greater world when they fly far above us, stopping at one house and then another, and then returning again to visit me the next day. They are mysterious, delicate, lofty, yet also ever so simple. They come to my yard and become my little friends.

I think I will name the itchy bird Cousin Larry, in honor of local Hoosier celebrity, legendary Boston Celtic, Larry Bird. Everyone in Southern Indiana claims to be related to him. But he really is our cousin. I swear. Just ask my Grandma.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Mornings


I write this today from a basement breakfast room in a Best Western in St. George, Utah. The room is packed with familes and older couples and the air is filled with the smell of coffee and the occasional beeping of the waffle-iron's timer. My two girlfriends are asleep in the hotel room, tired from late-night gabbing after last night's musical Footloose at Tuacahn, the gorgeous outdoor amphitheater north of town.

But this morning I'm not thinking about last night's show, although it was made complete by the goat who pooped onstage. And they even re-enacted the tractor competition scene from the movie (when Kevin Bacon wins because his shoelace got stuck) and used two real tractors, one of which crashed and caused the bad-guy to fall in a pond.

Instead, this morning I'm thinking of the beauty of morning. As I walked across the parking lot toward the free breakfast, I met several peoploe walking back with cups of coffee. Each of them greeted me with a "Good morning!" and a smile. Strangers are friendlier in the morning.

It was fun leaving my girlfriends asleep and breaking out on my own today. I've always valued my alone time, gaining strength and focus in my solo trips or strolls. In fact, the last time I visited my friend Laurie in California I set my alarm two hours earlier than hers, just so I could sit on the beach alone - alone with five surfers, two fishermen, countless seagulls, and a brave sand crab.

Waking up extra early reminds me of the excitement I felt as a kid when Mom would wake me up for special occasions, like the start of a road trip, preparations for a holiday get-together, or even to stumble, sleepy-eyed, to the TV to watch a pretty lady named Diana become a princess.

Today, mornings represent waking up before dark to catch an early flight for a welcomed vacation, or getting up early enough to warm up my voice before an audition. Early mornings suggest that big things are in store.

But best of all, I love heading out early for a walk with George. The world is quiet then, the weather is gentle, and the world almost vibrates with the promise of what is to come. Oh, the possibilities.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Pay no attention to the girl by the window...


The Starbucks near my workplace does not have a drive-through, so I am forced to go inside, which I don’t really mind. The Summerlin area of Las Vegas is more upscale, and I am always intrigued by the people there. I stand in line and survey the group inside or those sitting outside under the huge shade trees with their perfectly groomed dogs. They are always well-dressed, often in business suits reading the morning paper, or sitting in groups wearing expensive jogging suits and rewarding themselves with an after-workout iced coffee.

Lately I’ve been watching two thirtyish men who always sit at an outside table by the window. I first noticed them about three weeks ago on a morning that was already 90 degrees at 7am. The man I’ll call “Bald Guy” was talking and making emphatic gestures with his hands. His sleeveless t-shirt bared tattooed arms and dark glasses sat atop his bald head. The guy across the table from him (I’ll call him “Ball Cap Guy”) was sitting in rapt, eager attention, wearing a backwards ball cap and a black t-shirt. But their un-Summerlin attire wasn’t what caught my attention; they had books on the table between them, and as Bald Guy spoke, Ball Cap Guy furiously wrote notes in the margins of the book in front of him.

They must be taking a class together, I thought, but then I noticed that the books in front of them weren’t identical, so they probably weren’t studying. And it sure looked like Bald Guy was lecturing or teaching something to Ball Cap Guy. Luckily their outdoor table was outside and perfectly positioned by the coffee pick-up window, giving me every reason to stand right next to them by the window. I moved closer and tried to see the text on their open books, hoping they would think I was looking at the stack of New York Times newspapers against the wall.

Maybe they’re doing Bible study, I considered, but Ball Cap Guy’s book didn’t look like a Bible. I tried to look at Bald Guy’s book, but he had moved a sheet of paper over it. Ball Cap Guy’s margins were getting full, and he turned a page and began to write a sentence in large capital letters above the text on the fresh page. This was my chance! I craned my head, trying to get a better view, so I could read the movement of his pen as he wrote. By this time, I didn’t care if they caught me; I was too curious. Bald Guy’s hands punctuated wildly as Ball Cap Guy wrote carefully, “God helps those who help themselves.”

So it was Bible study of some type. Mystery solved. I moved away from the window and picked up my Venti Iced Chai, thinking about what Ball Cap Guy had written. No matter what your religion, it’s a good motto for us to remember. A reminder not to just sit by and wait for things to happen. You have to get out there and make your own luck. Give yourself the opportunity for good things to come to you. They sure as heck won’t come when you’re sitting at home with your butt on the couch.

The next time I saw Bald Guy and Ball Cap Guy, they were sitting outside, far away from the building under the trees. Maybe I need to think about a different platitude, such as Curiousity killed the cat? Or Mind your own business?

Monday, August 3, 2009

Books


There’s a man at the dog park who is originally from Indiana like me, and every time he sees me he yells, “Hey, Paoli!” (I'm from Paoli, IN.) We’ve had some interesting conversations over the past year because our political and religious views couldn’t be more opposite. But I don’t really mind. He obviously likes to talk, and he thinks opposing opinions are amusing. Most recently, our conversation led to the safer topic of books. Now that’s a conversation I can get into.

I grew up always with my “nose in a book,” as Mom would constantly complain when I tried to read during dinner. But she didn’t really mind, because she gave me my love of literature, starting by reading me books such as Goodnight, Moon and Where the Wild Things Are, and reciting James Whitcomb Riley poetry she’d memorized when she was a kid. I was always excitedly scared by her rendition that ended “…and the gobblins’ll getcha if you don’t watch out!”

When I was young, Mom bought me the first of the Little House on the Prairie books. Every time I finished one, we made a special trip to the Bloomington mall, where I was allowed to purchase the next book in the series. And on New Year’s Day 1984, just after I turned thirteen, we sat together on our blue living room sofa as Mom began to read aloud the book 1984, beginning many deep discussions about its meaning. To this day, I’m disgusted when people think Big Brother refers to the TV show instead of George Orwell.

I was very lucky to have excellent English teachers in high school, including the eccentric Ruth Uyesugi, who taught Senior English. In fact, Mrs. U, as we called her, taught English for so many years that my mother had her for Senior English, as did all my aunts and uncles. Mrs. U made Literature seem scandalous and exciting, introducing us to novels that included incest, insanity, or murder. We thought we were getting away with something in her class, when it was actually just her master plan of giving us a lifelong love of reading.

When people see the huge library of books I have in our front room, I always tell them, “I buy books like most women buy clothes.” And I can’t resist the possibilities inside a new book. Certain books have a cozy feel to them, making you want to stroke their covers like a cat. And an old book’s musty smell brings back childhood memories of rainy days, curled up with an afghan and a book on a lazy Saturday.

I still have all the books from my childhood, and someday I look forward to sharing them with my children, introducing them one at a time, like precious gifts. They are, after all, aren’t they?

Sunday, July 26, 2009

July in France


Tomorrow morning I’m sure to wake up and start going through Tour de France withdrawals, after having watched it faithfully every morning live on TV for the past three weeks. And during that time I’ve been in a constant Tour-haze in which I check the standings and interviews randomly throughout the day, constantly second guess my choices for that day’s online Fantasy Cycling, and always count ahead to see what time it is in France. Oh, they’re waking up now in France. Then, They’re having lunch now. They always start racing hours before I actually wake up, making me feel very lazy.

Why do I watch the Tour so fervently? It all started when I was a kid and my mom watched the Tour de France every summer. The Tour couldn’t have been farther away from our little rural Midwestern town of 3,500 people, but every July, France entered our living room. I knew it must be special, if my mom watched it.

Years later, I discovered excellent coverage of the Tour on the Versus channel, and here I am. It’s the only sport I can actually explain to someone and can actually understand the pre-stage discussion by the commentators every morning. Little-Ol’-Me can actually discuss rules and strategy of a sport. Go figure.

This year was the 96th Tour de France, and it is fascinating to look at old black and white photos of the race, back when they didn’t have cars to follow them for support, when they rode on unpaved roads and smoked cigarettes on their breaks -for their health. In contrast, the science that goes into the race now is unbelievable, making the guys super-aerodynamic.

The cameramen themselves are impressive on the Tour, riding on motorcycles for hours every day, backward, filming the important strategic moves or simple smiles or grimaces of the riders. And the helicopter cameramen follow the line of cyclists as it snakes across the French countryside, past fields of crops, along rivers and the sea, through valleys and over mountains. My favorite shot from this year’s tour was when they caught three white horses running in a field as the cyclists rode by. Oh – and also the shot of the snail who was slowly trying to cross the road as the cyclists flew by in a blur behind him. The cameraman patiently focused on the snail who was lucky enough to be too slow to get into their path.

Of course I’m incredibly inspired by the riders in the Tour. Few sports require such endurance. I love watching them climb the Alps and marvel when they climb past the tree line, their faces stoic with concentration. And they reach incredible speeds as they ride the straightaways, risking crashes that could end their dreams for this year’s Tour. And you can’t use the word inspiration without mentioning Lance Armstrong. Seeing him ride again is like welcoming back an old friend. I even donated to his charity.

Someday I will go watch the Tour live in person; I have no doubt that I will. And I’ll probably shed a few tears as they pass by me. I always tend to get overly sentimental at events where so many nationalities gather together. Men from all over the world join together on these teams, and all nationalities wait patiently together on the roadsides for hours, just to root them on.

And the French people also love their Tour. Knowing the helicopter will possibly put them on TV, farmers construct intricate designs in their fields, shaped like bicycles or spelling words of encouragement. People stand atop castle turrets and wave at the camera, and this year someone released hundreds of yellow balloons as the peloton passed. Their enthusiasm is infectious, even here in my living room 5,412 miles away.

And let’s face it, the Tour is just plain romantic. The commentators have great English accents and gracefully pronounce all the French names of the chateaus and cities they pass. The gorgeous countryside passes by every day, in real time, and I get my own personal tour of France. And sometimes it rains, and I watch through a rain-speckled camera lens as the guys try not to crash but seem unfazed by the downpour. Even the podium presentations at the end of every stage are foreign and romantic, as the podium girls kiss each winner when they receive that day’s jerseys. I never can guess how many of those European cheek-kisses each rider will give. Most riders do two; some three; and a few get four. I’ve always liked those kisses, and I missed them when I moved back to the States after living in Europe years ago.

I guess I should mention this year’s winner, the dark and handsome Spaniard Alberto Contador. He never faltered the entire race, proving that he was to be the overall champion. But instead of writing about him, I want to mention the man who finished last. Yauheni Hutarovich. From Belarus, he finished in 156th place, with over four hours between him and Contador. More than twenty other riders didn’t finish at all, due to injuries from crashes, finishing too far behind the pack and being disqualified, or simply needing to drop out. The ones who finished survived the heat, wind, and rain, climbed mountains, rode 3500 kilometers, and inspired television viewers around the world, including one thirty-something woman who watched faithfully every day, often going late to work so she wouldn’t miss that day’s finish.

I’ll be going to France again next July. Won’t you join me next year?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Thank you, Golden Arches.


After going to the dog park the other day, I ran into the nearest McDonald’s to use the restroom. When I reached out to grab the handle of the restroom door, I suddenly got a little thrill. It was kind of a déjà vu feeling, as if I was remembering something good. Puzzled, I did my business and then finally it hit me. I hardly ever go inside a McDonald’s, unless I’m traveling. That’s why I got the good vibes from the McDonald’s restroom of all places! It flashed me back to recent road trips to the beach in California, summer childhood road trips with my Mom, and trips through Europe where you could always count on a good ol’ McDonald’s to have
comfortable facilities.

I have to say that it scares me that within a span of about three weeks, this is the second time I’m extolling the virtues of a big chain restaurant. But I’m not waxing poetic about Quarter Pounders or Big Macs; I’m merely thankful that we live in a society where we can do our “business” in comfort.

When I’m in another country, I stay far away from any type of American restaurant. I didn’t travel thousands of miles to eat American food! And I’ve been amazed at some of the toilets we’ve found! The first time we were in Venice, we had great pasta in a little restaurant just steps away from the Grand Canal. We sat at an outdoor table enjoying the cool night, sipping wine and enjoying our after-dinner cheese platter. After a while I went inside the tiny restaurant and then returned to our table and told Lance, “You have to go to the restroom.” He looked up from his wine glass and responded, “I don’t need to go.” I put my hand on his shoulder and looked him in the eye. “No, you have to go to the restroom.” He finally understood, went inside, and then came back with a smile.

It was one of those hole-in-the-ground toilets. There were footprints in the concrete on each side of the hole, to show you where to stand; toilet paper was on a hook on the wall, and there was a button on the floor that allowed you to flush. Those toilets always amaze me; Europeans must have thighs of steel after all that squatting. Luckily on our travels we are usually able to find more comfortable facilities, but experiences such as this one remind me not to take anything for granted!

So, that’s why I appreciate McDonald’s. On a long beach-bound road trip across the desert, the golden arches are a relief. After driving hundreds of miles on a summer vacation, you can go inside a McDonald’s and know exactly where to go. And in the middle of dodging crazy European drivers, walking for hours through museums and cathedrals, and squatting painfully over rudimentary “toilets,” foreign McDonald’s can provide a small respite that allows you to head back into the fray. And the fries aren’t bad, either.

Monday, July 13, 2009

That was just so nice of him...


When I picked up George from the groomer the other day, a tall woman with a beagle cut in front of me in line to pay. I just stood there, nicely, not saying a word, wishing that the salesgirl would realize I had been waiting much longer. But she didn’t, so I nicely stood there and waited till the beagle-lady left and George was finally brought to me, sparkly clean and fluffy.

Sometimes people tell me I’m too nice. I smile too much. I let people treat me badly while I just sit and take it. While that may be slightly true, I also believe I just pick my battles. And I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt. That tall woman probably didn’t think about the fact that she wasn’t next in line, so I forgave her (after inwardly cussing, of course). The Midwestern girl in me was taught to be nice.

In my hometown high school years ago, niceness was as big a virtue as popularity. Often the Prom King and Queen weren’t the most popular people, they were the nicest. It was just so nice of us to elect so-and-so even though she had a funny looking nose and was painfully shy. Oh, weren’t they a nice-looking couple?

I don’t always feel that “nice” is such a nice thing. It’s actually kind of a blah attribute, when you think about it. I’d prefer being labeled confident, independent, strong, or any number of less mediocre-sounding words. Nice seems kind of meek. It reminds me of my favorite line in the musical Into The Woods: “You’re so nice. You’re not good, you’re not bad, you’re just nice.” Nice is awfully middle-of-the-road.

This topic makes me think of the way other countries view Americans’ niceness. They see our too-easy smiles as signs of weakness. Our smiles! Those things we value so much – that are such a part of us. Welcoming. Inviting. Friendly. It amazes me that many other nationalities have such a different take on such a deeply ingrained part of our culture. But this knowledge makes it much easier to take the attitudes of the French or the distance of the English. It isn’t rudeness or distain – it’s just a cultural difference that shouldn’t be taken personally.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe society needs more niceness, in this world where so many seem to believe their self-absorbed emotional rantings and petty desires trump all else. I will keep being nice as often as possible, in a “do unto others” way. But please don’t describe me as nice. I prefer adjectives such as fun, professional, optimistic, or even fair, amiable, or just plain happy. Pick anything but nice.

After writing these last few paragraphs, I sat in the shade at the dog park and suddenly heard a man yell across the park, “Don’t worry! I’ll get it!” I looked up and saw him headed for George, who was pooping. The man scooped it up in the doggy bag and threw it in the trash so I wouldn’t have to get up and do it myself. Before I could think anything else, I thought, “Boy, that was so nice of him.” And it really was.

Monday, July 6, 2009

1944-1999


This week marked the ten-year anniversary of my mother’s death. For those of you who weren’t lucky enough to know her, she was an artist, writer, painter, pianist, nature-lover, philosopher, poet, and all-around amazing person. And I have to say, writing that last sentence was difficult, because she was so much more than words could ever express.

Lance and I started dating about a year before Mom died, and one of my biggest blessings is that he was able to meet her. And even though their two meetings were brief, he was able to see how special she was. She was (and is) such a part of me that it was imperative that he understand. I am very lucky.

I wanted to include a poem of Mom’s here today, but it’s so precious to me that I’m afraid of putting her poetry on the Internet and having someone use it as their own. So, I will share a small paragraph of hers that I have always loved.

Mom taught elementary art in a school where sports were the priority, as they often are, and the Arts were almost always low on the list of school priorities. At the end of every year there was an awards banquet for all the kids, and Mom sat and waited through dozens of sports awards before she gave hers for Art. The superintendent always took the majority of the time, going on and on about each sport and each team, on and on about the excellence of athletes and the importance of the athletic department. Finally Mom couldn't take it anymore. She grabbed a crumpled envelope from her purse and furiously scribbled, completely changing the speech she was about to give:

"Art is not a competitive sport. Prizes are not given for making the biggest sculpture or painting, or the most paintings, or for mixing the bluest blue, or for drawing the straightest line. That’s not what it’s all about. The measure of art is really how each person learns to be sensitive to his environment and to his feelings – and how he learns to express that in his own personal way."

I hope you all have had someone in your life who has opened the world of Art to you. Its value is immeasurable. Mom taught me that.

Monday, June 29, 2009

The Repentant Starbucks Fan


The other morning at Starbucks, I pulled up to the drive –thru’s intercom and placed my order. “One Venti iced Chai with light ice, one vanilla scone, and one Tall water.” The female voice on the other end responded, “No ice in the water because it’s for George, right, Shannon?” I couldn’t believe it! She couldn’t even see me; she just knew me by my voice and my order! This could mean several things: 1. I go to Starbucks way too often. 2. I need to get out of my rut and order something new. 3. My voice is so odd that everyone recognizes it.

While I definitely hate the fact that companies like Walmart and Starbucks often eliminate the local mom & pop businesses when they move to town, I must admit that I am a Starbucks fan. (As a disclaimer I must disclose that there is no other coffee shop near my house, so I’m not putting anyone out of business.)

Mainly, my local Starbucks gives me the much-needed sense of community that I miss in Las Vegas. And I really need it, because Vegas is an odd town. Most people here don’t know their neighbors, even though their houses are literally ten feet apart. People are very transient here, so you often don’t get much of a chance to know someone before they move on again. And almost no one was born here, so everyone comes from different backgrounds with different histories and different cultures. It’s difficult to find common ground to bring everyone together.

But at Starbucks, of all places, I feel a small-community vibe. They call me by name (just like on Cheers!) and when I sit outside with George, people stop and pet him and talk to me. Sometimes I peruse the front page of the New York Times and feel like I’m connecting with the real world. Sometimes I buy the CD that is playing inside, expanding my music repertoire to include world music, Jazz, or oldies. On the bulletin board inside are community notices where I can read about the next book club meeting, poetry contest, or swimming lesson.

I completely recognize the irony and cheesiness of the previous four paragraphs, and the sad state I’m in, if Starbucks represents so much to me. But for now it will have to do. I will walk in under that bright green awning and have Karen or Will call me by name and make me my regular drink, and I’ll feel more comfortable in, and connected to, the community I’m in. Someday maybe we’ll live somewhere where my neighbors and the community itself will give me that feeling. But for now, I’m a Starbucks fan.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Ritz


After my time in NYC and CT, Lance and I had a nice visit in Indiana. And my hometown in Indiana is about as far from Vegas as you can get. Bible Belt vs. Sin City. Stretch limos vs. pickup trucks. Backyard sprinklers vs. the Bellagio Fountains. And this contrast is refreshing, allowing me to recharge my batteries, relax, and reprioritize.

My hometown has a population of 3500 people, and my old high school gymnasium seats 5,000, showing the importance of basketball in Southern Indiana. The town is situated in green rolling hills among expanses of corn fields, ponds, and winding two-lane highways. Amish buggies occasionally bump along the roads, and men on tractors often block highways until they turn off toward a field with a friendly wave.

When I am back home in Indiana, I like to immerse myself in the culture. One way to do this is to go to breakfast at the local diner. The Ritz Motel has a small restaurant that serves breakfast and dinner, with specials listed on a dry erase board by the kitchen. Lance and I ate there this week during a thunderstorm, and between bites of slightly dry scrambled eggs and sausage links, I jotted down the conversations of the people around me, most of whom were men in overalls or work clothes. The first phrase that drifted over to me was “same sex marriage,” which naturally caused me to perk up my ears and intentionally eavesdrop. I also heard:

“…climb in a hayloft and fall asleep.”

“…on the prayer list at church. And they’re just the cousins of someone she knows.”

“…tractor…”

“The corn grew overnight this much!”

“…football…”

“…just called and said all the lights went out. Their power is out.”

“…put a can of mushroom soup on top of it. I think that would be good.”

“…a little smart car. Look at that little goober.”

“Gotta go mow a field of hay directly.”

“We’re gonna have wheel meat – you know – meat that comes in a round loaf.”

I don’t think we could have been any more immersed in the local culture than we were that morning. But we did try to do even more. We sat in on a jam session with local musicians at a Saturday morning farmers’ market. We caught fish off the pier over my uncle’s pond. Lance killed a snake for my Grandma and later helped set traps for the mouse we saw skitter across the floor of our cabin guest room. We planted flowers at Grandma’s, played ping pong in my uncle’s garage, and took morning walks to the mailbox with two overeager hound dogs. Oh, and who could forget Lance getting spit on by an old man at the farmers’ market who had bad aim with his chaw of tobacco. (I told Lance it was his initiation, but he wasn’t amused.)

It was a great three-week trip, and now I’m back home with George and headed back to the daily grind, which seems less of a grind after being gone so long. George is curled next to me as I type this, and my suitcase lies still packed on the floor next to me. Back to exploring my own local culture…

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

It smells like rain...


When I was a kid, my friend Hilary and I convinced her mother to let us go camping in the woods behind her house one night. By “camping” I mean sleeping in the woods in a sleeping bag on the ground. We must have been pretty young, because we only needed one sleeping bag, and we were not worried when it started to rain; we just propped an umbrella over our heads and went to sleep. After a few hours Hilary’s sister was sent out to find us and bring us back in the house. My memory of that night isn’t the uncomfortable ground or being brought home early; instead I remember the novelty of sleeping out in nature. The sound of the raindrops in the trees. The smell of the wet earth. The dark that encircled us warmly, protectively.

Rain has always been special to me, especially now because I live in the desert and always yearn for a good thunderstorm to give life to the dry city. But it was special to me even before I moved to Las Vegas.

Rainy days during my childhood meant it was time to snuggle inside and work on a sewing or drawing project at the kitchen table or help mom make a pie or batch of cookies. Or I would stand at the back screen door and watch it come down in a comforting stream until the spring on the hill behind our house overflowed and caused a temporary creek across our yard. Once the rain slowed, I put on my boots and grabbed my umbrella and floated boats in our driveway puddles.

In college, rainy days gave a welcome break to the daily monotonous grind of classes and homework. A day with an umbrella roof, spent ducking from one building to the next, forced students closer together and was therefore cozy and more fun.

I think George has “inherited” some of my rain-love. Even if it’s coming down hard, he will paw at the car window until I roll it down for him. Then he sticks his head out the window and shakes from head to toe every minute or so. The other drivers must think I’m nuts, but I just drive on, humming a tune to the beat of the wipers, with a wet dog hanging out the window.

Rain in Las Vegas is always welcome, but it’s different than Midwestern rain. The desert sky is so stark and huge, and often you can see that other areas of the valley are getting rain while the sun shines on your area. (Rain envy!) Usually the sky teases you with a few drops on your windshield, then nothing. When it does actually rain – real rain that forces you indoors – I always run outside under our patio and just listen, and watch, and inhale. Nothing is more soothing than the steady fall of rain. Musty. Cleansing. Romantic.

I’m writing this from Indiana, and tomorrow’s forecast is a 60% chance of rain. Heaven.

Monday, June 8, 2009

On the train


Would it be possible to be a professional people-watcher? I write this on the train from New York City’s Grand Central Station to New Haven, CT and am reminded that people-watching is half the fun of travel. I sit and study the man across the aisle from me. He is a businessman in a fuchsia and yellow striped tie and is eating a bag of Doritos while reading a newspaper. There’s a chewed pen sticking out of his shirt pocket and beads of sweat are on his brow. His shoes are perfectly polished.

The man behind him has his laptop appropriately on his lap and all I can see is his face above the seat as he types. Every now and then he grins at the screen.

Farther down is a white-haired woman whose hair is in two buns behind her ears. She reads through pink glasses and wisps of hair keep falling in her face. Her hand brushes them back repeatedly.

The rest of the train is a sea of foreheads and hairlines sticking above the seat backs. A group of businessmen is having an animated conversation at the far end of the train car, and every now and then a hand flies above the seats to accent a point. The train noise drowns out their words but their foreheads are smiling.

A moment ago the conductor took my ticket and nicely answered my questions. He wore a blue uniform and a sharp blue hat. Does he like his job? He seemed to.

Scenery is passing in a blur: rock walls, a glimpse of tombstones on a hill, air conditioners jutting from apartment windows.

The man by me tilts his Doritos bag and pours the crumbs into his mouth. The white-haired woman turns a page. Am I as mysterious to them as they are to me? I sit with suitcase and water bottle, my red hair the only red in the mass of head tops. I wear sensible traveling shoes and a new ring I bought in Midtown Manhattan and I constantly scribble in a notebook. Do they know I write about them?

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Rules

It may make me sound like a Goody Two Shoes or a Polly Prissypants, but I have to admit that I am one who follows the rules. If a sign says Keep off the grass, I do so. I am the one who sits at a red light and obeys the sign that reads No right turn on red, even though the cars behind me honk impatiently. I also throw away my trash, slow down in school zones, and obediently pick up George’s poop.

But I have learned, in dealing with the public during my many jobs, that the majority of the population could care less about rules because they think the rules apply to everyone else.

I am thinking about rules today because this weekend my job was to corral and coordinate 450 children, 100 volunteer parents, and hundreds of audience members through our annual Spring Concert performances at Nevada Ballet. So I ask you to please stop for a minute and think about what I just said. 450 children. 100 volunteer parents. Probably 1500+ audience members. See why rules are important? And yet so many of the people I encountered this weekend still think rules don’t apply to them.

Over the past three months we probably told the parents 20 times that they would pick up their children after the show in the lobby. But still we had parents who showed up at the backstage door and angrily demanded that their child be allowed to leave.

There was an extra side door backstage that we blocked off with curtains and signs saying Do Not Open Door, for security reasons. Still, the volunteer moms would open this door and let people in during the show. They thought surely it was okay – it was just their husbands after all.

And after the performances, classes were brought to the lobby one at a time, and ushers made sure children were picked up by a parent and didn’t run blindly into the crowd to be lost forever. Still, we had parents who angrily told me that we were ridiculous and that they shouldn’t have to wait. So I guess they thought we should just allow all 500+ audience members backstage to wander around and find their kids?

During the performances, even after repeated requests for audience members not to text during the show and shine light on the people sitting behind them, they usually only put their phones away after an usher finally told them they would be escorted from the theater.

Even the veteran volunteer mothers who had done this job for years caused problems, thinking they could take their classes around the building to meet parents, instead of going up the side of the theater and following the path we had created, from checkpoint to checkpoint. They got angry, not understanding that anyone who didn’t follow the rules made our system fall apart. We needed to know the location of each class at all times. Just because they had done it before didn’t give them special privileges.

These rule-breaking people have shown up in my other jobs, too, when I was performing for a living. At the Venetian, there were the people who would sit and smoke right next to the huge NO SMOKING signs. And at every show in town there are people who take flash photos after hearing the No Flash Photography speech. They think they will just sneak in one photo, and then they end up blinding the performers on stage. Why can’t they just realize there are reasons for the rules?

To me, the best example of this kind of thinking happened when I danced at the Stratosphere and had to pose in costume with the audience after every show. After too many photos in which drunk men inappropriately copped a feel or tourists draped their sweaty armpits on our shoulders, we finally put ropes in front of us so that people would stand in front for the photo and not be allowed to stand next to us. But many people would JUMP OVER the ropes and touch us anyway! Who did they think those ropes were for - only the crazy people? Many of the people who jumped over were good-natured, nice people who innocently wanted a picture with the pretty girls. Yes, they may have been nice, but the ropes were for everyone! People just tend to think it’s okay for them to break the rules. After all, it’s just them, right?

Okay, after three 12+ hour work days in a row in which we instilled rules for the overall purpose of giving children a safe, rewarding performance experience, I needed to vent. So thank you very much. Now I’m going to go throw my Starbucks cup in the trash can, yield to oncoming traffic, and drive a perfect 35 miles an hour all the way home.