Monday, December 27, 2010

The Gift of Extravagance


When I was a little kid, all the stores near my small hometown had those cold, bundled-up Salvation Army bell ringers at Christmas. And every year, on one of those walks past them into the store, my Mom would stop, open her change purse, and dump its entire contents into the red metal can. They clanked loudly for quite a while as they all poured in. We stood there for a moment and then exchanged Merry Christmases with the bell ringer. And I felt rich.

When you put aside the religious aspects of Christmas, I think the main gift we receive from this annual tradition is a break from our normal routine. Once a year, it’s okay to be excessive, to overindulge, to be overly demonstrative.

At Christmas, we decorate our lives with extravagance. Our houses are more inviting with twinkling lights. We wear hideous red sweaters and put a bow around the dog’s neck. We have an excuse to shop and to eat special foods. We change our clothes, our houses, our food, our social activities, even the music we listen to. Is there anything that doesn’t change at Christmas?

Christmas is the only time when we send cards with good wishes to everyone we know. We give gifts to the important people in our lives. We take off work, travel to visit family, and host huge festive parties. The Holidays mean we all come together.

What would life be like if we didn’t have a yearly reason to break the routine?

My husband and I won’t take down our Christmas decorations until after the New Year, to prolong this season as long as possible. Then the house will go back to normal. But then the everyday routine will be a little more special, because of what we just experienced. Because we were allowed a little extravagance, because of Christmas.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Yarn and Sequins


There is a hobby that is shared among many dancers across the world, from the dressing rooms of the West End to the wings of Broadway theatres. Showgirls in feathers and fishnets can be found doing this between numbers, and ballerinas sit in legwarmers and pointe shoes with this same hobby on their laps. What is this assumedly glamorous hobby? Crocheting, of course.

I learned to crochet when I worked in Branson and had long late-night rehearsals for a new show. We dancers often had to wait for hours until the Powers That Be decided they were ready for us, so we sat in the front row of the theatre with balls of yarn strewn between the seats, How to Crochet books in our laps, and made the time pass more quickly.

Crocheting is great for performers. It’s better than reading a book, which can absorb your mind too much and make it difficult to jump up and resume rehearsal. It’s soft, small, and easily portable, easy to pack into your dance bag or to stuff under your dressing room table.

This week, Nevada Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker began, and I looked around at the kids in the cast to see what they had brought to amuse themselves. I saw coloring books and video games, snacks and decks of cards. They’re too young to need something involving yarn at this point. But then, past the makeup table and racks of costumes, I saw a child on a chair with the familiar string leading to the bag next to her. Her hands were busy, and a friend watched her for a moment before moving away to a video game. On the other side of the room, a teacher stood observing everything while crocheting a baby sweater with soft orange yarn. The tradition continues.

Years ago, the show I was in traveled to Nashville to perform on a TV show, and I sat in the green room waiting for our turn on the set, working on my latest afghan. Suddenly I heard a voice next to me.

“What are you making?” I looked up to see an old stagehand in worn black clothing who eyed my yarn with interest.

“It’s an afghan for my cousin who is pregnant.”

The man smiled through his long grey beard. Then he reached into his back pocket and pulled out…yarn, and a small silver crochet hook. “Here’s what I’ve been workin’ on.” He held up an intricate doily that was about six inches in diameter.

This began a nice conversation about yarn and patterns and which size crochet hook we prefer. I’d never had such a conversation with a stagehand. After all, these men tend to be gruff, no-nonsense people who move heavy equipment and protect us dancers from being hit with cables or flying backdrops, their jobs forcing them into the dark shadows. But I guess they need something for the downtime just like the performers.

So the next time you see a live performance, when you see that dancer running off stage, she’s not necessarily exiting toward a press interview or a Hollywood party or to drinks with the cast. It just may be that what waits her is a humble ball of yarn and a small metal hook. I think it’s a nice contrast to the sequins and glitter.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Too Many Old People


As I walked into Starbucks one afternoon this week, I passed a conversation between two 20-something male employees who sat outside for their cigarette break. “There are too many old people,” the one with the darker hair said nonchalantly.

Since I had a birthday milestone this weekend, immediately the sentence hit home as I continued inside for my iced chai latte. I knew their conversation was not about me, but it made me wonder what they were talking about. Would I qualify as an old person to them?

Probably yes, I assumed. I am now in the un-cool age group. No matter what I do now, no matter how I dress or act or talk, no matter what I say, I’m someone who went to school in the Eighties. And to them, that is O-L-D.

The great thing is, I really don’t care what anyone thinks. That's the greatest gift that comes with age - confidence. But I never really cared about being “cool.” I wasn’t a big partier or drinker, wasn’t into staying out late or bar hopping. I preferred hanging out with my small group of theatre friends or having deep conversations about life or books or art. And I never really thought much of people’s ages. In theatre, I’ve always worked with people of all ages, as equals. We were co-workers, not age brackets. We were just people.

And to prove that I don’t care what people think, I walked outside Starbucks (perhaps to solidify my "weird old person" status) and asked the guys what they meant regarding the “old people” comment. They laughed at being caught, then they said they had been talking about the other employees all being older. It was nice to satisfy my curiosity for a change. Basically, in their definition, anyone over 30 is old.

Now I just have to make sure that I don’t go too far with the idea of not caring about others’ opinions of me. I don’t want to be one of those obnoxious old people who yell and fart and complain, saying “I’m 70 years old; I’ll do whatever the hell I want.” (I actually heard someone say that once, loudly.)

So I’m going to embrace my 40’s, look forward to the changes in my life - and in me - that are to come in this new decade. And I'll try to wear the label "old person" with pride.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Light


This weekend Las Vegas was cloudy – a fairly rare thing for the desert. I spent all of Sunday at home with George, with a To-Do list that consisted of making cut-out sugar cookies and prepping our Christmas cards. I didn’t know it was going to be cloudy; I first saw it in the morning when I noticed that the light coming through the shutters was different. Outside the sky was grey, the sun a big GE soft white light bulb casting the world in gentle light. It made me want to snuggle on the sofa with George and a hot cup of tea, so I did just that.

I notice the light quite a bit. Maybe everyone does, but I think I was trained at an early age to notice things – what makes a good photograph, which setting would be a great painting, how a strip of light from a window adds just the right compositional component to make a scene pop. I guess you could say I appreciate the light. And I love to notice the way the light changes depending on the weather, the climate, the country.

My favorite light is when there is snow on the ground. I love the bluish-whiteness of the light as it bounces off the snow, when the sky is white to match the ground. There is such a softness to the light of snow.

When it rains there is another kind of light, as if the light shining through each raindrop causes it to diffuse and weaken. The light seems heavy, burdened by all those drops.

Have you ever noticed the light during a solar eclipse? I’ll never forget walking out my door and noticing the difference in the light; it seemed yellowish, surreal. I walked into the yard and saw that under the tree by the mailbox, the light shining through the branches created thousands of little half-moon-shaped (half-sun) shadows on the ground. You could watch the progress of the eclipse in the shadows.

I remember hearing years ago that the Impressionists liked to paint in a certain place in Europe because the light was so good. As a kid I thought that was absurd; light was light, right? But I learned what they meant when my husband and I went to Paris a few years ago. We took the Eurostar over from London, and I’ll never forget looking outside the train window at the French countryside for the first time. Something about it was different. Yes, it was farmland and windy, cloudy skies, but it looked…I couldn’t think of a word to describe it at the time. Foreign? Well, duh, of course. I finally realized it was the light. Something about it was just…different. Brighter, somehow, but not bright.

Over Thanksgiving I drove to visit family in Alabama, across Tennessee to their house. It was dark during half my drive, but the moon lit up everything, eliminating the need for streetlights. As I entered Huntsville, suddenly the moon was right in front of me, orange in a sky of deep, dark blue. The highway wound past the Space & Rocket Center, and the tall white rockets reflected the moon’s glow. The drive was gorgeous, because of the moonlight.

In Vegas, we mostly have sunny days. And I don’t mind them. When the weather is nice, the yellow sunny days make me happy, make me want to be outside. But in the glare of the summer sun, the brightness is oppressive. We shield ourselves from it in sunglasses and floppy hats. The Vegas light is too much, blinding, revealing, exposing. Like the city itself, the summer sun is all about excess.

So give me my cloudy days. Bathe me in soft light. Cast the world in a warmer glow.

And most of all, notice the light.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Black Friday


Last Friday, while other families were hitting the malls and braving the early morning sales, my family had its own version of Black Friday, at the Amish stores in southern Indiana. At one point there was even a crowd - two cars were already there when we pulled up.

It was the perfect outing for the day after Thanksgiving. We bundled up in blankets in the cold car, since the car never warmed up between our stops. Our first "store" was just off the highway, up and down a hill past donkeys and some baby sheep, past the Amish one-room school house and a field of corn shocks. We parked next to their red barn and waited for someone to come out of the house. Two smiling women in black dresses and white caps let us into their cold outer building where they kept the baskets made by five local families. They were all shapes and sizes, with signatures and dates handwritten on the bottom - tall ones and fat ones, large and small. And they were all so inexpensive we all had to get one.

The next stop was on the west side of the highway, farther in the country past a 90 degree curve and into a small valley. This one was an actual store, for the Amish, not for tourists. It had a squeeky wooden porch and a screen door with a sign that said "Fresh Bread and Baked Goods Today." Of course my uncle bought a loaf. We all looked at the bolts of dark fabric, the vials of herbal remedies, pots and pans and more baskets, all the while our footsteps sounded hollow on the wooden floor. My young cousins (and I) bought candies - peanut butter balls and fudge.

We hadn't planned to go to another store, but when we saw another "Baskets"
sign at a farm on the way home, our instincts told us to check it out. We turned into the drive, not sure where the goods were kept, and several faces peeked out at us from various doors and windows in the surrounding buildings. Finally a tall, thin, friendly girl welcomed us and gestured for us to follow her across the yard to a long building. On the way we passed a turkey loose in the yard who gobbled at us, the most thankful of birds on the day after Thanksgiving. We walked through the cedar-scented woodshop to where the baskets were kept, as well as benches, chairs, baby cradles, and more. Of course we had to buy more baskets.

We ended our outing at a gas station where we filled up and got hot chocolate for the short drive home.

For the past ten years, I have bought a basket from the Amish almost every time I've gone home, so my house is filled with them now. From where I sit typing with George on my lap, there are three within my sight. And they all remind me of those trips over the country roads with family.

Monday, November 22, 2010

No Blue Suede



I read somewhere that a person’s shoes are the best way to judge who someone is – their character, their wealth, their personality. So as I sit in the airport waiting for my flight, it’s a great opportunity to check out those people – those feet – around me.

I look around to see what the strangers are wearing.

A few rows away I see a pair of green sneakers with laces that drag the floor. What do bright green sneakers signify? Creativity? Quirkiness? Youth? I look up at the guy who wears them, and sure enough he is those very things. He wears a checkered shirt, a red scarf, Buddy Holly glasses, and carries a ukulele. So far, so good.

One row away is a pair of black leather shoes that are draped by long jeans that drag the floor at the heel. The shoes aren’t typical – they are flat-looking across the top with seams along the edges, with a small heel. Very European, or maybe just Italian American. They could be worn by an older man if the jeans didn’t imply youth. I look up at the man just as he turns, and I see he is indeed Italian – with a goatee and a gold chain around his neck. That’s two.

A few seats from me I see a pair of brown leather loafers. They are clean and new-looking, or at least well cared for. Inside them are navy socks topped by olive green cords with a cuff. This combo looks crisp and rich, and perhaps worldly or educated. The man wearing them bends down to reach into his leather bag and I see he is older, wearing a brown jacket with elbow patches and a dapper hat atop his grey hair and mustache. He could be a professor or a writer. Either way, he obviously has a story. Three for three.

I look around for another pair of interesting shoes, but the rest are a sea of white multicolored sneakers. And they all wear jeans. All are tied (I hoped I’d see a pair of big unlaced high tops so I could guess a man graduated high school in the Eighties.), all look fairly new, all are worn with socks. Nikes. Reeboks. New Balance. They all look like Jerry Seinfeld, wearing jeans and big white shoes.

How boring.

So, I guess from this I can say surmise that the general population is more concerned with comfort than fashion. More interested in conforming than in expressing any kind of individuality. We’ve become the Land of the Big White Feet.

So, what am I wearing today? I look down and see what my feet say. They’re small black Sketchers with grey laces. I’m the only one with black feet. I like to think they look more European. And I guess that’s accurate. I like to be different but not too different. I wish I could live in Europe again. I care about comfort but don’t forget fashion completely. Whoever said that about shoes was right, I think.

What do your feet say?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Potholder-Making-Me


I live about 1800 miles away from my immediate family, and I have to say that it has an effect on me. Sure, I have friends here that I’ve known for over a decade who know me pretty well. I have my husband who thankfully understands me. And I have coworkers and people who support me and feel practically like family.

This week my uncle visited from Illinois, and it was a reminder of the fact that being around people who’ve known you since you were a baby is very different. There’s a certain comfort in hanging out with someone who remembers when you turned three years old or when you made everyone potholders for Christmas, and they recognize that your laugh is like Grandma’s or that you speak like your Mom. Those are references not everyone can give.

My uncle John is only ten years older than me, and he was the “cool” teenager I admired when I was little. He is the reason why I came home from my first day of Kindergarten upset that I wasn’t given any homework. Of course I wanted to be like him; he was always studying his Calculus or working on a science project. He’s the reason I tried tennis in high school and college. And I can’t hear the loud brass of the group Chicago without thinking of him – it was always heard blaring from the closed door of his basement bedroom while I was upstairs baking cookies with Grandma. Later he went off to college, graduated and got a job in Chicago, and visited home wearing his big-city tan trench coat. Of course I wanted to do the same.

Family members don’t visit me in Las Vegas as often anymore. I’ve lived in Vegas now for over 15 years, and the novelty of my location isn’t as exciting now. When I was first here I had visitors often – close family, distant cousins, random neighbors. They sat in the audience of my shows and we went to dinner and reminisced about our ties to home and the glitz of my new life in the big city.

Now I visit them instead, but I don’t mind. I need to get back to my roots now and then, to drive the same streets I drove hundreds of times, to see how my hometown has changed, to inhale the trees and rain and forests.

Then, once I’m overloaded with memories and sentimentality and reminisces of who I used to be – who I guess I still am at the core- I am happy then to return to my city life and to the new and improved, more confident, older and hopefully wiser, version of me.

But family, please visit me in the desert any time. I need occasional reminders of the younger, potholder-making, laughs-like-Grandma Me.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Enjoy the Fakeness


On the way to work every day I drive on the freeway that circles the city, between the houses of civilization and the bare desert. When the freeway was constructed, they tore up the desert plants, leaving only brown dirt that eventually was taken over by random desert plants that gradually reclaimed their territory.

In some places, the roadsides are covered in gravel. Yes, the rock may look a little better, but I have to say it seems like a waste of money. Then this week I saw road crews on the sides of the road adding another addition to the gravel: green spray.

At first I thought it was paint, and I couldn’t believe they felt the need to paint the rocks green. But then when the chemical smell invaded my car I realized it was probably weed killer. They sprayed it in large swatches with their spray guns, and gradually it took over the whole length of highway, making the roadside look moldy.

Wouldn’t it have been better to just let the natural plants take over eventually? Instead they put gravel, then must spray chemicals to keep weeds out. Crazy. But I guess this manicured fakeness goes along with the electrical poles that are disguised to look like pine trees. Sprayed green roadsides and plastic trees. Yikes! And there are already many houses in my community with fake plastic grass front yards. What’s next? Plastic birds hanging from wires, fake dogs in plastic houses, and stuffed squirrels perched in the fake trees? Fake shrubs and fake flowers? Fake food? Fake life?

But then again, I live in Las Vegas, the land of fake Venetian canals, fake Egyptian pyramids, and fake breasts. I guess I need to just accept it. Embrace the fakeness.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Overstimulated


I took a book with me to my doctor’s appointment this week – a necessity since they always make me wait at least thirty minutes in the lobby and again in the actual exam room. Usually my wait is a pleasant time of forced relaxation, book in hand, quiet repose. This time I chose Maupin’s Tales of the City.

But it’s not quiet anymore. My doctor’s office has succumbed to our population’s overall need for constant stimulation. At first I tuned out the noise and chose a seat near the door so I could hear when my name was called. But the technology refused to be ignored. There were two TVs in the room, one at each end, one of which blared msnbc and the other Fox news. Heaven help anyone who chose to sit in the center of the room and have conflicting news (and politics) in each ear. And on top of those two TV’s, the sound system was also on, playing a variety of classic rock.

I looked at the people in the room, and at the workers behind the desk, and was amazed that no one else seemed to mind the chaos – they continued on as normal. I on the other hand started to go a little crazy while msnbc loudly discussed where to donate your body when you die, Fox news blared an interview with Sarah Palin, and above it all, Jimmy Buffet sang “Wastin’ away again in Margaritaville…”

It actually makes me sad, because people shouldn’t need this constant stimulation. We should be okay with silence, instead of needing headphones in our ears 24/7. But more and more, we’re bombarded by noise pollution, from the TV monitors in the checkout lines at the grocery, to the TVs that float above the aisles at Walmart, and the DVD players in the backseats of cars. Oh, for the good old days when people could just watch the scenery go by outside the car window and be entertained by that alone.

I’m afraid to look ahead twenty years to our de-evolved lack of attention. I bet by then, TV will just be a flash of images because we’ll be so unable to focus. TV screens will be in every room wherever you look, we’ll be so unable to think by ourselves. No one will be comfortable just with his own thoughts.

Or, maybe we’ll all climb out of this high tech craziness and Simplicity will be the new “in.” We’ll see. I think there will be a lot more msnbc-blaring until we make the turn for the better.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Accomplishments


So this week I was able to print out the first draft of my first-ever book. I brought it home from Kinko’s in a box, opened it, and set the stack of pages on my kitchen table so I could look at it all day. And I did. On the way to get the laundry out of the dryer, it sat there haughtily, triumphantly. It called “Ooh, look at me!” as I passed by with the vacuum. I had to stop in the middle of making dinner when it enticed me to flip through its pages to read a random passage.

Is it any good? I don’t know. My gut says it is, and in the long run I think that’s the most important thing. Whether or not it’s ever published, I have a piece of work that can be handed down as a part of me. And I can cross one of the major items off my To-Do list. It’s one of the biggest things I’ve ever done. It feels great.

It makes me think about people I know who have accomplished their dreams. I asked my friend about this after she achieved her lifelong dream of performing in a Broadway show. “So, now that you’ve achieved your ultimate goal,” I wondered as we gabbed over coffee after her show. “What happens next, after you’ve gotten your wish?”

Isn’t dreaming about it half the fun? Dreaming, wishing, hoping. I wonder how many times people achieve their deepest desires only to be disappointed afterward? I plan to relish in my accomplishment as long as possible.

I have many long-term goals on my To-Do List, and it’s nice to cross one off. And while I love planning and wishing and looking forward to other accomplishments, sometimes my list is overwhelming. There just isn’t enough time to do everything I want to do! That’s why I made a list of everything I’ve accomplished so far. I stepped back and looked at my life and wrote down all I’ve done so far – a list that shows what I’d be proud of if my life ended today. Full of events and experiences, small and large, that list allows me to take a breath and feel like I’ve done plenty already.

So what’s my next big project? Another book!(I have ideas for several!)But for now, no pressure. I’m going to tell my freshly printed book to relax, relish my list of accomplishments, and just breathe.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

They Only Cost $7.50


This morning at the dog park there was a woman in pajamas and slippers on the big-dog side. “He just walked right into my house!” she remarked from her spot on the park bench. Three other dog owners stood nearby listening to her story as she petted a friendly black lab. “I don’t know what to do!”

Apparently the dog was a stray, and she had driven it over to the dog park for advice about what to do with it. A phone call was made to a local woman who rescues dogs, and she suggested the pajama woman take the dog to the vet to see if it is microchipped, and then bring it to her if it wasn’t. The woman ran home to change into real clothes first, and I watched the black dog run around the dog park happily.

And it made me so angry, as it would any animal lover. My thoughts strayed to those people who move and leave their pets behind, to those people who dump unwanted animals in the desert, to those people who have no regard for the lives of animals. But what I mostly thought about was my desperate plea for anyone who owns a pet to put a collar and a tag on it!

This black dog was healthy and loved, and it probably had a family somewhere who might not even know yet that it was missing. And why didn’t it have a tag? If it had, the original woman could have called right away and it would have been home in minutes.

A while back, I saw a small dog near my house on my way to work, and I pulled over to try to help it. The little dachshund mutt came to me immediately, and I looked at its collar only to find it bare. If there had been a tag, I would have called right away and taken it to its home, safe, away from traffic. Instead, I had to go on to work and be comforted by the fact that it looked like the dog was heading home. Who knows.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve found dogs wandering around while their owners are oblivious. And it makes me so angry! It costs almost nothing to get one of those engraved tags. But it could save your dog’s life. And don’t give me the excuse that your dog never gets out - it only takes one time, one mistake. Please, please, please tag your dogs? Do it today? Please.

I fought the urge to wait in the dog park until the pajama woman returned, fought the urge to protect him until his fate was determined. I imagined taking him home to our house as a new slobbery friend for George. They would have been a cute pair, George little, white, and fluffy; the other big, black and sleek. But instead I headed for home, mostly convinced that the pajama woman would return. I can’t save them all. And it breaks my heart.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Home



In rural southern Indiana, there are eleven acres of land that are mine. A section of the land runs along the road, where you can pull your car off into the grass and climb the steep hill to the highest part, past overgrown weeds and an old spring house, past cow paths, a grove of small cedar trees, and a huge rock where water rushes from the ground when it rains.

As a kid, Mom and I made a game of climbing the hill and not allowing ourselves to turn around and look at the view until we reached the very highest part, where the two sides of fence met in a corner by a huge sycamore tree. There, out of breath and sweaty, we said “Okay, now!” and simultaneously we turned to see the sweeping view of the valley, past the roof of our house far below, over the grey line of country road that led into far trees, past the green striped corn fields, to the other side of the valley where sat a house and a red barn that were small rectangles from our lofty view. The black and white cows in the distant pasture were tiny specks.

That land became mine after my mom died, and we sold her house but kept the acreage on the hill. And for years, I sentimentally envisioned building a house up there with huge front windows that could watch the view year-round, as the hills turned from green to autumn to snowy white, and the far away cornfields emerged, grew tall, turned brown, and were plowed into the ground again.

I knew I never really wanted to live in my hometown, but it was always nice to have that dream in the back of my mind. It was reassuring to know at any time I was welcome back there, that I was always connected, even legally, by insurance and taxes and the mowers who kept the hilltop clear every year to protect the view. I was always connected to my childhood because I owned a part of it.

I always said that if I ever sold the land, it would have to be to someone who knew my mom and would appreciate it. I couldn’t sell to strangers or to people who just wanted it for the lumber or hay or pasture. So when my cousin called to ask if we might consider selling, because she and her husband would like to build a house on it, suddenly I realized the land wouldn’t be mine much longer.

My cousin’s parents, and grandparents, owned the neighboring land, and as a kid I used to travel up our hill and through the woods to their houses. One snowy winter her mother, my mom, their dog, my cat, and I met on the hilltop at night where we built a small fire and roasted marshmallows for a nighttime snow party. “We know what a great view there is up there,” my cousin told me on the phone when she explained their reason to buy. Indeed, she would appreciate the land, just as I wanted.

The paperwork was emailed and signed and faxed, and now I know when I go back to Indiana for Thanksgiving, the hill will no longer be mine. Of course my cousin will welcome a visit anytime, and I can walk the little path where I used to explore and play Laura Ingalls, I can walk the fencerow where my cousin Jay tried to cross the fence while wearing a pair of red plastic skis, I can explore the old barn whose doorways are now blocked by twenty-year-old trees. But once their house is built up there, the land will no longer be wilderness, it will no longer be the land I used to gaze at through my back bedroom window, wide-eyed at the wild land and animals that I knew were up there. Instead it will be someone’s yard. And it won’t be mine.

Now that the land's paperwork is completed, we have new paperwork to focus on: a homestudy, autobiography, driving record, health check, Dear Birthmother letter – the paperwork for adoption. After over five years of fertility crap that depleted our bank accounts, the sale of this land is going to make us able to adopt – an adoption that was put on hold for years.

After years of waiting and hoping, years of bitterness and tears, the sale of my mom’s precious land is giving us our long-awaited family. My Mom has given us this gift. Of course she was the one who helped us in the end. Life always seems to come full circle.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Old Friends


Do you have a favorite artist? I inherited my love of the Impressionists from my mother, who filled her bookshelves with beautiful hardcover books about Monet, Van Gogh, and Renoir; always wrote in a diary full of photos of Impressionist paintings; and even grew her own water lilies in an antique wooden tub on our front porch. Throughout my childhood, we owned a little piece of Monet’s garden, right there on our front porch in rural Indiana.

Ever since I was little, my Mom took me to art museums in local colleges or in the nearby larger cities, and as an adult I always go to the famous museums when I travel. I have stood in front of that Seurat painting in Chicago, where Ferris Buehler’s friend stood transfixed by his thousands of dots. In New York I sat for a full thirty minutes on a bench in front of Monet’s haystacks, trying to absorb the artist’s vantage point from which he viewed his simple subject during the passing of the seasons, the passage of time. I’ve seen Michaelangelo’s David and Rembrandt’s “Self Portrait at the Age of 63” (not Impressionists but still worthy!) In Paris I bypassed the tourist-packed Louvre and opted for the Musee de l’Orangerie, where I stumbled upon the room where Monet’s life-sized paintings of his water gardens were the only thing in the room – an oval room almost entirely covered by his garden scenes, so you could sit in the middle and actually be there, amid the muted blues of the water, the greens of the vegetation, the hazy dots of colorful flowers.

When I moved to Las Vegas years ago, the Bellagio was about to open, and amid the tacky neon signs of the Strip’s casinos, the Bellagio’s marquis read “Coming Soon: Monet, Van Gogh, Renoir, Cezanne.” They were about to open their new art museum, and I remember calling my Mom and telling her it was a sign that I was in the right place. And not long after that, I moved into a new apartment and learned that the construction across the street was for a library with an attached art museum. Another sign.

Last weekend I was in San Francisco for a wedding and was happy to discover that the Musee de Orsay’s traveling collection was in Golden Gate Park’s de Young . It was an exhibition of the Impressionists. I happily paid the $25 admission and stepped into the exhibit’s first room. And it was like coming home. A cheesy statement, but it’s true. I felt tears well up in my eyes as I walked from painting to painting. And after taking in the artwork, I also enjoyed looking at the people who stood next to me: the older couple who listened to their self-guided tour headsets and nodded at the interesting facts, the man in a suit who may have been there on his lunch break, the older woman who reminded me of my mom as she sat on the bench in the middle of the room and just absorbed the atmosphere. These people shared with me a camaraderie – bound by our appreciation of, and connection to, these artists.

My sentimental reaction surprised me at the time, but looking back, it’s no wonder that I got emotional. These paintings – these artists - have been with me throughout my life, in the pages of the books in our living room, all over the world during my travels, in that tub on the front porch, and in the Impressionistic brush strokes of my mother’s own paintings. Seeing the Impressionists is like visiting old friends. Like visiting family.

After my mom died, the school where she worked offered to put up a stone fountain in her honor, in the school’s courtyard outside the room where she had taught art for 24 years. But at my request, instead they installed a water garden, and water lilies, to carry on her love of the Impressionists to future generations. What could have been a better tribute?

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Originality


A few weeks ago in my posting about clichés, I questioned how original any of us can ever truly be, given the billions of people on the planet. What are the odds that any thought or idea or experience is truly original?

This idea came to me again this weekend when on vacation in Wine Country with my husband and girlfriend. We stumbled upon an outdoor festival on the main town square in Sonoma and wandered through the booths of jewelers, ceramic artists, and painters. As we passed one booth on the way to the wine tastings, my husband stopped me and pointed to a photograph that was framed on the far wall of a man’s display of European photographs. They were the type I’ve seen often – huge photos of quaint Italian hillside towns, French bistros with white awnings and pots of red flowers, cottages with doorways of blue peeling paint.

The photo my husband pointed to did look familiar. It was of a red shuttered window on the side of a house, with vines growing along the wall and exterior walls of blue and peach. The subject – this house - looked similar to a photo I had taken years ago. I walked through the man’s booth and saw that he had taken several shots of this same house, and they were all now framed for purchase prices of hundreds of dollars.

It couldn’t be the same house, right? I mean, what were the odds? Europe is filled with quaint old houses with peeling paint, shutters, and vines. But at my husband’s urging, I sought out the artist who was taking a payment from a customer and asked him where he took the photo.

“In Athens,” was his response.

“Oh, really? Where?” I had taken my photo in Athens, also.

“Anafiotika.” He probably figured he could throw me off by being specific, but I countered his reply.

“Yes, on the little walk between the Plaka and the Acropolis?” I told the man that I had taken a photo of the exact house, and he looked at me blankly and then took money from another customer.

My husband didn’t understand why the man wasn’t friendlier. He should have been surprised at the odds, right? But I understood the man. By telling him I had photographed the same house, I was stealing away a bit of his originality, his creativity. I didn’t tell him that my photo had also been framed and had won entry into a juried art show. That would have usurped even more of his “artist” stature.

Okay, so we took photos of the same exact house in a remote section of Athens. But instead of taking it as an insult, why not take it as a release of pressure? Why try so hard to be perfect? Why try so hard to be original? Instead, we should just do our best to seek out beauty, and if it’s not perfectly original, so what? Taking that same photo in Athens is proof of our linkage, our connection. We saw the same thing, paused in exactly the same place, and captured the moment to share with others. When we’re unoriginal, we’re connected to others, showing our universal human traits. I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Showdog


This week a famous Las Vegas entertainer died. He was only about 15 years old but lived a full, long life – played to audiences of thousands of people who adored him and took photos and laughed and loved him. His name was JoJo, and he was a showdog.

I worked with many animals during my career as a singer/dancer. First was in Branson, MO where lions and tigers and leopards and a huge snake were used by my boss, magician Kirby VanBurch. Kirby may have been a little crazy, but he was a meticulous performer and took the safety of his animals and performers seriously. No one was allowed backstage when he used the animals during his act; no one was allowed to go visit them in their cages or mess with them in any way. Since I never saw them, the only time I was reminded there were actual animals in the show was when the magic assistant ran to the dressing room mid-show when the snake peed on her during the act. (Apparently, you have to wash it off right away or risk smelling like snake pee for weeks.)

In Las Vegas my first job was with Melinda, First Lady of Magic. While she didn’t use exotic animals in her act, she did have the requisite birds and rabbits. These animals’ cages were in our dressing room where we got used to the continuous soundtrack of the doves’ cooing, and we sometimes took the rabbits out to pet them.

Many years later, I worked in a show with the comedian/magician/fire eater/animal trainer Max Clever, whose act I loved to watch from the wings so I could laugh along with the audience. Somehow, he managed to merge all of his talents into one clever act (no pun intended), making it all work together seamlessly. The star of his act, besides Max himself, was a little white fluffy dog named JoJo.

At Christmas, JoJo wore a red Santa suit during the show, his white hair looking like a Santa beard. But his usual attire was a black tuxedo and dark sunglasses. I often saw him sitting in the wings before his first entrance. It was pitch black back there, except for the light coming from the stage and the small light clipped onto the backstage technician’s station. He sat backstage facing the lights as Max began his act, and he waited for his cue patiently. He was the most professional dog I’ve ever seen. In fact, he was more professional than many of the human performers I’ve worked with.

When the act was over, JoJo would often stroll into our dressing room to say hello. It was nice to pet him and have a little down-to-earth contact with an animal in the middle of our strange entertainer’s environment.

One Christmas, another performer and I made sweaters for JoJo, and he kindly obliged us by modeling them in the dressing room between shows. I worked in that show for seven years, and JoJo was as much a part of the family as anyone. He will be missed.

Back when I worked with Max, I jokingly told him that someday I wanted to have my own JoJo. And in a way, I feel I do. George looks like him, and I trained him using the suggestions Max gave me long ago. I can’t help but feel that I have the same bond with George that Max had with JoJo. When I heard JoJo had died, I truly felt sorrow at Max’s loss.

As a tribute to JoJo, I think I will teach George a few more tricks – pass on his legacy through the lessons of a showdog.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Mrs. U, Get out your red pen


It was in high school that I first learned the word “trite.” Old Mrs. U, our quirky Senior English teacher, used to write the word in bold letters all over my papers, because my teenage brain obviously had trouble coming up with original thoughts.

In case you don’t know, trite means overused, or cliché. And now that I’m working on the first draft of my book, I often wonder how many trite phrases I’m unintentionally using in my writing. If Mrs. U read it, would it again be returned to me with the dreaded word written in her red pen? Surely I’ve matured in my writing – surely I have more imagination and more ambition? But then again, aren’t we just a world of clichés?

I mean, in a world of nearly 7 billion people, what are the odds that any of our thoughts are truly unique? Sure, we’re unique individuals, but aren’t we just made up of common experiences and common thoughts? What are the odds that this sentence has never been written before? Or thought before? Or spoken before? Just how unique can any of us truly be?

But back to clichés. Here are my two least favorites. I hate when people say “Everything happens for a reason.” People tend to say that to console others when bad things happen to them. My response usually is, “Maybe, but not necessarily for a good reason!” I mean, duh. Things happen because of life. Things happen because of the passage of time while we’re on this planet. Things happen because things just happen. I don’t need some stupid cliché to try to explain it.

And my second least favorite cliché is when people say that someone has “lost their battle with cancer.” Commentators on TV say it with requisite seriousness and it just makes me cringe. It’s the same feeling I get when people say that someone “passed away.” We seem to need trite phrases to soften the blow – to describe things that are difficult to talk about – to hide the reality in the comfort of humdrum words. I could never use that phrase when I talked about my mom’s death. She didn’t just pass away; she died – and glossing it over with an overused expression didn’t give her the respect she deserved.

But I don’t mean to be a Negative Nellie or a stick in the mud, so I’ll make a clean sweep and quit running off at the mouth. (Enough pearls of wisdom for today, even though I’ve only scratched the surface of the world of clichés.) So, back to my Pollyanna outlook that comes from growing up in the sticks. I’m now going to call it a day and get out of here. George and I are going to seize the day and head for the park. After all, the best things in life are free, right?

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Won't You Be My Neighbor?


This weekend I stood in the backyard with a hose over our back wall and watered the neighbor’s trees. I’ve been doing it faithfully for about two months, ever since we realized the neighbors were gone and weren’t returning.

As you know, the mortgage crisis hit Las Vegas hard, and the telltale sign of a foreclosed house is not the For Sale sign in the yard - it’s the brown landscaping. After all, nothing grows in Vegas unless you have a sprinkler hooked up to it, so of course when the water is shut off, the yard of a foreclosed house is the one brown rectangle in a street of green.

We never really knew our neighbors. Their backyard borders ours along a six-foot-tall back wall, and since their house’s entrance is on another street we never really had a chance to talk. Sure, I wish I could have known them – or any of our neighbors. I mean, I’m from the Midwest, where it’s ingrained to take a batch of cookies or a freshly baked pie to your neighbors so you can get acquainted. But I’ve never done that since my first try several years ago, when the couple next door to our first house looked confused when I showed up with a banana nut bread. People in Vegas seem to prefer their compartmentalized lives in their walled-in homes.

In spite of never actually meeting the family behind us, we did feel that we knew them. Every morning and every evening when we’d open or close our upstairs bedroom’s curtains we had a perfect view of their yard – of the pool and the little tiki bar they put in the corner, the potted plants that sat in the shade. We weren’t voyeuristic; we just noticed them as they lived their lives, in those brief daily glimpses.

On the weekends the husband worked out in the yard and slowly installed a stone patio by the back door while his wife sat in a lounge chair by the pool. Later he added a retractable shade awning and a small TV on a wall-mounted stand. After a few months of living behind us, a man appeared at their patio table every morning with coffee, cigarette, and a newspaper. We decided he was the in-law who came to live with them. He was there too long for just a visit. And he always sat alone.

Our favorite member of the family was their son, a little blond kid who was about three or four when we first saw him. He splashed in the pool with his dad or while the mom sat in her chair, unmoved. But mostly he was alone in the yard, amusing himself by playing superhero while wearing nothing but his underwear and a towel tied around his neck as a cape. He walked around the yard whacking plants with a plastic sword, and he and a big plastic Godzilla protected the world from evil, right there in view of our upstairs window.

Right now, the retractable awning is gone, Godzilla is lying on his side in the debris by their muddy pool, and all the plants are brown, except for the three trees I water every day. They are taller than our trees, so losing them would take away the privacy and shade they give our yard. And why should the trees suffer, just because the people moved on?

Watering their trees is the neighborly thing to do.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Auto-Pilot


George’s favorite part of our back yard is the pile of dirt that sits in the un-landscaped section of the yard, where he likes to lie on the uppermost peak and survey his kingdom. He may be cute, white, and fluffy - the epitome of a “bitch dog” (my husband’s term for the breeds that women tend to own)- but on that dirt pile he exerts his true self – his elemental self. He is one who likes to lie in the sun, in the dirt, observing everything.

As I watered some plants this weekend, I watched him and wondered, if I were to determine my elemental self, what would it be? It’s difficult to decide – I mean, I’m talking about who I am deep down, past all the desires and the Joneses and superficial everyday needs. If I had one moment when my auto-pilot kicked in and made me do one thing or be one thing, what would my subconscious lead me to?

I’m not talking about being with family or the basic needs of life. (It would be a cop-out to say "family" or "my kids" or "my husband.") I’m talking about who each of us is deep down, as an individual. Maybe you can think of it in a stranded-on-a-desert-island situation. What one thing, one element, one situation or location, would satisfy you?

As for me, I’m not sure. I don’t want to be too quick to decide my one elemental necessity - who I am at the core. At one point in my life I would have said it is being in the Theatre, and at another I would have said I’d just need a sketchbook and a piece of charcoal to be happy.

But right now, if I close my eyes and get right to it and let my auto-pilot take over, I don’t think elemental-me would be doing anything. I picture myself in a cozy room in front of a roaring fireplace, with a huge picture window looking out through the rain, across to a view of the ocean. If I’d open the window, I could hear the surf and smell the lightly falling rain.

I could interpret that by saying that at my core, I want to be relaxed, safe, cozy, and connected to nature. But it’s more than that. When I’m actually in a place like that, it’s when I’m most creative and I become full of possibility. Maybe that’s my elemental self – focused on creativity and possibilities. Hmmm. Something for me to ponder.

I would love to hear where, or to what, your Auto-Pilot would take you.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Bats and Burros


Far beyond the lights of the Strip, far past the glittery showgirls and bejeweled Elvises (Elvi?), west of Las Vegas, past the last row of cookie cutter houses, there is a little-known gem that brings together two of my favorite things: Theatre and Nature. It might seem difficult to imagine the two fitting together very well – after all, sequins don’t often go with burros and wild horses. But Spring Mountain Ranch’s Super Summer Theatre gives just that.

To get to the outdoor theater, get on Charleston Boulevard and head west. Eventually the houses will turn into cacti, and you’ll enter a spectacular valley of red mountains. You’re driving at dusk, so the red rocks are hazy, backlit by the setting sun. In your backseat are the required items for the evening: a picnic blanket, a bottle of wine, maybe some fried chicken and pasta salad, and a sweater for when it gets cooler.

The tiny outdoor stage is almost rickety in its simplicity – the actors sweat in basement dressing rooms – and the theatre-goers spread out on a huge lawn to eat together in a picnic-audience before the show. Before the sun is completely down, the show begins.

Honestly, it doesn’t really matter what the show is. Or if it’s any good. I mean, if you get bored you can just lie back on your blanket and look at the show Nature puts on nightly; out here, the stars shine more brightly, uninhibited – no longer upstaged – by the lights of the city.

When there is still a little light in the sky, the bats come out. They flutter in patterns above the picnickers, making some people marvel at the “birds” that are flying around. During the show, wild burros often bray nearby, usually during the quietest moments of the plot, when the guy kisses the girl, or while an ingenue delivers a wistful speech. “Eeeeeeaaaaaaahhhhhhh!” It’s not the most romantic of interruptions, but it sure is entertaining.

There are outdoor amphitheatres all over the country, and I urge you to find one near you. I’ll never forget seeing Richard Harris play King Arthur in Camelot in an outdoor theater in Indianapolis years ago. There, the bugs were attracted to his spotlight, and his ad-libbed swats at them brought unexpected laughter. Live theatre always has its moments, but adding nature to it makes it even better.

There are a few more weeks, and a couple more shows, left in Super Summer Theatre’s lineup this summer. Check them out!

Monday, August 16, 2010

AKA The Happy Humping Dog


I’m annoyed at men today. Well, not all men. I’m not annoyed by the ones in the trucks with the oversized tires who cut me off in traffic, or the loud men on cell phones who cut in front of me in line at the bank as if I’m invisible. Today, I’m angry at the man who hit George because George was humping his dog.

Well, “hit” may be a little too strong a word – “swat” is probably a more accurate description of what the man did. George had been following around this man’s large labrador retriever all morning (why was this breed on the small dog side?) and had loved mounting her. She was oblivious to his attraction.

There was nothing to worry about. George was humping the side of her knee – no chance of pregnancy (George is fixed anyway). Nothing for the man to worry about except his own testosterone-filled ego.

I’ve seen this type of man at the dog park many times; he’s often a homophobe. He’s the type who instantly gets upset if a dog mounts his dog. There used to be a military guy at the park who always yelled obscenities when his male dog was mounted; he was obviously freaked out by the idea of any guy-on-guy activity.

It makes me think that people should have to take a dog behavior test before being allowed to adopt a dog. These men need to realize it’s about dominance when a dog mounts – not about sex. Why else would George hump her knee? He’s not that stupid. And speaking of stupid, I was told today that the man who hit George freaks out when his dog eats ice, because he says she pees inside the house when she eats ice. Hmmm. Interesting logic. Once again, where is that test?

And while we’re at it, can we require people to take childrearing tests before they get pregnant? That would make the world a better place, too.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Good Medicine



I’m writing this from our back patio right now, while I’m considering going inside to get a sweater or a blanket. And it’s August. In Las Vegas. And it’s all because of the storm that blew in this weekend.

I first heard it during the night, when the rain on our patio roof woke me up. It was perfect – just loud enough to let me know it was there, but not so bad to keep me awake. I fell back to sleep, cozy in bed.

Today I woke to the smell of the rain and cooler morning temps, although the sky above our house was bright and sunny again. That’s how Vegas is – storms often pass through but only show themselves to sections of the city instead of the valley as a whole.

Today I was feeling a little down; my week had been stressful, and my husband was working on what is usually our day off together. So when I heard a few drops outside again I immediately turned off the TV (I was about to sink into an afternoon of mind-numbing Hallmark Channel movies), and went outside with George. The wind was picking up a little, and one whole section of the sky was dark grey while the other part was blue with white fluffy clouds. The few raindrops on the roof sounded like popcorn.

George jumped onto the back of the outdoor sofa where I sat, and I leaned my head against him. My heart wasn’t feeling great. Recent stress was causing the symptoms of my MVP (an annoying heart condition) to flare up a little, and my heart felt tight. In fact, it felt worse than normal. I sat and tried to make my stress go away by taking deep breaths like in meditation. Focus on the breath, ten counts in and twenty counts back out. It didn’t seem to loosen the anxiety in my chest but I did it a few more times anyway.

Then I realized I shouldn’t be sitting under the patio; I should be out in the rain – should get out in nature and let it fall down on me. So I walked around the yard a little bit, raised my face to the sky in time to get a raindrop right in my eye, and I wondered why raindrops aren’t dangerous, since they fall from so far. I liked feeling the rain touch me.

Soon the rain came down more quickly, the drops big and fat. I headed for the sofa again and pulled George onto my lap to get warm during the sudden chilly wind. He and I sat and watched the downpour – it was indeed a downpour – the type of rain that brings people to windows to look outside, the kind that sounded like tympani were being played on our patio roof.

After about ten minutes or so of watching the rain fall in a diagonal toward where we sat, it gradually calmed down again, and slowly the sounds of our neighborhood resumed. A few birds flew by, chirping. A car drove by on a nearby street, its tires sounding wet on the pavement. The rain had stopped everything, had forced all to stop, to sit and observe.

And I realized my heart wasn’t tight anymore. The rain had taken away the tension. See, now, why I love the rain?

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Get out your dream dictionaries.


When George dreams, sometimes his legs twitch as if he’s running. Sometimes he’s so into his dream that he barks in his sleep or his face muscles twitch. I, too, have had some strange experiences with dreams, from walking in my sleep, being conscious in my dreams, and even seeing things in my sleep. Weird stuff, I assure you.

My earliest memory of sleepwalking (I only did it twice in my lifetime) was when I walked into the living room around midnight, after having had fish for dinner, and told my Mom, “I want more fish.” She didn’t feed me, but guided me back to bed. As an eight-year-old, I thought it was cool to have walked in my sleep.

As a teenager, I learned to extend my dreams when they were really good. If I woke up right at the good part, I was able to go back to sleep several times, each time allowing the dream to pick up where it left off. A handy trick.

But the most interesting dream skill I have is that I can insert myself into my dreams, when necessary. It started when I was very small, when I had the normal scary monster dreams, and I was chased into a corner. As I ran, I told myself, “Wake up! All you have to do is wake up and this dream will be over!” I was always able to wake myself up before it got too scary. I never thought of this skill as anything special until I told a friend about it. He called it “lucid dreaming.”

This skill is sometimes annoying, when my conscious inserts itself into a dream I could enjoy. Why, oh why, can’t I just relax and enjoy a dream in which I am having a romantic evening with Hugh Jackman? Instead, in the dream I get an overwhelming sense of guilt, and it usually ends with dream-me trying to tell my real-life husband that I didn’t cheat. But in my dream I did, so dream-me gets confused, trying to explain that real-life me didn’t do anything.

Along the same lines, after my Mom died, I loved the dreams in which I was in my old house, sometimes even with her. During my dream, I always told myself to keep dreaming it as long as possible - to enjoy being there while I could.

The weirdest part of my dreaming is when I see things in my sleep. I often open my eyes during the night and see things floating in the room. I know I’m sleeping, so I sit up and blink and try to get the image to go away; eventually it does and I go back to sleep, knowing that I’m imagining things, dreaming. Recently, I saw a huge tall white shape float from the doorway to the window. I know it was my mind moving the large strip of light that was barely reflecting on the white door. But I also saw a floating monkey head that went in the same direction two times. Who knows what that meant – I need a trip to the zoo? I watch too much Family Guy?

And then there are my reoccurring dreams. All my life I’ve dreamed that my teeth are falling out, and they fill up my open hands as they fall. I often dream that I am in a foreign country and want to go to a show but cannot find the theatre, or it’s my last night there and I forgot to go to a show. I also dream over and over about exotic places that I could swear I’ve been before. One very frustrating dream is that I’m trying to dial a phone number and keep hitting the wrong buttons, over and over. And I dream about George – that the building is falling down and I have to save him.

But most recently, old high school friends from facebook are appearing in my dreams, people I haven’t seen in years but are in my dream plots because I see their names or pictures on facebook. Recently I dreamed that Candie Beaty and I coincidentally bought houses next to each other in London, that Karey Baker and I accidentally fell asleep in a Starbucks and hid behind the couches when the workers opened the store in the morning, and that I went to a wedding with Glenn Leone. Facebook is having a weird influence on my life.

Anyway, interpret as you wish.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Joy of Crayons


There’s nothing like a new box of crayons. Their smell – the sharp, new tips – the bright colors that just cry out to be used. I bet my feelings about new crayons are influenced by the fact that I got new ones every year for the start of school, so now they are wrapped up in the emotion and excitement of new teachers, new paper and pencils, a new desk, and new things to learn.

I watched some kids color this week, or more correctly, I watched the kids and their parents color. It seems like the parents get more into the coloring than the kids do, as if they’ve been dying for an excuse to get creative. I mean, here their kid is with a new box of crayons and a fresh coloring book, and the parent just HAS to color that tree green, or that flower red.

As I watched the coloring, I realized that one of my biggest art “revelations” involved coloring. My mom was an art teacher, so of course she never encouraged me to “stay in the lines;” she was prone to give me a blank piece of paper instead of a coloring book, to inspire more creativity.

The revelation came when I was pretty young. In a coloring book I was coloring a scene of girls sitting on a beach in bathing suits under an umbrella that I filled in with primary colors, and Mom decided to “help” me for a bit, as grownups do. I watched as she picked up a red crayon, held it above the page, and gently shaded a blotch of red on one of the girls’ bare shoulders. “She’s been sitting on the beach too long,” Mom explained. I remember staring at the sunburn Mom had given the girl, suddenly struck by the fact that there was more to this coloring book than just filling in the pictures. They could be my own, more than ever now. A blank sky could be filled with birds or a sunset or a hot air balloon. A field could hold cows or flowers or a picnic basket and blanket. I can’t help but see that very moment as when the world of Art was opened to me, truly. All by a little shade of red on a girl’s shoulder.

So if you have a little time, why don’t you “help” your kids with their coloring books. Show them what is possible. Or if they’re not around, grab a piece of blank paper from your printer and draw a little something. I know you want to.

Monday, July 19, 2010

When in doubt, bake.


“When in doubt, bake.” I spoke these words to my husband on Sunday afternoon, to explain the batch of brownies I had just put into the oven. They were already filling our downstairs with the smell of sweet cocoa, and I realized at that moment that I tend to bake whenever I need to feel grounded, or when I have a few spare hours and can't figure out what I feel like doing.

My sentimental mood was probably instigated by the Hallmark Hall of Fame Movie Marathon that I stumbled upon, and after three straight movies I was ready to get off the couch but retain my feeling of nostalgia. I found myself flipping through my recipe box, with one eye on the next movie, searching for something sweet.

I had no chocolate chips in the pantry, so “Johnny’s Brownies” were the perfect recipe that afternoon. In my Mom’s cursive writing, it was written on a yellowed index card and had a big red checkmark next to the title, which indicated that it had been tried successfully. Who knows what the original title of the recipe had been; over the years it became “Johnny’s Brownies” because my uncle liked them so much in 9th grade. At least that’s what it says in the corner of the card: “Favorite 9th Grade Recipes – Johnny.” In fact, all of my family’s recipes have notes like that, indicating the date the dish was made (my grandma’s recipes list dates from the ‘40s), what should be done differently next time (“Try it cooler – 400° is too hot!”), and often a note of the occasion for which the dish was made (“Shannon’s Graduation Open House,” “Sheila’s Bridal Shower,” etc.)

I like the precision of baking; I’m not one to make up my own recipes or throw in different ingredients. And there is pleasure in leveling off a cup of flour and knowing I’m doing it exactly the way my Great Grandmother did. I roll our pie crusts with the rolling pin my mom used to make peach pies in the summer and cut-out sugar cookies every Christmas. Even the ingredients are comfortable: the small round can of baking powder fits perfectly into my hand; I can’t open a bottle of vanilla without pausing to inhale. These recipes, these routines, put me in sync with all the women before me – down to the bare essentials. It’s no wonder, then, why I find myself baking, often.

Below is the recipe for brownies that I made on Sunday, while George laid nearby on our rug with the rooster on it. These don’t need any icing. And the batter is great. Mom taught me to scoop the batter into the dish with a spoon so that you intentionally cannot get it all out of the bowl. Then after it’s in the oven, use a spatula to get out the rest, so you can lick it off. It’s best that way. I think I bake for the doughs and batters instead of the final product!

Johnny’s Brownies
Cream together:
1 cup shortening
2 cups sugar
2 tsp. vanilla
Add 4 eggs and beat.
Sift together:
1 1/3 cups flour
1 cup cocoa
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
Add and mix well. Bake at 350° in greased cookie sheet 20 min – or deeper pan for 40 min. Cool and frost.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Battle Scars


It is Tour de France time again, and every morning I’m glued to the TV as long as possible before I have to go to work, then I turn on my computer to see the live stream of who wins each stage. And they still amaze me – these guys who bike across France, up and down mountains, crashing and recovering, sometimes riding on in spite of gashed elbows and broken bones.

Since I’m not much of a sporting-type, I don’t have many battle scars or markings of bravery. The only real injury I’ve ever had (knock on wood, please) was from doing the jitterbug on a concrete stage in Branson for a year, two shows a day, when I got tendonitis in my wrist. I have to admit it’s a little fun telling people that my occasional wrist brace is from a jitterbug injury.

The scar I’ve had for the longest time is from when I was 3 years old or so, and there was a flat round barbecue grill base sitting on our front porch, just sitting there enticingly with no grill and no stand. For some reason I played inside it with my kitten, and when I got up I cut my ankle on the metal piece that stuck up to hold the missing grill. I went to the emergency room for that one, and it is still prominent on my ankle, complete with little spidery stitch marks.

I also have a scar on my shin from a curling iron. A strange location, yes, but it’s from sitting on the floor in my dorm room in college, trying in vain to do something with my hair. I remember the skin kind of melting away in slow motion as the hot metal hit my leg.

My only true sports scar is from tennis, on the back of my right shoulder. How, you wonder, did I get a tennis scar there? My friend and I were playing doubles with two guys, and I dove for a backhand in an attempt to impress our opponents. I assure you I was very impressive, since I didn’t intend to actually dive. But I don’t have to tell anyone that.

So, I watch the Tour de France every year with awe, as the cyclists ride along with blood-covered faces and ripped jerseys, across the mountains in 90 degree heat, while I watch from my air-conditioned living room on our overstuffed sofa with George. Do you think Lance Armstrong would be impressed by my tennis scar?

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Less is More


As often as possible, I take George in the car with me, which isn’t easy now that it’s hot outside. In the winter he can sit in the car and wait for me wherever I go, but now we’re limited to air-conditioned travels through the Starbucks drive-thru and shopping trips to Home Depot. Riding in the shopping cart, he gets attention from all the customers and salespeople who sweet-talk him and pet him. (He can’t just be on a leash because he would happily pee on things.)

I can take George with me because he is an only-dog – if I had more than one, I know I wouldn’t be so quick to take them with me. But because he is by himself, we go to the park and on trips and to people’s houses and to the mountains, all because it’s easy to load him up and go.

Like George, I was an only dog/child. (?) I remember my mom telling me that she liked having only one child because it meant we could do more. She could afford more, therefore we went on trips together and I had experiences and opportunities that I never would have had if I had siblings. And Mom and I were so close that it’s hard to imagine the different relationship we might have had if there were someone else in the house.

Going through life as an only child, I often received criticism or assumptions from people with siblings. “Weren’t you lonely?” No, I’m actually more secure doing things by myself than most people seem to be. “Didn’t you miss having brothers or sisters?” Nope, except when my Mom died. Then, I could have used someone nearby to share what I was going through. “I bet you were spoiled!” Well, I don’t think so, but it depends on your definition of the word. Yes, Mom’s attention was focused on me because I was her only child, but I definitely didn’t always get what I wanted!

For this post, I looked up statistics regarding only children, and I found that my experience was comparable to the average only child: I did well in school, felt comfortable with adults, and easily enjoyed time to myself. While I wasn’t as social as those with siblings (like first-borns), I had the same amount of close friends as most people. And while I wasn’t involved in as many social groups or clubs, I was often a leader in those I did join. It’s always strange to me when I read statistics and see that I fit right in. The non-conformist in me wants to rebel.

My husband and I plan to have only one child, for many reasons. And I have to admit that I like the idea of having only one to focus on, having only one child to take places, having only one so we can do more, have more, be more. I can just see us now, jumping into the car with George, on the way to Starbucks, or Home Depot, or beyond. Christmas in Hawaii? Summers in Europe? Or just quiet nights at home, with us all doing our own separate things. Less is more, right, more or less?

Monday, June 28, 2010

Leaves of Grass


Grass is a luxury – have you ever thought of it that way? An outdoor living carpet, it brightens up our yards, gives us a place to run barefoot, and in some areas of the country it grows naturally – all you have to do is keep it trimmed.

But we live in the desert, where grass is something to be cherished. Water restrictions have reduced the number of grassy front yards here, but many people still have a small rectangle of it in their backyards, watered by the requisite sprinklers that pop up four times a day and shower it luxuriously.

When you move into a new house in Las Vegas, the front yard is landscaped by the manufacturer, but the back yard is up to you. This means that while you unpack boxes and move around the new furniture, your view out back is of dirt. And I mean it – all you have is concrete block walls enclosing a flat dirt-and-rock yard.

We know that someday we’ll put in a pool, so we’ve been doing our backyard slowly on our own. (Why put money into it when it’ll just get ripped out someday?) We started on the left side of the yard and installed a high trellis to block the neighbor’s house, then we added a gazebo and outdoor furniture, then a stone path and plants. If you hold up your hand and hide the half of the yard that is bare dirt, it looks great.

The one thing we were missing was grass. We had avoided it because we didn’t know how to install those pop-up sprinklers, but finally I found a solution. I went to the nursery and bought five pieces of sod, which we laid in a long strip next to the path and hooked up to our regular watering system, hoping it would stay alive.

Our reason for adding grass to the yard, albeit a small amount? George. I knew he wanted grass – he often walks around the yard sniffing the plants as if he’s looking for it. And sure enough, I was right. As soon as it was laid out, he ran over to it, walked through it, ate some, then peed on it. He was in heaven. And two weeks later, the grass is still alive (surprisingly) and he runs straight to it every morning, first thing. After relishing his patch of grass, he stands at the end of the path – the part we haven’t finished – and stares at the dirt-half of the yard as if saying, “Would you get off your lazy asses and finish this thing?” (We decided that if George could talk, he would cuss now and then.)

I can’t help but feel that that little strip of grass has made our house seem more like home, more inviting, more…normal. Grass grows where families are, where people enjoy their yards and gather together. To me, nothing seems more like summer than the sound of a lawn mower or the whir of a fan in an open window. You don’t hear those often in the desert. And now, my husband can stand out back with the garden hose and water his very own patch of grass, a testosterone-filled ritual that every man seems to enjoy, like barbequing.

In celebration of our new grass, and in honor of the grass lying in your yard that you usually take for granted, let’s join Whitman, and loafe and invite our souls, lean and loafe at our ease, and observe a spear of summer grass. George and I will join you.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Beach Dogs



Dogs live the sweet life, don’t they? Always concerned with their pursuit of pleasure, they exemplify the “appreciate the small stuff” mentality that I crave. But which dogs have the best life of all? Beach dogs.

Sitting on a beach clears my head more than anything else I can think of. I love to go out early before the crowds appear, when it is still quiet and there are more seagulls than people. Something about the raw energy of the waves wipes everything away – the petty stresses of everyday life, the monotony of our daily routines – and makes me prioritize and refocus.

A dog on the beach is almost redundant, the ultimate pleasure-seeker in the ultimate cathartic location. And you can’t help but feel happy watching a dog on the beach. They jump in the waves, roll in the sand, lie in the shade of beach umbrellas. They don’t have stressful lives to forget.

This week a couple down the beach from us brought their boxer and a football. The man and woman threw the ball back and forth, the dog running after it each time, until one of them finally missed and the dog grabbed it in her mouth. She ran probably 50 yards before the man caught her and they both ran back into the water. Later they brought out a white ball just for her, and she swam far out into the waves to retrieve it every time. I wasn’t as relaxed watching this – I never am – I’m always afraid they’ll throw the ball too far and the dog won’t be able to swim back. The dog always looks so helpless, a tiny head holding strong above the rough water, appearing between breaking waves until it can finally stand again, shake off, and chase the ball out again.

In Hawaii a few years ago, I watched a dog play catch with the ocean, unaided by any human. The dog sat on a section of beach that rose higher than the water, creating a slope to the waves. The dog sat atop its little hill, released his ball from his mouth, and it rolled down the sand until the waves brought it back to him again. He did this over and over while I watched from my little area on the sand. Smart dog.

George didn’t get to go to the beach with us this week – instead he stayed at our vet where we were promised by a lady in scrubs that he would get to go outside 6-8 times per day. But a few years ago, we did take George to the beach for a day. We left early in the morning and drove to Laguna, had about six hours and lunch on the beach, had dinner at an outdoor place, then drove home. It was fun seeing George experience the beach. He loved being out and sniffing all the smells, but he could have cared less about the ocean itself. He got his feet wet but didn’t care to get in the waves like other dogs. Maybe we should have demonstrated? George’s favorite part of the day was lying on a beach chair under our umbrella. Of course he didn’t lie on the sand – he wanted the chair. Smart dog.

This week we resume our normal lives, but I hope to keep a bit of the beach vibe with me as long as possible. I’ll print out some vacation photos, wear a seashell necklace, and give George an extra pat on the head as he looks up at me expectantly. After all, he is a beach bum at heart. All dogs are, don’t you think?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Broccoli


When viewing land from the air, trees look like broccoli. And there’s a lot of broccoli in the Midwest, covering huge swatches of land interrupted by occasional rectangles of fields and huge circles of watered crops. Vegas, on the other hand, is just a big populated area surrounded by brown. And while there are trees within the city, they aren’t there naturally - they’re all connected to the water supply by a huge intricate sprinkler system.

In the Midwest, I drive along little bumpy country roads and marvel at the fact that not one of these plants or trees or bushes is hooked up to a sprinkler. And the roads aren’t just lined with weeds – they’re lined with huge groups of orange lilies with huge flowers and lush green foliage. No one had to plant these – they’re here naturally. Naturally.

To get water in the Midwest, you can hook up to the town water supply, or you can tap into a spring or dig a well. When I was a kid, before we got town water, our supply came from the spring far above our house on a hill. When it rained, our water turned muddy. In Vegas, I feel extremely guilty every time I water our plants because I know I am contributing to the draining of the already low Lake Mead. And yet, every plant in Vegas, every palm tree lining those casino entrances, has to be watered by Lake Mead.

When I’m in the Midwest, I drive past greenhouses and plant stands and wish I could go buy some flowers, trees, or bushes for our Vegas home. The plants are varied and vibrant – they just cry out to be taken home and put into the fertile earth where they’ll settle with a contented sigh and happily live their lives with you. In contrast to Vegas where we have to use a pick axe (I’m not kidding) to dig a hole to plant something, Midwestern soil just lies there and invites you to softly dig with a hand spade and add life to your yard. I miss gardens that are supposed to be, plants that want to grow there, and ground that doesn’t fight you with lifeless dirt and rocks. Midwestern gardens don't instill guilt.

Yes, I may be a tree hugger who hates wasting water, but my desire to create an escape in my backyard – a mini Midwestern oasis to remind me of my roots and take me home – will force me to continue to hook up sprinklers and make my husband get out the pick axe. My apologies to Lake Mead and my husband.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Proud to be a Tree Hugger


When I was a kid, I wanted to be a Park Ranger when I grew up. I envisioned myself in deep forest green, protecting wildlife and wandering in the woods. My Ranger Rick magazine was eagerly anticipated each month, and I envied the kids in the ads for summer camps in the national parks. Grizzly Adams was one of my favorite TV shows; who couldn’t love a guy out who lived out in the woods and had a bear for a best friend?

As I got older, my career goals changed, influenced by dance lessons and theatre rehearsals. And I realized in high school that the science classes I would need to save the environment weren’t my strongpoint – I excelled all things creative – a very different path.

Although my job has never been environmentally related, I have retained my love of nature. My husband calls me a tree hugger, a term he jokingly uses as a slam but one I embrace wholeheartedly. Oh, if only the world were full of tree huggers, we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in.

But my purpose for this blog is not to incite anger or to begin a political debate, so I will only generalize my urge to protect the environment. I just hope there are people out there who feel as I do. Does the oil spill in the Gulf make you feel panicked like me? Do you get angry when you see people filling up their grocery carts with plastic bags of food? What about the population increase that is slowly taking over the planet, sucking up its natural resources – the very things we need to survive? Does that worry you?

I believe it should. This isn’t an issue of saving a couple of animals or trying to have a Suzy Sunshine outlook on the world. We have one planet - only one - and I’m afraid that everyone else won’t join in my panic until it’s too late. We need a sense of urgency - for the species of animals that will eventually be gone – for the oceans that are our trash cans – for the wide open spaces that will no longer be.

Sometimes when we walk George at night, my husband points out the fake grass in some of the neighbors’ yards and laughs at me when I say I hate it. And yes, that fake grass is saving water. But the reason I hate it is because for me, it’s a scary omen of our future. Fake grass. Fake trees. Fake animals. And all of these as our only option – not as our choice.

Our planet can only take so much. We humans have to make smart choices now, before it’s too late. And I’m talking about more than just recycling a few cans or using reusable grocery bags – while good, those are just a drop in the bucket. I think we all need to look at the big picture and start to panic a little.

Okay, now I will step off my soapbox.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Still, at 10:35am


I sit in Mountain Crest Park as George runs around sniffing the ground, enjoying the unseasonably cool weather we’ve had. With temps in the 70’s, I wear a light jacket to ward off the cool wind and sit with the sun on my back. The noise of the wind drowns out most of the noise around me, muffles the noise of the city, so that I sit in a frozen, still spot where events happen quietly around me, like a TV with the sound on mute.

Far away across the huge park, a jogger runs silently, bobbing up and down with every step. The tops of cars are visible as they pass to the south, but even they are quiet. Only the faint hum of the distant freeway reveals we are in a city.

Trees rustle and move in the wind around me; so do the doggie disposal bags hanging from the dispenser on the fence. My silhouette’s shadow on the cement shows my hair flying in the breeze.

Birds chirp from the tree by me. The gate of the dog park clanks as someone enters. George grunts as he finds a really special scent. Dog tags jingle as a new dog runs by.

Kids play silently in the faraway playground. Hundreds of houses lie in quiet rows on the foothills to the west, and tall red mountains tower above them, watching. A lone mountaintop, taller than the rest, hangs onto its last blanket of snow.

Only a few miles away, people are furiously working, in offices and factories and buses and casinos. Thousands of tourists are oohing and aahing and losing money in loudly clanging slot machines. Above us all, thundering jets crisscross the sky, heading to the East Coast, or West Coast, or Hawaii, Asia, Europe.

But here, in this moment, all is still.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Misperceptions


I’ve mentioned before that I don’t care for the word “nice.” Part of my reasoning is that niceness often comes with a price. “Nice” isn’t genuine…it is something we often are in spite of how we truly feel underneath. We’re nice to the guy who is rude to us, just to get him to stop. We’re nice to our unfair boss so we won’t get fired. We’re nice nice nice, smile smile smile, fake fake fake.

When I lived in England, I learned that Americans are very different in this respect. We tend to be instantly friendly and nice , immediately welcoming and wonderful, then after we know someone we move on to gossiping and judging. The opposite seemed to be true with my English schoolmates. They were fairly standoffish at first, then after I knew them they were friendly and nice, and it seemed more genuine. Which is better? While I do appreciate American hospitality, I hate the fakeness we’ve all been bred to emote, like toothy, smiling cheerleaders telling a nerd she’s pretty.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe we should be polite, and yes even nice, especially to strangers. We all need to give some positive energy, to put aside the fake crap and give each other the benefit of the doubt.

Those “reserved Englishmen” aren’t actually reserved. They just seem that way to outgoing Americans. Americans’ perceptions don’t make it so. It doesn’t make the judgment true.

The mean teacher you had in high school may have actually been a wonderful, caring, warm person, but at that point in her life was going through a divorce. Does that make her a bad person?

Pride and Prejudice provides an excellent literary illustration of my point.

When someone is mean to me, disappoints me, angers me, or misunderstands me, I tend to withdraw, making me seem quiet, cold, and distant. Does that make me a cold person? To that person, yes. They have no idea that inside I’m hurting. They will go on thinking the worst of me. Does that make their perception of me the truth? It’s true in their world.

We can’t change others’ perceptions of us. Survey a random handful of my acquaintances and I’m sure you’ll get several descriptions of the person I am. Nice, helpful, friendly, reliable, or selfish, cold, rude, disrespectful. I can’t change how they see me. And honestly, I don’t care to.

The trick is not to let other people’s perceptions, or misperceptions, define us. How do we do this? Retreat to the only person who truly knows you: You. Only you know the whole story. That is the only perception that counts. Inside, are you a good person? Are you loving and kind? Only you know the truth. We must find the strength to be satisfied with that knowledge.

So, it’s been a stressful week. And it’s interesting that my last blog post was about handling stress. I think I’ll go re-read it, make a list, and then go to bed. Again.