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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

New Year's UNresolutions (Dec. 30, 2009)

In general I’m not a big believer in New Year’s resolutions. I feel enough pressure to do and be my best every single day of the year. It’s part of the DNA of being a first-born. We put a lot of demands upon ourselves anyway, so why compound the stress by insisting upon yet another goal, simply because December is waning?

At the same time, of course, I recognize that there is some value in making resolutions. Pinpointing a goal is necessary if you want to achieve it, and verbalizing it often provides the commitment to get the ball rolling (or the bod jogging or whatever you intend to do). The new year gives people (me included) a good beginning point, a fresh start, impetus for something they may have been considering for a while.

So will I or won’t I be part of the tidal wave of resolution-makers as January approaches? I will. But it’s not because I feel obligated. My resolutions are ones I think are worthwhile and important. I’m dusting off two resolutions I’ve made in the past, and the fact that they are reruns illustrates just how hard it is to turn resolutions into lasting habits. My two? I want to have better posture and to floss more.

Both seem manageable. Operative word being “SEEM.” It’s wise to make your resolution something that is likely to be achieved rather than some Herculean feat. But there’s wiggle room within my resolutions, and therein lays the trouble. My resolutions may be hard to keep because unlike quitting smoking, which you either do or don’t do, having better posture or doing more flossing leaves room to ignore it on one day, promising yourself that the next day it will be a priority. My life is tiring, and posture often (literally) falls by the wayside because I am tired and hoisting myself up require energy. Flossing suffers the same fate because while I brush my teeth several times a day, flossing only occurs to me seconds before I collapse into bed at night and am too tired to stand up any longer. (Maybe I could floss laying down!)

So we’ll see. I hope that 2010 will be different. My teeth and skeleton hope this year will be different, too. But if the year is swept away by priorities bigger than posture and plaque, there’s always 2011. And maybe that will be the year I resolve not to make any resolutions at all!

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving…Blue Skies and Short Sleeves (Nov. 26, 2009)

It’s Thanksgiving in San Diego again. It’s 75 degrees. Literally. Thanksgiving traditions here? Short sleeves! Maybe a Hawaiian shirt? A little turkey. Isn’t that how it is everywhere?!

Okay, I exaggerate. This week has been unusually warm for us. I really noticed the effect of the heat when I saw blossoms on a plant I’d been watering for months: Black-eyed Susan, pictured above. So vivid against the blue sky. Plants and flowers always remind me of how good life is, how resilient plants are, and how resilient people can be, too.

Resilience helped people live through treacherous boat journey to America before the first Thanksgiving, so it’s fitting that I’m thinking today about the human ability to endure and to keep trying. Today I am thankful for family, friends, health, freedom, laughter. Probably a hundred other things, but these are foremost on my mind. Am I excited about a wonderful meal that many people will contribute to and enjoy? Absolutely. But I’m also glad that we have this day when we pause from the usual busy-ness of our lives and remember how fortunate we are…

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Big Announcement

Here it is. Brace yourself: I may not have anything to say. Yes, my lack of announcement IS my announcement. This may be the first time in 30-some-odd years when I have little to say. (Although are you noticing that I'm using quite a few words, for someone who supposedly has nothing to say? You have a point.)

A friend blogs too, and she recently celebrated a year of blogging. The day she realized she'd posted 131 posts in a year is the day I realized I had exactly 0 posts for the month of October! October was incredibly busy for me, but I was still surprised that I hadn't posted anything that month. Eeek! And it's certainly not a competition regarding who can post the biggest number of blogs. I'll leave the contest to other people. I suppose some months I have a lot to say, and other months I do other things. But even now I feel some pressure inside to make this post Exciting!!!!!! (and I'm not sure that exclamation points alone bring about the desired effect) Maybe I blog only when I'm musing about something in particular.

I'll end this post with a link to a really cute video. This video played a lot on a cable channel for little kids and I loved it so much I hunted it down on YouTube. While the video is intended for kids, the message is one for everyone, and the tune is not babyish. The song is called "Duck 4," although on YouTube you need to click on the title "One Egg Different from the Rest." The lead singer (Leon Thomas) is very talented, and his voice reminds me of Michael Jackson's as a teen. (It seems that everyone who has posted a comment about it on YouTube thinks so, too, so I guess I'm not imagining the comparison!) This song ALWAYS boosts my mood when I'm in a funk, and I thought I'd share the remedy...

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

This Bird’s on Energizer Batteries…It Keeps Growing and Growing

It’s the Autumnal Equinox again, the first day of Fall. One year ago I went ballistic on the backyard Bird of Paradise, cutting down hundreds of her sturdy green stalks. She received her army-regulation crew-cut, and although one couldn’t call it a pretty look, at least the bird wasn’t taking over our yard anymore. I like anniversaries, and today is the 52-week anniversary of the slaying of the bird, so I decided to check in with the bird once more.

On March 20, 2009, the Spring Equinox, I did a 6-month progress check on the bird. She’d grown 30 inches.

Six months later she is well past the 36” mark, as seen in the photo above. Yardsticks don’t lie!
I wrote about the initial taming of the bird, as well as the 6-month progress report. Both can be found under the March section of this blog. The trimming of this bird’s feathers was an exhausting ordeal that involved many different tools and five hours of work as well as some real satisfaction and a few surprise finds. The piece I wrote about it is good for a laugh.

Most plant growth is so gradual that it’s hard to detect, like hair growth or kids’ height growth. But when you consult a photo from 6 or 12 month back, you see the difference. It's incredible to me that with no encouragement (water) whatsoever, this plant has grown more than 3 feet in a year. Amazing? Scary? Both.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Butterfly-Moon-Flower: A Hippie's Paradise (Sept. 7, 2009, Labor Day)

Seemingly overnight, the monarchs appeared. I saw at least twenty over a three-day period. Vibrant, darting through the garden, joyfully flying free. I wondered if it is Monarch Season. As always, the Internet had answers. From

“In all the world, no butterflies migrate like the Monarchs of North America. They travel much farther than all other tropical butterflies, up to three thousand miles. They are the only butterflies to make such a long, two way migration every year.
When the late summer and early fall Monarchs emerge from their pupae, or chrysalides…the fat they have stored in the abdomen is a critical element of their survival for the winter. This fat not only fuels their flight of one to three thousand miles, but must last until the next spring when they begin the flight back north. As they migrate southwards, Monarchs stop to nectar, and they actually gain weight during the trip.”

This intrigued me. Butterflies, the most delicate creatures around, have (and need) fat? Who knew?!
A day or two later I noticed that the Yucca trees around town are in bloom. Another piece of magic from Nature. Plants’ nonverbal, synchronized blooming amazes me, in part because humans have the hardest time coordinating schedules even with the aid of the phone, email, Blackberry, Outlook and wall calendar! Like many plants, the Yucca is full of surprises. The plant and the bloom are a bit incongruous—the Beauty and the Beast of the plant world. Its bark is coarse and grayish, its green leaves spiky, and yet it produces a bouquet of soft, luminous white petals.

A few nights ago on Sept. 4, I enjoyed a third surprise gift from Nature: a full Harvest Moon. It glowed amber yellow against a periwinkle sky, a dramatic contrast. Being eternally curious as well as an Internet junkie, I wanted to know more about the Harvest Moon, so I went online to research. It turns out that the Harvest Moon occurs when the moon is full near the time of the Autumn Equinox. The moon looked bigger to me that night, which is because of the seasonal tilt of the earth.

Some people don’t want to know the science behind Nature’s beauty. Maybe that ruins the magic for them, like magazine photos of celebrities without their makeup. Some people just want to enjoy the view, not bother with the “whys.” That’s not me. When I see something that amazes me I always want to know why and how Nature does what she does. But yes, there are times when it’s just nice to enjoy what you see. Monarchs, Yucca blossoms, and a Harvest Moon are little gifts from Nature, and you don’t have to be a Flower Child to see that.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Eighty Degrees and...Fallish? (Aug. 26, 2009)

Over the last week I’ve noticed that a few rebellious leaves are changing in my neighborhood. Upon first glance, the whole tree looks shamrock-green, but wait. What’s that? A few errant leaves near the center, turning orange around the edges. But it’s eighty degrees out! Yet the trees and my calendar are conspiring to bring on fall. I have mixed feelings. The late-afternoon breeze through the Eucalyptus leaves feels like fall, and I’m enjoying that. But letting go of summer is hard. Summer feels so optimistic: longer, brighter days, fun activities outside, the swaying hammock, a certain relaxed attitude that fall and winter don’t have.

On a very basic level, change can be hard. You must let go of the familiar for something different. This fall in particular brings big changes, so maybe the transition is harder than in other years. My oldest child starts school this year, and I’m a little anxious about the transition…MINE, that is!

I’ve known that fall was coming. The local craft store stocked Halloween stuff on July 5, so I’ve had ample warning. The back-to-school ads started about a week later, so I can’t plead ignorance about what is to come. Yet as Sept. 8 gets closer, school is no longer something distant, a speck on the horizon. Upcoming changes become real.

A few days in, and I’ll be fine. The fun parts of the new season (in the classroom as well as outside of it) will catch me in their excitement and I won’t yearn for summer. But the transition and the last two weeks before the change are hard. Time both races and drags. You want the change to happen immediately or not at all. Waiting is the worst. Let’s not prolong it. Just rip that band-aid off!

Aside from the shorter days, it’s not as if fall is all bad. It’s just the transition that has me a little freaked out. Once over the hump, I’ll enjoy all the things that fall brings: visiting the pumpkin farm where kids climb over a sea of orange as big as a football field. Halloween fun and apples from the orchards east of here. Bright lights on the neighborhood roofs. Even the crazy blur of the holidays.

So bear with me, and I’ll find my enthusiasm for fall. The changing leaves caught me off guard but I’m rallying. One more thing. You didn’t hear it from me, but there are only 121 days until Christmas!

Friday, August 14, 2009

Black Tie or Purple Dye? (Aug. 14, 2009)

Today I had a Tie-Dye Extravaganza!

I dyed seven pieces of clothing (three for me and four for my daughter) and some ankle socks. All purple. Some people aren’t attracted to purple and would never want so many reminders of Barney the Dinosaur in their closet. But I’m not those people! Tie-dye, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways:

1. You’re colorful!
2. You’re expressive!
3. You’re fun and cheerful!
4. You’re vibrant!
5. You’re not too serious-looking.

Tie-dying personalizes your clothes, making them wearable art. One of the best parts about tie-dye is the randomness of the effect. There’s only so much control you have over the outcome and for me, this is half the magic. If you want lines, you’ll need to tie string or rubber bands around your garment to block the dye from covering these areas. You choose the direction of your lines but you can’t completely control the way the fabric bunches as you roll it. The amount of dye that reaches the innermost roll of fabric is left somewhat to chance, so there is an element of surprise when you finally untie your dyed fabric.

The first time I tie-dyed was after eighth grade graduation. Since I was starting a new school a few months later, I decided to dye the white shirt that had been my PE uniform. The effect wasn’t as dramatic as I get now, because back then we didn’t know to use hot water with the dye. The hot water seems to activate the colors better. But still, it was fun and I had my first one-of-a-kind tie-dyed creation.

These days, I still dye things I no longer plan to wear in their original incarnation. Since most of my clothes are colorful and I can’t bleach out the inevitable stains, I sometimes dye my clothes other colors. About once a year I collect the clothes that are too stained to wear, and I either fling fabric paint at them or dye them. Since dye is only a few dollars per color, this is not only an imaginative way to personalize your look, it’s actually a very economical way to bring new life to your wardrobe. If someone gives you something as a gift but it’s not your color, consider dying it to make it more YOU. But not everyone wants a wardrobe of fluorescent spiral patterns. If the white lines that tie-dying produce are too much for you, how about dip-dying? It produces a much more subtle gradation of color.

A few years ago I took to the internet to research how to make clothing keep its brilliant dyed colors. There is evidence of societies using dye in prehistoric times, and across various continents. So it’s nothing new, although many associate tie-dye with 1960s America, when the technique became popular as an anti-establishment movement. Since it is impossible to tie-dye two pieces exactly the same, this technique expressed individualism. It was the embodiment of the growing movement toward freedom in all forms and a response to the conformity of the 1950s. For me, tie-dye is not about being anti-establishment. I am an artist and am attracted to color, pattern and creativity with clothes. So I say: live long, tie-dye!

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Got Milk? (July 4, 2009)

This entry was inspired by cookies, which, let’s face it—are downright inspirational any day of the year! But it’s also July fourth, one of my favorite days, and so here I am, musing about stars, stripes, and baked goods.

July Fourth is a happy day. I’ve loved this holiday for as long as I remember. Although there was the time when I was about ten and I ate WAY too much cheese popcorn during the parade. I’ve never been able to eat it since.

We’re heading out to see fireworks soon. Lately I’ve been busier than ever so July fourth snuck up on me this year. But usually I’m looking forward to this night for weeks. You can’t beat fireworks. They are purely celebratory. There’s no real function behind them, which makes them even more fun. They exist solely to please the viewer. I love the intense colors sparkling against a dark sky. I like the surprise element—you never know what is coming next: which shape the firework will be, which color, which size, etc. And surprises are often fun. Not always, of course. But often, yes.

Today my five-year-old and I made patriotic cookies to bring to friends who have a new baby. I also made them dinner, since they are unwittingly on the Fractured Sleep Program and need a little help in whatever form it arrives. The cookies turned out really cute (although let’s face it, even ugly cookies are delish).

I used a sugar-cookie mix from the store. I’ve made my own dough before but the kind from a mix seems more pliable. I decided to dye part of the dough red, part of it blue, and keep most of it white. Yay, food coloring! I made worms out of the dough (you remember this from grammar school, right? Using clay and making a long snake-shape by rolling it on a flat surface). I chilled the worms and made a few rectangles from the blue dough. The dough needed to be cool enough so that it wouldn’t melt when I started touching it. I lined up white and red “worms” for stripes and fitted them around my blue rectangles. I’d never made flag cookies before but I’ve worked with Fimo clay, and decided to approach it the same way. (Do you know Fimo? People make jewelry and tons of other stuff with it, creating designs by lining up worms of it and cutting cross sections. It’s groovy.)

The flag cookies turned out great, if I may say so! With left-over worms I made a random cookie with a round blue center. It was born of my scraps (which is how some of the best art ideas originate, as you know). It ended up looking a little spider-ish, or more appropriately (I realized later)--like an exploding firework. Also made some star and circle cookies, decorated with red and blue sprinkles, which are like confetti, if you think about it. Both confetti and sprinkles are hard to clean up but are fun and cheerful, so this worked well with our celebratory-July 4-mood.

It’s time to head out to the fireworks so I’ll sign off now. Hope you had a great Fourth. America, I love you!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Time for the Red Gingham Again (July 1, 2009)

Gingham makes me think of my grandparents. They passed away a few years ago, but I feel very lucky to have known them into my thirties. My relationships with them were close emotionally as well as physically, as they lived less than a mile from my parents’ house. We spent every holiday with them including July fourth. Today is July 1, and as the fourth of July approaches again, I’m remembering many barbeques on their patio, in late afternoon sunlight in the beginning of July.

We called my mom’s mom Mimmi (it rhymes with Kimmy). She accepted the name I gave her before age two, and answered to it, even signed it in cards and letters, for the next thirty years. I’m getting misty-eyed thinking about it. That Mimmi accepted my baby name for her and never tried to outgrow it says so much about who she was. Grandad eventually outgrew the name I gave him as a baby (“Ran-daw”) but that was ok. He was a little more reserved that Mimmi was, and their yin-yang balance worked.

Of the two of them Mimmi was the decorator. I assume it was she who got out the holiday decorations each month, so she was probably the one who opened up the gingham table cloth each July fourth. There may have been a blue and white one, possibly vinyl for easy outdoor clean-up. But what really says “Mimmi and July Fourth” to me is a cotton, red-and-white gingham table cloth. Even if I didn’t have a connection between my grandparents and this fabric, I’d still like it. The checkered pattern is so simple, but it just works. The contrast between a bright color and crisp white is cheerful and it makes you feel good. It has a classic look about it. Besides associating it with my grandparents’ picnic table, red and white gingham makes me think of Italian restaurants and vintage clothing, which are also good.

A red and white cotton gingham table cloth is unpretentious. That sums up almost everything I need to say about my grandparents. They were educated and lived in an upscale neighborhood, but they shared an old Volvo station wagon and lived humbly. They may have had a modest approach to life in general, but Mimmi celebrated holidays with full gusto. She decorated the house and patio, and for whatever reasons, I remember her napkins in particular. Sometimes it’s the simple, inexpensive things that make a real impact. Mimmi had festive paper napkins for each holiday. March brought napkins with grinning leprechauns. Napkins with well-fed, feathered turkeys and pilgrims marked November’s arrival. In July there were red striped napkins.

Grandad sometimes wore a chef’s hat while manning the charcoal grill. I think he even had one in red gingham. It’s no wonder I associate that fabric with this holiday. He had his special recipe for barbeque basting. He’d baste the hamburgers with a combination of ketchup, mustard and at least one other top secret ingredient. Flavorful and a little spicy--those burgers were great!

After the annual parade finished, the family gathered on the back patio at my grandparents’ house. The grill is hot. Sun shines through the yucca tree and over the swing set as the wind chimes sing when a breeze floats through. The turquoise picnic table is covered with gingham and so much food that we have to arrange our plates around it all. There are big slices of watermelon, the hamburgers and buns, maybe some hotdogs, drinks, theme napkins and condiments. Grandad puts a big dallop of relish on his burger, and calls it piccalilli. Later the whole town will gather at the high school for a giant fireworks display. I can’t wait. Maybe it’s the fireworks, or just the festive atmosphere in general that make July Fourth my favorite holiday. I’m patriotic. Once, for a high school dance I made myself a dress that was red, white and blue.

I’m thinking of my grandparents a little more this week because July fourth is coming, and I always celebrated it at their house. Although it’s been years since I spent July fourth with my family, I still associate this holiday with my grandparents, and I probably always will. Mimmi and Grandad, I believe you’re in Heaven, where every day is the happiest day imaginable. The fireworks display inside the golden gates must be spectacular. I’ll be watching one on my side of the clouds, and as I gaze up at the bursts of color, I’ll be looking toward both of you. Grandad, you’re probably wearing your chef’s hat at the grill, and Mimmi is getting out the striped napkins and watermelon. That’s my kind of July Fourth.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Nothing To Wear (May 2009)

“I can’t find anything to wear!” I shrieked at my husband. This would not be the first time in history that a woman made this claim. Woman all over America, all over the world, say this daily. If there’s a statistic somewhere, I’d love to see it. It would probably go something like this: Every 1.9 seconds, somewhere in the world a woman can’t find something to wear.

But here’s what makes my proclamation semi-newsworthy: I almost never say this. What makes it more unusual still is that my revelation came before bed, a time when most people don’t care as much about what they wear. Me included. This had nothing to do with style. Here’s how the non-issue of my bedtime wardrobe became something.

I was tired. I wanted to be bed ten minutes ago, and didn’t have the energy or patience to make one more decision that day. Also, I was cold. Standing almost naked at my closet doors, goose bumps dotting my arms, clothing really was an issue. I could not find my PJs or leggings that could provide adequate warmth. Only PJ shorts, which would not do.

Like many women, I despise being cold. I’d rather be dirty, tired, head-achy…almost anything but cold. I’ve been known to sleep in jeans before, if the air was cold enough and I could not bear stripping out of my warm jeans and into some bedtime-designated (but cold) item. On some winter nights I bundle up for bed in PJs, robe, scarf, socks, and yes, knit hat. So you see, warmth at bedtime is a must for me.

At some point after my desperate announcement I must have located my PJs and staggered toward bed. The problem was a one-time issue, and barely worth mentioning. Except for the humor in it (which, naturally, I saw only later, because if you’re a woman prone to being cold, there’s nothing funny about it when you are standing there, shivering.). It struck me afterward that there were many universal themes at work in that moment:

· the woman shivering while her boxer-clad husband made weird eyes at her, saying “I can’t believe you’re cold!”
· the woman claiming she has a closet full of “nothing to wear.”
· the desperation of a tired mom just wanting to get to bed after a day of putting out fires and the cruel irony of not being able to do the only thing left on her list that day: get to bed warm!

On that note I think I’ll say goodnight and leave you with this final thought: If you aren’t warm enough in clothes and bedcovers, but you have someone in the bed with you, latch on to him/her. As I tell the hubby whenever this scenario comes up, he is obligated to share his warmth. It was in our wedding vows, paragraph two, line 12: if I am cold, your warmth can be mine too, but if I’m warm and you’re not, see ya!

Friday, May 22, 2009

All The Pretty Colors (May 2009)

What happened was partly my fault. I guess I was naive in assuming things would not get messy. Perhaps I’m overly optimistic. I’ve been called that, as well as pessimistic, so who knows what the truth is (if there is one truth!). Maybe my level of optimism is circumstantial.

Things started innocently enough. We went upstairs, like always, and got to the serious business of having fun. This is what the Model Railroad Museum is for, after all. The upstairs play room is open only twice a week, and my little boy is always glad when it’s open. The usual toys were out, but there was also something we’d never seen before and my two-year-old bee lined for it. On the craft table were bags of sequins, in various sizes and colors. Since there is no diverting a two-year-old from something she’s already noticed, I opted to let her play with sequins, discussing with her how she must be “very careful, right?” No problem.

I put some sequins in a paper plate and let her carry them to the miniature picnic table. Seems she only wanted to look at them, maybe touch a few. She wasn’t overly interested in paint and there was no glue in sight, so I thought “How crazy could this get? She’ll just admire them.”

Wanting to be Involved Mom, I bypassed the row of vinyl-covered chairs lining the edge of the room and sat with my son on the carpet, helping him to construct a train track for the wooden trains. Well, helping might not be the right word. He makes the most imaginative train track configurations I’ve ever seen, and certainly doesn’t need my help. But I wanted to be involved, so if he didn’t need my help, he did have my company. A few minutes later I look up to see how Sequin Girl was doing.

Let’s just say that the hundreds (yes, hundreds) of sequins that formerly had been on the plate were now on the mini picnic table, stuck to my daughter, and mostly on the carpet. I began sweeping, scooping, picking and shoveling them up, alternating techniques as each one proved only slightly effective. Not the most fun part of my day, but then again, moms often do repetitive tasks. It kind of goes with the job. (It reminded me of a brief interaction I had in an elevator last month, when I joked with a man from Wisconsin about “the glamorous life of a mom,” as I scraped my daughter’s abandoned cheese off the carpeted elevator floor.)

Finally, most of the sequins were up and I asked the lady who works upstairs if she wanted me to vacuum the random stragglers. She said no, which didn’t entirely disappoint me (but I would have done it). We were saved from further episodes of Sequins Gone Wrong by the only phrase that could entice my son away from that room. It came from my daughter, and we took it seriously. “Poo Poo.”

Ahhh, the glamorous life of a mom…

Friday, April 24, 2009

Expando-Nest (April 24, 2009)

I’m back to babble about our hummingbirds again. (In case you haven’t read my other two blog pieces on them, there are two baby hummingbirds outside our back door, and I’ve been obsessed with them since the moment I discovered the eggs four weeks ago.) I just can’t help it. I’ve been captivated by these birds because I’ve never before seen hummingbirds hatch and grow. Adding to the intrigue is the fact that the birds double in size in a matter of days, so the rate of change is very different from that of humans. That difference has me spellbound.

A few minutes ago I took this photo of the birds. There are two of them stuffed into the nest, and they barely fit. No wonder Mama has to make a nest that can expand. On their first day the birds looked like grey cotton balls with beaks. But now they look like mature hummingbirds, even though they are only thirteen days old. It’s incredible how much they have grown and changed since the first day I saw them. The birds are almost the size of the mama hummingbird now. (See photo from two blogs ago.) Wow.

According to what I read online about hummingbirds, at about three weeks old they will start testing their wings and will fly away. That’s in about a week. I’ll be sad not to see them anymore, not to be able to peek at our tiniest residents any time I want. But I’ll try to appreciate my brief time with them as a small present packed with gusto. My brief time with the birds is a lot like the hummingbird in flight. You have to watch closely and appreciate the experience for the second or two you see them, because in the next moment then they are off in a blur of color and energy, spinning through the sky toward the next flower.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Basket of Birds (April 12, 2009)

(Try double-clicking on this photo to see a larger version.)

Today was Easter. Yesterday’s gray skies and drizzle gave way to a warm, sunshiney day today—very fitting for a day about renewal. Everywhere I looked, there were signs of Spring happiness: kids hunting for Easter Eggs, flowers blooming like crazy, birds chattering. After returning from the park this afternoon, I caught sight of the hummingbird’s nest in our back yard. I’d first spotted it about two weeks ago and I’ve been obsessed with it ever since. And who could blame me? Birth and new life are inherently exciting. The magic grows tenfold when the expectant mommy is a hummingbird—a creature so small and yet so fast, elusive and mysterious. For the hundredth time since discovering her nest, I peeked at it, wondering if the mama would be perched atop the two eggs, or if she was out shopping for fresh dinner fixings. Mama was gone, but something about the nest looked a little different. Something tiny was poking out the top of the nest. Was I imagining it? I had to find out.

Standing atop a kitchen chair, careful not to touch the nest, I moved leaves aside. I tried to take a photo of the birds, while maintaining balance and holding the leaves out of the way. My usual juggling act. Yes, there were two tiny somethings in the nest. It looked like a puff of gray fluff, but upon closer examination, I could make out two beaks, and still-shut eyes. Adult hummingbirds are small, but you haven’t seen small until you peer at newborn hummingbirds. These tiny babies must be smaller than a marble, and each weighs only a third of what a US dime weighs! Seeing them was simply amazing.

It’s been a long time since my Easters have involved true surprise, the way kids experience Easter, hunting around their homes for a basket of goodies from the Easter Bunny. So to discover today that the soft basket of eggs in our vine had turned into a basket of baby birds was a very thrilling Easter surprise. They may have hatched yesterday (who knows?), but I saw them for the first time today, on Easter, a day about life, hope and celebration. Yep, that works.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

An Itsy-Bitsy Hummingbird Present (March 31, 2009)

The hummingbird is the smallest adult bird that I know. Its bright eye is a grain of rice. Its beak is as narrow as a needle. Although it is small, it is fast. Or is it the other way around? Is it fast because of its size, its speed a survival tool? Either way, the hummingbird is fascinating. I have first-hand observations as well as unanswered questions about this animal because of what I discovered yesterday. A tiny bird has built an equally small nest a few feet from our back door.

For about a week, every time I went out our back door, I heard ZZZZzzzoooooooommMM! The first few times it scared me. After a while I must have subconsciously expected it, and no longer was startled. The noise was the very rapid departure of what looked like a hummingbird-sized blur and I wondered why it was spending so much time in the Jasmine vine near our back door. I didn’t see a logical spot for a nest, and peering through the leaves, I saw no evidence of one. Until yesterday.

For the fiftieth time in a week, I went out my back door on the way to the garage door, walking right by the vine. Once again, a bird races away. I decide I will look once more for a nest. Obviously, I won’t touch it, as the bird will abandon her nest if it has been touched by humans. But I’m so curious. I must see!

Sure enough, at about my eye level there is a small nest, the size of half a chicken’s egg. It’s tightly-woven, unlike some of the larger nests I have seen, which are loosely-built of twigs. This one seems much softer. I think the bird has used some of our dryer lint, which the hubby kept near a woodpile in case we feel inspired to build a fire. Since tomorrow is April 1 and the air is warm, fire-building nights are unlikely anytime soon. I say: Bird, have at it. The lint is yours. From my perch atop a chair, I see two tiny eggs inside, the size of Jordan almonds.

I’m no expert on the nest-building requirements of hummingbirds, but it seems to me that a vine near someone’s backdoor is not the ideal spot for a nest. Didn’t the bird do her research? Didn’t she see that we walk past that vine about twenty times a day? Surely there was a more remote spot for her eggs.

This year I’ve seen more hummingbirds in our yard than ever before in the five years we’ve lived here. They love the orange flowers in our yard. Still, after five years with no apparent hummingbird residents, I’m surprised and thrilled to have a mommy and her nest.

The internet provided information beyond my own observations. My search led me to Worldof, which is an excellent site full of information. Apparently there are at least 356 different types of species of hummingbirds! I believe our bird tenant is an Allen’s Hummingbird, which spends summers in California (where we live), and does not have unusual coloring, like a ruby-throat or purple cap (which ours does not have). Apparently all hummingbirds share certain characteristics. I was most interested in nest and egg information.

Hummingbirds make small, cup-shaped nests, decorating the outside walls of their nests with lichens and mosses. For insulation, the mother lines the inside of the nest with soft materials such as feathers, animal hair and dryer lint. Spider webs are used as glue, allowing the nest to stretch as the babies grow.

The hummingbird eggs will remain in the nest incubating for approximately 16-18 days before they hatch. Once hatched, the babies will weigh approximately 0.62 grams, one-third the weight of a United States Dime. They are about one inch long and cannot regulate their own body heat. Their beaks are short, stubby, and yellow. The mom will feed the babies approximately every twenty minutes. Within a couple of days, the size of the baby hummingbirds will almost double.
At three weeks of age, the little baby hummingbirds will more like a real hummingbirds. They test out their wings more and more in preparation for flight. In the next few days, these little baby hummingbirds will fly away as real adult hummingbirds.

Discovering the nest has added to my exuberance for spring (which was already major). Amazing how such a tiny thing, a hummingbird, in her itsy-bitsy home, caring for two teensy-tiny eggs, can bring such huge excitement. I’ll keep you posted on the eggs. I can’t wait ‘til they hatch!!!!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Ten Thousand and Counting (March 25, 2009)

Things that happen by chance sometimes have a big impact. Eight months ago I picked up the Union-Tribune and read an article that moved me to get my scissors, cut it out, find a website, and send an email. The funny thing is, I’m not a regular reader of the paper, so reading this particular article was chance. But it moved me so much that I vowed to learn more about an organization that was also born out of a chance occurrence.

Thirteen years ago a young woman named Jenna Druck was overseas with a friend. They were on a bus and Jenna noticed a girl crying in the back so she left her seat and went to comfort the girl. When the bus crashed, Jenna’s friend survived but because Jenna had left her seat to help the girl, Jenna died.

The article didn’t tell the story of Jenna’s bus crash. I heard that story from Jenna’s dad, Dr. Druck (“call me Ken”). The article chronicled the first annual conference given for pre-teen girls, sponsored by the Jenna Druck Foundation. The foundation was started to honor Jenna Druck, to bring her gusto to countless girls, to help transform their lives. I clipped that article, knowing that I wanted to participate. About a month ago I attended an evening information session about the foundation and the conference. I rarely do things at night because I’m so worn out after taking care of my 2- and 5-year old. But I made a point to go to that meeting. The foundation seemed like a great match for what I’d been looking for: an opportunity to give back. A chance to bolster the sometimes fragile self-esteem of young women. A way to help others find happiness without having to take all the paths I tried before finding it inside.

On Saturday, March 21, I volunteered at the twelfth annual Spirit of Leadership Conference for teen-aged girls. That morning I woke in the dark, even before my 5:45am alarm could ring. I was ready for this day.

Three hundred girls were registered to attend the Spirit of Leadership Conference at Marina Village. Adults had nominated them as girls with leadership potential, girls who would flourish with some nurturing and the right mix of challenge and self-acceptance. We arrived at seven and began setting up in the cold gray air. By 8 am I was tucked behind a registration table as the girls began to arrive, walking through an arch of balloons, down a red carpet, and into the meeting hall. There were girls of every race, size and style, and I only mention the physical because it was refreshing and exciting to see the variety in the girls. This was not a day intended to be about looks. This day could be an escape from the daily pressure to look a certain way, a reprieve from being aware of what boys think. The program’s goal is to develop girls’ minds and talents. This day was about being who you are and saying what you think. A family had come all the way from Palm Springs to bring their daughter. One volunteer drove from her college a hundred miles away to give back to the program she attended four years ago.

The girls gathered at tables for ten. At each table sat a mentor, a woman who had applied to share her story with the girls over lunch. The day began with a welcome, and a Keynote Speaker, Maria Reyes, from Freedom Writers. She told her own story of being a 3rd generation gang member, of teachers who told her she would never amount to anything. But there was one teacher who would not give up on her, even though Maria did not yet trust the teacher’s kindness. The story was about the difference one person can make in the life of a young person who doesn’t have enough support or resources, who does not believe in herself. A group of volunteers clustered around the door to the meeting hall, listening to her speak, holding our breath. When it was time for our next assignment we didn’t want to leave the doorway. We wanted to hear more. Her story was so compelling, her voice so passionate, almost yelling at times, then easing the mood with a humorous note. It’s amazing when one woman’s story touches everyone in the room, despite age, racial, and economic differences. But it did. That’s what the conference was about: finding common threads among us all, messages that speak to each of us.

After the morning session the girls attended two one-hour Break-Out Sessions. These were group workshops facilitated by life coaches, authors, business women, professional speakers and counselors: women who have a message about self-confidence and success for girls.

At lunch time the sun finally broke through the clouds as the girls helped themselves to a buffet from Souplantation. They ate at the tables, talking with their mentors and one another. I heard a lot of laughter and saw a lot of smiles. One volunteer suggested that the girls clear their own lunch plates, but the day was about honoring the girls and the plan was that we would clear the tables so they could continue listening to the speaker. They were appreciative and had excellent manners. I didn’t mind taking their plates. Ken helped, too. He is all about celebrating girls.

In the afternoon Tami Walsh spoke to the girls. She is a San Diego-based life coach for teen girls, and she was terrific. She is energetic, funny and youthful, the perfect bridge between teens who can’t relate to their parents, and concerned parents who can’t reach their kids. After an ice-breaker game, some of the girls stood to tell everyone funny or inspiring things they had learned about others at their table. One girl said her mentor inspired her because she was undaunted by those who told her she would not make it. She took many odd jobs to make finance her college education (including “scraping possum fat. Gross!”).

There was afternoon entertainment provided by a local Stomp-style band of young men making music with trash cans. The girls danced and let loose for a while before an afternoon session with Tami and Leanne Tibiatowski, from the foundation, and a message from Ken Druck.

I was there to support young women, but I received something immeasurable, too. Seeing the openness in these girls’ faces brings me back to my high school years. I still think and even dream about high school, sifting through my memories, trying to make peace with the ones that still hold pain. Being around teen-aged girls seems to be a piece of my own healing and growth. As Ken wrote in an open letter to the girls attending the conference, it will take a while for the conference’s messages to sink in and take root. The same applies to those of us who volunteered. Just because we’ve graduated from our teen years does not mean that we have it all figured out. Although I was there to help the girls, participating in a program like this teaches and nurtures me, too.

Back at home that night, I told the hubby about the day, sharing funny stories and meaningful messages. I was very tired, but so glad I’d participated. The next day my feet hurt and I was uncharacteristically sluggish. Outside, rain came down. What luck, I thought. The rain did not come during the conference, which was both indoors and outdoors. Ken writes in the conference’s program that “this day is designed to ignite your spirit, shape your dreams, bring out the highest and best in you and connect you to an amazing group of young women from all over San Diego County.” It did that, and more. So far, the Jenna Druck Foundation’s Young Women’s Leadership Program has helped more than ten thousand young women and girls to see their own possibilities. You GO, girls!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin’s Cousin—the Two Dollar Bill (March 3, 2009)

Oftentimes I write about the random, every day things I notice. Today’s topic won’t change your life but it’s something to think about: two-dollar bills. The last time I thought about a 2-dollar bill may have been more than twenty years ago, when my dad gave my sister one of them. I hadn’t even known they existed. Today I had an unexpected reunion with the 2-dollar bill, and the questions added up: Why were they created? Why were there so few printed? Had they been discontinued?

My curiosity about this rare bird began at the recycling center near my house. A few months ago I brought what I thought was a lot of glass, plastic and aluminum cans to the recycling center. Fifteen minutes later I emerged with $5 and change, not the killing I’d imagined. Still, recycling takes almost no effort to do, and I decided to see how much money I could earn taking it in myself for a year.

Today’s recycling earnings totaled $6.29. To my surprise, the woman dispensing my fortune handed me three two-dollar bills. All three were perfectly crisp, without a single crease. They had the words “2003 series” on them, making them 6 years old, yet seemingly brand-new. I had a 2004 series 1-dollar bill in my wallet that had been folded, crumpled, and traded enough times to render it velvety soft. Had these 2-dollar bills been sitting somewhere safe for six years, away from people, air, traffic, and contamination of any kind? Had Bernie Madoff had them in an airtight vault in his Manhatten apartment? Did they line the shelves of cabinets he never used? Why were the ones I received today so fresh and unlined, so… UNused?

The contrast of the scene fascinated me: receiving pristine, new bills at a recycling center, where the air smells of old beer, where aged, used, sticky bottles and cans fill cavernous dumpsters. I liked the incongruence of getting a very rare bill at a place where you trade in something very common. Recycling places are where old bottles and cans are traded for money, both of which will circulate again and again. Recycled items and money have unknown histories and will have many lives, whereas these unused two-dollar bills seemed to have no past.

I went online in hopes of answering this question: how rare is a 2-dollar bill compared to the ubiquitous 1-dollar bill? I need money, I spend it almost every day, but I know very little about the whys and hows of its printing. Here are a few facts many of us probably did not know:

US currency bills are printed by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP), which prints more than 16 million one-dollar bills each day. Most of these are used to replace worn, older bills, which are shredded. According to the US Treasury, there are billions of one-dollar bills in circulation.

On average, a dollar bill has a life span of 18-22 months, whereas coins have an average life span of 25 years. No wonder the Treasury keeps pushing to popularize the one-dollar coin.

Two-dollar bills were printed in 1976 and again in 2003, when 121,600,000 were printed. As of April 30, 2007 there were more than $1.5 billion worth of $2 bills in circulation worldwide. Most stores do not carry them because their cash registers don’t have a spot for them, but you can request them at your bank.

Although 2-dollar bills are relatively rare, they are still worth only $2.

Now I know a bit more about this unusual bill. Does this information change my life? No. But my brain is always working on something, always curious, and I like discovery. At a nondescript recycling center I brought old cans and formed new questions in my mind. It was fun for me to answer my own questions, and it’s another example that learning opportunities are everywhere, tucked into the most unlikely places.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Birds are Back to Attack (March 20, 2009)

San Diego, CA. 58 degrees. Gray skies. Cold.

It’s the first day of Spring today, and ironically, also the first cold, gray day here in a while. Six months ago I marked today’s date on my calendar. I wanted to be sure that I checked back in with my beautiful enemy today. You know who I mean (no, not Angelina Jolie): our backyard Bird of Paradise plant.

Six months ago today the bird and I fought a messy battle. It was coincidence that I cut down the bird on the Autumn Solstice, but in retrospect it seemed significant because the solstice marks the end of an old phase the beginning of a new one. That was a warm September day, and it took five hours to cut down hundreds of stalks, load them into the wheel barrow and into Hubby’s truck bed. At the computer that afternoon, after I’d taken the bird down, my fingers twitched and my arms ached but nevertheless I had to write about the battle.

Today, six months later, it is cold, but the birds were out in their spring finery as I took their photo. There are currently eight flowers on this plant (two are a double-headed beauty on one stalk). She is about 30 inches tall, with no watering help from me.

If you heard about the battle six months ago, you know it was no easy feat taking her down. She’s gorgeous and it’s not that I didn’t like her. But she’d been there long before we moved in (maybe as many as twenty years), bullying the nearby plants for turf, and winning every time. She had a monopoly on the back yard real estate and it was time to even things up a little.

At the time I did not have my blog yet, so today I’ll post the essay from six months ago. I entitled it “Flipping the Bird,” and I’ll include a photo from that fateful day, as evidence of her growth in six months. All I really wanted was to get the plant to a manageable size. I’ll let her grow again but this time I’m keeping an eye on her. Give that girl and inch, and well, you know…

Flipping the Bird (Sept. 21, 2008)

Today is the Autumnal Equinox, the official border between summer and fall. The blur of my summer is filled with piles and heaps of yard work. Today I conquered every gardener’s worst nightmare, and although my forearms are so sore it’s hard to type, I must tell my tale, and perhaps save others from the battle I waged.

I spent the summer wrestling my back yard, literally an endless project. As soon as you’ve pruned or weeded something, water and sun conspire to grow more that soon will need pruning and weeding. If nature is a cycle of life, backyards are a cycle of work with no end. But I love plants and don’t want a cement-scape for a yard, so I accept that weeds will come, leaves will fall, and eventually I will have to deal with them. I’d avoided even looking at a certain overgrown plant for months, too intimidated by the thought of trimming it. But eventually Operation Ignore Big Plants no longer cut it.

It’s not that I want a perfectly manicured back yard. That look is too controlled for me, too UNnatural. After all, plants grow wildly, unpredictably, not in the lollypop shapes you see at Disneyland. But our backyard jungle bears no resemblance to the sculpted hedges at the happiest place on earth. No, our yard is sometimes the NAPPIEST place on earth. At attempt to create a little more order was…in order, and long overdue.

Today’s mission: Slaying the Bird. This beast is a 25-year-old Bird of Paradise plant. We’ve enjoyed the trees and plants that our house’s previous owners planted. At first I liked the Bird of Paradise, and why not? They’re colorful, graceful, and thrive with no water. BUT, lesson learned: if something thrives with no water, it clearly is durable, and trimming it is like hacking at rebar. The only thing breaking is YOU. But the plant was encroaching on the other trees, overtaking the yard, so I plowed on.

My first tool of choice was hand-held clippers. Effective but slow-going, so it was back to the arsenal of tools. Machete. No dice. Sharper machete. No luck. The Electric-powered “saws all” was as effective as hacking through the Amazon with a plastic butter knife. Back to the clippers. I literally clipped thousands of times. I cut hundreds of stalks multiples times because the stalks were so dense I couldn’t get the clippers to the root. I’d cut off the first 3 feet all over before I could get close enough to give the whole thing its military recruit hair cut. It has a flat top now, but like hair, this beast will need another hacking before long.

Surprises lay buried beneath the bird. I found a border of bricks, long ago concealed by the plant itself. A large metal tomato plant cone was tangled among the leaves. A small china plate, remarkably intact, lay at the base. I imagined the stories behind these surprises. Was the plate set aside for just a minute during a patio birthday party, then forgotten for twenty years?

I filled our wheelbarrow ten times, emptying twenty year’s worth of leaves and stalks into my husband’s truck bed. It was so full I had to climb onto the bumper, jump up for momentum, then shove the lid down to close it! I took photos of the full truck bed and the flat-topped Bird and raced to the computer to document my efforts. It took five hours to take this beast down. I wanted to tell everyone I knew how mighty I am. My husband (wisely) agreed with me.

I’m proud of my victory over the bird. The whole yard looks more open, cleaner. But after one improvement is made, everything else looks even worse! For instance: the 50-year-old fences, which are literally falling at our feet, begging us for rehab. One neighbor replaced the mutual fence after I spent hours cutting tree branches and clearing weeds to clear space. In two days a new 6-foot fence stood proudly, making the whole yard look better...until you see the other fence, which now look even worse! And now that the bird has been tamed I see thousands of dry leaves. I dread the very idea…The lesson is: don’t make improvements! Once you fix something, you will be caught in an endless cycle of “what else looks terrible now?”

Another moral of my story: avoid the bird. Run from it when it beckons you from Home Depot’s Garden section. Ignore its seductive whisper, its promise that it won’t grow into the plant beast from Little Shop of Horrors. Today it’s a few stalks and glossy leaves. Twenty years from now you will need dynamite to remove it. Do not give in to its temptation, lest you meet the fate I met on the weekend of the autumnal equinox. There isn’t enough space on your property for you both: either the bird goes or you do, and either way, it isn’t pretty!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Scare in the Suburbs (March 17, 2009)

Today I took the hammock out of the garage after its winter hibernation. I lay on it and marveled at how the leaves on the trees above had literally doubled since yesterday. The sun shone down and I sighed contentedly. Spring makes me happy.

A short time later I was talking to my husband on the phone when, in the course of two minutes, a cluster of events changed the flavor of my day. Our toddler began screaming so I ended the call and put my cell phone in my pocket. The baby was fine but needed a diaper change. It was a very dirty diaper so I decided to take it to the trashcan outside before calling my husband back. I’d taken about six steps out the door when I stopped and looked back. I saw IT immediately. The snake was about 16 inches long, it was perfectly still, and it was looking right at me. This seemed like a good moment to call the hubby back. “A SNAKE!!!!! What do I do??!!! It’s not coiled, but what if it strikes?!! What do rattlesnakes look like?” is how Part Two of our chat began. I am not good with snakes, even the kind behind a solid pane of glass at the zoo. I’ve only seen two other snakes up close before, ever. I’m a novice.

The hubby didn’t share my attitude about the invader. In fact, his exact response to my breathless panic was “Wow. Cool. I’ve never seen a snake near our house.” Easy for him to be intrigued—he’s 17 miles away from the killer snake. Was it a rattler? He said they are brownish and have a diamond pattern on their bodies. This snake was brownish and had stripes. But what if they were actually diamonds? I was not eager to get closer to examine the pattern. What if the stripes were the precursor to diamonds? Many animals change as they grow, I reasoned. The hubby recommended I toss a rock near it to scare it off. No good. The snake would probably come right at me, since the house and the garage limited the snake’s escape routes to two directions. Hubby suggested turning the hose on it to scare it away. No thanks. I don’t want it going away and finding another hiding place so that it can scare me all over again. I said I’d call him back once I figured out my strategy. The good news: the kids were in the house with the screen doors shut, so if the snake did escape from my view, it couldn’t get to the kids. The bad news: the snake pretty much lay in my path to the front door. I envisioned running for it, leaping across the sidewalk near the snake, then envisioned its jaws lunging for my legs. Clearly, Plan B was the way to go.

Plan B involved getting to the back door. This would have been easy-peasy a few months ago, because the only thing separating our yard from our neighbors was an old, termite-tunneled four-foot fence that I could have climbed or even pushed down. But last year hubby put up sturdy new six-foot fences. My escape would hinge upon my ability to scale that fence. At my disposal were one large trash can with lid (on one side of the fence) and one large composter with lid (on the other side of the fence). I climbed the trash can, then the fence, touched down on the composter and made it to the safety of my back yard. Time to check on the kids. They were fine. Next I grabbed my camera and climbed our fort ladder. It’s built up against the back of the garage, giving me the perfect path to the roof. I crept across the roof and peered over the edge. The snake had not moved so I zoomed the camera’s lens in on it, then snapped a photo of my escape route.

Back in the house, my pounding heart gradually slowed. I felt safe. Ish. But I pondered why I was always the one having to battle wild beasts in the name of my family’s safety. There were the rats in the composter. Then last year I discovered black widow spiders and their egg sacks. I killed at least 10 spiders in about 5 months and burnt the egg sacks. Since hubby was at work, for the safety of my kids I had to get rid of these spiders. My skin crawled but I felt brave and proud.

But snakes? This was too much. I got onto the internet, determined to know whether the trespasser was a rattler. I learned that some rattlers have diamond patterns but some have stripes. This could be a baby rattler! Shivers raced up my spine as I realized how close to danger I’d come. I’d already downloaded the photo of our snake, and I clicked the mouse to get a look at his striping again. Yep, it looked a lot like some of those rattlers. Except…wait…in the shadows, nearly hidden by leaves…what was that? Were they…legs? Yes, upon closer examination I realized ruefully that the snake had two front and two hind legs, tucked parallel with its body, barely visible. I phoned my husband back one last time, reporting the snake’s legs. Hubby laughed, and I did too. It seems my dramatic fence-scaling escape was all because of a very long lizard. I’ve seen plenty of lizards before and I’m not scared of them, but I’ve never seen one that was 16” long, hiding its legs, masquerading as a snake. From nose to hind legs it was about 6” long, with a tail that was at least 10”. I felt a little let down, but mostly relieved. So although today’s adventure was a false alarm, I say it’s never wrong to take the safe route when it comes to snakes. Climb trash cans, composters and garages if you need to.

It’s an hour later now and I’m still a little keyed-up from all this. Maybe a rest in the hammock is in order. Of course, I’ve had enough encounters with wild animals outside today. So for now, the hammock is in my living room, with the doors locked, just in case!

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Spring Sings (March 1, 2009)

Two weeks ago I took photos of the first buds on our fruit trees. This photo shows a tree about a week after budding. There was a heat wave in San Diego this January and February and the trees are blooming early. Today will be 80 degrees, which is unusually warm for March 1, even in San Diego. The days are getting longer and warmer. Yesterday we drove with the windows open. Spring is amazing, obviously. I know this, I expect this, but still, every year, it blows me away how quickly things come to life this time of year. Although I don’t live where it snows, the changes in my yard are still major. My succulents are blooming, and the lilies and clivia have flowers. Plants I’d thought were gone forever are waking up. In a strip mall yesterday I saw hundreds of hibiscus buds, waiting to open. Humming birds zoom through my yard, darting among the orange flowers they love. About three weeks ago I saw the first few patches of orange and purple flowers blooming on the sides of the freeway. When I lived in an apartment and had no garden, I marked the change in season by the freeway flowers’ blooming. Roadways may be mundane and unaesthetic, gray slabs of concrete, but when spring comes even the freeways seem happier, edged now with brilliant shocks of color. In my own yard, I notice new growth every day, marveling at how many tiny purple leaves have sprung up. This season is pure joy. Spring’s coming, baby.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

How'd You Do That? (February 2009)

Do you know anyone who has gotten her earring snagged on a clipboard? You do now. Yes, once again, I have garnered the prize in the category of silliest injury. It’s not the first time I’ve managed to hurt myself in unlikely ways. Remember the seatbelt incident a few years back? But I digress, and you are curious. You want details. It’s a short story, but one worth telling because it is so ridiculous. I don’t wear much jewelry. I go through my phases with earrings, but for a few years I just haven’t wanted stuff weighing heavily on my body. Plus, I have young, grabby kids. But the hubby gave me a pair of small, pretty earrings, thinking there’s no way our toddler would grab them. Who knows whether she’ll try, but she won’t be the cause of my first injury with these earrings. I’ve had them four days, and today is the second day wearing them. While lifting several things out of my car, I managed to hook the hole at the top of my clipboard around my earring. It pulled and I disentangled myself, thinking “Yet another strange Sarah injury.” When you consider the small size of the earring, a sixth of an inch across, it’s pretty crazy that I managed to snag my clipboard on it, but slim odds and Sarah have made acquaintance before. Moral of the story? No more clip boards with holes. Either that, or get myself one of those plastic cones that dogs wear around their heads so they can’t hurt themselves. Apparently I’m a risk to my own health!

Saturday, January 31, 2009

No, I Can't Gopher That (Jan. 2009)

We have a new arrival. A gopher has adopted us. He didn’t follow me home. He just showed up. Up, literally, from underground. Out back one afternoon I heard a rustle-scratch-rustle sound in the same spot I’d heard it a few days before. The first time I’d heard the noise and seen weeds moving, I’d investigated by (bravely) poking the spot with a long stick, but my research had yielded no scientific findings. This time, the rustling was followed a few minutes later by some dirt being pushed up nearby. I had never seen a gopher. Were they big? Were they violent if provoked? Likely to bite ankles (specifically, mine)? Not having these answers, I kept a bit of a distance, but curiosity drew me closer as the creature made several tunnels underground, pushing up dirt. Eventually, we saw his head, cute and hamster-like. And then, without warning, he was gone. We never saw him again.

Well, that’s not true. We saw him the next year (which was a few weeks later, when the chill of December vanished and January came blowing in at 70 degrees). I think it’s the same gopher. Not sure I could have picked him out of a lineup of gophers, but let’s assume it’s the same one. We saw the telltale dirt piles first. Then, a few days later we were outside and my son said, “Mommy! Gopher!” Indeed, there he was, popping his head up as he pushed dirt away to create another tunnel. I ran for my camera (which, even as I type this, sounds a little lame. But hey, I don’t have any gopher photos, and when it’s in your own yard, it’s oddly exciting!). I got a lot of photos of dirt, since the gopher didn’t seem to understand my photographer lingo, words of encouragement like “NOW! No, NOW! Come on! Please? I have my camera!” Finally I got a few photos of his head. Mission Accomplished.

It’s been a week. We haven’t seen him since and I’ve wondered why. Are gophers shy? Anti-social? And why do they make so many tunnels? From my brief observation, I think they are wily: it’s hard to predict when and where you’ll see one. We haven’t started a full-fledged campaign to get him out. Right now his surprise appearances are more intriguing than anything else. (In a voice-over using an English accent: “One never really knows the elusive gopher. He tunnels his way underground in search of food and safety, but is content to remain an enigma.”)

Why aren’t there more films about gophers? The Caddyshack movies are the only ones I can think of. Maybe we need more. After all, there are multiple movies about Beethoven the dog (I was shocked to find there were at least 5, and not interested enough to pinpoint the number). Perhaps the focus groups indicated that Americans are not likely to go to a theater to watch gopher films. Another film about man’s best friend? Sure. But a movie about man’s peskiest backyard creature? Guess not. Would I go see it? Nah, I can’t go for that.

What's Next? No, Wait. I Don't Want to Know (Jan. 2009)

The toy designers have reached a new low. Now, I’m not one to weigh down a soapbox to rant about any old thing. I’d like to think I rant when the point warrants it. So indulge me. At 7 one morning in mid-December I walked the aisles at Toys R Us to get some ideas for what my son might want Santa to bring. Field research, to help St. Nick. Despite the fluorescent lights above, I was not completely awake. I’m usually up by seven, but not dressed and in a toy store, stuck within a maze of 10-foot-high aisles of toys, stretching as far as the wallet could see. I made it past the inflatable jumpees, bypassed clothes and bikes, and had located the section where the Thomas the Tank Engine loot lay. My eyes scanned the display racks nearby, and it was then that I saw IT. Was I seeing things, given the early hour? No. A second look confirmed that I was not dreaming. I got out my ever-present camera.

The toy in question is small and portable, so your child will never be without it. It can come with you in the car, to the park, in the crib or bed, in the bathroom, on play dates. Anywhere and everywhere. It will never be far. It’s a child-size ATM. (Shudder.)

I took a photo of the one for girls. Yes, the designers have ensured that the maximum number of kids will want this, by designing a pink-on-pink one for girls, and a silver-on-gray one for boys. Here is their sassy sales pitch: “Just like the real thing, this Pink Zillionz Deluxe ATM from Summit Products is so advanced it even knows your name.” Wonderful. Not only will it encourage an obsession with money, it also is now on a friendly, first-name basis with the child!

Having documented the existence of this toy, I moved on. After all, it was mid-December and therefore I was in semi-crisis mode. Each day that passed added to the pressure to get EVERYTHING ready for Dec. 25. I had other things to do besides stare at pink ATMs.

Fast-forward. It’s now late January and my life has returned to its usual chaotic pace, thus allowing me to tackle unfinished business, like fuming over pint-sized ATM machines. It just made me mad. Young children have enough trouble understanding that money doesn’t grow on trees, that they can’t have everything they see. Putting them in front of a plastic box that spews “money” out as fast as they can push buttons? That’s helpful.

But being the ace-wanna-be-reporter that I am, I did some research. I needed to know more before solidifying my condemnation of this toy. First I learned that there are many toys out there like this. Not only is there a Hello Kitty ATM, there’s also a Barbie ATM (pink, what a shock), and a myriad of generic ones. The one I’d seen in person actually takes real money, not Monopoly-style fake bills. It’s a bank, storing money inside until the child elects to withdraw an amount. The online parent reviews ranged from complaints about the cheap quality to enthusiasm about fostering an interest in math and investing. So perhaps I reacted too quickly. Seems there is some good to this toy, after all. Guess it’s time for me to eat some humble pie. I’ll even pay for it. But I need to hit the ATM first…

Friday, January 30, 2009

One-Eyed Woman (Jan. 2009)

WARNING: If you are squeamish, do not read this piece.

Okay, you have been duly warned. Although for some, warnings are like catnip. The bigger the warning, the scarier the content, the more appealing it is.

I’m into writing about real experiences, so you won’t find any Cyclops-fantasy stories on my blog. The one-eyed woman is not an imaginary, mythical creature. She’s real. In fact, she’s the polar opposite of an intimidating, larger-than-life character. I met her in the bathroom of Vons grocery store. She was a shrunken woman of about 70, and like many her age, she was dressed in pastel clothing and had short, white hair. Very normal. Except for one thing.

As I exited my stall she was washing out her fake eyeball in the sink. I tried not to stare, as I didn’t want to make her feel self-conscious. I really tried not to stare because I was pretty horrified! I’d STRONGLY prefer not to see eyeballs out of their sockets, or sockets without their eyeballs, for that matter. Funny how in a split second the brain kicks in with survival instructions. My Instructions To Self screamed silently in my head and went like this: donotlookDONOTLOOKDONOTLOOK! The woman said there was some dust or sand in her eye and so she had to wash it out. She seemed very matter-of-fact about it all.

Hey, I have no problem with people’s having prosthetic anything. I think it’s great that there are ways for people to participate in life and not feel self-conscious or limited. But I don’t necessarily want to see eyeballs in sinks. I’m still having nightmares! Although this was last year, has time helped lessen my shock in seeing a round, white ball staring at me during its eyewash? I wish.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

A Day of Contrasts (Jan. 29, 2009)

Today was a day of contrasts. This morning it was cold enough for a hat and scarf, but 76 degrees by noon. Bikinis were on sale at Target today--after all, it’s January 29. Swimsuit season already. Weird.

At my local library I stood in the check out line, excited to have a new book. The peaceful hush was broken when a large man cursed and yelled at his girlfriend, who was trying to use the computer. In the parking lot, against a backdrop of green-leafed trees and an endless turquoise sky, he grabbed her shirt, continuing the fight, a beast amid beauty. The cops arrived and asked the two to step into the sunshine.

I took photos of pink-blossomed trees, before and after feeling depressed about the economy. I felt sorry for myself, since my small business has been silenced by our country’s financial struggles. Canopies of white flowers swayed overhead.

At the model railroad museum this afternoon I saw a family, the parents in their 30s, like me, with two kids. The dad was in an electric wheelchair. Beneath the short sleeve of his blue shirt, his left arm was gone. Their kids were a cheery-faced girl about three and a quiet boy of two, playing trains with my kids. My son needed to use the bathroom, and I hoped the family would still be there when I got back. They were in a different area, the wife ahead of her husband. I asked her (respectfully, I hoped) if he had been in Iraq. When she confirmed it, I asked would it be all right to thank him for his service. She said yes, that people thanked him regularly. I approached him, saying, “Excuse me. I asked your wife if you would mind if I thanked you. I know you went to Iraq. Thank you so much for what you’ve done for our country.” He smiled, his blue eyes and face genuinely happy. He thanked me, and I thanked him again, and we laughed a little as we said goodbye. If he hadn’t been missing his arm, would I have suspected that he’d been in war? You never want to say something insensitive when the intent is to be sensitive and appreciative. I took a chance in speaking up, and I’m glad I did. The family moved on, the girl giddily skipping and bouncing near her brother and mom, as the dad wheeled behind them. I was humbled. I’m still down about the economy and the challenges of my life, but it’s a good reminder to come face-to-face with those whose challenges are greater than mine. In a happy spot buzzing with moving trains, where one man’s legs lay motionless, I had a meaningful reality check.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Rats Need Courtesy, Too (Dec. 2008)

I wouldn’t say I tiptoe around my backyard for the rats’ sake, but it’s not far from the truth. We have had a few surprise (READ: UNWELCOME) sightings inside our backyard composter. We had a composter when we lived in Northern California, but by 2006, they were hard to come by in San Diego. We finally found one to buy after calling half a dozen nurseries. The city used to give them away free but no longer does, which is odd. Wouldn’t they want to help cut down on the amount of refuse that lands in the dump? Victory finally came when I called a store twenty miles away and they said “Yes.” My husband arrived home from work with our very own shiny, brand-new composter.

He assembled it and I stood back to take it its beauty. Sexy black plastic, making miracles in our yard. Our do-gooder composter days began again. Yes, going out to the composter involved a little more effort than throwing avocado pits and carrot stems into the kitchen trash can, but composting is good for the earth. I felt noble.

One day I opened the door on top of the composter to toss in my husband’s banana peel. I saw legs kicking into the air as something dove into the mess of rotting vegetable remnants. I shrieked “rat!” and raced past my husband, heart beating wildly. It was HIS banana peel—I don’t even eat them!—and yet I was the one terrorized by rat feet. My altruistic feelings fermented into indignation. This wasn’t supposed to happen! Perhaps I was a bit na├»ve, but it hadn’t occurred to me that rats might A) exist near our house, and B) want to eat egg shells and coffee grounds. Plus, it seemed downright unreasonable: if you’re doing a good deed (composting) you’re not supposed to get the life scared out of you by kicking rat feet, presumably attached to a large, venomous, fast-moving rat!

A week or two passed and I guess my guard came down again. I innocently approached the composter and once again, inside it I saw RAT! Again, I shrieked for the hubby. It was grossly unfair that I was always the one who had rat sightings. Everyone knows that Rat Situations are the domain of those with the Y-chromosome. Obviously.

But thankfully, the rat situation calmed down. We haven’t had a sighting in many months. Still, as I brought our composting material to the backyard yesterday, I rehearsed my plan. Here is my routine: when my container of apple cores and orange peels (etc) gets full, I take a deep breath and head toward our composter. I step on dried leaves on the way there, so that any rat diners will hear me coming and leave before I get there. I tap on the lid of the composter a few times (a courteous “knock, knock, anyone home?” type of thing). I wait a second, which is only polite, as even a rat needs a minute sometimes. I figure a decent pause would give him time to swallow his bite and haul rat ass. So far, my system works. No more rat sightings for me. Maybe it’s only coincidence, but maybe my Rat Respect Program is paying off. Now if only I could get a handle on the gopher who has been squatting in the yard…

Candles and Fences? (Nov. 2008)

Does the adage about not playing with matches and wood apply to candles and fences? True, combining unlit waxy sticks and wooden boundaries is not inherently dangerous, but there may be a connection between them. Here’s the tale of how my birthday and our aging fence converged.

Sagging backyard fences can be ignored for a while, but eventually something’s got to give. Last winter it was the fence itself, when a five-foot section of it fell over in a rare Southern California rainstorm. We faced the truth: the 50-year-old vintage fences needed to be replaced. Even the termites had moved out years prior, leaving a tunnel-tracked shell in the shape of a fence.

Ten years ago I never thought about fences, which (although functional) are hardly exciting. Just thinking about them makes people drowsy. But somehow I’ve found myself raving about our new fence to anyone who would listen. The whole yard looks better now. We have tall, straight fences where our peeling, mottled-green would-be fences used to lean into our yard at 45-degree angles. Well, I exaggerate. They were probably at a 60-degree angle. (Mr. Schwartzman, I guess you were right all those years ago: my 9th grade geometry class did eventually come in handy…) If fences are in decent shape you don’t really notice them, but they contribute to an overall look. And our yard is looking up!

On what may be a related note, my 35th birthday is 2 weeks away. Age is relative, of course, and I don’t feel “old.” People half my age might think otherwise, given how excited I am about…FENCES (and they may have a point). But ten years ago I was a renter whose biggest household challenge was chipping ice off of the ceiling of my freezer. I’m a home owner now. I have young kids, and keeping them safe and inside our back yard is a priority, so fences now have relevance to me.

But back to the connection between candles and fences. If my fence enthusiasm = at age 35. And if fence enthusiasm = confirmation of oldness, by the transitive property of math, 35 = old! (That gem I must credit to my 10th grade math teacher, Mr. Kelley.)

But if it’s true, I don’t care! I don’t bemoan my age nor am I embarrassed about my fence excitement. It is what it is. I feel young, I feel excited about our fences, and hey, maybe it doesn’t matter what turns you on as long as there are things in your life that do…

Freckle Face's First Blog (Jan. 2009)

I’m obsessed with words. That’s no confession. I see it as a GOOD thing!

And so, I now have my very own blog, a great way to express myself and to share my thoughts with others. It’s been a long time in coming. I’m boarding late, but blogging has not been on my radar very long, even though writing has. I’ve kept a Top Secret Diary for over 20 years. I can’t stop the noise in my head and getting it onto paper or computer screen helps. Journaling is a good therapy.

Why name myself “Freckle Face?” Another fear-confrontation. When I was a kid the blonde-haired know-it-alls made a point about counting my freckles. The message was clear: freckles weren’t ok, being different wasn’t ok, I wasn’t ok. It took me quite a while to embrace my freckles, my differences, and myself in general. At 35, I’m past all that now but it’s still a lesson I need to review from time to time: don’t beat yourself up for the ways in which you’re different—CELEBRATE them. It would be boring to live in a world of Ken and Barbie, everyone the same.

Why the need to air private thoughts in such a public forum? For someone who has been afraid of people’s judgments, this is good therapy. By exposing my thoughts, I’m challenging (and hopefully dismantling) my own fears.

Another reason to publicize my thoughts is that I’ve been through my share of battles and I’d be happy if something in this blog (even one sentence) reached someone and helped them. I love reading, and it’s worth reading a whole book even if only a single point resonates with me. As humans, we’re constantly sorting through input, trying to find what’s relevant, helpful, and aids us in moving in the direction we want. Other people have useful tips. I write the ones I like on a piece of paper, and post it to the wall. Words have great power. They have the power to hurt, to separate, but also to heal. There is catharsis in saying or hearing certain words, even if you’re the one writing, then reading them.

My friend Diana says I talk faster than anyone she knows, which surprised me. I figured I talk as fast as my brain feeds my mouth the words, at a perfectly reasonable pace! My husband kids me about saying 5 times as many words as he does. (Oh, please! Obviously, I had to explain exactly why that wasn’t true, citing many examples and offering tons of proof. Five minutes into my explanation he thought his point was made, whereas I thought mine was! As I tell him, it’s simply that I’m THOROUGH in how I explain things…)

My writing teacher said the challenge is to impart the message with fewer words. Clearly, I come from the More is More School of Words. But she’s right, and I will be working on that. But until I master brevity, it’s lucky for me that there’s lots of room in Cyber Space!

October on Salt Spring Island (2006)

My first fall visit to Salt Spring Island.
Trees are red, vivid yellow against the dark green hills.
I see my breath in the morning as we walk to get coffee and fresh bread.
We dress in layers but I wish I’d brought my gloves.
I throw rocks into the water with my son.
“Watch this, Mommy!” he grins as he hurls rocks in all directions.
Some reach the water.
We pet a friendly gray cat walking the deck each morning.
Underwater, crabs pick their way across sand
As starfish hug rocks and precocious seagulls stalk us.
We visit my grandma, who is both crabby and happy to see us.
I pick blackberries, avoiding many spiders and webs.
My son’s face is smeared with purple juice.
The air is pure and clear.

Somewhere over the Rainbow (Aug. 2008)

It’s past my bedtime, but my eyes are wide open and my brain buzzes giddily, my fingers moving faster and faster. My hand aches and there’s a dent next to my right middle fingernail, where I’ve been gripping the crayon. I keep drawing. Before me is a large piece of white paper, but it’s becoming more alive with color with each passing minute. A huge rainbow arcs across the page, a blood orange sun on top of it, its rays spiking out in all directions like a 1960s Star Burst Clock. The turquoise sky is dotted with puffy white clouds and birds, their arched wings shaped like the McDonald’s “M.” Under the rainbow are flowers colored every shade in my 64-crayon Crayola box.

That morning my first grade teacher had given each of us a piece of paper and told us to cut loose. Well, she may have phrased it differently, as nuns don’t usually say things like “cut loose!” Sr. Miguel was about 60 or 65, less than five feet tall, and her soft body and frequent hugs made her a dream of a teacher for a 7-year-old girl like me. I was timid and un-athletic, but with a crayon in my hand I came to life. A blank piece of paper didn’t intimidate me, like the ball whizzing by in Phys Ed did. A new sheet of paper was the portal to my imagination.

A week later I’m standing in the brick school gymnasium looking at all the drawings taped to the wall. I find mine, but it seems a little different than I remember. Now there’s a blue satin ribbon on the right side. I’m not sure what a blue ribbon is. Someone tells me I’ve won first place in the coloring contest. I feel surprised--I didn’t know there was a contest. I was just doing what I loved most: drawing. Don Takemura has the 2nd place red ribbon and Jordi holds a white one. Someone’s mom tells us to hold our ribbons up while she takes our photo. I smile, eager to please.

Nearly 30 years later I’m still an artist, still eager to please, but trying to care less about pleasing others. I look at the photo taken in the gym that day. I see a girl with an innocent, open face who is proud but not arrogant. My left knee sock is pulled up a little higher than the right one, which tells a lot about who I was back then, and maybe even who I still am. Back then I probably didn’t notice if my socks weren’t perfect. Now I’m a woman who tries to do everything right, but inevitably has mismatched socks or fly-away locks of hair. I wish I could unlearn the self-doubt I came to know in the years after 1st grade. I wish I could enjoy my talent again, purely, without comparing myself to older, more experienced artists. In that photo my 7-year-old face shines with joy. I’m not self-conscious. I’m not doubtful about whether I deserved that ribbon or whether I could have done a better drawing. I’m just happy.

I can’t return to the innocence I knew at age 7. A 34-year-old can’t view the world as simply as a child does. But seeing this photo reminds me that I need to make moments of pure happiness for myself, and to allow myself to feel undiluted pride in my talents. And because my imagination is still young, I believe I can reconnect with the joy I felt that day, somewhere over the rainbow…

Santa Tripped Over Foreclosure (Dec. 2008)

Santa lay sprawled on his back across a driveway, motionless. We saw him as my kids and I were driving back from school, searching for holiday decorations. I backed up to his driveway, and called, “Sir, can I help you?” Santa raised his head and tried to get up, assuring me he was fine but I had to see for myself. He had been pulling out a box of Christmas decorations and fallen backward. Had he hit his head? He didn’t think so.

He was dressed not in red but in a plaid flannel shirt. I expected Santa’s hair and beard to be snowy but as I got closer I saw that they were grayish-white. He was a bit paunchy, and when he smiled, he looked jolly. He introduced himself as Robert, but he looked like St. Nick to me, eyes twinkling when he smiled. I was glad to see that his smile was symmetrical, which meant he hadn’t had a stroke. He was focused on Christmas lights and I was worrying about his health. I helped him gather items that had fallen to the ground as he had. The large box had held kitchen gadgets, with not a garland or snowman in sight. We reassembled the box as he apologized for the messy contents of his open garage. Gesturing behind him, he said, “I was getting decorations down for my mom. Actually, we may have to move soon. Mom refinanced and took out an ARM loan, and we can’t afford it now.” Robert looked to be at least 60, putting his mom in her 80s. I couldn’t imagine an octogenarian having to move a house-worth of stuff and a lifetime of memories as the economy sagged over a roof she couldn’t afford anymore. I told Robert I’d think good thoughts for his mom and him, asking again if he was okay. He assured me he was, and we were both on our way.

As I drove home I passed other houses that sat empty, some with “Bank Owned” signs on the lawn. Santa would not be coming down those chimneys this month. As some of my neighbors hang holiday lights from their roofs, other neighbors silently vacate their homes overnight. Countrywide economic troubles are awful any time, but it’s especially upsetting to hear about it from a Santa look-alike, who is hunting for decorations to hang as his mom counts coins to pay the mortgage.

I never know what life is going to show me each day. Robert’s street is not on my way home, so our meeting was pure chance. I’m glad I was able to help him, but he helped me too. His mom’s mortgage woes showed me how fortunate I am, and I’m grateful for the reminder. I’ll remember Robert this holiday season, hoping that he and his mom can keep their home, that a Christmas miracle finds them this season…