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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…