Sunday, October 18, 2020

We Did it Again

We went a couple of places!  Susan and I went back to Filoli Gardens and this time she brought three of her roommates.  I totally morphed into Garden Mom, confidently stating the names of plants that I was only 35% sure about and pointing out garden features that no one had asked about, or cared about, really.  Once I realized I was doing it, I told them I would try to stop, but they assured me that Garden Mom is less annoying than Art Dad.  Also, I had sort of lied at the gate and got them in gratis on my family membership, and also purchased everyone a canned cocktail, so these savvy twenty-somethings were being very polite.

Speaking of Art Dad, Larry and I met Susan in San Francisco last week for lunch at Plow and a visit to the Asian Art Museum.  Plow is an uber-popular brunch place in Portrero Hill.  We’ve made vague plans to go there for two years, but it’s one of those no-reservations places, so we never felt we had the time to wait for a table.  Well, now, thanks to the virus, we have plenty of time, so we waited.  We saw many interestingly dressed young people. 


It turns out that people watching is one of the things that I miss the most.  Larry’s sartorial and styling choices just aren’t that interesting; and frankly, neither are those of the middle-aged denizens of Los Altos.  But the young people of San Francisco are fun to watch!  There were also lots and lots of dogs, which meant more to Larry and Susan than to me, since I still don’t like dogs (especially my own, get off my foot and stop licking yourself, Taggart).


After lunch we toured the Asian Art Museum, located across from City Hall in the old Library building.  I like Asian art well enough, but what I really like is the cool old building it’s housed in.  Larry went full Art Dad and was enthusing about Buddhism.  I did like a wall hanging that featured three existential poisons – “the cock of attraction, the snake of aversion, and the pig of confusion”.  The pig of confusion, how apt, it’s always rootling around in my subconscious.


Larry especially enjoyed the story about the Buddhist adept Virupa, who, by using his meditative powers to stop the sun, convinced a king to pay for his epic drinking spree.  Virupa is usually portrayed in the distinctive “I’ll have another” pose.


I haven’t been able to go many places in person for the last six months, and perhaps because of my yearning for distant shores, I have been reading a fair amount of travel essays and historical fiction.

Way back in March, the New York Times published an article entitled “Celeste Ng, Ann Patchett, Min Jin Lee and Others on the Books That Bring Them Comfort”.  It’s a great article and the authors recommended some of my personal favorite books – I Capture the Castle, Pride and Prejudice, A Room With a View, Love in a Cold Climate.  Also, the authors interviewed have written some of my personal favorite books – The Song of Achilles, Circe, Eligible, The Summer Before the War, State of Wonder, Euphoria.  The article also recommended books I hadn’t read, including Cousin Bette by Balzac.

When I saw the name “Balzac” you musical theater nerds will know where my mind went: “Chaucer, Rabelais, BALZAC!”  In The Music Man, these are authors that Marian the Librarian lends from the library and that the mayor’s wife and her ilk despise.

At 500 pages, Cousin Bette was a bit long, but I enjoyed it because it took me to a different time and place – a very specific time and place.  Paris in 1846, to be exact.  There is a LOT of detail about building layouts, room furnishings, styles of dress, salaries, dinner menus, business endeavors, military honors, and such.  There are also extensive descriptions of the machinations of some very, very badly-behaved people, which I enjoyed very much.  And descriptions of the virtues of a couple of saintly women, which were not nearly as diverting.

I’m glad I read one Balzac, but I cannot IMAGINE reading the whole of Balzac’s La Comédie humaine, “Honoré de Balzac's 1829–48 multi-volume collection of interlinked novels and stories depicting French society in the period of the Restoration and the July Monarchy. La Comédie humaine consists of 91 finished works.” 


I found some forums frequented by lovers of Balzac on the internet, and there are people who have made multi-year commitments and read all 91 works and have cross-referenced all the characters and locations and events in the books.  At this point, they’ve spent more time thinking about the books than Balzac spent writing them.


Here are some other excellent escapist works that have enabled me to leave my house without, you know, leaving my house.


Bill Bryson's In a Sunburned Country.  It’s about his travels in Australia and he narrates the audiobook version.  I closed my eyes and imagined being in Australia with him.


Kevin Kwan’s latest, Sex and Vanity, an homage to A Room With a View set in Capri, Manhattan and the Hamptons among a bunch of rich Asians, definitely an unfamiliar world to me. 


Mark Adams’ Turn Right at Machu Picchu.  The author spends months on a rough trek through Inca country with an irascible old Australian-born guide and some young Peruvian porters.


Michael Palin’s Erebus.  You may not know this, but after his Monty Python career, Michael Palin did a series of travel specials for the BBC and went all around the world.  I’ve seen all of these and read the accompanying books.  (Sahara was my favorite.). At some point Palin got interested in a British ship, the Erebus, that was used in two epic journeys of discovery to the Antarctic and the Arctic.  It’s always nice to read about someplace cold when it’s 92 degrees in your un-air-conditioned house.


Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight about her early life in Rhodesia.  It made me feel like mother of the year.


Abigail Hing Wen’s Love Boat Taipei, marketed to so-called “Young Adults”, but I enjoyed reading about Taiwan.


J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, described as a “children’s fantasy novel”, but my journey to Middle Earth was most enjoyable.


Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book, a lovely short book set on a Finnish island.


Christina Thompson’s Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia, a deep dive into the settlement and peoples of remote Pacific islands.

History's Greatest Voyages of Exploration, a Great Course available from Audible, exactly what it sounds like, a series of lectures about trips across continents, across oceans, under the ocean, to the moon.


The Insight Guide to Spain 2019.  I read the whole thing, took copious notes, looked up a bunch of places on the internet.  Estoy tan lista para mi viaje a España.


Now I’d better get back to my Spanish homework, since it’s a group project and I don’t want to be That Person who tanks the group grade.  Es la hora de aprender sobre el cine desde de México.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

An Incomprehensible Maze of Confusion


I didn't set out to develop empathy for our nation of online learners, but oh boy, I got it in spades.

I had some time on my hands, so I signed up for two fall semester online courses with my local community college.

Isn't there some bon mot about the third time being a charm?  I hope so, because i am enrolled in my third and final permissible attempt to pass Intermediate Spanish 2.  It is reasonable to ask why I keep trying, but if you know me, you will be unsurprised by me sheer stubbornness in the face of on obvious lack of linguistic ability.

I am also enrolled in a 100-level Art Appreciation course, which doesn't require any ability per se, but my grade is nonetheless fairly low, mostly due to the blot the universe which is Canvas.

What is Canvas?  It is "a web-based learning management system" which is being used at many grade schools, high schools an universities to deliver online courses.  And it SUCKS.  It has so many different tools and tabs and chat boards and calendars and course streams and announcements and collaborations and jam boards and modules and groups and external links and what-have-yours that is is impossible to find anything.

I was complaining bitterly about Canvas to our neighbors at our weekly Driveway Drinks, and after several rounds, we arrived at a theory of how Canvas arrived at its current state of suckage.  Canvas probably started out as a fairly simple tool, but then feature creep set in.  It's as if every time they sold into a school, Canvas incorporated the worst idea of some fossilized teacher who refused to let go of some dumb-ass classroom ritual they had employed since 1978.

The sheer quantity of methods with which one can post a worksheet in Canvas is staggering.  So even if you notice the announcement or chat of syllabus entry or email or whatever informing you that you should complete a worksheet, good f(*&ing luck FINDING the worksheet.

It has been kind of fun having something to kvetch about with young people.  I had a great complaint fest about Canvas with the high-school age cashier at DeMartini's Foods.  On Saturday afternoon I ended up at the kids' table at a harvest lunch at our friends' vineyard and I had a great time lambasting Canvas with the college students.  And when my own 19-year-old complains about her online classes, I am truly able to empathize.

When I sit down at the computer to check in on my online classes, I can actually feel my blood pressure rise.  I have to employ deep breathing techniques and the occasional glass of wine to avoid screaming in frustration.

Once I have found my assignments, though, I quite enjoy them.  I had to give a three minute oral presentation in Spanish about Beef Stew (Guisado de Res) over Zoom which was actually good fun.  It made a nice change from watching BritBox mystery shows.

This past week we had to do a timed written exam using the Canvas tool "Proctorio", which is just as creepy as it sounds.  It is described as an "automated remote proctoring service that uses computers to monitor student behavior".  What this means is that you allow Proctorio to see everything on your computer desktop and to use your computer camera to make sure that your eyes don't stray from the screen.  Very Big Brother.

I have no doubt that Proctorio will lead to all sorts of creative cheating methods that I can't wait to discuss with my fellow online learners.  Here's the one I used:  I made stacks of books in a ring behind my computer and taped notes taped to them.  During the test, I tried not to glance at any of them for too long.  We'll see if my exam is thrown out for nefarious eyeball movements.

It is very fun to take a class and not have to worry about the outcome.  I mean, there are a LOT of community colleges out there, and someday I WILL be promoted to Intermediate Spanish 3.  I have a good time crafting humorous (at least to me) responses to questions in class.  Here was my response to the question "can you think of any other classic Cuban songs besides Guantanamera?"

No conzoco ninguna otra cancion cubana clásica, pero llevé a cabo aprender todas las canciones de la banda sonora de la sumamente buena película "Dirty Dancing Havana Nights".  (I don't know of any other classic Cuban songs, but I did manage to learn all the songs of the soundtrack from the extremely good move "Dirty Dancing Havana Nights".

In a fun twist, the discussion prompt this week for my Art Appreciation class was "Either comment on a work of art, or submit a work of art, that relates to the seven elements of art that we've learned about this week."

"Cool!" I thought, and painted a still life and submitted it.  But as Shakespeare said, "sell when you can, you are not for all markets", and I am not sure what my professor or my classmates will think about about my painting.  However, it is liberating to be 56 years old and to just not care very much.

Anyhoo, enough of this, I have to check 25 places on Canvas to find my Spanish worksheet that's due tomorrow.  Hasta luego!

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Across the West, Eating Cheese Sticks (and Yogurt)


After months of not doing much of anything, this last two weeks has been action-packed.  Amy returned from working at summer camp on August 17th.  (I made her take a Covid test, which was pointless, because to this day we haven’t received the results.)  Then the whole of Northern California caught on fire.


It has been so, so bad.  We have lived in California for thirty years, and it has never been this bad, this close to the Bay Area.  The fires are still burning, and the smoke is still bad.  As if the pandemic weren’t enough.


Even before the virus times and the state being on fire, Amy and I had planned to road-trip her Subaru to Madison, Wisconsin for her sophomore year.  I confess that I had some survivor’s guilt as we pulled out of Los Altos on August 26th.  I looked forward to being out of the smoke and seeing the sky, but that did not happen until we drove out of WYOMING.  But anyway, back to day one.


Here’s the thing about road trips for me – it’s all about the toilets.  I insist on driving, and I like to drink Diet Dr. Pepper while I drive, but this means that I need to stop every two hours for the toilet.  I had read that many restrooms were closed due to Covid, so I bought a folding camping toilet and put it in the back of the Subaru, much to Amy’s chagrin.


Initially, it seemed we might have to use the camping toilet, as the first two places we stopped – a Panda Express and a gas station in California, had no open toilets.  We had to sneak into a Target to pee.  After we got out of civilization and onto I-80, though, all the truck stops had available toilets. 


The first evening of our drive, as we were exiting the interior of a Love’s Truck Stop in Fernley, Nevada, after purchasing Diet Dr. Pepper and a Movie For Your Mind (a trucker audiobook on CD), the sky was suddenly full of lightning and the wind was so strong that you couldn’t see through the blowing dust.  We had planned to keep driving to Winnemucca.


“Hmm,” I said to myself, “Perhaps a storm is imminent and driving another two hours in the dark through a wicked thunderstorm would be inadvisable.”


That is revisionist history.  What I actually said to myself was “FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK, is there a hotel in Fernley??”  Luckily, there was, and we drove slowly to it through a driving hail storm and flash flood, and then I drank a lot of bourbon, which I had wisely packed along with the camping toilet.


We watched Eclipse on the hotel TV, and the brooding vampires and shirtless werewolves just added to the strangeness of the evening.


Nevada had a fairly interesting landscape, but it was sort of hard to tell through all the smoke.  Amy introduced me to a great podcast, “You Must Remember This”.  It’s about old Hollywood and we listened to a lot of it, alternating it with Aral Kingslayer (the Movie for Your Mind) and an audiobook entitled “The Pagan World: Ancient Religions Before Christianity”.


As we pulled across the border into Utah, we encountered the Salt Flats, which are very cool.  Amy ate some of the dirt and reports that is, indeed, salty.


We pulled into our Best Western in Evanston, Wyoming at about 8:30 pm.  The hotel clerk was unmasked and rude to me, I think because I was wearing a mask.  We pulled up to the only restaurant in town, a Bar & Grill, and as soon as we walked in wearing masks all the unmasked patrons turned to stare at us and we could feel the waves of enmity.  We beat a hasty retreat.


We were extremely hungry, and dismally contemplating a dinner of almonds, when Amy did some googling and discovered that the Pilot Truck Stop by the Interstate had a Subway.  We were ridiculously excited to get our Subway sandwiches.  The clerks (masked and friendly) were a little surprised by our enthusiasm.


The next day we drove across Wyoming, again through the smoke.  We had an enjoyable stop at the Little America Truck Stop, which is the Casa de Fruta or Wall Drug of the High West.  We bought some cheese sticks and hit the road.  Our favorite car snack was turkey jerky, but the hit rate at truck stops was only about 20 percent.


As we drove through a lot of nothing, we thought about how we would like to eat something that was not a cheese stick, and Amy looked into our options in Rawlins, Wyoming.  Surprisingly, there was a Thai restaurant.  We called ahead, ordered some vegetable curry, and ate it down by the train tracks, where we got to watch three trains of over a hundred cars each trundle right by our picnic table.  Amy even got a train engineer to wave at her.


Just as we were about to cross from Wyoming into Nebraska, Amy noticed a sign for a “Marian Shrine”.  Being good lapsed Catholics, we had to stop.  There was indeed a big plaster-cast Mary next to a mobile home park.  We avoided the loose dogs and the horde of scary 12-year-old barefoot girl bicyclists and said a few prayers.


As we pulled into our hotel in Sidney, Nebraska, we passed a fast-food restaurant called Runza.  I said, “Amy, the sign for that restaurant is a neon ear of corn.”  Amy said, “That can’t be corn,” but it was.  We ate some Runza sandwiches for dinner, which did not actually feature any corn, just minced beef.  Once was enough for me, but I understand that Runza is the In-N-Out of Nebraska.


The drive through Nebraska was mostly about corn and soybeans.  We drove through the middle of the state on some two-digit roads and sometimes we would go thirty minutes without seeing another car or a habitation.  Just corn and soybeans. The tiny town of Plainview had a Klowndoll Museum, but sadly, it was closed, so we may never know the story there.


We spent the night in Sioux City, Iowa at a Hilton Garden Inn on the river.  It was lovely!  There was a patio restaurant that had cocktails and sushi.  They loved Amy in Sioux City.  All the servers were flirting with her.  I think that was the night we watched Casablanca.


The drive through Iowa was also about corn and soybeans.  

And then we were in Wisconsin!  We stopped in a rest area just over the border, and as we perused the points of interest poster, I realized that we were driving right past the Dickeyville Grotto!!! Perhaps you have never heard of it, but I have been reading about it in Wisconsin guidebooks for two years and I was beyond excited to see it.


The Dickeyville Grotto is the work of a Catholic Priest, Father Matthias Wernerus, who built it on the grounds of his parish in Dickeyville from 1925-1930 from concrete, shells, rocks, and other fun trash he found.  Amy and I had a great time admiring his handiwork.

We have been in Madison for a few days and Amy has moved into her apartment and started classes, mostly online.  I have been staying in an Airbnb, a 1924 cottage by Monona Bay.  Amy has the Subaru, but luckily there are many patios I can walk to and get a pint of Wisconsin beer. 


Today Amy drove up me up to the Olbrich Botanical Gardens, up at the top of Lake Monona, but couldn’t stay, as she had class.  I wandered around the beautiful gardens for a few hours and then meandered back around the lake to my cottage.  I walked eleven miles today!  I saw a muskrat, ate a walleye sandwich, finished my mystery novel, and had three pints of beer.  I love Madison.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

The Couch Where it Happened

As in every other affluent Democratic household, what July 3rd meant to us was – Hamilton on Disney+. Of course, we subscribed.  Of course, we watched.  And it did not disappoint.  That was an excellent TV time.


I’m sure I watched TV before the virus times, but I’m also sure that I did not watch it with the religiosity with which I watch it now.  I look forward to TV time all day.  During the day, I do all the daytime things – read the newspaper, complete the puzzles, do some laundry, sew some masks, go grocery shopping, unload and load the dishwasher, take a seven-mile walk, make the dinner, eat the dinner, polish off a bottle of wine.  And then it’s TV time!


One of my favorite sources for finding something fun to watch is Entertainment Weekly magazine, which is now, sadly, a monthly print publication.  However, after they made the switch to monthly, I began receiving a weekly email entitled “Your Editor’s Letter: A Weekly Dispatch Just For Subscribers”, which I love.  The editor is smart and snarky and has a similar sense of humor to me, so I just pretend we’re friends and that he’s writing me gossipy personal emails.


Last week his letter recommended a documentary called “Burden of Dreams” from 1982.  This is a making-of documentary, filmed on the set of “Fitzcarraldo”, a Werner Herzog film shot in the jungles of Peru in 1982.  I had never heard of either, but Larry had watched them both back in the 1980s.  They are EXCELLENT films.  Do yourself a favor and watch them.


It is impossible to do either film justice with a description, but here’s a short attempt.  In order to build an opera house in the jungle, Fitzcarraldo (an Irishman) decides to become a rubber baron.  To do that, he must drag a three-story, 320-ton steamship over a mountain using only the manual labor of a tribe of headhunting indigenous Peruvians.  Werner Herzog felt he must shoot the steamship dragging without the use of special effects.  Because Herzog was afraid that the film would never be finished (it took four years), he brought documentarian Les Blank to the jungle to record his attempts.


Both films are hugely enjoyable, and then you can do what I did – go down the internet and YouTube rabbit hole of finding out everything you can about both.


Another of my sources for movie recommendations is the San Jose Mercury News “what to watch with your family”, by which they mean movies that are okay for little children to watch, but we big children enjoyed A Secret Garden, A Little Princess, The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958), and The Court Jester (1955).  The Merc also suggested the documentary Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado, an excellently weird look back at the life of a celebrated Puerto Rican astrologer.


Andrew Lloyd Weber made some of his musicals available for streaming, and we had a great time analyzing why we still watch Cats, and why no one still watches Love Never Dies.


We especially liked The National Theatre at Home productions of Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  I think these are the productions that used to screen in cinemas.  I never tried to see one in a cinema before, but God willing and the creek don’t rise, I’ll see one in a cinema someday.


Usually the female voting bloc in our home calls the TV shots, but we graciously allowed Larry to watch the Grant documentary.  He also loves opera, so we watched San Francisco Opera’s Cinderella, featuring a zaftig 40-something soprano pretending to be a half-starved teenager.


After watching them all again, we can definitively say that High School Musical 2 is the best one.


Jesus Christ Superstar featuring John Legend was so good we watched it twice in a row.


I subscribed to the AcornTV and BritBox stations on Amazon Prime to satisfy my predilection for British mysteries, and we all like the many Agatha Christie adaptations (natch) but have also discovered Agatha Raisin and Phryne Fisher (she’s Australian, but it was a former colony).


Susan introduced us to the kind, responsible, and extremely Canadian police officers of Rookie Blue.


I love a good Will Ferrell movie.  Hell, I love a bad Will Ferrell movie. So I was very excited to watch Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga. And it was fabulous.  When Ellen went off to film school, she discovered that there were a whole lot of famous movies that she’d never seen (all the Godfather movies come to mind), but that she had seen way more Will Ferrell movies than the average film school student.  I won’t apologize.


The Story of Fire Saga features a number of real-life Eurovision Song Contest contestants, so after we watched the film we stayed up quite late watching YouTube videos from the last fifteen years of the actual Eurovision Song Contest.  Very whack.


And, to close, a few more of our favorites from virus TV time.


Legally Blonde, both the movie and the musical

Spy - funnier than I remembered.  “Did he also make you dress like a slutty dolphin trainer?”

Earth Girls are Easy – downtown Julie Brown!

Jumanji movies – love Jack Black pretending to be a teenaged girl in a man’s body

Best in Show – featuring Schitt’s Creek stars Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy

The Darjeeling Limited – A Wes Anderson movie.  Either you like them or you don’t.  We do.

In & Out – Kevin Kline and Joan Cusack and Tom Selleck (who is supposedly 75 years old, I think he might have a portrait in his attic).  “My husband has three testicles, and it’s disgusting.”  I have probably watched this movie 20 times.


This last week I have ceded control of TV time so that Larry can watch Major League Baseball.  I do have some email to catch up on, so it’s fine – for now!



Sunday, July 12, 2020

We Left Los Altos and It Felt So Good

I have been a member of Filoli Historic House and Garden in Woodside for years, so I was very excited to learn that the gardens, and in fact the house, have reopened.  You need to make a reservation, wear a mask, keep six feet apart, but even so it was THRILLING to leave Los Altos for a few hours.

After checking in, Larry and Susan and I had a ladies-who-lunch meal at Filoli’s Quail’s Nest Café.  It was so pleasant to sit outside somewhere that wasn’t our back yard.  We fell to reminiscing about a visit to the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art north of Copenhagen and also about a trip to Croatia we took in the summer of 2018 (more on that later).

We finished our salads and rosé and set off to tour the estate.  The house tour is always interesting, and the new director has recently added “soundscapes”, so that, for instance, when you are in the family room you can hear ghosts playing bridge and drinking Jack Daniels.

After enjoying the house, we wandered out into the formal gardens where – AMAZING – there is a new beverage cart tucked under a grove of trees that sells cans of champagne, wine, and g&ts.  We were extremely excited about this.  We very much enjoyed wandering the gardens with our cans of alcohol.  The novelty of being somewhere else made us giddy with pleasure.

Susan pointed out that when her generation becomes parents, and their kids complain about missing a party, they can say “We didn’t get to go to parties for A YEAR, so I think you can miss one night.”

On our way home, Larry ordered take-out pizza, salad, and about a gallon of craft beer from State of Mind, our favorite Los Altos pizzeria.  Their online ordering system is my favorite video game (followed closely by the BevMo app).

State of Mind offers many California beers on tap, and when the pandemic forced them to take-out only, they began offering 32-ounce draft beers in those plastic pho/hot-and-sour soup containers.  You can also order a wide variety of canned beverages from micro-breweries and cideries.  It’s so much fun to roll up to the curb outside State of Mind and have a hipster bring out delicious pizza and amazing beer.  Thank God for State of Mind, they have vastly improved my state of mind during the pandemic.

Then it was time for Driveway Drinks.  We love Derek and Camay, the neighbors we share a driveway with, and we have instituted a weekly Saturday night pandemic drinks party.  We sit ten feet apart on the driveway and enjoy drinks and conversation.  Taggart the dog always joins us, and last night he tried to catch a rabbit, which was pretty funny.

While we were at Filoli, Larry noticed a posted list of movies that have been filmed on the estate.  The first was Heaven Can Wait, filmed in 1978, which we watched last night after Driveway Drinks.  It was filmed almost entirely at Filoli, both in the house and in the gardens, and it was pretty cool to see Filoli on film.  The movie itself was a confusing mishmash of sports machismo, sappy romanticism, and soul/body swapping.  It also featured the abundant late-70s hair of Warren Beatty, Dyan Cannon, and Julie Christie.  So much hair.  We enjoyed it, but I’m not sure I would recommend it, if you know what I mean.

So Much Hair

As an added point of interest, Larry once played the Warren Beatty character in a high school production of the play Heaven Can Wait.  He probably had great hair, too.

Today has been very quiet and boring, but it’s okay, because yesterday we did things!

Sunday, July 5, 2020

You Gotta Drink Beer on the Fourth of July

Every Fourth of July, my aging mind wanders back in time to a Glorious Fourth that I spent with my friend from college, Courtney Harris.  Courtney was by far the coolest woman in our Engineering School class at the University of Virginia.  (Granted, there wasn’t much competition.)  I was a Catholic nerd from the suburbs, but Courtney was a rock-n-roll chick from Richmond with an older boyfriend.  She took me to concerts and bars and was always fun to be around.

One of my fondest memories of Courtney was when she rolled into the early morning final exam of some dreary engineering class wearing naught but an oversized Michael Jackson Thriller t-shirt, which I knew for a fact was her pajamas.

One or two years after graduation, I traveled down to Richmond to spend the weekend of the Fourth with Courtney.  Courtney was born on the Fourth of July, so it was also her birthday weekend.  Courtney’s parents had divorced some years earlier, and her mother’s new boyfriend invited us over to his house for a barbecue on the Fourth.

Here’s the first thing I remember about Courtney’s mothers’ boyfriend: he was a huge proponent of Norman Vincent Peale, the author of “The Power of Positive Thinking”, which is a primer to help inadequate white men feel better about themselves.  I just googled it, and not surprisingly, Donald Trump is a huge fan. 

Here’s a snippet about the book from a 2016 Politico article entitled “How Norman Vincent Peale Taught Donald Trump to Worship Himself”: “Subsequent rules tell the reader to avoid “fear thoughts,” “never think of yourself as failing,” summon up a positive thought whenever “a negative thought concerning your personal powers comes to mind,” “depreciate every so-called obstacle,” and “make a true estimate of your own ability, then raise it 10 per cent.”

Here’s the second thing I remember about Courtney’s mothers’ boyfriend: he was trying to turn the collection of mangy animals in his yard into a for-profit petting zoo.  The house was surrounded by sad, diseased-looking animals and, consequently, lots and lots of flies.

Our party of four (Courtney, her boyfriend Mike, her friend from high school Hunter, and me) rolled up into the clouds of flies and scurried for the interior of the house, which was un-air-conditioned and full of Norman Vincent Peale plaques.  Then we learned the third thing I remember about Courtney’s mothers’ boyfriend: He was a teetotaler.  Courtney’s boyfriend Mike withstood the hot boredom for about five minutes and then stood up and made a declaration:

“You gotta drink beer on the Fourth of July.”

He matched his action to his words and drove back to town and brought us blessed relief from heat and boredom: many six-packs of cold, canned beer.  We sat in the living room and drank beer and chatted in a desultory fashion until, finally, it was time for the meal, and then, blessedly, we could drive back through the flies to Courtney’s house.

I have always appreciated Mike’s determination to improve our afternoon, and I have always, always followed his mantra: “You gotta drink beer on the Fourth of July.”

Thursday, June 18, 2020


I have not reformed my virus time ways; I am still staying up late at night watching dumb TV and lolling in bed until 9 or 10 am.  When I finally do get up, I have to remember not to swing my legs out of bed and stand up, because the dog has taken to sleeping right where my feet go.  There are so many other square feet of floor he could choose to sleep on; I do not understand why he chooses to place himself directly in harm’s way.  I have stepped on him so many times.  He literally never learns. 

I love eating breakfast and drinking coffee while reading the Mercury News in my pajamas.  I also love living at the bottom of our long, shared driveway.  What I don’t love is having to trek up the long, shared driveway in my pajamas to get the newspaper.  Our neighborhood is full of early risers and energetic walkers and they all seem to congregate on the sidewalk and in the park at the top of my driveway.  Everyone is super-friendly, and I feel like the mayor of Pajamaville, waving to my subjects.  I am embarrassed that the neighbors with whom we share the driveway have seen me braless so many times, but I guess not embarrassed enough to get dressed.

One morning this week, after I had greeted everyone and was walking back down the driveway, I felt a pinching on the bottom of my arm.  I lifted my arm to look, and there hung a lifeless bee. I shrieked and dropped the paper and waved my arm around, providing a nice diversion for everyone.

As Mr. Bennett observes in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?”

This quote is fresh in my mind, as I spent the day after my oral surgery last week watching all six hours of the BBC Pride and Prejudice with Colin Firth.  (The one where Darcy is so overcome by his feelings for Elizabeth that he jumps into a pond fully dressed.  So hot.)

As I rubbed Benadryl cream onto my sting, I reflected on the last time I got a painful insect sting. Two of them, in fact.  It was in Croatia a few summers ago, back when we used to travel.

We were in Zagreb, walking through that big park in the city center, the one with the fountains and the outdoor bars and ice cream places (Zrinjevac Park, I just looked it up.). Suddenly a big, black wasp whizzed under the brim of my straw hat and stung me right in the neck.  I was deeply offended and also in a fair amount of pain.

European pharmacies are so much more comforting than the ones in the States.  The clerks wear lab coats and sensible hairdos and look like they know what they’re doing. (As opposed to the clerks in our local drugstore, who look like disheveled, disoriented preppers who just climbed out of the bunker.)

We found a Ljekarna and the nice lab-coated ladies clucked over my neck and sold me a tube of some ointment that actually helped quite a bit.  Then I got a strong to-go cocktail from a drinks truck in the park and we continued sight-seeing.

The next evening, on our way to an outdoor folk-dancing festival, we stopped and got pizza slices to eat as we walked.  As I was enjoying my slice, a wasp zoomed down from on high, making a direct line for me, and stung me right on the tender spot between two fingers.  That one hurt so much that I dropped my pizza and started crying, wailing “Why me?” until my family told me to stop being such a baby.

After an enjoyable three days in Zagreb, we drove down to Pag on the coast.  We checked into our AirBNB then Susan, Ellen, and I walked to the grocery.  As we left with our bags, the heavens opened, rain poured down, and lightning zinged everywhere.  We flagged a taxi and arrived back at our apartment, completely soaked.  And surprise! Our Croatian friend from California, Davorin, our inspiration for our trip, was there waiting to greet us.

Davorin noticed the big welt on my neck and I told him about the Zagreb wasps.  He examined my neck and told me the stinger was still in there, and began looking around for a knife to get it out.  I trust Davorin, but not that much, so I went and got a needle from my sewing kit instead.  He administered rakija inside and out (some in a shot glass, some wiped on my neck), and as the thunderstorm raged outside, he dug around and removed the stinger.

It was such a cinematic moment.  And Davorin was right, the welt went down pretty quickly after his impromptu clinic.