Sunday, May 30, 2010

In Memory

All war must be just the killing of strangers against whom you feel no personal animosity; strangers whom, in other circumstances, you would help if you found them in trouble, and who would help you if you needed it.
- Mark Twain

Friday, May 28, 2010

Good Luck

For thirteen years, I was a track rat. And maybe I’ll write about that sometime. Or not.

When a horse is on his way up, he’s treated like a king. When a horse is on his way down, it’s unutterably sad.

But today, I was at Santa Anita to meet friends, watch the morning workouts, and have some breakfast at Clocker’s Corner. The sky blue, air clear, the snort-snort of the horses racing down the backstretch. Mornings at the track are nothing but hope, and everyone rides a wing and a prayer.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Fine Print

This little pouch was a gift, and I would have used it years ago had I known there was a four-panel, fully -illustrated, comprehensive instructional brochure waiting inside. With a phone number in Tokyo for further information in case I get hopelessly muddled. All this time I’ve been so intimidated with nagging questions – how do the pockets work, what is the purpose of the mesh divider, which way do I pull the zippers, can I eat the Silica Gel-- and so forth.

As the manufacturer says, “Please take a moment to read this for proper enjoyment of the product.” I certainly don’t want to improperly enjoy the product, not when we’ve just met anyway, so let’s fasten the safety goggles and be on our way.

This may look like a cheap little cloth thingy to you, but that just shows how much you know. Let me introduce you to the Nomad Cosmetic Case. "The material is 2mm thick urethane layer between two pieces of tear resistant, Rip-Stop Nylon.” We’re talking serious portable cosmetic conveyance tool here, scientifically calibrated.

“The shape and placement of the pockets were designed with your frequency of use and protection in mind.” As in, don’t mess with me brother, I’m packing.

“There are pockets designed to fit certain types of cosmetics perfectly, but we’ve also included open space for what is unique to you.” Yes, we women take our translucent powder seriously, but we have a playful side, too. The manufacturers realize we need space of our own, a place to explore and express our creativity.

“We paid particular attention to the size and position of the fasteners and handles for easy access.” But it’s also secure, right boys?

But then the warnings. Like those commercials, where some aged frat brothers on a yacht yuck it up because there’s finally a pill that lets them fuck all night. But, the voiceover softly cautions, there’s an equal chance they might end up spending the rest of the trip in the emergency ward, waving one long , and perhaps notable (individual results may vary), side-effect.

Similarly, I should not use my Nomad in the company of “water, alcohol, dirt, heat, and careless treatment.” And, more ominously, “Do not use this product for other than the intended use.” Hmm, I wonder if nefarious intent could turn that two-ounce pouch into a steamer trunk.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Book ends

My dismal work ethic is exceeded only by my dreadful work habits. That’s why it’s safer to try to get something done away from home, otherwise I tend to fall in with a bad crowd; one that smokes and drinks and says things like, ”underlying patterns of symmetry,” and argues the cognitive-scientific principles of poetry. (As to the latter, after the last apple-tini, I think I was “for.”)

Not that the library doesn’t have distractions of its own, what with the aisles and aisles of stuff I like almost better than real life. The library bouncer or whatever has warned me not to leave my laptop on the table, unattended. Which is kind of flattering actually, implying someone might actually want to steal Nellie Belle. I think I’ve mentioned before that, at the computer dance, Nellie’s the fat girl sitting in the corner alone with her cookies and punch. She weighs as much as a Buick, and to kidnap her would require premeditation and at least one accomplice.

So I gave Nellie a cupcake and left to stalk the aisles. For some books, the library is the last stop before falling off the edge of the world. And face it, if an old book is not the darling of the academic community, what kind of life support can it hope for. So today I took a break to identify likely candidates for the next library rummage sale.

1. The Best Short Stories of 1935.

Just like Nellie Belle, this old man was way off in a corner by himself, with no best stories of any other year to keep him company. Maybe because of the grease stains on his cover and a bad case of old book BO. Last time anyone offered to put him up for the night was 1989.

2. Fireside Book of Dog Stories, Copyright 1943

It’s been so long since anyone looked at this puppy, there isn’t even a due date receipt or a card. But good lord, the authors: EB White, DH Lawrence, Kipling, Stevenson, Thurber. I’ve decided on an intervention, and have checked it out.

“Of all the dogs whom I have served, I’ve never known one who understood so much of what I say or held it in such deep contempt.” EB White

All right, so I thought I had a shoe-in for the third slot with Elswyth Thane’s “Tryst,” copyright 1939. But no, it was taken out in 2005. Flipping to the first page, Elswyth shows promise: “Sabrina had never picked a lock in her life, but it was done every day in books.” I won’t follow Sabrina’s exploits, but it looks like once every five years, someone does.

3. Six Days in Marpore, by Scott Paul. Or maybe Paul Scott. Copyright 1953

Like Short Stories of 1935, this book hasn’t had a date or seen solid food in 25 years. First line:
“The rains had not yet reached Marpore, and the dry heat was almost more than MacKendrick could bear. He lay on his back staring up at the high rafters of the bedroom and thought of Calcutta…”

Just a guess on my part, but I’ll bet this MacKendrick has a list of complaints 350 pages long.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Home, Hearth, and the Almansor Center in Altadena

It’s easy to accuse others of NIMBY’ism when it’s not your own backyard at issue.

An organization wants to establish a school, serving 250 children with autism, on a sparsely populated, rustic street in the northern reaches of Altadena.

Many of the homeowners openly oppose the idea. As a consequence, some folks are accusing the opposition of bigotry -- as if the neighborhood would be fine with a ten-fold increase in daily traffic, noise, and exhaust fumes provided no one in the cars had a disability.

I don’t have a dog in this fight, or maybe just a small one, because I do know several children with autism, lovely and smart children, and realize a good school is hard to find.

Still, I don’t like bullies. And a bully in this case would be one who levels insults at another when his own comfort is not at risk.

We’re all asked from time to time to sacrifice on a personal level for the greater good. And maybe this is such a case, especially given the fact there's an existing compound on the street. But when the sacrifice involves prized elements of one’s own home and intimate life -- privacy, air quality, early morning peace -- I can see how this school looms like a bitter pill. And were I in their shoes, in all honesty, I don't know that I'd swallow it either.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Rainy Day Matinee

Every so often I like to go through one of the unpacked boxes I have stacked in a closet. The one I chose yesterday had packs of old receipts, several sweaters, and a rusted spatula. It was that kind of a box. At the bottom was a typewritten manuscript.

Years ago, when a friend and I were bored at work, we wrote a 300-page Raymond Chandler parody. I’d write a page or two, then he’d write a page, and on and on. Since I lost touch with Gordon ages ago, I’ll say the best pages are mine. And there are precious few of those.

Flipping through it, I noticed most of the sustained hilarity has evaporated over time. Just as a sample:

The night air was as cold as a puppy’s nose. It was then Jonathan saw the sliding door was open, and open wide. As wide as the disparity between tap shoes and ballet slippers.


Ma’am?” the woman in white greeted her.
“I’m here to see McPherson.”
“Your trouble ma’am, molar, front, bicuspid?”
“Just tell him,” Patsy lifted her diaphanous black veil, “Everything aches.”

[and later]

She felt Blackie Mcpherson’s eyes lock on her ankles, sweep up to her thighs, linger on her shoulders, and come to rest on her incisors.
“ I was sorry to hear about your father,” he purred. “The work I did on his lower plate is one of the hallmarks of my career. A fine man with outstanding gums.”

I can and have read Chandler over and over. But every film adaptation save one has been a major disappointment. And the best is no longer in circulation – 1975’s Farewell My Lovely. Here’s the only clear clip I could find:

Farewell My Lovely

The alcoholic dancehall floozie was played by the brilliant Sylvia Miles. And if we could watch the whole scene, she would pat the bottle of rye Marlow brought as a bribe and say, “This goes down easy with me.”

What’s right about this film is everything – cinematography, music, palette, casting, dialogue. But most of all, Robert Mitchum; the laconic, ironic delivery, and his once beautiful face melting away like candlewax before our eyes. And they were so right to shoot the noir in color. Nothing looks as sinister as dying lawn, bungalow dry rot, and a relentless sun.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Sunday Dinner

“You’re going to do what?” he asked.

“Spatchcock a chicken. Just make sure you’re hungry.”

I found the instructions online. Actually, I found the word online and was so enamored with the idea of performing a spatchcock on anything – me, him, the wall, strangers – that I was rather relieved to find all it involved was a hot oven and poultry.

The instructions stressed patience, as basically what you do is debone a chicken and roast it flat. I blame my cutlery. The knives have lost a step or two, they moonlight as gardening implements . After an eternity of minutes hacking at an immoveable backbone, I threw caution to the wind and improvised with two river rocks and a hammer.

We had dinner at Jack in the Box tonight. I think $1 for two tacos is a pretty sweet deal.

Update by popular request. You'd think this would turn anyone vegan, but note the gnawed leg.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Local Rant

Why, when draconian financial cuts are necessary in the state of California, are we considering (and paying consultants to consider) multi million-dollar projects for soccer fields in Pasadena and library expansion in Altadena?

Sweet little children came to my door to promote a property tax increase, a measure which failed by the way, saying “Please vote yes so we can have school books and pencils,” and so, ok, I voted yes. Yet, when things are so bad that kids go shilling, we’ve got $21 million to expand our pretty little library (a place which is darned empty in the book aisles, I might add). Or now they say with fiscal responsibility, that tag can be cut in half – so it’s give or take $11 million. And then how many millions for the athletic fields and parking lots at Haha?

If this money was allocated a few years ago -- to plant structures on open space, build underground parking lots, and the like, when we were all drinking champagne from chandeliers -- can we bring it back to the table and count up what's left? At least before the consultants gulp it down?

I’m no wizard with a budget, but I do know the difference between salad days and soup kitchens. And before the powers-that-be start excavating the current library, they might want to check in with at least three of the homeless men camped outside.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010


When we moved from city to city, there was only one being who could adapt more quickly than I, and that would be Heidi -- our steady succession of schnauzers, Heidi 1, Heidi 2, and Heidi 3. As in, The Heidi is dead, long live The Heidi.

To an untrained eye, the only thing that distinguished our first dog from the next and the next was size. Only now, in the relative calm after the storm of childhood Heidis, do I realize I loved H 1 much more than the reincarnations. She had moxie, leadership qualities, and a terrible temper. Lifting her meant puncture wounds to the hands, but we risked it anyway to hug and squeeze her until nothing remained but a puff of gray fury. She led her gang of neighborhood dogs onto the freeway one day and, well, that was our first taste of loss. And it tasted every bit as bad then as it does now – worse even, because we were in the single digits and didn’t drink gin.

But loss meant replacement, holes must be filled. We learned to mourn quickly, before the next Heidi took office. Sadness hurts, and we were not above distraction.

While Heidi 1 was Daddy’s girl, the second Heidi knew Mom presented her best chance for survival. Heidi2 was smart; she lasted three times longer than H1. She was smaller too; in fact, each successive Heidi shrunk a little.

Then came Heidi 3, a tiny gray tramp of the first water.

Heidi 3 loved it when we changed houses, because new houses meant carpenters and carpenters meant lunch. Heidi would troll a neighborhood, looking for construction sites and big burly men who knew their way around a Twinkie. She taught herself to sit and beg and speak and anything else that would please a group of 200-pound men. Once she hurt herself, probably leaping for a bit of candy, and a giant carried her back to our house with tears in his eyes; she lay like a sad raisin in the palm of his hand. On that day, we came this close to a Heidi 4.

My mother died when I was in my 30’s, and of course we all mourned. Personally, though, given my practice in the art of transition, I welcomed distraction. It wasn’t until my dad died that the eternal loss aspect of death raised its ugly specter. And once I entertained that thought, all the Heidis came home to roost.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Lake Avenue, Altadena

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Altadena Drive and Lincoln

Friday, May 7, 2010

Burn and Peel: A visit to the Altadena economic indicator

Gosh, I feel so poor today. Then I remember I am poor, so at least I’m not imagining things.

Yes, yes, boo-hoo-hoo, stocks lost big time. Where do we turn? Some of you know that we here at the homestead eschew all but one financial indicator. And to assist in interpreting the indications, I've called in my county extension agent and part time financial advisor. His business card says: "I'll put your money where my mouth is," and I've suggested he tweak that a little.

This is the Altadena Economic Banometer. And things must have been going along ok for awhile, because my advisor and I haven’t checked it in months. To our detriment. Fasten your banana belt, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Here it stands -- battered, broken, a shadow of its former self. To make matters worse, encroachment on all sides. Even some judicial trimming doesn’t improve the picture at all. What to do, what to do? Have we thrown the paddle out with the bathwater; are we up shit creek without a baby?

Horseshit! My financial advisor barks, unashamed that his dooty bag hangs on the fence in plain sight. And though a man of few words, I know what he's getting at.

The banana is a spineless plant, and though the leaves suggest something of substance, if you peel back the layers you'll find nothing there except some lowly bugs and a little life's blood. So lesson one: Never peek. And if you promise not to look, you'll find the banometer dies back, but then even though nothing changes substantially, significantly, it shoots up again, requiring only the promise of a few sunny days and a constant supply of manure.

So I feel better now. Even though I'm trusting a financial advisor who has a taste for shit and doesn't care if the world knows it.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Mysterious Ways

If you drive west from Altadena, passing La Canada and just the northern tip of Glendale, you’ll find La Crescenta, maybe the smoggiest jewel in the foothill crown.

Like Altadena, La Crescenta has political feet in more than one place -- I don’t know that that matters, but it seems to hint at romance and mystery, of 19th century land-grabbers and poker players.

The main drag looks like a valley transplant, or something in a border town, where old chain stores go to die. Little remains of the Cain/Chandler California.

The trick is to turn north as soon as possible, drive into the hills, then steer clear of the new gated communities.

I planned to start my hike at Dukemajian Park, the same place where I bought my horse in the early 90s. But since the station fire, the park remains closed. Continuing on, looking for a trail to catch, I was lost, then found:

Gates thrown open, welcoming. According to the signs, any god you may choose is welcome here. 100, 200 acres, and I could wander at will.

I've got to admit, this kind of of serendipity comes close to a religious experience. I almost wept. "Here is a fountain to slake your thirst."

And if you're hungry, there's a Der Wienerschnitzel within walking distance.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Good Stories

“I’m going to tell y’all a story,” my southern friend says to us, “about the time my granddaddy taught me to drive. It was one day in summer and Meemaw said to Big Daddy…”

The woman is an effortless raconteur. Ten minutes later, after I’ve finished braying, stomping my feet, and upending cocktail nuts, I turn to the group and say, “Well that brings back a memory about the time…” and everyone looks at me with expressions ranging from pity and strained courtesy to mild horror. Oh god, Karin’s going to try to tell a story.

I come from a long line of bad storytellers – I guess that’s why most in my family write. When you write you can revise things hundreds of times until they gather some semblance of order. But when on the hoof, my stories travel a dark and winding tunnel, stumbling over many unpleasant things along the way.

My dad loved to tell stories, particularly to large gatherings. These stories seemed to get the best reception when the gathering comprised his subordinates at work. Normally the plot was incomprehensible and included at least two botched idiomatic expressions and one major mispronunciation. To say nothing of the accent, which always got worse after a few cocktails. At the end of the – for lack of a better word – story, the group would be sitting there slack-jawed, wondering whether they were supposed to laugh or cry, and maybe this was a trick, and it wasn’t the end after all. Then dad, to whom in this case intention equaled execution, would slap his thigh and double over in merriment.

The rest of the party would laugh out of sheer relief, knock back a restorative martini, and then try to distract him with a work-related issue or some other shiny object.

It’s a harmless vice, this bad storytelling gene we share, probably originating with the Vikings. We're descended from a people who ended myths with “And then evil killed off all the Gods and everyone died.” At least through the centuries we’ve been practicing our punch lines.

(Oh, the picture above? I can dream, can't I.)