Thursday, July 28, 2011

The new camera in town

Oh my Nikon, my Nikon.

Apparently, the world is either too light, dark, hot, cold, vertical, or horizontal for his delicate sensibilities. And that’s when he remembers to take his cap off.

Our conversations usually end in an argument, though he does most of the talking -- driving home his points with lots of charts and graphs and whatnot.

If I disagree, he seeks his revenge, and flashes someone at an inappropriate moment.

So maybe my old camera isn't so pretty, so smart. Maybe he wears an old athletic sock when traveling from place to place.

And maybe he’s a little slow on the trigger; has a problem with focus at certain critical moments.

But at least with my Canon, if I blow on his lens, he perks right up.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Norway: A final thought

This is a column I wrote for Patch, but I don't think it will be posted. Not their fault at all -- it's quite beyond what I've been charged to write about. And it's not particularly good, just heartfelt. So I'll put it here. (Update: This is also posted at Patch Altadena.)

Next week, this column will return to its regularly scheduled program -- the anmials, neighbors, and hikes; the simple and deep pleasures of daily life. But today, I can’t stop thinking about Norway.

And not just because most of my relatives still live in and around Oslo. The whole world was in mourning this weekend after the terrorist attack in Norway -- for the lost innocence, for all those children who didn’t see the sun rise on Saturday, and will never see the sun rise again. It’s almost impossible to stop imagining the horror of their last moments on earth.

Inevitably, Norway will shed some of the openness and trust for which it has, at least over the past forty years or so, been known. Norway will become a little less like Norway and a little more like – well -- like us.

Immediately after the attack, many outside Norway, including some members of the media, leapt to the conclusion this was a jihadist attack. I don’t recall a surge of retractions when we discovered the terrorist was a blond, blue-eyed, right wing, fundamentalist Christian extremist, a born and bred Norwegian.

No, the 24-hour global news monster just moved on, starving for more content. Now it is busy splashing excerpts from the murderer’s manifesto of madness in newspapers, on the radio, and of course throughout the internet.

Giving the alleged killer, Beivik, everything he ever wanted. World-wide publication, attention, fame. And while his thoughts and beliefs are only of prurient interest to 99% of the readers, for 1%, I fear, I deeply fear, it gives a sense of fellowship, a fellowship in madness. A promise their voice will be heard above all others, if only they can devise an atrocity of equal scale.

It’s at our fingertips -- all the news that’s fit to print, and all the news that isn’t, including the ravings of a madman.

Where is the equal time for those in Norway, the vast majority of Norwegians, who support a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural society? And all the voices forever silenced last Friday.

Today I heard a piece on NPR. An Iranian-born teen had been at the Norwegian youth camp on the day of the shooting. He was leading a discussion on cultural diversity. And I’m recounting this from memory, but in the midst of the attack, he found a young girl who had multiple gunshot wounds. She said, as he held her, “If I die now, just know I think you’re all fantastic. I can see in your eyes you’re afraid, so I know I’m going to die.”

For me, this girl -- this lovely girl – is the story. The enduring story. It's her name we should know and remember.

Friday, July 22, 2011

My thoughts are with Norway

Some say we shouldn’t think of ourselves as hyphenated Americans.

I’m a hyphen -- Norwegian-American, first generation from two immigrant parents, both of whom, as adults, came to the land of opportunity, and found it.

Children of immigrants can't help but feel they have one foot in another world. When my parents told stories of their youth, it was about cross country skiing in Telemark, not Des Moines.

We celebrated Christmas on the Eve, and ate ribbe, goat cheese, krumkake, and marzipan (though a nasty bit of business that last one was).

We had pictures of uncles and aunts, grandparents and great grandparents. And the flags they waved didn’t have thirteen stripes and fifty stars.

My dad taught us to respect the Norwegians who came before, most particularly the scientists and explorers – Ericson, Nansen, Amundsen, Thor-Heyerdahl. “Hey Dad,” I’d say, just to needle him. “How come the rest of Europe has so many great artists and writers, and all we have are Ibsen and Grieg?”

So he told me about Knut Hamsun and Svendsen, Bull, Munch, and some of the half breeds like Raold Dahl. I think he wanted to work out some way to claim Mark Twain.

He taught us all the fables, and stories of the Norse Gods. Some pretty good proverbs, as well.

“A minority may be right; a majority is always wrong.”


"Bak skyene er himmelen alltid blÄ."

I’ve always relished my hyphenated status.

I never feel more American than when I visit Norway. I always feel at least half Norwegian when I’m here at home.

But today, I’m Norwegian, only Norwegian.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

News of the news: The biggest story of them all

A photographer won a Pulitzer for a snap he took during the Malibu fire. It showed flames leaping in the background and a fireman dipping his head in a backyard pool. When it was discovered the photographer had suggested the pose, he was stripped of the prize and the shit hit the fan throughout the other major papers. They assigned me to help mitigate the public outrage that would surely follow.

We received one letter. From the same guy who wrote every Monday with a catalog of our previous week's grammatical errors.

The media are never so fascinated and frantic as when it's one of their own.

Like when the roughing up of Anderson Cooper stole the headline from the Egyptian revolution. The molestation of the 60 Minutes reporter made the revolution disappear entirely.

I'd never heard of the News of the World, but by most accounts, it is, was, typical junk news. I'm shocked, shocked to know corruption has been going on in there.

And now, the breathless accounts of every bit of testimony and every apology, then the editorials and critiques on every bit of testimony and every apology.

"After listening to Rupert Murdoch today, would you say we learned anything we didn't know before?"

"No, what I find particularly interesting is that he didn't tell us anything new at all."

"And James Murdoch?"

"The astonishing fact is, there were no new revelations in his testimony, either."

"Thank you, Lisa."

"Thank you, Steve."

(By the way, the picture I saw of Rupert and his young wife reminded me of this.)

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Midweek Matinee: Double Feature!

There’s a dead rat in my pantry, but his loss is your gain. Because rather than deal with the elephant in the next room, as it were, I have been watching movie clips.

So while I go don my hazmat gear, I'll leave you to it.

Waiting for Guffman

Corky St Claire was an off-(off, off, off, off) Broadway director who now directs community theater in Blaine, Missouri. And he thinks Guffman, a Broadway producer will be in the audience for the upcoming show.


Lost in America

Albert Brooks plays an advertising executive. He and his wife sell their house and all their belongings and go off in an RV to discover America and touch Indians.
They stop in Las Vegas where his wife promptly loses their entire nest egg on the roulette wheel.
Brooks tries to convince the Casino owner to give the money back.


Saturday, July 16, 2011

Variations on a theme

There are two kinds of people in the world. Or a hundred thousand million, math escapes me. But for the sake of argument, let’s say two: Those who play maudlin and heavily orchestrated songs after a bad break-up, and those who – well, come on, there are no others.

Enter Phil Collins. This American Life, my favorite radio show, devoted the hour to break-ups, and this would have probably flown beneath my radar, except someone mentioned a Phil Collins song. Not THE Phil Collins Song.

It’s the mid 1990’s. I'm getting divorced. And I think I weigh about 10 pounds. Because when I’m extremely unhappy, I’ll indulge in every vice except gluttony. A sad me is bad enough; I think a sad and fat me would be more than the universe could bear.

But I'm at work, and feel hungry for the first time in days. So I visit a bank of vending machines. In this room, usually the TV plays soaps to an empty house. This time it's tuned to MTV. Almost on cue, as soon as I punch in the Snicker’s code, this starts to play.

And I think about when I was a kid, with long free arms, out of control and twirling, constantly sweeping fragile objects off the shelf. Breaking things, and wishing to turn back the clock.

I sometimes wonder whether it gives me comfort or pain to know I haven't been heartless, only careless.

That was the second and last time I would ever miss, regret, someone so badly again. The skirt slipped one more inch down my hips. There would be no Snickers today. It was the punt out of Eden and the beginning of a philosophical outlook. Learning to touch living things gently.

Because, while some of us may find true love, all of us at one time or another will surely lose it.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The new addition

Yes, it's adopted, but comes from a good family, with the right sort of early training.

Still, we're both a little shy.

It needed some extra equipment, so I took it to Samy’s. “Uhm, I’m not sure how this all works. Maybe you can help explain a few things. See, I’ve only ever had a point and click.”

“You mean like that one?” he said, gesturing to something very unfamiliar indeed.

“No,” I said. “Like the one in your window, the one with the tag that says ‘Even Your Toddler Can Save a Memory.’”

“Oh,” he said. “You know what? Excuse me for a second, I just remembered something. But if I take more than a half hour, feel free to talk to my assistant.”

After awhile, I figured a better place to start would be to let the Nikon tagalong with my Canon. Get to know the lay of the land and how we function around here. Explain the process, as in, we see a thing, shoot, upload, download, and sharpen that thing, then go to bed.

Given its upbringing, the Nikon finds this rather strange. But when in Rome…

We’re making progress. So far, it enjoys the outdoors

is willing to give sports a try

gets along with animals

and after a little effort, takes a pretty picture.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

A favor

I don't often ask that you visit my Patch piece. Perhaps for good reason.

But would you give a little foot traffic today? It has something to do with community responsibility, outsourcing, and how fundamental obligations got lost along the way.

Don't worry about this guy, though. He lucked out.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

I forgot the camera

Ok, so on the Huntington tour today, I had a family – father, mother, daughter, son -- from Central Mexico, near Monterrey. And the father, aside from being a total dish, knew everything about every succulent that grows in the Americas.

We had a bet about the euphorbia. I said they were only indigenous to the Old World; he claimed some came from Mexico. We made other bets along the way about this and that, and sealed them by shaking hands, over and over. “You’re wrong.” “No, you’re wrong.”

But we were in total agreement on convergent evolution.

I liked this family immensely. They’re visiting every desert garden in California, and have already made the trip to LotusLand, with some side trips to the wine country. In addition to the usual succulent garden suspects, they’re also stopping in Anza Borrego and Joshua Tree. Apparently, their private collection back home is pretty extensive.

When I asked my usual stumper question about the five Mediterranean climates in the world, he immediately named them, but added Argentina.

“You’re wrong,” I said. “No, you’re wrong,” he said.

I think he is the great grandson of Don Evaristo. I know he’s descended from the family that owned the oldest winery in the Americas, Casa Madero. Likely, because we argued about wine, and there were other indications as well, he is the current owner.

He asked how we’d settle all these bets, and what was at stake. I said they were bets of honor.

Turns out, I was wrong about the euphorbia. Upon my honor. But I was right about Argentina.

The other family on the tour – a mother and father originally from China and daughter born here, translated some of the Chinese characters in the Chinese Garden. “This one is a poem. It says, ‘When something gives you pleasure, you should paint a picture.’”

Thursday, July 7, 2011

To have and have not

How do you suppose they got here? Hard work, nose to the grindstone? Maybe investments – buying low and selling high (now there’s a concept). Or lawyer, doctor, Indian Chief.

My friend guesses inheritance. He says this dismissively. My friend is six foot one in his stocking feet, which of course he did all by himself. And he takes full responsibility for his own blue eyes, ear for music, and 140 IQ.

If he is right about inheritance, though, I think it takes a very clever person to be born rich -- true foresight and excellent planning. While most of us wile away our pre-life playing pong in the primordial ooze, a very few spend the time in lengthy negotiations with fate and the universe.

I couldn't live here -- for several reasons. Too much dusting involved. Grouting and whatnot. I'd misplace car keys, library books, and other important things. I have enough to lose already.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

My adventures in babysitting

For reasons good or bad, in the late sixties and early seventies, 12-year old girls took charge of neighbors’ home and hearth every Saturday evening, from 7 to midnight.

Times have changed, of course. These days, friends of mine with young kids hire only sitters who can produce proof of a PHd in physics and clean FBI scan.

But back in the day, we pre-teeners had our selling-points, mainly in the realm of availability and price.

I don’t know what parents expected us to do if a real emergency occurred, call one of the numbers they left, I guess –Drinks at the Pattersons, Dinner and Dancing at the club, Nightcap at the Paulsens.

Fortunately, my babysitting career passed without major incident, particularly before boys entered the picture.

I was a popular choice, if not with the parents, at least with their kids. The youngsters and I agreed on a live and let live code. They went their way, I went mine. They had things to do, and so did I.

First on my agenda was an excavation of all frozen desserts, followed by kitchen cabinet surfing. Twelve is a very opinionated age, and I handed down harsh judgments if a family stocked Hydrox rather than Oreos, or popsicles instead of Heath bars. Outright condemnation if the only thing on offer was fruit.

Next on the docket, a few chats with my friends on the Princess phone (“He likes you.” “No, he likes you.” “You’re crazy.” “No, you’re crazy.” “Want to spend the night next Saturday?” “I can’t, I have to babysit.”)

But mostly, I spent my hours in the bathroom at the dressing table. Her bathroom, her dressing table. The one belonging to the glamorous mother who left the house in a cloud of L’air Du Temps, with L’Oreal eyes and Revlon cheeks.

I emptied all the make-up drawers, and studied then applied everything in the arsenal. Eyeliner, kohl, blue mascara, eyeshadow, at least five different lipsticks. And perfume. Shimmer stick on the cheekbones (or someplace approximating the cheekbones), and Maybelline brows. Some dressing tables had an overhead sunlamp, so I’d camp out under the lights for awhile and tan.

By the time I was finished, the kids would be crashed in front of the TV, and that’s where I’d end up too, until the parents came home.

The father would carry the kids to bed (“Were they any trouble?” “No, they’re always good.”), and I’d pocket my $15 and wait for the ride home, shiny and rosy with my iridescent eyes and You’ve Got the Look blush.

If they noticed I began the evening as a 12 year old and ended up as a pocket Raquel Welch, they never said anything. Probably because good help was hard to find.

On the ride home, the fathers were easy to talk to, or more exactly, listen to. They’d be expansive, philosophical, with lots of advice about how being young is this and happiness that, and enjoying my time and freedom. Whatever it was, I’d nod my head, giving off a cloud of L’air du Temps.

Because with these fathers, if they drove you home after midnight, and I say this with no subtext implied, all you had to do was agree and smile, and, when we got to my house, they’d pull out the wallet and tip an extra dollar or two.

“I don’t suppose you’ll remember what I told you,” a father would say. Time would prove him wrong -- I do remember that I don’t remember. And yet I know.

Monday, July 4, 2011

America, my corner

The leaves of a certain mimosa plant shrink away from the touch of a human hand. Here, we call it the sensitive plant; in Viet Nam, it’s known as the shy bush. I have yet to meet a man, woman, or child who didn't find this fauna-like flora behavior absolutely irresistible. You can't not touch it.

The tours I lead at Huntington Gardens never get old. They all kind of start the same way – like it’s my duty, as touree, to say something, and their duty, as tourist, to listen.

But I let them know, pretty much off the bat, that’s not the sort of tour they’re going to get.

It’s going to be a conversation.

And there’s always a person or ten or twenty visiting from another country. When we reach a garden that is more their area of expertise than mine, not only do they have more information about the plants and culture than I, they start to share it.

Stories about India, Mexico, Brazil, Korea, Japan, Russia, England, Kenya, Germany, Australia … “When I was a child, we always picked this flower because…” or “We believe this tree brings…” and “Oh, I remember this from…”

At the end, we always shake hands, sometimes we hug, occasionally, they take my picture. I've decided to start taking theirs.

Half of the folks on most of my tours traveled from the four corners of the earth to get to my backyard. What an honor.

Happy 4th.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Why wait?

You Go, Altadena. At no charge.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Desert Island Books

There was a time in France when it seemed wise to hop the next train from Paris to Marseille and then points south. And it was late afternoon and the train would arrive in Nice around midnight.

My seat was on one side and across the aisle there was seating for four. Directly across from me there were two men and a woman. They talked the whole way. But rudely, you know – in French. With absolutely no consideration that the person on the other side of aisle had only basics enough to order a ham sandwich, call a taxi, and say my husband will be arriving early tomorrow morning. Not necessarily in that order.

I hadn’t slept in two days. And usually the motion of a train is so soothing. But my brain kept trying to puzzle out the conversation on the other side of the aisle.

Worse, the woman was very animated, with “Oooo, la,” and “Non!” and “Oui, oui, oui.” I couldn’t puzzle out a story based only on punctuation.

Torture. Those were probably the most irritating hours of my life.

So that’s why Finnegan’s Wake is off my list.

Washed up on shore, with plenty of food, potable water, dry clothes, and eyeliner, I need these five books to survive:

Marcel Pagnol: My Father’s Glory, My Mother’s Castle
Defoe: Moll Flanders
Kundera: The Unbearable Lightness of Being
The Wind in the Willows
A dictionary

And then, what ho? Another box washes on shore with E.B. White, Huckleberry Finn, and a Secret Garden. Oh, that’s cheating, I know.

Well, let’s crack that coconut. Life doesn’t get much better than this.

Gimme your top five. Oh, please. Because I love to read, I almost live to read. But most especially. I love to read in summer.