Sunday, September 29, 2013

Talk to me

So there was this guy in the 1930s, a financier, who, while a goodly portion of the world stood in breadlines, installed a Japanese garden in his backyard. Well, backyard is the wrong word; estates don't have backyards, they have -- what -- acreage? Estaterage?

Anyway, that's what he did. And nothing against Mr. Storrier Stearns; for all I know, he donated millions to and fed thousands of those in need. But lazy me, I'll just kind of doubt that.

Eventually, the property, which ran the length of Arlington in Pasadena, was purchased and subdivided by a Gamelia Haddad Poulsen, of the Poulsen art gallery in Pasadena.

Fast forward to, why, it's 2013. Her son and his wife own the Japanese garden today. Over the past dozen years, they have sunk their every last dime (turn your back for a second, and gardens will to that to you) in order to preserve and revitalize this piece of Pasadena history. The garden is open to the public once a month ($7.50 buys you a whole day if you make the purchase in advance), and is also available for weddings and parties.

Today, the Haddads share their home with the horticulturist who tends the garden, a gentleman born in Mexico and educated in Japan.

"Sir," I said, "You grow running bamboo but your bamboo doesn't run. How do you keep it contained?"

"I tell the bamboo 'You grow here, and you don't grow there. Plants are very smart.'"

"No, I mean, do you cull them, cut them down, dig them out?"

"I just explain; I talk to them."

This man speaks three languages I don't -- Spanish, Japanese, and Plant. None of which I could possibly learn in a two-hour visit.

I'll be back. Here's how.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Miss Popularity

As a new kid in elementary school, I always made lots of friends. A nomad, an exotic, I knew some tricks. And there's probably no greater testament to my consistent popularity than to say -- other kids traded lunch with me. 

Lunch trading was rather a big deal; it solidified your membership in a crowd. 

And I knew when I hit the sweet spot, the inner circle, because my new friends would slide their fluffer-nutter peanutbutter on Wonderbread in my general direction, in exchange for a sandwich of hard salami on pumpernickel slathered in Dijon mustard and topped with Roquefort. 

Nothing spelled devotion like trading a Twinkie for my apple, a bag of Fritos for my hard boiled egg.

What can I say? My mom's idea of a school lunch could have taken three sherpas up Mount Blanc and back.

At the end of lunch period, Kim and Mary and Lynne would surreptitiously wrap the remains of my trade, and almost all of it remained, in a napkin to toss away when they thought I wasn't looking.

(What they didn't know is that a new kid in a new environment is constantly on the alert.)

I didn't like their fluffer-nutter either, so we probably all would have starved had it not been for the deliciousness of chocolate milk in a melting wax pint container.

Most of all, though, perhaps my popularity had something to do with my slumber parties.

Everyone came to my slumber parties, and not for the food, They knew I'd have nothing on offer but sliced pears, apple quarters, and grapes. 

They came for the horror-fest. The promise to plunge the thumb of the first girl sleeping into a cup of water. Guaranteed to make her pee in her sleeping bag. (An urban slumber party myth, as this never actually worked).

And the Closet of Terrors. Whoever lost some game or other would get locked in the closet with three sadists and tickled until she peed. (Now this one may have actually worked.)

But mostly the popularity of my slumber parties hinged on my story telling abilities.

Because at midnight, I'd tell this tale:

A girl married a man and this girl always wore a blue ribbon around her neck. "Why do you always wear that blue ribbon around your neck?" her husband asked. And she said, "Someday, I'll tell you." So every year he would ask "Why do you wear that blue ribbon around you neck?" And she'd say "Someday, I'll tell you." And then when she was dying, her husband asked, "Why do you wear that blue ribbon around your neck?" And she said, "Pull the ribbon." And he did, and her head fell off.

I held a flashlight under my chin. As though, as though, such terror would need a prop; an extra drop of drama.

And then, almost as if on cue, my mother would enter the room.

"Anyone for more grapes?  Peaches? Some knockwurst? I can also whip up some blue cheese on Parmesan crusts, or a fig-compote."

Between me and my mom, we horrified these kids all night, and then from midnight to morning.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Life and the other

To Two Friends.

Life would be sweet, were it not for the nagging death-thingy.

That inevitable; the punctuation mark at the end of the line.Which could be an exclamation point, question mark, period, semi-colon ellipses (my personal choice) -- who knows.

As a child, because we lived oceans apart from our nearest relatives and grandparents, death wasn't a person, it was an object. Something shipped from overseas, in a box stuffed with peanut packaging and sawdust. A painting, a grandfather's clock, a clutch of letters written in a hand I didn't recognize, in a language I couldn't understand.

Mostly, death was over there, and kindly kept its distance for three decades.

Eventually, of course, death made its way to my side of the universe. As I was ill-prepared, death brought a tsunami of denial, more so than sadness and depression. And I found the experience completely and utterly exhausting.

What I didn't realize until that time: death cuts the major cord, but leaves so many significant minor ones -- responsibility, things we've done, things we wish we hadn't, devotion, care --  flailing around in space, attached to nothing in particular. And it's ever so tiring to follow these cords, trace their source, find where they can possibly end and anchor.

At the turn of this last century, I was in my office, waiting for a lunch date, when I got a kick in the chest. Not an ordinary kick, not that I've ever had an ordinary or any other sort of kick in the chest, but I got a kick that crashed into my chest like a 747 .  "Oh God," I thought, "is this a heart attack? Should I call an ambulance?"

I locked my office door, and for the rest of the day, just laid with my head on the desk, waiting to see if I would die.

When I got home, the call on my answering machine said Dad had suffered a stroke around noon. My dad was dead.

When I flew to Seattle, his three kids organized the events to suit our abilities -- one would take care of the funeral and wake, the other pack and dispose of his lifetime of things. Mostly, I wrote, worked on my eulogy.

We each wrote three very different remembrances. I was staying at his house, and my eulogy started with what it felt like to open his sock drawers. He had three sock drawers. Each so orderly, arranged according to the socks' color, texture, and purpose -- socks for skiing, hiking, running; casual socks, and socks for fancy dress. Every pair in perfect condition, some older than I was, and exquisitely darned.

My dad believed in a lifetime of use, and beyond; he could repurpose anything. I must have spent an hour or two just admiring his socks.

Anyway, I think my sister's eulogy covered his life in Norway, and accomplishments here in the U.S. My brother praised his career, and art, and courage. And I basically talked about socks.

What I didn't include was that when my dad left earth, he sent a 747 to my chest to say good-bye.

So I think there is something beyond the biological that binds us to those we love.

And I think our job, once they die, is to grant them safe passage. An enormous act of will, concentration, and of course, leap of faith.

Safe passage to where?

Don't ask me -- don't ask a person who can't roll up one single pair of socks and find a drawer to put them in.

But safe passage somewhere. Somewhere without a map or name. A place where we can see the ones we've lost, sense the things we dream,  find the words we need.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Working for peanuts

When I was about six years old, my family took a transcontinental airline trip, a red-eye. And I can only guess the pilot was of some Norwegian extraction, or had worked for my father's company, because my big sister and I got to visit the cockpit. Not only that, we got our wings -- pins for ... TWA, I think? Plus, most exciting of all, the pilot dubbed us Junior Stewardesses (this was the 60's, when they had stewardesses), and we would help distribute snacks to the passengers (this was the 60's, nobody sued).

Oh my god, we were jumping up and down in anticipation until the appointed time. Anne and I each got a tray of peanuts. I walked down the aisle and most of my customers were quite appreciative. But what to do with the ones who were sleeping? Surely, surely I could lose my wings if these gentlemen lost out on what was rightfully theirs.

So I whispered, "Excuse me." And when that didn't work, "EXCUSE ME!" As a last resort, I shook them. "WAKE UP AND TAKE YOUR PEANUTS!"

Halfway down the aisle, the stewardess stopped me and said, "You know what, Karin? As a stewardess, what we do is just show our passengers the peanuts, quiet as a mouse. And if someone is asleep, why then, we just move on. And this is going to make you very happy -- if someone is sleeping, you get to keep their peanuts!"

I don't know if I dared to believe her at first.

But it happens, you know. Sometimes when you think life can't get any better, it does.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Walk this way

Just a few more steps and we're almost there.

She's a one-of-a-kind. A tall drink of water. A long leggy supermodel of a house; one with, no doubt, an endless list of demands, each requiring immediate attention.

She went on the market a few years ago, at a very reasonable price.

It's possible I would have bid, but only after a due consideration, of course. A careful weighing of the pros and cons.

Pro: It looks like a lighthouse!
Con: The plumbing alone will break you.
Pro: But it's round!
Con: Have you thought about roofing? Siding? Wiring?
Pro: But it's round!
Con: What this house needs will crush your spirit, keep you up at night -- crying, leaking, seeping, flickering.
Pro: But it's round!

Fortunately, I have my own pile of rubble to keep me up at night, so I missed out on this golden opp. Still, my thought? If you're going to suffer all the shit home ownership throws in your general direction anyway, suffer for something fabulous.

Located on Grace Hill in South Pasadena, and originally a water tower for an 1890's manse, this three-story wonder has a view of the San Gabriel Mountains from La Crescenta to San Berdoo, and about 1,100 feet of functional living space. That's not counting the winding staircase in the middle, and all the air in between.

My photos would be better, but while engaged in some light trespassing, I ran into the owner. Albert saved the day; the owner liked Albert. She patted his head a couple of times, too polite to ask what we were doing in her backyard.

I said, "I envy you. It must be wonderful to live here."

She half-nodded, and tapped Albert on the nose in an absent, my-mind-is-otherwise-engaged sort of way. "I find it " she said, "exhausting."

Friday, September 6, 2013

Dominique's thoroughbred

This is Dominique. She's from France. Dominique wasn't in the market for a horse. But a year ago, she gave her heart to this guy.

Most race horses who don't make the grade at a high-end track face a dismal future. They're taught but one trick, and that's to lean on the bit and run. Rather the last thing you want unless you're a jockey.

But these two decided to write their own destiny.

They say soft hands make a good rider. Of course, that's true. But in this case, I'll bet gentle eyes made all the difference.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Farewell, Magic

Everyone loved Magic. And when he got sick, suddenly sick today, we thought, we all thought, the problem had a solution. Choking on a carrot or bit of grain, perhaps? Because the alternative was something no one wanted to entertain.

Magic was a lesson horse who taught everyone, rider or not, why we love horses. He was gentle to the bottom of his soul. He'd nuzzle the palm of your hand, whether that hand held a carrot or not. I can't imagine what it will be like tomorrow, passing his stall and having no velvet nose to squeeze

Magic left earth, embraced by this woman who loved him.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Shame [def, Websters]: A condition of disgrace or dishonor; ignominy.

I heard a TED talk recently, regarding shame. How shame, being or getting shamed, is a positive. I don't remember why it's a positive, so that's a negative. Shame on me for not remembering.

But sharing our shameful moments apparently leads to something or other -- probably self-knowledge, compassion, one of the usual suspects identified as our reward for enduring the really icky.

This weekend at The Huntington, I enjoyed the best time, visiting the galleries like a tourist, taking lots of pictures.

In the Green and Green furniture room, I composed a photo. Just about to press the shutter, a voice from across the room boomed, "MA'AM, TAKE YOUR PERSONAL ITEMS OFF THE ART!"

I looked around, we all looked around, to see who this idiot, this bumpkin, who placed items on the art might be.

And now we come to the moment of mortification.

Ok, here's the thing. The table didn't look like an elegant G&G table; it looked like just about every piece of furniture I own. A bit on the battered side, but functional. And no, I didn't put a Diet Coke and a pot of baked beans on the surface, just the Huntington's 3-panel brochure.

But still.

I melted into a pool of shame; realizing too late, that which I had taken for a table was not a table. That which looked like a table was art.

The guard added, her voice dripping with disgust, "AND NO PHOTOS ALLOWED."

About the photos, yes they are allowed, but I didn't argue with her. My sense of aesthetics had been questioned, and my answer had been all and most publicly wrong.

Which just goes to prove, you really can't take me anywhere. Worse still, I can't take me anywhere.