Objects in mirror are closer than they appear

•March 20, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Thirty seconds after Mr. Halfstory said, “you did a good job handling all the mood swings while I was gone,” Temper #2 flared up on the floor below us, like those fires that quickly engulf entire forests.  Within half an hour Yvette and I had covered six priority topics, eaten two or three slices of chocolate banana bread (ok, that was only me), lobbed a few threats, wiped away stress tears and I personally had snatched my pillow off my bed and said I was sleeping downstairs.  Halfstory lay very still on his side, hoping sleep would clobber him into insensitivity.  His shoulder massage contraption, plugged into the 40-foot-long orange extension cord snaking around the bed perimeter hummed, raising my irritation level, but only for a minute.  Poor Big Bacon Bringer did have an important early meeting.  I had a brief flashback of my step-dad – sweet guy that he is – turning around to address my complaint about our VW bug and how it seemed to be smoking from the back seat.  “It’s hauls your ass to school, doesn’t it?”  he yelled more than once, over the high gurgly whine of the engine.  I’ve reflected more than once that as little as my parents wanted to hear about my emotions, my generation of parents hears about nothing but emotions, via our ongoing encouragement to communicate.  This is good, of course, but sometimes I find I have to cut them off and say the thing that irritated me the most when my mom would say it: “It’s going to be fine.”  “What does that mean?  I don’t believe you!”  I would silently wonder.  Back then it seemed to me a big stinking lie about which I needed to worry.  This explains a lot, now.  So, clad in my faux-leopard-fur robe and seeking peace, I tried to channel (a):


while Mr. Halfstory was channeling (b):


He won.

I cracked open my book, Runner, by Patrick Lee, my chosen palate cleanser after The Goldfinch.  Expecting a Lee Child-ish thriller, I was surprised to find it kind of, well, creepy.  And I mean that in a good way.  It is a thriller with lots of twists, betrayals and implausible fights with weapons that suddenly appear and everyone knows how to operate.  Sam Dryden is ex-everything (Special Ops, etc.) and therefore equipped to manage the flight of Rachel, a 12-year-old girl he literally runs into early one morning.  She’s running from some kind of evil.  The mystery is finding out how insidious it is…and from where it originates.   Lee has an unusual way of keeping Sam in the background, almost just a catalyst, for the action and the mystery, except to reveal his tragic family history.  But that drives the story, too.  Usually with this kind of book, it’s all about what a bad-ass the protagonist is, and his inevitable choice to be a loner.  Not so much here.   Creep and all, it’s a timely brushstroke on thought control and privacy, with some cool genetic science thrown in.

Take no notice of the girl wearing pleated brown plaid

•February 16, 2014 • 2 Comments

We moved to San Ramon when I was 16; for 2 years I commuted to my small Catholic high school in San Francisco.  My mom and I would be dropped off – rather unceremoniously – around 7:00 am every morning on Market Street while my step-dad – early shift – went to work.  Market Street was much more navigable then: fewer aggressive vagrants, less brazen street crime.  But it was seedy and my mom and I might as well have had targets painted on us, me with my brown plaid uniform skirt (pleated!) and she with fashionable high heels and a purse crammed with credit cards.  I think that’s why I got a job at the Market Street Wendy’s: just to have some place to go for an hour and a half before school.  How we would have embraced a Peet’s or a Starbuck’s!  But this was before email or cell phones; modern cafes were scarce.  Nice Asian ladies working prep shifts in restaurants would often take pity on us and serve us tepid coffee.  Sometimes my scary boss at Wendy’s would let my mom in for their faux-java swill while she lambasted me about my bad tomato-chopping attitude.  (This could be the reason I hate making salads.  If there is a potluck situation I immediately assign the salad choice to someone else.  So much wasted chopping time when I could be rolling out cookie dough.)

My employment history continued along a similar vein for several years, mostly because of my commute.  You may ask why I didn’t just transfer to a sparkly new high school in the East Bay.  Let’s do some calculations.  Current high school: 300 students, all girls.  Social status at current high school: invisible but comfortable, which means I never got asked to any dances but I also avoided getting beaten up by local derby-jacket-wearing cholas, a victory in itself.  I put this solidly in the win column.  Plus, I’d figured out my hair situation by then (finally departing the Chaka Khan train) and I had smart friends who didn’t know how to put on make-up either and were willing to occasionally discuss the hazards of nervous sweat.  Potential high school: 1,200 students, half boys.  OK to stop right there; I’m sure you get my drift.  There was social failure staring at me, waiting to grab hold of my Class of 1980 sweater!  Also, I wasn’t as smart as the nuns thought; I didn’t care to have that exposed by 1,199 other kids.  The nice Asian ladies were easier to fool.

All of this brings me to the book I finally finished after half a century: The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt.  I read The Secret History, which I remember liking, although it was a bit like viewing an interesting art house movie, in that I saw it but didn’t really understand it.  The Goldfinch is a remarkable and long-winded journey.  Tartt is a tortuous kind of writer; her prose is so yummy and chewy you can’t help but stick with it.  I found, though, she used her protagonist Theo like a literary tease.  I rooted for him while being absolutely disappointed in him.  I slapped my forehead over his decisions and applauded his insight.  For as long as it took me to read this book I felt like I’d raised Theo myself.  So much happens to this painting and to this boy I cannot go into detail; read the front jacket flap.  If you like minute detail on art, drug-addiction, unrequited love, absolute parental love, child abuse, refurbishing antiques and seedy Russians, you will love this book.  I was riveted.  That said, I have penned a short letter to the author:

Dear Ms. Tartt,

I have enclosed the contact details for a good friend who is also, conveniently, an editor.  She will guide your hand as you delete all the unnecessary details about Theo’s junkie odor to Pippa’s luminous pallor, to name a few.  You will then have yourself a modern classic which, clearly, is your goal.  Keep up the good work!  Go Mets!


Alice Townsend

Holiday round up

•December 27, 2013 • 4 Comments

Number of guests on Christmas Eve: 21
Number of gingerbread cookies decorated by 3-year-old: 4
Number of bottles of sprinkles used by 3-year-old on cookies: 4
Number of hours early 3-year-old arrived: 3
Number of dead rats brought into house by dog once all guests had arrived: 1
Number of days dog has left to be part of family: TBD (Just kidding.  We love our incontinent, rodent-killing machine.)
Number of See’s foil-wrapped milk chocolate balls consumed: 71, approximately (not including guests).
Best sentence uttered on Christmas Eve: “You can just give my check from Grandpa to that Wounded Warriors thing.”
Best thing to happen to coffee since the donut: Williams-Sonoma Peppermint Hot Chocolate mix.
Most intuitive gift: plastic saltine cracker holder sleeve.  Softball road trips just got 150% more manageable.
Number of gifts without name tags: 32
Number of gifts without name tags brought by Grammy: 32
Number of absent folks felled by flu: 3
Number of absent folks felled by bad decision-making (sadly, 1)
Number of family gatherings where tamales, cassoulet and ham shared the same plate simultaneously: 1
Most traditional dish absent this year: lumpia (see: felled by flu)
Number of toilets that overflowed on Christmas Eve: 1
Number of towels used to clean above-mentioned crisis: 8
Number of new towels ordered online: 8
Most loved gift: Flavor Flav bobblehead doll.  If I have to explain this gentleman to you, you need to explore the history of rap.
Most highly anticipated gift: really expensive scotch brought by really rich uncle.
Number of gifts Mr. Halfstory purchased without approval: 12
Number of years Mr. Halfstory has been going against said instruction: 19
And, here is a list of books received this Christmas as gifts: Game of My Life, by Matt Johanson, I lIke You, by Amy Sedaris (not for the weak-hearted), The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion, Hyperbole and a Half, by Allie Brosh
Have a joyful and safe New Year!

Good Women and Dogs

•December 22, 2013 • 2 Comments

The last time I went camping I looked like this:

Nana and I at Disneyland, probably around 1974.

Nana and I at Disneyland, probably around 1974.

Based on the orange corduroys alone you should assume things went poorly.  I had terrible allergies, wore thick glasses and was sure I would wake up to snakes in my sleeping bag.  Or maybe a yeti.  In fact, that year, we did go camping and I did roll very close to a service road sometime during the night.  If you wear thick glasses there is almost nothing worse than waking up in an unfamiliar place without your glasses.  I like nature but I like it over there.  I respect it, protect it, give money to those who will protect it better than I would.  I would love a garden if it could happen by magic and included a donut tree.

So I was remotely interested in the flora and fauna in The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert’s new novel, because it’s in a book and I don’t have to sleep in it.  And, wow, there’s a lot of nature.  The amount of research is staggering.  Gilbert is a very talented and accessible writer; she has a way of making a homely mid-1800′s spinster someone to whom you can relate.  Alma Whittaker is a brilliant and disciplined visionary, having been raised by an uncouth, shrewd father and a severe, scholarly mother.  Through work ethic and some arduous and hard-won self-respect, Alma becomes a botanist specializing in mosses, traveling the world and rubbing elbows with the most educated minds of her time.  Clearly Alma is ahead of her generation, both as a scientist and in her quest to understand her own human, fallible self.  She is also, literally and figuratively, too large for her world and not blessed with looks or an appreciative social network…at least not until later in life.  But, honestly, despite this (mostly) fascinating epic tale, the book irritated me.  Why did Gilbert place so much emphasis on Alma’s physical shortcomings?  Why did she have to go all the way to Tahiti for concrete answers, and end up with dubious and nonsensical spiritual enlightenment?  I was ready to rescue poor Alma myself by the time she’d gotten to the magical cave, if only to assure her she was worth more than a one-sided roll in the moss.

Curiously, while reading this book, I took occasional breaks to visit Allie Brosh’s life in Hyperbole And A Half, a semi-graphic memoir (she writes a blog of the same name, through Blogspot).  All right, her post “A Better Pain Scale” is completely worth your time, especially if you’ve ever spent a minute waiting waiting waiting waiting on crunchy paper sheets in any emergency room.  Her book covers her dog obsession, her depression, her mom getting them lost in the woods, and all other kinds of fun.  I won’t get into the illustrations because my artistic window slammed shut and was painted over permanently around age 10.  I can draw a decent horse and a passable rabbit but I get stuck on proportions so usually the horse has too big an ass.   The chapters on her depression are simultaneously thoughtful and zany.  Nothing spells “bad day” like a pulled-up gray hoodie and nobody draws one quite like Brosh.  For those of us who’ve harbored and loved broken dogs – the dumb ones and the smart-monkey-brained ones – this book is just yummy.  Alice Townsend, for whom this blog is named, was a loving and neurotic canine mess.   She habitually ate all the tampons she could find in the cabinets.  She ate most of my couch.  She looked like a cross between a coyote and a wild pig, and for the first year she rode in my truck she drooled enough to fill buckets.  Once I came into the room and she was standing on the table at my eye level, eating the butter, and she growled at me.  She was afraid of: stairs, the wind, hallways and most men wearing hats, but not all.   She was a fierce guard dog for the kids but never liked anyone touching her.  And, as Mr. Halfstory has aptly mentioned, her incessant barking was “molar-rattling.”  And our response to this was:  Hey!  Let’s get another ridiculous dog no one else wants and see if our blood pressure skyrockets and our hair turns prematurely white!

I think maybe only Allie understands.

Joy and stuff

•December 11, 2013 • 10 Comments

On December 23rd nineteen years ago,  my soon-to-be-husband invited me to a local inn high on a local mountain to ask for my hand in marriage.  He’d packed champagne and flutes in the trunk of his brother’s BMW 2002 (aka The Money Pit).  He’d packed a boom box with a mixed tape.  I was excited to go but somewhat baffled (and, I admit, irritated) by his oldest brother accompanying us.  His mom was coming, too, but she was very ill at the time and so was trying to have time with her sons while she still literally had time.  The evening was cold, windy and thick with pummeling Bay Area fog.  His brother insisted on driving…miles up a curvy road while downshifting herky-jerky into first gear and singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”  Not sure why.  Too annoyed to ask polite questions.  Too car-sick to protest.

Upon arrival I exclaimed, “Wow!  Looks like people have been murdered here!”  The inn was (and still is) an historic lodge, accessible by foot (we were allowed car access because of his mom), rustic, romantic, and high on my list of Haunted Places With No Working Locks.  Poor Mr. Halfstory.  I said yes but we have never returned there, and although I remember all the songs on the tape, I think it might be stuffed under the mattress upon which I never fell asleep, being, of course, too scared of fog monsters.

Anyway, that’s my weird little holiday story for you, my 18 or so readers.  But here is something else:  to kick off this festive season (and to put myself in a less Grinchy mood) I will be choosing TWO of you to receive a surprise gift!  Don’t worry, it will not be anything edible, perishable, or living.  Or inappropriate.  Just put a comment here, at the bottom of this post and on Friday, the 13th, I will choose two of your names at random and mail you something small for the holidays, just as an appreciation for following alicetownsend.  I guess you will have to trust me and leave your email address so I can contact you for a mailing address.  Rest assured: I am far too lazy to be a stalker.

Here are some (new) picture books I like for gift giving.  They are ostensibly for children but, truthfully?  I love them, too.

Count the Monkeys by Mac Barnett

The Elephant in the Room by Lane Smith

Ribbit by Rodrigo Fulgeira and Poly Bernatene

The Dark, by Lemony Snicket

Any of the books about which I’ve blogged are gift-worthy.  But here’s what I like to do: while haunting libraries I pick up gently used books from their “sale” shelf and package up stacks of books for those friends who love to read.  Not expensive and they can pass them along as they choose.  They also don’t have to like them or talk to you about them later because they know you didn’t spend $25 each on them.

Here are some charities worth looking into if you are giving away money:

Camellia Network

YES Nature to Neighborhoods

Marine Mammal Center

Children’s Hospital of Oakland

Wounded Warrior Project

What to do with lotions and crossbows

•December 3, 2013 • 1 Comment

Something happened in my “notions” drawer when I wasn’t looking.  It exploded with moisturizers, and one sad little case of pale, sparkly eyeshadow that, when applied to my “crepey” lids, mocks me.  Is there any worse word than “crepey,” by the way?

Suddenly I need a lot of face cream. I was always kind of a moisturizer slut but it’s gotten out of hand simply because every season there’s a new magical ingredient or potion. Pomegranate!  Soy!  BB cream (which I still don’t understand)!  Coconut!  Minerals from the Sea!  I should back off Mr. Halfstory and his cache of secret-sports-related items currently stored in the back of the Hybrid Silverado (I like typing that because if you saw the size of it you would, a) ask me to refill the nearest silo, or b) slap your knee and guffaw).  I have no leg on which to stand, even if I know the $500 worth of extra batting gloves, extra turf shoes, extra “Vegas Gold” socks, extra wrist tape and extra rolling coolers are not secret at all.


Why? Because there are always free samples.

I found myself driving south alone at exactly 2pm several weeks ago and luckily Zadie Smith was a guest on NPR.  I adored White Teeth, liked On Beauty and am having focus issues with NW.  As always, Smith captures the souls of her characters really well.  There are just so many of them.  I am going to stick with it, though, because with her you can sit back and enjoy the chaos and stream of consciousness endeavors; her writing is fluid, and her insight into each conundrum is backed up with dry humor.  Many would say she needs editing, and that would be all right, too.  Best to read her after someone really starchy and spare, like maybe Stewart O’Nan.  But…if you ever have the chance to hear her speak, jump at it.  She was at the top of the literary heap at age 21 while still in school, and had a bit of a sophomore slump with her second book.  Now she’s a mother, teaches at NYU, does work for non-profits and is that rare beast: a lively, friendly intellectual without a huge ego.

I re-read both Catching Fire and Mockingjay (sequels to The Hunger Games), as well, over the Turkey Day break.  Then the family went to see the movie because after all our blessings we had to go see the latest dystopian epic and eat 2 pounds of Skittles.  Actually, all of us save Halfstory (who is still plowing through a biography of unknown origin) have read the books.  Wait, I stand corrected.  Yvette has not, on principal, also of unknown origin, and did a lot of heavy sighing throughout the film.  I think she was offended by “the predictability and stupid romance.”  I loved those books – and I still do – but, upon re-reading, found them to be incredibly tragic.  These kids are damaged, and should be, post-war, post-atrocities, post having to kill other kids and leave their families.  Suzanne Collins, the author, has done an amazing job bringing her own experiences as the daughter of a Vietnam vet, and the horrors of modern war, to teen fiction.  As a matter of fact, if there’s a chance to hear her speak of her childhood, tune in.  She has a picture book out right now, Year of the Jungle, in which she writes of her own experience waiting for her father to come home from Vietnam.  It’s quite moving.  I would not, by any stretch of he imagination, recommend The Hunger Games trilogy for anyone under 14.  My own kids read them too early, (as they did with the Harry Potter books), and they missed some vital nuances and concepts.  Also: they are truly frightening, which becomes appropriate if you can grasp the bigger picture.


Criminals and Mommies

•October 29, 2013 • 2 Comments

Oh, to be five years old.  One of my students, after I handed her the book she’d chosen to borrow, shouted “I LOVE Hallowe’en!”  “Well,” I responded, “first, try not to shout, and, you know, this book is about Hanukkah.”  I always feel obligated to tell them this because, a) most of them cannot yet read, and b) most of them really dislike getting home and not having it the way they wanted.  She just looked at me and shouted, “Well, I LOVE Hanukkah!”

I wish I was that flexible.

Long ago, while in the middle of a rant, probably holding a sopping wet twin, Mr. Halfstory said, “Do you even like me anymore?  This is your life, you know.”  The only thing that drove me crazy about that was the low, calm voice he used.  For fire/tiger folks like myself, that’s tantamount to setting a lit match on a puddle of gasoline.  But I was holding a twin and I regrouped.

It’s getting better.  I no longer have to make every bed in the house before taking the teens to school.  My mom-in-law has taken to wearing possibly the most obtrusive perfumey stuff since soap-on-a-rope (and in great, wafting quantities), but she can be an otherwise ok roommate, which is worth an aromatherapy candle.  Even poor Mr. Halfstory has benefitted from my hard-won priority shuffling: sometimes I drive the 70 mile round trip distance to the girls’ hitting lessons so he can watch recorded Premier League Soccer, a game I only occasionally weigh in on because I like UK accents.

Ok, so my teeth are ground down to stumps but it’s not like I need to masticate raw meat for the cubs anymore.

I found a fabulous book by Derek B. Miller, whomever he is, named, uninterestingly, Norwegian by Night.  Set in contemporary Oslo, it follows Sheldon, an American Korean War vet who lost his son in the Vietnam War and is (because his wife is also dead) living with his granddaughter, whom he raised, and her husband, a native Norwegian (Oslegian?).  As it happens they all live downstairs from three Serbians, one of whom kills his wife and is looking to leave with his ten-year-old son.  But…not on Sheldon’s watch.  And not on Sigrid, the female detective who figures out Sheldon’s game plan.  Throw in an old man who sometimes cannot separate his own battle memories with those of his son’s – and his guilt over his son’s death –  and you are left with an acerbic and witty literary chase.  Not only does Miller give you true Norwegian personality insight but he gives you a thrilling hunt, as Enver, the killer, tracks his son to justify his war crimes and Sheldon tries to evade memories long enough to make effective life-saving choices.  I hope Miller writes more; I’ll be waiting.

Then, handed to me by the lovely Aisling, I read The Mermaid of Brooklyn, by Amy Shearn.  Judging by the cover, I figured this book was a palate-cleanser, the breezy sorbet to my normal mind-churning choices.  But it had some heft.  And it took a few surprising and unpredictable turns.  Also, it is the kind of book for someone who, like me, was a stay-at-home mom for a while, and, while feeling both lucky and trapped, ended up feeling alien and incompetent.  Add to this a husband who hinders rather than helps, and the reader has a nice set up for a smart woman’s story.  It helps that Shearn is hilariously observant of all the modern Brooklyn (translation: affluent) foibles and the current preciousness that is rampant among families-with-loads-of-choices.  Definitely a woman’s book, though.  Mr. Halfstory would chuck it out the window and flip over to ESPN.


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