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.

Look familiar?

•September 22, 2013 • 2 Comments

Mr. Halfstory asked if I would gather together three pairs of clean dress socks for his upcoming business trip to Seattle.  This is what I came up with:


“Good job,” he said to me.   We have a problem pilfering each others’ things in this house.  Because the girls and I are willing to have sock heels ride up our calves we are able to steal both Halfstory’s socks and The Son’s; it’s a good thing I love boots.  Ramona was always stealing Yvette’s clean, folded uniforms, jumping into the car before Yvette was awake enough to grab her.  Halfstory habitually steals off everyone’s plate because, in his world, everyone has to abide by the 20-minute rule and then he gets it all.  The Son daily rifles through Halfstory’s sweatpants box – yes, a box, as we also have folding and storage issues – for something clean until his floor is littered with two used and discarded wardrobes.   I am more than happy to take the girls’ jeans; eventually they will outgrow them, but I won’t.  So, my question is not, where do all the missing socks go?  It’s, why do we need to keep buying more?  (Ok, to be truthful I get so annoyed at this I just wear unmatched socks on principal and never buy new ones.)  Why can’t we just upend everyone’s room so the guy who makes most of the money can have 3 stinkin’ pairs?  We.  Just.  Can’t.  Families all have their foibles and this is one of ours, benign and, at its worst, an indication of household laziness.

Rosemary’s family in We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (by Karen Joy Fowler) has much bigger problems.  Raised by scientist parents who’ve also chosen to raise a chimpanzee alongside their children, Rosemary is now having difficulty engaging in her own life.  She’s 22, crazy-smart, and damaged by memories that seem poignant but are both faulty and murky.  She has not seen her older brother since he left – he was 17 –  angry that Fern, the chimp, was removed from the family and sent to “a farm.”

I have a serious distaste for anything involving animal torture mostly because I can’t take it.  I know it exists.  I read the news.  And this book has some; it’s responsible for most of the tension.  But it’s not gratuitous.  Fowler writes with such engrossing detail about how the girls were raised, basically as twins, that the other details are tragic, but necessary.   And it’s not a book about an adorable chimp and her cute sidekick.  Everyone is an intense, well-structured and fallible character, including Fern, who is the most fascinating.  I particularly like how Fowler plays with memory, how each of us holds our own experiences so differently, even if we were raised under the same roof, with the same players.  Fern herself is a reflection of this, and sometimes, the image is not what we expect.


Who’re you callin’ Cuckoo?

•August 28, 2013 • 1 Comment

To read The Cuckoo’s Calling, by Robert Galbraith (a pseudonym for J. K. Rowling) is to have moments thinking “Wow, Hagrid’s got game.”  Such is the power of Harry Potter.  Let me clarify: Hagrid is not in the book, but Cormoran Strike, the book’s gumshoe, is reminiscent of him, only reconfigured as an British Afghanistan veteran with more intelligence and sensitivity than your average bear-shaped man.  The fact that he is investigating the death of a supermodel and dipping his ungainly toe into the elite waters of the super-rich and super-eccentric, makes for a good yarn; Galbraith/Rowling is one the best at yarns with characters with whom you want to follow or have a cuppa.  It’s not extraordinarily challenging, or surprising – but she doesn’t cheat, either; the clues are there and there’s a good little twist and a tasty relationship that – I’m guessing here – will make this a genuinely entertaining series.

Which brings up another point:  how much do you have to relate to characters?  What makes you stick with a book versus what makes you a “book slammer,” as I have become.  I think I have to attribute that term to my friend Kate, with whom I was walking and talking (not easy some days given my occasional inadequate locomotion).  She is not a slammer herself – or maybe she’s a secret one – but it was fun digging around what attracts readers.  For me, it’s timing, it’s do-I-want-cry-or-laugh–in-public-while-reading, and it’s authentic dialogue, even if character conversation isn’t the bulk of the book.  I listened to snippets of an interview with Elmore Leonard on NPR and was riveted.  Talk about your no-nonsense dude!  Granted, he was almost all dialogue but in that respect he was King.  One of his points was when he felt like he was “writing” he got rid of it.  I may have to pick up a copy of Rum Punch and check it out.  Here’s to you, Elmore.  Even though I didn’t know you personally I suspect you wouldn’t mind me using your first name.

Speaking of those with “game,” Mr. Halfstory and I took The Son (“I already know which classes I’m going to fall asleep in”), Yvette (“What’s going on?”) and Ramona (“Thanks for ruining everything, Mom”) to meet two of my four half-brothers, whom I’ve never met.  They were the product of my father’s first marriage, before he met my mother (who, it must be noted, also came to the union with four children; the half-siblings with whom I was raised).  Ok, so mathematics aside, they were very nice, and given the fact they welcomed five complete strangers into their circle, one the product of a union that basically separated their family, super-normal.  It was revealed, however, that our dad’s marriage to my mom was not actually remembered as a legal union by any of them, nor are there any documents or pictures or even folklore supporting my mother’s claim to legal status.  And thank god we live in an age there are no inherited jewels in question (that I no of), or Scarlet Letters to be handed out.

Needless to say I did not speak of this to my mother – who has bigger fish to fry these days – mostly because it doesn’t matter; I have a great step-dad and no real emotional attachment to someone who left when I was a year old.  The kids were amused and thoughtful but mostly nonplussed; frankly, there are more interesting controversies on Snapchat and NCIS reruns.

I did have a conversation with my sister, 12 years my senior, who was witness to everything awful in our childhood.

“So, apparently Ma and my dad weren’t married…?”

“Oh, who knows.  All I remember is Mom laying face down on the bed in that crappy green room on DeLong Street, crying like hell.  And I came in and said, ‘here, Ma, here’s the baby.’ ”

“Hmm.  Nothing soothes a broken heart like a baby.”

“Better than my dad:  ‘Oh, he’s dead.  No wait.  He’s not.  There was some kind of mistake.’ ”

“Oh my god, that’s right.  Jeez.”

“I kind of remember her and Nana sitting at the kitchen table talking about him being a polygamist.”

“Well that doesn’t make me feel any better.”

And then we had a good laugh.  Because what else are you supposed to do?