Honk if you like snakes

•July 29, 2013 • 1 Comment

We visited two destinations with individual snake warning signs.  Lincoln, CA was one (specifically, rattlesnakes).  Here is the other (Reno/Sparks, NV, mostly rattlers):

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Returning from the local Raley’s, I asked Mr. Halfstory if we could stop by the sign before walking over to the softball fields.  “Sure!” he said “It’s your vacation!”

I love the desert.  It wreaks havoc on my skin and I never want to hike in it, but I love the colors, the fry bread, the eerie stark landscape, and mostly, the lack of mosquitoes.   All of these factors add up to excellent softball  conditions as long as you have water, competent coaching, a visor, pony tail bands and no thunder/lightning warnings.  Of course, that did happen.  Because I was there.   Game stopped in the middle of the 2nd inning because of multiple lightning strikes near the fields.  Maybe it took out a few snake families?

There is also no lack of libation consumption on Planet Softball.  Buried under hotel ice packed tightly into coolers and hoisted from trucks bearing vanity plates such as “Buckslayer,” are Red Bull and Captain Morgan.  Not everyone drinks, but if they do, the libations are poured early.   The one thing we all have in common is the waffle/pancake machine, which – I am guessing here – is available for use in every complimentary hotel breakfast in America.  Like the individual Kellogg’s cereal boxes I coveted whenever we took a rare out-of-town jaunt (even though pouring the milk into the box was always disastrous), the waffle/pancake contraption is a softball shrine.

The Residence Inn did afford me some reading time.  Americanah, a novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie tells the story of Ifemelu and Obindze, who grow up and fall in love in their native Nigeria, and who end up being separated by choices in education, work and love.  It is also a powerful story about race, in the United States and in Nigeria.  Adichie approaches it in several ways: with Ifemelu’s lively and assertive blog, with a straight narrative about immigration and unemployment, and with the complex love story that is the centerpiece of the book.  I love her seamless and methodical voice; when Ifemelu is unemployed and depressed I could feel her despair and loneliness just by how she described the moldy apartment carpeting and slovenly roommates.  When she returns to Lagos, the suffocating heat gives way to pungent spices and makeshift architecture.  She confronts race issues head on; there were plenty of moments I saw myself in the well-meaning, educated, but ultimately uninformed white person at the cocktail party, trying to discuss liberal views.  The love story, while intoxicating, left me dissatisfied.  But this could be my own baggage speaking here; I’ll let you decide for yourself.

And then we came home.  Having squashed the sleepover The Son attempted in our absence, we were greeted by this table assortment: 3 individual-sized Round Table Pizza boxes, 6-8 empty root beer cans, three Sporting Greens (poorly refolded), easily 20 used, curled up cheese stick wrappers, 3 movie rental receipts (no worse than rated R, thankfully), two curious regurgitations from the dog (under the table and therefore unnoticeable), one or two clean socks (out of desperation I am going to make that assumption), and The Son’s greeting:  “Hey.  I slept in your room the past few nights because I just couldn’t deal with mine.”  But he took care of the plants, kept the dog from eating the smaller neighborhood dogs, watched that Grandpa didn’t fall, and was very responsive and sweet to his sisters, both of whom had rough softball roads, getting screamed at to hit the ball or make a play in 105 degree heat.

So this morning we shipped him off to his internship, hitching a ride with our friend, one of the partners in the company.  Of course, if you are 17 you don’t appreciate all the free food platters you are handed; you can only see ten minutes ahead and if it doesn’t involve more sleep or a burrito, it just ends up pissing you off.  “Hey, pretty sure my son forgot to sleep last night.  Just to let you know,” Mr. Halfstory texted to the friend.

“Fred Flintstone has gone to work,” Halfstory continued to me, “and at the end of the day let’s just hope he has the energy to slide down the brontosaurus’s tail.”

We estimate in the last two weeks he has gotten more things delivered to him than the White House Secretary: infinite pizzas, a “World Series” ring for winning a tournament with his travel baseball team, two separate gifts from his sisters, the coveted internship, and two bagels on a plate which his buddy came over and made for him while we were gone.  I suspect he has a future.

 

 

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Lost in the Graveyard

•July 10, 2013 • 2 Comments

I didn’t want to like The Art of Racing in the Rain.  As I told my friend Eyefish, books with dogs on the cover tend to be, in my narrow view, sappy yawners.  It’s like cheap eye candy to lure you in to veiled preaching on How To Be A Better Person.  I currently have a dog, have had dogs for, literally, my entire life, and come from a family that habitually sheltered stray dogs, the mangier the better.

Sally.  Her rap name is Salacious J.

Sally Jane. Her rap name is Salacious J.

Yet, I am a sort of a farmer about my dogs.  Ok, a loving farmer.  I do not think they are people in dog suits; I don’t believe they need clothes.  For awhile we had a dog we swore was a monkey in a dog suit.  Mr. Halfstory called him The Extortionist.  You had to get up fairly early in the morning to get ahead of him.  I concede this may be a more revealing fact about us.

I liked this book!  I liked it a lot.  It was weird, but I was happy the dog – Enzo – made his observations in a superior, often arch, tone, and he was an intellectual, crossing back and forth between yearning for thumbs and ripping up stuffed animals to discussing how determination can manifest into destiny.

I was also juiced to discover “racing” in the title meant car racing, not wet dogs running around in circles, teaching us about joy.   And, as a person who sees no actual point in racing, except the continued pollution of the atmosphere, it was rather fascinating.  Additionally, monumental things happen in this book; that’s tough to pull off with a dog as your narrator.

Taking The Son to his game a few days ago, I thought I’d visit the Benicia cemetery, as my maternal grandmother is buried there.  She, with my working mom, raised and spoiled me; I spent more time hiding behind her muu-muus than I can count, hiding from mean MaryAnn on our trips to the cousins in nearby Vallejo, and, as I got older, depending on her for non-judgemental encouragement.  But I never visited her grave because, ahem, it’s a graveyard.  I was missing her and was thinking too much of Jean Nate perfume and Easy Spirit sandals to let it go.  She died before meeting Mr. Halfstory and the children.  She would have appreciated my curmudgeonly boy and my girls’ anxieties would have been, to her, assets, not issues. So there I was, wandering the cemetery, and not finding her.  How can you lose someone in a graveyard?  Did I look like some bizarre ghost of Emily Dickinson, holding my sad violets?  It was strangely peaceful.  Later, in the game, The Son hit a seed into the right center gap and was error-free at 2nd base.  I think Nana found me.

I then moved on to A Girl Called Zippy, by Haven Kimmel, a strange and hilarious memoir.  My friend Teresa reviewed it: “Small town.  Big problems.”  Let me just ask, have we all read enough memoirs now?  I always reach for them, perhaps looking to understand my weird childhood, perhaps wanting to feel better about my own choices.  I am weary of the tragic memoir, excellent though they be.  The poignant ones, written through tiny details and a basically happy life, are too few, and often one-dimensional.  Sometimes I don’t need all the gritty details; I just need one or two and enough good writing to read the secret story beneath.  Growing up in Mooreland, Indiana, Kimmel barely wore shoes and never stood still.  Her brother was an enigma; her parents devoted and loving…and wildly inept supervisors.  (At least by today’s standards.  This is probably an unfair comparison because, and I raise my own hand here, today’s parents have to be completely alert all the time.  It’s exhausting, people.)  I also think it’s tough going to write a slice-of-life movie about nice people with great senses of humor; so much easier to write a non-stop explosion-filled action movie with tight clothing and f-bombs (Confession: I like those movies, too, but still, Salacious J. could write them.).  In Zippy’s Mooreland, everyone was god-fearing yet Zippy stuck with her own religious beliefs – one of them being she preferred to think of Jesus as her boyfriend.  If you’re in a memoir mood, give it a shot.

Birthday season

•May 19, 2013 • 1 Comment

We were frustrated.

Love my hat though.

Love my hat though.

The Son missed his SAT testing date (too much throwing up), lost his retainer ($400), and was not having the baseball season he imagined for himself (a little bit his own fault but not entirely).  I wouldn’t have known most of this except there are so many portals to check, assess and navigate, I really had no choice.  There was a highlight, however:  Mr. Halfstory and I examined our unsatisfactory shower situation – which has the same temperature and pressure as spit – and suddenly remembered: you can adjust the hot water heater.  Amazing!  Years ago we’d set it to a “child-friendly” temperature and had never reassessed.  Our children were never scalded!  We feel good about that.

One particularly irritating day I consumed:

Don't judge me.

I would recommend these only in moderation.

Of course, we did have five birthdays to celebrate.  The Son’s cake:

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None of my kids like frosting (appalling) so I instead decorated it with little signs to remind him of his loving mother.

Then the girls got thumped by a well-coached team in the playoffs.  First round.  As a friend and I often mention, our youth-sports-centered memoirs will be titled The Ride Home.

But enough about all that.

I am almost through with Life After Life, by one of my favorite authors, Kate Atkinson.  I saw her read from One Good Turn years ago and she seemed remarkably normal.  Actually, that day she seemed annoyed and tired; her talk was at 10:00am on a Monday and there were maybe five women in attendance, all of them – including me – looking like sleepy housewives.

I do very much like this book, although – wow – my head is spinning from its structure and complexity.  Ursula is born and reborn again and again (which means she dies repeatedly and in different ways) into the same family, each time living a bit longer and, of course, making different choices, resulting in varied outcomes.  It’s fascinating and inventive stuff and Atkinson is the perfect author to tackle this.  That said, it’s an exhausting journey, and, true to Atkinson form, one that has razor sharp humor and disturbing violence, often in the same paragraph.  I love how she reveals character depth in subtle ways.  Sylvie, Ursula’s mother, is loving and icy (possibly just a product of her generation but I’m not that generous).  Pamela might be an ally or a distant sister and Hugh, Ursula’s father, is her constant star…so far.  I don’t trust Atkinson, but this is a good thing.  A reader does need surprises, and well-written ones are always welcome.

Mr. Halfstory and I recently saw a bit of live theatre (it’s fun to type that), Black Watch, produced by ACT in San Francisco and showing at the Armory on 14th and Mission.  Small detail:  my mom used to drive us by this building when we were misbehaving.  It was abandoned at the time.  (Oddly enough, a few years back it was sold to a porn film company, but I don’t have further details on that.)  We would roll around in the back of the car, fully aware she was mad, and she would slow down and tell us it was an orphanage and she was going to leave us there if we didn’t Knock It Off Immediately.  I encourage you to google it; it’s a medieval torture chamber building.  Good times.  Anyhow, Black Watch is the story of Scotland’s famed Black Watch regiment and the events surrounding its deployment to Iraq.  I can’t pretend to understand why men go to war or want to go to war.  Or, for that matter, why they ever want to fight for their mates, especially when they are often responsible for constructing opposing sides in the first place.  So that part of it was completely foreign to me.  However, the staging, the performances and the timely subject matter shouldn’t be missed.  Plus, you get to go inside what used to be my orphanage home.

 

Mom was a delinquent

•April 23, 2013 • 2 Comments

My mother opened with:  when she was 16 (somewhere around 1948), she decided to not continue with high school.  Just because.  She took her older sister’s ID and got a job shipping movie posters (among other secretarial duties) to various agents. Only this was before the country was blanketed with zip codes and she often mixed places up, like Novato and Nevada.  She lasted only a few months and everyone kept calling her “Inez,” which, of course, was not her name.   Her scam was revealed and her other older sister retrieved her, returning her to high school.  This story surfaced while we were sitting in Baja Cantina, a non-swanky Mexican restaurant in Carmel Valley.  The girls and I were having a brief respite from ripe softball cleats, unmanageable algebra and the below:

to be fair, Mr. Halfstpry is a stellar laundry folder.  He also makes most of it, as does The Son and Heir.

To be fair, Mr. Halfstory is a stellar laundry folder. But he also creates most of it, as does The Son and Heir.

The girls in Carmel, because my mom and I have a monopoly on the unphotogenic gene.

The girls in Carmel, because my mom and I have a monopoly on the unphotogenic gene.

Reconstructing Amelia, by Kimberley McCreight, is yet another disturbing book about mean girls, but because it’s the 21st century, their weapons are more devastating and far-reaching.  Gone are the good old days of spitballs and the wrong pair of jeans; these girls can give you an eating disorder with Instagram.  I liked the book because of the pacing and because I am a sucker for a well-paced thriller.  It’s been thrown in the same beach bag as Gone Girl, but, in my opinion, it doesn’t come close for plot twists and character reversals.  That said, if you want to be truly disturbed by the younger generation’s 24/7 access to each other, go ahead.  There is a mother figure but she barely registers as a character, as I assume most mothers do for teenage girls.  Personally, I believe the younger set has far more going for it than mine ever did, and despite the problems on the horizon involving coming off medications (this includes my generation, unfortunately), I think we’re in decent hands.

Also read an incredible love story, the best one I’ve read in a long while, titled Eleanor  & Park, by Rainbow Rowell.  Yes, it’s a teen book, but the characters are multi-faceted, lovable, annoying, heroic and heartbreaking.  Taking place in the late 80’s, two teens fall reluctantly in love, then try to navigate a relationship complicated by an evil parent, a few bullies, a few unlikely friends, the importance of learning how to drive a stick, and the music of The Smiths.

Finally, Relish, My Life in the Kitchen, by Lucy Knisley, is the chewy memoir you may want to swallow whole.  An adult graphic novel (which sounds kind of edgy but doesn’t have to be), it’s the story of one girl’s upbringing as the daughter of a chef and a gourmet.  I don’t read many graphic novels but, as my friend Aisling observed, a cooking memoir in graphic form is exactly right.  Think of it as brain candy with a twist, and if you don’t want to keep it, you can briefly revisit your long-ago comic book desires, and pass it along to another hungry reader.

Glaswegian alert

•March 18, 2013 • 4 Comments

I was kind of a weird kid.  Didn’t have a ton of friends, tended to fib a lot, spent far too much time under the church next door.  Yes, I said under.  We lived in Diamond Heights, which, as I’ve mentioned before, was wind-swept, cold and hilly.  There was a lot of ice plant and rocks. My first bike got stolen the day I got it (This was all right.  Too many hills and I probably would have sold it anyway.).  Structures tended to be up on stilts, which afforded plenty of cool hiding areas for raccoons, spiders, delinquent boys and me.  When my tall stories were uncovered I began hangin’ with Matt next door.  We were the same age and he could talk me into any sort of shenanigans (nothing too awful, just your basic boosting Milky Ways and writing-in-wet-cement stuff – we were young).  The only problem with Matt was he blamed me for everything, even if he broke it and I was miles away.  But that’s what I got for lying to potential friends about my famous dad and my mom’s bottomless wealth.  And by this I mean non-existent and, um, non-existent.

So I picked up The Death of Bees, by Lisa O’Donnell.  The prologue is off-putting.  Having read Room, and The Lovely Bones and The Road, and, oh yes, Geek Love ages ago, I have experience with disturbing books.  Come to think of it, it’s a lot like Geek Love, the details of which are still burned into my brain; it’s really not for everyone.  But I believe in the weirdness of family.  And I believe in the extraordinary power of family love, even if it’s ghastly and messy and sweet, all at the same time.   So I finished Bees and ended up liking it quite a bit.  Two sisters find themselves covering up their parents’ death in Glasgow. They (perhaps) have a pedophile neighbor, a sketchy boyfriend, and two friends of the older sister who seem like trouble, but who understand more about loyalty and love than most.  Then there’s the charming grandfather who re-enters their lives.  Plus, they’ve got their own issues, which, because they’re poor, are not responsibly addressed in society.  As with valuable disturbing books (as opposed to gratuitously disturbing books, for which I have NO patience), horrific details are lurking in the shadows between the sentences; the reader will have to extrapolate, but that’s better.  Trust me.  Aside from a grisly opening sequence about moving dead bodies, the characters will steal you away and make you ponder your own weird family, like it or not.   Aside:  all kinds of literary incidents are happening in Glasgow, all of them dark and haunting.  Check out Denise Mina, for one, if you are a mystery fan.

And a few notes on my offspring:

Ramona on Downton Abbey: “It’s really all about silverware and toast.”

Yvette on The Son’s fiction writing talents: “All of your female characters are either going to die or they’re hobos.”

Boys:  Is Axe the new gateway drug?  Seems like every 13-14-year-old boy blankets himself in Axe until every adult feels like they’ve been shellacked.  Here’s what I told several parents of younger boys:  eventually they move onto SpeedStick Sport, with a brief, mom-driven foray into Tom’s Natural, finally arriving at Old Spice Fiji body spray (and then you can assume they’ve discovered someone they’d like to attract, or are covering up a lack of showering).

Viva!

•March 6, 2013 • 2 Comments

Aisling said: “What you have is not depression.  What you have is lack-of-Hawaii.”

I suppose this is why it’s taken me forever to finish one book, one book with only 288 pages, although I very much liked it.  I have been busy, not being depressed (although that is an excuse sometimes), but I have been:

worrying about 2/3 of my children visiting Cuba.  They survived the ratty hotel, the wandering cannibal chickens in the dining room and almost getting hit by the Cuban bus on the bike tour.  Ramona now has a ten-year-old Cuban boyfriend who thought her glasses were “very beautiful.”  The Son negotiated, in very, very broken Spanish, a trade for a professional Cuban ballplayer’s glove.  Yep, he still lobbed his helmet in the dugout but that’s a playing-time/personality issue.  He paced the stands when his sister was batting and gave her the “spotlight” gesture when she laced one up the middle.

worrying about sacroiliac injuries.  It’s true, even though the last time I heard that word I think Foghorn Leghorn said it.  Mr. Halfstory seems to have this, evidenced by him keeling over in a painful heap early one Monday morning.  Kind of reminded me of childbirth, only without the bonus of a yummy baby.

the drama of junior varsity baseball and beginning the softball season 0-4.  Nothing more to say here, except: when you are 16 and 14, all of this is a VERY BIG DEAL and you have to remind them playing sports is a privilege and if they don’t QUIT complainin’, well, sacroiliac injuries may occur.

driving the van-of-shame, which has morphed into the anger-wagon, rolling down the hill toward Geometry and Social Issues, steam rising from three sets of iPod headphones, knees folded up their ears (it is a Prius after all), incensed that school is a legal obligation.

When I was nine I crammed my two harassed-looking Barbie dolls into my sister’s make-up case, along with some Cheez-Its, and trotted down the hill seeking adventure, or at least some respite from my house.  We called it Hotel California because there were so many people, relatives and non, living there.  I was sleeping on the couch at the time, although I was destined for my own room pretty soon.  But until that happened I was subject to musical loops of Led Zeppelin, Santana and Tower of Power, and the ruckus of three older brothers and an older sister trying to get away with all sorts of stuff while my mom pretended to sleep.  Point is, I learned to take my brain away even if I couldn’t get physically far enough away.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloangives us the secret of immortality.  It is the 13th sentence from the end of the book, or maybe it’s sooner, or maybe you knew it all along.  You won’t see it coming, or, if you do, you’re a better person than I.  Written in breezy, youthful lingo, it’s a fun romp, with characters that sneak up on you until suddenly, you’re rooting for them.  Clay is young, hip, smart, and aimless, in that understandable but irritating way of anyone under 30.  Basically, though, he’s a nice guy with a heck of a lot of incredible technology at his disposal.  I must admit: I understood the “coding” portions of the book very little.  It didn’t matter.  Robin Sloan is a clever writer with a good grasp on pace.  And somehow, he gives us a hopeful slant on the digitized future.  As someone who doesn’t understand Twitter or Instagram or how my Facebook page changes every 12 seconds without me doing it, I appreciate this.

Here are a few Cuba photos, courtesy of Ramona, who brought back thoughtful gifts for all of us, and even at her outraged age, seemed to appreciate Cuban hospitality. Viva!

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On marriage and rickshaws

•February 10, 2013 • 5 Comments

It took me so long to read The Newlyweds, by Nell Freudenberger, I figured I would witness this couple’s fifth anniversary.  I carried that book around with me, mentally adding up my library fines, until I thought I was part of the family.  I decided, however, it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Amina and George, the newlyweds, grew on me, as did their strange little lives and crazy little families, right down to a cousin romance and acid throwing in Bangladesh.  Freudenberger weaves a complex story of identity, love and family; all the characters struggle with some aspect of these issues, or all. By the end, you’re not sure where anyone belongs or whom anyone should love.  I liked noting the differences between Amina worrying about her job at a Rochester Starbucks and Amina riding around in a ‘Desh rickshaw (that’s what us locals call Bangladesh).  Not a lot of joy or excitement awaits the reader here, but if you want a quiet story of ordinary dreams, it’s a good choice, and one that will make you contemplate your own.

Speaking of library fines, Mr. Halfstory, having racked up $6.70 for The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, jumped right into the newest Jack Reacher and plowed through like a starving man on a meatball sandwich.  I think Roger’s murder, controversial though it was in the 40’s, was not the conversation piece I was hoping for when I suggested he read it.  I clip many things for Halfstory to read and often just read stuff out loud because I grow weary of watching old magazine articles pile up on the mini-fridge.  The trick is to read it to him while he’s reading the sports section because it’s really fun to watch him turn his head slowly toward me, veiling the irritation while feigning interest.  It’s an art and I respect it.  It’s probably why he makes fun of the way I eat potato chips (I have no idea) and why he says things like “what can I safely say to your mother?”  Currently he is downstairs watching a Brosnan Bond film, the one with Denise Richards as a nuclear scientist, for the love of god, because the last three movies I’ve chosen have “all been about crazy people and it’s torture.”  As a couple, they cannot make Jason Bourne films fast enough; our love of Matt Damon has added a certain dimension to our marriage.  That, and anything on Masterpiece Mystery or something with Tina Fey.  Hey, what about Tina on Masterpiece?!

I shouldn’t dog him too hastily.  I took the girls to see the Dutch Masters at the deYoung Museum last week and, as we were leaving, he said without breaking his eyes away from the six-hour pre-Super Bowl coverage, “their use of light is incredible.”  There was no one in the room to impress; actually, at the time,, he was sitting on the laundry.  But it made me think we might get to our 20-year mark.  That is, if he keeps quiet about the potato chip issue.