Saturday, February 28, 2009

Friday, February 27, 2009

I Coulda Married Pittsburgh

When we were still living in Mexico, and had reached the point where we knew it was time to return to the States, I had an excuse to spend hours indulging in one of my favorite fantasies: “What if I lived somewhere else?” After all, that fantasy was kind of what got us to Mexico in the first place. We knew we didn’t want (and let’s face it, couldn’t afford) to live in California again. We were pretty sure that instead, we wanted to try the other side of the United States. We wanted a city, but not a huge one. Not after living in a Mexican village for four years. We wanted a college or university town, with all of its resources and the young people that come with it. I thought water in some form would be a very nice must-have; She is somewhat leery of water; especially rivers. They might flood. She's a Capricorn. The cost of living had to be relatively low, especially in terms of housing. Good libraries, bookstores, a symphony, local theatre, and excellent medical care all figured into the mix. Oh, and the weather. Not too hot; not too cold.

Inspiration came from various sources. The Internet was rife with lists of the “10 Best Places to Retire,” “5 Cities Where The Cost of Living is Low,” “Best Small Artsy Towns,” etc. Good friends were moving to Pittsburgh. How about there? No, they ended up in New Jersey. What about that? My favorite scouting resource was I spent hours sitting up late, when our Mexican Internet connection moved the fastest. If came up with my dream house, the next step was to explore the local paper for that area, Google it, and so on. Sometimes I’d wake She up at 1:00 a.m. to tell her where I thought we should move. In not necessarily chronological order, here are some of the places where we might be living today, and some of the reasons we aren’t:

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania – too much snow
Newark, New Jersey –too much snow
Cleveland, Ohio – ditto
Columbus, Ohio – not much there, there
Baltimore, Maryland – too humid; too big; but great newspaper!
Kerrville, Texas – too hot and it’s, well, Texas
Jacksonville, Florida – there are 11,000 varieties of snakes in Florida. And crocodiles and alligators
Thomasville, Georgia – too small-town; too close to the Floridian snakes
Oxford, Mississippi - too hot
Asheville, North Carolina – friends had moved from there; said it was snooty and over-priced
Fayetteville, Arkansas – dunno why we decided against that one.
Norfolk, Virginia – too military

Isn’t it strange how we can discard a would-be life in the blink of an eye, based on a whim or rumor?

At some point, Richmond came up on the radar screen. It seemed to have all of our “wants,” and the James River was not a major threat, flood-wise. When we mentioned it to people, none of whom had ever mentioned it to us, they all had either lived in Richmond themselves at some point in their lives, or their brother did, or their cousin used to, and everybody loved it. Neither of us had ever seen it before in our lives.

We moved here in December of 2002, and within a year, She was sold on the place and wouldn’t live anywhere else. It took me much, much longer. After the initial delight of a new love, disappointment set in. It was much hotter and more humid than I ever could have imagined. I’m not really that fascinated by the Civil War. The James River not only does not flood (anymore); it is not easily viewable or accessible.

The first city I ever loved in person, and still pine for, is San Francisco. But the Lady of the Golden Gate has been unaffordable for decades. I loved Portland, Oregon dearly, but couldn't take her rainy mood swings. Now that I know I could live with her tears, she's gone and developed expensive tastes that are beyond my reach. Besides, I am (a) too old and tired to ever move again (b) beginning to maybe love this place. I don’t know why, really. And if I figure it out, I’m not telling.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Introducing The Pets: Miss T

Miss T is the only one of our pets with her own voice. We can tell you what Pancho or Billy said (they’re boys of few words), but Miss T simply speaks. There is no “Miss T says” to introduce her remarks. She will say something like, “It is simply too cold for a delicate and refined kitteh like myself to go outside. Oh no, dear, absolutely not.” She says this in a gentle, refined voice with a Southern accent, not unlike the voice of the character Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire. Miss T herself has always depended on “the kindness of strangers.” Her voice is so well known that even Shawn, a former co-worker who has never actually met Miss T, can do an imitation of it.

In fact, when we found Miss T, or Misty as she was then, at the cat rescue site, there was a sign on her cage that said she “talked.” I think they meant the little noises she makes that are definitely not meows—more like “eh eh eh” or “heh heh heh.” I don’t think the rescue people knew about the Blanche voice. If they did, government scientists would be surrounding our house with the intent of taking her for their own nefarious purposes.

I said earlier that Pancho follows Sheila around like an Airstream trailer. Miss T follows me like a four-footed member of the paparazzi. No one else will do. I am to be accompanied while on trips to the bathroom, getting dressed, eating meals, taking out the garbage, sitting at the computer, napping, and by all means going to bed at night. If she were allowed out further than the back yard, she would have her own little kitteh motorcycle, fitted out with flash camera, with which to follow me down the street.

She ignores but is not afraid of Pancho, and to Billy she is as the Peanuts character Lucy to poor Charlie Brown. Billy would love nothing more than friendship and trust. Six years into their relationship, he is still convinced that one of these days….but Miss T will have none of him, and when he looks at her cross-eyed he receives an automatic and almost disinterested paw whap. She will take over a cat bed just because she thinks he might want it. There are two food dishes, but the one Billy is eating from is the one she demands, and she has him cowed. Occasionally he gets mad and chases her into the bedroom, always and forever forgetting that he will jump on top of the bed and she will have skittered safely under it, just like a scene with Charlie Brown believing that this time Lucy will really hold the football while he kicks it.

There is no other way to say it: Miss T is a bitch. I know that, but I am enthralled by four white paws, complete devotion, and the voice of Blanche DuBois.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Beethoven Girls

We went to the Symphony last night. The venue was one of the several temporary ones the Symphony has had in the last few years. Last night’s was the First Baptist Church. In September, the Symphony’s permanent home will be the new CenterStage downtown, which is slated to open then. Meanwhile, all we had to do last night was drive down Monument Avenue to the First Baptist Church and slide in our assigned pew. The offerings were Beethoven, Boccherini, and Shostakovich. We are Beethoven girls, we decided. His Symphony No. 1 in C major, Op. 21 (1800) was the show opener. The guest conductor, Arthur Post, seemed to have the music embedded in his very bones, and it was a joy just to watch him. “Looks like Tom Cruise from behind,” we heard an old lady comment appreciatively. It was the kind of performance that makes you clasp your hands tightly so that you don’t make an ass out of yourself by applauding wildly after the first movement.

Since discontinuing Lexapro several months ago (who needs an anti-depressant when you are retired), I have enjoyed crying at the drop of a hat, and last night was no exception. Watching Arthur Post and his passionate young backside, and looking at the mostly-young faces of the musicians, I dropped a few tears of happiness in the knowledge that all truly wonderful things, including love and passion and music, are in safe hands. Had to borrow some Kleenex from She.

When we came home, we were hungry because having had a late lunch, we had not eaten dinner. “Let’s have the rest of the nut balls,” I said. (Homemade. Delicious.) She filled two liqueur glasses with Harvey’s Bristol Cream. A perfect end to a symphonic evening.

Carmen’s Nut Balls

2 c. flour
¼ c. sugar
1 tsp. salt
1 c. butter
2 tsp. vanilla
2 ½ c. finely cut nut meats

Sift flour and sugar and salt together. Work in butter and vanilla. Add 2 cups of nuts, and mix well. Shape into balls, roll in remaining nuts, and place on greased cookie sheet. Bake in 350 degree oven for 40 minutes. Roll in powdered sugar while warm.

Note: Eat over a big napkin to catch crumbs, or just stand at the kitchen sink and wolf them down. Serve with Harvey’s Bristol Cream.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Taxes With Zeke

She says that going to get her taxes done each year feels like a trip to the confessional. I agree that it is quite stressful to think about in advance, but once we are in our CPA’s office, tucked into our respective chairs, we are as content as two clams. John is “Mr. Virginia” personified: charming as all get-out and possessed of a wicked sense of humor. I don’t pay any of my other friends for a pleasant hour spent in their company, but if I had as good a time with them as I have at John’s office once a year, I might think about it. It helps to have a friend who tells you that you don’t owe the government anything and you’re getting enough money back to celebrate with a hot dog lunch at Melito’s.

Mostly, She sits in her chair and muses out loud about whatever or whomever happens to be running through her mind at the moment, I play straight woman, and John manages to participate without ever looking up from his Dell laptop.

She: You know, Gerald is only 80.

Me: What do you mean, only 80?

She: He acts like he’s 103.

John [typing]: If yew ah 103, yew don’ act lak anythin’. Yew jus’ lay theah.

Today we finally got to meet Zeke, John’s wonderful English terrier. We’ve admired his photos for six years, but never got to meet the guy in person. Isn’t he a prince? Don’t tell Pancho.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Introducing The Pets: Pancho

We got Pancho when we were retired the first time, in Mexico. No, not New Mexico. Mexico. We’d had to put down our dog Rosie, and we let our vet Carlos know that we were on the lookout for a small dog. That was a ridiculous restriction, because we know perfectly well that the pets we take in are simply the first ones that look us in the eye, and size or other pre-qualifications be damned. Thank God no SPCAs or vets have ever had a soulful-eyed elephant standing around on the day we were there.

On the day we stopped by the veterinary to pick up Rosie’s collar and leash, Carlos mentioned that he had a dog that we might like. He didn’t say a word about “small.” He did tell us that he’d been taking care of this dog (breed unmentioned) for 7 months, after one of his employees rescued it from her neighbor, who was abusing the then-puppy. We walked out into the small but clean area where Carlos boarded a few dogs, letting them mill around outside during the day. Pancho, who already had his name, ran right up to us, or I should say, ran right up to me. You must know that She has always been “the dog person” and I have always been “the cat person.” Dogs always prefer her and usually ignore me entirely, entranced by her superior dog loving personality. (More than one of my beloved cats cheated on me with She all the time.) Pancho put one paw on my knee and laughed lovingly into my face. He gave She a polite sniff and a brief smile, and came running back to me. And that's all it took, of course.

Pancho is a boxer. Not the biggest boxer we’ve ever seen, but a boxer nevertheless. Boxers are not small dogs. After we said we’d take him, Carlos offered to feed him first. I glanced at my watch, and Carlos assured us that “it would just take a minute.” It probably took under 30 seconds, because that’s been Pancho’s average dinner time for the last 8 years. Carlos also said that although Pancho was admittedly not small, he was “used to being outside.” That’s true. Pancho pees and poops outside and then barks peremptorily to be let back in. When he first saw snow, he wouldn’t go outside until he saw a neighbor dog prancing down the icy sidewalk. He has a big comfortable bed from L. L. Bean or somewhere. Inside.

The minute we got him home, he became devoted to She, following her around like an Airstream trailer. He never follows me, and if she is not home when I get up in the morning, I often get no acknowledgement whatsoever. But I am the one who taught him to sit and shake, to pretend to bite my feet when I squeal “Eek!” and to howl on command. (Why would anyone want to command a dog to howl? Because it’s funny.) He loves me when She’s around. He plays with me, laughing lovingly into my face. He loves to hear me chant “Who dat big brown dog wid de tail go roun’ and roun’?”

He’s our boy.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Sleeping Under Louise

It actually snowed this morning. Big, rapid flakes. All gone by 10 a.m.

Billy was asleep on my bed all day (until he moved to She's bed.)

Miss T slept in the cat bed under Louise all day.

Louise is my dresser.

Thelma is the mirror on top of Louise.

Pancho always sleeps all day.

I had a delicious nap, myself, down comforter and dark-day cozy.

She went back to volunteering at the hospital this morning, and is presently making dinner.

All is well. Oh! And the rutabaga was quite good, mashed with some sour cream.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Errands, Rutabaga, and Twisted Tales

We ran some errands today--my favorite kind: the library and a place with food (today the latter was Trader Joe's). I drove. The mail had arrived right before we left the house, and I brought the new-used Katie Melua CD package with us, asking She to please take it out of the package so we could hear it. We were on the road quite a few minutes with no music. "I'll be peeling the plastic off this thing when the world ends," She proclaimed. You know how those CDs are wrapped, like the Tylenol poisoner might get into them? She finally got it. Piece by Piece--great album.

When I was in high school, my friend Linda drove up next to me when I was walking home from "downtown" San Carlos, California. "Where have you been?!?" she yelled. "I've been looking all over for you! I went to the library and Safeway and you weren't there!" So my habits started young. Anyway, the library had a book for She that I had put on hold for her: The Old Dog of the South, by Charles Portis. You may remember Charles Portis as the author of True Grit, which was also a great 1969 movie with John Wayne. She just finished True Grit. Tara, who understands She's reading tastes pretty well, made her buy it when we were at Half-Priced Books in Cincinnati last month. The library was also holding Anne of Avonlea for me. Lately, while waking up from my nap, I've been considering various books that I read in my childhood or teenagerhood, and I decided that I wanted to re-read Anne of Green Gables. Well, no wonder! What a sweet book with just the right measure of sweetness and pretty darn good writing.

The sun was coming in the window warm and bright; the orchard
on the slope below the house was in a bridal flush
of pinky-white bloom, hummed over by a myriad of bees.

I had no idea that there were eight Anne of Green Gables novels, and I am now in the midst of Anne of Avonlea. It may have been magical to read Anne when I was 8 or 9, but it is an absolute healing pleasure to read her at 64.

A completely different book popped into my mind this afternoon, and I must find a copy of it. Years and years ago, I somehow came across the
Twisted Tales books by Richard Armour, and I used to laugh myself sick over Twisted Tales From Shakespeare. These involved couplets with a "real" first line from a Shakespeare play, followed by a Richard Armour invention in the second line. I still remember two quotes from that book:

Is this the face that launched a thousand ships?
No wonder there are keel marks on her lips.


Full fathom five thy father lies.
I pushed him; I apologize.

After the library, we went to Trader Joe's. The official reason for the stop was to buy the protein powder that my friend Toni recommended for me. The not-so-deeply-hidden underlying reason was that I wanted a buncha stuff from Trader's that I love, like the lacy cookies (don't read that, Toni!) and the potstickers. There must have been some other unavoidable purchases as well, because the bill was over $60.00. She bought a rutabaga. We were talking about rutabagas yesterday with our friend Sue, and I admitted that I had never eaten one. So tonight, I am. I'll let you know.

When I looked up Richard Armour on the Internet (I had forgotten his name until after my nap, when it popped up cooperatively in my brain), I found a quote attributed to him that seems entirely appropriate during this week of the signing of the economic stimulus package (please, please let it work):

That money talks, I'll not deny, I heard it once: It said, 'Goodbye'.

Billy doesn't give a rat's ass.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Death in the South

Richmond obituaries are different from those I recall reading in California. Granted, I was younger in California and perhaps did not read the obituaries as closely as I do now. By closely I mean that I mentally calculate the average age of death for the day, and if it comes out to be more than ten years older than I am, it's a good day. More than fifteen years older is a great day. Meanwhile, I am convinced by the content of the obituaries that the reason I still live is due to my general lack of accomplishment and the fact that my friends and family are not breathlessly amazed by the extent of my kindness to strangers, overwhelming generosity of spirit, beautiful singing voice, and unbending cheerfulness.

But I'm pretty well convinced that the South has not lost its grip on Richmond when it comes to obits, and that's a good thing. No one "dies" in Richmond, or very few, at any rate. They "depart this life" (my personal favorite), "go home to be with their Heavenly Father," "begin their journey to the Lord," "enter into their Eternal Rest," are "called home" and so on. Nicknames are extremely popular in the South, and they are always included in the write-up, no matter how undignified the nickname may be, or how seemingly unsuited to the photograph of a grim, cadaverously ancient gentleman or lady. Examples are usually plentiful, but I can find only two in the past few days: Emroy M. Adams "Boodie Bump," and Donald Hugh Etheridge, Sr. "Hawkeye." May they both rest in peace. Many times it is obvious that family members have written all or most of the obituary, and often to the delight of readers. This morning we were informed that an 86 year old lady had "turned to shopping as a profession, after a brief career in nursing, and made a greater effort to stimulate the economy than President Obama ever will. The vast majority of Richmond merchants will mourn her passing." What fun!

Sunday, February 15, 2009


I hated Sundays all those years that I worked. Sunday meant that just as all the Saturday chores and errands were done, and I was starting to rediscover the joy of life, it was time to get ready to start the work week all over again. Those who have never had a strictly controlled "job" 5 days a week, 8.5 hours a day minimum, plus 2-3 (or more) hours of commute time would never be able to understand that. A frisson of sadness arrived in my heart every Sunday afternoon.

But now! Just another day, my dears, albeit with that certain Sunday quiet and somehow clearer air.

Some things about Sunday:

Oh, how I love CBS' Sunday Morning. It's not always a great program, but more often than not it's a terrific package of good things about interesting people, art, music, movies and books. The program is always capped by what we call "the nature scene", which has been all too short the past several years. It used to go on for at least a minute, with no commentary save for the hum of bees, chirping of birds, and blowing of the wind. Now the segment is down to 30 seconds or less. I wrote CBS about this once, but they made no changes, if you can believe it.

I wonder if it's true that newspapers are fading away. When there's "nothing in the paper" day after day and especially on Sunday, how can they last? Most weeks, there is nothing I want to read in the book review section, nowhere I want to go (much) in the travel section, and nothing I want to eat, never mind cook, in the food section. The news, by the time it hits the Sunday paper, has already been driven into the ground by CNN, Yahoo, Comcast, and your local station except for very local interest, and even that is and can be covered online, with slideshows to boot. And that includes obituaries! More about obits another time. We have only one good local columnist in the Richmond Times Dispatch: Michael Paul Williams. When we first moved here, there were several, but they have all moved on--and I think because they were either asked to do so or were made uncomfortable enough to choose to leave. Well, there will never be another Herb Caen from the San Francisco Chronicle, nor another Jack Smith from the Los Angeles Times.

At 5:30 pm on many Sundays, I attend the Celtic service at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church. Oddly, although I am officially an Episcopalian, I have never attended a regular Sunday service there. The Celtic service is just about right for me: pretty much come as you are. The church is primarily lit by candles for this service, and the musical accompaniment is a piano, a flute, and either a harp or a guitar. Instead of a sermon, there is a very brief "reflection" by one of the priests, followed by silent meditation. Every service is opened by a poem or short prose selection. Tonight's was the title poem from Mary Oliver's book of poems called Thirst:

Another morning and I wake with thirst
for the goodness I do not have. I walk
out to the pond and all the way God has
given us such beautiful lessons. Oh Lord,
I was never a quick scholar but sulked
and hunched over my books past
the hour and the bell; grant me, in your
mercy, a little more time. Love for the
earth and love for you are having such a
long conversation in my heart. Who
knows what will finally happen or
where I will be sent, yet already I have

given a great many things away, expect-
ing to be told to pack nothing, except
prayers which, with this thirst, I am
slowly learning.