Now available at Blurb.com: My grandfather's letters from Camp Croft, SC, 1941-1942  "So Much For That"



My Very Bad Day


Once upon a time, when this blog was just getting its legs, I wrote that sometimes you have to write about the bad along with the good. (See February 2005) But I haven't done that, have I? No--I've led you to believe that I live an absolutely idyllic life in a perfect little mountain town. That the biggest problems are naughty sheep and markets that close at 8pm. Birds are always chirping, flowers are always blooming, dwarfs are always singing. Yadda yadda yadda.

But sometimes, 24 hours can't seem to pass quickly enough. Sometimes you question your judgment. Sometimes Mercury is in retrograde.

Take Wednesday, for example. It started like any other Wednesday--I slept through 3 alarms while the cats held me captive with their warm purring bodies, I took Joe for a too-short walk, then headed into town for my 3rd day of double shifts. I was counting on a quiet night at the restaurant and getting home at a reasonable hour (i.e., before midnight).

But all that changed when a small blonde woman walked into the bar half an hour before closing. Before she even took a sip of her beer she started weeping and I thought, This Can't Be Good. When my co-worker asked (rather bluntly, I'll admit) why she was crying and she started cussing him out I thought, Oh Yeah. This Is Going To Be Bad.

The cursing escalated in a Tourette's-like fashion to the point where we had to kick her out. While my co-worker hustled her out of the restaurant, I called the police so she would have a good, safe place to spend the night. When I got outside she was on the ground so I walked over and said, "Are you all right?" At which point she got up, called me a number of highly impolite names, and then shoved me in the chest. Hard. And then I thought, That Crazy Bitch Just Pushed Me!

Now you all know that I'm a peace-loving little liberal and the restaurant where I work doesn't usually attract Crazy Ladies, so I am not used to dealing with this kind of situation. Confrontation doesn't suit me. And I had a feeling that if I said one more thing to this fool she was going to punch me. So I walked away (the cops arrived to find my co-worker sitting on her back, trying to restrain her), saved a couple of teeth in the process, and tried to shake it off. I called a few friends (who were an enormous help in cheering me up--thank you!) and arrived home at the tender hour of 2am.

When I walked in the house I did the 1st thing I always do--go into the laundry room to feed the cats. But that night--that Wednesday night/Thursday morning--as soon as I entered the laundry room I thought, Something Is Wrong. Because normally my slippers don't squelch. And the 1/4 inch of water on the floor confirmed that Something, Indeed, Was Very Wrong. Namely, my water heater had decided it didn't want to be part of my household any longer. Since the water seemed to staying at a pretty steady level on my floor, I decided I would deal with it in the morning.

Cut to 6 hours later: I woke up and started making phone calls. Turns out only 1 company will come out to Norwood, and the place where they purchase their water heaters from isn't open until Monday, so maybe they'll be out Tuesday. (Remember, this is still Thursday.) Ok, fine, whatever. (I mean, it's not like I live at the ends of the earth. It's close to the ends of the earth, but there are people here. There are dwellings. There are things that need to be fixed. Does it really have to be that difficult?)

Meanwhile, I mopped the floor, but every time I looked in the laundry room it was filled with water again. Because unbeknownst to me, water heaters continue to refill even if their electricity is shut off. (Thanks for the info, Dad!) And to make matters worse, the shut-off valve to the heater was stuck. So about 7:30pm on Thursday I called my dad and explained that I don't know what's going on and then he explained to me that I'm going to have to shut off my main water valve. It should be easy. It should be the pipe coming out of the wall with the shut-off valve in your crawl space. You mean the dirt-floored crawl space that I've been pushing all the spilt water into all day? Yes, that one.

But, of course, when I went beneath the house all the pipes were covered with insulation and I couldn't tell one thing from another. Finally, after searching the outside of the house & making phone calls & carefully running my hands along all the pipes I found what I was sure must be the valve. I slowly and carefully peeled away the insulation . . .

and suddenly ice cold water was spraying directly into my face with the force of a garden hose at full blast. My immediate thought was, I Don't Think This Is Supposed To Happen. Followed by--not for the first time, mind you--This Is Bad. This Is Very, Very Bad. You never realize how much water is flowing through the pipes of your house until its relentlessly smacking you in the face.

Desperately I tried to figure out a way to make the gushing water stop, but each time I did anything I knocked the pipe and water hit me in the face again. I was freaking out, so I did the only thing that came to mind--ran up the ladder into the laundry room, called my parents (who are 2,000 miles away, just so you know), and started yelling, "I have an emergency! I have an emergency! Water everywhere! I don't know what to do!" and then I ran back into the crawl space and tried again to find the valve with water hitting me in the face and the phone glued to my ear. Obviously, I'm not the one who's going to stay calm & focused in an emergency situation.

After what seemed like a lifetime (but was really only 5 minutes) I managed to turn the water off. The pipe was so rusted that a mere touch had caused it to completely snap. I stood there in the crawl space, dripping from head to toe, ankle-deep in mud, saying, "Yuck," over and over again into the phone. Not my proudest moment. It was 8:30pm Thursday, exactly 24 hours since that Crazy Lady walked into my bar. The only water left in my house was what was on me and the floor. Let me tell you, when you suddenly only have 1 flush left in your toilet you use it wisely. (Have you heard of the $4.00 flush? It's when you either a.) have to buy a jug of water in Telluride to fill your toilet tank one time or b.) go to the coffee shop and flush their toilet in exchange for a fancy drink.)

Things haven't improved since Thursday. I got a cold from being doused with water on a winter's night, and no one can come to Norwood to fix my plumbing until "Maybe Monday." (You know that calendar, right? Maybe Monday, Til Tuesday, What About Wednesday, We'll Try Thursday, and We Don't Work Friday.) And did you know that snow evaporates more than it melts? So much for refilling my toilet tanks on the cheap.

But I've decided to blame all my misfortune on Al Gore. You see, Wednesday afternoon I thought, I Haven't Had Anything To Write A Blog About In A While. And if it hadn't been for Al Gore inventing the internet, there would be no such thing as blogs, and I wouldn't be trolling for fodder for my reading public. Damn you, Al!

And that, my friends, was My Very Bad Day.

Welcome to Rancho Deluxe

In Memory of John G. Bellai

 

“You could walk out of the house, but you always returned home.”

--Witold Rybczynski, Home

 

The people in my family tend to be a sedentary group. My parents have lived in their house since 1981. My maternal grandparents have been in their place since 1973. My paternal grandparents were in their home since time immemorial. My cousins and I have been the most mobile of our families, but considering that I lived in the same Los Angeles apartment for nearly twelve years and most of my cousins have had their houses longer than that, it’s not really saying much.  So you can imagine my surprise to find myself re-packing after being in the now infamous Big Pink for less than a year.


But today I bought a house. I’m still not sure how it feels to say that. It does induce a bit of nausea and “crazy spinning head” syndrome, but in a mostly good way. I mean, I know I SAID I wanted to buy a house within a year or two of moving here, but who knew that I’d actually DO it?!? We all know how impossible this would have been in Los Angeles.


When I first started looking for a place to buy a few months ago (instigated by the sighting of a “Little Pink” house for sale), I thought, “This would make a great series of blogs—the search for a home in Norwood.” But it turns out this has all happened so quickly there was no time for a series. In fact, I first stepped inside my new home less than two months ago. My friend Brandt was helping me check some places out and the moment we pulled up he said, “Hmm. Very ‘Rancho Deluxe.’” And so a home was named. And bid on. And counter-offered on. And bought and sold in 7 weeks. Sheer insanity as only I know how to do, because my first thought was, “It’s perfect.”


In the midst of all the negotiating and fretting, my grandfather passed away and it gave me the opportunity to reflect on what a home really means. It’s strange to think that I will probably never see my grandparents’ house again. My dad and aunt grew up in that house, and my family spent nearly every Thanksgiving and Christmas there. It’s the neighborhood my sister and I went trick-or-treating in. My cousins were always there for the holidays, too, and that’s what my memories gravitate toward. I remember playing duck-duck-goose with them on the front lawn and picking cherries off the tree in the backyard. My cousins taught me the only card games I know (War, Go Fish, and Slapjack) in my grandparents’ living room. One of my school friends lived right down the street, as did my great aunt Ginny. And I remember my grandfather’s ancient green Ford truck sitting in front of the house, complete with its perpetual “Old Car” scent—oil and sun-burnt vinyl seats—and their dog Fred waddling around on the grass.

My maternal grandparents also had a wonderful home in New Jersey that I will never see again. It was a renovated coach house for a mansion—a building that once stored carriages, stabled horses, and housed valets. It was a mile into the woods—the end of the line—and the six-bedroom structure with a gymnasium and (outdoor) pool at one point or another sheltered three generations of my family. My aunt and uncle converted the stables into an apartment. It was the setting of numerous birthday parties and a clambake or two. One time we found a secret room behind a closet, and when I was ready to have my own room at six years old, all I had to do was pick from among the four empty ones across the hall and shuffle my stuff over. I still remember my mother catching me mid-move and asking, “What are you doing???” My reply: “I’m moving out.” What a thrill! It was absolutely heartbreaking to learn that something I had such strong ties to was razed by the current owners, to be replaced by a garage to house their car collection.


The architectural theorist Witold Rybczynski wrote, “‘Inhabiting’ does not only mean living within. It means occupying—infusing a particular site with our presence, and not only our activities and physical possessions, but also with our aspirations and dreams. We live in a house, and in the process we make it alive.” I know whoever purchases my grandfather’s house will not realize or care about the dreams and the breadth of life that dwelled there, just as the couple who bought the coach house didn’t. It feels sad, but it is, afterall, just another of cycle of life. That’s what memories are for.


I’m guilty of the same thing in regards to Big Pink and Rancho Deluxe. My sentiments are completely independent of what the houses and former tenants experienced before I arrived. Lest anyone doubt it, rest assured that I will miss Big Pink. Houses rarely come with the type of character that Pink has honed to a perfection over the last hundred years. I couldn’t even start packing until I knew who was moving in after me. But when I discovered a new species of insector gigantus in my bathroom the other night that not even the cats would mess with, I knew I’d made the right decision.


And while Rancho Deluxe may not be as grand as the six bedroom coach house my mom grew up in, or as classic as the three bedroom home my dad grew up in, hopefully one day it, too, will know generations of stories.

 

“The ideal home is one in which the family may be most completely sheltered to develop in love, graciousness and individuality, and which is at the same time most accessible to friends, toward whom hospitality is as unconscious and spontaneous as it is abundant.”

--Charles Keeler, The Simple Home

A Treatise On The Gates

 

I went to New York and New Jersey last week to visit family and to see Christo's latest art project, "The Gates." After flying all Tuesday night, I arrived in Newark at 6am Wednesday, where my mom met me and we went straight into the city to meet Audra for breakfast at the Westway Diner (supposedly the inspiration for the diner in Seinfeld). Then we walked to Central Park and the Frick Museum, where my friends Matt and Miyan met us at different points. After lunch at Patsy's Pizzeria (where they make a mighty fine pepperoni pizza!) we walked through the park a little more until it started to rain, thus signaling a return to New Jersey.


I must say, The Gates were beautiful. At first sight they're almost shocking, and in different sections, with varying light and wind, they're downright breathtaking. I especially liked areas where there were thick groves of trees, but you could see little bits of orange through the branches--almost like a game of hide and seek. I was only supposed to spend half a day in New York, but I felt like I needed to see more and begged my folks to take me back in before my flight home so I could see the northern section of the park.


The Gates has gotten a lot of press--perhaps more so than any other Christo project. There seem to be two questions that keep getting asked repeatedly about the piece, which I must admit, irk me to no end. The first question I keep hearing is, "Was it really worth spending $20 million on?" To people who declare that $20 million could have been put to better use, I have this to say: Oh, how short our collective memory is! I believe it was less than 2 months ago that $40 million was spent for parties on one day for a bunch of fat cats who brag about trampling over the common people, and the city had to foot the bill for the security ($17 million) and the federal government has to reimburse the city for the parade stands ($3 million). (Get your calculators out, folks, that's $60 million.)

 

What is flowing through Central Park for 16 days is a monumental--yet egalitarian--transcendentally beautiful gift to Everyman. The City of New York and the People of New York did not pay a dime for this project, and the rewards are theirs to reap. Even the proceeds from the sale of memorabilia are being donated to an organization called Nuture New York's Nature. (I think my parents contributed about $125 to New York's economy the two days I was there.) If one million people go to see The Gates, that's basically a $20 gift of art from Christo and Jeanne-Claude to each person.


Which brings me to the second question(s) that bugs me: “Is it art?/How can it be art if it has no meaning?” First of all, at what point did we turn a corner in which art must have a meaning? Or is "meaning" supposed to be proportional to size? (i.e., the larger a piece is, the more mandatory it must be to represent something tangible) When I look at still lifes--paintings of vases and flowers and such--I don't ask myself, "What does it mean?" Maybe I should, but I don't. I evaluate the painting on color, light, composition, and execution. Why is it imperative that 7,500 swatches of saffron fabric must "mean something" but 500 dabs of pale yellow cadmium on a Monet painting get off scot-free?


When I evaluate "The Gates" as I would a still life, here is what I come up with:


Color: a beautiful, joyous orange hue that adds much-needed vitality to the grey, dull colorings of NYC in winter

Light: ever-changing with the sunlight, at times they are incandescent--they spendidly reflect both shadows and warmth

Composition: meticulously spaced throughout the park, in some areas (especially near Belvedere Castle) the effect is not as strong as it could be, but in others it's stunning

Execution: A+, professional, sturdy, respectful of its environment, easily maintained, top-grade materials


I bristle when I hear people ask if it's art, because I can't see it any other way. How can something so beautiful not be art? If Christo and Jeanne-Claude say it's art, why question them? But then I have to remind myself that people asked that same question of Van Gogh, Chagall, Picasso, Duchamp, Boccioni, Rothko, Warhol, Pollock, etc., so they are in good company.


To me, The Gates represent a dream of epic proportions. It took Christo & Jeanne-Claude twenty-six years to finally realize their dream--an amazing dedication of time and money--so that people might have something beautiful to look at, together, for a little while in one of the drabbest months of the year, in a city full of disconnected people. I can too-readily imagine how dull Central Park will look for the rest of the winter once they come down on Tuesday.

Learning To Soar (Part I)

 


Back in 2001 I met a fellow at one of my various places of employment named Jeffrey. Everyone talked about what a great dancer Jeffrey was, and Jeffrey is a fabulous dancer. Apparently somewhere around the age of forty Jeffrey decided to take dance lessons, and a star was born. At the time I met him, he was dancing, on average, four to five nights a week.


Despite my extreme lack of athletic ability, I was interested in learning how to dance myself. On Jeffrey’s recommendation I started taking salsa lessons at L.A. Dance Experience in Westwood. I enjoyed it, but after a few months I was very eager to try out swing dancing. Although he had never been himself, Jeffrey said the Pasadena Ballroom Dance Association had good word-of-mouth. So I packed up my dance shoes and trekked out there.


Did you know that there is a higher plane of existence right here on this earth? Did you know that there’s a gymnasium in Southern California where no one is judged on looks or weight or fashion sense or social standing or net income? Did you know that there’s a direct connection between your feet, your heart, and your smile?


Friends, let me be the first to testify that dancing is one of the greatest joys of life. The adrenaline rush you get from dancing is so pure and exhilarating that it can just rocket your soul right into space, do a couple of orbits around the solar system, and still leave you with enough energy to do The Shim-Sham at the end of a fifteen-hour day. Simply put, thanks to Jeffrey I stumbled across something that makes me extremely happy.


PBDA was founded in 1983 by sisters Erin and Tami Stevens, and currently they teach classes in various dance six days a week, have a ballroom dance once a month, and swing dances with live bands every Saturday night. I have never met two people who look happier in their employment than Erin and Tami. I have never seen them without smiles on their faces. I have never heard them raise their voice or disparage anyone, and their warm attitudes are an inspiration at the end of every long sixty-hour work week.


The dancers at PBDA are also quite remarkable. What I particularly like is that no one is there to become a competitive dancer. They’re just there to learn how to dance and to enjoy it, free of pressure or bias. I have met so many great people at PBDA, of every background and ability, and they are the ones who keep me coming back week after week. I love when I walk into a dance and see everybody there. They’re dancing and laughing and I barely get a chance to sit down all night and it’s the most amazing thing in the world. (God, why couldn’t high school dances have been like that?!?) I love when they compliment my dancing, even when I step on their toes. I love watching Tami dance with her husband Scott. I love that no matter how rotten a day I’ve had, no matter how tired or down I am, dancing makes all that disappear in a split second. It’s the most unadulterated, undemanding, unrivaled joy I’ve ever known.


I especially admire the men in my classes. Every girl on this planet knows what it’s like to try and get a guy to dance. The begging and cajoling and the fake tears, only to find yourself dancing with your girlfriends to “I Will Survive” at every wedding (because they couldn’t get their boyfriends to dance, either). Yet here are these fellows, every week, who have overcome every male hang-up about dancing and are having a great time. One of my favorite dance partners swears that he used to be so clutzy that he once got kicked out of a step-aerobics class for being a hazard to others. But thanks to dance lessons, he’s now able to cut a mighty fine rug.


The “lead” is not an easy job. First the male must overcome his paralyzing fear of looking foolish just to join the class. Then not only must he learn the steps, but he must also learn how to communicate the moves to his partner, assess her abilities, and formulate a dance pattern—all in a matter of seconds. I can talk on the phone, check email, do laundry, and cook dinner at the same time, but I couldn’t lead a dance to save my life. But here’s the really astounding thing:  even when I can’t contain my clumsiness any longer, when I’m all twisted legs and flying elbows and dead weight, they still ask me to dance again. That’s a real man for you.

 

“Thank the stars there’s a day

each week to tuck in

 

the grief, lift your pearls, and

stride brush stride

 

quick-quick with a

heel-ball-toe. Smooth

 

as Nat King Cole’s

slow satin smile,

 

easy as taking

one day at a time:

 

one man and

one woman,

 

rib to rib,

with no heartbreak in sight—

 

just the sweep of Paradise

and the space of a song

 

to count all the wonders in it.”

 

--Rita Dove, “Fox Trot Fridays” from American Smooth