Thursday, April 17, 2014

I'm really not making any of this up

I was looking through some old photos recently and came across one that I knew required sharing.

Dedicated Woodhaven Ramblings readers know that I have something of an amusing history attempting to cook and bake without killing anyone, going to the emergency room, or meeting the new guys at the fire station.

Just in case you thought I might be taking some literary license with my cooking stories or that my culinary prowess is a somewhat recent development, I submit you this:




The photo was taken in the early 1990s, probably our first or second Christmas together. Rob and I are sitting in my parents' livingroom and I have just opened a very appropriate gift from Mom and Dad:  a fire extinguisher.

This was in response to my early marriage attempt to make toasted garlic bread with dinner.  I got a little distracted and sort of forgot about the bread under the broiler and ended up setting off the smoke alarm.

Instead of removing the charring smoke source from the oven, I instead focused on trying to make the annoying beeping stop.  Because that's just the sort of cook I am.  As I stood on a chair trying to disconnect the batteries (totally unsuccessfully, mind you, since the alarm was hard-wired into the ceiling), the doorbell rang and Rob opened the front door to our apartment.

As a plume of smoke billowed out into the breezeway, a crowd of concerned neighbors asked if everything was OK.

Rob's timeless response:  "Oh, everything's fine.  My wife is just cooking."

I'd love to say this is my very first cooking-gone-awry story, but's it's not.  It was my very first fire extinguisher, though.


Monday, April 7, 2014

Still trying to get the water out of my ears

I had never heard of "floating" until a friend mentioned it on Facebook. She described it as "wondrous, eerie, and peaceful." She also mentioned her thick curly hair was a quite a sight afterwards. Naturally, I got right to Googling.

"Floating" is just that: you float in densely salted water. But beyond that, you are in total darkness and utter silence. For about an hour and a half. So yes, a sensory deprivation of sorts. And yes, I am aware that this is sometimes a torture technique. It must be a fine line between wondrous and torture. I am happy to report I stayed on the wondrous side.

Proponents of floating tout all sorts of benefits including: better sleep quality; pain relief (I was pretty much sold right there); stress relief; mood elevation; inspiration; and heightened creativity.

Physiologically, apparently what happens while floating is your body increases its dopamine and endorphin levels (happy brain chemicals) as your mind goes into a state of theta brainwaves. It's that place of "I'm sort of awake but not really" right before falling asleep. It's also the state people enter when they are meditating. In fact, my little Beginner's Guide to Floating brochure says that "Float tanks can also be thought of as training wheels for meditation." After my disappointing yoga experience in search of meditation, this sounded like an intriguing shortcut.

My floaty friend lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, so I thought perhaps floating was a new-agey California thing. I was quite surprised to discover that Portland is the home of the largest float center in the country. New agey AND weird!  Score!

What this looked like in reality was two...TWO...couches in the free-trade-herbal-tea-sipping area and six...SIX...rooms to float in. This largest float center in the US was about the size of your basic Starbucks. I somehow expected more. Yet, there is apparently enough experiential demand in Portland that the center is open all the time. By that I mean 24-7. When I made my appointment for 11:00, I had to specify "a.m."

Some of the fundamental things I wondered before I floated:

How will I float? What happens if I fall asleep? Will I drown?

No drowning here!  In this situation, drowning is against the law...of gravity.  Har har. The water is really really really salty. They add in enough Epsom salt (I think he said 900lbs) that the water is more buoyant than the Dead Sea. It felt really soft and slimy, in a good way. Also, the water is only about 10" deep.  Yes, normally enough to drown in but still very comforting to someone who continues to work on her aquaphobia.

Do I wear a bathing suit?

Nope. Each float room has its own adjoining private shower and changing room.  All natural all the way.

I'm not really claustrophobic but will I feel confined?

Nope. But just in case, I chose one of the larger float tanks, which was about 7 feet tall. However, once the lights were out, I eventually starting feeling like a smaller tank would have been better. More cozy and contained and comforting. That was an unexpected reaction.

How much of me will be in the water? Do I need to wear eye goggles?  Cuz salt water hurts!

Because of the buoyancy, I was about half-way submerged. My ears were under the water but my eyes never were. At first my neck and shoulders hurt a bit as I was floating, which surprised me because I don't typically have pain there. I experimented a bit and discovered that having the water at my hairline was uncomfortable. As soon as I tilted my head further back so that the water was a bit above my eyebrows, my neck and shoulders relaxed.

Although ear plugs were provided, my Float Tour Guide Guy said he never wears them. He seemed to have a lot of experience being in a floaty state so I followed his lead. I shall wear earplugs next time and forever more.

Is the water hot? Cold?

The water is kept at skin temperature and the air is warm so eventually you can't really tell where the water stops and you start. In fact, the entire center was rather warm. I arrived comfortably wearing a long sleeved shirt, jeans, and a coat. It was just a few minutes before I was peeling off layers as quickly as was socially acceptable. However, when I went out into the reception area after my float, I found it to be the perfect temperature. And the outside air was now startlingly brisk.

The allotted 90 minutes seems like an awfully long time.

At first it felt like I was going to be in there forever. I was very aware of time and it was passing  s l o w l y. But then eventually I lost track of it. When the new agey music started to play to let me know my 90 minute float was ending, I was disappointed.


So what was the floating experience like?

My friend described it really well. It was indeed wondrous, eerie, and peaceful.

It took awhile for me to just relax into being in this dark pool of warm, slimy water. My mind darted all around and I felt sort of hyper-aware. I wondered if I was ever going to get into that meditative theta brainwavy state. It was during this time that 90 minutes seemed like forever.

I tried touching the bottom on the tank with my hand. I eventually touched it but it took some work. It occurred to me that doing arm and leg exercises in salt water could be a really good resistance training work-out.  Like I said, I wasn't so good at the relaxing part at first.

After awhile, I started to realize I must getting close to the "float state" because I kept surprising myself back into awareness because the water was moving. It turns out I was twitching, as Rob tells me I typically do as I start falling asleep.  So then I started wondering if I was ever going to get past the twitchiness and find out what this meditative state thing feels like. Lots and lots of wondering.

And then it happened.

I wasn't asleep but I wasn't aware of my body or the water or any twitches. And boy, was my mind going! I was having all sorts of ideas that came and stared at me and then flitted away like a hummingbird. I started to imagine they...these ideas which I can't remember...were fire flies that I was trying to catch. Interestingly, I was amused by my inability to catch them. In normal life, I would have been getting just a touch frustrated.

There was only one idea that I still remember. It came through very loudly and definitively. It was a little voice that said, "Your body is beautiful. No judgements."

Whaaatt??

I've been sitting with this for a few days. While I will admit that I have been obsessing a bit about losing my "winter coat" of a few extra pounds, I really don't think that was the extent of the message.

I have long been amazed by the construction of the human body and how all the organs know how to work in just the right coordination to keep us alive. I have described this system as beautiful.

I have come to think the message -- instead of being about physical appearance -- was more about not being so annoyed that some of my body parts aren't working like they used to. That even though my back and foot and knee and hormones are all evolving into a new normal, my body...all our bodies...is still a beautiful, wondrous, awesome creation. And I really need to stop discounting that just because a few things aren't perfect.

So what about all the other stuff? The pain relief, better sleep, and happier Toni? Eh, maybe.

My back did feel a lot better while I was floating, and for few hours afterwards, but I'm pretty much back to my typical pain level now. My sleep has actually been worse, but that there are some very distracting environmental issues at play, namely two hyper cats.  And a snoring husband. And happier? Maybe. I don't know. I'm typically a pretty happy person so it would take a pretty big shift either way for me to really notice.

One interesting observation: when I left the float center, all of my senses were heightened. I smelled flowers I didn't even notice when I walked by them before my appointment. Everything around me seemed more defined and clear with sharper edges and more saturated color, like "High Dynamic" photographs. I wanted to make sure I didn't hit traffic on the way home so I should have checked the time, but I figured it would be what it would be and I'd know what time it was soon enough. Ummm....not my typical approach. Also, while driving (no traffic!), I found that I was super aware of what was around me but my reaction time was noticeably slower. Fortunately I noticed this quickly and adjusted my driving accordingly.

The entire floating experience fascinated me. My brain wasn't nearly as relaxed as I thought it would be but my body sure was. It was very instructive to finally experience meditation so that I have a better idea what I'm aiming for. But all that brain activity was a trip. I was expecting more quiet.

I definitely plan to float again, anticipating that it will be even more...relaxing? inspiring? bizarre?...since I won't have the "what the heck am I doing?" filter that goes with any new experience. I will be sure to wear short sleeves next time. And I will definitely use the earplugs. Let it be noted that vinegar and rubbing alcohol, pushing and tugging and gravity, and using a blow dryer do not help get water out of your ears.  Sigh.

Promo shot from the float center's Facebook page.
The room was dark and there was no bikini, but otherwise this is accurate.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Happy yet awkward

I read a book a few years ago that sort of changed everything. It's called Quiet by Susan Cain. Actually, its longer title is Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking. I've know I am an introvert as long as I've known its definition.

The distinction between introverts and extroverts that I identify most with is that it takes energy for an introvert to be in a group of people while it gives energy to the extrovert. I love hanging out with friends and having a fun evening with a crowd of people...but those activities are always followed by me collapsing in a heap at home with a need to recharge. It helps immensely that I married someone who is similarly wired.

I remember one time some decidedly extroverted friends of ours returned from vacation. They had barely been home long enough to reacquaint themselves with their pets when our phone rang. They asked if they could come over and tell us about their trip. Of course we said yes, but I was amazed that after a week of travel, the first thing they wanted to do was be with other people. That is pretty certainly the very last thing I would have considered.

So Quiet explored this and other characteristics of being a person who likes to be...quiet. It turned out to be an enormously validating book for me. No longer did I think something was wrong with me because I love voicemail and prefer to take walks by myself and find comfort in busy work. At the end of her 368 pages, Susan Cain had revealed to me that not only am I OK, I actually have something important to add to a world that seems to idolize and demand big personalities and group projects and risk taking.

All of this came to mind a few nights ago when Rob and I attended a large fundraising event for a local charity. Rob has been heavily involved with the charity for about five years, now serving on several committees and having a position of responsibility. He knows a lot of people there. I know a number of them, too, but much more on a friendly acquaintance, "oh, you're Rob's wife!" level. You know, enough for about 6 minutes of conversation before it gets awkward.

We've been to events for this charity many times before but Saturday was different. Due to Rob's current involvement, he had lots of people to "talk shop" with and a need and desire to mingle about the room of 300. I knew that it would be a lot easier for him to do that without me quietly in tow. I also knew that many of the conversations would not make much sense to me and that my presence might change the tone of them. So I happily kissed him on his way as I planned to enjoy the post-dinner entertainment on my own.

I was very happy to sit at the table listening to the live band. But then I realized I was the only person there with 9 empty seats. That didn't bother me but I knew it looked weird so I got up and moved to the side of the dance floor. I very happily stood there watching people dance. But then I realized the MC/Dance Party Cheerleader was making it his business to drag women out on the dance floor to teach them how to line dance. I saw him notice me so I decided I needed some water.

I happily hung out on the fringe of the room with my water bottle, but then I realized that enough people knew who I was and might wonder why Rob and I had abandoned each other. While it is socially fine...and even preferred...for married couples to mingle separately at large parties, it's not really fine for one to be mingling and the other to be wallflowering.

I tried to go out into the lobby, but my presence there was even more obvious due to the bright lights. I wandered back into the ballroom and tried desperately to figure out where in the world I could be happily alone without being noticed and raising questions that would put Rob in an undesirable light.

I found refuge in the restroom, taking an impressively long time to apply lipstick. And then I found a chair outside the ballroom and happily busied myself looking at my photos on my digital camera. I was quite engrossed in this busy work, so I was startled when a couple of Rob's extroverted colleagues targeted me as a wallflower and insisted that they join me and introduce me to their friends. Exactly the situation I was trying to avoid. Sigh.

Fortunately Rob showed up just as I was trying to commit the new names to memory. A few more pleasantries and we were off to the heavenly solitude of our car.

The entire experience left me so out of sorts. It was so strange to be absolutely at peace with being alone at a party (thank you Susan Cain!) while at the same time knowing it didn't look right and feeling I had to not look like I was alone (thank you extrovertedly focused society!). If I had been completely anonymous it wouldn't have mattered. It was purely because I didn't want to put a weird social spotlight on Rob that I felt any awareness that simply being my own quiet self wasn't appropriate. UGH!

I know this situation is going to come up again, so I need a better solution. I can fake being extroverted for awhile, but I know that when I hit that wall, it's OK to stop. Maybe I'll bring a box of Quiet next time and hand them out. Or better yet, maybe I'll find another introvert, quickly introduce myself, and then we can happily and quietly hang out together while watching the extroverts do what they do best.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Kiss me, I'm...not really sure what I am

Due to some twists and turns like adoptions and closets with skeletons, I really don't know much about my biological history. My gene pool is more like a dog's water dish. I can trace my DNA to my mother, my father, and one grandma. I am certain of only six people currently walking the planet that share any of my genetics. Our family reunions can be held in a minivan.

My Charlie Brown Christmas family tree has never really bothered me, except for that time in high school when we were instructed to map our lineage. I dutifully filled out the big sheet of butcher paper with names of people whom I considered family, but it felt disingenuous since the purpose of the assignment wasn't so much family as biology. I really didn't feel like explaining my "situation" to my teacher so I forged ahead as if I shared blood with all the names on my chart. Eh, an A is an A.

The only aspect of my ethnicity that I know for sure is Scandinavian...via that one grandma. Other than that, my ethnic heritage is anyone's guess. And most people guess Italian. It makes sense, given my olive skin, dark hair, and profound love of pasta. So for years, that has been my assumption: I am probably Italian with some Scandinavian mixed in for giggles.

With a dropped hint that he expertly picked up, Rob got me a very unique and technologically mind-blowing Christmas present last year: a DNA sample kit from Ancestry.com.

All I had to do was spit in a vial (morning spit prior to any food or toothpaste was best, per instructions) and ship it off in a self-mailer to a lab across the country. There were all sorts of matching stickers with long identification numbers and a list of identity-preserving instructions. It was a lot like filling out a Publisher's Clearinghouse Sweepstakes entry. Make no mistake: the spit and ensuing results are all me.

About two weeks later, an email arrived announcing my DNA results were ready and viewable online. Finally, I would be able to own my Italian heritage with confidence! Buono!

I logged into my account, clicked on the "See Full Ethnicity Estimate" box, and stared incredulously at the list that appeared. According to my spit, I am:

30% Great British (England, Scotland, Wales)
23% Western European (Belgium, France, Germany, etc.)
12% Irish
11% Native American
  8% Iberian (Spain, Portugal)
  5% Eastern European (lots of Slavic countries)
  5% Italian/Greek
  3% Finnish/Northwestern Russian
  2% Scandinavian
  1% Northern African (Algeria, Morocco, Libya)

I would be lying if I said I wasn't a bit disappointed. I am barely the one thing I knew for sure (Scandinavian)! And hardly much more of the thing I always assumed (Italian)! In fact, I have nearly twice as much Native American in me as both of those combined. Huh, what?? My greedy, politically incorrect heart sunk at the thought of all those missed scholarships. If I had only known. (Yeah, I know.  Let's move on.)

And Irish? Really? Yes, fine, I will admit my favorite color is green, the only beer I will drink is dark sludgy stuff like Guinness, and anyone who can make snakes disappear is my hero...but really? Irish? I know some at-least-partially Irish people who are fiercely proud of their Irishness. I have watched their national fervor from afar with an amused curiosity but I have never felt drawn to be a part of their clan. Are they my people after all?

And Great Britain and Western Europe. Yay. How exciting. Here I have long fancied myself something relatively exotic, like Mediterranean with a dash of Turkish maybe, since I blended in so well in Istanbul. Instead my blood is about a white bread as you can get. Brilliant.

I have been sitting with these results for over a month, trying to reconcile the reality I thought I knew with the reality according to "microarray-based autosomal DNA testing which surveys a person's entire genome at over 700,000 locations."

At first I was somewhat confused that I wasn't the person I thought I was. But after some reflection and soul-soothing spaghetti, I realized nothing had actually changed at all. Sure, I have some new information, but it doesn't change who I am, what I love, how I choose to live my life, or where I want to go on vacation.

But one thing might change.  I might have a new answer to the question "what ethnicity are you?" Maybe from now on I'll just say "all-American mutt." Hard to argue with a mircoarray of autosomes.


My people

Monday, March 3, 2014

Om not sure this is helping

Despite over 14 years of living with this back pain thing, I seem to still be looking for that magic solution that will take a good chunk of the pain away. I pat myself on my tender back for not thinking something on QVC will cure me entirely.

I've tried shoes (Sketcher Shape-Ups = BAD).
I've tried mattresses (Sleep Number = GOOD).
I've tried ointments (Icy Hot, Arnica, Salonpas, essential oils = EH).
I've tried pillows and cushions (vibratey thing at the Fair = BAD; expensive wedge for under my knees = GOOD).
I've tried therapies (acupuncture = GOOD; hypnosis = EH; massage = eye-crossingly BAD).
I've tried exercises (Tai Chi = BAD; elliptical machine = GOOD).

I have wondered if meditation might help; you know, something to help calm my head and be the antidote to the venom that often spews in there when I am in heightened pain. I have dutifully purchased books and DVDs and asked people for guidance and suggestions. But I just can't seem to get motivated to give meditation an honest go.

I know a lot of people meditate as a part of yoga. I tried yoga once, back in the '90s. It was one of those videotapes by Rodney Yee. He had credibility because he was on Oprah and I was on pain meds. It was a yoga practice specifically designed for people with back issues. At least that's how I interpreted the description. I tried it one day and put the tape in the Goodwill pile the next. I guess Rodney wanted to help strengthen healthy backs, not modify poses to help compromised ones. So I crossed yoga off the list forever more. Until January.

The class is called "Therapeutic Yoga for Neck/Shoulder/Back/Knee Issues" and is described as "...providing adaptations and modifications of the poses for those dealing with developmental, structural, and chronic/acute issues related to the spine and musculature. Designed for adults and seniors wanting to balance spinal alignment, reduce tension in the muscles, joints, and ligaments..."

It sounded perfect! Perhaps get some gentle stretching while learning how to quiet my head. It meets on Friday afternoons for 10 weeks. I have three classes left.

I am trying very hard not to judge all yoga classes and instructors by this experience, but I have to admit I am disappointed. I keep hoping the class will be more beneficial but each week I leave counting the number of sessions I have left.

My biggest disappointment is that although the class was described as being one for people with chronic pain issues, the instructor seems to be oblivious to this fact.

Much to everyone's surprise, this class includes a lot of lecturing. So we spend quite a bit of time sitting on thin mats on a wooden dance floor listening to the instructor describe movements, discuss yoga philosophy, and share spiritual insights. Several of us have rebelled and move to padded folding chairs when it seems like we will be listening for a spell.

After the first class, Barbara asked how we were all doing. One person noted he was pretty sore. Lots of heads nodded.

"Sore? Really? Who else is sore from last week?"

Every single hand went up. Naturally. This is a class of 15 people (now down to about 8) who have daily pain. We are sore, a lot. Try something new and we expect to be even more so. None of us were surprised we hurt. None except the instructor, who is trained to help pained people.

Last week Barbara was talking about the large therapy balls that are used in gym and physical therapy programs. I use one as a chair if I have to sit at a desk. Barbara asked if anyone had ever sat on one of the balls. Again every single hand went up. Because, well, we all have chronic pain and have been in physical therapy any number of times. Barbara was amazed. Huh?

A couple of weeks ago, one woman was having trouble bending at her hips, even while sitting. Barbara asked if the woman knew why she was having trouble.

"My gall bladder. I have gall bladder problems."

According to Barbara, the woman's troubles were much deeper than that. Barbara used this as a teaching moment to share with us how pain needs to be healed from within. It turns out the gall bladder does not contain bile. No. It contains repressed anger. And so the classmate, according to Barbara, needs to spend some time addressing her anger issues and then she will be able to bend at her hips.

The woman missed last week's class. She was in the hospital, presumably having her repressed anger removed.

I totally agree that there are psychological components to pain; indeed, that is why I want to learn how to meditate so that I can better calm and address those parts. However, Barbara's comments left the impression that essentially a lot of our pain is in our heads. A later discourse on lower back pain really being the fear of not being good enough was interesting but truly, I have x-rays and MRIs that would suggest other fundamental sources.

I am not discounting Barbara's premise of the mind-body connection. I am just questioning the way she presented it to a room filled with people with aches, pains, surgical scars, and titanium implants.

I had really hoped I would find peace and deep breathing and connection at this yoga class. I have not. I am grateful, though, that I have discovered that my body can do more than I thought it could. With gentleness and patience, it has worked with me instead of against me and has taught me it is stronger and more flexible than I realized. I am not sure if I am going to give yoga another try with a different instructor, or if twice is enough.

Any thoughts on alternative uses for a snazzy new yoga mat?

I'm pretty sure this is good enough.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

So bad, it needs a new word: repugnathon

It started 20 years ago. We were married and had had three Valentine's Days together. Given busy jobs, we decided to be low-key for the demanded romantic holiday and just rent a movie, order a pizza, and stay at home. Little did we know we had birthed an annual tradition.

Our Valentine's Day Movie rules are strict but simple: the movie has to have been released the prior year and it has to have received awful reviews. We want a movie that is so bad, so cringe worthy, it makes us laugh and shake our heads and wonder how in the world it ever got made. We pair the ridiculousness with wine, pizza, and cookie dough and spend most of the evening laughing. It's one of my most favorite traditions.

We've struck gold with gems like Baby Geniuses (1999), Glitter (2001), and Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star (2011). Our 2007 selection of Balls of Fury about Olympic ping pong and the international intrigue and Chinese warlords that naturally follow was so epic, we bought our own copy for repeated enjoyment.

We keep a list of movies during the year, consult The Razzies, and solicit recommendations from friends. This year had a whole mess of suggestions, with one movie that seemed both perfect and potentially unwatchable. Naturally, it was our first choice.

Movie 43 might truly be the worst, most disgusting movie ever made. I don't know for certain because I eventually did deem it unwatchable and we went to Plan B: Johnny Depp's The Lone Ranger.

Rob and several friends had warned me that Movie 43 was not for the faint of heart, mind, and soul. I had hope, though, because compared to the average bear, I have a pretty high tolerance for inappropriate humor. Indeed, my most hysterical, laugh-'til-you-cry-and-almost-pee-your-pants evenings in recent memory have been while playing a deliciously wrong game called Cards Against Humanity (tag line: "A party game for horrible people"). So I was pretty confident I could handle Movie 43. I was wrong.

The basic premise of this star-studded repugnathon is a washed-up film maker (Dennis Quaid) pitching movie ideas to a Hollywood producer (Greg Kinnear). I guess there are about a dozen vignettes of sorts, perhaps 5 minutes long each. I lasted through one and a half.

The first one, called "The Catch," starred Kate Winslet and Hugh Jackman. They are on a blind date. After some flirtatious and promising banter while walking in the cold winter night, Hugh takes off his scarf at dinner to reveal a very....ummm...unique physical deformity. The supposed humor of the vignette is that nobody but Kate seems to notice, care, or react to the fact that Hugh has a bonus scrotum hanging on his neck. Yes, you read that right. There are moments involving a fellow patron's baby playing with them, stray private hairs falling in soup, and the reduction effects of the restaurant's over-active air conditioning. Rob noted that my gasps of dismay were far more amusing than what I was gasping at.

It thankfully ended and we were back in the pitch room. I felt like I had survived Round 1. Reaching for another slice of pizza, and trying desperately not to think about stray hairs, I girded myself for Round 2.

Titled "Homeschooled," its premise was a set of parents who were home schooling their son. Now a teenager, the parents were very focused on giving him the full and complete high school experience. You know, the one that involves ridicule, ostracism, and, well, sex.

I tried to laugh when the parents hosted a teen party and refused to let their son into the house since he wasn't cool enough. My stomach turned when they duct taped him to a flag pole, wrote disgusting words on him with dog poop, and forced him to admit to untrue sex acts while being filmed. When the mom...played by Naomi Watts...then decided she needed to give her son the experience of his first kiss and more, I was done.

Reaching for more wine and handing Rob the remote, I commanded in a pleading sort of way, "Make it go away."

Warned that this might happen, I had playfully started a stop watch when the movie started. I fully expected to make it through at least half of the movie, if not the entire thing. I stopped the watch at 14:11.6 minutes...including the opening titles...out of 94 unfathomable minutes.  Movie 43 you win. There is not enough wine in the Western Hemisphere to make you palatable.

Regrouping with some cookie dough, we switched to Plan B. While not quite as funny as I was hoping in its awfulness, The Lone Ranger was indeed pretty bad. In fact, about 20 minutes into it, it was so boring I paused it and asked Rob if we should return to Movie 43. Fortunately for all involved, we stuck with Johnny Depp's masterpiece.

I used to watch the Clayton Moore television show on reruns when I was a kid. So I enjoyed learning the film's concocted back stories of The Masked Man, Silver, and Tonto.

The production value of The Lone Ranger was impressive. Huge scenes involving steam trains, Indian attacks, exploding bridges, and saloon fights. The characters kept insisting they were in Texas but anyone with a tiny bit of US travel under their gun belt would be able to recognize many scenes filmed in Monument Valley...in Arizona. And then there was all that plot development near Promontory Point...in Utah. It was a Disney film. Apparently they can make up their own reality.

I cringed at the gore of the movie and was somewhat relieved to learn it was rated PG-13. Waaaay not suitable for the Frozen target demo, what with the cutting out of a cowboy's heart and all. Produced by the same guy that does "CSI" on television, the blood and guts was just a tad overdone. Eww.

I laughed at the unintended humor of the film making. I swear the movie channeled scenes from Blazing Saddles, The Muppet Movie, and the Jesse James episode of "The Brady Bunch." It also had some delightfully cliché shots, like shoes falling in slow motion over a ravine, and our main characters reflecting pensively while overlooking an expansive valley at dusk.

The best part of The Lone Ranger, though, was Johnny Depp. Basically reprising his Captain Jack Sparrow role in Pirates of the Caribbean but with buckskin, he mostly smirked throughout the entire movie. A producer of the film, he didn't seem to be taking it or himself very seriously. He rolled his eyes, he looked directly into the camera with disbelief, and he had a certain modern-day-ness in his acting and attitude that clashed with the film's 1800's time period. It was like his Tonto was fully aware that he was making a movie. It was weirdly engaging and quite funny.

So The Lone Ranger will go down as a good Valentine's Day movie choice but not a real standout. I don't know if I will ever try to watch the rest of Movie 43. With other vignettes titled "iBabe" "Truth or Dare" and "Tampax," it's really really unlikely.  I will admit to a twisted sense of humor but, as I learned last night, even I have my limits.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

"Hey, batter, batter!" aka More Fun in the Kitchen

Welcome to the first installment of the 2014 edition of Mishaps in My Kitchen.

We have a small group of friends that meets monthly and rotates hosting duties. We've been doing it for about 5 years so everyone is well-versed with my cooking skillz. I'm honestly impressed they still show up when it's our turn to host. Perhaps it's because we are always sure to serve wine to help soften the blow of what might appear on their plates. Soft lighting helps, too. Tricks of the trade.

I was confident about the entree since I had made it once before for a different set of trusting, adventuresome friends. It was while revisiting my recipe box that I landed on the brilliant idea to make a Pineapple Upside Down Cake for dessert. Do you sense where we are going? Yes, sticky is the word of the day.

The recipe was from my grandma on my dad's side. She's a feisty 88-year-old whom I've never known to really enjoy cooking despite the fact that she taught me how to make scrambled eggs when I was 5. Such an auspicious beginning that ultimately led to us both preferring restaurants whenever possible.

So since the recipe came from my non-cooking grandma...and since the ingredients were simply 1 stick of butter, 1 box of brown sugar, 1 can of crushed pineapple, and 1 box of cake mix, I figured it was Toni-proof and a guaranteed success. I mean, truly, how hard can four ingredients be? Especially since I remembered happily making pineapple upside down cakes when I was in junior high. I was experienced in PUDs. I had this.

Things moved delightfully along as I assembled the pineapple bottom-but-eventually-top and the cake mix top-but-eventually-bottom. I hit a bit of a snag when I realized I had absolutely no platter or plate that would accommodate a 9"x13" Pyrex being flipped onto it. But sudden inspiration struck and I covered a cookie sheet with aluminum foil and set it aside for the eventual flipping. Yes, I had this indeed.

The recipe warned that I would need to cook the cake longer than the directions on the mix box. The specific timing per Grandma was "when the aroma starts to drift, start testing for doneness." Well, that happened about 10 minutes into my planned 40 minutes so I started to get a little twitchy.

When the timer beeped at 40 minutes, I pulled out the dish with a toothpick at the ready. However, when I observed the cake part wiggling like pudding, I astutely assessed the cake unfinished and pushed its untested self back into the oven for another 10 minutes.

At 50 minutes, the top of the cake was alarmingly past "golden brown" but the pineapple bottom was very liquidy and boiling. I wasn't sure what to make of that development, and Grandma's card was of no help, so I decided to test the cake with my toothpick. It came out clean all over the place, so I decided the bubbling was just part of the fun. I removed the dish from the oven and consulted Grandma's recipe once again. The next and final instruction:

"When finished baking, flip immediately onto plate or platter."

Looking at the bubbling pineapple, I am proud to say I thought better of my flat cookie sheet and switched to one with sides. As I tried to figure out how to flip a hot 13" baking dish onto an 18" cookie sheet, I gave myself a virtual pat on the back for switching from fabric hot pads to easily rinsed silicone ones.

Studying the situation one last time, I also opted for performing The Flip over the sink instead of the counter and floor. I will admit, I was swelling with pride of my newfound Kitchen Street Smarts. Two years ago I would not have thought through all these potential disasters. I may still not know how to cook, but I am getting much better at knowing how to avoid huge clean-up projects. I may not have had this after all, but at least I had something.

So with a deep breath and a quick prayer to Betty Crocker, I flipped. And....oozy, sticky, bubbly, chunky pineappley lava flowed all over my cake, foil, cookie sheet, hot pads, and sink.

With the glass dish still sitting on the cake, I watched as cake batter rose to the top and created an explosive layer between the cake and glass. Wondering if perhaps the batter was supposed to continue cooking under the dish...but having run out of instructions from Grandma...I did what any modern-day Kitchen Maven does: I Googled "pineapple upside down cake." And...sensing the theme of this story...grabbed my camera.


I quickly found a similar recipe that suggested that the dish remain in place "for several minutes" to help the topping set. That generated some relief, although with most of my topping lolling about in the sink I wasn't so sure how the dish was going to help it set.

It turned out the dish remained in place for more than several minutes since it took me a while to figure how to extricate it from the sticky ooze that was quickly cementing it to my cookie sheet. With a knife, sticky silicone mittens, and a few choice words I finally removed the hot dish and watched with fascination as the cake batter rearranged itself and finally sunk into a pit in the middle of my cake.

I poked around with a butter knife and concluded the outer edges of the cake had baked but the center had not. Yes, I know, I'm brilliant.

As for the pineapple, well, it was sort of everywhere except on top on my cake. It was at this moment that I made two decisions: 1) I would call Rob to request he pick up Dessert Plan B at the grocery store on his way home; and 2) I would save what remained of Plan A so our friends could enjoy the full visual experience of Dinner By Toni.

Rob arrived home about 2 hours later with a red velvet cake from Safeway. I showed him my Upside Down Disaster. By this point, the batter had been absorbed and the cake actually looked much more appetizing than it had right after The Flip. I noted this to Rob.

"Really?" His tone suggested that the red velvet cake was more salvation than I realized.

When our friends arrived, I was informed that the house smelled wonderful and that pineapple upside down cake was a favorite. Then I pointed to my version, which was looking a lot like a Danish at this point. It was reiterated that the house smelled great.

Much to my surprise, when it came time for dessert, everyone except Rob opted for a piece of the PUD mush. Did I mention my friends are awesome and truly have a sense of adventure when they come to Woodhaven for dinner? And yes, we had wine with dinner.

The friends deemed the mush "pretty good" which was far too gracious. The middle part tasted very much like cake batter because, well, it was. Jerry noted that while the cake had a pineapple flavor, he didn't really taste any actual pineapple. True enough since most of the fruit had ended up in my sink.

Pam recalled the first time she had a pineapple upside down cake; a stunning dessert with beautiful pineapple rings on top dotted with maraschino cherries. Cathy agreed that's how she had always seen pineapple upside down cakes presented. I conceded that was how practically every version on Google looked. My grandma: always daring to be different. I then silently reflected on the PUD Cakes I had made successfully in junior high and realized they were from a kit and used the new trendy kitchen appliance: the microwave oven. So success was relative, as was edibility.

I'm honestly not sure if I am ever going to try a PUD again, at least not until we buy stock in 409 All-Purpose Cleaner. If I did venture down the sticky PUD Path again, I'd definitely replace the pineapple chunks with pineapple rings. But really, I think it would just be a lot easier to make a cake using pineapple juice instead of water and then serve it with a side of pineapple chunks and cherries.

Wow, look at that! Me thinking outside the recipe! There might be hope for me yet. But we'll keep stocked with wine just in case.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

It certainly wasn't Kumbaya 'round the campfire

It had been so long since I attended a rock concert, I had no idea how mesmerizing it is to see a sea of cell phone lights swaying in a darkened arena. It actually looked even better than the old school lighter flames flickering -- much brighter, more star-like, and less potential for combustion.

I got to experience this...and so much more...at a concert in Portland on Friday night.


The idea to go was spurned months ago during an email exchange with my dear friend of nearly three decades, Zeke. A confirmed music snob and atheist, Zeke was lovingly teasing me about my occasionally listening to Christian music. I admitted that while the music isn't terribly complex or ground-breaking, the words are often inspiring and just what I need at just the right moment. I then joked that if he really wanted to experience the power of Christian music, he should join me in attending an annual concert tour that I knew always made its way through Portland but had never thought to attend.

Well, the joke was on me when Zeke replied, "Capital-R Religion combined with testosterone-fueled anthems?! I'm game."

Five months later, Zeke and I found ourselves sitting in Section 111, Seats 14 and 15, surrounded by believers and not quite sure what was about to happen. It turned out to be a surprisingly fun night, for both of us.

Last summer at The Fair, I attended a concert by a local Christian band. I went to hear one song, which of course wasn't played until the end. But from that hour and a half, I got a glimpse of what to expect from a Christian rock concert: Clean-cut performers; catchy, poppy music accessible to all ages; spiritual lyrics; lots of hand-raising in the stands; Bible verses sprinkled liberally throughout the between-songs banter; and a feeling at the end as if I had attended a church service. With eight bands on Friday's line-up, I was trying to prepare for worship overload. I really thought I knew what to expect. I certainly didn't expect this:

video

I also didn't expect the country band. Or the rappers. I didn't expect the hip hop guy from New York, and I most certainly didn't expect to enjoy him to the point of buying his CD (now on order from Amazon). I have never in my life wanted to listen to hip hop until this guy on a skateboard wheeled up to the microphone. As Zeke noted, it was rather refreshing that the hip hop guy didn't have the seemingly requisite inflated ego that usually accompanies that genre. Instead, he "gave it all to God" and actually made me care what he was hipping and hopping about. Huh.


The southern-rock band with the lead singer who looked suspiciously like Designer Jeans Jesus with a tambourine was perhaps the most "mainstream" of the bands. Catchy, classic rock sounds with a positive message that both kids and parents sang along and jumped to.


THE headliner, though, was something else altogether. There was great build-up to the band throughout the concert. Despite their advanced ages (I'm guessing early-mid 40s), the members of the band were undeniably the coolest, hippest, edgiest of the night. They admitted their band name was stupid and begged us not to Tweet them about it. With all the other bands named with the Bible or Jesus in mind (e.g. Third Day, Soulfire Revolution, The Neverclaim ("We never want to claim God's glory as our own")), the grand finale band had a different story.

"We named ourselves after a frying pan. What can I say?"

With that, Skillet electrified the arena.

We were so close to a speaker, neither Zeke nor I could make out any words other than "I'M SICK OF IT!!!" and "I FEEL LIKE A MONSTER!!!" These phrases were screamed, repeatedly, in amongst the seizure-inducing strobe lights, the steam explosions, and the guitarists on hydraulic platforms.

As I watched, I was mesmerized by how '80s the band was, how it reminded me of the decidedly secular music of my adolescence. Skillet's lead singer was wearing black eyeliner, the violinists were wearing lab coats that made me think of Thomas Dolby, and one of the guitarists was a hard-rockin' gal with blonde hair and a presence reminiscent of lead singers from 'Til Tuesday, A Flock of Seagulls, and The Plasmatics.  But none of Skillet's target demo know this...or those bands.

The music was full of power and angst. It recessed and swelled to build emotion. Checking the lyrics later, they spoke directly into the heart of every teenager there. It was absolutely brilliant.

I concluded that Skillet is the John Hughes of Christian rock bands. If Sixteen Candles had been about a confirmation, or if The Breakfast Club's confessionals had been made to a priest, Skillet would have been the background music. If I were 30 years younger, I would have been screaming in anticipation of Skillet, too.

video

As we left the arena, we agreed we should have brought earplugs. We also agreed that the concert was surprisingly much like any other arena concert we had attended, just with a different message. However, the crowd was a bit different. There were people of all ages: lots of families, several church youth groups, retired couples and grandparents, teens on dates.

One of my favorite images is of watching a 50-something overweight balding dad jumping up and down next to his teen son and tween daughter. They all had huge smiles, experiencing a moment together that I can assure you was nothing like any memory I have from Depeche Mode or Thompson Twins concerts. I would have died before attending those concerts with my parents, let alone dancing with them.

The crowd was also more obedient and engaged than any other concert I've been to. If the lead singer said to clap, they clapped. Time to raise your arms, up went the arms. Sway back and forth? On it. Sing along? Already doing it.

Zeke and I participated as we felt comfortable, without any judgment or annoying encouragement from anyone around us. As a rather restrained, undemonstrative church and concert goer, I was a little nervous I might feel awkward surrounded by enthusiasm. Much to my relief, I realized I was comfy just being me.

When we got home, Zeke and I proudly displayed our matching commemorative t-shirts for Rob. When we met as college freshmen so many years ago, Zeke and I would have guffawed in hysterics if someone had prophesized our evening at a Christian rock concert. And yet, with mutual respect and a shared love for new adventures, it makes perfect sense.


Monday, January 6, 2014

Art imitating life

Yosemite is a very special place to me. The first time I saw it was on our honeymoon in 1990. By the time we arrived in the valley after our morning wedding and celebratory lunch in San Francisco, the sky was dark and the moon was full. I'm pretty sure I gasped when I saw the moonlight dancing off the granite face of El Capitan. It was my first glimpse of a most spectacular national park.

We returned to Yosemite every December for our anniversary, plus extra trips here and there to hike waterfall trails not open during the winter. We had a favorite room, we bought an annual pass, we volunteered on nature work crews, I had a special Yosemite license plate, we donated to the conservancy fund. Yosemite was our park and we did our best to take care of it.

Along the way, we started collecting replicas of vintage posters featuring activities in the park. Horseback riding, ice skating, fireside chats with park rangers, hikes up Half Dome, open-air bus tours of the valley. We had nine posters in all and had them framed and hanging on one wall...one very large, tall wall...in our Bay Area house. I loved the bright colors and the reminders of one of my favorite places on earth.

When we moved to Woodhaven, the posters found new homes in our Washington living room and guest bathrooms. Visitors occasionally asked about them, mostly along the lines of "So...you like Yosemite?"

A few months ago, staring at the posters and trying to remember the last time we were in Yosemite (2005 -- I checked), it occurred to me that maybe it was time for a change. Maybe it was time to let go of past loves and embrace current ones.

The art distributor was quite surprised when I called to ask about the easiest way to order 11 large prints. I was delighted to discover he lives in our county and was willing to meet in a Target parking lot to avoid shipping charges. We chatted about artists and bridges and wine and travel and where in the world we were going to hang 11 prints. As I promised him photos and exchanged private email addresses, I smiled at the easy familiarity and friendliness that would have scared and confused me when we first moved here over nine years ago.

As of two nights ago, Yosemite is a dear, beloved memory tucked in a closet. Our walls now celebrate this season in our lives. Our living room now reflects our adopted "big city" of Portland and her sister, Seattle. There's a poster from the coastal town where we have celebrated our anniversary for the past seven years. A 5-years-annual wine trip with friends is commemorated, as is a favorite Alaskan town with a great story that started with Norovirus and ended with getting a glimpse of the real Alaska without the influx of cruise ship tourists. One poster reminds me of the day we purposely went to a particularly exposed vista point to experience 80mph winds; another will hopefully help me finally learn the names of Portland's nine bridges that connect the east and west sides of town.

Some friends came over yesterday. I hadn't mentioned anything about our new decorating project, and I wasn't sure how noticeable the change would be. Within minutes, admiring the new but familiar locales adorning our walls, two of them noted, "So you finally decided to move here, huh?"

Some changes seem so small yet they reflect something quite big. Yes, California is a large part of who we are, but the Pacific Northwest is more and more who we are becoming.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Perry was right

I'm staring at the Christmas tree. As pretty and sparkly as it is, I'm thinking I will take it down today. I assumed I would wait until after the New Year in an attempt to hang onto the slow peacefulness of late December for as long as possible. But it turns out I am happily, contentedly done with Christmas on December 30. And I think I know why.

For years, Rob and I used to travel for Christmas. Both sides of our families are spread around in at least five different states, none of them our own. Even when we lived in the same state, we were always on the move since it's a lot easier for two of us to travel than bunches of others. We managed to develop our own traditions but they were always shoehorned in around other traditions. But we were young and healthy and happy to make things fit.

Moving to Woodhaven meant driving to family was crazy talk so we traveled by plane. The first few years, it was rather nice to escape the probably-freezing cold for the balmy smog-free air of Orange County. No comment about the weather in Reno and Omaha. What can I say; we love our families.

But then one year we had a big December snow storm at Woodhaven and spent a week going only as far as we could walk. We stressed out for several days about whether we would be able to get to the airport for our Christmas Day flight. We did make it -- allowing for several extra hours and a chain removal stop -- but not before I watched Rob drag our hastily undecorated Christmas tree out to our burn pile through nearly two feet of snow.

Another year, I spent the day in a hotel room while Rob played golf with the men folk. I was grateful because I was in a world of hurt from the copious freeway travel that comes with visiting Los Angeles. I was in bed all day and watched online as a big snow storm unexpectedly nailed the Portland metro and basically shut the place down. Neighbors emailed me photos of a snow-dripped Woodhaven. Looking out the hotel window at a swaying palm tree and congested lanes of the 57 freeway, I was wistful for the excitement of being safely tucked in at home watching the snow fall amongst the fir trees.

So between the stress of not knowing if weather will hamper our plans, and the panic of trying to "get Christmas done" at Woodhaven so we can pack suitcases and leave, and the heightened back pain that comes with travel, Rob and I decided a few years ago to stay home for Christmas and see family during less hectic times of the year. I have loved it.

I love not rushing. I love not worrying about the winter weather. I love knowing that I can do all my Christmas preparations without trying to figure out how to leave enough spoons for a physically intensive trip at the end. And I love that Christmas at Woodhaven is it...the whole enchilada...and not something in a series of activities to end the year.

A few weeks ago I heard Perry Como singing "There's No Place Like Home for the Holidays." I've always heard that as a song about travel, that wherever you are, someplace else is home and you need to be there for Christmas. But this year I heard it differently. I realized I already was home for Christmas, right here at Woodhaven with Rob. True, we don't have family here. Well, not family we were born into. But we have a different family; a family we chose, a family of friends. And while different, we still feel surrounded by love.

This year...our third Christmas at home...I made a concerted effort not to plan a lot of things for December. I wanted to allow the season to unfold and to try to keep my pain level managed so I could actually enjoy the holiday without needing to spend the first week of the new year recovering from it. Many of our days and evenings were completely unaccounted for as of December 1. What resulted was exactly what I hoped for.

There were movie nights and community concerts and laugh-filled dinners and lingering coffees and llama outings and dance recitals and nights filled with lights. And there were days spent resting on the couch with cats and mugs of tea. Instead of rushing through Christmas with a list of must-do's and must-go's, I let the season just be. I let it take me wherever it wanted to. As a result I am rested, content, and truly ready to see what the next year has in store for us. And ready to say good-bye to the tree until next year.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Round and Round She Goes

My neck hurts, my back is spasming, and when Rob did a u-turn in a parking lot today, I got nauseous. All souvenirs from yesterday's Winter Driving Course. And totally worth it.

Rob found the class for me and gently sort of almost insisted I take it. You see, I am a huge chicken when it comes to driving in snow. Being a native Californian with little interest in skiing, I never really had a need to learn to drive in the white stuff. The result is that at the slightest hint of anything frozen-ish falling from the sky, I sequester myself inside Woodhaven until the roads are clear. Even hail makes me a bit twitchy.

The self-imprisonment is fine and even productive...for awhile. But since we live on a hill at what is often above the snow line, it really isn't smart or realistic to assume I can just wait out every cold storm that blows by. So with a determination to put on my big girl snowpants and learn how to drive like a grown-up, I signed up for the winter driving class as an early Christmas present. A present to which one of us wasn't exactly clear.

The class was held at Portland's International Raceway...down a hill, through the woods, and over a river. I was actually signed up for last Saturday's class but it was cancelled due to weather. Yep, with snow and ice on the roads and a forecasted high of 16 degrees, the wise driving folks blessedly called and asked if I might be able to come a week later since the unusually cold weather wasn't good for their fancy training car. I was grateful because it had been occurring to me for several panicky days that I was going to need the class in order to get to the class.

The training was a 3-hour adventure. The first hour was spent in a small classroom in a portable on the raceway. The rest was spent spinning around on asphalt in a contraption called a SkidCar -- a fancied-up Toyota Camry on hydraulics that very realistically simulated what it is like to slide around on ice. It basically looked like a sedan with training wheels.


There were six students and two instructors. The other woman student had spun out in her Honda Accord and wanted to get unspooked. There was a man about my age with his teenage son, and then two other young guys who were both probably younger than my marriage. One drove a tricked out Mustang and swaggered about the portable.

Our classroom instruction involved a toy race car and a road diagram on a board. Aside from the lack of felt and a judge, it was just like the courtroom scene in that episode of the Brady Bunch when that Liar Liar Pants on Fire Mr. Duggan tries to blame Mrs. Brady for their fender-bender in the grocery store parking lot. Oh, if only I had had a briefcase to toss on the floor!

Sorry. Got off track.

Back in the portable, we learned about the physics of weight and motion. And the power of eye-hand coordination. And that a lot of driving successfully in slick conditions is totally unnatural and counter-intuitive...so we were all going to suck at it at first. Yippee.

With that, we arranged ourselves into two groups and headed to the SkidCars.

My instructor was Chris. He was a race-car driver who looked a bit like Drew Lachey. Very calm, easy going guy with nerves and equilibrium of steel.

My car-mates were James and Tristan, the father and teen son. Tristan had had his license for two whole months. James shared that as soon as Tristan's sister has her license, she and Mom are going to take the class, too. Truly one of the more brilliant parenting moves I've seen in a long time.

Because of how we randomly sat in the car, I was the lucky dog to got to try each new maneuver first. I think all three of us thought we would prove the "you are all going to suck at first" prophecy wrong: me because of my straight-A student approach to all things school; James because he's been driving for decades with a perfect record; and Tristan because he's 16 and knows everything. Just my guesses, mind you; I have no proof of two of those statements.

We basically learned and practiced three different scenarios: a front-wheel skid, a rear-wheel skid, and a death-defying combo of the two. In all cases, we were out on the race track with little orange cones arranged in an obstacle course of figure-eights, straight-aways, and slaloms. We rotated in a pattern: Chris would demonstrate; then we'd switch places and I would drive for about 10 minutes; then James, then Tristan. We did this for two hours.

I was concerned that I wasn't going to know the difference between a front-wheel skid and a rear-wheel skid...until I experienced them. A front-wheel skid is a gentle little thing where you think you are losing control of the car but you really just need to turn the steering wheel ever so slightly the opposite direction and voila, all better.

A rear-wheel skid is where you are certain you are going to die, especially if Tristan is driving. It is where the back of the car starts spinning around like a poltergeist and the only thing that seems to help, in addition to turning the wheel frantically in the other direction, is to accelerate. The acceleration thing makes no sense whatsoever because going faster is the very last thing you want to do and yet it works because it shifts weight backwards to the tires that are slipping. It's freakin' cool!

Despite our egos, all three of us messed up...a lot. We went around and around and around. I got so flustered in one spin that I accidentally hit the windshield wiper controls and gave the windshield a straight-A cleaning. James perfectly knocked over 5 cones. And Tristan treated us to a 360 turn in both directions during one skid, which took some impressively incorrect over-correcting according to Chris. Over the course of the morning, Tristan also managed to produce that pleasant aroma of burned rubber, and later, smoke. On the smoke skid, I looked at James next to me in the backseat and said, "Two months, huh?"

Overall, the class was fantastic. Absolutely one of the best uses of time and money in a long time. I wish I had taken a class like this years ago. And like any good student, I took notes. Here's what I learned:

  • "Brake straight" -- only apply your brakes when you are going straight in order to avoid or minimize spin-outs.
  • Slow is your friend. Going slow is actually the best defense in driving in slick conditions. And by slow I mean less than 10mph. "Drive like a grandma" is my new snow motto.  No offense, Grandma.
  • Look where you want to go, not where you are heading. Due to the built-in eye-hand coordination thing that we humans have, we tend to steer where our eyes are. So in the event of a spin, keep your eyes on where you want to go, not on the ditch or car you seem to be careening towards. Because the more you fixate on that ditch or car, the more likely that is exactly where you are going to end up.
  • When you are spinning, turn the wheel the opposite of the direction you are heading. For a front-wheel spin, you really only need to straighten out the tires. For a rear-wheel spin, you pretty much crank the wheel as much as you can.
  • Words are important, but there is nothing that can solidify a concept as well as experience. Slipping and sliding around in that SkidCar was so beneficial for me. I found out what the sensation is and realized it doesn't mean certain death, even with Tristan at the wheel. I also have some confidence now that despite the natural panic, I will have a good idea what to do if I am ever in a slippery driving situation. This means I might actually leave the house despite a light dusting of snow.  Merry Christmas to me!  Or Rob?  Both?  Hmmm.
  • Dramamine is a miracle. As is my decision to carry it in my purse after our cruise last summer because "you never know." A half-hour into our two hour spin class, I furtively popped one pill. In retrospect, I should have chased it with some pain meds.
If you live in an area with occasional snow, or if you just want to pretend you are Bo or Luke Duke, I highly recommend finding a professional driving class and taking yourself for a spin. Just be sure to pack the Tylenol and Dramamine.


Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Pretend this is handwritten

Thanks to an adorable snow scene on the front of the cards we chose this year, I am sparkling and covered in glitter. And that bump on my right middle finger where I rest writing instruments is red and squishy. But...BUT...I am finally done assembling, addressing, stamping, writing, and licking closed all of our 2013 Christmas cards. Can I get a "Hallelujah!"?

Christmas cards can be such a thing. A burden, a task, a sign of Christmas, a competition, a fun excuse to reflect on the past year, a reason to panic, an intentional moment to think about people we don't get to interact with any other time of the year but at one point were pivotal and more present.

I like the peace and meditative aspects of repetitive tasks, so the mechanical process of addressing envelopes and affixing labels and stamps can be soothing to me in the midst of the holiday ridiculousness. But my desire to personalize each greeting can become daunting and induce anxiety and lead to procrastination. The laundry is all done, for instance. Including kitchen rugs and guest bathroom towels even though no guests are imminent.

When I was a kid, Christmas Cards were an event. Usually accomplished while Thanksgiving left-overs were still in the fridge, my mom would often draft the letter, my dad would update the address book and produce the labels, and I was happily in charge of all the licking, peeling, and sticking. I don't recall that handwriting was involved, aside from our signatures. And that seemed just fine.

As a young married woman, though, I decided I wanted to be more personal, to approach each Christmas card as an individual, customized note. With a relatively thin address book, this was very doable. But as our list grew and our careers busied, my handwritten missives started to repeat from one name to another and became more of an exercise in handwritten photocopying. It appeared personal but it felt disingenuous.

Then came Christmas 2001. I had had one back surgery and seemed destined to have another. My career was over and I was languishing on "total and permanent disability" trying desperately to have a purpose. So that year I informed myself that since I had the time, it was my duty to write rather lengthy notes again, filling up all empty white space on every card we sent. With a list approaching three digits, this self-imposed rule kept me quite busy that month. And that year I also told a very grateful Rob that he didn't need to write anything; we had been together long enough that his friends were now my friends so it wasn't odd for me to send the greeting from both of us. I think Santa brought me jewelry that year.

This self-directed task-mastering continued until we uprooted our lives in California and set about rerooting them in the hinterlands of Washington. With a new community of friends and a new definition of purpose, our lives got busier and I gave myself a break. I finally conceded to the efficiency of a brief Christmas letter. A mass produced, impersonal, production line Christmas letter. Embarrassed, I still insisted on including at least a brief handwritten note in each card, even if it was only to wish dear ones a Merry Christmas or happy holiday. And that rule continues today.

It's such a thing, Christmas cards. I love getting them. I love getting mine done. I love seeing photos of friends and especially of their confoundingly growing children. I love reading Christmas letters. I am amazed and a bit envious of the couple cards we get each year that have a long, personal, handwritten note inside.

I noticed last year that fewer people sent out cards at all. And Facebook and email greetings were more popular. And more of those that still used snail mail sent out photo cards -- cards created online with one or a handful of personal photos, sent with a pre-printed greeting. I turned over each photo card, hoping for a handwritten newsy update of some sort. Typically I just saw the name of the online producer. I tried not to be disappointed. I sympathized in the shoes of the very busy parents who had managed to find time to think ahead before Thanksgiving to take photos, design a card, and place an order. And I remembered to be grateful that regardless how they sent their greeting, each photo card came from someone who still wanted to keep in contact with me.

I guess I am a fan of handwriting and long for a less busy time without so many technological advances that make handwriting so quaint. But the real point of Christmas cards is to keep in touch, to remember people that have walked into our lives; some passing through at just the right time, others setting up camp. And so if I wish you a Merry Christmas, whether it be in a Christmas card in your mail box or on Facebook or in an email or in a blog posting, know that I truly mean it and I am happy you are in my life.

Merry Christmas! With glitter!

Monday, November 18, 2013

Our Tour Guide's Title Was "Culture Outlaw"

Silicon Valley back in the mid-late '90s was nothing short of a modern day Gold Rush. Money and opportunity were everywhere. People barely old enough to legally celebrate their instant wealth were buying cars and houses and fancy lives with confidence that the Fully Vested Stock Option Train would never derail.

Rob and I didn't get to directly participate in the Dot Com Boom but it was all around us. We were part of conversations about "angel money" and IPOs and the infuriating Alternative Minimum Tax. We had friends who went on "ship trips" when their software company shipped out their latest version to the masses. And by "ship trip" I mean everyone went on a multi-day cruise to Mexico.

One day in 1998, I had a co-worker whose husband's start-up company went public in the morning. By 10am, the new stock's price was soaring. By noon, the entire department was having a nice lunch on the new multi-millionaire and she resigned on the spot with eight-figure giddiness. I never saw her again.

These memories of a heady lifetime ago came whooshing back last week while Rob and I were touring the headquarters of a fabulous online retailer. Zappos.com started off just selling shoes, but it has expanded to all sorts of clothing, cosmetics, and accessories. I am a huge fan and frequent shopper. With free shipping both ways, easy returns, and the extreme comfort of trying stuff on in my own home, I do quite a bit of my shopping on Zappos.com. And no, I am not a paid endorsement. I truly like them that much.

Our Zapponian tour guide was a lively guy named Paco who had only been with the company for 8 months. Prior to that, his career was as a museum curator. In fact, Zappos hired him to be in charge of the company's history, archives, and commemorative t-shirt collection. At the ripe old age of 14 years, it's about time, Zappos.

The tour took us through various corporate departments, the call center, and the cafeteria. We saw the office of the on-site Life Coach and heard rumors of The Nap Room. There was no dress code and literally no barriers. Everyone had the same desk configuration without any walls. Decorations and personal touches were encouraged if not demanded by peer pressure. Even the company's CEO had an open desk alongside the other two founders of the company (the trio known affectionately as The Monkees). The only employees with office walls and doors were the corporate attorneys.


The cafeteria was spacious and had outdoor seating with comfy couches. Food was free. There were also snack bars throughout the offices, stocked with healthy and not-so-healthy goodies...also free. Paco admitted he was already 15 pounds into his Zappos 20, the average girth increase for new hires the first year.

Toys were sprinkled around, and as we passed through a courtyard a four-square game was underway. We also got the impression that alcohol consumption is somehow part of the Zappos culture. It was confirmed when the tour surprised a trio of Zapponians raiding a well-stocked liquor cabinet. A bit flustered by their audience but nonetheless undeterred, the women explained they were on a deadline and needed some "inspiration" as they ducked into a conference room with glasses and a bottle of Bombay Sapphire gin.


The other folks on our tour were a team from a local bank hoping to learn how to liven up their corporate culture. It was great fun to watch their eyes bug out and their jaws drop as they witnessed a work place that seemed more like recess. I was tempted, so very tempted, to mention a different take on all the fun and frivolity but I didn't have the heart. But having seen friends and family work in similarly carefree environments 15 years ago in Silicon Valley, I knew there was a cost that wasn't readily apparent.

The on-site dry cleaners, car detailers, dentists, and hair salons? The Nap Rooms and comfy couches? The free food available round-the-clock? The company concierge to help procure gifts for friends and family? Yes, they are all very convenient...to help keep you at work.

The expectation with cultures like these seems to be to blur the line between work and life, to mesh them as much as possible, such that your friends and your social life are largely the people you work with, so ultimately there is really no reason to go home. It's a great lifestyle if you are in your 20s. However, unless you are single, it's a bit of a tough haul when your hair is graying or receding and you see the benefits of keeping work and life at least somewhat separate.

I have no idea if the free-for-all work culture of "Work Hard and Play Harder" still exists as a norm in Silicon Valley; it's been nearly 10 years since I was in its orbit. But I can tell you there is at least one satellite hanging out in Las Vegas.


Saturday, November 9, 2013

Jackwagons Beware!

Woodhaven is on a hill out in the boonies. There is one road that serves as the trunk of the tree of private roads that branch out all over the hill to homes tucked away in "I vant to be alone" pockets. That one road is handy when giving directions. It can be limiting, though, when a fallen tree blocks it in a windstorm or when new piping is being installed for two weeks and counting. Much longer and I think I will be adding the "STOP" and "SLOW" flaggers to our Christmas card list.

The one road in and out, though, has allowed the evolution of a hill-wide communication system. Everyone on the hill has to stop at the same stop sign at the bottom of the hill to go anywhere of note. So that stop sign has become a community bulletin board of sorts. Anything we all need know -- all 150ish homes or so -- gets posted there on homemade signs using cardboard, Sharpies, and packing tape.

About a week or so ago, a really scary notice appeared. It warned of a dangerous burglar who carried a rifle and rode around on a red dirt bike. More concerning, the word "stalked" was used and there were photos from a security system taken in the bright sunshine, including one of the burglar peering through a porch window.

My California suburban self would have wondered what sort of idiot would wander around in broad daylight with a rifle. My living in the hinterlands with rednecks self thought it was a brilliant cover because, well, pretty much everyone here has firearms and it was hunting season. If the guy had been fully decked in camo, nobody would have thought twice about seeing him skulking around in the woods with a rifle.

After seeing the sign, I came home and secured every securable possible. I breathed deeply in the unexpected protection of a bunch of manly contractors with crowbars and power tools streaming in and out of our bathroom remodel while Rob was running errands. And, naturally, I hopped online and went to work trying to find more information.

It wasn't long before I found several threads on Facebook. Gotta love a small town, a well-connected community of neighbors, and the web of social media. With prickly panic, I realized we were pretty much in the hit zone and a second burglary had happened a couple of miles away. People were sharing the suspect's photos and description with great speed. And word was getting out far beyond our hill.

As I read the comments on the threads, I wanted to hug my redneck neighbors. Each and every one of them. I suddenly understood that the prolific "NO TRESSPASSING" signs that I don't even notice anymore are not just a decorator item.  They reflect an intensely held value out here. I realized without a doubt, this guy was going to be caught and soon.

"Keeping the gun close by for sure"

"Getting my shotgun out."

"I'm ready. He's not getting out of my house alive"

"If my goats don't get him first, I have a [deer hunting] tag I didn't fill this year. Yet."

"I'm pretty sure the cops will be too late to arrest this guy. Folks in the country do not mess around with jackwagons like that. Boom.....phone call."

Sure enough, less than 36 hours later an update was posted on both Facebook and at the stop sign. Thankfully someone a little less trigger-happy took action.

"SUSPECT CAUGHT!!! Deputies arrested suspect who is in jail on multiple charges. Thanks to all the tips received, lead directly to conclusion."

Alarm systems, security cameras, weaponry, men with power drills and tile saws...all can be very reassuring for one's personal safety. But the power of community and communication blows them all to smithereens.


Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Is it safe to wear earplugs for a month?

The sounds of deconstruction, while expected, are nonetheless a bit disturbing. We are only at the beginning of Day 2 of the Great Guest Bathroom Remodel of 2013 but I might be joining the cats under the bed by the end of the week.

Randy arrived this morning with a crowbar. I just heard a tile break. I'm pretty sure a hippopotamus is attempting to break dance up there. The cats are wisely under the exact middle of our bed. It's going to be a long day.

We've discussed bits and pieces of this remodel for nearly a decade. Earlier this year, while tidying up after the departure of a guest, the idea for a full-fledged update entered that dangerous part of my brain where other "how hard can it be?" schemes take up residence. It lives next door to the "must flee now" part. These neighboring areas in my brain have one of those pass-through doors like adjoining rooms in hotels to allow for easy communal living. I just pulled a comfy chair into the "must flee now" room. I'm going to be here for a spell.

Until moments ago, the bathroom was largely in its original state from when the house was built 20 years ago. The woman who decorated the brand new house loved wallpaper, flowers, and the color combination of mauve and powder blue. The guest bathroom is the last striking reflection of this screamin' '80s decor with purple-trimmed mauve tiles. The floor tiles have little blue and pink flowers in the corners. The fixtures are polished brass.

More troubling than the aesthetics, though, is the near need for an instructional video for how to use the shower. Somehow the Hot-Cold nozzle was installed upside down, with screws that subsequently rusted making an easy replacement impossible. It wasn't long after we moved in that a shivering guest delicately asked about the assumed but seemingly elusive presence of a hot water heater in our new home. Henceforth, all guests have been greeted with "Welcome to Woodhaven! We're so glad you're here. Now please take a seat while I explain how to operate our bathroom."

So at the end of this...scheduled to be a nail-biting four days before my mom arrives for Thanksgiving...we shall have a delightfully self-explanatory bathroom for our guests. Until then, Rob and I are trying to remind ourselves that despite the commotion, the house is sturdy, our contractor experienced and confident, and our only responsibility is to write checks.

Really, how hard can it be?

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Words to Ponder from the Fridge

Like many refrigerators, ours is used as a communication tool.  The handy magnetic board shares favorite philosophies, comic strips apparently composed while eavesdropping on our life together, and photos of adorable kids who are dear to us.

A few years ago, I added another communication vehicle to our fridge:  magnetic poetry.  I bought one of those kits with random words on little magnets that can be arranged in endless phrases and sentences.  I always invite guests to express their creativity by moving words around.  And I am always amused, if not intrigued, by what they have to say.

So -- anonymously, because I have no idea who authored any of these -- here are the Wise Words Of Life that are currently screaming from my refrigerator today:

  • look hard think deep speak joy
  • I missed you   from the felines
  • support and embrace time
  • kill prisoner with fever
  • melt then blush
  • cool dark night sky
  • surround peace will come
  • more fresh crap
  • HMC [a college who provided a small pack of poetry to its alumni] always streams warm air over young
  • smile candy
  • every woman will devour worry
  • use open window for smoke
  • wear steel velvet
  • rhythm god could dazzle dance
  • perhaps ask cat for job
  • with one die cut eye
  • slow decay has magic
  • corduroy must be hot
  • eat steam bug
  • cake in champagne
  • like voice glass
  • linger I hardly know her
  • soft belly growl
  • laugh after listening
  • caramel universe
  • fat angels/baby/boy/men/fish need delicious poison and liquid coffee
  • translucent bore
  • born from wild lie
  • ferocious porcelain ghost child
  • I eat and drink pie and a drink
And lastly, an encouragment to all who visit our fridge:
  • give poetry


Thursday, October 3, 2013

"Come on down!"

When I was a kid, a day home from school wasn’t official unless and until I watched “The Price Is Right.”

I was an early fan of Bob Barker; I watched him as faithfully as I was allowed when he hosted “Truth or Consequences” back in the early ‘70s. When Bob started hosting the daytime “Price Is Right,” I watched it all summer, school vacations, and when I was home sick with strep throat. I was pretty good at the game, too. I vicariously won quite a few refrigerators, dinette sets, brand new cars, and a few exciting showcases. So a few months ago when I saw that a stage version of my favorite game show was coming to Portland, I was one of the first to snag tickets.

I was surprised that the Portland show started so late. It was scheduled to start at 8:30pm, although it actually didn’t get rolling until closer to 9:00pm. Once we arrived, I figured out pretty quickly that the late start was to give the audience plenty of time of loosen up at the two bars set up in the auditorium’s lobby. I had read that if you wanted to be a potential contestant you had to arrive at 5:30 to line up. Judging from the frivolity in the lobby, the libations had been flowing for quite a while to help pass the time.

After we entered the lobby, we were handed peel-and-stick nametags and directed to a table of black markers. “First name only, block letters, no nicknames.” I am actually amazed I remember what the nice lady said, I was so giddy to be handed an official “Price Is Right” price tag name tag! I haven’t quite figured out how yet, but rest assured this souvenir will be preserved for posterity.


We found our seats and took in the crowd. It spanned many generations, most easily defined as “Bob Barker” and “Drew Carey.” Lots of folks were sporting homemade t-shirts proclaiming their enthusiasm and availability to “Come on down!”

We ended up waiting about 30 minutes for the show to start. I’m not complaining, though, as it was highly entertaining. People ran, wobbled, and teetered up and down the theater’s aisles with drinks in their hands. Friends waved and shouted wildly to each other across the auditorium. Wanna-be contestants played along with games up on big screens trying to guess how much an AMC Gremlin cost in 1974 ($3455).

It got really fun, though when “Can’t Stop Believin’” by Journey came on as the background music. Suddenly 2,000 voices sang to the chorus with gusto. When Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” came on, those voices erupted with “BAH BAH BAH” and the bonus “so good, so good, so good!” at the appropriate times. I just kept giggling at the party atmosphere that reminded me of the opening scene in “The Muppet Movie” when the Muppets are in a movie theater waiting to see their new movie. As I bounced and clapped along, Rob kept giving me that look that he often gives me which is a mixture of “why did I let you” and “thank you for” dragging me to this goofy activity. It is one of my most favorite looks from him.

video


When the show finally started and the curtains opened, it was a collective gasp as we all gazed at perfect replicas of the stage props we all knew so well. Naturally, they were mind-blowingly tiny compared to what fills up a television camera. But they still oozed that delightful retro Vegas vibe.

Names were called to fill Contestant’s Row and one was from behind us. As the late 20-something ran down the aisle, one arm pumping in excitement, the other expertly balancing a plastic cup of beer, a guy behind me asked his friend, “Can you bring drinks to Contestant’s Row?” Apparently, without cameras, yes, yes you can.

The show lasted about an hour and a half. They know their audience so they played only the most popular games. We saw “Hole in One…Or Two” and “Plinko” and “Any Number” and “Punch-a-Bunch.” When the Cliffhanger game was revealed, the audience responded as if on cue with yodels. More excited giggling from me and That Look from Rob.

When it came time to Spin the Big Wheel, the host ("Emmy-Award winning Todd Newton!") said his favorite part of hosting the stage show is seeing the audience’s eyes light up when the Big Wheel is revealed. I am sure Portland did not disappoint. IT WAS SO PRETTY!! And it truly looked exactly like it does on television – all glittery and sparkly and spinny. Although it looked kind of small from where we were sitting, once someone stood next to it, it was clearly the same size as on TV. Seeing it was the one moment I regretted being an introvert who didn’t even turn in her registration card for fear of being called to the stage.

We weren't allowed to take pictures during the show so this is from afterwards.

As for the contestants, they were mostly drunk. Silly and goofy…and tipsy and uninhibited. As such, there were very few winners. Actually, there was only one winner. Sober Samuel from Southeast (Portland). He was an old guy with a bad hip and a bad knee who ambled up to the stage one step at a time with his cane. He and his wife Ella have been married for 62 years.

Samuel got to play the “Any Number” game. It is where there is a good prize, a ho-hum prize, and a piggy bank of change. Numbers 0-9 appear once on the board as part of the price of one of the three prizes. You call out numbers one at a time and the first item whose price is revealed is the one you win. The piggy bank has a decimal after the first number so the most you can win there is $9.87.

When the ho-hum prize was revealed, the audience and the host roared with laughter. It was a tandem bicycle. Todd tried to make a joke about Samuel having a long-held dream of taking Ella for a ride on a bicycle built for two, but Samuel was hard of hearing and didn’t quite get it. However, Samuel fully understood what the good prize was: a trip for two to Las Vegas. “WE LOVE VEGAS!” he proclaimed, speaking for his bride as well.

With classic suspense made for TV, the game came down to the last number. Whichever of the three remaining numbers Samuel chose would determine his prize. When the Las Vegas trip lit up, the audience erupted in cheers and was on its feet, arms waving and hands clapping. The joy and excitement was as if each person had won the trip themselves. Maybe it was the booze (theirs, not mine), but the feeling filling the auditorium of altruism and elation at the good fortune of someone else was inspiring.

Rob and I ran into Samuel and Ella after the show. They were wearing brand new matching “Price Is Right” t-shirts, clinging to each other, and glowing with excitement. We congratulated them and shook their hands. Their smiles couldn’t have been any bigger.

Todd ended the show with Bob’s trademark admonition to help control the pet population. It was the first…and I believe last…time I have ever joined 2,000 voices in yelling out the words, “SPAYED OR NEUTERED!” Especially with such delight.

Just before that, though, Todd announced that they would be bringing the Big Wheel back out on stage and for $20 you could get your picture taking it for a spin. More giggles, with more bouncing and claps of glee. And That Look again. And, then, blissfully, this:



We totally should have brought Piglet. Darn it!!