Sunday, December 30, 2007


Warm day, got up to about 70 f. These pictures were taken around 4PM after it cooled back down to the 60's and a blanket of fog rolled in.

1. Trees fading into the mist

2. Hooded mergansers take refuge at our end of the marsh, from duck hunters who are limited to the far end.

3. American egret

4. Great blue heron, with a muted rainbow of autumn marsh color.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Twenty marbles

Today is my friends' 20th wedding anniversary, and whoops! they'll get their gift late, since I only mailed it this morning.

That means it's also a big anniversary for me: 20 years sober in AA. 20 years ago today I got loaded for the last time, at my best friend's wedding, and made the biggest decision of my life.

Hey, you'd drink too if you had to wear this dress!

In AA, as you rack up time in the program, you occasionally get a chance to get up at the podium and tell your story. According to the basic AA text, "Our stories disclose in a general way what we used to be like, what happened, and what we are like now.”

Some peoples' stories are funny, some are scary, some make you want to cry. Mine, I was always embarrassed to admit in meetings, is boring. I helped clean up after the reception by finishing off everybody's leftover wine on all the tables. Pretty gross. So that's the story: I acted like an asshole, I drove home snockered, lane lines seeming to writhe like snakes, my hands on the wheel and my feet on the pedals refusing to coordinate with one another. I got safely home. I sobered up as the afternoon wore on and thought: Oh. My. God. What did I just do? That's it. Low entertainment quotient.

There was another gathering at the bride and groom's house that evening, so I didn't dare hit the sack. For the rest of that afternoon I wandered around my apartment, swigging diet coke, picking things up and dropping them at random (with even less focus than I normally manage) and mulling over where I came from, and where I really really did not want to go.

The short version is that my family is rife with alcoholism. Most were genial Elwood Dowd types. Occasionally, someone would manifest the nasty, violent type, but by and large my older generation of relatives were wobbly, giggly bourbon-soaked southerners. The smell of Christmas, to me, was bourbon and water, mixed strong, radiating from every glass and wafting off every breath along with the equally ubiquitous musky Marlboro Filter smoke, till it filled the rooms of my grandmother's house, family Grand Central. I liked it. I found it spicy, warm, festive and comfortable.

I was more of a Gin Girl. Sloe gin and orange juice was my drink o'choice, though I could never bring myself to ask for the drink by name. I was relatively old the first time I got plastered, judging by my fellow AA-ers -- I was a college freshman -- and I experienced that wonderful feeling of being at-ease and socially confident. This! I thought, this is what normal people get to feel like all the time! Relaxed and happy to be themselves. After all my years of resenting God's depriving me of it, this is His gift to me.

After the wedding I somehow, for the first time, saw the brokenness of that promise. Saw that the "gift" had come from somebody I have no problem calling the Father Of Lies. Because after that first time, I never again managed to engineer the right amount at the right intervals to regain that pleasant feeling. It's a feature of addiction that one does not apply logic and say "This isn't working." One keeps trying. They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results.

I kept at it, but it never gave me that delicious sensation again. At parties I'd try to tell jokes and somewhere between my brain and my tongue the words would twist into a nasty insult and make the listener blanch, while I felt like a victim of some kind of Star Trek Disease that mangles language. More often I just felt depressed, unsociable and lousy. Well then, obviously I had not had enough, or else the cheery feeling would be in full operation, so I'd swill some more.

I can't even explain why, on December 27th , 1987, I realized I was headed down a path that those older relatives, so charming and loving when I was a little kid, had taken later, as their lives deteriorated or ended too soon. Maybe the blessing was that I got drunk so early in the day, and had all day to think about it as I sobered back up, instead of conking out. Or maybe it was simply the right time.

I decided that the only way to avoid ever having to belong to AA was to quit. This is the part of my story that gets the only real laugh. Most of us discover that the decision is only the beginning, and that we need help from others who get it.

How can I do it? I worried. How can I explain this big change to people? This friend, for whom I was a bridesmaid, was also kind of a drinking buddy. We would meet for drinks and a plate of Ruby Tuesday's Super Nachos and share all the life junk that was going on. Was I ruining that?

Friendships often end when one makes such a big change. Bless her, she never questioned my decision, merely asked about it, then let me do my thing while she did hers. That's why we can tell each other anything, and why she's still my friend.

And dating?? How was I ever going to date, if I couldn’t do normal things?

Within days -- coincidentally? or by act of a Great Designer? We each have to decide that for ourselves -- people began to come into my life. People whose guidance, whose stories, and, sometimes, whose failures, all knocked me here and there but always forward. Kind of like a pinball.

Every region has its own traditions for AA members. Mine gave out "chips" for successful time in the program. A blue chip for increments of a year.

But I heard, can't remember where, of a group someplace where they give you a marble each year. The symbolism is that as a drinker, you've pretty much lost your marbles, and now you can start getting them back. I love this idea. Quitting is only the start. One can make some

insane decisions and generally act like one has lost one's marbles, even some time after quitting. I was 4+ years sober when I began to date my ex, 5+ when we married. Somehow, with the help of a Higher Power who, at my lowest point, enfolded me in a peace that passed all understanding, and the help of some of those same 12-step friends, I got through that whole episode without using.

So I can say I've got 20 marbles back. No, it's not my achievement. You can tell me how swell I am to have managed it, but that's bull. What got me to this point was a concept that I ran into in Christianity, but other traditions have versions of it. Whatever others think, I know that the strength does not come from me. It's grace. And no day is promised to me except today, by God's grace.

That's it. Coffee, doughnuts and free literature are at the back of the room. Thanks for the marble.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Christmas wish

Its dark-brown curls were long and free; free as its genial face, its sparkling eye, its open hand, its cheery voice, its unconstrained demeanour and its joyful air. Girded round its middle was an antique scabbard; but no sword was in it, and the ancient sheath was eaten up with rust.

Description of The Ghost of Christmas Present

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

They work!

Two strings of tree lights:

The green string is modern K-mart stuff.

The beige string is from, probably, the 1940's.

Better view below with flash.

And they work! Undoubtedly they will go off when a single bulb burns out, as they were wont to do back then. We'll need to surf eBay for more bulbs.

We have them plugged in separately

for special-occasion use.
Nifty, eh?

It's time

It got pretty cold last night!

Harvest time.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The logic escapes me

[This piece's draft date says December 15, 2007. The ordination was, I believe, on the 13th]

For someone who's kind of vocal about her identity as a Christian, I must admit I rarely go to church. The church in which we were married has become an "Anglican Network" parish in opposition to gay marriage and ordination, and withholds member pledge money from the Episcopal Church of the US unless the congregant makes formal request of the minister that his money go in as always. Swell idea -- I mean, Peace and Justice Ministries and Episcopal Relief can always cut back.

Anyway, I can't stomach it. And the liberal Episcopal church down the road is all into promoting the creation of a government Department of Peace. Sorry, fellow liberals, I think that's ridiculous. And all these things may just be my excuses to sleep in and not comb my hair on Sundays.

But since Dad's down with bronchitis and my mom can't drive at night, I said I'd take her to the ordination of a friend of theirs. The about-to-retire Bishop is a family friend too, so she wanted to be there, and enticed me with declarations of how ceremonial and medieval it was. I can get into that.

And Oh! It was. Conservative it may be, but this church has real grab-you professional music and puts on an exquisite ceremony. And it's Advent so we got some hymns of the season, in, really, a richer, more mystical ceremony than I'd have gotten in a regular Christmas service, and in a church shimmering with candlelight and draped in evergreens like some kind of Russian fairy tale.

My church attendance has been sporadic enough to ensure that I hadn't heard one of my favorite hymns, "Holy Holy Holy," in well over decade. (YouTube alert: This link goes to a 43-second once-through on the organ, for those who might be unfamiliar with the piece.)

I love this hymn. "Holy Holy Holy" dips and soars with the drama of an epic movie's climactic fade-out. I was singing along, having a childhood-nostalgia trip and savoring the words. Till they changed them.

They effing-A changed them. Last time I sang it, Reginald Heber's 1826 lyrics (Don't be impressed. I looked that up.) were intact:

Holy holy holy! Though the darkness hide thee.
Though the eye of sinful man thy glory may not see.

So when the line came along and people were singing:

Though the sinful human eye thy glory may not see

I began to do my fire-breathing act. The simple punch of the original accented words "eye, sin-, man," turned into multisyllabic ooze. And now it's not the person who's sinful, it's his/her gendernonspecific eye.

I'm a liberal. Which means I'm also anti-censorship and to me that trumps the inclusiveness thing big time. Censorship may seem like a strong term but, God blast it, it's one of the all-time classics and it deserves to stand as he wrote it. If we need to change our speech patterns for this more enlightened era, OK. Changing the church service liturgy does that. The service isn't a finished work of creative art (though the poetic language of earlier versions grants them literary status in their own right for a lot of people), it's a working handbook. But don't rewrite the past.

Hey, we're so much smarter than the creative artists of the past, so let's rewrite Dylan. "She takes, just like a person, yes she does." (Bob Dylan YouTube alert)

If the song is unacceptable as written then quit using it. I mean it, I have no problem with letting a favorite become a museum piece, nor do I have a problem with rocking out with modern songs. Keep each song's integrity intact, dammit.

Why am I making such a big deal about a line? One line?

Because we also sang "O Come O Come Emmanuel." We sang every single one of the 6 verses with the familiar chorus between them, which took about one glacial epoch to get through.

Here's the thing: the men and the women of the congregation were instructed to sing alternate verses.

By gender.

The verses the men were to sing were about power and achievement:

2: "Free Thine own from Satan's tyranny"
4: "Make safe the path"

The ones assigned to the women were: wisdom, nurture:

3: "Cheer us by Thy drawing nigh."
5: "O come thou wisdom from on high."

So let me get this straight: it's Terribly Important to banish any and all so-called male dominance from an 1826 hymn. Why, somebody could get the idea that the Christian church doesn't give women credit for their share in bringing sin into the world! Wouldn't want that. (No, giving up sarcasm isn't gonna be one of my New Year's resolutions.)

But assigning traditional gender roles in singing is okay??

It's getting ridiculous. And I want my hymn back.

A Quick One, While Winter's Away

DECEMBER 14, 2007

A closer inspection of
the Bradford Pear
that I keep documenting
reveals that:

It's shedding its leaves

and budding

at the same time.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Writers' Group flashback

Talk about draggin' old dusty stuff out from under the couch!

Writers' groups have their value. I've been in a couple of them.
I was lucky to attend one led by a pro, and she balanced the hand-holding aspect, which can take over some groups, with some truly valuable feedback. They're also a great place to find exercises that actually help a writer sort out plot and character. "Write about the thing you most do not want to write about." That's a disquieting but very good one for dredging things out of the unconscious that may be short-circuiting something you're trying to articulate. And the exercises could bring out cool, interesting stuff: "Interview a character in your story. What would you ask the character, what would she say to you?"

But there's no denying that a writers' group can foster the production of stuff that I can only describe as: Writers' Group-y. I'm not even sure what I mean by that. It's more like venting than it's like truly telling the world something it needs or cares to hear.

But therein lies a challenge of its own: To take one's piffly little personal experience and convince the reader to care, to relate.

This is an old group piece of mine that I turned up awhile ago while looking for something else, and have had hanging around in draft mode. While I still like some of my imagery, I don't feel like I quite pulled it above Writer's Group-yness level.

Warts and all, just as I wrote it in 1993:


In the summer of 1964 I was too told to catch fireflies.

By day I was still a kid. I read Roller Skates and Dr. Dolittle. I walked to the neighborhood swimming pool with my four-year-old brother and waited with adult patience when he crouched in the exact middle of the street to pop the hot tar bubbles in the asphalt.

But in the evenings I donned my full blue skirt and a sleeveless white blouse, crammed my bare feet into Pappagallos, and walked to Sally's house. My friend Sally and I had turned ten years old during the winter. By June, the thrill of gaining a coveted two-digit age had worn off. We wanted more. We wanted to be teenagers.

Sally's side porch was enveloped in thick magnolias and hydrangeas. I watched fireflies flicker in the bushes, and sipped my RC Cola in a restrained, adult manner, as Sally and her older sister Patsy performed the Sacred Teenage Record Player Ceremony. They strung extension cords out the doorway onto the porch. Patsy, on her knees, would plug in the little square box, reverently open the lid, and place a stack of 45's next to it. Then Patsy would teach us to dance. She was fourteen, and enjoyed our deference to her teenage wisdom.

Languidly we swayed our hipless bodies to "Every Little Bit Hurts," and "Don't Worry Baby." It was important to look weighed down, as though we fully understood the tragic emotions of the songs.

Then Patsy would show us her newest acquisitions. Patsy's record collection was more than marvelous; it was chosen with mysterious knowledge gained from some secret cultural network accessed only by teenagers.

"You mean you haven't heard of the Beatles?" she said, with a touch of pity in her voice, knowing full well we hadn't.

"They're funny-looking," I said, gazing at the record jacket.

But the sound blew me away. It pounded with pure, confident joy. The exquisite pain of teenage angst had attracted me, but this carefree sound seemed to promise a world of fun. It gave me hope of leaving my childhood insecurities behind at the moment of hooking my first training bra.

The world had already changed, but we didn't know it that summer. The shock of November's assassination had worn off. The intolerable knowledge that nobody was safe still floated below our conscious minds. Our daily lives hadn't changed. We still had two parents apiece, our own rooms, and Wonderful World of Color on Sunday nights, on our black-and-white TV's.

Summer ended. In October, Sally and Patsy's successful attorney father connected a garden hose to the exhaust pipe of his car and ended his life. Their mother rebuilt her life around bourbon. The sisters had only each other. Patsy made a teenage marriage. Sally scavenged for love, briefly married an attorney 20 years her senior, divorced, disappeared.

There aren't many fireflies around anymore, but once in awhile I see one.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Allegedly December

It's now the double digits of December, and forecasters are predicting highs of 79 tomorrow and days following. But no, this is not normal.

By now we should have had at least one frost warning. And the drought is serious, rainfall down about 25 percent for the year, and barely a sprinkle in the last 30 days.

It's warm, dry day after warm, dry day, and not exactly Christmas-y, but The Respiratory Crud is making the rounds, and you can bet we both got it. I have to admit, warm weather does make bronchitis easier to endure.

Slowly the Bradford Pear divests itself of its leaves.

Those 4 tomatoes keep growing, though the drought won't let them get very big ...

and they've been joined by 7 (!) more, marble-sized.

A chameleon seeks out a patch of sunlight.

I'll hibernate, OK? But later.

All pictures taken today, Dec 10. Except the one below, taken last night.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Cooperating with others - D-minus [UPDATE]

Oh boy. Here it is. My third notice from Harris Connect, which has contracted with my high school to compile an alumni directory. They Urgently Need My Help. For my convenience, I may-- in fact, I really should, phone them and give them my data!

There are reasonable arguments as to why getting directory info over a phone is not a great idea. What about those of us with hard-to-pronounce (or spell) names? "It's not Smith anymore, it's Pastafazoola.... no, that's P-A-s-t-a‑‑"

What if my business website address is long and complicated? How many times have I been through this before on the phone?

"Noir-and-more, and don't use ampersands."

"Don't use what?"

"Spell out the word 'and.' It's Noir-and-more-b‑‑"

"Wait. Near and More?"
"Noir. N-WAHR. N-o-i-r."
"OK, n-i-o-r‑‑"
"What's that mean anyway?"
"Dark. It means dark. Very dark."

Even with US phone-answerers names get scrambled, and you can bet that the call actually goes to a firm in Elbonia.

But my real, and totally unreasonable objection is that I hate the telephone. It's a great invention for calling emergency services or punching in the refill number on my prescription for later pick-up. But the longer I'm on the phone, the unhappier I get. Having to jabber socially on a phone, even to the people dearest to me, makes me want to shriek. Or pop bubble wrap into the receiver and say, "Darn, losing .. connection! [crackle] Catch you la-" [pop!]

Maybe it's an ADD need for me to see body language and facial expression in order to decode what I hear, or maybe it's just an estrogen deficiency. Women are supposed to l-o-o-o-v-e yapping on a phone. I can't explain it. A disembodied voice coming at me while I look at nearby inanimate objects -- Hey, there's my eyeglass screwdriver under the side table! What's this unpaid bill that's slipped under the chair cushion? 2006?! -- can't tell me much I want to hear by that medium, except that my Lotto numbers came through.

I put each card from Harris Directory through a thorough inspection for small print containing alternatives. When, I wonder, when is the final card going to arrive? The one where they give in and say, "Oh, all right, you win! Here's the [website] [paper questionnaire] [carrier pigeon] you may use instead, since you obviously hate the idea of the phone!"

But no, they never give in.

After the third card arrived on Friday, I did as much giving-in as I am inclined to do, and googled Harris Directory for myself. Navigated their website. Found a page through which directory subjects can submit their particulars, which required that Harris issue me a password. Navigated back to their contact information, went over to my email and, feeling very virtuous -- look how much trouble I'd gone to in order to compensate for their inadequacies! -- sent them this ladylike and softspoken request for a password:

I keep getting cards from you REQUIRING that I get on a TELEPHONE in order to give you information for your directory.

I can't understand why you insist on the telephone and offer NO other options. I despise the telephone. If you'd given a paper questionnaire or a website, I'd have responded WEEKS ago.

I'm willing to do it online. Your site (which I had to google for myself. How many will bother to do this??) requires that you issue me a password.

Ruth Pleistocene '72
Golgotha High School
Harris ID no. PRO27-15

Their reply yesterday surprised me:

Dear Ruth Pleistocene:

Thank you for your communication regarding the Golgotha High School Alumni Directory update. Please accept our apologies.

In respect to our contract with your school, an on-line questionnaire is not offered. Please take a moment to phone the toll free number provided on the postcard we previously mailed to you, to ensure the accuracy of your information, which will be included in the upcoming directory.

Seriously? My school signed a contract that does not allow -- uh -- a more accurate method of data gathering? Now, does this mean it's my school that's to blame? Or do I still blame Harris for -- could it be? -- charging more for using other methods?

Paper questionnaires are labor-intensive to process, but online questionnaires?? Why would it cost them more for me to type in the correctly spelled names and urls, than for the Elbonian operator to type it in from my spelling it over the phone? Can't they outsource online data processing to the same Elbonian firm just as cheaply as they can the toll-free number? And get a more accurate product?

Meanwhile, they now know my address is correct. They even have my email addy. That will have to do.

UPDATE 12/20/07 (if anybody scrolls back this far!) : I won! Sort of.

I emailed back:

OK, I guess i need to blame

my alumni association for this idiotic

decision not to contract with you to get

my data via any form but the phone.

Did they allow any provision for

hearing-impaired alumni?? Are such

alumni just out of luck?

I am not phoning. My names and data

are impossible to spell correctly, as

are the particulars of my web address.

Here is my basic data. Include it, don't

include it, I don't care!


I am in receipt of a genuine, authentic snail-mail letter confirming the

biographical info I had emailed. But no reply, either there or via email,

in return to my question about how they accommodate the

hearing-impaired. A simple email address would at least let all

alumni make contact with that or any other question.

Monday, December 03, 2007

How to trap a raccoon

Probably more than you want to know about what we've learned from our animal-trapping experiences, but this all may to uselful to someone who drops by sometime. Brought to you by the Havaheart Trap, a wonderful invention.

Raccoons are particularly gifted at getting the food bait out without entering the trap. Few of us trap them on the first try, but some things will increase your odds.

You can check the Havaheart FAQ for lots of good advice, including ways to prevent trapping neighbor cats. Some might be worth a try. I personally will not recommend using the first suggestion: Havaheart says cats won't be attracted to peanut butter on whole wheat bread. It may depend on the cat -- I live with one who adores peanut butter and harasses me for a fingerful to lick off. Some of the other suggestions they make for baits that are raccoon-friendly but disliked by cats might be better.

Meanwhile, a little can of Fancy Feast [TM] worked for us. It's nicely fragrant and Rocky ought to make a beeline for it. A neighbor with outside cats might want to be notified on Trap Night and might be willing to make other arrangements for his cats for the night. He's motivated to cooperate, or he sure oughta be, because his cats are at risk from this raccoon as well.

So: The critter will work diligently and patiently, showing much more intelligence than do many of our elected officials, to get the food out through the bars and avoid entering the trap.

A huge trap makes that harder but has disadvantages. These traps are well-structured and heavy, even empty, and with an Occupant, they're a job to carry. Plus the Occupant will be scared and angry, and will express himself in rather smelly ways, so you'll be glad if you can fit it in the trunk of even a compact car for transport to Hundred Acre Wood.
Even if the trap is fairly large, the little ba- the critter will pull and shake it, tip it, and patiently jostle the food over to a reachable position. We wire the bait bowl or can in place to thwart that.

We place the trap against a wall and put the bait on that side,

...then block other sides with scrap wood, or whatever you've got. Voila'. An irresistible midnight snack and only one way to get to it.

And when you get him, have something disposable -- scrap cardboard? -- or washable (You will want to take it straight in to the washer) to put under the occupied trap as you transport him to his new home.

You'll then want to hose the trap down or leave it out in the rain!