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Midnight in the Garden of Dogs and Spiders

27 Sep

I am a dog owner: not to be confused with a dog lover.  Dog lovers swoon over their dogs, snuggle with them in private, and secretly wish all people were more like dogs. I am not that. I know a lot of dog lovers,and I don’t want them to think I am cold-hearted or mean because of my limited affection for four-legged creatures.  I think what I lack for pets, I more than make up for towards children. Regardless, I am a very conscientious and responsible dog owner who takes really good care of the animals, is always kind to them, and is thoughtful about their needs.  So, when I returned to the States a few months ago and commenced a stent of living alone with my 22 year-old, two dogs and two cats, it was important to establish some respectful boundaries for all of us.

The first rule I had to enforce was no dogs in the bedroom overnight. The scratching and ear flapping wake me up and I sleep a little uneasily anyway, so its a reasonable limit.  I bought two crates and two dog beds and re-crate trained the canines to sleep alone downstairs.  I feel just guilty enough that I let them stay with me until the absolute latest moment I can remain awake, then take them down,let them out one more time, give them a  milkbone and then into the crate they go until I let them out around 5 am.

Unfortunately, that’s not how the series of events unfolded on Tuesday night.  At around eleven, I let them out and immediately heard the lapdog tear off into the wooded part of the lawn.  The leaves crunched rhythmically beneath his paws as he tore a path along the fence, back and forth, back and forth, crunch, crunch, crunch. When I called them in, only one appeared. I groaned with frustration, crated the dutiful and obedient beagle and went back for the pest.  “Oscar.”  I pleaded, cajoled, commanded,  but nothing worked.  Crunch, crunch, crunch, the sound of his feet trotting the quickstep back and forth through the foliage was all I heard.  “Oscar!”  I yelled one last time and then gave up. I went upstairs and asked my son to try again in a few minutes.  Almost immediately, the barking started.  Short, sharp, and incessant.

The next thing I heard was my son on the phone explaining that he was going out to see about the dog agreeing that the barking was odd.  From my bedroom, I heard “Oscar, come here. Get over here. Come here, you bastard.”  My son too was out of patience and getting no response.  The barking was relentless.

In a huff, I put my clothes back on, put on my tennis shoes and descended the stairs, resigning myself to having to physically retrieve the damn dog from the backyard.  When I got outside, Aaron had the flashlight from his iPhone trained into the wooded part of our lot and he filled me in.  Oscar was squared off with a possum. “Get me a stick so I can shoo him away and we maybe we can go to bed.” my son offered.  I went back inside and got a broom.

We quickly concluded that he would hold the light and I would do the shooing.  What happened next was the culmination of my slow reflexes and my serious lack of previous experience with vermin known as possums.  From a safe distance, I pushed the broom toward the possum’s face fully expecting it to simply run away.  Wrong.  The possum stood its ground and gave me a loud open-mouthed hiss revealing an obscene number of needle-like daggers in its ridiculously huge mouth. The hiss clearly cued Oscar that he and I were on the same team, and since the possum was now out-numbered, his moment to attack had arrived.  In a split second, the two became one ball of fur and teeth rolling through the woods.  I let out a scream and started beating the heap with the broom hoping to limit the damage to my boutique, freshly groomed, a-hole of a dog. Running through the woods, wielding a broom, screaming “STOP IT! STOP IT!”  with each blow of my broom – it was not my finest moment.  After three or more swats, Oscar dropped the possum. Finally, it acted the way I expected it to – it played dead. I chased the insolent dog into the house and tried to regain my composure.  Standing in the kitchen, panting and cursing, I caught a glimpse of my sweater sleeve in the light.  I was covered with spider webs and even had a few hangers-on dangling from my arm.  More screaming, clothes stripped off, hair shaking – a full-blown, heeby-geeby, freak-out ensued!

There is nothing like a midnight adrenaline rush. Just as I regained my wits, my cellphone rang.  It was my neighbor, Peggy.  “Allison, you okay?  I can hear the barking and screaming all the way over here!”  “I’ll be just fine as soon as I kill a dog and take a shower, Peggy.  How are you?”

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Durable Goods – not!

16 Aug

So we recently reclaimed our house after renting it out for a year to total strangers.  I hired an agent to manage it so I wouldn’t have to worry about collecting rent or dealing with broken things. I think dealing with all that would have been easier than dealing with my agent, but that is another story.  Upon re-entry, we found that the dishwasher, microwave, and fridge were either completely broken or sufficiently lacking peak performance and warranted replacement.  I guess that is not completely unreasonable since they were all purchased when the house was built eleven years ago.

It wasn’t too long after that tremendous outlay of 2001, that I heard an interesting story on NPR.  A guy had calculated a way to measure his own longevity in terms of durable goods, the things that are supposed to be built to last.  He explained why he was not going to include cars because he often just got bored with a car long before it was worn out, so that didn’t count.  He did count washing machines, dishwashers and refrigerators, though. He concluded that since his current fridge had lasted 25 years, and he was over fifty, it was safe to say, he most likely had one-point-five or two fridges left in his life.  He thought it was something to celebrate.  I have to agree.

Anyway, I thought about this when Steve and I went to Sears and bought round two.  It wasn’t until we got home and unpacked the dishwasher that I got really worried.  See in the “Longevity in Durable Goods” world, low numbers are good.  It means you don’t waste what precious little time you might actually have left with stupid and mundane things like shopping for, waiting on the delivery and installation of the durable goods.  They are built to last, thus the name. It’s the thing in your life you are supposed to take completely for granted. Durable goods are supposed to be sturdy and stand up to what life throws at them without complaining.  They are supposed to take a licking and keep on ticking – to steal a phrase.  My first clue that things were not all hunky dory was the clip that keeps the door securely shut was so flimsy, we were convinced it was just part of the packaging meant to keep the door from rattling around during shipment.  Then I realized that my new dishwasher was made completely of plastic inside and out. 100% poly something or other.  I could actually alter the shape of the drum by pressing on it. The whole thing is made with maybe a total of one pound of metal parts. My first thought was, “Oh dear, I am going to be buying one of these suckers every four years.”  That means I might have up to 10 more dishwashers to live through, and that is utterly depressing.

Re-entry and culture shock

11 Aug

Really, there is simply too much to explain.  I’ve moved back from London to Mebane, NC, moved two kids in and out of college housing, reassembled a menagerie of pets, taken possession of my battered house that sports a “For Sale” sign in the front yard, started a new job, and both picked up and dropped off my husband at RDU for a two week reunion that ended yesterday.  I am exhausted, overwhelmed, and too confused to write the post I want to write.  The quips often come to me late at night after I am in bed.  Lying in the dark, I draft brilliant analogies about the Olympics and global warming and the Tea Party. Unfortunately, they elude me at the keyboard. I am too disorganized to even check Facebook regularly so I am sure I have offended people by not responding to important announcements. Just know I am here – taking it all in, and shaking my head regularly. Really America?  Why in the world did anyone even want to stay here in this heat and humidity – especially before A/C?

I will make just one short remark.  The one thing I hate more than I can explain is driving a car for mundane reasons.  My husband Steve sympathized with me while he was here.  He explained, driving should be fun, something done for excitement and for sport.    If not, people should at least obey simple driving rules like “Keep right except to pass.”  Why is that so difficult and so infuriating?  I honestly believe that simply getting around from point A to point B should require us to tax ourselves physically beyond mashing (yes, I said “mashing”) the gas pedal  but without risking our lives.  The latter is impossible in my rural NC community. So I am a bit out out of sorts with all the driving.  I miss walking to a destination and pretty much loathe the idea of walking for the sake of walking.  That’s about allI can muster right now. I hope to deliver deeper thoughts later.

Pickles and Onions on Herring – Oh my!

27 Jun

Last week, I had the pleasure of traveling to Amsterdam for the first time.  My son, who is 19 talked me into making the trek from London to Holland so he could visit a friend.  His friend was a girl who had come to live in Mebane, NC (our hometown) as an exchange student.  Initially, the thought of being in Amsterdam with my teen-aged son and other young folks made me apprehensive to say the least.  When I was last in Europe in 1989, Amsterdam was known only for the hash and the red light district.  I’m writing this post to document the error of my prejudices about the city.  From now on, when I think of Amsterdam, I will think of water and houseboats and pickled herring, and bicycles.

The red light district is still there, don’t get me wrong.  And of course, we took a stroll through it just to say we had.  It was dirty and weird and not all like the part of the city we spent the majority of our time in.  But to have the impression that Amsterdam is the red light district is like thinking that South Carolina is Myrtle Beach. As a native of the Carolinas, I can tell you, there are vast and beautiful places that bear no resemblance to the touristy craziness of Myrtle, and so is the case in Amsterdam. We toured all around the city on rented bicycles and enjoyed gorgeous views of renovated buildings, quaint sidewalk cafes, flower markets, and of course, canals lined with houseboats.

My new, informed take on the Venice of the Netherlands is that it is the most quiet and polite city I have traveled in.  I did not hear a single car horn in the whole four days – only the ping of bicycle bells.  My biggest and favorite surprise was the amazing cycling culture.  Women in heels, men in suits, fathers toting up to three kids on a single bike, people with their pets in baskets, all chugging along the cobble stone streets and extensive network of bike lanes.  There were bikes in all shapes with a number of ingenious ways to carry things from here to there.  My favorite was the one with the integrated box on the front.  I saw this style of bike used to shuttle dogs, school aged children, lumber, furniture, and groceries.  It is the minivan of the Netherlands.

My second favorite surprise was how much I enjoyed the food.  I’m guessing fresh produce is good just about everywhere in the Northern Hemisphere in late June, but I had forgotten about Dutch apple pie.  Other staples like bread, cheese and beer were also delicious. Finally, the pickled herring.  Topped with chopped onions and pickles, it is a flavor explosion of a very pleasing combination.

Finally, while Holland is famous for tulips, in June it’s the Hollyhocks that steal the show.  They pushed up between the cracks of the sidewalk next to buildings where they were not purposefully planted.  Hydrangeas and trailing roses were also featured foliage providing a soft and delicate edge to the sharpness of all the brick and pavement.  All in all, I have to say, Amsterdam will be high on the list of places to re-visit.

Storming Provence

7 Jun

A couple of months ago, I went to Paris for the first time since 1989.  While I was there, I kept thinking about the fact that Paris was spared during the Blitzkrieg and is thus physically unmarred by battle scars.  I am no history buff, so mostly my imagination wandered in and out of bits of movies I had seen about the deals made to save Paris, the Resistance, the Germans, the ugliness of WWII. Somehow, I projected a sense of defeat onto Paris of today – as her looks fade, the ghosts of her occupation haunt.

Dad was not quite a teen-ager when D-Day happened.  He was a history buff and so his affection for France, I believe in part, came from his indelible memories of triumphant American and Allied forces. His early impressions were shaped by listening to broadcasts on the radio, and it was these memories of WWII and the pressing urgency of the Korean War that sent him to join up as soon as he legally able.  His deep sense of patriotism and his commitment to never let a tyrant dictator rule his country or any other, fueled his passion to serve.  After 23 years in the Navy he retired and enjoyed a second career, still in government service. This second career afforded him the opportunity to travel for pleasure.  So in the spring of 1989, he  and my mother (along with my youngest brother who was 16 and my oldest sister who was 33) flew to Paris and boarded a train south.  I met them at the station in Montpellier where Steve and I were spending a year abroad. Mom and half their luggage rode with me in my Renault 4. Dad rented a Citroen sedan and followed me back to Domain de Lussac, an 18th century chateau on the outskirts of Montpellier in Languedoc Roussilon, just adjacent to Provence in Southern France. We had rented the one bedroom apartment in the North Tower.

So when I recently was able to return to Montpellier for the first time since I left 23 years ago, I was flooded with memories of my family’s visit, and especially Dad.  My favorite is of the afternoon we heard some kids playing in the courtyard inside this gate.  The kids had a bat and were arranging themselves in a game of cricket, I think.  I was busy preparing dinner for six and not paying much attention.  The next thing I knew, Dad was in the courtyard using hand gestures and broken French and English to organize the kids in a game of baseball.  I looked out just in time to see him get a hit and run the bases.  We hung out the window and cheered loudly.

On our recent trip, we nearly replicated my family’s tour  from 1989. We explored central Montpellier: La Place de la Comedie, Le Perou, a cafe or two.  We walked around with baguettes under our arms, and ate olives at every chance.  We toured the region: St. Gilheim le Desert, and Pont Diablo.  We did not make it to Avignon, and Nimes; nor did we attempt to drive to Spain.  Yes, on one of the days my dad was in Montpellier, he talked me into riding with him to Spain.  He said he wanted to drive really fast.  Who can say no to that?  We got on the tollway early, and I learned Dad was not kidding.  In no time, we were going 110 mph.  At first I was terrified, then I remember feeling really Zen about it.  How poetically tragic it would be to die on a highway in a foreign country while my own father was driving.  I leaned back into the seat and thought how lucky I would be to die so happy.

And that is exactly how I felt during this trip. I could not stop smiling, just like my dad smiled while he was there. Being in Southern France brings me a kind of inexplicable happiness and peaceful feeling.  I love the abundance of sun, the bounty of fresh food, the natural beauty everywhere, the slow pace.  And I love that the place holds such happy memories of my dad.  I am one of the truly lucky ones to have these memories of my dad happily vacationing in France, and not dying there as part of an invasion. For that, I am thankful.

Two Fashion Designers, One Serial-killer

17 Apr

ImageThis piece is hanging at the National Portrait Gallery in London.  I find it captivating – it reminds me of people I am friends with.  People who I find incredibly artistic and fun and who I don’t get to spend near enough time with.  I guess it makes sense that my reactions to art have to do with relationships.

Art history and fashion design – these are not things I know about.  My expertise lies in pedagogy, human experience, relationships, and children.  I know a lot about children.

Art history and such things have never interested me and I have never been required to study them – so it is somewhat ironic that this amazing opportunity to frequent some of the best museums in Europe has been laid in my lap.  I have seen Monet, Manet, Rodin, and Cezanne. I recently saw a special exhibit of Degas’ Nudes at the Musée d’Orsay.  I have learned about the Pre-Raphaelites and awed over the work of those who idealized subjects and those who were dedicated to realism.  I was struck by Ophelia and the Lady of Shallot, and Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose moved me to the extent that I have been back to see them multiple times.  Photos and reprints of these magnificent works do not do them justice. But this image of Isabella Blow and Alexander McQueen, I couldn’t resist snapping it during my third viewing last week.

Just to the left of the picture is the most gripping and disturbing piece of artwork I have seen yet. The silhouette is of Isabella Blow, head thrown back laughing, crazy trademark hat.  But what is that casting the shading?  Yes, taxidermy.  Crows, rats, lipstick all wrapped in a revolting tangle.  It is fascinating.   I had to take these pictures so I could share them. My iPhone shots are weak.  When I got home, I did a quick web search about Blow.  Her story is tragic. She took her life in 2007 after battling depression.  McQueen followed suit in 2010.

Oddly enough, in addition to admiring and ruminating over this metaphoric sculpture about the image cast vs. the monstrosity within, I have been watching Dexter.  If you don’t know about the ShowTime series, it is about a sociopath serial-killer.  He leads a double life.  The image he casts is of a forensic detective, a loving boyfriend, dedicated brother.  His monster within, a monster born of childhood trauma, forces him to kill.  If you have not seen it, it is worth the time.  Smartly written and brimming with ethical dilemmas about good vs. evil.

What has gripped me so about Dexter and about Isabella Blow is the idea of intervention.  Does intervention work?  Are some things just too powerful to fight against?  Can the effects of childhood trauma be diminished with enough therapy?  Can medication take away the damaging urges without also quelling the artists’ drive?   Are any of our institutions equipped to deal with these problems?

Lots of questions, but I don’t have any answers.  I just know that in the last two years of my work in education, I encountered way too many children that I feared could not be helped.  Is it too much to hope that art might some way provide an answer?  Perhaps we are failing our children because we are failing to focus on art.  Just a thought.

Reunited

9 Apr

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When we first met, it was love at first sight. She was so beautiful, so enchanting, full of history and so mysterious. I loved everything about her. How could so much have changed in just 25 years? For her it was a short blip in time – for me, a lifetime had gone by since last we met. Perhaps it was me who had changed so much. For me, I had enjoyed raising two children, building a home for my family in a distant land, and a career. For her, it seemed as though she had been the backdrop for a hundred-million snapshots. After the initial glimpse, the recognition of the beauty and the familiarness I felt for her, I realized she was the same old girl from 1988. She was dirtier than I recall, a bit more jaded, more Americanized by the corroding effects of the constant stream of gawking tourists. She gave up her “franc” – ness and perhaps some of her French – ness, yet she had not bothered to adopt any of the redeeming features of the 21st Century: no recycling, no bio-deisel, nothing new in the skyline.

…and I realized I have a new love.

Maybe my new girl is all gussied up for her big date fast approaching in August of this year.

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Or maybe my new love has captured my heart for the way she has embraced the future while respecting the past. Her new silhouette is a stunning tribute to both her age and her youth – her tradition and her daring. It shows off her beauty of yesteryear as well as her mature sensibility with an eye for style. Her forward thinking is everywhere. Recycling bins dot every street, upgrades and planned works for the mass transit including “green” buses and biking lanes on the roads.

But what has shocked me most about the difference between these two cities, both of which I visited in 1988 and have only returned to this year, is the food. Yes, the food. I remember being so taken by the food in Paris – everything was so fresh and well-prepared back in 1988. The bread, the coffee, the croissants all added to my love affair with Paris. Our trip to London that year included fish and chips in newspaper and steak and kidney pie. You can still find such fare in London if you look hard enough and stick to the mostly touristy spots, but you can also find amazing, well-prepared, incredibly fresh and delicious meals for a reasonable price. Hake with sauteed kale and celeriac puree, or roasted duck with steamed cabbage and jersey royals – all prepared perfectly for around £14 ( roughly 22 bucks) – I ordered Noix de Saint-Jacques one night in Paris at a nice little bistro. It was tasty, but nothing special. The cream sauce started to split on my plate, it was heavy and not served with anything green.

What has really chuffed me the most about Paris though, is the coffee. Un café au lait. I know I can say it clearly in French. I know I drank it daily during my year there. Yet, it did not appear on a menu anywhere I went. Café milk. Really? No! I’m sorry, I cannot forgive this. If you are going to charge $6 for a cup of it – use the F$%&@ French word for it at least! It’s over between us – for now.

 

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