Thursday, December 27, 2007

by popular demand

The Christmas carol I wrote for Sequoia, which I've been singing nonstop for the past week to anyone who will listen and lots of people who won't.

Sung to the tune of "God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen."

God rest ye, fuzzy goofy dog
Let nothing you dismay
Remember that the Redwood trail
Is hiked on Christmas day.

With sticks to fetch,
And butts to sniff,
And muddy puddles, too.

And pine cones to carry and chew
Carry and chew
And pine cones to carry and chew.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

timeless classics

Melanie's blog entry has been magnified all out of proportion because I immediately stopped posting afterward. I have a half-written blog about the iNano commercial song, but that's about it. Since then, the holidays took over and I've been drowning in soul food, Christmas movies (or what passes for them in my world) and very strange presents.

I've also been reading Mountains Beyond Mountains, by Tracy Kidder. One of the best non-fiction books I've ever read, mostly because of the subject. The book is about Paul Farmer, an American doctor who does work in Haiti. If you hate all charities (as I do) you'll probably love this book. It replaces the "let's make things slightly less miserable" mentality with a "there's plenty to go around" philosophy. Sort of the third-world equivalent of Project Runway's "Make it Work."

Today was spent struggling to find the will to work, interspersed with fascinating conversation with a co-worker's 9 year old son. (His day was spent dogsitting Sequoia, who now licks the ground he walks on.) So today I learned about the Imperial Star Wars version of Legos, the intricacies of making a binder fit in the correct zipper compartment of a backpack, correct piano technique as well as the definition of a triad (as it relates to pianos), and the entire plot of The Nutcracker.

This last was most intriguing. When I was his age, a teacher mentioned that The Nutcracker was a timeless classic which we would all do well to read. I was a literature geek even then, so I checked it out of the library. There were great, almost overwhelming, illustrations. But I remember sitting on my bed in my nightgown, reading the few last pages while waiting to be tucked in, and feeling that unmistakable apprehension you get when you see that a story simply isn't developing on schedule.

Like that ten minutes into the movie without a plot point. You don't really know consciously that it should be there, you just feel your eyes wandering toward the Exit sign. Anyway, the book ended. It was all a dream. The plot made absolutely no sense, just some war between nutcrackers and mice and none of it was real anyway.

I blamed myself. If this was a timeless classic, and I suffered from a complete inability to comprehend it, what did that say about my future? A lifetime of Supergirl comic books? I promptly burst into tears.

My mom came in, found me in a state, and reassured me by riffling through the book and agreeing that it lacked plot, theme, or substance. There wasn't even much character development. To this day, I'm grateful to her for putting the blame on the author instead of me. I was able to sleep that night by promising myself that I would never expose my brain to The Nutcracker again.

Until today. I was overcome with curiosity. I shamelessly confessed this whole story to Miles, who took it in stride. He hadn't finished the book yet, but he provided updates throughout the course of the day. By 5:00 pm he was done and had readied his lecture notes. Apparently, the heavily illustrated copy I had read was a f***ing excerpt. It was just the dream sequence. There's oh so much more. Miles described a universe peopled with clockmakers and the nephews of clockmakers, dreams and awakenings and entire conversations with toy nutcrackers. The whole thing culminates in marriage, a year and a day after the story ends.

I asked, "Why a year and a day?" Miles shrugged. "Who knows?" Then he shook his head and smiled.

And why couldn't I have adopted that attitude when I was nine?

Monday, December 10, 2007

writing about melanie

Melanie is constantly asking me why I didn't mention that thing she said, or that time she encouraged me, or that great advice she gave. And the real reason (which I've repeatedly explained to her) is that she's secretly pregnant.

That's right, she's pregnant. And I'm not supposed to let that slip to the gals on the American Idol mailing list, some of whom have access to my blog. And since every single person I know made a point of reminding me that I have a tendency toward overdisclosure -- not just about myself, but also about others -- I've been deathly afraid that if I wrote almost anything about Melanie, I would find myself screaming She's Pregnant! to the world at large.

And now I am. I technically agreed to wait another two weeks, until the last of the sonograms or whatever is all complete. But I've noticed lately that whenever I say, "I'm supposed to wait until what date again? When's that test, whatever it is?" she just shrugs her shoulders. Which is code for, "Oh, I guess you could write about it sooner." Which makes sense, because the last test showed about a .000000001% chance of any disease or abnormality. Not only that, but I can no longer think of anyone, including Melanie's students and the women in the Gap dressing rooms, who doesn't already know she's expecting.

I already have big plans for her baby. I want it to wear those little jangly anklets that they make in India, the ones with the silver bells. I also want to teach it to play peek-a-boo with my dog (who I found out loves that game as much as two year olds do, it's weird). Most of my plans are unauthorized, but whatever. None of them involve junk food, because I made that a policy long ago with my nieces and nephews. (Some sort of genetic encoding instructs children that aunts and uncles are the most likely to provide transfat and refined sugar, so you get a lot of requests.)

But enough about Melanie's baby. This post is not supposed to be about baby X. This post is about none other than Melanie Joiwind (named after a science fiction character, and yes, I plan to read the book).

Random facts:

Melanie is better at holidays than any person I know. Last year she threw a party for more events than I can count, one of them being "Hinjew Hanukah." And last night she transformed my Christmas tree into a 19th century masterpiece by insisting on making cranberry garlands. Which, despite my strict Christian upbringing and almost two decades of regular church-going, I've never done. It took a Jew! (She also proudly declared that most Christmas Carols were written by Jews, but I put about as much stock in that statement as I do a random Wikipedia entry. At the time she said it, we were listening to a Bing Crosby song about sex that she mistakenly identified as a "Christmas Carol." How she gets baby Jesus out of "maybe just a half a drink more" I'll never know.)

Melanie is the best writing teacher I've ever had. Any feeble thing I know about plot construction, character development, theme (which should be like "a watermark on paper"), or dialogue, I learned from her. And she doesn't mind telling it to me over and over again, either, in response to my late-night questions. I love the way she describes the "rules" of writing. She never calls them rules, she just says that a certain thing has been found to be "pleasing" or "satisfying" to readers. Even so, her crazed students talk about "her" rules, as though she made them up. She stays patient, though, no matter how arrogant and condescending they get.

I totally worry about the way she talks to her dog. She calls her dog a brat, asks her why she's so bad, and refers to her in conversation as The Beast. This, I fear, will make her child feel very insecure -- if the dog can be called names, then the child will think he/she might do something horribly wrong and get called names, too. When I try to discuss this with Melanie, she laughs at me. Then she goes home and tells Vikram, and he laughs at me, too.

A guy wrote a song about Melanie. It's hilarious, I found it on the web. (He has five CDs!) The song is all mad because she won't have sex with him. It's called something like "Please Don't Be Celibate Tonight." Or maybe that's just the chorus. Whatever, it's a rock classic.

Anyway, that's all about Melanie for now. Look for updates as events develop. Remember there's always a chance that I'll accidentally reveal some deep dark secret she entrusted only to me.*

*In my defense, at one point two close friends (who also knew each other) both told me they had a crush on the same guy. Each swore me to secrecy. And I kept their secrets, until one night when we all went out to dinner and they each revealed their crush to the other. Then they both turned on me and said, "You knew this all these months! And you didn't say anything?" So there, I can keep a secret when it's important. See how I'm not even naming any names?

Oh, yeah, remind me to tell you the story about Melanie's panties and the gardener.

on the advice of

I've gotten all kinds of negative feedback about my "I started this blog on the advice of my therapist" blurb. The first complainer was Kevin, who's been urging me to start a blog for the past five years. He's pissed that Ashley is getting the credit.

Second to complain was Wendy, who said, "That makes you look even crazier than you already are." No mean feat. She also pointed out that it really has nothing to do with my blog, since I rarely, if ever, mention therapy. (I briefly considered talking more about therapy, but decided that talking about my dog is dull enough. I don't need to lower the bar further.)

Then Jackie told me it would be more accurate to say on the advice of friends who, as she put it "want to closely monitor your fevered brain." Other friends told me my blog was useful in the prevention of "3:00 A.M. rambling phone messages" or "as a mood stabilizer."

So let me explain. Ashley didn't suggest a blog in order to improve my mental health (she, like most of you, has pretty much given up in that regard). She suggested it as a remedy for writer's block. She gave me a bunch of psycho-jumble that involves reprogramming my brain circuitry so that, instead of reacting to the impulse to write with fear and trepidation, I react by simply writing. I'm supposed to write for at least five minutes whenever I feel that "impulse" coming on. (If I actually followed that advice, you'd be hearing about subjects even more tedious than the ones I've regaled you with -- in fact, I've been hankering to write about antiperspirant lately, so thank your lucky stars.)

When Ashley told me that, I said "no way can I keep a journal like some suburban teenage loser." The reason I know that is that I used to keep a journal back when I was a suburban teenage loser. But writing structured, researched articles or cohesive fiction (or any fiction) is not exactly a spur-of-the-moment, I've-got-some-spare-time kind of thing. And emails don't really count. Particularly when all I do on email is ask Eve about her latest thrift store finds. (Martini set, complete with shaker and twizzle sticks, never used.)

That's when dear, sweet Ashley, who once told me that she wished the Internet came with library index cards so you could find things more easily, suggested a blog. I didn't even know she knew the word "blog," (I once had to explain the term "keyword" to her) so I was pretty damn impressed.

Anyway, lately I've been feeling like I've been foisting my blog on a long-suffering audience. Until Jackie told me that she's so unutterably bored at work that she checks my blog pretty much every hour, idly musing to herself, "I wonder what Sequoia is up to."

And that makes it all worthwhile.

queer eye for the homeless guy

On my way to work, I drive under a couple of intersecting freeways around a curved road that leads to an underwater tunnel. (Wow. That just sounded way more romantic and futuristic than it actually is.)

There's a cavernous concrete space above an ivy-covered embankment with freeways overhead and on every side. Sunlight streams in from one side, but the rest is sort of sheltered. That's where the homeless guy lives.

Last winter he set up his apartment there, decorating one room at a time with furniture stolen from the Salvation Army drop-off station that is across the alley. First he just had his shopping cart. Then, a couch. Later, he had a double bed that he always kept neatly made with sheets and blankets.

(Did I ever tell you about the date I had with a guy who made about $100,000 a year but slept on a single bare mattress under an old sleeping bag? Homeless dude could teach him a thing or two.)

Homeless guy kept adding to his decor until he had a complete mismatched dining room set, a couple of armchairs, and a storage closet. I loved watching his progress, but he captured my heart completely the day I drove past and saw him sitting in his living room wearing a Santa hat and chatting with a friend who'd dropped by for a visit. Homeless guy has a joie de vivre we would all do well to emulate.

Imagine how heartbroken I was to drive past one day to see two police cars rounding him up and carting away his stuff. What a waste. He'd taken this post-apocalyptic space that nobody wanted, and he'd made it into something chintz-like and cozy. Then all his hard work was demolished in a single raid.

So! I was quite thrilled last month to see that H.G. was setting up again. Just like last year, one piece of furniture at a time. This year, he has a slightly different decorating scheme. But his housekeeping standards are as high as ever; everything is perfectly in place. I suppose he'll be raided again when the weather gets better -- I guess this is just a winter residence. But just knowing that's he's still out there, decorating abandoned urban spaces with his own personal style, is enough for me.

I might even drop off a Santa hat.

Friday, December 7, 2007


Last night I watched a clip of Ellen Degeneres interviewing Jenna Bush.

I don't know if she's the twin who was caught drinking underage (maybe they both were) but even if not, I'm not inclined to think well of that girl.

Anyway, what killed me is how terribly sweet she seems. I couldn't not like her, determined as I was. She even makes that Bush monkey face look cute. I have no idea what they were talking about (some book she wrote; as though she has anything to say), but Ellen suddenly asked her if she could call her dad anytime she wanted. She said, "sure," so Ellen brought out a phone.

Jenna was totally respectful, worrying that they might be asleep, worrying that it was rude to put her parents on TV with no warning. She had the air of someone who always tries to do the right thing. Which is waaay not the air I expected of a Bush family member.

Not only was she respectful, she joked around with her parents in such a relaxed, natural way. Ellen put up a giant photo of GWB holding the twins when they were born. Jenna said, "Wasn't that the happiest day of your life, Dad?" (in the hopes that he wouldn't get mad about the live TV thing). Even the photo of her dad was hot! And it takes a lot for me to admit that. But he looks pretty good with thick, disheveled hair, pre-bombing thousands of people into the stone age.

Anyway, damn those Republicans. I really didn't want them to be that charming.

ya'll speak french now, y'hear?

I've fallen in love with Tex's French Grammar. The site is a little hard to navigate, but after poking around a bit I found the insanely useful verb tutor, which lets you pick which kind of verb you want to conjugate and which tense you'd like to conjugate for. What's great is that, instead of laboriously writing down verbs, then flipping to the back of some book to check, you just type in your verb, click a button, and get instant confirmation (you know, or not, in case you got it wrong). Then you click another button to erase it all and start over.

I know, I know, this is all basic computer stuff. I've just never seen the textbook model improved upon so well. Usually, computer language courses get all fancy on you. Which is nice, too. But there's nothing like rote memorization when it comes to language.

Thanks to Tex, I finally have a near-instantaneous recognition of all the forms of to be, to have, to do, and to make. The most basic verbs in the language, but they've been driving me crazy for years. Partly because some of them are sometimes interchangeable with our English versions (Here you are hungry, there you have hunger. Here it rains, there it makes rain.)

I also finally grasped that the colloquial "we" uses the same conjugations as he or she, instead of using the conjugation that the formal "we" uses.

And! The main thing Tex, with his graceful web presence, taught me just yesterday is that the past tense is so blipping easy! In the present tense, the verb is different for I, he/she, we, you, and them. Five different forms for one verb, in one tense.

It really never dawned on me before that the past tense has just one form per verb, no matter who you're talking about. That's because you get to conjugate the handy "has" verb all five ways, and then tack on whatever verb you really want to use. (Like: I have read that book, she has read that book, and so on.)

Now that you're in a blog-induced boredom stupor, here's the interesting part. In Texas, "vous" (which is both the formal and the plural version of "you") is translated "y'all."

And that's why you gotta love Texan French.

Note: If anyone out there actually wants to use the site, you should know that it's really two sites: Tex's French Grammar, which is organized like a grammar reference book, and Français Interactif, which is organized like a textbook. They're linked by the verb tutor (aka verb practice). When you click "verb tutor" on Tex's site, the Français Interactif verb practice page appears. You can scroll down on the verb practice page and click a chapter number to go to the Français Interactif textbook. It's all University of Austin, so it's all good.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

'cept sundays

Almond Roca is an odd, crunchy toffee candy dipped in chocolate and rolled in nuts. It comes in a pink tin, and each piece is wrapped in gold foil. When I was 11, it was the most sophisticated candy to grace my super-circumscribed world. Even more exotic than Whitman's samplers (which handily had the name and description of each candy written in graph style on the inside lid).

All that changed when I was 12 and went to London for the first time. There we met a wealthy Swiss woman and her handsome, wheelchair-bound twenty-something son (mountain-climbing accident) who had hired the same tour guide as us. We bopped around London with these ridiculously glamorous people. I learned that there are guys who can fit five languages into their head. I also learned that, even so, a young man might not be able to find the English word that describes the thrill a 12 year-old girl feels when attending her first play in London, wearing her first floor-length"evening" gown, accompanied by her first handsome European. He stumbled over "you're shivering" when he meant "enchanted." Whatever, I knew how I felt.

Anyway, his mom -- after two weeks of freaking my mom out by linking arms with her as they strolled about London -- gave us a gift of chocolate. "This is a little sweet of me," her note said, and it was. I'd never seen chocolate like that, tiny dark flat squares that snapped when you broke them in two. Some insanely expensive stuff from Switzerland, it melted fabulously in my mouth, tasting like butter and honey and wine all at once. I was transformed into Charlie pre-Chocolate Factory: I squirreled away a square to take home to Bakersfield, where I allowed myself one tiny nibble each Saturday until it was gone.

When I was 19, I went back to London with my boyfriend. I tried to launch a search for this marvelous candy I felt sure was available only there and no place else in the world, but I didn't know the brand and besides, we didn't have the money anyway. These days I eat Sharffenberger's or Equal Exchange Organic all the time -- I've even been to Switzerland and bought candy there -- but nothing can compare to that first "shivering" taste.

But Almond Roca pre-dated my sophisticated high-brow experience. I thought the tin made it particularly fancy, despite the fact that it was sold in drugstores. There was a slogan on the package: Brown & Haley makes 'em daily, 'cept Sundays. I found this hilarious; their reassurance that, dedicated as they were, they would never skip church to make candy.

So the other day, when a co-worker offered me a piece of Almond Roca with the apology, "I know you don't really eat stuff like this," I jumped on it. "Brown & Haley makes 'em daily, 'cept Sundays!" I yelled, grabbing a piece. Her look spelled utter confusion. "That's their slogan. It was my favorite candy when I was a kid. Look on the box." We examined the "tin" (which is now made of cardboard), but no slogan appeared. I started questioning co-workers, none of whom had any idea what I was talking about. A subsequent web search turned up only one hit, from someone who lived across the street from the Almond Roca factory.

We went to their official website. A whole crazy history of the candy appeared (Brown met Haley at church) but still no slogan. So I wrote in protest. This important historical artifact cannot be lost! Today I received this email:

Dear Janet,

Yes, Brown & Haley makes 'em daily! Nowadays in the busy season we even make 'em on Sunday. Your suggestion is a good one, and we will add to the history section of our web site in our post-Holiday refresh.

Best regards,

John Melin
Chief Operating Officer
Brown & Haley

I'm helping to preserve the history of my favorite childhood candy! All I can say is: Je sentais un frisson de plaisir.

Monday, December 3, 2007

this just in

Warm moist toilet paper is here!

Melanie found the patent for it -- this inventor went beyond my wildest dreams, adding both lotion and antibacterial ointment. (I don't want either of those things on my butt, but you gotta give him points for trying.)

I told Wendy about that, as well as the fact that Andy found a frozen iced tea patent it took four, count 'em, four Lipton scientists to invent. I was all, "This means my ideas are fantastic!" And she said, "No, this means you're like those crazy people on that late-night TV commercial who say, 'That was my idea!'"

Whatever, wait until I make millions on my Jump to Conclusions game.

sequoia ran away

He's back, he's fine, he was only gone for 15 minutes, but it affected my mental health far more than I care to admit.

It happened last week when I took him for a night hike on a busy trail. We've been on night hikes before, but generally not with eXtreme cyclists, halogen headlamp hikers, and jingly LED blinky dogs. (Actually, LED blinky dogs are more common than you might imagine -- this was a narrow trail, though.)

About a mile and a half down the trail, we met with a couple of growly dogs and their double headlamp owners. I managed to talk the dogs down, but Sequoia high-tailed it back in the direction we came from. (Thanks, pal, you really had my back.) I called and called, I whistled our little private whistle -- but nothing. I couldn't believe he'd run all the way back to the trailhead, so I finally doubled back to see if he was huddled shivering under a bush next to the path. The women whose dogs scared him off said they'd shout if they saw him.

As it turns out, they found him sitting next to our car, barking at anyone who came near. The women sent one of the cyclists back to get me (some super polite Irish guy who not only made sure I'd lost a dog, but checked to see if it was the correct dog. "Is his name Sequoia?" he asked, like there was some kind of lost dog epidemic on the mountain).

When we reunited, Sequoia was sitting with the woman's grip firmly on his collar. "He was edging dangerously close to the road," She said. This freaked me out. Sequoia sitting obediently by the car was in character. Sequoia being scared and timid was in character. Sequoia flipping out, letting panic take over, and going on some suicidal rampage...well, that had never occurred to me before.

I thanked everyone profusely (see "Instructions for Holiday Hikers") and left with my unrepentant dog in tow. On the drive home, I went through a few of the Elizabeth Kubler-Ross stages of his near-death experience. I was PTSDing bad.

The first thing I flashed on was the call I got two years ago from the Berkeley pound, telling me Himalaya had been hit by a car. I was about to ask which vet she was at, about to pay any kind of money to get her well, when the lady told me she had been killed instantly.

That moment of irrevocable loss always feels the same, whether it's a person you love or a stupid pet too crazy to dodge cars. That sort of, "No, just let me push reset." Just a tiny backward twist of the time knob, just a one-second do-over. Your heart stops, and time refuses to rewind. In that moment, your world changes.

I felt all that about Sequoia, who showed no signs of remorse and in fact, clearly thought he'd cleverly escaped hungry predators. I tried to push my feelings aside. He was safe. He was home. Everything was okay.

Two nights later I dreamt that we were taking a walk through London (the subconscious mind terrifies me somewhat) and he loped ahead. I called him back, but he had disappeared behind a corner. When I turned the corner, he was gone. A man told me he had run away, but it quickly dawned on me (in dream realization mode) that the man was actually an evil scientist who had drugged Sequoia so that he dropped alseep. When he awoke later in the laboratory facility, he would have no memory of me or how to get home.

But behold! Just as I realized this, the evil scientist realized I realized this. So he drugged me, too. I started screaming, "You took my dog! You took my dog!" as a sort of mnemonic, so that when I awoke at the lab I would remember to look for Sequoia. When I woke up (in real life), I had to admit that I required some kind of counseling. Perhaps a support group.

Anyway, I managed to recuperate. Until. This morning, when he tried to run away again.

I dropped him off at his sister's house, as I do every Monday morning. But this morning Shasta and Biscotti were leashed to the front porch. I leashed Sequoia there, too, knowing that Irene would come out for them in a few minutes and put them in the backyard. I gave him our code phrase ("Wait here please") and drove off. I noticed he gave me an unusually panicky look as I left.

Ten minutes later I got a phone call. Irene said she came outside in her bathrobe, unlatched Sequoia first, "Because, you know, he's the perfect dog," thinking he would just automatically go inside. Which he started to do. Then he realized he was free and went running down the street -- Irene theorizes after my car. He was halfway out to College Avenue before he let her call him back.

I have two words for him: liver treats. A package of liver treats paired with a refresher training course in coming when called and, oh, yes, he will succumb.

London nightmare guy isn't the only evil scientist in this world.