A bigger tool

Be proud of me, y’all. I got the plumber to come unplug our bathroom sink (pictured) – in Spanish.

Now, I admit that I wasn’t starting from scratch. This plumber, a nice guy named Domingo, has worked on our apartment before. We found him through our friend Valeria. Valeria coordinates work on the apartments and houses handled by our property management company. She’s from Eastern Europe originally, but she speaks Spanish like a native (which means competently and really, really fast). Her English is okay, but she’d like to improve it. Therefore, we have a tacit language agreement; she texts me in English, and I text her in Spanish. The results are sometimes hilarious, but so far she’s gotten us what we need.

She’s been so helpful to us partly because she’s a nice person to start with, but Valeria also has the right disposition for her job. She’s a born fixer, and I mean that in the very best way. If Valeria worked in Washington, DC, she would be the person you’d turn to for tickets to a sold-out show at the Kennedy Center, an interpreter in an obscure language for a foreign dignitary, or the private number of the person who’s an expert on a given subject and an entrèe into the office of the Congressional representative who chairs the committee your new expert needs to talk to. Instead, she’s in Torrevieja, so she lavishes her talents on dispatching house cleaners, car services, carpenters, appliance installers, and the like. And plumbers, like Domingo.

So when our bathroom sink started draining about as quickly as Mitch McConnell moves legislation sponsored by Democrats, and we’d exhausted our DIY drain-cleaning options, it was time to call Domingo. I called him, and we arranged IN SPANISH for him to come take a look the next morning. He arrived promptly and set to work with liquids and plumbing tools and God only knows what. We could hear him working and muttering; my Spanish isn’t great, but I’m pretty sure there was some heavy duty swearing going on. Periodically he would emerge from the bathroom, announce, “I have to go down to my car to get a bigger tool,” and return a couple of minutes later with all sorts of things that probably were lines for reaming the pipe but which looked like something left over from the Spanish Inquisition. Finally, after about an hour, Domingo came out of the bathroom with a huge smile on his face. “Forty years! I think no one has cleaned this line in 40 years!” He gestured for us to come look. A wad of what looked like hairball that a woolly mammoth would cough up lay on the floor. Having been paid and thanked, Domingo cleaned up and went on his way. The hairball is now out of the pipes and the apartment, and water no longer accumulates in the basin when I wash my hands or brush my teeth. Hooray!

Our experience got me thinking that the United States really needs a good plumber. I’m thinking here of the systemic racism that plagues our beloved country. We don’t have 40 years of accumulated, toxic gunk of white supremacy and oppression and violence against people of color; we have 400. If you hadn’t seen it before, surely the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6th laid that nasty fact bare. The willingness to kill in order to protect entrenched white supremacy should make it clear to everyone that calls for unity and having a Vice-President of color are not going to be enough to change the necessary number of hearts and minds to the necessary degree. Don’t get me wrong; those calls are important, and Kamala Harris is amazing and historic and fantastic. But we have a hairball the size of our beautiful 50 states. In the words of Domingo, we’re going to need a bigger tool.

I don’t pretend to have the answers, friends. And I know that systemic racism is not the only problem our country faces or the sole motivation for the attack on the Capitol. But I do know what happens when you allow the blockages to continue, and it’s not pretty. So let’s use our voices and our votes to be part of that bigger tool.

The dumpster fire next time

I use this title with deep apologies to the late, great James Baldwin. This post is not marginally in the same league as his masterpiece, The Fire Next Time. But given what we’ve adopted as our emblem for 2020 – see picture below – this opportunity was too good to pass up. 

In case you’re puzzling over said picture, let me explain. It’s a Christmas tree ornament that’s shaped like a dumpster on fire and labeled “2020.” This post could probably end here and you’d still get the idea. But the coup de grace in this situation is that we ordered three of these little charmers in November (one for us and one for each of the households of our kids), and THEY NEVER ARRIVED. We did get an email last week saying that the ornaments had finally cleared Customs. I’ll believe it when I see it.

So you can see why this ridiculous bit of plastic has become our year’s emblem. Granted, we had a better year than millions of people across the globe. Many are hungry and afraid. Many are ill with COVID and other diseases, and, as of the date of this post, over 1,778,000 people worldwide have died from COVID alone. This number includes a friend of ours and several friends and relatives of our friends and relatives. Our country remains politically divided. And many millions are isolated and lonely.

We’ve had our share of disappointments, too, although they’re smaller than the ones listed above. The biggest is missing Christmas with our kids. We did mitigate our loss somewhat by watching “Elf” simultaneously while chatting about it in What’s App; we then had a lovely family Zoom. But it wasn’t like being together. Mark and I both had COVID, although we’re pretty much recovered now. We also missed visiting with people here in Texas this Fall and were locked down in Spain for most of the Spring. And our travel plans pretty much went to hell in a hand basket this year. Last year, we were in 20 countries; this year, we were in two. Places we missed included Israel, Petra (in Jordan), Florence, Milan, Lake Como, Bordeaux, Avignon, Morocco, and the Baltics. To top it all off, we missed at least five sets of visitors. In my book, that qualifies as a dumpster fire.

Hope accompanies us into 2021, though. Mark and I leave for Spain on Wednesday, God willing. There, we will renew our visas so that we can continue our Spanish adventures. Our first grandchild is due to arrive in March. Our younger daughter will graduate from law school, take the bar exam, and embark on her legal career. We plan to return to the USA in the Spring for these amazing events. And who knows? Maybe my skepticism will be proved to be unfounded, and our ornaments will be waiting for us when we are back in Texas. That truly would be the dumpster fire next time. But in the meantime, let me wish you a happy and safe new year, with much love from Mark and me. 

Birdseed

In case you’re wondering why Mark and I have stayed married for 35 years, here’s the deal: he wakes me up every morning with a cup of coffee and a kiss. If you needed marital advice, you’re welcome.

While we’re in Texas, we enjoy our coffees in the living room of our small house. A bank of four windows gives us a view of the back part of our 28 acres, which lie about 45 minutes outside of Austin. The land is part of the lovely Texas Hill Country. Rolling hills that are actually mostly bulges of limestone created by a long ago shallow sea stretch out before us. Gorgeous live oaks, pernicious cedars (actually Ashe junipers), and native grasses adorn the landscape. We’ve put up a couple of bird feeders in the trees outside the windows and watch our customers enjoying their birdseed. We see titmice, chickadees, scrub jays, white-wing doves, sparrows, cardinals, ladderback woodpeckers, and various other species.

It’s really fun to watch the birds. The titmice tend to come in groups; maybe there’s an invisible dinner bell summoning them. They eat efficiently, perching on a feeder and pecking away steadily. The chickadees, which are very small, seem like nervous eaters. They land, look around, peck once, and flutter away to hide and survey the scene before approaching again. The little brown sparrows prefer to eat the spillage from the ground. They’re the same color as the dirt and leaves, so mostly you can spot them by watching for movement. And the white-wing barely fits on either feeder and often falls off after attempting to twist itself into some strange position to partake of the goodies. Apparently hope springs eternal in the dove breast, because the white-wing we see most often spends a lot of time walking up and down the branch on which the tube feeder hangs, looking at the feeder below. My theory is that this bird is strategizing about what contortion to try next time. And this dove must be doing something right, because it is a chubby one.

Sometimes in the late afternoons, we sit on the porch, drink wine, and watch the birds at the feeders as well. These days we can watch the sunset, too, because it’s cool enough to be outside. We have a porch swing, but usually for this purpose we sit in rockers as the sun dips through the lace of the leaves and slips below the horizon. We do talk some during these interludes, but actually we’re often quiet. If there’s no human noise, the birds come back for one pre-sleep feed. The titmice grab the bowl feeder, the chickadees dart back and forth to the tube feeder, and the sparrows take  the ground. On really quiet days, you can hear the flutter of wings as the birds flit back and forth a few feet to rest in a tree or bush between bites. I love that sound. It’s like you can hear feathers.

Birds aren’t the only things with feathers, though. Emily Dickinson explained:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –

That perches in the soul –

And sings the tune without the words –

And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –

And sore must be the storm –

That could abash the little Bird

That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –

And on the strangest Sea –

Yet – never – in Extremity,

It asked a crumb – of me.

Dickinson, I understand, was petite and rather birdlike herself. Her poems are punctuated like the one above, so that ideas and images roll out in short breaths. She’s kind of a chickadee poet, moving in for a moment and then skittering back to her bush with the thrust of a hyphen. Maybe that’s why she appears to know something about feathers – and hope.

And this Christmas season, I’d like to think I know something about hope, too. Honestly, this is unfamiliar territory for me. In a world that preaches “Hope for the best, plan for the worst,” I’m way better at the latter than at the former. It made me darn good at assessing environmental plans, because the concept of a “reasonable worst case scenario” made perfect sense to me. I’d been anticipating that all my life. And the kids always used to complain about their care packages when they got home from camp. The problem wasn’t the contents; rather, it was the entire roll of packing tape I’d use on each parcel. Apparently at mail time the counselors didn’t give the girls long enough to disembowel one of my packages. I tried to sell this circumstance as anticipation rather than frustration, but without much success.

But this December, I’m actually feeling a bit hopeful. Yes, COVID is rampant right now, and my heart drops at the daily statistics. But vaccines are rolling out, and non-crazy officials are saying that 2021 should see a decline in cases as vaccinations increase. Too, we’re apparently going to have an adult in the White House, which is a welcome prospect. In fact, Mark and I are feeling sufficiently sanguine that we’ve put down a deposit on a seven-day Greek Islands/Turkey cruise in September. Granted, the deposit is refundable, but as Mark put it, it’s kind of like the Old Testament (Protestant nomenclature here) prophet Jeremiah buying land and burying the deed in a pot even as the Assyrian army was bearing down on Jerusalem. It’s a marker of hope for the future, an act to affirm the belief that better days lie ahead. I don’t know that Jeremiah would be my choice of cruise buddy – those prophets could be rather dour – but you get the idea. I think it’s more like putting out birdseed. If you feed them, birds will come. If you hang in there, hope – and the fruits of hope – will come, too.

So this Christmas season I have a few feathers of hope. It’s a chickadee kind of hope, that looks around nervously and flies a few feet into a handy bush to hide every once in a while, but it’s there. And I hope that the same is true for each person who reads this post. I wish you a wonderful holiday, and I wish you hope.

Much abides

In keeping with the rest of the year, Thanksgiving 2020 is unusual in a lot of ways. 

Admittedly, some things are the same as always. We’re in Texas, so the weather is mild, and the windows are open. A turkey breast is in the oven, and we’ll have a last minute flurry of activity as we heat stuffing, veggies, sweet potatoes, and gravy. I will open our can of Ocean Spray cranberry sauce and feel momentarily guilty that I don’t channel my mother and make it from scratch. And we will sit down to a feast and follow up by washing dishes and the annual viewing of “Miracle on 34th Street.” So all of that is firmly in place.

A lot is different, though. For starters, it’s just Mark and I this year. When I was a kid, the Thanksgiving meal was held at our house, complete with grandparents, my aunt and uncle, and my cousin. My mother was a nervous hostess, so we had turkey and gravy with a side of anxiety, but there was always a crowd. The best part for me was cooking the day before with Mom. We’d sing “Harvest Home” and “We Gather Together” as a nod to the holiday and then start in on the Christmas carols. Later on, Mark and I would still have Thanksgiving at my parents’ table, schlepping the kids five hours from Austin to Beaumont. After Mom died, we began hosting at our home. We’d gather our nuclear family, my sister and brother, my niece and nephew, assorted cousins, and friends. Those were big, jolly tables, groaning with food and buzzing with conversation. But this year Jane is working, and Mary made the hard but wise decision not to come to Texas. Given that I tested positive for COVID a couple of hours after she canceled her flight, that was an especially good call – made even better by Mark’s getting sick a couple of days later. 

It is tempting to slide into self-pity here. We have no boisterous crowd to entertain. We are both are still coughing and feeling very tired from COVID. I’ve lost my sense of smell, so food has almost no taste. We found out this week that a friend here in Austin died from COVID, and we’re grieving that loss. Around the globe, people are sick and hungry and afraid. Many have empty places at tables that will not be filled again. 

But even in the midst of change and sadness, we have much to be thankful for. We have each other. Our children are doing well, and with luck we will see them on Zoom this afternoon and in person at Christmas. We have food to eat, books to read, and a peaceful house in which to recover. More friends than I can count have volunteered to bring us food and run our errands. And yesterday a flock of robins stopped on our property on their way south for the winter. It’s a sight to behold, that clan of determined, red-breasted birds. Not everyone gets to see that in their lifetimes, and I’m grateful.

So we recognize the gladness and the grief and give our thanks today. I’ll leave you with the words of Tennyson’s aging Ulysses, musing by the seashore in Ithaca. He sums up what I feel today: 

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’

We are not now that strength which in old days 

Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are….

I’m grateful to you for reading my post. Happy Thanksgiving. 

Star light, star bright


Note: I’m posting this entry several days after it was written; also, I couldn’t get a decent shot of the night sky and therefore went with a picture of the Mustang.

I bet you think you know how this line ends. We all learned this little poem when we were kids, right? “Star light, star bright/First star I see tonight/I wish I may/I wish I might/Have the wish I wish tonight.” Then you made a wish on the star and quickly squeezed your eyes shut, because your wish wouldn’t come true if you saw another star. I actually always wondered how long that prohibition lasted. Does it only go for that viewing, or for that evening, or for the rest of your life? If it’s the last of these options, we are doing this process all wrong. As a child, naturally, I wished for childish things, like a Chatty Cathy doll (she was supposed to talk when you pulled the pink ring lodged in her back) or all the books in the world. If I could have saved that wish, I might have gone with more useful wishes, like a cure for cancer or the end of systemic racism. Or, honestly, I might have stuck with the thing about the books. 

But if you’re thinking about this rhyme, you’re wrong. You see, I’m a child of the space age. We drank our Energy Tang like the astronauts do, so that we could join the space gang and do the moon walk, too. (For the uninitiated, that’s a reference to an orange juice commercial, not to Michael Jackson). We pretended to enjoy the Space Sticks we begged our mothers to buy for our after-school snacks, even though the sticks tasted like rubber flavored with enough chocolate not to get the manufacturer in trouble with the FDA. Part of of astronaut training in those days must have been to learn to eat the food. And, clad in pajamas and sprawled on the hardwood living room floor, we stayed glued to our TVs on Saturday morning to imagine ourselves driving George Jetson’s flying car. Now I’d settle for one that folds up into a briefcase like his did. Can you imagine never having to hunt for a place to park? 

Since we had our own drinks and snacks and wishes, it’s no wonder that Space Age kids had their own rhyme. I’m sure this was hilarious the first twelve or so times I heard it: “Star light, star bright/First star I see tonight/I wish I may, I wish I might/Never mind, it’s a satellite!” Yuk, yuk. I admit I’ve been suckered by a few planes in the sky over the years, though. Out of the mouths of babes….

Last night, though, Mark and I got to see the real deal. That’s possible because our house in Texas – a cabin, really – sits in the middle of 28 acres in the Hill Country. Even with our relatively large space we can see other houses in the distance and get light pollution from nearby Dripping Springs, but we still have a pretty good view of the night sky. Last night was spectacular. We had no cloud cover to speak of, and at 1AM an uncountable number of white points of light winked at us. This was no random expedition outside in the chill, though; we stuffed our sleepy selves into parkas and shoes to go out and see the Leonids meteor shower.

Ecclesiastes says there’s a season for everything, and meteors are no exception. Where we are, you can see the Perseids (meteors seeming to arise in the constellation Perseus) in August and the Leonids (meteors seeming to arise in the constellation Leo) in November. When the girls were little, we’d lay sleeping bags on the ground and rouse our sleepy-eyed kiddos and lie down together on the bags to watch for meteors. We’d count the brief flashes of white that marked a space rock’s entry into Earth’s atmosphere and murmured the legends of brave Perseus saving the chained Andromeda, Leo the fearsome lion slain by Heracles, and the mighty hunter Orion, eternally roaming the heavens in pursuit of Taurus the bull and being chased by his nemesis, Scorpio. The tales and the viewings ended when someone fell asleep, and we’d all stumble up the path back to the welcoming house and our comfy beds. I don’t know whether the kids recall those interludes; the nights were late and the kids were young. But I hope they at least dreamed of fables and stars.

Last night, though, it was just Mark and me in our jammies. We also departed from tradition by forgoing the sleeping bags and putting the top down on our Mustang convertible, which is currently parked on a macadam pad in front of the house. Once you recline the seats and wrap yourself in a blanket, you’ve got one sweet seat for sky watching. Having neglected to figure out where Leo was in the heavens and being too comfortable to bother getting out of the car, we decided to look right where the car was pointed. And we were rewarded with meteors – not a ton, only five over the course of about 45 minutes. But we enjoyed every bit of our time outside, and not just because we got to see meteors. If you’re not awed by a brilliant night sky, with its vast mixture of time-machine stars and the humble human need to tell stories in order to make sense of things, you’re not looking right. And the ephemeral nature of meteors – literally come and gone in a second, Nature’s Snapchat – makes the spectacle all the more wonderful. 

This morning, I am out in mind of another rhyme, one a little classier than “Star light, star bright,” and probably less subject to modification. It’s by Walt Whitman; do you know it?

WHEN I HEARD THE LEARN’D ASTRONOMER.

WHEN I heard the learn’d astronomer,

When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,

When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and 
measure them,

When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much 
applause in the lecture-room,

How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,

Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,

In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,

Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

I get what Walt’s trying to say here. Don’t misunderstand: I respect science tremendously. Without astronomers, how would we know when and where to look for meteors? And I respect wishes, too, although their limitations become clearer now than they used to be. I actually received a Chatty Cathy for Christmas when I was five or six, and she talked for about two days and then just coughed for the rest of her time with me. And, reluctantly, I admit that even we don’t have enough shelf space for all the books we own, much less all the books in the world. So I’ll be happy with a little time under the stars and a few meteors in my memory. And I wish the same happiness for you. That’s probably the best wish of all. 

Planes, trains, and automobiles

Except in our case, it was automobile, train, automobile (twice), plane (three times), automobile.

Let me explain. Mark and I are currently in New Hampshire, enjoying the beauties of a New England Fall. I’ve taken a lot of pictures, but this one is my current favorite. I took it looking down on Glen Ellis Falls, just a few miles from our condo. But when we’ve talked to people about being here, folks mostly have wanted to know about how traveling here from Spain was. So here goes.

We took a taxi from our apartment in Torrevieja to the train station in nearby Alicante. The taxi driver wore a mask, as all drivers do, and we did the same. We got a sandwich for lunch at the train station. The Tim Horton’s was closed, but Gambrinus was open. The tables were disinfected and spread out, and all of the personnel wore masks. Everyone at security wore a mask, as did the Renfe people who greeted us train side. The greeter also gave us each a small bottle of hand sanitizer and an individually wrapped alcohol wipe. We wiped down everything and wore our masks the entire ride, as did all the other passengers and the train personnel. We arrived at Madrid’s train station, Atocha, right on time. Everyone in the terminal wore masks, except for the tiny kids. We grabbed a taxi and drove to our hotel near the airport. The hotel had moved all of its restaurant tables outside, so we ate dinner away from others and without having to leave the premises. The hotel was a little noisy, but it served its purpose. Our 4AM taxi took us straight to the terminal, and we had no trouble checking our bags. In each airport, we wore plastic face shields as well as our masks.

Boarding a plane is actually more organized than it used to be. We had sprung for business class seats and therefore boarded first, but otherwise the plane boarded back rows to the front. This prevented a lot of jostling and crowding. Because people were passing by us on the way to their seats in coach, we left our face shields on in addition to our masks. The flight to a Frankfurt was unremarkable, except that the papaya served with our breakfast was extra juicy.

The airport in Frankfurt was not as busy as usual, but there were still many people there. The Lufthansa lounge was closed due to COVID concerns, so we seated ourselves near our gate but away from other passengers and spent our four-hour layover there. Our flight to Newark was on time. Again, business class boarded first, but we were to the left of the jetway and coach was to the right, so no one passed by us on the way to their seat. The flight attendant handed us individually wrapped sanitizing towelettes and reminded us to keep our masks on during the flight. We had a meal and then stretched out to sleep for a remarkably long time over the Atlantic. I’d wondered if wearing a mask would interfere with sleeping, but that all went fine.

Immigration and Customs in Newark were easy – too easy. We’d been given contact tracing forms on the plane and had duly filled them out, but no one asked for them. In fact, Mark tried to hand our forms to one Immigration officer and was waved on. The guy was too busy complaining to his cohort about a mechanic who’d tried to cheat him. Most people in the airport were wearing masks, but not all. We rechecked our bags to Portland, Maine, and headed to the United lounge, which was open. We sat as far away from other people as we could and used our own wipes to sanitize our seats. Only individual packets of food were available, which was better than the usual buffet service. After a couple of hours, we headed to the gate for our flight from Newark to Portland.

The flight from Newark was on a regional jet, and it was completely full. The seats are two on each side, so I don’t know what United does about rows with middle seats. The only mention of COVID was an announcement that the flight attendants would not be offering drink service. We were not offered sanitizer of any type, but we used the ones we’d brought with us. Because of the full flight, we left our face shields on over our masks. Again, boarding and deplaning were done with business class going first and then rows being called to avoid crowding. I’d be fine with that practice staying in place from now on.

It was a relief to get to Portland and pick up the car. We had an uneventful drive and brought our bags up without incident. After a nice, long sleep, we enjoyed the Dunkin Donuts we had picked up (drive in only available) and have had a lovely time since then. We will head back to Portland and fly to Austin on Monday.

So that’s how we traveled, and it seems to have gone well. Neither of us has had any indication that we’re sick, although we know where the local COVID testing is performed. We have stayed away from people on the walking trails and affirmatively turn our backs on unmasked walkers. All businesses require masks inside buildings, and we have gotten no blowback from anyone about wearing masks. We will see how it goes in Texas!

Suicidal peanuts

Mark and I recently celebrated our 35th wedding anniversary. I’ve screwed up a lot of things in this life, but as for this marriage, so far, so good. In fact, we’ve been asked many times over the years what makes our union work so well. We’ve given different answers over time – communication, compromise, humor, companionship, forgiveness – but on some level, neither of us has a clue. Marriage is the original black box technology. But having said that, I’m guessing that one important thing we have going for us might surprise you. So here goes: 
We are very, very good at the small stuff. 

Now, I know that small stuff gets a bad rap. It’s dismissed as being trivial and time-wasting. In fact, a best-seller in the not too distant past enjoined us not to sweat the small stuff. But while I completely agree that you have to pick your battles (that’s a topic for another blog post, I suppose), small stuff matters.

Consider our conversation at breakfast yesterday. Apropos of nothing (I could tell you how I got there in my head, but that’s immaterial here), I looked at Mark and asked him if he remembered the peanut song our daughters had on a cassette tape when they were growing up. It goes something like this: 

A peanut sat on a railroad track

Its heart was all aflutter

Along came a choo-choo train 

Woohoo (aka, train noise)

Pea-ee-ee-nut butter! 

“Something’s bothering me about the peanut song,” I said, looking Mark in the eye and leaning across the table towards him. “I really need to know. Do you think the peanut is suicidal?” The man never missed a beat. “I’ve wondered about that myself,” he said, and took another bite of toast. This is a small thing, but it’s what makes us hum along. 

Of course, there are millions of small things over the course of three and a half decades. Mark makes coffee every morning. I got him a copy of his favorite snapshot of his grandfather. He watches film adaptions of Jane Austen books (we had Greer Garson as Lizzie Bennett and Laurence Olivier as Darcy the other night). I encourage him to collect autographs from his favorite baseball players. True story on this – we’d gone to Cooperstown a few summers ago for the induction of Jeff Bagwell into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Many players come up on Induction Weekend and sell tickets so that you can get their autographs. Mark was reluctant to fork over for some player, I forget who, because he said he’d already spent enough money on autographs. Tired of arguing with him, I just pointed at the ticket line and said, “Stop protesting and go get your —- in line.” He shrugged and turned to comply. The stranger next to me, who was on his phone at the time, covered the microphone with his hand and said, “Lady, will you please talk to my girlfriend?”

Little things count in friendships, too. Some friends give great hugs. Some friends give great book recommendations. And some just know when to fill the small gaps that arise in life. Take last Saturday as an example. Friends here in Torrevieja were going out for tapas. Normally we’d have gone with them, but we’re quarantined in anticipation of returning to the USA soon. One of the merrymakers dropped a package by our apartment on her way to tapas. The package contained a bottle of wine, a nice cheese, fancy mixed nuts, and the date cake pictured here. The accompanying note told us that she’d made up the package so that we could have treats that night, too. I might be willing to walk over crushed glass for this woman. 

So here’s to the little things that maybe aren’t so little after all. I urge you to go out of your way to do something little and kind today. The effect on the recipient will be agreeable, I hope, but here’s the main objective: you may notice all the lovely little things that others do for you. And that, my friend, is as sweet as a date cake and as heady as a bottle of wine. Always.

Go weird or go home

On September 14th, Mark and I celebrated our 35th wedding anniversary. Plan A for celebrating this big number, concocted a couple of years ago, was to meet up with friends in Munich and go to Oktoberfest. Except Oktoberfest got cancelled this year, so that didn’t happen. Plan B was to celebrate with 10 days in Florence. Thanks to our airline, Vueling, for cancelling our flights and our inability to find another way to get to Florence that didn’t involve two days’ travel on either end, that didn’t happen. Remarkably, Plan C actually worked. We rented a car and drove to Altea, a Spanish city about 90 minutes from Torrevieja. We had a great time seeing Altea’s Old Town, with its roofs of blue tiles and narrow cobblestone streets lined with white-washed buildings sporting wrought-iron Juliet balconies covered in bright flowers. We also visited the cities of Jávea, Denia, and Guadalest. Guadalest has remnants of an 11th century castle that are well worth a visit, despite the many stairs you have to climb to get there. My glutes are still mad at me.

The most hilarious part of our trip, though, was our room at the Hotel Sun Palace Albir. (Albir is a small town very near Altea.) Since we were already on our third anniversary trip plan, we picked this hotel largely because of its lenient cancellation policy. When we were booking, Mark called my attention to the “Casablanca Suite,” which for a bit more money included breakfast and a king-sized bed. Okay, this way we don’t have to look for a restaurant or sleepily fight over territory in the wee hours. Besides, (Plan) C is for Casablanca, right?

Now, I’ve stayed in a lot of hotels in my time. The worst where I didn’t pack up and leave without spending the night was in Durham, North Carolina. The ceiling leaked. On the other end of the spectrum, there are a lot of contenders for best, although the Gage Hotel in Marathon is right up there. But the Sun Palace – specifically, the Casablanca Suite – gets the prize for most, well, surprising.

To begin with, the Casablanca Suite isn’t a suite. Like lots of hotel rooms, it has a little entryway, but that hardly counts as a separate room. But you don’t notice that once you walk into the room. As you can see from the picture, the decor apparently was purchased as a job lot from a low-budget movie set in Morocco but filmed in the spare bedroom of the producer’s brother-in-law in a less affluent suburb of Madrid. Plastic paneling sporting Arabic script ran where you might expect crown molding, and one section was inserted upside down. Paper red rose petals covered the purple shag throw rug. A two-person hot tub occupied a fair percentage of the room and came equipped with bathrobes, bath oil, and bath salts. It even has a TV in it, as you may be able to see in the picture.

The most surprising accoutrements, however, were delicately arranged on one of the bedside tables. One was a heart-shaped box. Mark ripped it open; I think he expected chocolates. Instead, the box contained a blindfold, two feathers, a small tube of lubricant, massage oil, and two condoms. (Only two? The proprietor either must assume that the ambiance of the room would work its magic a limited number of times or that after two, you’re on your own.)

The second was the room’s literature, which was also, um, unique. I’m used to fake leather notebooks with the room service menu and phone numbers for the spa, with maybe a Gideon Bible thrown in for good measure. Not here! Before the Casablanca Suite, the most unusual piece of literature in one of my hotel rooms was a booklet in a hotel room in Seattle that listed 10 reasons not to move there. But the Casablanca Suite blew way past accounts of dreary skies and eye-popping real estate prices. A paper underneath the box listed a dozen or so sexual positions you could practice on the very oddly-shaped divan with a mirror and a small copy of the room service menu hung next to it. Mind you, the names of the positions were in Spanish, so I had to use Google Translate to figure out some of them. Worse, I had to put on my bifocals to see the pictures. All I can say is that a few of those should come with the sort of warnings amusement parks post next to roller coasters. “Do not try this if you’ve recently had surgery” or “Not advisable for persons with back conditions” would not have gone amiss.

Actually, this whole thing turned out great. It’s been a while since Mark and I have laughed that hard. And the bed was king-sized, the breakfast (see picture) was delicious and sufficiently generous that we made a lunch of the leftovers on our first day. The hotel had a terrific pool and rooftop bar with a gorgeous view of the city. So it all turned out fine. Plan C came through for us, even though it was unexpected in many, many ways. Go weird or go home.

So happy 35th to us! Let me end this post by noting two things. First, we’re still hoping to go to Oktoberfest and to Florence. And second, I’m not answering any questions about this post. 😉

Sherry baby

 Frankie Vallie and the Four Seasons released “Sherry Baby” in 1962. Did you know that originally  the song was entitled “Jackie Baby” as an homage to then-First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy? Anyway, the song was an instant Top 40 hit, although I was three years old at the time and probably was unaware of its existence. Does a three year-old even know 40 songs? As near as I can recall my top two were “Rock-a-Bye Baby” and “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider.” But 58 years later, I’m a fan of Frankie and his opus.

I’m a fan of the liquid type of sherry as well. My parents didn’t stock it, and it’s not exactly the drink of choice at college keggers, so sherry was a mystery to me well into adulthood. It was something that people who were about to murder or be murdered drank before dinner in English manor houses. That all sounded terribly sophisticated, if a little ominous. But Mark and I bought a trial bottle many years ago, and we’ve been fans ever since. And I’m happy to report zero murders in conjunction with said sherries, although there have been a few manor houses along the way.

That’s why I was so glad recently to have the opportunity to tour a sherry production facility, or bodega, in Jerez. Jerez, a city in Spain very near the border with Portugal, is the birthplace of sherry. The Phoenicians brought wine-making to the area in 1100 BC or thereabouts. The Greeks kicked out the Phoenicians but kept the grapes; the Romans did the same when they supplanted the Greeks. The Romans named the town “Ceret.” The Moors conquered this part of Spain in 711 and adapted the Latin name to “Sherish” – hence, the name “Sherry.” While Muslims aren’t allowed to consume alcohol, wine was produced for export to non-Muslim countries, and grew significantly after the area was reconquered by the Spanish in 1231. Inhabitants of Iberia became big fans of the fortified wine produced in this area. Columbus took sherry on his voyages to the New World, and when Magellan outfitted his ships for his Around-the-world voyage, he spent more on sherry than on armaments. (This seems like a solid choice to me.) The Brits became big fans when Sir Frances Drake captured 2900 barrels of sherry from the Spanish During a raid on Cádiz and brought them back to what was probably soon a very cheerful Queen Elizabeth. To this day, a drink called “sherry” must come from this region. It’s the oldest official denomination of origin in Spain.

Sherry is made by aging, fermenting, and mixing wine in casks like the ones you see in the picture here. Different methods are used to create different types of sherries. A fino, for example, is made with a cap of yeast in the barrel to prevent additional oxygen from getting into the wine. It ends up being very dry and rather sharp. An oloroso is a middle-type sherry, which is more robust and sweeter. Cream sherry is the classic choice for Brits, and amontillado (of Poe fame) is common in the USA.

The part of the process I found most interesting was the blending. The producers use the solero method. This refers to the three-row stacking you see in the picture (suelo means “ground” in Spanish). The youngest wine is always on the top row. The middle-aged wine is in the center, and the oldest is on the bottom. Twice a year, a percentage of the oldest sherry is taken from the bottom casks. That percentage is replaced by wine from the middle row. The middle row is replenished by the top row, and the top row gets new product. In this way, many years’ vintages are present in each bottle, and it’s said that to drink sherry is “to drink time.”

It seems to me that, at least in this regard, we’re all a little like sherry. I’m 61, and people expect me to act like I’m 61, whatever that means. But inside me is the three year-old singing “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider” quietly to herself and working her chubby fingers to get the hand movements right. There’s also the slightly snotty, anxious girl of 15 and the gung-ho young woman of 22 wearing a suit and one of those dreadful bow ties from the 1980s. There’s the busy-ness of Ms. 35, who’s running from job to job to daycare to school to home with a to-do list that keeps getting bigger and an energy supply that keeps getting inversely shorter. There’s the woman in her late 40s, watching both parents die and both kids head off to high school and college and adulthood and wondering who she will be when no one needs her any more. There’s the woman of 56, seeing gray hairs in the mirror and the clock on the wall that ticks faster and faster each year. And there are all the other ages in between. You get the idea. That most American of poets, Walt Whitman, said that he contained multitudes. That’s usually interpreted as meaning that he had many facets to his personality, but I think we also each contain many ages in us. Like the sherry, we’re a blend, and to know a person is to taste their time.

I find this idea comforting, in a way. It’s normal that my 61 year-old body wants to parasail and ride roller coasters and hike in the woods; it thinks it’s 21, sometimes. And if I’m cranky and tired and hungry, well, my three year-old is just showing up. And if I’m ready for an adventure now because
time is just so bloody short, welcome to my current age. I’m in the cask on the bottom row, and all of my vintages want to sit on my tongue and be noticed.

So here’s my toast to all of you who read this, to every age that you’ve ever been: Let’s raise a glass to Sherry Baby. And may wine and music infuse each and every one of your days.

Fillering in the details


When I was a kid in Beaumont, my family subscribed to the local newspaper. When I was very young, we got the Beaumont Enterprise in the morning and the Beaumont Journal in the evening (or maybe it was the other way around, but you get the idea). As a cost-cutting measure, the two editions later combined into one evening paper, the Beaumont Enterprise-Journal. As far as I know, it continues to this day. Anyhow, my favorite part of the paper wasn’t the comics, although that came in a solid second. My favorite part was the fillers.

For those of you who’ve only read newspapers composed on computers, let me explain fillers to you. Newspaper columns were long and narrow, and a lot of the typesetting was done by hand. Occasionally, a newspaper article would not quite fill the column inches allotted to it, and the technology to adjust the column by stretching the column’s lettering didn’t exist. So at the end of the odd column, in the, say, half-inch of leftover space, the newspaper staff would insert a filler. Our fillers were bits of trivia. Randomly, one of my favorites was the fact that August Kotter invented the rifle. Heaven only know why that stuck with me. And did you know that the Statue of Liberty’s nose is six feet long?

Fillers are long gone, but my love of trivia remains. It’s fun to know odd facts, even though most of them are fairly useless. You can live a happy and fulfilled life without knowing that Venice was mostly founded by people hiding from invaders by living in swamps. (I also think that you can live a happy and fulfilled life without having studied calculus, but that’s a topic still under discussion at our house.) Most people are perfectly content without carrying in their heads the fact that the design that we called paisley comes from the Middle East and is associated with flames. And perhaps only truly nerdy Methodists know that Welch’s grape juice was originally created as a non-alcoholic communion wine for my supposedly teatotaling denomination. But if you have a mind like mine, which is roughly akin to the attic in the Smithsonian where the curators store all of the stuff they have that’s too trivial to exhibit but too cool to throw out, knowing this stuff makes you happy.

Loving trivia is one reason I enjoy traveling so much. You learn a lot when you’re on the road. The tidbit about Venice, for example, came from a tour guide we employed on a visit to La Serenissima about twenty years ago. In Normandy, I saw my first hedgerow and realized why they were such great spots for hiding murder weapons in my beloved manor house cozy mysteries. At the Alhambra in Granada I learned that “Seventh Heaven” isn’t just an Aaron Spelling TV production from the 1990s; in fact, it’s the highest level of heaven in traditional Judaism and Islam. In Jumilla, a trip to a winery taught me that Rioja wine comes in four grades, based on how long it’s aged: Rioja, a couple of months; Crianza, at least a year in oak; Reserva, at least a year in oak and two or more after that in the bottle; and Gran Reserva, two years in oak and at least three more in the bottle. And in London, I learned never to leave your toddler unsupervised with a Beatrix Potter puzzle. Apparently the pieces are delicious. But that may be another kind of learning, perhaps to be explored in another blog.

Living abroad has had the desired effect of teaching me a lot of things that are interesting, if not overly useful. In particular, for me, lots of things I’ve read about in books have been clarified. Like the hedgerows, which I’d only read about, I’ve now seen (and photographed, see evidence herein) wine being dispensed from casks straight into large plastic bottles that consumers bring with them to market. And handsome, dark men do attach the containers onto motorbikes and drive off with attractive young women behind them on the seat, arms wrapped around said HDM. Total bonus. Likewise, conversations, even the quietest ones, do travel up the central stairwells of apartment buildings, echoing off the marble and tile stairs. So all of those gossipy grannies who tender important overhead clues about the mischief of their neighbors below to baffled police inspectors might actually exist!

Of course you also learn some less salubrious information. An Italian mystery I’m reading now involves the prostitutes who wait by the side of the road for clients to happen by. This occurs in rural areas as well as urban ones. In fact, Mark and I were driving down a road between two fields last week and passed a woman sitting in a chair under a beach umbrella placed next to the entrance to a farm. I turned to Mark and started with, “Do you think she’s a…,” to which he responded immediately, “Yes. Otherwise, why would she be wearing high heels out here?” Actually, apparently a lot of the ones who wait by the traffic roundabouts can be very helpful if you’re lost, and I do mean only with directions here.

So I may not know calculus or remember the names of the big Constitutional Law cases we studied in law school, but that fine. I rarely need any of that information any more, and besides, there’s Google. I’m happy fillering in the trivial, entertaining details that keep me amused and enliven my reading.