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Friday, September 30, 2011

My Commies

A cupla days a month I volunteer at the library used book store. 
One of my regulars is a short, pregnant looking retired navy guy who marches in as if on a tight schedule, looking for VHS movies for himself and the wife. 
Something invariably distracts him mid-search, a movie title, an interesting item on Fox News last night, and he stays to rant about, “The Damn Commies... The ones here. Ruining America, the country so many fought and died for.” 
He gets rather spitty during the peak which is all facts and figures and proofs about the card carrying commies in our midst. 
I nod and smile.
By Commies in our midst I assume he meant my Great Auntie Rosie and Uncle Jack. She with the line of cleavage that started at her neck. He, a ringer for Popeye but with a fierce little rodent stance. 
They used to come stay with us in Detroit for a month every summer when I was a kid. Or perhaps it just seemed like a month. The only good part about their visit was that they treated my parents like kids. 
I remember one night when my parents got home Auntie Rosie met them at the front door with her fists on her hips.
“Vere vas you so late?” she demanded, making my utterly adult parents stammer excuses and squirm.
I’d never heard anyone speak to my parents like that. It was thrilling and horrifying. It put them on semi-equal footing with my brother and I, as Rosie criticized my mom’s house work and kitchen skills and Uncle Jack, a carpenter bossed my father around and dissed his work on household projects. 
Years later Mitch and I moved to California and visited Jack and Rosie in their tiny, upstairs apartment in the Fairfax district.  Jack was already ga-ga by then.  
He told us about how he and Lenin fought side by side in the old  country.
“Bah! Jackie! You vaz seven years old!” my aunt corrected. 
He jumped to his rickety old feet, dentures clicking wildly. “Shut up Rosie! You know nothing!”
Around that time I sold a piece about spring cleaning to the LA Times. I was over-the-moon excited and called to tell them to read it. 
My Auntie called back. “You have a chance to be in news pepper and you talk about cleaning? This is vat you have to say? Mit all the problems in the vorld? This is vat’s important to you?”
It was the early eighties. And since my Aunt didn’t drive, she caught the bus on Santa Monica Boulevard, which pre-and-early-AIDS was a hopping meat market of young male hookers.
“There’s no jobs!” she said. “All da boys stand around mit no vork! You don’t write about dis? About Regan and the mess he’s making?”
I was shamed by my commie aunt. 
Sometimes I still cringe about the fluff I produce for a living. And when kooks like my library ranter damn the commies, I get nostalgic. 

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Of Dogs and Books

Am staring down this novel, while vacuuming up the copious schmutz with which our new puppy covers all surfaces. 
His non-allergenic poodle fur doesn’t shed, so there is less fur to sweep.

BUT his curls act like Velcro for the crispy bits of twig, bark, leaves, and parched, withered death that this drought and I have created in the name of zero-scaping. 
His extremely effective dirt-delivery system, teamed with his enthusiastic interest in pinecones, shoes and paper products has effectively replaced the dirty dishes, wet towels, sticky wrappers, and smelly laundry with which my children filled the nest until quite recently. 
So, time-wise, I’m still cleaning.  

And writing? 
By way of encouragement, I tell my writing students that there is something learned by the completion of each book that makes it easier to write the fifteenth novel than the fifth... 

BUT I’m not entirely sure I believe that.  

In fact, if there is anything I am sure of, it is that each novel writes itself differently. 

You may learn the basics on the first one: How to carry it so you don’t bash its soft spot on every door jam. 
How to diaper it.
How to attach a car seat...  

BUT beyond that you must discover / re-invent on a per project (book / baby) basis.  
For example -- You could get Kid #1 to shut up by strapping it into that automatic swing, AKA the electric chair, and setting the timer for next Thursday.
BUT Kid #2 arches the back, goes ridged, and will have none of it. 
Novel #6 filled itself with jokes, whereas Novel #11 took itself very seriously.
And so I struggle against the encroaching squalidifying of my home, as much now with this filth-hound as I once battled the onslaught of Barbie shoes and lego.
And I wrestle the new novel as if I’d never attempted such a battle before.
Odd, ain’t it?

Monday, September 5, 2011

California Flambe’

As I sit sweltering at my desk, pretending to re-revise this pesky novel, the mind drifts like smoke back over my happy years living in a fire zone. I cast the eye about at the crispy kindling that is my zero-scaped yard and recall a couple years ago at this time, stuffing all fifty-two of my photo albums into my van in an attempt to save my past if not my future. 
We live in a narrow box canyon with only one road in, and no other way out -- that is, unless you are a fire, in which case you can reach us from all sides. 
One interesting thing about living in a canyon is that even if you live on the opposite side from the one that’s burning, you still feel very close and personally involved. I could, in fact hear the merry snap and camp-fire crackle from my kitchen. 
Everyone crept outside and drifted together in the street to watch our hillside burn. There was talk of who smelled what when, evacuation, and mild disagreement about whether deer or lizard or bobcat could out-run the flames, and whether anything could burrow to safety under them. 
The scene was bizarre not just because the neighbors were gathering, or because fire is alarming on a gut level, or because it smelled wrong, but because the scale seemed off.  Trees looked like bushes, firefighters in silhouette looked like brave little toys, helicopters circled like hawks, and when the smoke shifted, the flames were way too enormous to be credible. 

One old timer recalled our canyon ringed in fire in the 60’s when some guy, gambling on fate, made one-time-only, now-or-never offers to buy everyone’s houses. Ha! 
I called my kids and asked which two or three of their possessions they’d most like to see again. That could have made for a whole evening of interesting conversation but by then the ash was falling like snow and the air was making me dangerously nostalgic for my smoking days. We agreed on the harp and a few guitars. 
My husband came home to "help" me load van. "We" put our turtle in a soup pot, crammed the guinea pig and bunny into a small cage, and hoisted our big old dog up onto the seat. 
On the way out the door, we took a last look at the house and our stuff. I was sorry about leaving some of the art, but felt surprisingly indifferent to the rest of my earthly accumulation. 
We squeaked out just as they were blocking off the road. Any of our neighbors who came home after that had to leave their cars at the mouth of the canyon and hoof in to get pets, kids, papers, whatever. 
We spent the night at a friend’s house in Eco Park and returned in the morning to our intact home. The hillside was revealed to be shaped like an elephant's head, although no one admitted to seeing it but me. The elephant was stubbly with blackened stumps like a five day beard, he smelled like an ashtray and looked strangely raw for several months. 
This was an entirely unknown phenomena in Detroit where I grew up. Houses burned but just one at a time, mostly. Space heaters took several a year, Christmas trees, lightning, cigarettes and vandals took their share. Businesses burned as part of insurance scams, but it was rare that a Michigan arsonist got more than a few houses or apartments at a time. 
So, this seasonal occurrence of multiple miles of flame took some getting used to.   
Our modest little canyon fire burned maybe a square mile or less. A few weeks later a couple of miles north of us the Station Fire began it's two week rampage incinerating 251 square miles. That one made for fabulous on-going, high-drama viewing. Asthma or no, we’d park in the hospital lot with our fellow gawkers and sit on the roof of our cars, admiring the glorious billowing smoke patterns by day and the breathtaking flames by night. 
And just this week, we’ve kicked off this year’s fire season with the Cajun Pass Fire, standing now at 1,150 acres burnt, two homes lost. 
Wabbit season!  Duck Season!  Wabbit season!  FIRE SEASON!