Memorial Day

Memorial Day Commemoration 2008

Tomorrow will be the day Memorial Day is celebrated in the United States of America.  The date, which moved around a bit while the holiday was known as Decoration Day, was fixed at May 30 for many years, but in the last couple of decades it was changed to the last Monday in May, thus allowing a three-day weekend for most working people.  More and more, it seems that the holiday marks the beginning of summer rather than what it was intended to mark:  to memorialize, remember and gratefully thank the more than a million men and women who have lost their lives serving in our country’s armed forces.

In these days, after more than ten solid years of war, more families have ties to the military, it seems.  And more, sadly, have lost relatives and friends and loves to war.  (I seem to be using the word “more” a great deal in this post, but that’s appropriate.  For all that the spiritual says “we ain’t gonna study war no more”, it seems that war will always be with us, a larger and larger specter on the horizon, a horrible biological marker we can’t seem to rid ourselves of.  As a character said in the movie Gladiator, “there will always be somebody left to fight.”

Memorial Day got its start during and after the Civil War, when Southern families would decorate the graves of their fallen soldiers with flags and flowers, usually in May, although the actual date varied from state to state.  Later on, it became a country-wide holiday, marking not just the Civil War, but all wars in which United States military personnel have fought and died.  Unlike such holidays as Veteran’s Day (which is the current name for the holiday marking the end of the First World War and which now serves to mark the service of Armed Forces members in all wars, whether they were killed or not), Memorial Day is a day to thank those that gave the ultimate sacrifice of their lives in service to their country.

American Civil War Graves

American Civil War Graves (Photo credit: smilla4)

I was a young woman during the war of Viet Nam, a time during which military service got itself tarred with the brush of the political decisions made regarding that war.  My memories of those days are still bitter, with people greeting returning soldiers, alive and dead, with scorn and sometimes worse.  Memorial Day seemed rather to mock our nation’s blistering discord over that war that played itself out in so many ways against the soldiers who had very little choice about fighting.  It is probably not remembered now as much, but during those days, there was a draft, and soldiers went to Viet Nam because they had to, not because they volunteered.  Most of them served honorably, although it sometimes seemed our media deliberately chose to find stories of dishonor.  I wish to make this clear:  I did not approve of the reasons for our military involvement in Viet Nam and was opposed to its continuation.  However, both as the child of a man who had retired from the Army as a Lieutenant Colonel and as a young adult who could not figure out why anybody, let alone members of the same generation, should vilify soldiers conscripted into service, I was appalled at the treatment of veterans and the dismissal of those who died in that jungle.

Since then, how many wars have there been?  Police actions, some were called.  Other names were used for other military ventures, because there is a law that while the American President can deploy troops, only Congress can declare war.  And now, for the first time in how many years, we are fighting only (ONLY!) one war, the one in Afghanistan, a country that has so far absorbed and spit back every foreign military venture taking place within its borders, from Britain to Russia to us.  Only one war.  I don’t remember who said it, but I clearly remember some wise person saying that there is always a war somewhere.

Wars are the big things that history books love to talk about, the movement of troops, the decisions of generals, the pageantry of it all.  Meanwhile, there are individual human beings, not toy soldiers, on those wrecked fields, driving those caissons and tanks, getting killed or, as is so very common in today’s modern war, getting severely injured in either or both brain and body.  Individual human beings.  People who could have sweethearts, wives, husbands, girlfriends, boyfriends, sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, children of their own.  Lives.  Once such people were openly called “cannon fodder.”  It was always an ironic, grim designation, because it was so awfully true.

Quartermaster Corps branch insignia

Quartermaster Corps branch insignia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My father, as I said above, was in the Army.  He joined when he was very young.  Since he didn’t have a birth certificate, he was able to lie about his age.  He worked his way up to sergeant in the Quartermaster Corps.  This division of the United States Army handled supply and infrastructure, and my father started his military life as an army cook (or more probably he worked up to being an army cook by peeling potatoes like every other soldier).  When World War II broke out, he was stationed in Panama.  The Army had to vastly increase its size to meet the demands of WWII, and so required many more officers than it had needed since the Civil War.  It instituted an Officers’ Candidate School, for which my father applied and was accepted.  He graduated as a Second Lieutenant and remained in the Quartermaster Corps, achieving the rank of Major while on active duty in what was then Persia (now Iran and parts of Iraq) supervising the construction of the Red Ball Express across Persia to transport materiel to Russia, then our ally.   (Note:  the Wikipedia entry for “Red Ball Express” discusses only the convoys through France, but my father told me himself that the same designation was used for this highway through Iraq and Iran.)  He was wounded in the leg during an attack by Bedouins, thus managing to achieve the difficult task of getting wounded in furtherance of the war but not in battle.  And also managing to predate by some sixty-odd years the exact experience of our troops in today’s war in Iraq, only now the Bedouins are called insurgents.  He recovered, but his leg was never right again, and he was rotated back to the United States, where he served at Camp McCoy in Wisconsin and was retired in 1947, with the usual bump in rank and with full medical disability.  He died, partially as a consequence still of that wound incurred in Persia, in 1960 and is buried, as was his fond wish, in Arlington National Cemetery.

My brother, David, served in the Korean War (ahem, police action), in the Navy.  He was deployed on a ship that patrolled the Atlantic Ocean from Cuba up to Nova Scotia, I believe, and was delighted that his service was routine, boring and without much incident.  He served three years, I believe, and then went to college and an eventual working life as a systems analyst, creating computer programs, sometimes for the United States military, thus coming full circle.  I have a picture that I unfortunately cannot find or I would post it showing him grinning in his sailor uniform.  My brother enjoys good health and a good life in California and long may he do so.

My husband, when I married, had retired from a career in the United States Air Force, in which he served as a surgeon.  At one time, he was one of the doctors retrieving our astronauts (in the Gemini Program, I believe).  His second to last deployment was as Command Surgeon at the Air Force Academy.  He retired as a full Colonel and moved to our small town of Estes Park, where he acted as Chief Surgeon of the Estes Park Medical Center.  He and I divorced (while living in California) in 1985 and he returned to Louisiana, his home state.  He died there, the victim of esophageal cancer, in the late eighties.

I am so very fortunate that my loved ones, those I personally met and knew, did not die in battle.  I have ancestors, as have we all, who did die in one or another battle, in this country or another one, fighting some war or another that now exists only in history books.  I have a direct ancestor on my mother’s side who fought in the Revolutionary War as a member of a militia in Virginia.  (He survived it.)  It is that relative that allows me to claim that I am related to Davy Crockett.  I can only assume that some great-great grandfathers or uncles of mine fought in the Civil War and probably in all other wars we have fought as a country.  My stepfather served in the 22nd Engineers Corp in France in World War I (where he lost his hearing as a result of mustard gas, or so I was told).  I would imagine that nobody reading this could actually say that no family member, no ancestor, ever died in a war, ever fought in a war.  It is an ugly, continuing part of the human condition.  I would not suggest that wars are never justified.  I’m not a pacifist (I try not to be any type of “ist”, actually).  Certainly, in my reading, it seems very much the truth that World War II had to be fought, for reasons that became totally clear only after the war ended.  And it also seems that the Civil War could not have been avoided and, although it was not actually the reason it was fought, the end of slavery that resulted from the Civil War is an unreservedly good thing (although we didn’t handle the peace arising from the Civil War with any kind of grace).  Other wars seem to me to be fought for reasons that do not rise to the term “necessary” or “good”.  But then I am not as informed as I perhaps should be.  I will not pronounce on our current and immediately past wars, because they are too close for there to be any judgment, at least on my part.

But they are fought by individual human beings.  And on Memorial Day, we honor those who have died in battle, those who have put their own bodies between their beloved home and war.  Our troops have been (along with two very big oceans) a primary reason that these ugly wars have not been fought on American soil since the Civil War–at least until terrorism changed the face of war culminating (so far) in the attack on and destruction of the World Trade Center.  Those women and men who have died in battle have saved countless civilian lives as well as the lives of fellow soldiers.  It is too much to ask of any human being, but that we survive as a country today has much to do with their service.

In my small town of Estes Park, there is a lawn in front of the Public Library on Elkhorn Avenue.  Currently, in honor of Memorial Day, the library staff has “planted” hundreds of tiny American flags in this lawn.  It is beautiful and it brings tears to the eye.  I would rather see the boys and girls themselves, all alive and spiffed up in their dress uniforms, than flags, but seeing the flags helps me remember, helps remind me in the midst of the barbecue and the Memorial Day sales, to silently thank them all.

Sign posted along the Red Ball route

Sign posted along the Red Ball route (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rainy Sunday

Rain and mist.  My little mountain town looks as if it should be situated on a loch in Scotland.  All we need is a castle and some heather.  Instead we have high mountains we can’t see today, lots of pines, budding aspen and the start of a summer of wildflowers, small darting creatures and lots of elk.  Here’s a picture of a sleek gentleman in velvet wading in one of Estes Park‘s rivers on a sunnier day.  The picture is courtesy of Roxy Whalley, and many more of her wonderful photographs can be found at Images By Roxy  and A Picture A Day 2012.  Right now, and of course I can’t remember what I did with my camera, there are a number of elk lying down in the wet grass across the street, only their ears and growing antlers visible to me.  Sometimes I  need to remember and express my gratitude for being able to live here, because it is a gift.

. 05-12-12 - Wapiti in the River

On such a rainy Sunday, while feeling grateful for my blessings and sending up (around? through? wherever!) my thanks to the Author, I’m reminded that among those blessings and thanks are the choices I am given to make and the results of the choices I have made.  Sometimes, I think we all–I know I do–can feel coerced into the lives we’re living, caught somehow by circumstance or fate or some kind of determinism.  Why am I here?  We ask this, and we’re not (as the joke would have it) trying to figure out why we’re standing in the laundry room (in this joke, we’re looking for our glasses).  But of course, what we’re really looking for is either purpose or at least an explanation.

There are many sources from religions to philosophies to governments to mothers to science to (probably the wisest) comedians to tell us what our purpose is, explaining why we’re here.  We all know what they are and each of us has already or needs soon to come to terms with how much those explanations personally resonate.  But in a (very) superficial survey, I would state that reasons given for the existence and ultimate purpose of human beings, of life on this planet, of this planet’s own existence, of the existence of the universe, range from (a) utter determinism and predestination to (z) (or maybe zzzzzzz) mere chance.  Somewhere in the middle of that vast spectrum you will find my own microscopic dot, I’m sure.

choose determinism

choose determinism (Photo credit: alyceobvious)

But today, I keep thinking that for every situation, place, mess, glory or whatnot in which I’ve been plopped down, there is a spectrum ranging between a deterministic explanation and a free will expanation.  For example, why did I move back to Estes Park after a life in Los Angeles and New York City?  Why Estes Park?  Well, my mother and I moved here after my father died because they had stored their furniture in Colorado, Daddy had loved it here, and Mama found a house for cheaper rent in Estes Park than she could in all the front range towns (then, they’re small cities now).  How to parse that decision in terms of Choice, of Chance, of Determinism?  The Universe or God providing a path?  There is no real way to know.  Mama was too much under the survival and grief gun to ponder any of that.  She just wanted a roof, a job and a safe place for herself and her (sullen and hopefully temporarily unhappy) daughter.  So by default Estes Park became home, the place I knew, the refuge when things went bad, the place to escape from when the rest of the world (any part of it) looked better than a mountain valley with few jobs and no prospects.  No matter how beautiful it was.

But it isn’t just that Estes was and is home and I’ve always been homesick for the mountains.   True, when things went bad in my life (which happened a lot, but then that happens a lot to everybody), I’d think about Estes Park as home and want to go there to lick my wounds.  When things got better (which doesn’t inevitably happen for anybody, but which does take place more often than we notice, I think), Estes Park would once again become a nice place to visit.  Then, due to a weird confluence of strange events, I got older.  And due to an even weirder confluence of even stranger events, while I didn’t get rich, or even “comfortable”, as they say, I did manage to inherit, work for and save (saving being, alas, the least of it) enough not to fret over job prospects in a small mountain town.  Because while Estes Park is a hard place to live when you have to earn a living, if you can retire there on even a semi-pittance, Estes Park is a lovely place to live, filled with beauty, friends and important things to do.  So it became a choice once more open to me both in practical and in emotional terms.

But there were other forces.  Chance?  Determinism?  I don’t know.  When I moved to New York City, that choice was mine, but it was influenced by events in my life in Los Angeles that could very well be the universe nudging me toward a specific outcome, or which could have been pure chance onto which I imposed some kind of meaning.  This, by the way is a very old human sport, engaged in because our brains are hard-wired to form patterns.  Scientists believe that this wiring came about to allow us to pick out the pretty fruit against the background of green leaves.  But now, the pattern-formation wiring in our heads also will form patterns of behavior, of activities in the world, in an attempt to find the fruit of meaning against the background of noise.  In any event, the patterns I saw I interpreted in terms of the choice I wanted to make and I moved to New York City.

New York City

New York City (Photo credit: kaysha)

And loved it.  And would be there still were it not for some new patterns forming against the noise.  Patterns of economic disaster for all, physical problems for me, and the combination of isolation and loneliness these patterns (and some iffy choices on my part) created.  (Friends in Manhattan moved to Jersey, I stopped working because of my health, my health kept me at home in my Bronx coop which was very far from anywhere I wanted to be, etc., etc., etc.)  And I gradually came to the realization that I could no longer be there in my coop in the Bronx.  Since Manhattan was financially out of the question, where was I to be?  And was it simply my choice to stick a pin in a map?  Or was there a pattern?

Chance?  Determinism?  Choice?

Looking back makes it a lot easier to see the combinations.  While we’re in a situation, it is very hard to distinguish what parts of the decisions we make are free choice, reaction to random chance, or possibly the influence and caring of a superior entity.  Do I see the pretty fruit because it just happens to be there?  Or do the patterns in the foliage lead me to it?  Or whether it is all noise and background and I’m making up the pretty fruit I was trying to find.

But I came home, using as much single-minded effort to do so that I had used to move to New York.  And while I still miss Manhattan, I am glad I did.  Here is a very good place.  Whether I’m supposed to be here because some Force in the universe wills it and I am merely a pawn being moved, or whether I’m here because I am as much a maker of my life patterns as I am the one who discerns them, or whether I’m here purely out of rational choice and completely by chance, I don’t yet know.   Perhaps it is some unique combination of them all.

Estes Park in Rocky Mountains, Colorado.

Estes Park in Rocky Mountains, Colorado. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Right now, I’m not on the downward spiral of a bad decision or a bad place where I’m hunting desperately for someone, something, more wise and powerful than I am, to tell me what to do and assure me that it will all come out all right.  On the other hand, I kind of miss those times in my life when my desire for an outcome, my determination to make something happen, would overcome all chance, all determinism in the world. All gates were open, all systems were go, all circumstances in the world seemed to coalesce, serendipitously, into a green light which would sustain me until the project was complete, or close enough to complete so that clenching my teeth and soldiering on would make it so.

Today, I’m pondering my choices and my chances.  Oddly, like the elk in the stream in Roxy’s picture.  That elk is there because the original species indigenous to Estes Park was wiped out in hunting and another species was brought down from Wyoming to repopulate the National Park.  So, to what extent can we look at this particular elk and see the determinism of the universe and of human beings to place his kind in Estes Park? To what extent does that particular elk’s individual health and luck (the chance of his life) play a part in our seeing him in that river at that time and place and date?  And to what extent is he in that river because he just thought, what the hell, it’s easier to drink the water if I’m already in it?  Determinism.  Chance.  Choice.

What brand-new combination will come to me next, as it does to that elk?  What will move me on, whether metaphorically or (less likely at this point) actually to another place, another goal, another purpose.  While I came back to this beautiful place, this genuine home, to retire, to be still, to do small things and perhaps finally do them a bit better, and I hope that continues, it seems I’m not done with dreaming or hoping, either.  Or wondering if the Author, as I mentioned above, just might have something more for me to do and in just what way that will manifest to me.  As a choice?  As a chance?  As a destiny?

Meanwhile, on this rainy Sunday, I plan to make a small destiny of looking outside at the lovely misty mountains, feel the stroke of the rain on my skin, see if the elk have (entirely their choice, I hope) left the meadow below the road to find some other place to bed down this night, and open myself to patterns, to the fruit against the leaves, the intricate winding dance of chance and choice and determinism, and see what that dance creates for me next.

Taste, Trends and Cowboy Boots

Painting "Herd Quitters"

Have you ever pondered the difference between what you are supposed to like and what you actually do like?  I’m not thinking, here, about the truly important stuff, such as sexual preference (which is almost certainly not a choice), or with whom you fall in love anyway (which is more like compulsion or madness).  This is the more surface stuff, more about still not liking tangerine even when it’s the “in” color (I say it’s orange and I say the hell with it) or (like Ed Wood of long-ago B-movie days) loving Angora shruggies whether they are fashionable or not (something I can’t wear whether I like them or not or whether I think I should like them or not, because Angora itches).

Or, even more simply, what we are taught by our mothers (usually), local style mavens (often), and the media (all too often) to think of as stylish, trendy, fashionable, cool or just in good taste may not be what we, in our heart of hearts, really find pretty, attractive and delightful.  I remember in high school thinking that the pep club uniforms we had (slightly above the knee purple box pleated skirts with German lederhosen-style straps worn over white button-down Oxford shirts and with white tennis shoes) were really good-looking.  I liked the quality of the wool flannel in the skirt, I liked the hidden stitching on the stitched-down portion of the box pleats, I liked the simplicity of the purple and white, the shirts and tennis shoes complementing the skirt.  I thought the tout ensemble of the whole (as a friend’s mother would put it) looked good on me.  And I did not dare say so.  All the comments I ever heard about this uniform were, ahem, uniformly negative.  It was considered clunky, even then (and, yes, this was a long time ago), it was considered dowdy and totally uncool.  Nobody liked it.  So I, in my 16-year-old wisdom, didn’t like it either.  But I really did.

This led to confusion over time, because I learned probably the opposite of what I should have learned.  I learned that I’d better trust other’s taste in preference to my own.  I learned that what I liked was kitschy, ordinary, dowdy (that word again) and that what I was supposed to like was all that was cool, trendy, attractive.  And so I tried to like it.

Black Western cowboy boots on a white background

Black Western cowboy boots on a white background (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For example.  I’ve lived either in the West in small towns or medium cities, Los Angeles or New York City virtually my whole life.  And somewhere along the way, I fell in love with Western-style clothes.  Specifically, such items as cowboy boots, snap-buttoned shirts, and fringed leather jackets.  But for a long, long time I didn’t tell anybody that, because when I was growing up, to be a cowboy or to like such western styles and ways of living was the most totally uncool thing you could do.  As I recall, the cool kids had truly unpleasant appellations for the cowboy kids, to which I will not give any credence by repeating them here.  And oh how I wanted to be a cool kid.  (I wasn’t, because I was an academic nerd, a term that had not been invented yet.  I liked most of my teachers and the challenge of learning stuff.  This is ALWAYS uncool in high school, at least in public high school.)  So I pretended to go along with the contempt (and it was true contempt, growing out of the bottomless pit of insecurity that a teenager lives with every day) for cowboys.

But way inside where I didn’t even look I really liked how they dressed.  And I couldn’t admit it.  Not even to myself.

A few years later, when I lived in Wyoming, where everybody was a cowboy (except for the cowgirls) and that was just background, not even a lifestyle choice (which is a term I don’t think anybody who lives in Wyoming understands or wants to), I went with a girlfriend to Cheyenne Frontier Days, one of the best rodeos going.  And that’s when I first really met up with, watched, and started to understand real working cowboys.  Rodeo cowboys, at least.  For them, wearing jeans bleached practically white with a round white patch in the back pocket where the chewing tobacco rubbed against the material, wearing tight shirts with snaps instead of buttons, and wearing, of course, and most iconically, the hat and the boots, didn’t have anything to do with style, with cool, with any sort of John Travolta post-modern irony.  It was simply the clothes you wore that were most practical for a physical, demanding way of life filled with hard work and not a lot of money.  You wore cowboy boots because if you rode, the pointed toes got your feet in the stirrups quickly without you having to look down and the high heels kept your feet from slipping through the stirrups, so that you wouldn’t be caught and dragged if your horse threw you.  The hat?  Wide brim to keep off the brutal western sun, deep crown to use to water yourself or your horse.  Jeans because they don’t wear out and you don’t have enough money to buy lots of pants.  The tight shirt with snaps?  The tight part is to protect against brush and thorns that would catch on looser material.  I don’t actually have any guesses about the snaps.

But Western wear has always been stylin’, whether it was “in style” or not.  Snaps and complexly designed yokes and fringe and embroidery were a major part of the look of a Western shirt.  And, let’s face it, during the mid-years of last century, Western wear was one of the few ways a man was allowed to express his own taste for color, style, for actual pretty, in what he wore.  And still be the most macho dude around.

So, here were Pat (my friend) and I, wandering around “backstage” at Cheyenne Frontier Days.  And I mostly noticed that people who are very comfortable in their skins, in their choices, look like they belong in their cowboy clothes.  This is something that can be extended, of course, to any style of clothing.  Queen Elizabeth II looks quite comfortable in satin encrusted with embroidery and jewels, wearing her orders and sashes and necklaces and tiaras and crowns.  For her, it’s not a costume, it’s not “cool”.  It’s just her uniform for a certain part of her working life.  I also noticed that the real working cowboys, whether their work is ranching or rodeo, look so utterly, droolingly delicious in their jeans and boots and snap-buttoned shirts and hats that a mere female has a real hard time remembering that these men are not icons, they’re human beings, with undoubtedly human problems.  I’m not suggesting that a girl shouldn’t get interested in a cowboy (or vice versa), but somewhere between “they never say a word and they’re always hurt” and “my heroes have always been cowboys”, it’s probably best to find the cowboy who interests you more for his thoughts, his humor and his liking of you than because he can wear the hell out of a pair of tight jeans.  Just sayin’.

But they sure are fun to look at.

However, that congruence between what I really liked, what my taste genuinely was, and what was out there to like, what was okay to like, didn’t survive the end of the rodeo season.  For one thing, I moved away from Wyoming.  For another, it still wasn’t cool in Colorado to like cowboys.  Oh well.  Life went on.

Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. Photo taken at 61st...

Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. Photo taken at 61st Academy Awards 3/29/89 - Governor's Permission granted to copy, publish or post but please credit "photo by Alan Light" if you can (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And eventually I moved to Los Angeles.  LA is not part of the West, just so you know.  It may have been once, when Roy Rogers lived in the San Fernando Valley, but in the eighties and nineties when I lived there, LA was just too cool and trendy, too center-of-the-world, to give house room to the real life of the West.  But even there, there came around, as it does every few years in LA and New York City (but apparently nowhere else except every place in Texas), a fad for the cowboy look.  Oh, not for being a cowboy, just for looking like one, in a sort of deconstructed way.  And people who always seem to know what the next big thing is would rent a vacant lot or a parking lot and put thousands of pairs of used cowboy jeans or Western shirts and/or thousands of pairs of used cowboy boots out and people would buy them and buy them and buy them.  I did too.  I got a pair of black lizard Frye boots with really high heels and really pointed toes for some impossibly small amount of money and loved them to pieces, even if they were a bit narrow for my fat little baby feet.  I’m still mad at myself for getting rid of them.  One of the reasons those vacant lots filled with used boots was even possible is that you can’t kill a good pair of Frye boots no matter what you do to them, they’ll outlast you (or at least your ability to walk in boots with really pointy toes and really high heels).

Of course, I wore them the trendy, LA way, NOT with jeans, snap-buttoned shirts and fringe, but with long swirly skirts that were in style and so, of course, not Western.  And, heavens above, not with a cowboy hat.  After all, you had to have some standards.  And the cognitive dissonance went on.  Because I really liked those cowboy boots and what I wanted in my hidden self was to wear them right, with a fringed leather skirt or with chaps and jeans, and (even though I get the worst hat head you ever saw) with a cowboy hat.  And no matter how completely un-trendy it was (and it was), I wanted a fringed leather jacket and turquoise jewelry (none of which I could afford).  I really wanted them.  And I kept quiet about it, because just saying it out loud would brand me as some kind of nerd, geek or whatnot, with no style at all.

Finally I moved back here to the West.  Oh, not for that reason.  And not without a very large detour to New York City where I discovered that while what’s in style rules on 5th Avenue, you can wear what you want and like what you want in the Village (at least, you can so long as it’s black).  Which helped me, finally, realize that it was okay, it really was, for me to like things (cats, Georgette Heyer novels, Sherlock Holmes, Frye boots, fringed leather jackets, Tex-Mex food, Arts and Crafts furniture, Victoriana, Fiestaware, and the American West) because I liked them.  Whether somebody else did, whether it was cool or trendy, mattered not in the slightest.

I started buying turquoise jewelry.  Not the really good stuff, I still can’t afford it, but I have a couple of pieces I wear almost all the time.  I have a fringed, embroidered, suede Western jacket.  I just bought a pair of cowboy style ankle boots with conchos on them (I can hardly wait to wear them with the new jeans four sizes smaller than I’ve worn for years).  I go to the Rooftop Rodeo here in town.  And I’m starting to not care whether or not the Western-style pieces I’m looking at (rugs, cushions, even furniture) are cool or trendy anywhere but in my mind and heart.

Even more, I’m realizing that it’s okay for me not to like stuff that iscool or trendy.  No more apologies that I’m just not a minimalist when somebody tells me that the best furniture is Mies van der Rohe.  I know who he is, his stuff is lean and gorgeous and simple, and I couldn’t live with it for a minute.  I’m finally learning that stating for the record that I don’t like modern furniture is not going to get me drummed out of the human race, it’ll just keep me from being invited to a house where there wouldn’t be a comfortable place to sit anyway.  So now I can admit out loud, darn it, that I really liked those high school pep club uniforms and that I don’t care if tangerine is this year’s best color, because it’s orange and I hate orange and always did.

"The Cow Boy"

Spring Thoughts

Aspen trees near Aspen, Colorado

[NOTE:  I’m categorizing this post also as  “writing” because I am attempting to write a somewhat descriptive essay–creating a picture with words.  I would be most interested to know if I approach this goal, but then again, I’m putting in several images to help . . . . ]

Received an ecard today from a friend filled with budding flowers and trees and an Easter message, and I realized that spring did in fact, ahem, spring going on a month ago, in late March, as it always does.  Except in the high country in Colorado.  Here, I have always maintained, we have one day of spring in which the aspen bud (aspen is both singular and plural so imagine I mean “aspen trees bud”) and the lilacs bloom.  This happens some time in June, hopefully early June, hopefully after the last snow, and then we have approximately two and a half months of summer, if we’re lucky.

This early spring we’re having here in Colorado (completely apart from the lack of rain or snow and the resulting fire danger) is a little disconcerting.  Whether it’s a weather (ooh, clever use of words, there, Gail) anomaly or a symptom of climate change (a scary and controversial topic into which I’m not going), that’s not what normally takes place at high altitude.  Here, historically, we’re more likely in March, April and May to get heavy snows instead of snowdrops.  I’m trying to remember (using increasingly faulty equipment) when we in past years saw the first crocus, the first robin, the first bluebird, and it seems to me it was later in April than has happened this year.  I definitely remember, however, always seeing the first crocus peeking through the snow.

In any event, spring has a special feel to it, doesn’t it?  Freshness, balmy air with a few brisk winds for contrast, growing things.  I don’t think there’s a green as beautiful at any place or time as the green of new leaves with the sun shining through them.  All the animals start up their lives again after the winter’s rest, scurrying around finding food and nesting materials, making homes, getting ready for babies.  The birds chirp so cheerily and some of them dart around in such finery, their feathers so filled with color and life, they lift the heart.  And even while recognizing the practical reasons for flowers, oh they look so frivolous and bright, waving in the breeze on their stems.  Even here in Estes Park, where we don’t have much spring to speak of.

Now, New York is a place that understands spring!  They do the season right in that state.  Nature in New York starts with the forsythia, which is a kind of bush type of thing that in spring has delicate yellow flowers arrayed on more-or-less dark red new canes.  The rest of the year, these bushes are kind of background, but in spring they become sun-colored lace by the sides of the roads.  The forsythia is followed by daffodils, huge clumps of daffodils all blooming in a kind of yellow frenzy against the darker green of their leaves and stems.  Then the tulips pop out, bringing pink and purple (and, of course, more yellow) into the mix.  By this time, the trees have gotten the message and their new green leaves start to unfurl, making even an elderly dowager of a maple tree look like a girl again, quite giddy with the fun of dancing through the spring.  If had lived closer to water (although in New York city, water is always closer than it is in Colorado, it seems), I would also have enjoyed the pussy willows (as we called them), the little paw-like catkins bursting out of the willow wands.  I saw them in the florists shops, though, and touching their softness was almost irresistible.

lilac Syringa vulgaris in bloom

Lilacs (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Soon after the robins and bluebirds arrived, other bushes and bulbs would spring forth, and the flowering trees would turn into sticks of cotton candy, cloudy with pink or white blooms.  Then, the most glorious of spring flowers would finish the show:  lilacs bloom earlier in New York than I ever remember from Colorado and I love lilacs, their color and their scent, more than almost any other spring flower.  In my Bronx neighborhood, there were several older houses that had lilacs bushes so huge they were more like trees, so filled with blossom that walking by them was a heady experience, the fragrance saturating my senses.  And so spring renewed a tired world, animals and people and flowers coming out of their winter funks, with even the spring rains feeling soft and warm and welcoming.

Here, it’s quieter, somehow.  The blooming plants seem to grow more closely to the ground and their blooms are not riotous in their color, at least not this time of year.  The mountains in Colorado have glorious wildflowers that array themselves in rich, paintbox colors, but those come later on, in June or July.  Now there’s the haze of green new growth that underlays last year’s dead stems, fuzzy buds on the aspen that will (hopefully after the last snow) break out into a green so delicate even from a distance you can see the veins in the leaves, and there are the crocus (croci?) with their pale lavender and cream cups and soft green leaves.  Later, in early June, there will be the blue flag, a kind of native iris, which creates a haze of blue in the low-lying ground close to the reservoir and on the big meadows in the park (as I mentioned in an earlier post about how we in Estes Park talk, this means Rocky Mountain National Park, the best back yard in the world).

While all this greening and coloring is going on, the animals–and the people–start to put off winter coats and lethargy and begin making a big fuss about life again.  While I always love to watch the deer and elk (and, yes, even the bears from a safe distance and usually on the other side of a window), it is the tiny ones that fascinate, the chipmunks and ground squirrels.  Because they are fair game for predators (we are a wild place here in spite of all our cars and houses and electric lights), from bobcats to eagles, they move quick quick quick and then sit up and scan their surroundings as this one is doing:

RMNP rodent

RMNP rodent (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Then, there are the birds darting through the air, building nests, finding new things to eat, flirting with the big folk.  Truly beautiful birds make Estes Park and the mountains their summer home.  While we may not have cardinals or orioles or purple martins as the East Coast does, we have Stellar jays (blue shading into black, unlike the blue and white of the more standard jay), camp robbers (I can’t remember their actual name, this is what we call them up here, big birds in gray and white, utterly fearless), ravens and crows, chickadees, cedar waxwings, magpies, downy woodpeckers and our own wonderful blue, blue, bluebird, among many others.  They fill the air with song and their quick, darting flight.

And, later, in June, will come the flying jewels, the hummingbirds.  Almost everyone keeps bait around their houses, either the kinds of (usually red) flowers the hummingbirds adore or a hummingbird feeder.  They are enchanting to watch as they zip through the air or hover, with that distinctive sound they make, not quite the hum of their names, but not quite a buzz either.  They are quite territorial, and the battles between two of the tiny males are more furious and aerobatic than any other aerial combat.  They move so fast it is as if our eyes see where they were and not where they are.  Here in the mountains, they arrive at the very end of the spring renewal, and they delight us all summer long.

Finally, there are the big animals, the elk and deer that wander around all winter in scruffy coats and lost antlers, now sleeking up into their summer wear, growing new weapons covered in softest velvet, eating everything in sight.  And the bears come out of their dens in April (early this year, it seems), searching for food and frightening the populace (bears are not cuddly, not tame, and they are very dangerous).  While we see bobcats and coyotes all winter, the eagles and hawks seem to reappear in the spring, as do the Canada geese and the whistler swans.  They love our small lake here, a place to rest and find food during their travels.  So spring increases our populations of animals, and that burgeoning brings the tourists, another sign of spring.  If nothing else let us know it is nearly summer, the sudden inability to turn left would.  And so spring, bringing our senses back to life after our winter naps, leads into summer, the rich, fat season, filled with skies nearly purple in their blueness, leaves darkening into forest green, animals raising sleek babies, the joys of water and air and rocks, views and breeze and tiny, surprising lakes, rivers and summer thunderstorms.  And the memories of spring.

Spring’s pageant is ever new and ever the same.  It is, after all, the circle of life, and as necessary to our planet and our lives as the sun itself.  Perhaps it is intrinsic to spring that it be exhilarating, beautiful, warm, fuzzy, or perhaps that is just a bonus.  In any event, even here in our much shorter, quieter springtimes in the high mountains, our hearts and spirits lift with each chirp of a bird, each bursting forth of an aspen’s leaves, each bloom of a lilac.

Two males hummingbird are fighting. They do it...

Hummingbirds in Combat (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A Mountain Bluebird

Driving Miss Tina

2003-2007 Nissan Murano photographed in Colleg...

Nissan Murano (not mine, but similar) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As I may have mentioned, I christened my car “Tina” after I bought her.  It started as “Tiny” because she’s a big girl, but she didn’t like it, so now it’s Tina.  I have always loved Nissan cars–one literally saved my life in 2003 (that story I’ll blog about at some point, trust me)–and when I moved back to Colorado, with the prospect of snowy mountain roads, I bought a one-year-old Nissan Murano, silver gray with black interior.  She has many talents, my new (still feels new to me) big girl of a car.

Interesting (to me) digression:  While some complex mechanisms remain resolutely neuter, neutral and completely without individuality, others come equipped with personality, gender and, definitely, opinions of their own.  When I was in college, the elevator in my dorm hated me.  It simply did, that’s all there was to it.  My first car’s name was “Prudence Duvernoy” (from a character I had played in Tennessee Williams’ “Camino Royale”), and that car was madly in love with another student’s big old Chevy and always found a way to park next to him.  My second computer seemed a bit miffed that somebody so clueless could possibly be in charge of it, and I spent more on repairs and tech support than I had for the computer.  I think most people would, if absolutely pressed to the wall about it, admit that some machine in their life seemed to have distinct preferences and likes or dislikes.  And acted upon them.

In any event, back to today’s topic.  My car has many talents, chief among which is being the easiest to drive and the safest-feeling car I’ve ever owned.  As I said, she’s a big girl, and in my part of Colorado, which gets a lot of wind, it’s a delight to have this big solid vehicle around me as traffic lights wave around like banners and flags get ripped off flagpoles and construction signs have to have holes in them to protect them from becoming lethal flying weapons.  Tina also has the ability to find a parking space within reasonable distance of my destination virtually every time.  Even in Estes in the summertime.  That’s a very good talent for a car to have.  And, in spite of her size, she doesn’t guzzle gas, but sips it instead.  Very useful in the coming years.  She’s also comfortable and not cramped.  I’m glad she has cloth seats, because leather seats can be sticky in summer and cold in winter.  She has quite a bit of cargo space, and her rear seats fold down nice and flat.  So, yes, I’m very fond of Tina and she seems quite fond of me.

And where does she spend most of her time?  In my garage.  I’m sure she’s glad it’s there (she’s the first car I’ve ever had that didn’t live outside all the time like a husky).  I know I am, because I’m lucky enough to have an attached garage, which is a great luxury in a cold climate.  But Tina doesn’t spend a lot of time out on the road both because of my California gas crisis background (“is this trip necessary?  how much time do I want to spend in line at the gas station?  and I really shouldn’t be using so much gas anyway”  and so forth), and because I’m spending much more time these days at home, writing.  All good things.  But it turns out I miss driving.  Really a lot.

On Monday, when I went to buy my new toy (see previous post), one of the things I noticed about the whole trip was how much I enjoyed it.  Not just driving Tina because she’s a good, drivable car, but simply driving.  When I first learned to drive, my greatest (non-romantic) pleasure was to drive, simply to drive, not to go anywhere in particular, but to go!  I remember when I was a little girl, Daddy would sometimes say, particularly after dinner on a summer evening, “hey, want to go for a drive?”  And we all piled in, thrilled at the idea.  Daddy, Mama, Gail (that’s me) and Velvet (that’s the dog).  Of course, no summer evening drive engineered and guided by my father would ever come home without stopping at A&W Root Beer, so we had a hidden agenda, but so much of the joy was the drive itself.  This was a while ago, so our car didn’t have air conditioning (nothing had air conditioning except the movie theater, let alone a car) and Greeley, Colorado, while it did cool off after dark in the summer, was HOT.  My mother would bring beach towels so we could actually sit on the seats (which weren’t leather, but the particularly stiff and staunch plastic they had for car seats in the fifties) and Daddy would say a few Army words (as Mama called them while she shot a very dirty look at him) until the steering wheel cooled down enough to touch, and of course we’d have all the windows open.  So off we’d set, no seat belts, of course, not back then, and Velvet’s head out the side back window, ears flopping (she was a cocker spaniel), and me with the dog mostly in my lap, talking to Daddy at the top of my lungs.  The best time.  Ever.  (Especially with the soft ice cream cones we’d always get on the way back home, “we” in this case including the dog, who loved ice cream.)

Obviously, I grew up with the idea that one of the great things to do is get in the car and go for a ride.  And I think that feeling has always been there, even when I didn’t have a car, the time or a full tank.  When I moved to California, after my divorce and before I got so poor I couldn’t afford the gas (let alone trying to be a good person ecologically), I would get in my car and drive on a Sunday or late at night when the world just got to be too much with me and my life was otherwise out of control.  I remember late nights driving up the freeway to Palmdale and letting the car out, with much the feeling that I’m sure a horseback rider has, and driving as fast as I could on those straight empty highways in the high desert.  (For any possible California Highway Patrol person reading this, I think the statute of limitations has run.  I hope.)  I remember trying to pretend I was a famous star incognito driving a convertible (when actually I was a word processor in a Sentra that didn’t even have a sunroof) tooling up and down the Pacific Coast Highway on the way to or from Malibu,  just too cool for school.

Big Sur, California

Big Sur, California (Photo credit: the_tahoe_guy)

Once I took a vacation and drove up the Pacific Coast Highway practically to Oregon, which included driving the utterly glorious (and terrifying) Highway One to and past Big Sur.  It’s perhaps better to be a passenger on such a road trip, because as a driver, you can’t really take your eyes off the twisty turny narrow heartstopping road long enough to look out at the unbelievable heartstopping (for another reason) view.  But there are lots of turnouts, so I’d stop and stare at the Pacific and get back in my little Sentra and twist around the switchbacks some more.  Anybody who loves to drive someday simply has to drive on that road between San Simeon and Carmel.

The only time I didn’t enjoy driving was, of course, the daily commute to work.  Even then, there were times it had its compensations.  After all, if I was in my car getting to work, I wasn’t AT work, drudging away, so that was still a plus.  And there is nothing quite like the feeling of driving home after work.  The relief of it.  Except, of course, in southern California when it rained.  Just as Colorado drivers forget how, each and every year, to drive in the snow, Los Angeles drivers forget how to drive in the rain.  And a year’s worth of oil and muck on the roads gets as slick as snot (I know it’s a disgusting image, but it’s the only one that really says it) when the rains first come.  One night, when I worked downtown, I remember that it took me over two hours to get from my office to my apartment during a rainstorm.  At that time I drove a stick shift, and by the time I arrived home, I thought my leg was permanently damaged from the constant shifting into and out of first gear, trying to get ten more feet down the pavement.

Until I got Tina, I was also frightened of driving in snow, for the very good reasons of the stark terror I’d felt over the years commuting to work in Denver in the blizzards, and a bad accident (I’ve talked about it on this blog) in Wyoming during a blizzard.  But now, Tina does very well with her all-wheel drive and her big all-season tires and her weight.  She’s only slid around once or twice and that was in my neighborhood, so I may be getting a little too sanguine about what is really more dangerous than standard driving.

But last Monday, even with the high winds, driving was just a sheer pleasure.  Going down the canyon (that’s how Estes residents, or “locals” (see my post on Estes definitions) talk about driving down to the “valley” (ditto)) with little traffic was a pleasure, looking out at the trees and the sky and beauty.  I had lunch at a great place in Lyons called “Oskar Blues” and then set off to Boulder for my shopping.  I found parking places easily (okay, Tina found them), and I had the delight I just talked about in my previous post of purchasing my new iPad.  Then I went to Whole Foods, which is another terrific shopping experience, especially for someone like me whose only alternative in her home town is a pretty standard Safeway.  There I bought produce and strawberries that smelled so richly of strawberry that my mouth was watering right there in the store, and other good things to enjoy.  And then I drove home, up the canyon, out of the worst of the wind.

And I loved it.  It reminded me of being young and taking off on a California highway just for the sheer joy of it.  I know it’s frivolous and ecologically unsound and I do try to minimize my driving for the most part, both for reasons of carbon footprint and pollution, but oh how I love to drive Miss Tina!

Colorado Sky

Colorado Sky--One of the Delights of Driving (Photo credit: Let Ideas Compete)

New Toy

It’s all Steve Jobs‘ fault.

Apple iPad Event

Apple iPad Event (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yes, I have succumbed.  Yesterday, at the Boulder Apple Store, I lost all common sense and self-control and bought an iPad.  The new one.  The gorgeous shiny, pretty thing I’ve wanted since the first one came out of the mind of Jobs, the design gurus at Apple, and, sadly, the factories of China.  And, what’s worse, I’m not even sorry.

Not only is the gadget thrilling, the experience of shopping at an Apple store is amazing.  Walk in and no matter how busy they are (and they are always busy), within a minute an employee will have approached you and within another minute, the person who will guide you through the purchase has arrived.  You never stand in line, the wonderful widgets are brought to you and, with small hand-held devices, the employees “ring up” your purchase right then and there.  After which, if you like, they set up the gadget for you and answer all your questions.  And the “wow” factor remains.  Even the packaging is magnificent:  sturdy, attractive, of a quality designed to underscore the quality of what is packaged.  (Yes, packaging is evil.  If the actual trivial way in which we chop up the planet just for ephemeral things isn’t bad enough, the layers of plastic and cardboard in which we surround them will be.)  But Apple’s packaging becomes part of the experience of buying.

So, I discovered that the merest touch and gesture would, more easily and elegantly than on my iPhone, move me from screen to screen, app to app.  I found out how brilliant all images are (unfortunately, this also included my own face, which lately I have enjoyed seeing, shall we say, as if through a bit more mist).  I stayed up late (nonsense, early for me) reading a novel on the delicious sharp screen.  Earlier, I synchronized my new toy with all my other Apple toys (iPhone and iPod).  I surfed apps, and I turned it on and off so often that I actually had to recharge it on its first night.  And I’m still enamored.  Although the guilt level is higher today.

You see, I don’t really need it.  No, let’s state it more forcefully.  I do not need an iPad.  I have an iPhone I still do not really know how to use to its fullest capacity, I have two computers, one a Mac, one a Dell and, as I said above, an iPod.  Obviously, I have long since drunk the Kool-Aid.  But if there’s anything Steve Jobs knew how to do, it was to create desire for those shiny, pretty things–desire that immediately becomes need.  Of course, unlike so many other shiny, pretty things, once a person has an Apple gadget, the delight has a tendency to stick around.  Unlike the toys of my childhood, which barely kept my interest past New Year’s Day after being so wanted, so desperately wanted, prior to Christmas, my iPod, my iPhone, and, I’m sure, my iPad (MY! iPAD!) will be used and happily so for a long time to come (at least, they will if I can figure out all their options and mechanisms).

The term “shiny, pretty things” is not mine.  It comes from the antic and gadfly mind of Mark Morford, a truly sane voice howling in our current cultural wilderness.  He was pointing out in his weekly column for the San Francisco Chronicle that our monkey-desire for these shiny, pretty things is gnawing our planet bare.  And it is.  And I’m guilty.  But as he also pointed out in the same column, all of us want ours before the chance is gone.  After all, they only had to make one more iPad so I could have one.  Only one more.   Sort of how I feel about Colorado–glad I moved back here and NOW they can close the gates and throw away the key.

All of which does have a tendency to take a little of the shine off my new toy.  But I’m still glad I got it.  Thanks, Mr. Jobs.

Although, upon thought, I really should have gotten the white one.

Image representing Apple as depicted in CrunchBase


My Home in Estes Park

I recently read a magazine article which was primarily about the subtle joys of retirement.  Her point was that, while it was hard to become accustomed to determining her own use of time, she found it to be a great wonder in her life.  I agree with that wholeheartedly, both the difficulty of getting used to it and the joy it brings being truly the captain of my fate, as it were.  But something she wrote got me to thinking.  One of her greatest joys now that her children have grown and she’s no longer employed is that she does not have to be home at any given time, nor stay home.  Her life, now, can be and is spent away from home, in the great world.

For me, however, the entire purpose of retirement, the delight I gain in not having a paid job, is that I can stay home.  I have always liked home best, enjoyed the freedom of doing what I wished inside the cozy, private space of my own domain, taking care of my house and possessions, working on my computer, reading, sewing, needlepointing, even watching TV, enjoying the antics (even if they are mostly asleep) of my cats.  I still arrive back at my house, put my car away and close the garage door with a feeling of safety, security and joy.  I’m HOME!  I remember how glorious that feeling was when I was working, but it still lives in me every day.

So I’m curious.  What about the concept of  home can be to me such a welcome refuge, but to others more a prison?  Perhaps for the writer mentioned above, her time at home had always been spent dealing with, picking up after and mothering children, cleaning the space, figuring out what to have for dinner, and much more.  It could very well have been a place where there was no leisure, no self-determination, no feeling of refuge.  It could very well have been a place where the writer simply had more and even harder, perpetual work to do.  I have heard from women, particularly women with small children, that leaving home, getting out of the house, is like being released from a particularly noisy, messy and sticky jail.  I didn’t have children, so that aspect of life at home was not at issue.  But I was married, once, and sometimes the presence of a husband seemed to loom over me.  My home, my rooms, weren’t really mine.  I was fortunate because our house had a small basement room that I used as a sewing room and (later on) a refuge from my marriage, and I suppose it served as an emotional release valve.  Since he never went in it, my husband didn’t comment about its tidiness or lack of same or the ways in which I stored and organized my projects there.  But I have clear memories of him going through the living room and rearranging ornaments so that they were militarily square with the edges of the surfaces they were on.  I remember quite clearly how that drove me quietly crazy.  I remember, too, that he once made an entire day’s discussion (lecture) over the fact that I had forgotten I already had gelatin and continued to buy packages of it until I had over 20 packages.  Of course he was right and I didn’t buy gelatin again throughout the course of our marriage (that’ll show him), but what irritated me is that he was spending his time going through MY kitchen cabinets.

Now, from his point of view, of course it was also his house and he had a perfect right to take an interest in it and make his stamp upon it.  (It should be noted, he had his own room that he called his dressing room that I didn’t enter except to clean, so there was a kind of parity.  It should also be noted that we had similar tastes (not, obviously, for gelatin).  Also, he was old-fashioned in some ways and thought that the decoration of the house was up to me.)  So I didn’t make an outsize fuss because I did know he had a right to live in our home just as I did.

But I have to admit that I didn’t miss living with him when we divorced.  How lovely to live in my own place where I could have as many packages of gelatin as I wanted in my cupboards.  (Oddly enough, I don’t buy it any longer, don’t seem to want to eat gelatin salads.)

Robert Frost's Farm

Robert Frost's Farm (Photo credit: StarrGazr)

So perhaps my concept of home, as is the writer’s first mentioned above, is doing what we want to do in our own space, whether that is cocooning (me) or spending most of the time outside of it (her).  There are a great many concepts of home, I think, ranging from my own utter sense of refuge and welcome and gladness to the home-as-prison feeling, where the home is just a house, just a place to put possessions and (occasionally) sleep.  Robert Frost once said, “home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”  He was talking, I think, more about family than a physical space, and he has a good point.  When I was a little girl, we moved often, because Daddy changed jobs about every other year.  He always said that “home is where the heart is.”  Again, he wasn’t talking about a physical space, but an emotional place of welcome.  Until his death, I was always completely secure in that emotional loving space.  Later in my life, the specific house got more important, I admit, to my sense of being home, because the emotional center left when he died.

On the other hand, however, the concept of home can’t really be encompassed by four walls and a floor and a roof.  My sense of home now comes deeply because I have returned home, home to the mountains of Estes Park.  My home still is the refuge that shuts out the cold and snow and the demands of the outside world, but my home is also and always the mountains surrounding the Estes valley, the sense of peace and joy that coming back to the place I was raised always gives me.  When I lived in Los Angeles, my sense of home was truncated because I didn’t really like it there, and I kept trying to imagine the house that would make it all right.  That never worked.  My sense of home in Los Angeles became my friends, not the places they lived, but the connections among us that made living in a big city less lonely.  New York, well, Manhattan, was home immediately.  I fell in love with it and made my neighborhood my home (this was of course facilitated by the fact that New York apartments, unless one has pots of money or rent control (neither of which I had), are small, cramped and usually face north for some reason.  So my sense of home expanded to include my block and the public spaces I had the great good fortune to live next to (Central Park and  Lincoln Center).  But now, home is Colorado, or at least that part of it from Denver to the continental divide in which my small town nestles.

Cloudy Afternoon Over Central Park, New York City

Cloudy Afternoon Over Central Park, New York City (Photo credit: andrew c mace)

And one last comment.  Let’s face it, a home would be a prison, by definition, if we couldn’t leave it.  Which is what, I think, the writer I first mentioned above still felt after years as the mother, wife, housecleaner, “chief cook and bottle washer,” as my mother would have said.  Just let me out of here.  Come to think of it, I wouldn’t feel my great joy in coming home, in closing all the doors behind me and feeling safe and enclosed, if I hadn’t, after all, been out in the great world.  In all things, it is the contrast that points up the value.


On Monday, my friend Ann and I went to the valley (see my earlier post on the way we Estes people talk) to shop.  Boulder and Longmont, actually.  I had been wondering why, if I had lost (as I have lost), over 55 pounds (at last count) I still looked so, well, bulky?  So, I turned sideways to a mirror after dressing in my best uniform of black knit pants and tunic-length T-shirt and noticed that everything was so loose that I kind of swam inside it.  I looked not only not much thinner but really sloppy.  Hmmmnh.  Although it has been years since I’ve enjoyed shopping (unlike the Wicked Queen‘s, my mirrors have seldom said to me that I’m the fairest of them all), it seemed indicated.  So, off Ann and I trekked, talking all the way about everything and anything from Estes Park politics (always a source of wonderment) to my new more minimal living room (Ann is not yet a fan, and I’m still not sure–see my last post).

English: Daffodils at Longdon Daffodils in the...

Lots of Daffodils--Image via Wikipedia

We had lunch first, and then went to a big and old-fashioned hardware store called, I think, McGuckin’s.  This is a great store, the kind of store where you can find, say, funnels or kitchen tongs just a few aisles away from pretty pots in which to put plants.  It’s not a lumber yard hardware combination, just a real hardware store.  Great fun!

Then, we found that the Macy’s in Boulder is perhaps the only one in the country that doesn’t have a plus-size department.  (I may have lost a lot of weight, but there’s still a lot to go.  Sigh.)  Colorado has the distinction of being statistically the healthiest state in the union, which is probably accounted for by all those residents and visitors in inadequate snow gear hiking up very pointed and steep bits of scenery.  Although I don’t know this for sure (my idea of a hike is from the sofa to the refrigerator), this state apparently has bike races in which the idea is to point the bicycle up the steepest road and/or trail possible and have at it.  In the winter.  Shudder.  Anyway, after that, we went to the upscale mall and a shop called Coldwater Creek.  Which has plus size clothing (at least some).  Of course, this mall in Boulder is not just upscale, but UPSCALE, and has an Anthropologie, a Moosejaw, whatever that is, a Chico’s , a Black/White and, be still my heart, an Apple store.  Ann had to practically physically restrain me from going to the Apple store, because I want an iPad so bad, I’m like a kid at Christmas wanting a Flexible Flyer.  I have no need for an iPad; in fact, I haven’t figured out all the bells and whistles on my iPhone yet; but Steve Jobs got it right, and I simply want it.

But Coldwater Creek distracted me, because I was getting into pants and jeans (jeans!) four sizes below what I had come to think of, with resignation, as “my” size.  FOUR sizes down.  Woo Hoo!  I have to admit, I haven’t felt that kind of joy shopping for clothes for a lot of years.  And the pants I tried on weren’t even “plus” sized, but a regular women’s size.  Quite a rush!  Ann was terrific, finding smaller sizes of everything, and searching for what I wanted.  I finally settled on a pair of red jeans (jeans! me!), a pair of black jeans (ditto!) and a pair of more dressy black knit trousers.  All of which have to be altered because while they fit beautifully, they were all four inches too long.  A very small caveat, and I’ll find someone to hem the trouser legs very quickly.  What a success!

So was our next stop, Whole Foods, which is a store I love.  Blood oranges, Meyer lemons, balsamic roasted beets, quinoa salad, all sorts of yummy, healthy foods, and we were done.  The store was filled with big bouquets of daffodils, such cheerful flowers, and they make me feel happy.  So that’s where I’m going to end today.  The very strange moment we endured later at a Sears store that was closing forever will be for another day’s blog.

I hope all your shopping trips are wonderful ones, filled with funnels and daffodils and the next smaller size!

Yellow daffodils

Daffodils--Image via Wikipedia


Marley's ghost, from Charles Dickens: A Christ...

Marley's Ghost - Image via Wikipedia

No-one could possibly accuse me of minimalism.  For a good part of my life, my idea of beautiful home decoration has been shabby chic combined with heavy doses of Victoriana sprinkled over with the contents of a thrift shop.  A very cluttered thrift shop.  Of course the fact that I more or less accumulated my possessions from thrift shops and hand-me-downs, and had little money and probably not much talent to spare for home decoration probably contributed to the general effect.  The last time I was able to move from one house to another with everything I owned in my car (including an ironing board, one of which I no longer possess) was when I left Wyoming and that was so long ago, the main economic problem the United States had was runaway inflation.  I won’t even tell you which president was presiding over that political disaster.  Except he was a Republican.  Just saying . . . .

Since those (obviously not) halcyon days, my household possessions have accumulated to a point that whenever I now move from one house to the next, I feel rather like a domestic version of Marley’s Ghost, dragging sofas and bedsteads and antiques and tchatchkes and pots and pans and paintings and books and books and books behind me.  Or like a snail whose shell is never big enough, requiring a trail of shells stuffed with, well, stuff, behind me.  And each time I move, there is more.  More stuff, more aggravation, more feelings of dragging the world behind me.

I have moved, child and woman, 21 times, not including going back and forth to college, and each time I had more possessions to wrangle.  (A weird tangential connection to this fact occurred to me when I realized that in terms of continuous residence, the place I inhabited longest was an apartment I never really liked in Los Angeles where I lived for eight years.  Even when I was growing up in Estes Park, I lived with my folks for six years and then began college residence, jobs, returning home when the jobs disappeared, and whatnot.)  When I was little, of course, all the family’s possessions were not my problem, although dealing with them seemed to exhilarate my dad and drive my mother into a frenzy.   And wherever we ended up, the decanting of those possessions from the moving truck, the finding of a place for them all to fit (as I recall, we had the largest sofa ever made, although possibly my own size relative to it may be influencing my memory), the hanging of pictures and shelving of books, the filling of the refrigerator, all combined to make what was a strange new box with a roof into our much loved home.  I still feel that way, realizing a great satisfaction when some piece of furniture looks just right in a new alcove in a new house.

I feel now that the process we used when I was a child of making a new space into our home by arranging our things in it was reinforced when my father died and the centerpiece of a loving family became not a person but the things he’d left behind.  I have spent my adulthood dragging things with me because they represented the people I had lost.  It has taken me a long, long time to realize that and to tentatively move toward a sense that the those people are still with me even though things are lost (and some of them have been) or given away (ditto).

Since right now I’m happily ensconced in my pretty house in Estes Park, with no plans or worries about moving, this topic may seem a bit superfluous.  And some, even many, of my things I deeply love.  I am fortunate to have have some real antique furniture (an inherited Eastlake secretary is one of my great treasures, as is a quarter-sawn oak trestle table with hand-carved dolphin legs found at an auction), some gifts given to me over the years that are priceless (a wedding gift of 200-year-old Limoges china is the standout here), and books old and new that are precious to me.  But this year and last, spring or the promise of spring has found me wanting to sort through and discard some pieces out of this huge amount of stuff.  This surprised the heck out of me, but I did it.  I donated over 20 boxes of books to our local library, at least eight huge trash bags stuffed with clothing, linens and other cloth goods to the hospital thrift shop, and furniture, china, silver, glassware, and objets d’art (actually, most of them were more objets than d’art) to the other charity thrift shop in town.  The work was spread over weeks, but it was still quite a process, in which a professional de-clutterer and I dug through cupboards and sorted through books.  After it was done, I no longer had any bookshelves with books double-shelved, my bedroom closet had nothing on the floor except a laundry basket, I could close all the drawers in my house without stuffing the contents back down to get the drawer to fit properly, and I knew where every single one of my possessions was.

But that doesn’t seem to be enough for me.  Yesterday, the same de-clutterer helped me to weed all the pretty things (some of them not so pretty, when I really looked at them) that festooned every flat surface in my home.  Some, not really a lot, went to the thrift shop, but others are packed away until I can sever the (sometimes deep) emotional connection I have with them.  Or, alternatively, discover that I miss them too much and want them back.  But to give an example, the double pie-crust table in my living room used to hold at least 20 objects, to a point where there was no place to set down a cup of coffee or even see the surface of the wood.  Now, it has a small stack of pretty books, a candy dish, and a coaster.  I’m not used to it yet and it looks quite bare to me, but serene.  I did the same thing with the library table, which now shows off my treasured lily lamp, a bronze sculpture of the clasped hands of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and two Lladro figurines, souvenirs of a long-ago Caribbean cruise.  I can see each one of them.  And so can you, as I’ve just discovered how to take pictures on my iPhone (I’m a Luddite about these things) and have uploaded a picture of the piecrust table and the library table for you.  See below.

We filled two big boxes with stuff (and not so incidentally found several Christmas ornaments I’d completely stopped seeing and put them away for next year).

Do I love it yet?  I’m not sure.  Bare counters and tabletops and shelves are not really my style, never have been.  No, I’m not a minimalist.  But the house feels more light and airy, there seem to be places to put things, and I can really see the pretty things I’ve got out.  Of course, with fewer things hiding the surfaces or fooling the eye, my old chairs and sofa look a lot more shabby chic than I actually intended, but after all there’s always a snake in paradise.

Swimming at the “Y”

English: Administration Building at YMCA of th...

YMCA of the Rockies Administration Building, image from Wikipedia

The Estes Park Center of the YMCA of the Rockies has 860 acres of mountains nestled beneath Longs Peak.  Most of the land is pristine, with only hiking trails to show human presence.  The vast majority of the buildings, which include lodges and eating facilities, cabins, a theater, administration facilities, a “longhouse” (a roofed enclosure that provides walking and running space during winter months), various craft buildings and an indoor swimming pool, are clustered around a high mountain meadow — the altitude is 8,010 feet.  It is one of the crown jewels of the YMCA system, which has been visited by quite a few of the 20th Century Presidents of the United States, European diplomats, and (most important) ordinary families looking for realistically priced accommodations, lots of outdoor activities and good inexpensive food.  It must sound a bit as if I’m shilling for them, but I’m truly not.  I’m simply a member, entitled for a fairly reasonable membership cost to swim year round in their very large indoor swimming pool.

Swimming is my favorite exercise.  I’m not exactly clumsy but I’m not exactly not clumsy either and walking or hiking on uneven ground scares me.  After several serious falls in the last few years, my fear of falling has grown.  But if you’re in a swimming pool, how can you fall?  I can push harder, either walking laps or swimming them, and not worry so much about such accidents.  Much more than that, I have always hated sweating.  I know that sounds stupidly girly-girl of me, but there it is.  Sweating itches, attracts dust, makes you filthy and messes up your hair.  Contrary to propaganda, women do not glow (except possibly Rita Hayworth, of whom this was said by her then husband Orson Welles).  Women perspire and some women, like me, sweat.  In a swimming pool, my hair is already messed up and wet, there is no dust, and if I’m sweating, how can anybody, even me, ever tell?  And finally, instead of finishing a hike and then having to come in, shower and change in order to go out for errands or simply being with others in the world, after finishing a swim, I’m right there with a locker/shower room and my clothes packed up and ready for me.  A shower, towel-dry my (very short) hair, get dressed and I’m ready for anything, oxygenated, invigorated and clean.  Because the Y’s pool is heated and indoors, I can exercise and enjoy myself any day of the year without reference to Estes Park’s high winds or snowstorms or cold.  Water temperature is kept at about 85 degrees and the temperatures in the locker rooms are just about that, so it’s a pleasure on a cold, blustery day to come in to the pool building and strip down to my bathing suit, not a penance.  The pool is big.  It has one area over ten feet deep, but most of it is no deeper than five feet, with the shallow end at about three feet, making it ideal for families to play in the water with their children.  It is also easily divided into lanes for lap swimmers.

Estes Park has a municipal indoor swimming pool, but it costs more than the one at the Y and its hours are much more limited, because the municipal pool is used by the school district for swimming lessons and meets with other schools.  (Our high school swim teams compete at a fairly high level, on the whole, for such a small school.)  So, if you want to swim at the municipal pool, be prepared to get there at 11:30 and swim fast, because open swim is over at 12:30.  At the Y, open swim takes place each day from 12:30 to 5:00 and from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m.  There are also classes and there’s lap swim times as well.  I really do sound now like I’m advertising for them, don’t I?

But, although we have a fitness center in town and it wouldn’t hurt me at all to join and do some weight training, the reality is that if the swimming pool out at the Y didn’t exist, I would turn into a slug in the winter.  It is too cold and windy for an indoor girl like me to enjoy walking or hiking outside (I’ve always had the strong feeling that the outdoors is a wonderful place to look at), and (as said above) I don’t like to sweat.  Walking or swimming through the water exercises the muscles of my arms as well as my legs and torso, gives me an aerobic workout, and, if I use some of the water toys the Y has available, I can even get in some resistance exercises.  It’s also wonderful for a person like me who has excess weight still to lose and who isn’t as limber as she used to be, because in the water it is easy and safe to stretch and extend legs and arms, bend backwards or sideways and in all ways loosen and limber one’s body.

And that’s not all.  Walking or hiking can be quite solitary, which is, of course, one of their charms in such a beautiful place.  And so it can be at the swimming pool.  There are times in winter when I’m the only person in the pool, which can be really enjoyable:  quiet, peaceful and it’s all my space for the time I’m there, to swim, cavort, tread water, float, do what I like.  But mostly there’s always someone there (besides the lifeguards, of course, who are always there and have always been pleasant to talk to, although I’m sure they find my walking (or swimming) up and down a little boring).  Sometimes it’s an elderly couple, walking back and forth, enjoying the water and the use of their limbs just as I am, and we’ll chat and exchange stories.  Other times, and more often, are whole families, with mama holding the baby (festooned with a life jacket, one of the rules) and introducing it to the water, and the older kids splashing and shrieking around daddy, who’s got one of the water toys and is throwing it back and forth to his kids.  Get a larger family group and there’ll inevitably be a game of keep away or of Marco Polo.  I can’t quite see the point of this  game, since from an outsider’s perspective it seems to consist only of one person yelling “Marco” and somebody else yelling “Polo”.  I’m sure that’s not all there is to it, but close observation seems to indicate very little more.  The swimming pool staff have stretched strings of banners over the pool at two points, in both shallower and deeper water, so when a group of high school age kids come swimming, there is suddenly (and always) a game of volleyball, which is usually a lot of fun to watch.

As I plow my way through the people enjoying the pool, I have been head butted by a toddler, backed into by a three giggly girls at a time, and nearly flattened by somebody diving into the pool (that time, the lifeguards were there in a heartbeat, because diving is strictly forbidden–some boy will either not know or figure the rule doesn’t apply to him, but that happens only once, the lifeguards are quite strict).  Sometimes the lifeguards will play some (very loud ) music, and if there are people in the pool having fun, of course their voices echo in the big building.  I duck under the water for some momentary peace and quiet.  But mostly it’s a lot of fun watching people enjoy themselves.  Sometimes I’m asked to take part for a little while in a game of pass the ball in a circle, which is about my speed.  Nobody has asked me yet to take part in a volleyball game or in a game of keepaway and I’m just as well pleased.  So it’s not just necessary exercise, it’s a fun thing to to do.  And it always lifts my spirits.

If I’m fairly alone in the pool, it’s a great time to simply be.  There are windows along each wall looking out at the mountains, with Longs Peak a sentinel over all.  There are trees outside and often animals, elk, marmots, whatnot, ever changing.  I get my zen on, and can stay in the moment (always hard for me to do) better while swimming than in any other place or situation.  Or alternatively, it’s a good time to ponder an issue, plan a future, dream a dream.

Maybe if I’d been able to get out there to swim the last couple of days, I would have been better able to write a post for this blog this past Thursday and Friday.  I could not seem to get started these last two days, and I thought my beginner’s luck at writing this blog had run out and I was hosed.  So, yet another plus for swimming!

Part of my view as I drive out to the Y is given here in a picture I took last summer.

RMNP from Moraine Avenue