Monday, June 25, 2012


Running in an unfamiliar neighborhood, I passed a house, back up against the park, with a banana and two palm trees in the yard. Three blocks later, two more palm trees. It was raining hard, but not cold--around 60 degrees, gray sky offsetting the heavy June greens. For a moment, I was somewhere tropical, on a beach, maybe, or just before a real storm. A couple more blocks and yet another palm had pride of place in a full-on Victorian Eden poised to lure susceptible travelers into a B&B. It was a small palm beside a huge house, three or four stories, gables and gingerbread and tastefully bright purples and blues, easily twice the size of any house nearby, defining its own private world on a street of modest homes--a world with a lily pond and a cast bronze heron and that out of place palm tree next to the dogwood (still in bloom).

Either I'd found a little-known local torrid zone, or palms don't grow only where I think they grow. Or gardeners are out at night with felt blankets and smudge pots and buckets of horticultural love. Making their own weather within the invisible borders of those garden rooms.

There were Frisbee golfers in the park that afternoon as well. I felt a little foolish out there, ready to explain to inquisitive passersby that I needed to run and this was when I had time to do it; oddly enough, no one asked. Not because they were all safe inside. I crossed paths with people hauling groceries in flimsy plastic bags and man on a tippy bicycle loaded down with returnable bottles and cans. I didn't ask them, either--they needed food/cash and this was when they could get it. They had the course all to themselves. 

Sometimes you just need to get out of the house. Sometimes it's all in what you notice. It wasn't an unusually rainy afternoon, not for this climate. The palms weren't the towering coconut palms of fantasy white sand beaches, but they weren't planted last week. But so what if they were there all along, if only I'd bothered to look? It's the looking a different way this time--whatever the reason--that can redefine a landscape.

It's raining again today. I'm inside, looking out, revising and reordering and plodding through mental weather. No soggy socks, no silent explanations to strangers on the street. My garden has no palm trees. Dogwood, rhododendron, vine maple, cedar, an aging Ponderosa pine. Weeds. But maybe it's warmer than it looks from here.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Anniversary Toast

On Friday, my husband and I will have been married 21 years. Last year, impatient (why wait for 25?) and feeling more than a little pleased with ourselves for having so well enjoyed our first two decades together, we threw a big party. This year, we'll probably take the kids to the coast. But I've already received a gift. My wonderful aunt, who saves things, sent me an early draft of my grandfather's wedding toast to us.

My grandfather was a great spinner of yarns and an enthusiastic, if idiosyncratic, typist. I've long had a prettied-up copy of his toast, on good quality paper and with all the spelling straightened. Now, though, I've come into possession of the writer's manuscript. I feel like an archivist, a keeper of jewels. Misspellings, uneven ink (this was a manual typewriter), a few handwritten corrections in blue ballpoint pen. The paper's thin, long folded, a little torn. Soft around the edges with age. Rereading it, I hear my grandfather's voice in my head, see him standing at the reception, a little stooped. I imagine him at his desk. Was he a two-finger typist? I don't know.

We were married on my grandparents' 56th wedding anniversary. Graciously sharing "their" day, they also shared advice. When they were married in 1935, my grandfather was county agent in Bear Lake County, Idaho. His hard-won advice: Don't post a dead calf or expect a gooseberry pie on your honeymoon. The source of this wisdom? His ill-considered decision to perform a postmortem on some farmer's calf on the way to a dance, thinking he could do his work and keep on driving. Except the work meant packaging up the calf's organs and shipping them off, and the groom and his car were far too smelly for his bride to want to go dancing once that was all done. The pie-promised gooseberries in turn went up in smoke when my grandmother, unused to cooking on an electric range, turned the burner on high before accidentally locking herself out of the apartment.

We have followed Grandpa's advice to the letter. It has worked like a charm. 

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Spring recitals, then and now


When I took piano lessons as a kid, recitals were a big deal. Memorized piece, new dress, public auditorium or church endowed with a good piano. The city arts center where my first teacher held her recitals contrasted with the dark and smelly living room where she gave lessons. My highly-organized second teacher's home was immaculate; she held her recitals at a Methodist church. I remember planning the dresses (my mother often sewed them for me), being coached on how to bow and how to sit, the nervous stomach knots. The recital itself usually went well, though my last was a disaster. Even though I loved my music, even though I'd practiced conscientiously. The day it counted, it was one miserable mistake after another.

But I don't think that's why I stopped taking lessons. It might have been senior year, a natural end point. Maybe I just wanted to do something else. That final recital was planned as my little swan song from the get go. And while I remember messing up, and I remember the dread and the nerves before every performance, I don't remember recitals in general as an awful thing. It was fun to perform, to struggle and work and then to do something well. It was part of the deal. I don't think it occurred to me (or to my parents) that recital-free music lessons might be an option.

A couple of years ago, I started taking guitar lessons from the woman who teaches my daughter recorder. I'd been thinking about guitar lessons for years, but I had been waiting to accomplish a sufficient (if undefined) portion of my long-range to-do list, to have "enough time" to devote to a new activity. Then I decided I probably had as much time as I was ever going to have. And I was (still am) spending a good bit of that time getting my kids to and from recorder lessons, drum lessons, theater camp, choir practice, martial arts eastern and western. Why not develop a little of the latent potential my parents had spent so much time and money fostering during their own schlep shifts?

Besides, I already had the guitar. I've had it since we lived in Ecuador when I was twelve. I wanted to play like my dad. Far out at the end of the bus line, in a suburb of the city closest to our little town, my parents found a craftsman who made guitars. I remember going to watch him work on it; I probably remember the smell of sawdust in his workshop. But then I never learned to play. A few self-teaching attempts, a lot of good intentions, but we returned to the U.S. and I returned to piano. And then I went to college and graduate school and work and stopped taking music lessons at all. The guitar moved around with me but rarely left its case. Until I decided I'd put it off long enough.

It's useful, as a teacher, to be a beginner again, on the receiving end of instruction.  And in learning what I don't yet know, I see, too, what I do know--sometimes more a hindrance than a help. It's been years since I've thought about piano fingering. Even in my heyday, I was pretty cavalier about the fingering suggested in the book. But the numbers corresponding to each finger seem to have been permanently recorded in some no-longer-plastic part of my brain. It takes a conscious effort, nearly every time, to think of my pinky as 4, not 5. So it's good for my brain and helpful at work but mainly, it's been fun. I've enjoyed taking lessons, the encouragement and praise, the new shiny thing of a new piece to work on. I've enjoyed the practicing, getting just a bit better, and then better again (very slowly).

Where I live now, things tend to be very low key. It's the rare occasion that warrants a new dress. My son's drum recitals seem to spring up at the last moment. My own recitals tend to be readings, not recitations--script in hand, though I do practice in advance.

The teacher my daughter and I share doesn't even hold recitals. She calls them "get-togethers" out of deference to those students still traumatized by past recital nightmares. We don't have to memorize our pieces, we do a bunch of songs together, sing-along style--recorder, banjo, guitar, mandolin--and we get chocolate if we do well and also for any mistakes, a kind of grade yourself approach to just desserts. Weather permitting, she holds the get-together in her yard (bring a chair or a blanket and a snack to share).

This year, finally, the weather cooperated. I made plenty of mistakes, but I hit a lot of the notes. It was a lovely evening.

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