Gift of the Sea*

We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea, whether it is to sail or to watch - we are going back from whence we came. John F. Kennedy

Being a "Girl from Texas", esp north central Texas , I grew up loving bluebonnets and big skies and oak trees once in awhile dotting the prairie. Hating concrete and urban sprawl and endless suburban houses that all looked the same, flat miles of shopping mall parking lots and undulating heat waves shimmering off the asphalt jungle. I grew up in the vast middle of the country - and like many from these parts, rarely saw a coast. The one time my parents took me to see the ocean, it was what passes for ocean in Galveston, Tx and I was sorely disappointed. (Not that I don't like Galveston, I do - but not the beach or the water there.) Our family vacations, when I was a child, had been mostly in the desert southwest, with a little bit of the southern Rockies thrown in, and I still do love that part of the country ferociously.

My grandmother gave me the gift of a traditional "grand tour" vacation trip , as a high school graduation present, and I got to see the ocean, the real ocean, for the first time ever. On that one trip I tasted many different bodies of water : the Atlantic, Thames, the English Channel, the Seine , the Tiber, the Mediterranean Sea, the Aegean Sea, the Nile. I feel it is no understatement to say that this one experience changed my life forever - you never really are the same person after you have watched dolphins splash in the waves that follow your ship in the moonlight, on an Aegean island cruise between Crete and San Torini.

I have been lucky enough, over the years, to have lived in many interesting and fun places in the United States : LA and San Francisco, Houston and Dallas, suburban New York, and Washington , DC. I enjoyed different things about each of these places , and still enjoy visiting old friends I made in each locale whenever I can. It is not only my friends, but the beauty of these places, esp the water, that speaks to me every time. I particularly love the areas around Monterrey, New Orleans, and the upper Hudson River valley. Spent a memorable autumn day once in New York City, walking up Riverside Park in the rain. Have swum in the Atlantic, the Pacific, and the Caribbean bodies of water.

When I married hubby #2, not only did I marry a wonderful guy, but I was given a wonderful gift : his family's tradition of "summering" each year in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. When I try to explain this to people in Texas, where I now live, they look at me as if I'd just told them I vacation on Mars. "We go to the Outer banks," I say. "The where?" "Along the coast of North Carolina ." "Is there a beach there ?" "Yes, we rent a beach house." "Wow, I thought only rich people did stuff like that." My attempts to explain that there are beach houses for rent of every conceivable size, from tiny run down 1 room cottages to large palaces with "staff", and everything in between, including condos and mobil homes, people stare me with the same kind of comprehension as if I were trying to explain stoichiometry .

For a little over 10 years, my m-i-l actually owned a beach house just north of Duck, near Corolla, NC ,and we lived only a few hours away in VA. We were truly blessed to be able to visit it frequently, esp as it was the period of our lives when our children were small and we had limited excess funds available for family vacations. Spending a week in a beach house is the perfect sort of vacation for families with young children ; you avoid the hassles of hotels, schlepping all the baby impedimentia , the horrors of "kid-friendly" restaurants (gastronomical, decorational, and otherwise), etc. Children in a beach house are in situ, and you can continue the naps and other rituals that make managing them possible. Adults can still have their 5 pm cocktail, so necessary to surviving the rigors of parenthood. You can dine in, eat out, shop, do touristy things, or sit on your butt in the sand - the options are endless.

My little family, along with hubby's extended family, have returned, as many Washingtonians do, to the Outer Banks year after year, even after we moved away from the mid-Atlantic area. (Yes, we still make the drive from Texas , aka " the middle of the continent", every year. With our kids, sometimes with our dogs.) We journey 2 1/2 days each way to the Outer Banks, every summer, and it is worth it. Many Texans swear by Mexico, or the Caribbean ; I wouldn't go anywhere else. We have our favorite spots along the 90-ish mile barrier islands that make up the Outer Banks, as many people do. (We are particularly fond of the northern end.....yet others swear by points south.....) . It is a gift of pleasure and a seasonal rhythm of continuity we give ourselves, a way of enjoying the beauty of the ocean and the pleasure of our extended family's company. My children get to spend quality time with their relatives - we eschew the tacky yet expensive horrors of traditional Dismal-Land style family vacations - and it is a great way to organize a family reunion. There is something for each generation to enjoy, and you can find and rent a house that is the right size and configuration for any family . (Need lots of bedrooms ? Only a few ? One story, two, or three ? An elevator for a member in a wheel chair ? Two kitchens, four refrigerators, a pool and a wet bar ? It is all available.) Worried you'll grow tired of just sitting in the pristine sands, watching the beautiful clean cold ocean waves, the sea gulls, the bathers, day after day ? The entertainment available in nearby towns is as diverse as any city, yet spread out in small, charming, New England style villages. It is a version of the Hamptons that is accessible to all. Feeling snooty ? Need exclusivity ? There are gated communities with country club amenities , too.

It is an idyllic vacation I have loved since the early 90's - and my husband's family has loved longer still. Sure, there have been moments of tension - the year hubby's mother had to sell her house and we switched to being renters not owners, my ever-failing attempts to get someone besides myself to contribute to the cooking and meal planning , family squabbles over who would do what chore, who was bringing which guest. But we have returned, each year, to the sea, and it is a journey which restoreth our souls.
This is the "Gift of the Sea" that I have been given, and that I hope to give to my children.
* Quote from Anne Morrow Lindberg's book of the same title
Husband Dear, upon learning that I had started a blog as a creative outlet for all my pent up frustrated writer's energy, said ,"Oh, god. Just don't say anything hateful about my relatives." As you can see, I have nothing hateful to say.


Pine Valley

There was a brief period of my life, starting in college and lasting through short stay-at-home stints with babies in my early 30's, when I was addicted to a soap opera called "All My Children".
It all started when a gf in college used to rush home from class each day to catch the latest episode, and she eventually got me hooked. Soon I had a network of friends, all around the country, who watched the same soap opera, and we would excitedly call and write each other (these were before the days of myspace and email) and actually discuss the characters on this show. The culmination of this period in my life came when a friend of a friend of this group, referring to our gang's habit of discussing tv characters with such fervor, remarked (imagine this with a thick French accent, for he was not a native American, hence his confusion with this strange cultural habit) , "Zeese pipple. You tok lahk you know zhem ," accompanied with a dismissive little wave of the hand.

Hooked though I was at the time, I never for the life of me could figure out how or why all those people in the fictional town of Pine Valley kept running into each other. They were always having affairs and divorces , meeting up at the same 3 restaurants in that town, gossiping about each other, and the over-bearing matriarch was snooping in her daughter-in-law's purse and found......

I had grown up in an impersonal sunbelt suburb. No one seemed to know anyone. The houses all looked the same, people dressed and looked the same, the lawns were mowed, the curtains drawn. The only excitement we knew was when a family in our neighborhood once purchased a hideous yellow-orange station wagon, the color of a New York taxi, only more iridescent. You could see Mrs A's car coming through a dense fog, from 2 miles away. People would speculate as to why they had bought it : "Well, I heard they got it for really cheap because of that hideous color." "Well, I heard that Mr A got tired of Mrs A losing her car in the parking lot at the mall. 'This car you'll never lose ! It stands out like a sore thumb !', he yelled at her when they bought it." That was the only unusual , interesting thing that ever happened. Somehow, growing up in that suburb, we never ran into anyone we knew at the grocery store. Maybe the moms did, while the kids were at school, and I was never aware of it. Maybe my mom was too introverted to ever talk to anyone. I don't know, it just never happened. I lived there 18 years, and never once in all those years - going to orthodontist visits, working at the local mall - did I ever just unexpectedly "run into" someone . (Now , in high school we would plan to meet at the Taco Bueno, every day after school - but that was different.)

As a young adult , I moved to a large city. Lived downtown, did exciting things . Also never ran into people I new - it was a city of several million people. I guess the several hundred folks I did know, all did the exact same things I did, but at different times of the day. Curious to think of - maybe I missed them all by only a few minutes.

This pattern continued for all of my life. I lived in several really large cities, or nameless faceless suburbs. Until now.

I live now in a small town, not a suburb. It only has about 100,000 people. (40,000 of them college kids - not real residents.) It is not a homogeneous grouping of homes and residents, who all earn the same amount of money, brought together because they all could afford the same priced homes. It is a vertically mixed town , with rich people and poor people, white black and brown people, and everything in-between. There are some folk who have lived here for 100 years, or 50 , or 20. I have lived here for only 10.

Got to know a lot of people, real quick , however - from my kids' schools, their soccer teams, got myself involved for a bit in local politics, neighborhood organizations, worked here and there , churches, joined book clubs, etc. Once my husband had someone bang up his car up late at night , while it was parked near campus- and being true to the small personal town that it is, this honest college kid left a note, with a phone number. Hubby called the number, talked to the kid's dad, and started a lifelong friendship with that person, a native, a businessman, and local political figure.

Now hubby dear and I are extremely "connected " , in multiple layers and directions, to many people in our new home town. We have a saying here , "2 degrees ", which means (referencing the "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon " phenomenon) you can connect to any person in this town in 2 jumps.

So it comes as no surprise to us when we go anywhere, and run into someone we know. This was originally quite a shock to us former big-city denizens. I was used to running to the grocery store in no makeup, greasy hair, wearing day-old sweats - when I had a bad cold - to buy tissues, NyQuil, and chicken soup. Now we expect it. Almost. The thing is, it rarely comes in the form you expect.

Living in a small town forces you to pay attention : to how you look, how you behave. How your home looks, how your kids behave . You need to be a little more honest and polite. Now I know where civilizations initially got all those rules ; they came from back when everyone lived in villages, elbow to elbow. Thinking about running that red light ? That person on the opposite side of the street just may recognize your car. Walking your dog ? Better not let it poop in someone's lawn, b/c you never know who is up and drinking coffee on their porch that might spot you walking by. Put only a single dollar bill in the collection plate ? The usher who is holding it is your kids' soccer coach. He saw how much you put in. Accidentally bounce a check ? The owner of the store is part of your local citizen's action group. That girl scout selling cookies at Wal-Mart is a classmate of your daughter's. That person at the door trying to tell you about Jesus is a co-worker. Toss some trash out the window ? The car behind you is your neighbor.

People in this town are still charmingly courteous to one another . At a 4 way intersection, it is not uncommon to find all four cars politely wave at the other cars to go first. "No, you go first." "No, I insist, you go first." It's like Pepe le Pew and Foghorn Leghorn.You can tell the outsiders, b/c they are the ones who don't. (Any kind of surly behavior, or one-uppitiness we call , "Plano-i-zation".)

So for the first time ever, I now know why all those people from "All My Children", who lived in Pine Valley, ran into each other, and why they had so many affairs. There are affairs all around me - I know of two in just the past year, in my little neighborhood. People run into each other all the time. Elbows rubbing together......I saw my boss last Friday night when I was out at a bar, drinking (she was too, b-t-w). I ran into my son's gf, after they had broken up ( no tension there ! ) and her mother, at the dr's office today. I saw both a co-worker and a neighborhood friend at the groc store the other day - we were all buying booze.* It's amazing there aren't more affairs, with everyone in such close proximity. You see the same people over and over again, after awhile, they all start looking pretty good. I have a randy neighbor who flirts with me no end - and I am a middle aged mom, not in the prime of anything these days. He is clearly lookin'. So in this little corner of the earth, no one runs to the store without make-up, in their day -old sweats - b/c they all KNOW they will run into someone they know. They just can never predict who it will be. Better comb your hair .
* Baptist joke from my friend Dago ( a Baptist minister) :
Protestants don't recognize the power and authority of the Pope. Jews don't recognize Jesus Christ as the Son of God. And two Baptists in a liquor store don't recognize each other.


Rock Band

Dateline : Somewhere in Tx, Jan 04, 2008

Tonight, a teen's tenuous social life is a little bit stronger, and a parent's worries about him are a little less consuming, all thanks to an extremely fortuitous birthday gift from the mysterious 'UncleBill'. "It was so unexpected," says Will, 15. "How did 'Uncle Bill' know this was the answer to all my peer group issues ?"

The mysterious package arrived just in time for the lucky teen's birthday in late December . The carton it arrived in, large enough to contain a human, was a little confusing at first. "We thought maybe 'Uncle Bill' had mailed himself to us, " explained Tommy, the little brother, age 11. But no, the enormous mysterious box contained what every teen wants - the ever popular, elusive video game system, known only to parents and other adults over the age of 35, as Rock Band.

What is this Rock Band , you ask ? What strange power does it hold over the hearts and minds of teens all over the world ? Let us explore its power with an example, drawn from real life.

Friday, Jan 04, 2008 dawned much like any other day at the R-- household. Mr R-- overslept his alarm. Mrs R-- nagged the children to get up and get dressed for school. There was much arguing over who would shower first , second, third, etc, because after the first shower, there is no hot water. The outside temperature was 34 degrees.

Eventually, the children were dropped off at school. Mrs R-- spent the day tutoring reluctant, disinterested students. Will slogged through his classes, making up missing assignments , arguing with his ex girlfriend, flirting with the potentially next one. Tommy told all his friends and teachers about his plans for spring break, almost 3 months away. Mr R-- sat in countless meetings. No one listened to anyone else, no one cared. It was only one of a thousand days in the lives of our typical American family.

As the school/work day ended, Mrs R-- was impatient to leave school - it was Friday, after all. Will tried to hide at the bottom of the campus stairwell, so he could flirt with a cluster of friends that contained possibly the next girl destined to be crowned "Will's girlfriend". A row ensued. Will , embarrassed at his mother's presence and mere existence, lashed out. Words were said, ugly words. Mrs R-- responded with the typical mother reply, "Just wait till your father gets home". Things were not going well.

Back at the house , after various members of the family had been picked up, including Danny, not related by blood but owning a stake in the outcome of events due to his continual presence, a decision was reached : the family went out to dinner. The R-- parents were hoping against hope that something, a miracle perhaps, would happen to restore harmony in their modest home. Little did they know what was only 3 hours away on the horizon.

After dinner, the family returned home. All seemed at peace. Mr R-- watched tv. Mrs R-- surfed the internet. The 3 R-- children, Will, Danny, and Tommy, played upstairs. Ralph the dog slept on his dog bed. It was just another typical Friday night.

At 10:30 pm, there was a sudden and unexpected knock on the door."Who the hell can that be ?" grumbled Mr R--. Mrs R-- scuttled around to pick up all the dirty boy socks laying about, a constant fixture in her home.

The unexpected visitor at the door turned out to be a roving gang of hoodlums, otherwise known as Will and Danny's friends. A loose group of half a dozen male and female 14 /15 year olds, all out wandering in the dark cold lonely small town streets. It was a drizzly 40 degree evening outside ; Mrs R-- had no choice but to invite the interlopers inside.

Awkwardly, the group moved into the game room. A few rounds of pool were listlessly played, soda was drunk,but the party seemed to lack something. A deathly quiet settled onto the group, the evening seemed doomed to failure.

Suddenly, without warning, Will dashed up the stairs, and grabbed his Rock Band. "This will fix everything! " he said to himself. And he was right. Rock Band was just what this sorry, lackluster teen party needed to get things going.

Soon the group was animatedly playing drums, guitars, and singing tonelessly to famous rock songs of old and new. Even little brother Tom chimed in. This gathering had style, it had pizazz. Girls appeared prettier, boys seemed taller, sexier. It was magical. Social tensions ebbed, individuals forgot their petty nervousness. The party flowed well into the wee hours of the morning - and all, I might add, without the corrosive effects of demon alcohol.

"Its the Christmas miracle I was hoping for," Mrs R-- exclaimed."It just arrived a few days late ."

And who is this elusive , mysterious 'Uncle Bill ', the one whose gift made all this possible ? He is continually referred to , but rarely seen in these parts. Is he imaginary, like Santa Claus ? Or real and hard to track down, like Al Queda ? The world may never know.


Reading Lolita in Tehran

Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azir Nafisi

I am getting ready to present this book to one of my book clubs, the one made of mostly of English teachers ( no stress there !) . Buzz from co-workers is , they didn't like it. Which makes me think they didn't " get it". This is how I am going to present ( let me know what you think) :

1)I will pass out a small piece of paper to each member of group. Instructions : " If a religious minded, oppressive, terroristic regime came and shut down our schools, told you that you could no longer work, shop, drive , or leave the house by yourself, what 5 books would buy- quickly !- if these were all the books you had to live with, for the rest of your life - before they closed down all the bookstores."
2)After they write down their 5 books, we will then share with the group. I am hoping some interesting choices will be made. Generate some discussion.
3)Which will lead me into discussing this novel........

........because that is what this book is about. The author is a female college professor , who used to live in Tehran, and she did exactly that. Ran to her local bookstore and bought all the books she could, as they were being shut down. She then decides to defy authority and run a secret book club, made up of some of her former students, where they will meet and discuss forbidden western texts.

Granted ,this novel is uneven. She dwells way too long on her titular book, Lolita, and does not give me as much thought as I want on the others ( and they are some of my faves, Huck Finn, Gatsby). I kept asking myself, why so much on Lolita ? The best I could come up with , is that to her ( a Muslim non-westerner) , maybe Lolita seems the ultimate in Western decadence ( all those tabu topics) , and thus, the ultimate in freedom of expression.

Not a breezy read, but a thought-provoking one. What books would you pick ?

Thirteen Moons

Thirteen Moons, Charles Fraser
( also wrote Cold Mountain)
Cold Mountain is one of the most beautiful novels to be written in American in the past 20 years. The story is brilliant - a retelling of "the Odyssey", set in Civil War times in Appalachia. Love story rivals Romeo and Juliet or Scarlet and Rhett. Fraser is an extremely literate writer and his passages, language, images, details are glorious.

Thirteen Moons is a good book, but not as well crafted as Cold Mountain. It's a curse to try and follow an absolutely brilliant first novel, but there are moments when Thirteen Moons almost gets there. The first half of the story, which tells of a young boy abandoned in a mountain trading post in the early 1800's, and who is befriended by a local Indian tribe, is a gripping start. Somewhere, as the boy becomes a man, his character becomes less interesting and the story wallows as a result. Still, my own family is part Cherokee ( the tribe in this story) and I felt myself drawn to the people, the place.


Freakonomics : A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, by Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner

This book has generated a lot of buzz and an Oprah guest shot , too. It's worth it. An economist explores societal issues ( crime, crack gangs, parenting, teachers and high stakes testing, real estate brokers ) from a microeconomics point of view ( supply and demand). The 1st steve is a young U of Chicago economics prof, the 2nd steve helped him write it in a snappy, easy to read story telling format. Compelling, I read the 200 pgs in 4 hours and could not put it down. Warning : the conclusions drawn are not "p.c". As the author says , morality represents the way people would like the world to work; economics represents the way it actually does work.
All boiled down : Be careful whom you marry, grasshopper. Choose wisely.


Almost can't bring myself to write about this book, I love it that much. Somehow , putting my feelings down in words takes away the specialness, in the same way that the Bedouin won't let you take their photo, b/c they believe it takes away part of their soul.

Do you love sad love stories ? Dr Zhivago ? Rome and Juliet ? Tale of Two Cities ? Carousel ? Cold Mountain ? I was trying to explain to husband dear that just b/c a book is sad, doesn't mean it isn't beautiful. Read it and judge for yourself : A bossy naive young girl is so busy with her plays and annoying cousins that she completely misinterprets her older sister's love affair, and through a series of misfortunes, her imperious self-certainty ruins everything for everyone. She doesn't mean it, and it takes her years to figure out what she inadvertently did, and then it's too late to fix it.

The first half of the book is very slow paced - a single day recounted in mind numbing detail. Masterpiece Theater.Keep going - it gets better.

The movie is a good version of the book. The sex scenes are hot - don't take your mother ( like I did.) Just bring some Kleenex for the sad parts.
It was not until I read the author's other novel , Amsterdam - the book that won Ian McEwan the Man Booker prize - that I realized what these two books were all about. While reading Amsterdam, I kept asking myself, where are we going with all this ? Somewhere about halfway through, I realized, this is a retelling of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. It is as if the author said to himself, if WS were to write "JC" today, how would he tell it ? Who would his characters be ? So he recast this story with modern day politicians and lets the events fall as they would with modern consequences. Once I realized that, I started to think more about Atonement. It was then that I realized, ok, maybe we are on a Shakespearean roll here. And that was when it hit me - if you took Romeo and Juliet, and retold it with ( fairly) modern day characters and situations, this is the story you would get.