Saturday, March 30, 2013

All Nature Sings

I know that the season of spring officially started ten days ago, but spring and Easter are so closely entwined in my mind that the arrival of spring represents a huge part of my Easter celebration. Before you write that off as one more reason to suspect me of heathenness, let me remind you that for most of my life I was guided by the principle that Easter Sunday was the earliest day in the year when it was acceptable to wear white shoes. White shoes on Good Friday? "Good grief, it's too early!" But white shoes on Easter? "Yay! Look at those brand-new, shiny, white shoes and that pastel-blue, dotted-swiss dress with it's short puffed sleeves. It's Easter, and spring is here!"

There's also the fact that the whole concept of resurrection is symbolized by spring in its budding trees, blooming flowers, fresh green grass, and nests full of baby birds. It isn't a coincidence that rabbits and eggs, fertility symbols if ever any there were, are forever linked to Easter.

These days I think of the earth as my church, and the presence of God feels stronger to me in nature than it ever did on Easter Sundays spent squirming on hard pews. The only things I miss about church in its traditional sense are choir voices singing in harmony and pipe-organ music that reverberated all the way to my bones.

There's one traditional Easter hymn that means more to me than all the rest I remember. I can't even count how many versions of it I watched and listened to on YouTube before finding just the right one to share with you here. This version, with its soft-voiced singer and moving images, expresses my feelings beautifully:

Happy Easter, everybody!


The song is "This is My Father's World," written by Maltbie D. Babcock, performed by Geoff Moore. Thanks to Michael Sturgulewski for creating this lovely video and posting it on YouTube. Click here to read the lyrics.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Simple, Bright and Bold

In this week's Acrylic Exploration class, while I was working in tiny, stingy strokes to try to replicate the detail in a famous painting of three peaches that are past their prime, my mind wandered back to an earlier experience with drawing and painting. I was a more confident artist in those days.

The day I remembered was a March day in 1967. Kim attended a church-sponsored kindergarten that year, and her class was getting ready to put on an Easter presentation for all the parents. Sunlight streamed through the windows of the church where the kids practiced their songs on the first floor of the sanctuary and I listened from the balcony. My younger daughter, Kelli, was up there with me, watching as I painted bunnies, chicks, colored eggs, and flowers on wide, white paper pulled from a roll. My finished work would serve as a backdrop for the children's Easter program. I was happy that day, painting in bright colors and big, bold strokes, not the least bit worried that it wouldn't turn out right.

I'm happy now when I paint, too, but the paint doesn't flow as freely. I wonder if I'll ever feel that easy comfort with painting again. Maybe, if I'd stick to chicks and flowers instead of overripe peaches.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Dr. Fido and Mr. Wolf

Dogs will be dogs. It doesn't matter how pampered a pooch is, given the right incentive and the right opportunity, that ancient wolf-instinct bursts to the surface and reminds us that Fido has a side he doesn't show too often.

This morning's news featured a video recorded by someone who watched as a dog owned by the daughter of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and her astronaut husband, Mark Kelly, broke away from the young woman during a walk and killed a baby sea lion. It was very upsetting for everybody at the scene -- except, possibly, for the dog, who probably thought it was doing a bang-up job of exactly what it was supposed to be doing.

Levi and Gimpy get so excited when they see a squirrel that there's no doubt in my mind they'd kill one if they could catch it. There's a dried-up headless lizard on my patio right now that one of them must have left there. Toads are slow and easy to catch, too, but both dogs have learned not to mess with them. Toads secrete some kind of toxin through their skin that makes a dog's mouth foam up as if it's lathered and ready for a shave. (Don't worry; these are little garden toads, not the highly poisonous kind that live in some parts of the country.)

Actually, Levi has killed larger prey, and witnessing that was so upsetting that I felt almost as much sympathy for the people in today's video as I did for the baby seal. Not quite as much, but almost. Levi killed a coot.

It happened this past January, when I was posting every day for the One-a-Day Photo Challenge. Since the list of challenge themes didn't include any topics along the lines of "Oh, Dear God!" or "My Dog Is a Vicious Monster," I didn't write about it at the time it happened, and it isn't the kind of story one wants to just spring on unsuspecting readers out of the blue.

The weather then was terrible. It was a bitter-cold day in the middle of a long string of cold, rainy days. To keep the dogs from chasing one another through the mud, I was taking them outside one at a time, and that morning it was Levi's turn to go first. I opened the back door and saw a coot huddled against the privacy fence at the corner of the patio. Coots don't hang out in people's yards around here, so I don't know if this one fell out of the sky or what, but Levi saw it a split-second before I did, and before I could grab him, he gave chase. I think the coot must have been injured; it could only fly about a foot off the ground. Nevertheless, it took off on a low flight path with Levi right behind it. The coot hit the back fence, made a sharp right turn and flew behind the garden shed, where I couldn't see what was happening. By the time I caught up with them, the coot was already dead. I didn't see even a drop of blood, so I think Levi must have broken its neck.

It was raining softly at that point; I guess you'd call it a heavy mist. I was wearing my heavy, ankle-length winter coat, the one that's several sizes too large for me now, over my bathrobe and pajamas. My feet were sinking into the mud, which was oozing through the holes on top of the old pair of Crocs I had on and rapidly soaking my socks. (Yeah, I was wearing Crocs, with socks no less. Next time I try to rescue a chicken-sized bird, I'll try to be a little more fashion-conscious.) It was difficult to maintain my footing while I tried to pull Levi away from the coot. I'd been yelling at Levi the whole time: "Leave it! Leave it, leave it, leave it!" What a waste of breath. He was not about to leave a perfectly good dead bird.

I finally managed to get a good hold on Levi's collar, twist it to tighten it enough that he couldn't pull out of it, which he was trying with all his might to do, and drag all 75 pounds of him toward the house. He kept giving me a look that I interpreted to mean, "Woman! What are you thinking? Did you not see what I had back there?"

Back on the patio, I could see Gimpy through the glass storm door. He was doing a little four-legged tap dance because he hadn't been outside yet and needed to go, but I couldn't let him out until I'd disposed of the coot's body. Levi and I were both covered with mud. Still gripping Levi's collar, I peeled off my own shoes and socks outside, then marched his muddy hide straight through the den and out the other back door into the driveway, where I stood barefoot on the freezing cold concrete and hosed the mud off of both of us. 

Inside again, I dried my own feet and legs, dried off Levi, and mopped up the trail of muddy footprints. There was Gimpy, still waiting at the back door. I went to my bedroom, got dressed, put on the knee-high rain boots I'd bought but never worn, went back to the kitchen and got a big green trash bag, put the heavy coat on again, apologized to Gimpy and told him to stay, and went outside to get the coot. 

I didn't want to touch the body in case some kind of contagious illness had caused the bird to be there on my patio all by itself, unable to fly, so I turned the bag inside out, placed it on top of the body, then turned the bag right-side out again as I picked it up. The whole experience had been terrible, but when I felt the weight of that poor, lifeless, little body in my hands, I started to cry. At that very moment the sky opened up and the rain began to fall in sheets. "I know, God," I said out loud. "I feel the same way."

I put the deceased coot, wrapped in it's Hefty-bag shroud, in the garbage can. That didn't seem respectful enough, but I didn't know what else to do with it. Hoping like the dickens that Levi hadn't been in the house bragging to Gimpy in whatever kind of secret dog-language they use to communicate, I finally opened the door and let Gimpy out. He was beyond focused on taking care of his personal needs by that time, so he ran through the pouring rain into the opposite corner of the yard, never venturing even close to the crime scene, then hightailed it back to the house. Thank goodness!

Seeing my usually sweet dog kill a big bird was horrible. The memory of it still bothers me. I can't even imagine how upset I'd be if I had to watch him kill a baby sea lion. 

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Who Ya Gonna Call?

It's a beautiful, sunny day here today but way colder than it should be in a Deep-South spring. The temperature dropped to the freezing point early this morning, prompting the following exchange when I checked in with my daughters by text:

My message:  Brrrrrrrr! Who do you call for service when your weather's out of whack?

Kelli's immediate response:  Frost Busters.

I love my witty family.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Writing for Fun and for Chicken Feed

The following is what I wrote for the final homework assignment in our Life Writing class. This week we were free to write about anything at all, and I wrote about writing. Like most of my self-indulgent posts, this piece is full of "I, I, I," but you're in there, too, Dear Readers. I don't think you have any idea how much you influence me.


I don't think I'll ever write a book. I might compile some of my short writings into a book one day, but that isn't the same thing at all. To me, the concept of writing a book implies that the author has a beginning, middle, and end in mind from the very first page. That describes the kind of book I like to read, but the self-discipline required to undertake writing enough about one subject to fill a book is almost beyond my comprehension.

Nope. I'm a short-piece kind of a person. I like to write about whatever is on my mind at the moment, any doggone thing that pops into my head. Come to think of it, that's the kind of conversation I enjoy, too. The only thing I really miss about working is the random nature of water-cooler chats in which each topic is a surprise and one subject leads to another, then another, and suddenly your mind is full of all sorts of little tidbits to mull over back at your desk. That's fun.

Writing a book sounds like work. Writing fiction might be fun if you have the kind of mind that conjures up plots, which, unfortunately, I don't. Writing about life could be fun, too, if your life has been an exciting one. Mine has been mostly uninteresting, except for a couple of exciting parts that I have the good sense not to put down for posterity. Writing a short piece is fun, like eating the heart of a watermelon and leaving behind the biggest part of the fruit so you don't have to pick out all those seeds. I think a book would have to have the seeds in it. Of course, seeds have their story, too.

I wonder if it's a characteristic of aging that I only want to do fun things these days. I  used to be a workaholic, but that was way back in the days when I had a job I really enjoyed. At least I enjoyed most of it; there were some things I didn't like. I used to tell people that the reason it's called work and we get paid to do it is that there are certain aspects of every job that aren't pleasant. If every single part of a job were fun, then someone would have to pay the employer for the privilege of doing it. Writing is like any other job, right? Some of it's work, some of it's fun.

I like to work with words, but I like to play with them more. It's fun to give them a rhythm that flows on the page and entices a reader to follow along. It's fun to practice the art of alliteration by stringing together some sibilant sounds. It's fun to write long, complex sentences, the kind of sentences that have numerous clauses and require the writer to use commas like orange-and-white-striped highway construction cones, warning the reader to pay attention and stay in her lane or she'll get lost. I like short sentences, too. And fragments of sentences. I like to get all up in the words and get messy, because sometimes the most interesting sentence begins with a conjunction, ends with a preposition, or contains a split infinitive. I'm happy that some of the rigid rules of grammar have been relaxed in modern writing, but I think a writer needs to know those rules in order to enjoy the experience of breaking them occasionally. Unintentional bad grammar, that which was obviously used neither as a tool for dialogue nor to express the writer's voice, yanks me right out of a good story. A creatively constructed sentence, on the other hand, piques my interest as a reader and as a writer.

I enjoy the process of writing immensely when there's something specific on my mind,  when my thoughts on the subject are clear, and when the right words flow forth to communicate those thoughts effectively. In fact, more than anything else, it's that deep need to communicate, to be understood, that drives me to write. When a single reader tells me, "I get what you're saying," or "I understand how you feel," I practically skip back to the keyboard to write something else that might elicit a similar response, the same kind of human connection.

Maybe it's the positive reinforcement of comments that has conditioned me to write short pieces. Do you remember the experiment in which a chicken was taught to ring a bell? If the chicken pulled the string that rang an attached bell, a few pieces of feed dropped into a dish. The chicken rang the bell again and again. What do you suppose would have happened if the chicken had had to ring the bell a hundred times to get a few tasty morsels? Even if the chicken were optimistic or masochistic enough to do all that work, it would probably feel disappointed about the results. "Man," the chicken might think, "look how hard I worked, and all they're paying me is chicken feed."

I think that's how writing works for me. I'm that chicken. Writing a short blog post is my version of ringing the bell, then I hover over the comment box and hope somebody drops a little reward in there. Sometimes I get lucky, sometimes I go hungry, but the point is that every time I ring the bell, there's at least an opportunity for a reward.

Now, let's say I somehow overpower my short attention span and write and write and write until one day there's enough material for a book. And let's say I self-publish that book, because I'm too instant-gratification oriented and too afraid of rejection to spend all my time and all my hopefulness on seeking out a publisher. Now let's pretend that the day has arrived: my e-book is available for purchase online. I have no great expectations, so the book is cheap, and a few people take a chance and buy it. Maybe one of them writes a review, and maybe (we're imagining, remember?) the review is a good one. There's my reward. Finally. And I feel really, really happy about it, but not really any happier than I feel when someone leaves a comment on a short blog post.

I like the comments, the feedback, the human connection. That's the rush. The reward. The fun of it. That's why I like writing short pieces. That's why I don't think I'll ever write a book.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Separated by Centuries

Each week I look forward to having my Sunday breakfast with Peter Tibbles. Peter writes the weekly "Elder Music" column on Ronni Bennett's blog, Time Goes By.

This morning's music column featured the clarinet, which, with all due respect to my two daughters, who both attempted to master the clarinet in elementary school, is not my favorite instrument. I'm more of a piano and guitar kind of person. Still, I listened to a few bars of each piece, and some of it was really nice. But that's not why I'm writing about it here.

What grabbed me about this morning's column was the portrait of Johann Christian Bach. I had to do a double-take. You guys, there was a composer running around in the mid-1700s who had Chris Noth's eyes! Look at this:

I'd know those eyes anywhere, and the resemblance doesn't even stop there. Granted, Johann Christian was fleshier in the jowls, but their chins are quite similar, and both of them have that scruffy-upper-lip thing going on. Their foreheads look alike, too, although Chris Noth's widow's peak is more pronounced.

Imagine a musician of the Classical Era flashing a Chris-Noth-like smile during a performance. Don't you just know those straitlaced ladies in their ornate dresses and fancy hats perched on top of elaborate wigs would have been working their lace-edged fans?

Saturday, March 23, 2013

When the Honesty's Too Much

Last Saturday I wrote about the difficulty I was experiencing in completing a Life Writing class assignment about love. Since then I finished the assignment--though I wasn't very happy with my final results--and read it aloud in the next class. Here's the first paragraph of what I wrote:

"I learned of love through fairy tales. Like so many other girls of my generation, I believed that one day a handsome prince would ride into my life and rescue me from peril or monotony and that our love would be both immediate and everlasting."

After nearly three full pages of single-spaced typing, this was the last paragraph:

"I don't think I'm cynical about love. I still find pleasure in reading or listening to someone else's love story, especially if it has a happily-ever-after ending. I just don't believe in fairy tales anymore. Life has taught me to forget about princes. And the horses they rode in on."

Now, those of you who visit here regularly know how much I enjoy delving into past experiences and writing about them here, but you may have also noticed that only a handful of entries written over a seven-year period have anything at all to do with romantic relationships. That isn't by accident. There are issues of privacy, of course, but the main reason I don't write about those memories is that I don't like to think about them. In fact, I hardly ever do think about them. I haven't been particularly fortunate in the romance department and sometimes, though I almost never admit it, that makes me sad. Sometimes it just pisses me off.

Anyway, having submerged my head in those dark waters for the sake of the assignment, I'll tell you that this week's Saturday Song Selection became popular at a time when my second (and last and best) marriage was beginning to fray significantly around its edges. It's an accurate reflection of how I felt in those days, and it's a great song despite its unpleasant associations. I'll post it here, then I'll take a deep, cleansing breath, tuck the disappointments back into the deep pocket where they live, and count my many, many blessings.

The song is "Sometimes When We Touch" by Dan Hill.
Thanks to georgeallen35m for posting the video and lyrics on YouTube.

Friday, March 22, 2013


This is one of those days when everything just feels right. As it should be. Copacetic. The bills have been paid, tax forms submitted, groceries purchased, blogs scoured for spam, spam comments deleted. No homework is due until Monday. There's housework to do, but no pressure to do it. Nobody's coming over. Heck, I dragged out the vacuum cleaner long enough ago that there's a fine coating of dust on it now. To increase my motivation to use it, I parked it right in front of the kitchen stove, where it would be in my way. I've since cooked a pot of chili around it. I might vacuum today and I might not.

The only piece of business I had hoped to conduct today is to register for a follow-up class to the art course I've been taking. It's an add-on course, not in the catalog, so the only way to register is by telephone. I made that call earlier this morning, but the girl who answered the phone identified herself as a student worker and said she couldn't take my information because she didn't want to "mess anything up." Bless her heart. I applaud her honesty. Maybe she'll follow through on her promise to have someone call me back, and I can check that off my list.

Gimpy and Levi are sleeping soundly nearby. Outside the air is full of birdsong, and there are squirrels--so many more squirrels than usual--running all over the place. I wonder why they're making themselves so conspicuous today. Maybe they know something I don't know. Maybe the redtail hawks that live in the trees behind my back fence are away today, perhaps at a swooping-and-diving seminar.

It's gray outside again, but that's perfect for a day like today. It's almost like a thank-you note from God or Mother Nature: "We know you've been busy, so today is a special gift for you. Stay indoors. Kick back. Read a book. You deserve it." Maybe that's exactly what I'll do. I'm just self-indulgent (and living in denial) enough to believe I do deserve it. So maybe I'll read for the rest of the day. And maybe I'll take a nap.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Wonky Saucer, Crooked Spoon

Here's the number-one thing I've learned about painting a still life: I should stick to landscapes.

In the last Acrylics Exploration class we learned how to apply light and shadow to a painted object to make it appear three-dimensional instead of flat. The instructor gave each of us a still-life picture that demonstrated that concept and asked us to copy it. She explained how the shading should change softly and subtly as it grew darker or lighter. I understood her instructions clearly, but executing them was another matter entirely.

The bottom of these two pictures (as if you couldn't tell) is mine:

Now that it's dry and I can see what's wrong with the shading, I might be able to touch it up and get a better result, but I have neither the skill nor the energy to try to fix that wobbly-looking, pointy-edged saucer. And the spoon? It would be okay for stirring, I suppose, but anyone who tried to use it to transport a sip of hot liquid from cup to mouth would end up with a little spill in the lap region. I've learned that it's a lot easier to paint the imperfect edges of a perfect tree than the precise lines of a man-made dish.

You know what else I've learned about painting? A less-than-stellar end result doesn't diminish the joy of the work itself. It's fun and it's therapeutic. What's even better is that the dogs seem to think it's important. They don't beg for stuff while I'm painting. I like that.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Ah, Spring!

Spring has officially arrived, but the brilliant pinks and blues and greens we associate with it are missing today. It's rainy and drab outside. I don't mind. I saw enough signs of spring yesterday to tide me over until the gray is gone.

When I go to the post office, which I did yesterday, I know the trip will be a slow one with frequent stops at traffic lights and long waits for construction where a third lane is being added to the highway. That means there'll be plenty of opportunity to snap a picture or two, so I always take my camera along. If you don't mind looking through my dirty car windows, you might enjoy some of the color I saw yesterday:

No flowers in this shot, but aren't the trees gorgeous?

Azaleas bursting into bloom at the post office.

More azaleas and another amazing oak tree.

Still another beautiful oak, this one by the Catholic church.

These townhouses were already architecturally
charming; the pretty red flowers add to the effect.

There's even a tiny patch of pale pink azaleas next to the
car wash (where I should have gone but didn't).

So, come on, Spring. You've given us a hint, now show your stuff.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Taking the (Not So) Scenic Route

My great-grandson, Owen, turned three on Saturday. I left home in plenty of time to get to his birthday party by the appointed hour but arrived almost 20 minutes late. Point A on the map below is my house. Point B is my granddaughter's house, where the party was being held.

As you can see by following the blue line near the top of the map, the route from my house to hers is fairly uncomplicated. That's the way I always go there. It's the way I intended to go on Saturday. But you see that lone green dot about a half inch east of my house? That's where things went wrong.

There's a busy intersection under that green dot. All I needed to do there was make a left-turn, go a short distance under the interstate, then turn right. The traffic light was red (of course, it was). The heaviest traffic there runs north and south, so the east-west red light is an extra-long one. That was okay; I'd allowed plenty of time and didn't mind waiting. Also, in the half mile I'd traveled from home, I'd become interested in an NPR interview with journalist Jason Leopold, so I was being entertained. In fact, I became so totally engrossed in the interview that my mind wasn't on my driving when the light changed. I made the left turn, but instead of crossing under the interstate, I turned right onto the entrance ramp. I was halfway up there--next exit five miles--before I snapped out of the interview and comprehended what I'd done. Thank goodness I came to my senses before I had to merge.

So. The red line on the map marks the route I actually traveled to the birthday party. Where the red line crosses over the blue one on the right-hand side of the map, I was looking for a street name. There was no street name. There was an unfamiliar Louisiana highway number instead. There was only a highway number where the red line turns eastward again, too, but that one I knew, and seeing it meant I'd gone too far north. I followed that road until I could turn right again. Headed south, I overshot the road I wanted for a second time, turned around in someone's driveway, and finally--finally!--figured out how to get where I wanted to go.

Don't you hate when that happens?

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Happy St. Patrick's Day Anyway

All week long I've planned that today, in honor of St. Patrick's Day, I'd post a photo of my stepfather's Irish mother, Agnes Blair Hofmann. This morning it occurred to me that Agnes wasn't Irish; she was a Scotswoman. What had I been thinking?

Never mind. Agnes is all I've got for today. She was lovely, and my daughters and my sister have never seen her picture, so Agnes it is.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

"My Love Is Like a Melody . . ."

The most recent homework assignment for our Life Writing class is to write about love. The week has almost gone by, and I haven't started on it yet. There's a lot I could write about romantic love, but I want my story to have a positive, upbeat ending. That hasn't been my experience with romance.

Familial love is the kind that's always been truest for me. There, too, I'm stumped. We're supposed to make our stories detailed: names, dates, places, physical descriptions. If I write that much information about all the people I love, there won't be time to read it aloud. So how do I choose? Who do I choose? Who do I leave out? I'll figure it out somehow.

In the meantime, thinking about my loved ones made it easy to decide on this week's Saturday Song Selection. It's a love song, it's an oldie--a real oldie, written in 1794 by the Scottish poet Robert Burns--and it always reminds me of the deep love I feel for the two bonnie lasses who are my daughters. I hope it makes you think of someone special, too.

The song is "My Love Is Like a Red, Red Rose," performed by the late Eva Cassidy.
Thanks to vanu49again for posting the video and lyrics on YouTube.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Final Touches

Ten minutes ago I called myself finished with my first painting for the Acrylic Exploration class. It's far from perfect, but one thing I learned in this class is that nature paintings are very forgiving. And so am I. I'm happy to report that any perfectionistic tendencies I once had have long since fled the premises of my brain, leaving me free to experiment and live peacefully with my mistakes. Can I get a big hurrah for personal growth?

Errors aside, I'm happy enough with these first results that I plan to take a follow-up class when this one ends after two more sessions. It's hard to imagine I'll ever have the confidence to paint what I see in real life, but I'm sure having fun copying someone else's work.

It's Friday. It's warm and sunny. My painting is finished, and I'm headed outside to eat lunch and play fetch with Levi and Gimpy. Life is good.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Green Things

Louisiana's semitropical climate means the scenery around here never looks totally dead in the winter. Drab, yes, but not dead. Spring weather usually comes early for us, but this year it's been lagging. A lot of trees that would normally be budding by now are still bare, like this one in my neighbor's yard:

The good news is that bare trees are exceptions. Our world is turning green again. I can't think of anything I find more invigorating than the varied green hues of nature. Those vivid colors make me feel as if, having been long deprived of oxygen, I've suddenly regained the ability to inhale full, rich breaths. I'd be inclined to write that off as imagination, except that leaves really do give off oxygen, so maybe there's more to it than that.

I love the way the morning light shines on this tree behind my back fence, making its leaves glisten like shards of stained glass:

In the late afternoon the sun shines from the opposite direction, lighting up the front lawn and the low-hanging branches of our live-oak tree:

Across the road and a little farther north, where the little patch of woods thins out,
the afternoon sun backlights the trees and casts long shadows across newly green grass:

Of course, the trees and the grass aren't the only green things showing a sudden burst of life:

The lizards are flourishing. As I write this, a big one like the one in the picture is in my house. I opened the backdoor, Levi stepped out, saw the lizard, and made a grab for it. The lizard made a fake-out move, then ran between Levi's legs and through the open door, where it promptly darted behind a row of heavy bookcases.

I don't mind these creatures at all when they're outside where they belong, but they make me nervous when they come inside. I'm hoping this one will stay where it is and watch for an opportunity to make its way outside again. I have goosebumps from just thinking about what could happen if it decides to explore my house. If you never see another post here, you'll know it jumped on me.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Pontificating about the Papal Election

Two days? Can you believe it took only two days to pick a pope? I'm impressed. My message to the College of Cardinals would be, "Congratulations, Your Eminences, way to go! And would you please come en masse to the United States and teach our congress how you did it."

Now, I know this story has been all over the news since Pope Benedict XVI resigned, but most of the news I've been unable to avoid seen has been about speculation: Why did the outgoing pope resign? Who would be chosen to replace him? I didn't see a single television ad in which one papal candidate dished dirt about another one. I haven't heard a single cardinal complain about his mailbox being flooded with colorful, oversized mail-outs, bearing bullet-pointed lists of reasons to vote--or not vote--for a certain candidate. Imagine that. An election without ads, negative or otherwise.

Of course, you know they talked amongst themselves. I'll bet they did some lobbying, wagging their tongues about an assortment of scandals, gossiping as aggressively as little old la -- heh-heh -- I started to type "little old ladies," but picturing female cardinals is such a stretch I don't even want to go there.

Anyway, the election is over, and the we-have-a-winner message of white smoke poured out over the Vatican to let the whole world know. Good luck, Pope Francis, you've taken on a huge job.

Two days. Only two days. I'm not Catholic, never have been, but I think I'll send up a few Our Fathers and Hail Marys just to show how much I appreciate political efficiency.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Busy Beaver and the Boys

Well, I broke my streak, doggone it! Sixty-nine straight days of posting is my new record on this blog, but I just could not get it together yesterday to make it seventy. Remember back in January when I left the house only three times? This week there's only one day that I don't have something to do away from home: two classes, two birthday celebrations, shopping for the two birthdays, grocery shopping, pharmacy, bank, car wash, and the least favorite thing on my list--checked off this morning--the dentist. At least I got by with a cleaning, for once, and don't have to go back for six months.

It's been a full month since I've done a "What I've Been Reading" post. You wanna know why? In a whole month I've read slightly more than half a book. It's a thick book, but still...I'm not getting to bed until nearly midnight, and by the time I've read two or three chapters, I'm falling asleep with the light on and the book in my hand. Writing my own stories certainly cuts into the time I'd normally spend reading stories written by others. I miss 'em.

A lot of my time at home has been spent on homework for the two classes and on grooming the dogs. Yep, still doing that. Gimpy is finished, finally, and I've worked on Levi two evenings in a row. All I've managed to do so far is rough-cut the thick fleece off of his back, sides, and neck and clip a little bit of hair out of his eyes so he can see. His hair is so thick that I can't get a close cut the first time around. I have to cut it down to about an inch long, then wait a couple of days while all those kinky hairs slowly unwind themselves and stand up tall and frizzy, then I can clip him closer to the skin. I haven't even touched his legs, chest, belly, or the rest of his face yet. It isn't easy to get a dog to be still for a haircut when another dog keeps poking a tennis ball at him. I have faith, though. We'll get it done sooner or later.

Here's how they looked this afternoon, squinting their eyes against the sun as they waited for me to return from taking the garbage can to the curb:

Gimpy (left) and Levi
I love these boys!

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Best Woman for the Job

Florida isn't the only state where sinkholes have been in the news. Right here in Louisiana, in a parish adjacent to mine, more than three hundred residents of Bayou Corne have been displaced from their homes by a sinkhole that developed last summer and continues to get worse. It's been speculated that this enormous sinkhole was caused by the collapse of an underground salt dome. This video, posted by a Bayou Corne resident, explains it clearly:

In today's Baton Rouge newspaper, The Advocate, it was reported that Erin Brockovich has traveled to this area, has met with the displaced residents, and will assist them in taking their case to court.


Saturday, March 09, 2013

"Should Have Gave You All My Hours . . ."

Tonight we'll all be changing our clocks for the beginning of Daylight Saving Time. Again. It seems odd to me that something as important as time can be changed just by renaming it. Think about it: on one Sunday each spring, in the dead of night, the sixty minutes between two a.m. and three a.m. simply disappear. Poof! We couldn't use them if we wanted to.

It's even odder in the fall, when those same sixty minutes are squeezed back into the schedule by giving each minute the same name as a different minute that occurred an hour earlier. For example, a baby could be born at precisely 2:16 a.m. on the November day when time "falls back," and another baby could be born exactly an hour later--at precisely 2:16 a.m.

This has me wondering: if it's so simple to change time, wouldn't it be great if Monday could be changed back to Sunday once in a while? Yeah, I know, we'd have to make it up. But the make-up day could be declared a holiday; a lot of those seem arbitrary, too.


Today's Saturday Song Selection is a current favorite. I like it so much that I can't help singing along with it, belting out the bits of bad grammar as enthusiastically as the rest of it. There's just something especially endearing about a man who oozes so much sincerity while admitting he screwed up. Enjoy!

The song is "When I Was Your Man" by Bruno Mars.
Thanks to callmejell for posting the video and lyrics on YouTube.

Friday, March 08, 2013

Friday Night Wrap-Up

Today was the kind of day that always puts hope in my heart. It was clear and bright and warm enough to sit outside and feel the sun seep through my sweatshirt and give me a hug. It was the first day in what seems like forever that I could eat lunch on the patio. The grass was cut for the first time of the season earlier in the week, and the combination of the shorter grass and several sunny days in a row dried up most of the mud. That meant I could toss the ball for Levi and Gimpy while I ate my cheese and crackers. I did, they loved it, and as easily as that, we slipped back into our warm-weather routine. Our world once again sits straight on its axis.


In another first for the season, Gimpy grabbed a lizard off the fence as soon as I let the dogs out. It's been too cold for lizards, but the sun must have baked some life back into their little green limbs today. I wasn't sure Gimpy had actually caught anything until a few minutes later when I saw him and Levi standing nose to nose, muzzles pushed close to the ground, tails wagging. When Levi pawed at the ground, I knew they had something, so I walked out there to see. Yes, it was a tiny lizard, standing as tall as it could on the tripod of its hind legs and tail, its mouth wide open, threatening to bite them. Bless its deluded little heart; they weren't worried. I told them to leave it and they did. I hope it lived through this first warm day.


My homework assignment for the most recent Life Writing class is to decide on the "highlight" of my life and write about that. I worked on it most of the day, but it's getting too long, and I can't explain the significance of the event unless I tell the story from beginning to end. I finally decided to stop where I was and sleep on it overnight. Maybe tomorrow I can figure out how to cut it. Even if I do manage to make it short enough, it's not a story I'll post here on a public blog. Well, not right now. Maybe eventually. First I have to outlive somebody.


My Aunt Shirley called last night to tell me that she reads this blog all the time and enjoys it, especially when I write about the family. That made me happy. Shirley's into genealogy, too, so we talked about our shared ancestors for a while, then we talked about her late mother (my grandmother), Audrey. Audrey, the mother of nine children, was an aspiring writer. If I remember correctly, she submitted some of her stories for publication, but I don't believe she ever had anything published.

At one point several years ago, Shirley collected all of Audrey's handwritten stories and transcribed them. Shirley's sister, Nina, mailed copies of all those stories to me. My first thought when I read them was how much fun Audrey would have had if she'd lived in the era of blogging. At that time Shirley planned to compile all those stories into a book, but she told me last night that she's given up on that project to make time for writing her own life story.

I asked Shirley's permission to set up a blog for Audrey's stories, and she thought that was a good idea. As soon as I finish these classes and all the homework that goes along with them, I'll get started on that. We both think Audrey would enjoy getting her stories out there for others to read, even if it happens 26 years after her death.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Painting for the Fun of It

I was pretty sure I'd enjoy the Acrylic Exploration class or I wouldn't have registered for it, but it's turned out to be even more fun than I expected. I'm learning from the explanations and examples provided by our instructor, enjoying the company of the other ladies (yep, it's all women), and having a ball with the painting itself. My favorite part? Mixing the colors.

There's something very relaxing about taking a dollop of paint from one tube, a squirt from another, and a touch from a third--possibly even a fourth--and mixing them together a little at a time to try to get an exact shade. I believe I could mix paint all afternoon, even if I didn't put any of it on the canvas.

I've already shown you the sketch that was our homework assignment from the first class. During the second class we started painting in the areas with the lightest and darkest color values. (Does that sound like I know what I'm talking about? Heh. Just barely.) This is how far I got:

We put a lot more paint on the canvas in the third class:

Right now the painting has a blotchy appearance. It's a little intimidating to realize how many different, subtle shades of color it's going to take to get rid of that paint-by-numbers look. Also, I'm getting a little lost, having trouble figuring out which lines belong to which little background tree, but that should get easier with every color that's added. Nevertheless, I'm beginning to see some depth in the picture, which gives me hope for the finished product.

For most of my life I've been bad about giving up on things that didn't come easily to me. Not this time. When the journey is as much fun as this is, why worry about the destination? Besides, I've made enough mistakes in my time (and recovered from them) that they don't scare me so much anymore.

In related good news, I'm finally learning to keep my arms out of the paint. I've worn Mother's shirt to class twice now without getting a speck on it.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

That Suit

It's funny what offbeat memories pop up to surprise you years and years after you last gave them a thought. Looking for a particular old photo this morning, I came across this one from the summer of 1960:

Me 'n' somebody.

That's a 17-year-old me, lifting my head to scowl at whoever had the audacity to take a picture of us sunbathing. I couldn't tell you if that's one of my sisters or my friend Jude beside me on the blanket, but I can tell you about my bathing suit.

I'd graduated high school that May and started working three days later as a secretary at a law firm. For the first time in my life I had more than babysitting money in my purse. I earned $50 a week ($47 after taxes), gave Mother $10 of it for room and board, and had the rest to spend on clothes and a few 45-rpm records. This bathing suit was the first one I'd ever picked out and paid for by myself. It was a light olive-green with an intricate beige and white pattern on it. I loved the way it fit. (Yes, I can see that the bosom was puckered, but I was lying on my back, people. Give me a break!)

At some point that summer, definitely after I'd bought the swimsuit, I went to see Where the Boys Are, a movie about college boys and girls having a wild time in Florida on spring break. Those kids were having so much fun. If I'd gone to college, I thought, I could be one of those girls meeting all those boys.

Then Dolores Hart stepped out on the beach in a bathing suit. My bathing suit. I couldn't have been prouder. What an affirmation of my newly developing, "big salary"-funded, sense of style.

Dolores Hart

In the movie (no doubt thanks to the bathing suit), Dolores Hart's character became involved with a handsome rich guy, played by George Hamilton:

Dolores Hart and George Hamilton

I had no one that summer. Not even an ugly poor boy. That would change by the end of the year, and by the end of the following summer I'd be married and living 200 miles away from my parents.

I went on to have two kids in quick succession, beautiful daughters I wouldn't trade for the world. Dolores Hart went on to become a nun. The courses of our lives diverged drastically, but for that one summer, we both did our best to rock that swimsuit.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Facebook Win!

In a conversation yesterday I made a statement that I have a love-hate relationship with Facebook. Last night I was reminded of one of the things I love about it.

Driving home from picking up dinner, I turned off of an extremely busy highway onto the narrow, two-lane road that leads to my street. It was very dark. My headlights picked up a black dog, barely visible, just as I passed it. It was walking at the edge of the road, heading toward the busy highway I'd just left, and my heart sank. I thought it was this dog:

This one is a neighbor's dog. She stays with me and my boys sometimes when her mom goes out of town. She's the only dog in the neighborhood that's turned out to roam on her own several times each day. That's always concerned me, but I tell myself it's none of my business.

Last night I made it my business. The minute I walked in the house, I called the neighbor. "Is Jelly Bean home?" I asked.

"Yes," she replied. "She's already in her bed."

Phew! I was relieved. I ate my dinner but was still worried about the black dog I'd seen on the busy road. I knew there was no safe way to go back and try to pick it up in that kind of traffic.

Half an hour later I checked Facebook. Because I have "liked" the FB page of the neighborhood veterinarian, posts on that page show up on my newsfeed. The first post I saw was this one, posted by a neighbor, obviously, but one I don't know:

This boy just roamed into my yard. He's very sweet, super skinny and limping. I can't keep him. Please share. I live in [name of area] and can be reached at [telephone number].

Way to go, Social Media!

Monday, March 04, 2013

The Shinier Side of the Golden Years

If you're a frequent visitor here at Velvet Sacks, I have good news for you: You can save yourself ten minutes by skipping this post. This is what I wrote for homework for my second Life Writing class, and most of what's in it you already know. Oh, it's all been totally rewritten, so it isn't as if I'm serving up leftovers. It's just that there are no new dishes on the menu. 

On the other hand, if you want to check it out anyway, maybe I can spice it up for you by adding some links and photos to the text I read aloud in class. Here goes:


To my mind the phrase "golden years" implies that if we only live long enough, we’ll reach a point at which we’re free to kick back, relax, and enjoy the fruits of our labor. Frankly, I find this stereotype offensive. This is exactly why so many young people view us as selfish old coots, dilly-dallying our over-extended lives away on their FICA-tax dollars. There’s so much more to us than that. What about the person who ends up being a full-time caretaker for a spouse afflicted with Alzheimer's? What about the elderly couple who find themselves raising grandchildren because their own grown children aren't stepping up to the job? What about those who worked hard all their lives at low-paying jobs, unable to save for retirement, and now live at or below the poverty level? Do you think those people believe these years are "golden"? 

"Okay, then," you may ask, "what’s been your personal experience with the so-called golden years?" 

"Well," I'd have to admit, "I'm, uh, kickin' back. And relaxin'." And sometimes I feel really guilty about that, as if more suffering on my part would somehow make it up to those who aren’t as fortunate. I'm well aware that a financial or medical emergency could upset my rosy retirement years in an instant, but for right now, things are pretty good. 

I find that the great gift of the golden years is time: time for doing and time for just being. Conscious that most of my life is behind me, I penny-pinch both time and money. No longer concerned about making my money grow, I worry about making it stretch. I try to stretch out time, too, but it keeps ticking away no matter what I do. The best I can do is draw interest on each minute by spending it in a way that gives me my moment's worth.

Through the gift of time, I finally have more than enough of the solitude required to nurture my introverted soul. I'm able to stay in close touch with what I think and feel, no longer needing to run away and hide from the hustle and bustle to regroup. Now that most of my time is spent in serenity instead of in chaos, I can fully delight in the company of other people without feeling that they are sucking away my last ounce of energy. Ironically, just when it’s become easier for me to play well with others, I find myself without playmates. Most of the friends I've made in recent years have been people I met at work. Most of them are younger than I am. They still work.

My closest companions these days are my dogs, Levi and Gimpy. They’re Goldendoodles, big, blond, and curly. My stepsister calls them "lion dogs," an apt description, except that if lions are kings, these two dogs are court jesters. They keep me laughing. They also keep my sense of responsibility acute. I need them to know they can depend on me. Sometimes that merely means feeding them on schedule or letting them outside when they need to go. Other times it means whacking their tennis ball out from under the coffee table with a broom handle, over and over, while my favorite TV show is on.

Muddy-footed companions:  Levi (left) and Gimpy.

I’m close to my family, too, but we don’t spend a lot of time together. They don’t have the free time that I do. I remember being where they are now and understand the pressures of jobs, chores, and relationships. In between planned family get-togethers, my daughters and I stay in touch through phone calls and daily texts. I keep up with my grown grandkids on Facebook. The fact that I don't see them more often makes all of our face-to-face visits more meaningful, more memorable.

Typical family get-together.

Those children and grandchildren may not realize it now, but one day in the future, one of them or one of their children will become curious about their roots. Our family history has been a long-time passion of mine and will be my legacy to them. I've worked on it for 24 years and still spend hours each week collecting names, dates, and places, connecting the people of one family to those of another, following the trail of men, women and children who moved over the sea in ships and over this land by covered wagon. I'm writing down stories that were passed down by elders, and I’m puzzling out and piecing together other stories through long hours spent poring over old documents. I'm gathering and labeling family photos, providing a visual reference through which a widow's peak or a distinctive nose can be traced through time and history.

This photo from about 1930 shows four generations.
The little girl in front is my mother.

Old photos aren't the only ones that interest me. I take new pictures almost daily, capturing as much of the beauty around me as I can. Photography is a hobby I discovered late in life. It's taught me to look at the world differently, to pay attention to details, to notice color and texture, light and shadow. Film and prints were expensive when my children were growing up, so photography was reserved for vacations or other special occasions. These days, with a digital camera, I can take a dozen pictures of an interesting weed if I want to.

Random sample of digital photos.

I share some of my photos online, posting a different one each day. While I work with the images, cropping one to keep only the prettiest part of it or digitally erasing power lines from an otherwise lovely landscape, I listen to music. I never imagined that music would be as meaningful to me in my post-retirement years as it's turned out to be. My relatives are generous with iTunes cards on gift-giving occasions, and I've used those cards to compile the soundtrack of my life. I listen to songs I remember hearing as far back as the 1940s and new songs that speak to me when I hear them for the first time now. From country to classical, I'm moved by a melody, reminded by a snatch of lyrics, transported to another place, another time, another experience.

Random screenshot from my iTunes music list. (You know
you can click on all these images to enlarge them, right?)

Books transport me, too, allowing me to travel to places I'd never be able to visit, get to know fascinating characters, and experience adventures that the kind of cautious person I am wouldn't dare seek out on her own. Books have been my best friends for as long as I can remember. I'm protective of them. If I lend you a book, I'll think about it every time I see you until you return it. If you forget to return it, I won't badger you, but I'll obsess about it quietly until, finally, out of a need to preserve the friendship, I'll buy myself another copy of the book.

As an avid reader, I have the utmost respect for the authors who write the words that expand my thinking and engage my emotions. I value the content and caliber of their work more highly than ever now that I write for publication, too. Publication seems much too grand a label for what I'm doing, but I am expressing my thoughts and feelings in writing, clicking my computer mouse on a button that reads "publish," and setting my words free on the Internet. There they can be accepted or rejected by anyone who happens upon them. Knowing that someone, somewhere, will read my words makes me care a great deal about the way I present them.

Screenshot of Blogger's "compose" page for the post you're reading right now.

I started writing a blog because I wanted to leave something of myself behind when I die, a way for my daughters to find me at those moments when they need their mother, and a way for younger generations to get acquainted when or if they're interested. I feel lucky to have lived at the center of seven generations. I had a relationship with my great-grandmother, and I'm building one now with my three-year-old great-grandson. That sense of continuity is comforting to me, and I think of my blog as a bridge from one generation to another.

Dora, my great-grandmother - about 1950.

Owen, my great-grandson - Nov. 2012.

I didn't know when I started writing online that I'd be entering a diverse community known as the Blogosphere. I've learned not to be offended that some people take one look at what I’ve read and move on. The readers who come back again and again do so because they like what they've read there, and those are the people I want to reach. Many of the readers write blogs of their own, so sometimes it's nothing more than mutual admiration of the written word that brings us together. Sometimes it’s shared values. Sometimes real friendships form. It’s gratifying to live in an age when people from different parts of the globe, people of different ages, ethnicities, and lifestyles, with different religious and political perspectives, can forge a bond because a string of words written by one of them has struck a familiar chord with the other.

Those are the ways I spend most of my time. When I need a little variety, I squeeze in a puzzle: crossword, logic, or jigsaw. I'm trying to learn how to paint. I watch some television but almost never in the daytime. I cook or clean or grocery shop when I have to, and I like the fact that I don't have to do those chores on anyone else's timetable. I've learned that a minute of reverie can be just as enriching as a minute of activity; the key is to pay attention to it. 

The truth is that the quality of my life feels richer and fuller now--and freer of aggravation--than it did before I retired. My health is better, too. In that positive light I can see why some people call these years the golden ones. That being said, I'm ending this piece now and crossing my fingers that the gods of perversity don't read all this happy-sappy stuff and make me sorry I wrote it.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Shave and a Haircut--Six Kibbles

My dogs are a mess. Every time they got mud on more than just their paws this winter--practically every other day--I hosed them off or sprayed them in the shower, depending on how cold it was, then dried them with a towel. They had some full baths in there, too. (I didn't give them a complete bath every time because I didn't want to wash the oil out of their skin and make them itchy.) As a result of the frequent towel-drying, their fur is a matted mass of tangles.

Levi's beautiful feathery tail has turned into dreadlocks.

Last Monday we had warmer temperatures, and the weatherman predicted we'd have several days of sunshine. That night Gimpy fell asleep on the sofa beside me. I sneaked the dog scissors out of the drawer and started giving him a very close haircut. It takes hours, so I knew I wouldn't finish, but I thought I'd get a start on it and do the rest the next day.

The next day, Tuesday, was colder. I thought maybe Gimpy should keep his warm fur  until the cold snap was over, so I postponed the rest of the haircut. Wednesday was colder still. In fact, each day of the past week has been colder than the day before. This morning we woke up to this:

Someone told me it was 27 degrees outside this morning, and there was poor Gimpy, still  running around with half his heinie sticking out:

Bless his heart! I'm glad he doesn't know how bad he looks, but I wonder if he can feel the breeze.

Starting tomorrow it's supposed to warm up again. I'm hoping to get both dogs de-matted in the coming week. If it gets cold again after that, they'll have to wear their coats.

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Where's the Story?

I've been struggling all week with the homework assignment for my second Life Writing Class. The topic is "The Golden Years," a subject so broad that I can't seem to settle on an angle for my essay. According to the assignment notes, the "golden years" begin at age 65. That means I've been writing about my golden years right here for the past five years, telling about them post-by-post as I've lived them. How can I choose a narrow slice of those day-to-day experiences? How can I think about them in a fresh way, then pack them into a short summary to be read aloud in class?

I'll figure it out; I know I will. But with only about 48 hours left to complete it, I need to start today.

In the meantime, I hope you'll like this week's Saturday Song Selection. It's a moody piece about another autobiographical writer, one whose life and writing were far more interesting than my own. That being said, I wouldn't trade my life for hers.

The song is "Sylvia Plath" by Ryan Adams.
Click here for the lyrics.
Thanks to krzyIrish69 for posting this video on YouTube.

Friday, March 01, 2013

That Sinking Feeling

I just came in from taking a walk to the nether regions of my backyard, not a walk of any great distance, but one to a destination I've avoided for the past couple of months. The tall dog-fence that surrounds the rarely used burn pile back there had been blown down in an earlier winter storm. Following several consecutive days of sunshine, I thought today that the ground there might have dried up enough to walk on it and pick up the fence.

It had not. My footing felt solid until I was about three feet shy of where I needed to be, then I began to sink into the swampy soil. Soupy mud oozed over the tops of my shoes and into my socks. By then it was too late to change my mind, so I plowed in deeper, picked up the edge of the fallen fence, wrested it from the weeds growing through it, and set it back where it's supposed to be. From that vantage point I could see that an adjacent area along the back fence still has water standing several inches deep.

Levi and Gimpy, of course, do not avoid that corner of the yard. In fact, it's probably their favorite part, their own private water park. They like it so much that I've been taking them outside one at a time all winter to keep them from chasing each other  through the muck. That's helped to reduce the extra dog-bathing, but they're dogs, and sometimes, even if they have to do it solo, they've just gotta run.

They race across the yard in abandonment, letting the mud fly: one pass, two passes, three, and then . . . then they seem to remember that they don't want to stay out there forever. They change course and cross to the concrete slab in front of the garden shed. From there they walk calmly, their steps careful, staying on the sidewalk, not cutting the corner at the sidewalk's right-angle turn, all the way to the backdoor.

I'll be so happy when the mud dries up. Probably as happy as you'll be when I stop complaining about the mud.