Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Z is for Zilker Botanical Gardens

We visited the beautiful Zilker Botanical Gardens in Austin, Texas a couple of years ago when our son lived in the area. It's a great take-in on a warm, sunny day. If you plan to visit, check out their website first at http://www.zilkergarden.org/.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Y is for Yellowstone

Yellowstone is the first and perhaps the greatest of the national parks in the U.S. We RV'd there in 2009 with the Old Faithful geyser in mind, but that's just one of many memorable features. A century or so ago, a geologist realized that the entire park sits inside a giant volcano that seems to be taking a breather before blowing up again. There the earth bubbles and boils, giving off sulfurous gases and a multitude of small geysers, some of them more "faithful" in their eruptions that Old Faithful. One day, Nature may assert herself and wreak total destruction over the region. I hope that will be many centuries in the future. In the meantime, it's a wondrous place.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

X is for Xanadu

Xanadu is a word that has come up in popular culture, but Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote a poem that used it back in 1798. The story I heard was that he wrote it under the influence of opium but was interrupted by some normal daily business, and when he tried to finish, the spell was gone. What he did complete became justifiably famous. Here is the first stanza.

Kubla Khan

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree :
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round :
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree ;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

Friday, April 26, 2013

W is for Wordsworth

I've only recently begun to explore the poetry of William Wordsworth. This one's a beauty:

          I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud
          I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud
          That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
          When all at once I saw a crowd,
          A host, of golden daffodils;
          Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
          Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

          Continuous as the stars that shine
          And twinkle on the milky way,
          They stretched in never-ending line
          Along the margin of a bay:                                 Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
          Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

          The waves beside them danced; but they
          Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
          A poet could not but be gay,
          In such a jocund company:
          I gazed--and gazed--but little thought
          What wealth the show to me had brought:

          For oft, when on my couch I lie
          In vacant or in pensive mood,                               
          They flash upon that inward eye
          Which is the bliss of solitude;
          And then my heart with pleasure fills,
          And dances with the daffodils.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

V is for Vacation

Ithaca, New York
September 2001
Oh good, another post where I can foist off Vacation photos! When we lived in Massachusetts and were raising our son, many of our summer trips were to Cape Cod--Truro, Marconi Beach, Orleans, Barnstable, the National Seashore--we loved it so much, but eventually we couldn't think of any part of the Cape we hadn't been to at least twice. We'd spend an entire week, maybe two, with sand between our toes and fried clams or ice cream cones on our mind.

Jeff and his Grammy on Cape Cod, 1980
In time, my wife started talking about RV travel, and I balked. Please shoot me rather than put me in one of those things, I thought. I relented once, agreeing to rent an RV in the middle of winter to take to upstate New York. My hope was that we'd be so miserable, my wife would never suggest it again. That trip wasn't great, but it wasn't the disaster I wanted, either. Still, I resisted further RV talk enough so that after a while she gave up.

Fast forward a couple of decades to about 2008. My wife and I were driving in the Southwest, enjoying a gorgeous part of the country that has elbow room galore. And I turned to her and said something like, "You know, this would be a great place to have an RV." With that offhand comment, my fate was sealed. We and our cats now travel by RV on almost all of our vacations, and neither of us would have it any other way.

What summer is all about
Cape Cod, 1980
Half Dome, Yosemite, 1999
Not quite Lewis and Clark
By the way, regarding the Ithaca picture, we had planned to fly to Arizona in mid-September 2001. After the World Trade Center attacks, we canceled and decided to drive to upstate New York. We stayed at a lovely inn where the help at the desk looked middle Eastern, and I kept thinking blankety-blank Arabs. I was not in a rational state of mind at the time.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

U is for Unique

Unique means one of a kind. As my eighth-grade teacher taught, it's one of those words that doesn't lend itself to comparison. Often we'll hear that such-and-such is the "most unique" product on the market. No, it may be the most unusual, but one thing can't be more one of a kind than another. Fingerprints, DNA samples, retinal scans, and snowflakes are unique, or so we're told. People are unique in their experiences, but in their personalities I am not so sure.

On the Internet you can find lists of "unique" baby names, but it's a good bet that if the names are on a list, they're not unique. One of the names I saw was Harper, and Harper Lee came right to mind. And Quentin immediately conjured up Tarantino.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

T is for Truth

Write what you know, a writing sage has admonished. If I stuck to writing what I absolutely knew to be true, my posts would be quite short--oh wait, they are short. Maybe that's why so many of my posts cover travel. Post a pretty picture or two and move on. The Truth is that I have many opinions and know little incontrovertible Truth. That goes for any possible statement regarding religion or the nature of the Universe. We choose what to believe and sort ourselves into different camps, often as a result of our personal circumstances. Some of us "know" that God exists, has a gender or doesn't, is merciful or wrathful, loves everyone or hates gays, speaks to us through the Bible, or doesn't exist at all.  We "know" that capital punishment deters murderers or is cruel and unusual. We "know" that figures don't lie or that liars do figure. We "know" these things because our parents told us (and we know they wouldn't lie) or God (if such there be) help us, we read it on the Internet.

My own opinions are based on emotion or on information I choose to trust. If the world only trafficked in absolute facts, it would be unable to function.

So I don't know much with certainty, and that's the Truth.

Monday, April 22, 2013

S is for Santee Lakes, California

Cabins on one of the Santee Lakes
Santee Lakes are a small chain of seven lakes in Santee, California and filled with recycled municipal waste water. People don't swim in it, but boating and swimming are common. We liked to stay in its RV park when our son lived in the area. It's a very clean and appealing place.

On an easy walk around a lake

Chilling out at Santee Lakes

Saturday, April 20, 2013

R is for Rio Grande

The Rio Grande at normal level;
Robledo Mountains on the other side

When we moved from Massachusetts to Las Cruces, New Mexico, I was surprised to learn that the Rio Grande is right across town. Miles to the east of us, the river forms the international border between the U.S. and Mexico. It's an important source of irrigation for farmers in both countries who grow pecans, cotton, and peppers. Upriver, dams create Elephant Butte and Caballo Lakes where water is stored and periodically released. We've had a drought lasting years, though. Here is a photo I took earlier this year, standing in the river bed. This is not even normal river water. What you see is effluent from a water treatment plant a couple of miles "upstream." In some places, you can walk across the river without getting your feet wet.

Rio Grande at Bosque State Park, January 2013

Friday, April 19, 2013

Q is for QWERTY

IBM PCjr (Wikipedia)
QWERTY, of course, represents the first six letters on a standard keyboard. Exactly why, who knows? (This link provides a clue.) But it was also the name of the first word processing program I ever owned, which ran on the IBM PC Junior, the first useful computer I ever owned. It saw me through drafts of my first novel, a fair number of freelance articles, and monthly book reviews for CompuServe Magazine. This baby had a 300-baud modem, and I could imagine those bits and bytes queueing up and marching one by one over the phone lines. The QWERTY program came on a large floppy disk and was, as I recall, quite satisfactory. If I wanted to create a spreadsheet, I had to plug in a cartridge containing Lotus 1-2-3. When I finally "upgraded" to an IBM XT, the Junior had been worked pretty hard. Still, a fellow bought it from me for $600 in cash.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

P is for Poetry

Poetry isn't my forte, though I try my hand at it now and then. But I enjoy reading certain poets whose work "speaks to me," as 'twere. My favorite poet seems to vary according to whose work I'm reading at the time, but here are some I like to read.

My Kindle has a poetry section, and when I go to it, I frequently visit Robert Frost to read Mending Wall or The Road Not Taken. Shelly's Ozymandias made an impression on me in college, and it still does. As long as it is, I come back to Hiawatha by Longfellow, drawn in by its rhythm and story line. Last night I re-read Thomas Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard and will no doubt read it several more times during my life. For a long time I kept coming back to his On The Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes, mainly for its clever ending. (But if Gray really observed this, why didn't he just save the poor cat?)

Some other poems I've enjoyed that come to mind:
Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold
Howl by Alan Ginsburg
Renascence by Edna St. Vincent Millay
When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d by Walt Whitman
...and pretty much anything by Emily Dickinson

Who are your favorite poets? And when you read a poem to yourself, do you ever read it aloud? I do.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

O is for Oregon

Okay, I don't know that much about Oregon, having been there only once, in 2010.

Heceta Head Lighthouse, near Florence

Umpqua River

Pelican swallowing a fish,
2010 Reedsport Chainsaw
Sculpting Championship

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

N is for Nightfall in Las Cruces

This is really just an excuse to use a couple of photos taken in our yard. Above is Picacho Peak at sunset. Picacho is Spanish for peak, so one might call it Peak Peak. Below is the sunset reflected in our front window.

Monday, April 15, 2013

M is for Mountains

 I spent most of my life in eastern Massachusetts, where the nearest mountains were many miles away. The Berkshires are at the other end of the state, but it was easier to head north into New Hampshire. Mount Monadnock is right over the state line, and it's said to be the most-climbed mountain in the world after Mt. Fuji. The White Mountains and the Presidential Range are farther north, with some forbidding peaks like Mt. Washington, where weather conditions can change suddenly and bring tragedy to the unprepared. A road goes to the top, as does a cog railway. I've taken both, but would never consider hiking up the mountain.
Cog railway, Mount Washington

Now my wife and I are well west of the Mississippi River, New Mexico to be more specific, and mountains are all over the map. From my office window the Robledo Mountains are visible to the west; in another hour the sun will set over them and wink out for the night. Nearby are the Dona Ana Mountains, known also as the Jornadas. Closest but out of my immediate sight are the Organ Mountains, which dominate the Las Cruces skyline. The state, I think, may have more mountains than it has names for them.
Dripping Springs trail in the Organ Mountains

Saturday, April 13, 2013

L is for Louise Hirschfeld

Louise Hirschfeld, circa 1931
Louise Hirschfeld was my Mom, who passed away almost ten years ago. Born and raised on a farm in a tiny central Texas town, she had a tough childhood mainly due to illness. In due time she met the man from Belize who'd become my Dad, and she gave him four sons in Texas and Louisiana. Then during World War II he sent us all to live in Massachusetts. Mom hated it, yet lived the rest of her life north of Boston. But I'd ask her to tell me stories (I was the last of the brood), and she'd tell me about farm life, about meeting up with a rattlesnake, picking cotton, coming down with diphtheria and having to drop out of school forever in the eighth grade. She talked about the sun and the heat, and how she loved bluebonnets and rain--to her dying day, she always loved an old-fashioned downpour. She talked about getting her first job as a telephone operator, where a supervisor looked down on her and challenged her to spell "Albuquerque." Mom proudly recounted spelling it perfectly. Years later as she lay dying in ICU, my wife and I inquired about her comfort. "I'm not doing that well," she said. -- Pause -- "But I can still spell Albuquerque." And then one last time, slowly, she did.

Mom, 2002

Friday, April 12, 2013

K is for Kitchen Sink

So I was mulling over a K-topic for the A-Z Challenge and having a time coming up with anything good. Hmm. Kansas? I drove through it once but haven't visited. Kit-Kat Bars? Absolutely delicious, but 'nuf said. Kittens? Love 'em but I've written a lot about them lately. Knockwurst? Nah. Korea? Too serious, and I've never been there anyway, and it might lead me to writing about Kimchee.  And I know nothing about Kankakee, Illinois or Kissimmee, Florida.

But I am running out of time to write a post, so allow me to present the Kitchen Sink.

This little stainless steel wonder rests on a counter of granite, and it's connected to a new garbage disposal and a neat collection of pipes and drains--under the hood, as it were. My wife and I spend more time standing in front of it than we should, given that a modern dishwasher sits right next to it. The darned thing doesn't clean as well as it should.

When I was a kid, I spent lots of time washing, rinsing, drying, and putting away the family's dishes after supper. Then when we'd visit my oldest brother and his wife in New Jersey, he and I would wash dishes together so his wife could relax and so we could chat. Believe it or not, that left me with fond memories of washing dishes by hand.

But no, I won't come over and do your dishes. Well, unless you feed me. What's for dessert?

Thursday, April 11, 2013

J is for Javelina

The javelina (hah-veh-LEE-nah) is a wild porcine critter that lives in parts of Southwestern U.S. and all the way to South America. For some inexplicable reason, one of them wanders into one of my novels and makes himself at home. The little fella becomes the pet of a young Tohono O'Odham girl named Sally Windflower and takes to eating Brussels sprouts and other scrapings off her dinner plate. But why in the name of the Chihuahua Desert does she name him Poindexter? The answer is that there is no answer. The name was literally the first one that popped into my head, and it seemed just as absurd as the rest of the story. So it was good enough for me.

The animal is also known as a peccary. I don't have any good pix of my own, so the following comes from costaricajourneys.com. Note that it lacks wings, but Poindexter lacks them as well. Readers of When Pigs Fly will understand that the "flying" is purely figurative and that the book is not for children.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

I is for Idea

Can you believe that at first I had no Idea what to write about for the letter I? Imagine that. For the writer, ideas can come from anywhere. Listen to people when you're out shopping or standing in a line--maybe you catch an odd phrase or a snippet of conversation. You can make a note of it and file it away for possible future use. I have a fairly long computer file consisting of random ideas, puns, quirky expressions, along with questions beginning with "What if?" That question is a great tool to spur a writer's creativity. What if the phone rings? What if an old flame shows up at your doorstep? What if the power goes out when you're doing something critical? What if you had said what you really thought? What if he had stepped off the curb but the bus didn't stop? What if the next thing you wished for came true? Then what follows can be a whole series of consequences.

The best thing you can do as a writer is to let the ideas flow unedited. Jot them down. If you have a cell phone and you aren't home, write yourself an email. Don't say, "Oh, that's a dumb idea. I should forget about it." Collect them, string a few together, turn them inside out. Maybe one silly idea prompts another very good one.

Yes, writers have good ideas and bad ones. But don't squelch your creativity. Let the ideas flow when you have them, and later you can sort them out.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

H is for Harry S Truman, Haberdasher

President Harry S Truman
Many people didn't expect much from Harry S Truman, including President Roosevelt, who kept him out of the loop on critical national issues such as the Manhattan Project. Briefly a haberdasher, he entered Missouri politics and was generally thought to be a nobody who became vice president--a position one of his predecessors said wasn't worth a pitcher of warm spit. But David McCullough's great biography, Truman, makes clear that he was a man of more substance. He was a brave and skilled Army officer in World War I, putting the safety of his men above everything else. He was an inveterate letter writer and a faithful husband and father. The military was racially integrated under his watch, and for better or worse authorized the use of atomic bombs on Japan. I was a young boy while he was President and was horrified when he fired my hero, General Douglas MacArthur.

Good old HST was a crusty fellow who surely didn't give a damn who liked him and who didn't. We may never see his like in politics again.

Incidentally, the S was not an abbreviation but his middle name. So he was Harry S Truman, not Harry S. Truman, Internet sources notwithstanding.

Monday, April 08, 2013

G is for George and Gracie

George and Gracie were my introduction to the pleasure of having cats around the house. When they arrived, the two Bengals were litter mates that my wife could hold in the palm of her hand. We still have Gracie, who is eight years old, but earlier this year we lost her brother to HCM, or hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, which he had for years. Both were sweethearts--Gracie still is, of course--but George had a devilish streak. Once, later in life, he bit Nancy hard enough to send her to the ER. It wasn't really his fault, as we'd temporarily had him on a medication that was making him crazy. But the hospital reported the incident as required by law, and soon an officer from Animal Control was at our door. We had to quarantine George for a while, and he did calm down after we stopped the offending meds. But he was always ready to swat one of us as we walked by him. He wasn't mean, though; he just wanted attention and loved to play. Even though after he died we got another very sweet cat, we will always miss George.

Gracie has a more garden-variety personality. She loves to climb into my lap when I'm using the computer, although walking on my keyboard is even more fun. When I'm not looking, she likes to chew on paper in my office, which we like to call Gracie doing her paperwork. So I have to be careful what I leave lying around on my desk. Now there is a check stub with a large chunk missing; I'm careful to hide any checks until it's time to go to the bank.

George the office manager

They always preferred water from the faucet
instead of from the water dish.

Gracie as a kitten

An example of Gracie's paperwork

Saturday, April 06, 2013

F is for Friday, which today isn't

Fridays always hold a special place in my heart. Fridays were often paydays. Five o'clock on Friday meant the beginning of the weekend, and sometimes the beginning of a July week of vacationing on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. That usually led to traffic jams on Route 3, wet bathing suits, sand between our toes, and baskets of fried clams. One of my employers gave employees Friday afternoons off for a couple of months in the summer, and I spent many of those extra hours exploring the canals and mills of Lowell as research for a novel. And even with employers less generous, we typically had "casual Friday," meaning jeans were acceptable clothing.

Our son at Marconi Beach
on Cape Cod in 1980

But what to do for a photo representing Friday? Here is Joe Friday, the detective played by Jack Webb in Dragnet, a TV series I watched as a kid in the 1950s. That was back when Fridays just meant two days off from school.

Friday, April 05, 2013

E is for Eschew Enriching Employment

Ah, retirement, the status I sought for so long. My wife and I retired in the mid--what do you call the last decade? The aughts? At 69, I am plenty able to be gainfully employed, but that would mean competition with someone younger who may have young ones to put through college. So we both eschew enriching employment and enrich our lives instead with lots of RV travel, reading, writing, blogging, TV watching, and the like.

Seriously, we feel very fortunate to have both health and time to explore our beautiful country. Last year we visited Antelope Island on Utah's Great Salt Lake. The photo below doesn't do justice to the herd of buffalo grazing at the shoreline.

The second photo was taken near Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

D is for Daisy and Divot, two Dogs

I didn't grow up in a pet-loving family, but my wife did. So shortly after we married, we got ourselves a puppy we named Beauregard (hey, we lived in Alabama at the time). Sadly, she came with distemper and lived only a few days. Then in 1967 we got a healthy mutt we named Daisy, and often referred to as Daisy Dog, or Daisy Dog the Wonder Dog. The day after she came home my Dad died in Massachusetts, and we had to rush around on a Sunday night trying to find someone to take her for a week. Luckily, that worked out. A few years later, a friend of our son accidentally (?) opened the screen door and let her loose, and she disappeared for a week. I was heartbroken; who knew a dog could mean so much? But then she showed up again, and our neighbor's kids held her on our front porch until my wife and I came home from work. What an occasion! We celebrated by taking the kids out for ice cream.

Daisy Dog the Wonder Dog

Daisy lived to be about 12, and her passing hurt us a lot. But then we adopted Divot, a black lab / doberman mix who was a bundle of energy and joy. The previous owner gave her the name and was probably a golfer, because Divot loved to make divots in the back yard. She was sweet as could be, but Lord, was she a yipper. A Cambodian man named Song Ling saw her and remarked that he ate dogs in a refugee camp. "In Cambodia, dog number one," he declared. I told him that if he ate my dog he was number ten. He got the message. 

Divot lived to be almost 17 and truly geriatric. When she finally passed on, we took a long break from owning pets, much as we dearly love animals. In time we adopted two cats, but that will be a topic for another day.

Divot, playing with Song Ling
(who is also a topic for another day)

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

C is for Chihuahua Desert

C is for the Chihuahua Desert where I live. Named after the Mexican city and state of the same name, it extends into West Texas and New Mexico. Sunshine abounds here, but rain does not. In 2006, our first year in southern New Mexico's Las Cruces, we had such a heavy rainfall that we thought our new house would be flooded. And then in 2007, we had virtually not a drop all year. Much of the country has suffered from the last few years of drought, but the Southwest has been hit especially hard. But my, give it just a bit of water and the desert can be beautiful.

Poppies in bloom in the Chihuahua Desert,
looking toward the White Sands Missile Range

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

B is for Bisbee

That's Bisbee, Arizona, a quaint destination for tourists. In its heyday, it was a mining town for copper. Now you can tour an old mine three thousand feet underground on the narrow-gauge rail line the miners used to use. Imagine having to go to work in the mines every day. It had to be dangerous work.

My photos from inside the mine didn't pan out very well, so here's one of an open-pit mine that operated in Bisbee until about the 1970s.

Monday, April 01, 2013

A is for Arizona

We just returned home from a four-day RV trip to Tucson, Arizona. It's one of our favorite destinations, as it's only a six-hour drive from Las Cruces, New Mexico. Temps were in the low to mid-80s with plenty of sun; how much better can it get? We visited the western section of Saguaro National Park, which brackets the city, and we drove up Mt. Lemmon, with its five different climates. Of course we brought our two cats along. Gracie is an experienced traveler, while new family member Tina was a little skittish about the trip.

I never go on an RV trip without my cameras: my trusty Minolta and my iPhone 4. The iPad (version 1, no camera) and at least one book are also essentials.

My wife and I especially enjoyed meeting my online friend Pat Bean for the first time, as we chatted over coffee at a Starbucks.