Saturday, September 24, 2011

Oh, Give Me a Home....

I was born in North Dakota, on the OX ranch, one of the oldest ranches in the area, just a hop, skip and a jump over the Montana border.  Ranches carried the names of their brands and this was the O.X. (not the "ox".)  My parents bought it after WWI and did not run cattle, but instead attempted to start a dairy business, which soon went broke, either as a result of the economy after the war, or more likely because I don't think either of them had a lick of business sense.  Whatever the reason, they sold out and we moved to the West Coast when I was three years old.

As a high  school graduation gift, they financed a trip back to Montana with my aunt and uncle to visit family and see where I began. I was 17 and had never been out of Clark County, Washington, so it was a big event for me.  We drove up the Columbia Gorge, past Multnomah Falls and the Indian fishing grounds of The Dalles  and into Eastern Washington.  I was enchanted by the golden hills,  quiet and tawny in the still air,  like the flanks of lions sleeping in the sun.  I was raised in the drippy conifer groves and small narrow valleys of southern Washington State and I had never seen expanses like this.

We crossed the Idaho panhandle and the mountain passes and suddenly....the prairies!  My heart opened up.  Something clicked.  It was as though  I recognized something I did not know I knew.  I have loved the prairies ever since, the openness, the space, the soft wind ruffling through the grasses and wildflowers.

The mountains and the redwood groves and majestic forests of the West are awe-inspiring and beautiful, but I am not really comfortable there.  I do not like the closed-in feeling of the towering trees and the dark and secret passages through the forest.  I love the desert, the sweep of sky and space. And the ocean, where, from California's beaches one can see all the way to Japan!

Of course, I love the Western woods, where I grew up, as well......dogwoods, vine maple, Solomon's Seal and Oregon grape.  Trilliums in the spring, wild iris in the summer, small, shy lady's slippers and tiger lilies.  And, on the horizon, the magnificent mountains of the Cascades.

I have lived in many beautiful places and each holds precious memories.  But, of them all, only the prairies give me that special feeling of freedom and exhilaration. I have no romantic illusions about life there. I know that folks there are just starting their spring gardens while we here on the West Coast are harvesting the first produce from ours.    I know that the wind that runs through the grasses and tickles the leaves on the cottonwood trees along the creeks can be a relentless enemy, that pioneer women committed suicide to escape its ceaseless moaning, that it can pile the snow that blankets the area in winter to drifts as high as your head and make driving impossible.  I know that the winters are endless and merciless.  I could not live there.  I am too soft.

But driving down a Montana highway with the endless vista stretching out ahead, the purple shadows of the distant mountains on the horizon and the red-winged blackbirds lining the fences, I  feel the lightness and joy of the meadowlark as he whistles his flute-like call and scatters the notes like flakes of gold into the clear prairie air.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Annie Rooney

I have always thought of myself as quite open-minded, tolerant of other people's opinions and sympathetic to the other guy's point of view.  My father taught me that there are two sides to every question,  that disagreeing with a person does not mean being disagreeable.  Live and let live and so on. 

Ha!  As I grow older, I find that I am not as open-minded as I thought, or as tolerant of other people's views, and that people who disagree are indeed disagreeable.  In fact, I am becoming quite crochety.  A female Andy Rooney!

The recent lack of dialogue in Congress certainly illustrates my point.  I remember  a day when opposing sides could sit down and, with some measure of compromise and common sense, work out knotty problems of policy and principle, each side giving a little, but both sides aiming for the  common goal of the good of the country.  What has happened to that great institution that its members act like a bunch of spoiled children fighting over who gets to be "it"?

Small things like TV and magazine ads still set me off.   Have you seen the ads for "Senior Retirement Communities"?  Most of the people look young enough to be my grandchildren.  How happy they are!  Off to the tennis courts, the swimming pools, the golf courses!  Laughing over an afternoon cocktail with the other tanned and sexy members of this exclusive country-club society!  The gleaming teeth, the shining silvery hair, the smooth sun-browned skin (no naturally brown skin here).  Ah, the Golden Years!  Just one thing missing...where are the walkers, the wheelchairs, the canes?  Where is the often-present emergency vehicle, called to help someone in trouble?  What have they done with the wrinkled ones, the bent ones, the bald or gray-headed ones?  If  you believe the ads, these communities are inhabited solely by the fit and healthy, but I have lived in a couple of "senior" developments and I know that such  is not the case.  I know that a greater proportion of the inhabitants are more likely to be gathered around the bridge table than the tennis court and are much more apt to be riding around the premises in their electric carts than rollicking  around the golf course.  Not to say, of course, that everyone is disabled or too feeble to wield a tennis racket.  Just that there is a mix of people and a majority of them are not candidates for the Health Club Poster of the Year.

If anyone reads my blogs they are familiar with these rants.  I am well aware of the larger issues of the day and that there  more important things to get one's panties in a twist about than misleading advertisements, but sometimes these problems are so overwhelming that at this stage  in my life I just prefer to peck away at the petty annoyances.  I am beginning to understand Andy Rooney better than I used to, when I sometimes considered him just a tiresome complainer.   It is a satisfying way to deal with some of the frustrations of modern life without harming anyone!

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Pictures of You

I found this book very touching.  It concerns two women running away from failed marriages.  On a foggy country road an unavoidable collision leaves one of them dead and the other trying to cope with her grief and guilt.  I had a hard time putting it down, especially in the first few chapters.

It is an emotional story,  as the survivor deals with her own devastation as well as that of the husband and young son of the dead woman.  It raises the questions of what do we do with the fate that life hands us, how do we move beyond tragedy to redemption, hope and healing.

It does not have a story-book ending, but one that I think rings true.  As you can tell, I liked this book quite a lot and I will be looking for other books by this writer.

Pictures of You              Caroline Leavitt    Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Pull Over!!

I have an opinion  that I think many of my fellow retirees probably do not share,  on a sensitive subject among us old folks:

I think that all older people ( as well as most younger ones), should have to take a driving test in order to get a driver's license.  There!  So shoot me.

It is not that I am anxious to get behind the wheel with an examiner who is no doubt crabby, bored,  under-paid and over-worked.  That is a level of stress that everyone would like to avoid, but who said driving was not stressful?  It is the ability to deal with it and all the other hazards on the road that make a good driver.  Most of us feel that we are experienced, careful, capable and responsible drivers.  So why be afraid to prove it?

Of course, the sad truth is, that while we are for sure experienced, and no doubt careful and responsible, not all of us are capable.  Our reflexes, our eyesight and hearing, our perceptions, are all diminished with age and often we do not recognize the loss of these functions.  That is not to say that many older people are not perfectly able and good drivers with many years on the road still ahead.  It is just that some are not.  I don't believe there should be an age limit on driving, just that there should be adequate testing for capability.

The written test which is administered in California can be passed by anyone with the ability to read and understand the manual which lays out the laws and traffic rules.  But knowing, for instance,  how far ahead of a turn you should turn on your blinkers does not a safe driver make.  Of course, it it helpful to recognize the different traffic signs, but we all know that stuff already from years of driving.
What counts is if you are able to stop in time to avoid a collision, or if you are aware of what is happening several cars ahead, or if you have noticed that car in the intersection before you make your left turn.

I renewed my drivers' license in 2009 on my 89th birthday.  I went in,  took the written test, (which I aced, as I always do, because, for heaven's sake, I can read that manual, can't I?), took a cursory vision test, and walzed out with permission from the State of California to drive an automobile until I am 94 years old.  I read of a man last week whose license had been renewed  until he was 100. 

I live in a small town with hardly any traffic and my driving these days is confined to familiar routes:  the supermarket (two blocks away),  my hairdresser (the other end of town, maybe a mile), my doctor (four blocks) and on occasion, the local hospital where most of the specialists are located, 6 miles out of town on a little-traveled freeway or my favorite back roads along the lake.  I do not drive after dark or on stormy days. I do not drive if I am feeling below par.  My family helps me keep my car gassed up and in good condition.  I do not like driving.  I never have, but as for so many of us seniors it is the key to the independence which is so vital to our lives.  I feel as comfortable as I always have while driving, but the minute I begin to doubt my abilities, I will turn over my keys.

Of course, seniors are not the only hazards on the road.  Teenage drivers have inordinately high death statistics.  Many ordinary citizens are terrible drivers and a menace behind the wheel.  My position:  Test 'em all!  No money, we hear.  But the cost of unnecessary accidents  and the toll in lives lost or ruined caused by bad driving is incalculably greater. As for people who text, or gab away on their cell phones while driving, the penalties should be the same as for drunk driving.

 OK.  So I've got that off my chest.  Lord,  this blog is wonderful!!   Everybody should have one to blow off the steam!

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Good Eats

Now that my appetite is returning, I have begun to think about Great Food that I have had over my lifetime.  There has been a lot of it, of course.  I have known some wonderful cooks in my life.  My sister was a good cook, all my kids are good cooks and I, myself, (forget modesty here), have turned out some pretty good food.  But a few stand out.

 In Wolf Point, Montana, we were invited to one of my mother's cousin's for a catfish fry.  I don't remember anything that was served except the catfish, giant platters of crispy, golden fish, freshly caught from the Missouri that day. I can still taste it.  When we left Vermont to return to California, we took a detour up to Maine to visit friends and had a real, honest-to-goodness clam bake.  The kind you read about but never get to try.  Fresh lobster from our friend's boat, clams, potatoes, corn on the cob.  It was fabulous!  Once in Frankfurt, Germany, Erik and I dined at an ancient cellar restaurant on fresh oysters followed by salmon so succulent and perfect that I have never forgotten it.  Erik did not care for turkey, so we usually had something else for Thanksgiving dinner, and one year I made a crown roast of pork that was a triumph. Lisa and I met for lunch  in San Francisco one day  and each ordered a hot turkey sandwich which has been the gold standard for hot turkey sandwiches ever since. In Sweden, where it seems every woman is a gourmet cook, I ate so many wonderful meals that I lost count.  Our friend, Ulla Svensson, used to stuff strömming (a small, herring-like fish, harvested from the Baltic Sea by her husband and sons) with fresh dill, and then bread and fry them to golden perfection.  Ulla was a wonderful cook and her pittipanna, a kind of Swedish hash, was outstanding.  Erik's Uncle Lasse made heavenly plättar, (Swedish pancakes) with cloudberry preserves and whipped cream.  Yum, yum.

But my all-time, never-to-be-forgotten meal, the one that sticks in my mind as the most delicious food I have ever consumed was a KFC take-out meal.  We were on a trip to Montana and the plan was to link up with Lisa, Scott and Jack (then about 18 months old) and tour the old Anderson haunts and my birthplace in North Dakota and other points of interest.  It was one of those made-in-hell travel days, where the flights were late, the connections were bad, Erik's blood sugars were low, and the accommodations were not really what you would call plush. This was Billings, Montana.   Our motel was a row of nondescript, identical rooms, no restaurant, no shopping center nearby. No car, since we had flown in.  We were famished, crabby, ready to chuck the whole thing and head home.  But we had to eat, especially Erik.  So I picked  up the telephone and called KFC.  In no time, an angel from heaven arrived at our motel door. He had with him a large packet, warm to the touch and steamy when opened.  In it was crispy, golden chicken, mashed potatoes, flaky biscuits, creamy gravy.  I have never tasted anything so delicious before or after.

I have never eaten KFC since that night.  I do not want to spoil the remembrance of that wonderful meal, since I suspect that in the light of everyday dining, Colonel Sander's food is quite ordinary.   But, oh boy,  on that occasion, no 5-star German restaurant could have produced anything so life-savingly scrumptious as that take-out packet of production-line fast food.

Makes you kind of stop and wonder how much of what we enjoy in food  is based on conditions, atmosphere,  hunger, company,  and other factors, and how much is actually based on taste.  A hot dog roasted over an open campfire on a chilly evening does not taste a thing like that same hot dog heated up in  your broiler at home.  A toasted cheese sandwich shared with good company at the end of a long hard day does not resemble that same sandwich thrown together for a hasty lunch on your way out the door.  A gourmet meal in a fancy restaurant will be tasteless and dry if you are sharing it with people you despise.  Maybe it doesn't matter so much what we eat as when and with whom we eat it.

All I can say, if you are starving and distressed and at the end of your rope, ole Colonel Sanders sure knows how to deliver!

Friday, September 2, 2011

The Greater Journey

I have just finished David McCullough's new book, "The Greater Journey, Americans in  Paris".  I am a big David McCullough fan, having read his books on Truman and John Adams, both of which I loved.   I did not care quite as much for this one, although it is an excellent book.  It deals with the influence that living and working in France, (mainly Paris) had on several generations of Americans in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  It is a time when our country was quite new and finding it's way toward a national identity and character.  Since we had no history or background to draw on, many artists and writers looked to the Old World for guidance and inspiration and the superior instruction available in the ateliers and workshops there, as well as the advanced medical practices and facilities.

The list is quite amazing:  James Fenimore Cooper, Samuel F.B. Morse,  Oliver Wendell Holmes, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Mary Cassatt, Harriet Beecher Stowe, John Singer Sargent, Charles Sumner, and on and on.  I was struck by the common feeling they all seemed to share of the magic of Paris.  It had a profound influence on all of them and despite the hardships of ocean travel in the early days, homesickness, money problems and other obstacles, many of them made several trips to visit and study.

One gets a feel for the turbulent political climate of France in those days....the Franco-Prussian War, the  Siege of Paris and the awful days of the Commune. I learned of our heroic American ambassador, Elihu Washburne, who refused to abandon his post throughout this trying period despite the  terrible conditions and his own ill health. There are accounts of the exciting Universal Expositions, where all the wonders of modern technology, art and science were on display.  This book was a kind of eye-opener for me.  I knew that many Americans had traveled and studied in France, but I had never before realized the extent to which their experiences had shaped and influenced them.

I can recommend this book.  It is well researched and full of interesting anecdotes as David McCullough's books always are.  Four-and-a-half stars, I think.

The Greater Journey          David McCullough    Simon & Schuster