The Ugly D Word

In April we should be complaining about the incessant rainfall here in California. But it’s dry and, although it’s beautiful outside, the dreaded D word echoes in the news: Drought.

It’s a terrible feeling when you can’t enjoy beautiful weather without worrying that the Rain Gods have abandoned you and may never return again.

Clouds float overhead but … no rain in the forecast.

But who in the face of Drought or Death or even Disease, can resist smiling in a field of Daisies? Not me.

Why Did This Have To Happen To You?

Good Friday …

tin hats

My words look like half-burnt cake candles tossed into the alley, the cats ready to lick the bit of frosting, but the rain begins and takes the space, flattening ears and closing doors

Not a great beginning for a poem about suffering and despair, although the cats might have something to say, how they were cheated once again … what of the difference between suffering and despair … surely there is more pain with suffering, while despair is a luxury of far-off eyes … yet, they are sisters without love and we can tell them apart in our feelings

I overlooked celery for most of my life, but today I found it in all its glory, the stalks knew my name and they forgave me for floating in the seagrass, picking the flowers of the sea … and I found an old notebook, down there on the bottom of the…

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Jan finally goes on a drive

I haven’t been on a drive that didn’t have a specific mission in over twelve months and so I am pleased to announce that yesterday … ta da … we went a’wandering. Our only mission (his not mine) was to secure fresh oysters.

We ended up toasting the sun gods from the top of a tower.

Well, that’s not really us. Those fellas are actually greeting visitors to Copia, a culinary institute in Napa California which is unfortunately not open.

We could see the CIA (as it’s known) from Hog Island Oysters where hubby got to overdose on those little bits of slim while I kept it safe with the clam chowder. Hog Island only serves oysters and clam chowder but there is a taqueria, pizzeria and gourmet market in the same building with plenty of out door seating all around.

There’s even a roadside burger joint around the corner. These folks were doing a rip-roaring business.

After lunch we walked over to Copia for a better view of the mural. Here t’is:

The front door to the place is nothing special and the vegetable gardens are all dormant. I hope they return because it was depressing to see.

Whelp, nothing to do here so we walked across the river to downtown Napa.

Of the two famous wine counties just north of San Francisco, Napa is said to be the poshest and Sonoma the more laid back. I don’t really see it. Downtown Napa is built right on a river that flows down into the SF Bay.

This mural on the side of a Starbucks on Main Street, depicts what downtown Napa must of been like before the region became famous for wineries. Nowadays the river is neither wide nor deep enough for large ships. I only saw two small fishing boats heading downstream. No yachts or pleasure boats.

This fine old building sits right at the town center and was probably once a watch tower. Now it seems to have been abandoned – hopefully not forever.

Next to it is another fine old building which seems to have survived as a wine tasting shop.

Around the corner the block is closed off to traffic and the street filled with tents for outdoor eating … which is good for the restaurants along that stretch but not good for those us looking to photograph interesting old buildings.

At the end of the Main Street is Napa River Inn which is a repurposed textile mill.

This archway path leads to the back of the Napa River Inn where there is an outdoor restaurant. I imagine later this spring, when the plants are all in bloom, it will be a glorious entrance. Once through the archways, you can sit down next to this fountain and have dinner. (it’s not currently open for lunch on weekdays.)

And, just for the #ThursdayDoors folks, the not so spectacular front door of the Napa River Inn. Check out other doors at Dan Anton’s place!

The Queen of Clubs

One thing I’ve gotten hooked on during this pandemic is online solitaire. It’s a lot more addictive than playing with cards, however, you can’t cheat. This forces somewhat lazy gamers like myself to focus on technique.

Online you can play the same hand again and again which would be very difficult the old fashioned way. Replaying a hand gives you an advantage because you know where all the problem cards are hiding (or at least can make an educated guess.) Then the problem becomes getting to those cards.

I was once married to a man who played solitaire every morning before going to work. He claimed the winning card foretold which way the stock market was headed (he was a stockbroker). I’ve forgotten which cards warned of bad days and which of good but I do remember that I was the Queen of Clubs. If I ended the game, it was always bad news. Not surprisingly, we divorced.

The Ex wasn’t that crazy as according to some sources, Solitaire, also known as Patience or Klondike, has its roots in fortune telling, particularly the Tarot Cards. The game has also been linked to cabal, described as “a mystical interpretation of the Old Testament.” However, practically anything can be described as a “mystical interpretation.”

Perhaps that’s what inspired the makers of these playing cards. M.C. Escher’s infinity etchings.

For me, March is always such a long month. Generally it’s only punctuated by St. Paddy’s day which isn’t celebrated properly in America. But it’s the month that really sets the tone for the rest of the year. The holiday frenzy is over, it’s still too cold for the garden, just about anywhere you could travel (if not for the covid) is having unpredictable weather so you might as well start finishing up old business and planning for what you might actually get accomplished.

Unless you’re a lazy gamer like me. My Smarty Pants phone is telling me I haven’t finished my Daily Challenge. I might be able to earn another crown! Maybe my winning card will be the King of Diamonds! Meaning … I dunno. A secret admirer. One with lots of money and chocolate bunnies!

Anyway – Happy Spring.

Ingmar Bergman’s Old Weiner

And now a message from my developmental editor!

tin hats

Cuttings from Duke Miller’s Epic Poem “Ingmar Bergman’s Old Weiner”

Dear Jan, of course, I agree to be your developmental editor and as such I have a few preliminary comments on the text you sent via the white sheets of bay fog that moved through the city last year

Please take my critique with an open mind and not as a knife pushing gently into your heart like some stranger in the kitchen deciding what to do

On page 222 I am wondering if a pride of lions would actually “stalk” neighborhood kittens

Would lions even bother to stalk creatures so small

You might consider changing stalk to “play”, we would still have dead kittens on our hands, but their bodies would be in the context of giant paws crushing them in some sort of mindless lion game

I think you know what I mean

As to page 81, I…

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My cat hates me and other sorrows

Depression for me is a cumulative thing. I don’t wake up one morning feeling more worthless, confused and lost than the day before. It’s a gradual tightening around my heart. A stuck door; constant noise from nearby water main project and tasks which must be attended to: Taxes, expired licenses, home maintenance issues … all those things postponed during the pandemic. Worst of all for me, a vaccine shot. I hate getting shots. No one can tell me they are just pinpricks.  I can feel that old needle pierce my skin and drill into soft flesh. And then afterwards, the redness, the bruising … Yes I am that patient all doctors love: The whiney cry baby.

But it doesn’t sound like they’re going to produce a vaccine in pill form anytime soon and so I will have to man up as they say.  Put on my big girl pants and go get the shot.  

Singing the ole Folsom Prison Blues

And to make matters worse, my cat has decided I am the worst human being on the planet.  He’s never been the friendliest of pusses but now he’s a complete pain in the patootie, especially as we must keep him inside the house at all times.  The Serial Biter, an apparently psychotic coyote, has been on the prowl in our neighborhood since last July.  Already two children, a jogger, a skateboarder and convenience store clerk have been attacked. Who knows how many kitties and small dogs have completely vanished. I say “a coyote” instead of a “couple of coyotes” because through DNA analysis they know it’s the work of one bad hombre.  (Well, bad to us but probably a legend in the coyote world)

The Serial Biter, perhaps. Gotta catch him/her first! From the SF Chronicle!

So far Serial Biter has outsmarted the animal control folks, who I’m sure, are fed up with the Wile e Coyote jokes at their expense. No word on what they plan to do:  round up all the coyotes, take their DNA and release the innocents?  And what about Serial Biter once they’ve identified him (or her)? No doubt some soft hearted animal lover will set up a GoFund Me to provide the poor critter with psychological help.  They certainly cannot – shudder – euthanize him.  Can you imagine the uproar?

Blind date leads to homicidal fantasies

I can’t say that “You’re Ugly, Too” by Lorrie Moore was the uplifting uniquely American story I was hoping to read after Saul Bellow’s “A Silver Dish” but it was funny.  In fact, sometimes hysterical. 

Here’s the plot in a nutshell: 
Zoe Hendricks teaches history at a small midwestern college where she is considered an odd duck for sometimes bursting into song. Her eccentricities are blamed on the fact that she is from the liberal east coast and she is still … gasp … single.  Her students are midwesterners who “seemed to know very little about anything but they were good-natured about it.”  However, when she starts teaching critical thinking skills, they begin to perceive her as a threat and start to write negative reviews about her job performance. And so she needs to get away.

Zoe singing for her new students

She decides to visit a sister (Evan) who is a part-time food designer in Manhattan. Evan lives with a boyfriend she is considering marrying but he has a peculiar way of climbing into bed and watches “fuzzy football” because he is too cheap to pay for cable television.  Evan has a man picked out for her sister who is “nice, fun and just going through a divorce” and she plans to introduce them at her Halloween party that night.  (Having once been set up on a blind date to a Halloween party with a man going through a divorce, I yelled out: run for the your life!)

Although Zoe’s recent dates have led her to believe that all men really want is a “Heidi” (blonde, buxom, cheerful and unambitious), she agrees. The man (Earl) shows up “dressed as a naked woman, steel wool glued strategically to a body stocking and large rubber breasts prodding like hams.” Obviously a true romantic.


Zoe, who’s recently undergone several “grams” to determine an unknown medical condition, can’t keep her eyes off the rubber boobs which seem to be constantly flopping about and mocking her.  (The title comes from a joke among breast cancer victims: The doctor says to his patient “You want a second opinion?  Okay, you’re ugly too.”) 

Zoe endures the date until realizing Earl actually has the hots for her sister.  Her tipping point comes after he asserts that female hormones are being “sprayed around and now men are screwing rocks!” Of course, she does what any normal woman in such a circumstance would do. She tries to shove him off the edge of a high-rise balcony.

I love the sardonic humor of Lorrie Moore’s writing. Here were just a few laugh out loud moments for me:

“Heidi did not do things like stand in front of the new IBM photocopier saying,”If this fucking Xerox machine breaks on me one more time, I’m going to slit my wrists.””

“I’m not married? Oh my God,” said Zoe, “I forgot to get married!”

“Do you suppose,” she babbled at the Xray technician, “that the rise in infertility among so many couples in this country is due to completely different species trying to reproduce.”

I’ve known many women undergoing breast cancer treatments (and scares) and dark sarcasm is often the way they cope … so this story rang true for me. Be honest: If you were on a blind date with someone like Earl, would you fantasize about shoving him off the edge of a balcony? I would!

What do you do about death …

I have finally returned to my attempt to read all one hundred of the Best American Short Stories of the Century. At the rate I’m going, it will probably take me the next one hundred years.

In his preface, John Updike, admits that his purpose was not to compile the best stories in the world, or even in the United States, but the best uniquely American stories. The definition of a uniquely American story is certainly a subject that could be debated ad nauseam. Americans are like people all over the world, are we not?  There are American farmers just as there are German farmers. Could it be our feet?  I have had people in other countries tell me they can always spot American tourists.  We’re the only bozos who wear tennis shoes nearly everywhere when they are clearly meant only to be worn on a tennis court. Pardonnez moi!

But of course, Updike was not referring to our shoes or our manner of farming. What do you think he defined as “a central strand in America’s collective story?” Yup, immigration. If you’re an American, the ancestors who brought you here often came with nothing thus their lives were “scramble and survival.” Some people maintained strong ties to old world traditions and some did not. How immigrants reacted to their new realities are in the stories told by their children and grandchildren.

Predicting Trumpism?

Saul Bellow was a writer primarily known for his connection to Chicago, a city I lived in for almost three years in my early twenties. Chi-town is a prototypical working class town/city.  Unlike the old money families on the East Coast, its millionaires are rough, generally unscrupulous men with ties to the mob.  This was particularly true during Bellow’s childhood. 

In 1979 he published a story called “The Silver Dish.” In this story Woody Selbst’s father believes abandoning and then betraying his family is the right thing to do because it makes his children (particularly his son) stronger.  He’s a con man, a liar and a grifter and yet people always seem willing to forgive him and even give him another chance. Like their neighbors, the Selbsts are recent immigrants for whom “money was a vital substance” and Christian charity came with a price, paid by the samaritan. Selbst is confused about everything in life; the hypocrisies of religion, the complications of romantic relationships, and in particular, why he can’t seem to condemn his father. Particularly on the last chance he has: his father’s deathbed. Indeed the story begins with the question “What do you do about death?” My reaction to this story was similar to my reaction to Updike’s own story “Gesturing”:  Beautifully written but deeply disconcerting.

There’s gotta be a more cheerful story in this collection!  Let’s see (from Updike’s intro) there’s “The Peach Stone:”  The burial of a child builds to a redemptive affirmation. I’ll pass on that one for now.

How about Edward Fenton’s “Burial in the Desert” I don’t even have to read the synopsis. No, no, no.

Then there’s Lorrie Moore’s: “You are Ugly Too”: …the heroine’s nearly consummated desire to push off the edge of a skyscraper, a man dressed in a marked-up body stocking, dressed as a woman.

That one might be cheerful.  What do you think?

Boy, dog and mackerel

My father claimed that he had no talents whatsoever. He was just an engineer. He made that claim as if having talent was a bad thing, which is odd considering the fact that his grandfather was a photographer of note in the Dakota Territory (late 1880s).  A fact I did not discover until after my father’s death. 

Unfortunately Great Grandpa Flaten died young and his widow married a judge.  A very practical, no-nonsense judge. Grief takes people in strange directions, or in my great grandmother’s case, toward comfort and solace. I suppose that’s when talent got a bad rep.

My grandmother as captured by her father

Although he claimed to have none of his grandfather’s talent, I remember a time when my father turned one of our bathrooms into a dark room. He covered the one window with black sheets of paper, laid out pans of solution on the vanity and used the shower curtain as a drying rack for his photos. He owned other cameras but a Brownie like this one was his favorite.

The following pictures were taken with the Brownie. They’re not in very good shape but I love the way he caught light and shadow.  

My brother and me

He also had a good sense of timing.

Look at the happiness on my brother’s face

Or here … a rapturous moment. Boy, dog and mackerel (at least I think it’s a mackerel).

And he had a way of predicting the future. This picture of me at age one … after taking a tumble down the stairs and banging my head … is exactly what I look like now decades later.

How did he do it? My wardrobe hasn’t even changed! Unfortunately the dark room was disassembled when he left us in Reno to get a PhD. Thereafter he seemed to lose interest.

More of grandmother … nice to think she was at one time happy!

I’m waiting on news of a friend which I fear has little chance of being good. But the Red Quill continues to grow. It’s now up to my knees. Time to order seeds. I need to see other signs of life rise from the ground.

What will you be planting this year? I’m thinking Shasta Daisies and ornamental grasses.

I Have To Believe In Something

tin hats

I just got off Skype.  I was talking to someone I love very much.  She is going through a difficult time in her life and I have been of very little help.  My heart knows.  My breathing knows. The clinch of my jaw knows. My mind races when I don’t talk to her for a few days, when she doesn’t answer the phone. It’s as if I’m walking alone at night and I’m in a strange city, empty streets, blank faces.  I’m lost in the city and the wind is cold, like the east coast or up north somewhere, and I feel worthless, alone. 

Earlier today I talked to Leland in Jordan.  He told me about sitting on a panel discussion in Cairo about child soldiers in the Central African Republic. He’d gotten 108 released from a training camp and as he addressed the people in the audience, he offhandedly…

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