Thursday, January 29, 2009

Dodging A Name Bullet

Parents like to tell their children what they almost named them when they were born, and sometimes we have to thank our lucky stars our parents came to the conclusion they did.

Other names my parents considered for me were Erika, Astrida and...Ursula. It’s not that anything in particular is wrong with these names, but something out of my parent’s control would have been VERY wrong if they had named me Ursula.

I was in third grade when one of the most beloved Disney movies of my generation came out: The Little Mermaid. I remember watching the movie over and over, signing “Part of Your World” in class with my girlfriends, and daydreaming about smooching a prince in a lagoon.

When I was older and my parents told me I was almost an “Ursula,” I realized I had dodged a serious name bullet! At a pivotal point in the development of my self-confidence I had almost shared the same name as the ultimate villain to third-graders across America—a fat, ugly, purple Octopus-woman—Ursula would have been the end of me, I’m sure of it. Kids would have been relentless. To make matters worse, a pretty little girl with long blonde hair moved to our town that same year. Her name was Ariel. She became one of my good friends, but if I was Ursula I am convinced she would have been my nemesis just like in the movie. It would have been a self-fulfilling prophecy—I’d blow up like a blimp, my skin turning a pale shade of lavender, and who knows, I’d probably even grow an extra leg or two. I am eternally thankful to my parents for choosing “Amber.” This could have been me.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Story of the Seasons

One of my favorite myths of all time is that of Persephone and Demeter. It's the myth about how the seasons came to be.

Young Persephone (daughter of Demeter and Zeus) was picking flowers with her friends. She wandered off and suddenly the ground beneath her opened and Hades abducted her into the Underworld to be his Queen. Demeter was so grief-stricken that she wandered the Earth in search of her daughter and ignored her principle duties of replenishing the Earth (she's the goddess of harvest)...and everything began to die. Zeus was so troubled by this he demanded Hades return Persephone to her mother, but before Persephone left, Hades offered her a pomegranate seed, which she ate. Because she ate a food of the Underworld she could never fully Zeus struck a deal...Persephone would stay with Hades for half the year and Demeter could mourn during this time (fall and winter); the other half of the year Persephone would return to her mother and Demeter would have to replenish the earth (spring and summer).

When my family first moved to California and I came to visit I felt like I was traveling between two worlds: one frozen in winter and another suspended in eternal sunshine. Now that I'm in San Diego "full-time" I imagine this is what it would be like if Persephone had left the Underworld without any hiccups. It would be beautiful all the time but we would miss out on the wonderment of the seasons. Winter is a time of reflection, rest and replenishing; without it we move forward with no break in the routine and we risk burning out. There is some discrepancy with the myth as to whether or not Persephone ate the pomegranate seed on purpose...maybe she liked the idea of being Queen (who wouldn't?); maybe she wanted to prove that she was grown up and ready to live on her own, or maybe she knew that her choice would set the seasons in motion.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

*Please See Attached

I have a secret love for forms and surveys. Something about systematically outlining information and/or my opinions for others to read makes me happy. In fact, it makes me so happy I usually get carried away. I think it's the inner writer/over-achiever that makes me elaborate to an extent that no form collector ever intended. When I see "yes" or "no" questions I find myself writing side notes in the margins, and I despise open-ended questions that don't give enough room to even begin to answer the question.

When I was entering college I took my roommate survey very seriously. I was going to be living in a room (scratch that—a small cell) with a complete stranger. There were multiple-choice questions on the form concerning bedtime and cleaning habits. But if you ask me, there were not nearly enough questions. I wanted to see questions on religion, politics, philosophy, background checks...this was a very important match they would be making. And at the very end there was one line—ONE LINE—to include anything else about yourself/your expectations concerning rooming. And underneath that it said, *If needed, attach additional notes. I wrote *Please see attached (which took up the whole line they had provided), got out my notepad and went to work..."I am a quiet person in general but I like to be social at times too. I don't like girls who like drama. I enjoy running and dancing and I love the ocean. I have an appreciation for the creative arts. I'm very clean. I'm a Libra, which means I'm very balanced and I'd like a roommate who exhibits those same traits. Gemini's typically annoy me...[no coincidence it's my sister's sign]" Two pages later I felt satisfied. They knew everything they needed to place me with my perfect roommate. In retrospect, I am surprised they didn't revoke my admission.

It didn't take me long to realize the only thing the admission office read on those roommate surveys was the male/female box. No one reads surveys. Secretly I know this. They are simply a formality. But one thing the college experience taught me was that my long-winded responses are also only a formality. It’s a way for me to know I did my part...but when I find out I have two a Gemini who talks to herself while I'm trying to do my homework, another who's dirty sock monsters spill out of every drawer and closet all over the room...I can say, "Well, at least I tried, but this will do." I think other people know, more than I do, that once I'm in a situation I can revise my expectations and I can enjoy it...that’s because most people are more relaxed about things than I am.

My two roomies and I were the only "forced triple" (room meant for two that they put three girls in) in the dorm to make it through the entire year without one of us demanding to move out. Somehow by NOT listening to me, admissions had placed me with two of the best roommates for me. Moral of the story: Sometimes you have to have faith that fate will run its course and it will all work out for the best. A very hard concept for an over-prepared Libra to accept. Has that stopped me from writing short novels on comment cards and surveys? Absolutely not.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Blame Game

I have a theory that any problem I encounter in my life, any problem at all, is caused by one of two people—my younger sister, Eva or George W. If I suddenly couldn't find the Easter candy I'd been saving; if something is broken, or if my parents are trying to find the source of a sky-high phone bill...all signs point to Eva. When food and gas prices rise, my savings interest rate drops, or the world starts to fall's George. Sometimes the lines get blurred, so I just blame them both. I swear that you could trace the root of any problem back to one of these two culprits. While I have no doubt we will be feeling the ripple effect of the past eight years for much longer, tonight is the last night I can really blame George for any problems that arise...sorry, sis, it's all on you now. (Hands off those jelly beans under my bed!)

Saturday, January 17, 2009

What Maya Perhaps Hears

The following poem is by one of my favorite poets, Lisel Mueller. It makes me think about Maya's alertness and her truck and bus phobia...the way she raises a cautionary paw when she hears the rumble of a big engine from blocks away, ducks her head, and if she's on a leash, starts "swimming" on the pavement trying to pull as fast and as hard as she can to get away. If she's not on a leash she makes a break for it. She looks behind her to see if we're following her to safety, but if we're not coming fast enough she pretty much says, "Screw you; I'm saving myself," and keeps running.

In a way I can understand...have you seen those tracker trailers with the jaws painted on the front grill? And the buses I used to take to high school drove 65 miles an hour down quaint, residential streets. The drivers used to hit street signs along the way and one guy hit a car and would have kept driving if a kid on the bus didn't start yelling, "That was my brother's car!" I was afraid of buses too. I can only imagine what they sound and look like to Maya with her heightened senses. I wonder what else she can hear "above that shut-off level of our simple ears."

What the Dog Perhaps Hears
By Lisel Mueller

If an inaudible whistle
blown between our lips
can send him home to us,
then silence is perhaps

the sound of spiders breathing

and roots mining the earth;

it may be asparagus heaving,

headfirst, into the light

and the long brown sound

of cracked cups, when it happens.

We would like to ask the dog

if there is a continuous whir

because the child in the house

keeps growing, if the snake

really stretches full length

without a click and the sun

breaks through the clouds without
a decibel of effort,
whether in autumn, when the trees

dry up their wells, there isn't a shudder
too high for us to hear.

What is it like up there
above the shut-off level

of our simple ears?

For us there was no birth cry,

the newborn bird is suddenly here,
the egg broken, the nest alive,
and we heard nothing when the world changed.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009


I always see people walking and running along a path that I drive by every day on my way to and from work. The path winds down a curvy hill and continues through a pretty patch of trees across from the golf course. The trees intrigued me...actual trees with branches and leaves that provide shade (as opposed to palm trees) are hard to come across in San Diego. Last weekend I told Tommie we were taking a marathon walk to see where the path went. He groaned; I glared; he put on his shoes.

Standing under the trees you could almost pretend you were somewhere in the long as you turned your back to the golfers, the cars whizzing by and ignored the planes on their loud decent. I miss the stillness and solitude of the woods.

After my daydream among the trees, the path continued upward. For some reason people like to smash bottles on all the paths out here which means Tommie has to carry a squirming 40lb dog up the hill. Now it was his turn to glare.
The path came to an end at the park overlooking the skyline. Satisfied with my knowledge of where it led, we headed home.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Tales As Old As Time

"After all manner of professors have done their best for us, the place we are to get knowledge is in books. The true university of these days is a collection of books." —Albert Camus

I've been into reading "the classics" lately. Even as an English major I've found there are still a lot of books I have yet to read to earn the right to call myself a true English major dork (then all I need are 25 cats and I can become the crazy old bat English major).

I love being able to read these books at my leisure and not feel the pressure of thinking about what essay topic I need to write about as I read them now for fun instead of for school. I do, however, miss the class discussions. I miss learning. I feel like I miss out on a lot of the little nuances (or sometimes miss the book's message entirely) without a professor to fill me in.

It took me a while to get back into reading after graduation, I was so sick of it. Now, a few years later, I'm back in my element...perusing used bookstores, reading during lunch break or before I go to bed. My problem now is space. I dream of built-in bookshelves, separate sections for my poetry books and Tommie's over-sized history/sociology books (that's what he gets for always reading non-fiction). I'm like Belle in Beauty and the Beast...I would be thrilled if a hairy, grizzly man set up a library for me in his rundown mansion.

Tommie and I sometimes spend hours creating virtual color pallets for our dream library (and the whole house) we don't have. It's sick really, but I've always been a fan of fiction...a girl can dream. Someday I'll have the house, the library, the 25 cats, and I wouldn't mind dancing in a ballroom with a charming grizzly man either.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

I'm Not Getting Any Younger

When I first saw the previews for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button I was miffed because a few years ago I had thought, "I wonder what life would be like if humans were born old and got younger as time went on?" I thought someone stole my idea until I looked it up and found out good 'ole F. Scott Fitzgerald thought of it first. Shoot!

I dragged Tommie to the movie because I absolutely love the concept. My sister says it's creepy and scares her and she refuses to see it. In a way, she's right—it was creepy watching a man (even a man as studly as Brad Pitt) get younger while the love of his life gets older. It was tragic, sad, but it was also completely romantic. The theme of life and death so intricately woven throughout the film emphasizes the idea that each of us has a timeline that stretches from birth to death, and regardless of which way that timeline is moving, it's what goes on in the middle of those two fixed points that counts. Tommie and I really enjoyed the movie even if it did leave us in an overly contemplative mood.

I can relate to Benjamin because my friends and family like to tease me that I'm really 85-years-old (only in reality I am and look like a person in their mid-twenties). I can't help it if I say words like "yikes" and "snazzy" or phrases like "She's a dish," or "What a snoozer," or if whenever I act my (real) age and go out to bars or parties I have to recuperate for several months afterwards because I'm pooped. Being young is exhausting. I don't like getting older but Benjamin didn't have it easy going the other direction either.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Compliments of the Chef

Tommie and I have known each other for 100 years (give or take) and when we met we were so young I don’t think we knew how to turn on an oven let alone cook a meal. I always wanted a guy in my life who could cook and I’m happy to report Tommie’s doing his part. He says I don’t give him enough credit though and it’s not because I don’t think his cooking is good…it’s because I just don’t give out compliments willy-nilly…well truthfully, I don’t really give them out at all. My Dad and I are alike in that way. We both say that when we think someone looks nice or when they cook something yummy we think it in our heads, we just don’t say it out loud. This drives my Mom and Tommie crazy. See, as I’m eating the food I’m thinking, “Mmmm, scrumptious,” and I assume that by my eating it the chef knows that I think it’s good. I’m just not that expressive or enthusiastic by nature (remember the MTV cartoon “Daria?”). I think it’s better to be selective with compliments lest people expect them too often. But I’ll throw Tommie a bone today (I must not be feeling well) since he did cook a good recipe from Sam the Cooking Guy: Buffalo Chicken Pizza. Yes, it was scrumptious—and Maya agreed (those are her shiny eyeballs lurking behind the pizza in the photo above).

Don’t worry, Maya got a couple pieces of chicken...after all, she compliments Tommie more than I do.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Treking On

Whenever I travel inland from San Diego, I look up at the rocks jetting out from the surfaces of the craggy hills and mountains and can't help thinking, “Who in their right mind crossed over these things to start a life out here?”

San Diego sits like the Garden of Eden along the Pacific Ocean but if you are driving in from anywhere east you have to go through desert and rocky cliffs to get here. We have it easy nowadays. We can fly in—it isn’t until the plane is about to land that the city and harbor appear from the dark desert landscape like an oasis. Or we can drive. I remember the home stretch of my road trip out here from Boston—getting lost in the valleys of Temecula, California. I sat in my air-conditioned car, binging on peanut butter crackers and whining about the never-ending bends and turns in the road. The landscape looked like something the Hobbits had to cross over with their precious ring. I thought about the families who came here on foot or in covered wagons. They had no major roads to follow, no mix CDs playing "Love Shack" on repeat, and no Dairy Queens to indulge every quarter mile. I swear that if I were one of them, when my horse pulled up to the bottom of one of those unfriendly looking mountain masses I’d say, “No way, Jose. This is it. I’m planting myself on this dry, flat piece of land and never moving again.” And someone with more optimism would say, “Come on—we don’t even know what’s on the other side.” And I’d say, “You said that about the last 10 mountain tops!” I would probably stay there at the bottom of that cragged mountain and open up the first Dairy Queen…an ambitious goal but not the point—I would have missed everything. Just think how beautiful the vast Pacific Ocean looked when they first saw it: the seaside cliffs, dolphins jumping, seals perched on warm rocks. These things I too would have missed if I didn't, if my family didn't, take a risk and move here.

As terrified as I am of change, I know that a life without change isn't worth living (not to mention it's impossible). As I grow older I know that I’ll come face to face with a lot of ugly looking mountain ranges (figuratively speaking) blocking my way and I’ll be tempted to stop in my tracks and turn briskly back around because it's easier, safer and more practical (all traits a true Libra loves), but my hope is that I will push on—keep exploring, dreaming and taking risks (within reason, of course). Who knows...on the other side of every mountain could be a sparkling ocean...or, at the very least, a Dairy Queen (mmmm).

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Poem by Mary Oliver

I remember reading Mary Oliver's poem Sleeping in the Forest during a writing class. We only read the one poem by her but that brief encounter left me wanting to read more. She is a true observer of the natural world and through her words the reader can appreciate a deeper connection to nature.

When I went to the bookstore I couldn't decide which of her poetry books to get so I opted for her "New and Selected Poems: Volume One" figuring it would give me a sampling of her work. My favorite section is from her book "American Primitive" and The Sea is probably my favorite poem from the collection.

Growing up in a New England coastal village (photo below), the Atlantic Ocean was a central part of my surroundings and my life. My memories are filled with salty summer days, unforgiving storms, restless nights listening to the waves break, the moon's reflection against the black water...I loved the ocean so much that I sometimes felt as if I wasn't that far removed from it. The ocean was as much a part of my home as the land. I wrote poems of my own to express this connection—this almost "lack of evolution" that causes people who grow up on the sea to feel as if they haven't fully evolved from their ancient ocean ancestors. Oliver's poem captures that feeling—that pull back to our original home—and reads almost like a tale of human evolution on rewind.

The Sea
by Mary Oliver

Stroke by
stroke my
body remembers that life and cries for
the lost parts of itself—
fins, gills
opening like flowers into
the flesh—my legs
want to lock and become
one muscle, I swear I know
just what the blue-gray scales
the rest of me would
feel like!
paradise! Sprawled
in that motherlap,
in that dreamhouse
of salt and exercise,
what a spillage
of nostalgia pleads
from the very bones! how
they long to give up the long trek
inland, the brittle
beauty of understanding,
and dive,
and simply
become again a flaming body
of blind feeling
sleeking along
in the luminous roughage of the sea's body,
like victory inside that
insucking genesis, that
roaring flamboyance, that
beginning and
conclusion of our own.

Friday, January 2, 2009

As Luck Would Have It

Yesterday, on the first day of 2009, I took all precautions (with the help of some feathered friends) to ensure that 2009 will be a lucky year.

My grandmother once told my sister and I that it was good luck to say “Rabbit, Rabbit” on the first day of each month. It has to be the very
first thing you say when you wake up in the morning or else it doesn’t count. There were many months I forgot to say it and I don’t particularly remember if any of them were any more unlucky than the rest, but yesterday morning I recalled the old saying and thought, well, it couldn't hurt: “Rabbit, Rabbit.”

Later that day, Tommie and I ventured on a walk to my parent’s house with Maya. They live about 1.5 miles away and Dad said he’d walk and meet us halfway. As we neared their neighborhood a flock of homing pigeons circled ahead. We watched them do their dance—swooping and swerving through the sky before perching gracefully on some telephone wires several feet in front of us. My Dad and Tommie were next to me as we walked underneath them and I looked up for a moment before deciding that was probably unwise. I had a funny feeling…“I’m going to get crapped on—” and just as the sentence finished coming out of my mouth, a little brown and white turd plopped down from the heavens. “Oh my god, I did.” I
wasn’t so surprised to see it there on my shoulder—only surprised that it seemed as if by my saying it, I had put it there myself. My Dad couldn't believe it. “I consider that very good luck!” he said. It’s not the first time (and probably won’t be the last) I’ve been christened with crap. At an early age my parents were sure to fill me in on the superstitious wisdom that being pooped on by birds was good luck. I think they made it sound extra special so that I wouldn’t start crying. I don’t consider myself a lucky person (although I do have a knack for winning pointless prizes in raffles) but I can’t say that I’ve had an unlucky life either. Maybe there is something to the old superstition after all. And if that’s the case, there’s nothing like starting the new year off with a mound of watery poo smack on the shoulder.

After lunch (and rinsing off my shoulder, of course) my Mom presented us each with a potato. We have been doing this tradition for as long as I can remember…on January 1st we plant a potato in the ground for good luck. Honestly, I don’t know where this ritual came from or if anyone else does it.

It sounds like something a farmer might do to will a good year of crops…a sacrifice to the gods of agriculture. We’re not farmers, but some years the potato has actually grown into a sturdy little plant. When we lived in the Northeast, there were times the ground was too frozen to plant in it so we’d open one of the second floor windows and chuck the thing into the snow. Weeks later my grandfather (who lived in the house behind ours and took pride in his nice yard) would find a potato or two strewn about and mutter, “
What the Hell?” This year, we each planted a different colored spud into the clover patch at the top of the canyon. For fun (and because I’m a little sinister) I told Tommie to toss his yellow potato at Mom’s behind as she bent over the dirt muttering something about her black potatoes symbolizing a good year with Michelle and Barack.

I don’t yet know if ’09 will be a good year, but my shoulder’s been blessed and Obama’s been planted…at least we’ve done everything we can to make sure it will be a lucky one.