I had a college classmate who said that papers were like babies: you put all this work into them, then must let them out in the world to stand on their own. Or in the case of papers, hand them over to a critical professor. Sometimes you hear, “Great job,” but other times, “Your baby has developmental issues.” It’s even more painful when you’re an adult – when instead of cramming for a day or two, you’ve spent months or longer writing a novel and you hand it over to someone who then asks, “Is your protagonist supposed to be autistic?” Now, if I’d written a novel with an autistic character, I’d have celebrated. But I hadn’t. Another person used the word “psycho.” Again, not the vision I had for my character.

Criticism is tough. I knew my book was not perfect, that it needed work. But a lot of creativity and time went into my character, so learning that people found her mean and unlikeable felt a bit like getting sucker punched. I pushed it away from me, not having the energy or the wherewithal to spend even more time on a project that was clearly doomed.

Then other day, I had something of an epiphany, by way of my knitting. I’d screwed up a row on my current project, but not noticed it immediately. At first, I’d thought it was a tiny error that would be unnoticeable after the whole thing was done. (For the knitters: I thought it was an issue of gauge that would block out.) I kept blithely along, but the more I knit, the more I noticed my mistake, and the more it bugged me. What had happened? I analyzed my knitting and finally realized I’d screwed up – a rookie mistake, at that. (For the knitters: I’d been alternating skeins and had inadvertently knit right to left twice in a row, thus adding a row of stockinette to all my garter ridges.) This mistake would always stick out – even if it was perfectly symmetrical with the shawl – at least to me, it would. I could not let it go. See what I mean?

Oops, there it is!

I ripped back. It wasn’t about wanting perfection, but about respecting the process enough to not rush through it toward a shoddy finish. I undid several hours worth of work in a few minutes, and as I painstakingly picked up all those stitches, I realized – in a moment of insight – that THIS was no different than my writing. How can I willingly rip back and edit my knitting and yet find it painful in my writing? Knitting is a relatively simple craft, but I still make mistakes. Writing, on the other hand, is a complex craft that takes ages to refine and hone. Of course I will make mistakes! In fact, if I didn’t, I’d still be writing like a first-grader. Certainly I need to go back, erase, cut, eviscerate, change, strengthen, and polish.

My first piece of knitting was a plain square. I moved on to hats and then eventually to lacy, complicated shawls. No matter the end goal, I knit one stitch at a time. Likewise, one word at a time leads to sentences and paragraphs. Ultimately, one word at a time leads to a novel. Sometimes, you have to go backward. It’s all part of the process. My book is not doomed; it’s just not done.

I need to get out of here. It’s all a big mistake. I know the truth.

The problems began when Brandon entered Claire’s room. He shouldn’t have been there. Claire’s grandmother would have disapproved, asked “what about propriety?” and warned her about boys who expect too much.

Immediately, he laughed. “Is every girl required to go through a horse phase?”

“Required, no. But I did. I loved my pony. But now I…never mind. Ignore all that. Pay attention to me.” And he did – so much attention, to so much of her.

It started small. A few toys thrown to the floor. Claire said, “Brandon, I told you to leave them alone.”

“I didn’t touch anything.” He sneered and pointed, “Maybe that creepy doll did it.”

“Shut up! Charlie was my grandma’s, and he’s not creepy.”

“Charlie?”

“Well, Grandma called him Charlemagne, but that was hard for me, so I renamed him Charlie.”

“More like Chuck.” He turned me to face the wall. “I won’t be stared at by some effed-up doll.”

“Heirloom. And I’m not kidding. Don’t touch him.” Claire patted my head and apologized as she righted me on the shelf, reminding me of how her grandmother Amelia carried me everywhere and confided in me.

A few days later, Claire and Brandon entered the room to find everything in disarray.

“Not funny, Brandon.”

“What? I didn’t do this. I was with you.”

“You snuck in instead of going to the bathroom.”

“I did not come up here. I wouldn’t come in here without you. One, it’s wrong and two, your toys kind of disturb me.”

“You’re ridiculous.”

“No, I’m not. Look at this.” He waved at the mess on the floor. “Especially after this. I don’t like them. It’s like they’re cursed or possessed. They’re waking up for Halloween. It’s a horror movie set. How old are you, anyway? Get rid of them.”

“You’re trying to mess with my mind. This is some elaborate prank. It’s not funny.”

“I’m not kidding. Lose the wicked doll.” He picked me up and scurried to the window.

“Don’t! Leave Charlemagne alone! Get out.”

“I’ll go, but at least put Chucky” – he said it with such disdain – “somewhere he can’t do any more damage. Or worse yet, harm you.” Then he whispered.  “Please.”

She nodded, and he shoved me here, inside her “hope chest” – an ironic name for what’s become my prison. I’m innocent. They’ll see.

The problems started when Brandon arrived, but they’ll only worsen now that he’s gone. I hope for everyone – especially for Claire – that she either talks to her again or gives her away. Before jealous rage converts her wiggling ears, swishing tails, and winking eyes into more lethal magic.

While I’ve seen girls grow up and push me aside for boys, she has not.  She doesn’t realize that with some luck and good behavior, she’ll be saved for a new generation to love.

Pretty? Pony? Hardly. More like Her Green-Eyed Monster.

The best-laid plans of mice and men oft go…to the mosquitos?

No, no. “Oft go awry.” But if a pond full of mosquito larvae isn’t “awry,” I don’t know what is.

We were so excited by our DIY conversion of trash-to-treasure – that is, rusty bathtub to teal water garden – that we failed to think through all the potential ramifications. Isn’t that how every horror movie starts? This one is titled Maureen vs. The Mosquitos.

That would be the shortest movie ever. Mosquitoes hatch, find Maureen, eat her alive. The end. Seriously, if I’m in a room of 100 people and one mosquito, it will bite me 99 times. My brother-in-law tells people, “If Maureen’s around, you don’t need mosquito repellent. You’re safe.” I’m delicious.

The process went like this:

Rusty inside.

Rusty outside. Step one: move out of way of mowing equipment.

Step Two: notice holes look like Mr. Bill’s face, then cover them with metal.

Step Three: Bondo. For filling all kinds of bodies. This is not a sponsored post. Obviously.

Step Four: Move again, this time away from house. Prime and prime again.

Step Five: Paint! The best part. Still not a sponsored post.

Step Six: Leave it in the yard for weeks, but admire the color when you walk by. Send pics to friends and ask them to guess its destiny.

Step Seven: Move to its final location. Curse how heavy the tub is and how many times you’ve moved it. Level the ground and move it around some more. Fill with water.

Step Eight: Add plants. Admire handiwork. Gloat a little. A month later, run to the pond store for tiny little mosquitofish.

We thought a water garden would be a fun way to convert a rusty eyesore to a – dare I say whimsical? – conversation-starter. We scraped, applied Bondo, spray-painted, painted again, leveled the ground and filled it up. We added water plants and felt satisfied. We hoped the oxygenator we installed would keep down the algae and larvae. Our hopes were dashed: in little over a month, we had an algae-filled mosquito swamp.

We hadn’t gotten fish because we have raccoons and other critters and didn’t want to set up an all-you-can-eat sushi bar for wildlife. But we needed fish. Badly. Five days after fish entered tub (tiny little fish, not koi), it’s already clearer and the larvae population is down.

I won’t have to flee in terror, after all.

I have a confession to make: before I have a get-together or party, I worry that it will suck. What if it’s not fun? What if the food is terrible? What if nobody talks to each other, or worse yet, what if they do and realize they really don’t like each other? While I know it’s irrational – after all, my people are fun – the worry seeps in every time.

On Saturday, we celebrated my fiftieth (50th!) birthday. Nearly twenty years ago, I came up with a theme for a party, “Come as a Song.” I never had the space to throw a costume party, and when we got married, I was informed that some of our friends wouldn’t show up for a costume party. Some time in the past few months, I decided, “What the heck?! It’s my birthday. MY party! I’m going for it.” I rationalized it was the cleverest costume party ever, because if guests weren’t into it, they could simply root through their closets, find something to wear, and google song lyrics. Still, as the party approached, stupid worries started nagging: What if people hate the theme and all come in everyday clothes, and on top of that don’t have a good time?

The worry stage, pre-party.
(The centerpieces were melted albums with candy inside. Each candy bowl had lyrics to go with them.)

All my worries got smashed to bits. It was a freaking blast! Every single person had a lyric to accompany their outfit, and more people than anticipated truly got into it. I had so much fun. It was two days ago and I’m still feeling high – and no, I never got high. I didn’t take a single picture, because I was too busy enjoying my guests, their costumes, and their friendship. So these photos are from other people, and sorry I can’t properly credit them.

Someone said, “Make a speech.” For all my public speaking experience, I was at a loss for words. I said something to the effect of, “I searched online for song lyrics about friendship, but they’re all hideously sappy. I am so thankful you all came, and your friendship means the world to me.”

“It’s my party, and I’ll cry IF I want to.”

Truth is, I cut myself short not for lack of words but for an overabundance of emotions that threatened to come pouring out as tears. Happy tears, yes, tears of gratitude, but I didn’t want to cry (even though my costume WAS “It’s my party, and I’ll cry if I want to”). I wanted to wholeheartedly savor my party and what it represented: surviving a half-century and being surrounded by my people – the family and friends who know me and love me and are willing to dress in drag or steampunk or rain gear all to help me celebrate this milestone. When I was younger, I wondered sometimes if I’d make it to fifty, and on the darkest of days, questioned if I even wanted to. Damn, I am glad I did, and that I have an incredible band of traveling companions with me on this road!

I should have been in the middle, with one on each shoulder.

Prince for the win.

Wait, another Prince song!

Lola and Tony?

Lola and Rico.

Muskrat Love!

“A man’s friendships are one of the best measures of his worth.” ~Darwin
“A woman’s, too. And by that measure, I’m loaded.” ~Maureen

“I have learned that to be with those I like is enough.” ~Walt Whitman
“Dressed as a song, WAY more than enough!” ~Maureen

“The greatest gift of life is friendship, and I have received it.” ~Hubert H. Humphrey
“Awww, yeah!” ~Maureen

A few weeks ago, I saw a woman walking out of a store carrying a skull about three feet high with a spider coming out of its eye socket. “That’s spectacular,” I said, to which she replied with a laugh, “I KNOW! I’m totally going to show up the two gay guys who live across the street!” With an attitude like that, I assumed she lived in Petaluma, but no, she lives up north. Happy Halloween to her and to all!

Not as many people decorated this year. The decorating pirates of Cavity Cove are out of town, and that leaves a sad, sad hole in its place.

But my other crazy buddies are at it, as good as ever. This year, a camping theme:

This is what happens to Christmas reindeer who come out too early. Don’t try to usurp Halloween!

w00t! White water rafting from the roof!

Led by Mr. Bean

But the water’s not always safe.

The homeowner was busy decorating, so I asked permission to take photos. “Sure. Are you going to be around on Halloween night?” When I said probably not, she said, “Well, go in the garage. There’s more. It’s going to be GHOUL SCOUT CAMP!”

These people are my heroes.

Welcome to Troop 666

I wanted to take more pictures of the garage, because it was a treasure trove. But that made me feel creepier than all the insects and taxidermy on the other wall. (Maybe next year.)

Camp Kill-O-A

Kill-O-A at Lake Lucifer is protected! If the animatronic guard dog doesn’t get you…

This killer raccoon will.

   

Halloween in Petaluma, it sucks you in!

Many people cry when they leave home, but I’ve cried when I have to return. When my year as an exchange student ended, I sobbed. While I looked forward to seeing family and friends, I was leaving both a life-changing adventure and my first real love behind. I didn’t know when I’d be able to return.

A few years later, between my first and second semester in graduate school, I traveled sola through Costa Rica for almost a month. I seriously contemplated sending a postcard home telling my parents to sell my car and send the proceeds. Responsibility won in the end, and I traveled home and finished school. But I cried the night before I left. I’ve never been back.

My recent travels, in contrast, have been as tear-free as baby shampoo. I’ve finally reached a wonderful stage of life – one in which I love traveling, but I also love coming home. And for the record, I felt this way before we moved into our own house. I do love our house, but I also love our local friends, our community, and the rural-suburban blend of Petaluma.

That made leaving on our latest trip strange. We left for a (long-planned) vacation only two days into the Sonoma County wildfires. When we left – the fires uncontained, the air thick with smoke – we were unsure if we’d have house to return to. It was unnerving to leave, even though I knew I’d be useless to save our place if fire came.

The clean, beautiful Hawaiian air was better for my asthma. Still, everywhere we went, people asked about the fires. We checked the news more regularly than we otherwise would on vacation. My phone pinged with texts from worried friends and family. The constant stories of loss, the statistics on containment, the maps of destruction, they were everywhere. My heart broke, and it continues to ache, for those who lost their homes.

We’re so lucky. Not only to be able to travel, but to have a place to come home to – a place filled with stories of generosity and bravery. Firefighters who risked their lives, restaurateurs who fed evacuees and refused payment, churches and gyms that served as shelters. I loved Kauai, but I love Sonoma County more. And I love her and her people more now than ever!

Absolutely! (Warning: this leads to ear worm song.)

Just like home! Petaluma used to be the Chicken Capital of the World. Kauai is vying for the title.

This hike skirted the edge of cliffs, but didn’t try to kill me.

The only good flames. Hot rod — er, rusty truck — flames.

He may be selfie-averse, but he keeps me laughing! (Happy anniversary!)

Hey, Kauai, please send more of your rain our way!

WTF happened to the practice of counting change? Before: you went to the store, the total was $7.25, you gave the clerk $10, and she said, “75 gives you 8, and 9 and 10.” Now: total is $7.25, you give the clerk $10, and If you’re lucky, she says, “2.75 is your change.” More often than not, she simply shoves a bunch of change at you.

This irks me on more than one level. First, customer service. It’s not particularly friendly to jam a fistful of money at someone. Second, it makes me feel like a miser who’s slowing down the line when I purposely stop to count my change and make sure I received the correct amount. (Note: it’s not always the correct amount. I tell them either way.)

I’ve noticed on the rare occasion that someone counts out change in old-school style, they are almost always over the age of 40. Seriously, pay attention and report back to me. Do you get your change counted out? Is the person 40+?

 

The first time I taught, I was a young-looking 28 or 29. Many of my students were in their 20s. I looked like one of them. I had to convince them I was the teacher. Last Tuesday when I walked in to my classroom at the local junior college, I had to bite my tongue not to blurt out, “I am not your teacher.”

I’m a student again, though I don’t have a back-to-school photo to prove it. While I’ve taken workshops for fun and attended seminars for work, I haven’t been an official student since the 90s. My classmates weren’t even born yet.

Why am I back in school? I’ve always loved learning, but I never took an economics class. The older I get, the more that feels like a gaping hole in my education. In high school, it’s a common subject, but it wasn’t taught in mine. In college I was nearly killed by pre-calculus, so anything that involved graphs or required calculators terrified me. I’ve since figured out a lot of economics from self-study and reading newspapers but felt I’d learned all I could on my own.

Now I have Macroeconomics two days a week — complete with textbooks, a scientific calculator, quizzes, and tests. Here’s to hoping it’s enlightening. Now, I’ve got to go read about the GDP.

“Companion” stems from the Latin words com + panis with and bread – that is, the person you break bread with. I love that, not only because eating together is a joyful part of friendship but also because I am a huge word nerd.

When I learned Count is from the Latin word for companion, I knew I had the perfect title for the voice in my head that tells me to eat when I shouldn’t. I’ve mentioned before that the voice is as tempting as a Latin lover. Thus, the Count. Count Who?

Count Adipose. Put less eloquently (less Latin-ly?), “The Earl of Fatty.”

I hate envy admire the people who don’t have internal, infernal struggles with food – those people who naturally stop before they’re full, who can bypass chocolate altogether or be satisfied with one small piece. I am not one of those people. When I’m feeling good and things are going well, I can pretend to be. I can act like one of those people, but it doesn’t come naturally or easily.

With continued pretending, perhaps healthy eating habits will become habitual and The Count will win only on the most special occasions. Habitual is not the same as natural, but I’ll take it.  

Growing up as an addict in California, I never got the fix I needed. A Christmas addict, that is — and more importantly, a Christmas carol addict. I’ve been dreaming of a white Christmas since I first sang the song. But in coastal California, the closest we ever get to a white Christmas is a foggy one, and trust me it’s just not postcard worthy. I’ve wanted a white Christmas forever, and this past year I finally had one thanks to a family reunion in Montreal. Family was fantastic, and the snow was as good as I’d hoped it would be.

Snow!

A real reason to wear knit hat. Snow!

Having grown up in temperate California, I was afraid I’d look like a dorky gigantic Michelin man in my down coat. I was assured that I’d look just like everyone else. I did, in fact, look like everyone else. And within a few minutes of being toasty warm despite the snow, I didn’t care how poofy I appeared.

Snowball

Snowball in his hand. Not really a fair fight, because he has much more experience than me.

montreal-5

Clock tower along the banks of the Saint Lawrence River.

I managed to get a picture of this non-existent triathlon, but I missed an awesome video opportunity. There was an outdoor skating rink near the river, and people were skating in the snow. The loudspeakers were blasting the theme song from Frozen in French. I laughed out loud, because the lyrics “The snow never bothered me, anyway,” have never been more appropriate than in that very moment. (But it was way too cold at that point to take off my gloves and fumble with camera settings.)

race

Strangely enough, we didn’t see many competitors. (Bad race director.)

montreal-1-2

This racer gave up the fight.

Speaking of opportunities, we did not miss our chance for a Christmas treat — pulled maple. The snow-town moral equivalent of saltwater taffy. Yum. Tasty as it was, though, it wasn’t nearly as delicious as many of the meals we had while there. The food in Montreal is delicious, and not just the poutine. All the food.

montreal-4

Maple on snow, a Quebecois treat.

montreal-3

It ends up a sticky delicious maple lollipop. One a year would be plenty.

happy

Tire sur niege means taffy on snow. It also translates to happy husband.

And some holiday magical moments…

montreal-2

Christmas Eve fireworks over the river. Snow & fireworks, both! My head nearly exploded from joy.

montreal-1

Christmas Day hike up Mount Royal.

We would have had fun together no matter where we were, but special thanks to my crew for indulging me my long-time dream of a white Christmas (even though they’ve each had plenty of them and would have been just as happy with a sunny beach).