Monday, November 5, 2012

Frankenwind Sandypants

I had a warm check-in email from the Super yesterday, full of details about alarms going off in this and the other buildings he cares for, a picture of some almost-NYC-marathoners he met, best wishes to JP for his 30th birthday, and love and hugs. Of course, I don’t know a JP, 30 years old or otherwise, and don’t believe that my super has even one warm feeling for me at all. Nor is he, as he signs his note, my dad.
But this apartment is now my home, and I have been living in it for two long months. In my dreams I still live in Seattle, or in that funny house up a dirt road in the country that rambles on and on and has wallpapered rooms beyond rooms beyond rooms. Two nights ago I spoke to one of our old Seattle neighbors in my dream, and when I woke up I was in a hotel by Lincoln Center, having fled the cold and dark apartment with the kids for a few nights of electricity and room service.
The storm warnings began the week before. The media was calling it a ”Frankenstorm,” a triple whammy of a late hurricane, merged with a Nor’easter, coinciding with a full moon and high tide. We were supposed to get ready. We felt ready; we had candles.
Water supply, 10/27/12
Saturday the 27th we had a nice Italian dinner out and stopped at a supermarket afterwards to buy some water. Already the shelves were emptied of certain items.  On the way home, we saw a guy parking his BMW motorcycle on the street, testing its stability and analyzing its chances of staying upright.
By 5 pm on Sunday the 28th the city had published a map showing that Zone A was a mandatory evacuation area. I spent some time convincing myself with maps provided by several sources that we were a few blocks from Zone A (and were, in fact Zone C). While the wind started to blow, we went out for sushi, thinking that we should eat the fish that would most certainly spoil if not consumed before the storm. The red Japanese paper lanterns swung erratically while we ate.
School was cancelled Monday the 29th, in anticipation of the storm, so we slept in.  Walking the dogs around noon, we could hear a loud whistling sound that seemed to be coming from the construction site of the Freedom Tower, a few blocks south.  The Hudson River was much higher than normal, and green, and angry-looking. Plenty of other New Yorkers were out walking, too, and no one hesitated to duck under the strips of caution tape tied across the paths leading into the park by the river. It was obvious to everyone that if there was something interesting to see yet, it would be behind the yellow plastic caution tape.
Lots of wind, a little rain
As the storm arrived, it was mostly wind. One of the dogs dug herself a den in the couch, pushing all the cushions aside and settling in, surrounded on all sides. The cat watched with all that creepy cat excitement as the water droplets ran down the windows. Out on our street, a large piece of sheet metal landed on our street and thrashed around out there for hours, finally coming to rest under the bumper of a minivan. Our power went out around 8:30 pm, and we went to bed pretty early. The dog had a nightmare and woofed and growled in her sleep.
Broadway near Worth,
facing north, 10/30/12
Tuesday the 30th we still had no power, little mobile phone reception, and I invested a bunch of time and phone battery into trying to see if Con Edison had an estimate for restoring power. The answer was that they didn’t know. Our unreliably delivered daily New York Times arrived (along with Monday’s paper), and though we would see no mail all week (until Saturday), that newspaper came every morning.  We recharged our phones off of my weird Japanese model Panasonic Toughbook, which has a long battery life, is supposed to be able to survive a bad fall, and even has a tiny drain hole under the keyboard so liquids spilled on it won’t ruin it. Everyone complains about my machine because it has a wacky Japanese keyboard, but it still had juice Thursday when we gave up and headed for a hotel uptown. 
Tuesday we enjoyed the novelty of life in an apartment with no power. We played board games, burned candles, and ate things we could cook on the stove. We walked the dogs, getting in and out of the building via the emergency exit stairs, which are dark, steep and spooky.  Everything was a big deal. The BMW motorcycle lay on its side, leaking oil. The traffic lights were dark, and the buildings were dark, and mostly there was the sound of generators and sometimes sirens. Businesses were beginning to clean up their broken windows, pump out the water, throw out the spoiled food. Every few minutes the police came silently up the middle of Church Street with their disco party lights bubbling.
On Wednesday we woke up and it was colder and not as much fun. The Bacon Provider started scrambling for a hotel room, but in the end he and I took a cab uptown and went grocery shopping instead. The cab ride made me very car-sick, and had I not been on the verge of barfing, I might have gasped at the hustle and bustle of perfectly normal-looking midtown Manhattan. People were on their way to the gym, sight-seeing, and shopping for fancy shoes. Though I did not care very much about it when I saw it, we got to see the brokenconstruction crane at 57th street which we had heard caused many buildings to be evacuated, and we got some new food to carry back downtown.
Dangling crane at 57th
Schlepping several blocks to escape the gridlock, we snagged a cab around 44th Street. The taxi driver took us back to TriBeCa, passing the threshold of civilization at 34th street (where the stoplights stopped); at this point he simply drove down the West Side Highway as fast as he possibly could, through multiple intersections.  That night we made grilled sausages and artichokes and the Bacon Provider stood, stirring his risotto by candlelight, and it was perfect as always. After dinner we played Loaded Questions again, and laughed our heads off.
By Thursday the iPads were dead, everyone badly needed a shower, and we packed overnight bags and took a cab uptown again. Once in a hotel room, we took turns in the shower, charged our stack of devices, and had a decent dinner across the street. The Bacon Provider went back to the apartment to feed the cat and walk and feed the dogs. It had dropped into the 50s (F) in the apartment so he slept in a big pile with all the pets on the bed.
Frog skeletons at AMNH
Friday the boys and I went for a walk, thinking we could go to Central Park, but the combination of New York City Marathon preparations and the damage from the storm meant the Parks Department had erected barricades to keep everyone out. As we made our way up Central Park West, a long line of media trucks was assembling, firing up their generators for a weekend’s coverage of the marathon (which was not yet cancelled at this point).  Knowing that pretty much everyone below 34thstreet was still without power (not to mention the flooding and homes destroyed in New Jersey, Staten Island and Long Island), it seemed to us that the resources being poured into the marathon set-up alone could be much better utilized lighting a dark hospital or pumping out a flooded subway. In search of a distraction, we ended up at the American Museum of Natural History, where we looked at an Ivory Ornamental tarantula and some hominid skulls and a giant crystal and a turtle skeleton and some taxidermied tigers and marveled at how most of this museum is like a time machine that takes you on a science filed trip to the 1950s. On our way back up the elevator to our room, some enormous and fit Dutch people lectured us about American politics and the decision to cancel the marathon.
Saturday we packed up, checked out of the hotel, bought groceries, and got picked up by the Bacon Provider in our own car, because the power was on at home and at our garage.  Now we are back in the apartment, which was 4 1/2 days without power and yet the milk never spoiled. Halloween never happened. As glad as I was to get here and see the lights on, it still feels like part of a long, bad, weird vacation.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Too Many Words About Annual Giving

I do believe in supporting educational institutions, both public and private, and I have a record of doing so. I attended six colleges and universities in getting my degrees, and have contributed to all but one. My children’s schools have always been well supported by us, also.
The house I grew up in
In the summer of 2004, perhaps a month and a half after my mother died, my mobile phone rang while I was driving west on 520. I answered, about halfway across the bridge, using the speaker phone. There was rowdy cheering in the background, and a voice identified the caller as someone I went to high school with. His message was simple: he was calling on behalf of our high school. It was their annual fundraising call-a-thon. He rattled off the names of some other classmates I could hear carousing in the background. “You guys have money,” he said. “You should donate.” This was followed with a roar of laughter in the background.
I do not remember saying much in reply. I may have even hung up on him. I would prefer to think that I used the catch-all I like to use in such occasions: “I am not in a position to help you right now.”
My mother’s death was widely publicized in the local papers, as she was a high ranking administrator at a prestigious university there. My high school published their condolences in the quarterly newsletter, just as they had for my father a few years before. I can certainly imagine that for the purposes of fundraising, using classmates to make the calls is a good way to get participation; it’s someone you know, if not an actual friend. The problem with this system is that if you invite a group of obnoxious drunken bullies (who were obnoxious drunken bullies in high school and seemingly never stopped being obnoxious drunken bullies since) to make the calls, they will behave in the obnoxious, bullying, drunken ways that they have always behaved. The call was an error whether or not I had just lost a parent.
I was not in the worst possible state of mind for such a call. I was still very hardened to bad news. My mother was never old, not even a little old. She was only 20 when she had my older brother and 22 when she had me. She battled brain cancer her last year and a half, so she was sick, but she was never old. My dad had died after a year and a half of bad news about his cancer, and then my mother had died after a year and a half of bad news about her cancer. I had arrived at the point where both my parents were gone, cut down in their prime, and I was still barely feeling like a real adult myself. I had arrived at the point where the unthinkable had happened, where I was among the oldest trees in my woods: my brothers and me. A phone call from obnoxious, bullying drunken idiots from my (seemingly) distant past was like squirrels playing chase up and down my trunk, for I was the unimaginably old elm. What are squirrels to a 300 year old tree?
Back when this elm was a sapling, she went to an exclusive, private non-religious, college-prep high school in suburban St. Louis.  I received what I considered a quality education; I sailed through my freshman year at an elite college with mostly As and a few Bs, feeling completely prepared for rigorous writing assignments. 
The high school partying scene was alcohol-fueled, though kids from the classes above mine were still smoking pot and a few of my peers regularly dropped acid. It was not a come-to-school-shitfaced thing, more of a get-plastered-on-the-weekend thing. Bad choices were made on a frequent basis. If my children partied today like we did in high school, I would be very, very alarmed and would probably not let them out of my sight.
In St. Louis in the late 1970s, our parents played tennis and golf, rooted for the Cardinals, went to church on Sunday (but were disdainful of actually religious people), and went to parties and had parties where they got drunk. My parents were different, in the end, because they liked to go camping, my mother was a fine artist, and my father ran marathons; we did not belong to a country club like my classmates’ families did. We were different, but we were also the same.
About a year after my mother died, in the summer of 2005, I went back to St. Louis to go through her things. This was a painful process, and I made a few mistakes which leave me with some regrets. It was a thing done as quickly as my brothers and step-father and I could manage, and it was a big task. I have not been back since.
I almost went back this past August. The previous August, I saw pictures on Facebook of a gathering of my girlfriends one weekend. Their kids were all there, and so were many of my old friends (and none of the obnoxious drunken bullies). I had just moved to New York, and pretty lonely, and St. Louis is an easy flight from here. I was sorry to have missed it. I promised to go the next year. When this August rolled around, I was invited, but I was in the midst of the move from North Dreadful to New York City, and really could not manage it.
I went to our tenth high school reunion and our twentieth, but I do not think I will go again. I did enjoy seeing some of my old friends, but there were just enough obnoxious conversations, just enough bullying questions that I did not feel like answering, and just enough drunken gossiping for me to say, “No, thanks.”
Lately, I have had to make many (if not almost all) of the folks I went to high school with invisible to me on Facebook. One of my classmates likes to post videos of business leaders who sell cheap goods (mostly made in China) in their big-box retail stores, but claim that we need the presidential candidate they endorse to create good jobs for college graduates. Another accused me of being “brainwashed.”  
Missouri is the home of some famous obnoxious, bullying public figures, including Phyllis Schlafly (who certainly deserves her very own blog post at a later date) and Todd Akin. Akin is one of the many members of the GOP who have used the extra attention of this election season to share with the world their interesting and unusual but appallingly unscientific and degrading thoughts about acts of violence towards women and human reproduction. I was wondering what kind of terrible high school was responsible for Akin’s obviously poor science education. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that he went to my elite, college-prep high school.
I try to be a person who is hard to embarrass, but Todd Akin makes me embarrassed to be from the state of Missouri.  When someone who publicly and willfully flouts facts to serve what he claims to be his religious calling turns out to be an alum of the school I have been more or less proud to say I graduated from, I am chagrined. My first thought was one of, “Well, now I can continue not to contribute to annual giving.”
After some more reflection, though, it has become obvious to me that a donation is in order. If we allow the manipulative idiots and the drunken, obnoxious bullies to completely control the conversation, everyone loses.  I am thinking about contacting the school library, to ensure that they have the books I have found particularly influential to my current mindset. I am compiling a list, but, for now, two such titles that come to mind are Alice Sebold’s rape memoir, “Lucky,” and Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States.” I plan to buy the school copies of any books they do not have.
I believe in education: that when we expose good ideas to people, the world becomes a better place.
Readers, I strongly encourage you to add your suggested books in the comments, below.

Friday, October 12, 2012

25 Things My Cat Does

In the interest of fairness, I made a list of areas in which my cat is more skillful than I am. Please feel free to add to this list in the comments section.
Jumping onto things
Jumping off of things
Sleeping curled up anywhere
Sniffing at crumbs
Thundering down the stairs
Looking cute for pictures
Moving into the camera lens after it is focused
Eating grass
Looking comfortable sprawled on the floor
Being ready to have a fight to the death over going somewhere in the car
Showing indifference for a new toy
Showing indifference for an old toy
Rolling on the floor and becoming utterly dusty in every way
Looking out the window
Hiding from new people
Pricking ears
Begging for more kibble from the Belly Scratcher
Expressive tail gestures
Pooping in the bathtub
Being creepy
Barfing up hairballs

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Numbers

Americans write the date in the format “Month/Day/Year,” so today’s date is one of those fun sequences (10/11/12) that makes a memorable birthday or wedding anniversary. I have a friend whose birthday is 11/11, so last year’s fell on 11/11/11. I think I probably know someone on the Facebook who has the birthday 12/12, but if I can search by birthday on the Facebook I do not know how. The 12 months of our calendar and 30 or 31 days within are pretty arbitrary anyway; a 52 week year breaks evenly into 13 four-week-long months, so why don’t we add a month?
I know a bunch of folks with birthdays which fall on other holidays, like Halloween and Christmas, dictating not only the color of the wrapping paper of every gift of their whole lives, but also over-shadowing their anniversaries. No doubt there were children born on a December 7th in the 1930s for whom the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor forever ruined their birthdays. I have a couple of friends who were born on September 11th.
Church Street, TriBeCa, September 11th, 2012
On September 11, 1857, something like 120 Arkansas emigrants were murdered by Mormons and either Paiute Indians or some folks dressed up to look like them. There many different accounts of this story, and you might be interested to compare this one to others you can find.
September 11, 1971 marks the death of Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin’s successor. Khrushchev is famous for a shoe-banging incident at the U.N. and for warning us all that “We will bury you!” and, “Your children will be communists,” which Barry Goldwater used in his political television ads for his run for President of the United States. In 1959, Khrushchev visited the United States, and if you have 5 minutes you should watch this.
My childhood neighborhood friend with the braids was married on a September 11, in the 80s, in a ceremony in the old Catholic cathedral in downtown St. Louis. I was one of many bridesmaids, all in mint green taffeta, and I remember being very hot while we were kneeling and standing and kneeling and standing. 
That same day, September 11, 1987, in St. Andrews, a suburb of Kingston, Jamaica, the reggae musician known as Peter Tosh was shot and killed in his home. He was 42. A lively retelling of this brutal murder can be read here.
 The morning of September 11, 2001, I was eating breakfast in our kitchen in Seattle with all three kids, getting ready to go to school. The phone rang. It was my mother, explaining that she knew I didn’t watch TV but I better turn it on because something was happening in New York.
We had a small TV in the kitchen, and we turned it on in time to see the footage of the first tower engulfed and collapsing as well as footage of the second tower being hit. My children were very young, and unaccustomed to TV news, and did not know what they were looking at was real. While I was trying to explain to them that it was something serious and bad, the phone rang. It was a friend who mis-dialed another, mutual friend, with a similar number. A native New Yorker, the caller was completely distraught; I wonder if she even remembers calling me that day.
Last year was the tenth anniversary of the attack, and though we were living in North Dreadful, it was observed with a ceremony at the public school with solemnity and formality. My youngest son missed this event completely, thanks to a stomach ache.
This year, we live within view of the new towers under construction. There is a memorial at the site of the now missing towers, but I still have not visited it yet. I was awestruck by the two towers of light shining there the two nights of the 10th and the 11th which I find a fitting memorial: abstract, quiet and ephemeral, requiring no tickets or online registration.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Gray Area


My niece was graduating high school in a few months, so I asked her mother what colors to think about for a quilt for her to take to college. Her reply: “[She] likes grey, colors that go with grey, and grey are her never-miss choices. The colors you see in those …pictures ...represent grey and things that go with grey; she'll wear other colors that go with grey, but I think she has something grey on practically every day.”
So I started thinking about a gray quilt.
I enjoy making monochromatic quilts. I have made two all-red quilts, an all-green quilt, a couple of all-pink baby quilts, and an all-blue quilt top. Gray is tricky because there are green-grays and brown-grays and pale grays and if you put them all together they appear to be different colors. Gray fabric is hard to find as well. I managed to lay in a supply of darker and lighter grays and set to work.
I do not remember how or why I decided on equilateral triangles for this quilt. They are a satisfying geometric shape to me, being both equilateral and equiangular, but they are not particularly easy to cut from fabric without a template.
Adding the binding
Machine quilting
The cat is always interested in sewing projects, being a big fan of sleeping on the ironing board, the sewing table, and my lap. This time, the dogs got involved, too, and sprawled out on the quilt in progress, especially when they had been invited no to do so. When I bought the batting, I had to make a special trip to the fabric store, and when I brought it home I unwrapped and unfurled it to get some of the wrinkles out. Then I took the dogs for a walk. When I got home, I found that the cat had attacked the cotton batting, taking several large bites out of it.  I was able to trim off his damage, though I did have to go back to the fabric store for more of the backing fabric, which in the end I had not bought enough of.
Making a baby quilt can take a weekend, if you know what you’re doing. Making a quilt big enough to go on a twin or full-size bed takes months, even if you do all the steps by machine. When you make a quilt for a child, you can use airplane fabric for the back and be sure that he will love it. When you make a quilt for a teenager, you run the risk of making something she doesn’t like and will never want to use. My goal was to make the quilt inoffensive enough that at least she might use it under another bedspread.
Dogs testing new quilt
I finished in time for her birthday and graduation. It was well-received. Better still, she tweeted at me a couple of weeks ago: “Did I ever mention to you that almost every single person who comes into my room compliments the awesome quilt?
The next one I am planning is for the toughest customer of all: my youngest son.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Jolly Roger Quilt, Part 2: Math Problem

Jolly Roger Quilt, cat is larger than he appears
I think I just finished my 18th quilt. I might have actually made more, but right now that’s how many I can name and remember. One is just a top, and even though it has been sitting unfinished in a box for many years, I would like to start quilting it soon; though I have to admit it is a little kid’s quilt and I do not have any little kids living in my house right now.  Many of the 18 were baby quilts, given away to close friends.  Two were made for the dogs (so they sit on the quilt on a chair instead of the chair), and I am happy that they have not been destroyed by them.  I sold one in an auction (which was not a good experience). I spent last winter finishing a quilt for my niece to take to college, and afterwards started thinking about a black and white quilt.
I was living in North Dreadful, with only one decent fabric store worth the drive, so I ordered a bunch of the fabric for the Jolly Roger online. I am an unskilled and unhappy shopper in many ways, though I, like anyone who likes quilt-making, have a huge stash of fabric and a weakness for the nice fabric stores. I found the perfect backing fabric for the Jolly Roger quilt (Michael Moore’s “Quilt Pirates”), and it is pictured here.
Quilt back, with free-hand machine quilting
I do not know what I had in mind when I ordered the backing fabric, but by the time I was finished piecing the top, I had, in my exuberance, exceeded the amount of fabric purchased for the back by a full eight inches. You would think that for an experienced quilt-maker this would be an occasional problem. You would think that for a former geometry teacher, with a master’s degree in pure mathematics this is a rare mistake. You would think.
The truth, dear reader, is that I fail to buy enough backing fabric so often that this scenario is typical.
Figuring out how much fabric you need for the back of your quilt is straightforward. Quilting fabric usually is 44” wide, so you often piece together two lengths of the same size, and have one seam on the back, running up the middle. You plan for there to be extra, because out of the scraps of old projects new projects grow.  A huge quilt might be 96” long, which is 8 feet, so you would need to buy 16 feet (or 5 1/3 yards) if your back needed to be about 88” wide (or less).  This quilt turned out to have 64 squares across its length, 2” of fabric per (pre-sewn) square, yielding 1 ½” per square after deducting the ¼” seam allowances. 64 times 1 ½” is 96”. It is 48 squares wide (or 72”), for a total of 3072 2” squares of fabric.
This works nicely if you are good at planning how big your quilt will be.   I usually strike a bargain with myself when planning quilts, because I like some aspects of planning and dislike others. With the Jolly Roger quilt, I embarked on the making of the grinning skull without knowing how I intended to use it in a finished quilt. Maybe I had a vague sense that it could be like a pirate flag, but pretty quickly I realized that this was not a very interesting design, being almost entirely black. In the end, I made two skulls and some scissors and a heart and played with how I wanted them arranged until I was happy. I was very busy cutting little black squares and sewing long strips onto the growing top and it was not until the whole top was together that I knew my enthusiasm had allowed the top to grow beyond the amount of fabric I had purchased for the back.
Back piecing to mask error
The good thing about being consistently bad at planning is I know how to deal with my bad planning. In this case, I used the largest possible square pieces of fabric that I could cut until I was down to scraps.
Now that it is done I am pleased with the quilting (which was very intense), and having that feeling of sadness that I always have when I finish a project.

Monday, September 10, 2012


Morning sun, downtown New York City, September 2012
When I was a kid, there were other girls in my neighborhood who went to Catholic schools and wore uniforms. From their knee socks and too-short pleated plaid skirts to the cardigan sweaters and shirts with Peter Pan collars, I found these outfits completely intimidating and their wearers scary and incomprehensible. Their clothes were required! And so old fashioned and so ugly! And here they were, parading around like everything was fine-- normal, even.  There was a girl my age who lived in the house catty-corner behind us, whose beautiful long blond hair hung down her back in two perfect braids and she had to wear this get-up to school every day. Though she and I shared a mutual friend, her next-door neighbor, my back-door neighbor, I found her terrifying. By 9th grade, we were at the same school, and at long last we became friends. We are friends today.
By the early 80s it was a desirable thing to find a thrift-store bowling team shirt with a name embroidered on a patch on the chest. One would never want one with one’s own name on it, of course, and if the name were old-fashioned (like “Roy,” or “Ethyl,” or “Mildred,”), all the better. Why these are not today a wardrobe staple is a complete mystery to me. I would like to design a Bowling Team shirt for all my friends to wear, and everyone could have a nickname. I might be “Margie.”
One of my earliest memories of being at the barn where I first learned to ride was seeing three specific teen girls in the office before or after their lessons. They were wearing the light tan riding pants which I had been instructed to buy, but pulled up over the legs of their breeches these girls wore knee socks. Clearly this was a way to contain their pants while pulling on tall boots or zipping on a pair of half-chaps over her paddock boots, but they looked very silly to me. Quickly, the silly outfit goes from embarrassing to conspicuous to normal, and even cool. Fifteen years later, I have certainly been seen wearing tall socks over my breeches, and I have been to the grocery store that way.
For a time I worked at a Catholic girls’ high school myself, and while there was no uniform, there was a dress code. One member of the administration was to be informed of violators, and she kept on hand some large and boxy polo shirts and out-of-date high-wasted pleated khakis for students to wear if they were dressed inappropriately. I always wondered if it would have been easier for the students to have a uniform, especially for the faculty. How easy to get dressed in the morning!
My youngest son has begun 9th grade at a private school in New York City, where they have uniforms and special dress-up days. The first day of school they all wore white shirts with the school logo, navy pants (or skirts) and the school tie. After my struggle of trying to tie a tie around someone else’s neck when I really cannot even do it for myself correctly, I was pleased to see he looked pretty great. As we marched to the subway, and saw other kids in the same uniform headed the same way, there was at least the sense of belonging, even though it was his first day at a brand new school in a brand new city. As we emerged from the subway near school, we could see his school mates funneling towards the front door, and we waved goodbye.