Monthly Archives: November 2012

‘Tis the Season for Dead Santas, Fa-La-La-La-La-La-La-La-La!


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Call me a Grinch, but the latest craze in inflatable lawn ornaments has to be one of the most unfortunate phases in the history of suburban Christmas mania. To me, they are garish by night and tragic by day. As I leave for work these chilly mornings, our neighborhood resembles a Yuletide crime scene, with bodies strewn all over the lawns:  Santas, reindeer, Frosties. One yard in particular, well known in the area for its extravagant and expanding decorations, always looks as if the elves and reindeer had a gang war the previous night. I want to stop and say a few words for the dearly departed.

ImageYes, I know that I am the buzzkill here. We are aware that we are extremely blessed in our neighbors, all of whom are responsible moms and dads with utterly charming children, friendly and quiet—except for the gunfire. We’re the ones who can’t even seem to get our house pressure-washed, no matter how hard we plan. The kindest thing we could do for our neighbors across the street would be to construct a huge mirror, reflecting their yard right back to them. They really do make an effort. I could say that we’re concentrating on the spiritual significance of the holiday—and we do try to do that—but it’s really a combination of poverty and laziness, so that wouldn’t be quite truthful. I do get a wreath on the door every year, and the inside of the house is decorated. No, really. I swear.

ImageOscar Wilde once said, “Science is always making great improvements,” and in the realm of Christmas cheer, those improvements include adding sound to your holiday display. Yes, now they play music. I remember the first time I heard it, an eerie moaning or screaming coming from outside. I listened for a few minutes. Cats, maybe? I stepped outside when it did not stop. No, it was the caroler figurines across the street. Michael just noticed it this year. He hastened into the family room, eyes wide, and whispered, “Do you hear that?” Since I’ve explained it to him, he has taken on the role of Ebenezer Scrooge, crashing into the house each evening muttering and growling.

ImageBut I don’t mind the musical balloons. They’re actually adorable, in a haunted cemetery sort of way. Plus, I comfort myself that, within hours, a virulent wasting disease will ravage the neighborhood, cutting down all the puffy toys.  In the meantime, I’ll throw on some Switchfoot and crank it up. That’ll cover anything.

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Surf & Turkey: Or, What I Did Over Thanksgiving Vacation

Remember—perhaps from a movie— when people went on vacation, came home, and turned their pictures into slides? Then they’d invite all of their friends over for dinner, and when the lights went down, the guests were suddenly gripped by that trapped feeling, knowing that their hosts would show every last one of them on the wall, complete with rambling reminiscences. How times have changed! Now I’ll just post them on my blog, and if you feel compelled to scroll down quickly, just looking at the pictures, I’ll never know. The downside is that if you treat my prose in such a cavalier manner, don’t imagine that you’re getting dinner from me.

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Here we are, marooned on a stormy island, waves crashing against the shore, rain and spray coating the windows, and all the seafood shops shut up tightly for the winter. We’ve made Italian food, Mexican food, and barbecued ribs, but no seafood. This afternoon we scoured the island for a piece of fish, the Atlantic Ocean visible on both sides of the road, but apparently fishermen spend the winter in Arizona. On the upside, this house is incredible, and my realtor husband Imagereports that the tax value is $2.3 million. It has five floors, eight bedrooms, ten bathrooms, and the kitchen is on the fourth floor. All of us have labored up the stairs to the fifth floor, thinking that we’re going to bed, only to find ourselves blinking and confused in the Martini Lounge. Bedrooms are on the second and third floors.

The second day we were here, my sister received a phone call from the neighbor who was Imagewatching her little, elderly dog, Putt-Putt. The Great Dane, Hrothgar, is here with us. Karen thought that Putt-Putt would be more comfortable in his familiar surroundings, but her neighbor reported that he was missing, and there was a small hole dug under the back fence. It was agonizing for my sister to realize that she could not go home until Saturday, since no one can get a ferry reservation for this week any longer. We cried and prayed a good bit, imagining Putt-Putt struggling to find his family. After twenty-four hours, we were giving up hope that a ten-year-old dog with stiff joints could possibly still be running, when my oldest niece called. She had gone to the house and found Putt-Putt hiding out in the back of my sister’s walk-in closet. He’s a crotchety old thing who had decided that he didn’t like the neighbor, so he wouldn’t come when she called, but he was deliriously relieved to see Kelly, and my sister got her vacation back.

We went down to the beach Monday, but realized that the tide was almost completely in and it was freezing! The only horse we saw running on the beach was Hrothgar. Tuesday, we made it to Hatteras Lighthouse, which everyone really enjoyed. Some of us who are lighthouse lovers (me) enjoyed it just for itself, others were fascinated by the history laid out in the museum building, and still others by the engineering feat accomplished when they had to move the lighthouse to higher ground, since beach erosion was eating the foundation away at the original site.

In the middle of that night, we heard my mother screaming our names. We all ran and stumbled to her room, hair in our faces and nightclothes askew. Turns out that our power was out, which doesn’t seem like much of a problem at that time of night, but Mom had woken up to go to the bathroom and realized that both of her lamps had stopped working. When flashlights arrived, she asked what time it was, and my sister said, “3:40 AM.” “Oh!” she said brightly, “What were y’all doing?”

My eighteen-year-old niece, Hannah, spent hours and hours curled up in a sleeping bag in the media room (I must have one in my house!), falling in love with Downton Abbey. She watched both seasons in two days and nights, and is now as eager for January as the rest of us.

Thanksgiving Dinner! Here’s our lovely, long table, covered with beach-themed tableware. Everybody pitched in, making favorite casseroles and desserts. My sister is the family turkey carver, and she worked on one counter while my mom started the gravy, putting the big bowl of stock in the sink and walking away to get flour. My sister finished the turkey, walked over to the sink and washed her hands. Yes, into the stock. Good thing Mom had more stock in the fridge, lest our Thanksgiving gravy have a scintilla of coconut liquid soap.

If you are ever on Hatteras Island, you must go to Café 12 in Avon for their specialty, the Hatteras Flat. We’d read about it in the guest book and headed down there on the night before Thanksgiving, when we were all sick of cooking. It starts with a spicy tortilla, mounded with cheese and your choice of toppings, including scallops, tomatoes, and feta cheese or crabmeat, portabella mushrooms, and artichoke hearts. My twelve-year-old nephew, John, had the Parrothead, which is basically a cheeseburger on a tortilla. They cook them on a big grill, and the cheese melts out to form a wide, lacy border of toasted cheese all the way around. We thought they’d be individual servings, since they’re one tortilla each, but they come in a big pizza box, cut into eight slices each. David and I ate the last four slices for breakfast Saturday morning.

David and I spent the last day in Ocracoke, which the travel brochures would describe as a “quaint village.” It is much simpler and less commercial than Hatteras Island, and can only be reached by ferry from any direction. Golf carts and bicycles terrify drivers on the narrow, winding streets, and there are small bed-and-breakfasts and tiny shops tucked in everywhere.  We went to the lighthouse, which is rather squat, but is the second-oldest lighthouse still in use in the United States. Next, we went to Books to Be Red & Deepwater Pottery, where we purchased the required Christmas ornament, a vacation tradition for us. It’s a pottery starfish that says “Ocracoke.” (Our tree would not be found in Martha Stewart Living.) Several locals, beginning on the ferry on our first day, had recommended the Topless Oyster Bar. After I’d been reassured that it’s just the oysters that are topless, we ventured in. The atmosphere was very low-key—one might almost say non-existent—but the food was excellent and we enjoyed the music. I had Oysters Mon Louis, with garlic and parmesan, and David had a Po’ Boy that was amazing.

I have counted it up, and we spent a total of 14 hours and 45 minutes (not including drive time) either on a ferry or waiting for a ferry, so now I am a true veteran. The NC Dept. of Transportation Ferry Division is full of very nice seafaring types who have somehow still not learned how to control tides and shallow water to my convenience. Since they do this every day, you’d think they would be more advanced by now. I mean, it’s the 21st century, for heaven’s sake. The two-and-a-half hour trip from Ocracoke to the mainland is quite beautiful, really, and features a comfortable passenger lounge with restrooms, coffee, and two decks for picture taking and seagull feeding. My son, Michael, has a very spiffy camera, so the best photos are his. I’ll leave you with seagulls and sunsets while I continue unpacking and cleaning the rotted vegetables out of the fridge.

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Wine, Women, and Politics

It has been the Year of the Biography for me; I’ve had a new obsession every few months. The main book I’ve read in the past month has been Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, and it was time well spent. Since many people, from Jon Stewart to Clyde Edgerton, have reviewed this book already, I’ll just chat about the elements that were most meaningful to me.

I have read quite a few biographies and stories of our third president, including many children’s works, since you can never exhaust the richness of his life. Authors tend to choose one aspect of his life to highlight, usually his political life from the writing of the Declaration of Independence to the presidency. Lately, of course, the emphasis has been on his relationship with Sally Hemings and their children, even in kids’ books like last year’s fictional Jefferson’s Sons, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley.

Although his biography is all-encompassing, Meacham chose to focus on Jefferson’s skillful use of power throughout his life, and I’d say that his approach is quite balanced. Jefferson practiced an intimate art of persuasion. As a philosopher, he had deeply-held beliefs, but as a politician, he was always willing to compromise in order to achieve his highest goal. Jefferson was brilliant with people, and, being a Southerner, he was a natural with graceful hospitality. No matter who his conversational partner might be, he made sure to know his tastes and interests, and always seemed conversant on every topic. Although he had political enemies, once they met him, it was difficult for them to dislike him. After all, when your host is as passionately interested in French sculpture, military maneuvers, or the latest techniques in agriculture as you are, it’s hard to believe that he’s not on your side. As president, Jefferson governed from the center more than some of his political allies would have liked, but he managed to strengthen the office of the presidency at the same time.

Jefferson’s greatest fear throughout his political life was that the northern states would succeed in turning the United States into a monarchy, or at least a hereditary presidency. I was surprised to find that the New England states, led by Massachusetts, were perpetually threatening to secede. We only think of secession by the southern states at the time of the Civil War or Texas today, but this tension between the Tories and the Republicans was a powerful force until after the War of 1812 and is the source of the famous feud between Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.

On a more personal note, Jefferson loved women. You can interpret that in any negative or positive way you like, and you’d probably be right. Although there is only one mention of his mother in all of his papers, he was very close to his sister, Jane, and kept up a lively correspondence with her until her early death. He also had true friendships with his daughters, especially Patsy, who kept house for him at Monticello. Many ladies were charmed when Jefferson came to call on their husbands, and, while they waited in the parlor, he schmoozed skillfully on all topics dear to women. Before he was married, he doggedly tried to seduce one friend’s wife. When I say “tried to seduce,” I don’t mean that he made a pass at her. He spent years trying to convince this woman to sleep with him. Nice friend, eh?

Thomas and Patsy (Martha) Jefferson’s marriage was a true love match. They had several children together, most of whom died in childhood, although their daughters Patsy and Polly lived longer than the others. When his wife died, Jefferson mourned so violently that his entire household went on suicide watch. On her deathbed, Patsy made Thomas promise never to remarry, since she did not want her children to have the horrid experiences with stepmothers that she had had. Thomas kept this promise, and I’m sure it had nothing to do with his desire to commit suicide. However, this problem was solved for him by a lifelong relationship with a woman he could never marry: his wife’s half-sister, Sally Hemings. From the time Sally accompanied his daughter Polly to France to join him on his diplomatic mission there, Jefferson began a romantic relationship with this fourteen-year-old slave girl.

So much could be said about Jefferson’s hypocritical and confusing actions toward slavery, the moral issue of his time. Early in his political career, he introduced two bills proposing to end the slave trade. Not slavery, mind you, but the industry that had grown up around kidnapping people from Africa and selling them in North America. Both bills met with resounding defeats, as powerful men from the north and the south made a great deal of money in the slave trade. Rather than trying again when he gained more power, Jefferson gave up. Since he had worked so hard to be popular enough to establish and secure a republican form of government in the US, he was not willing to risk the loss of power that could come from unpopular legislation. He did not free his own slaves upon his death—not even Sally. Two of their children, who had mostly white ancestors, were able to wander away from the plantation when they were twenty-one and “pass” as white. The other two were freed later. His other slaves were sold to pay his enormous debts. Nothing can excuse this tragic failure.

Jefferson amassed debts because he loved to live large. He sent art and wine home to Monticello when he lived in France. He fed anyone and everyone who turned up at his door, and as he grew older, that became a daily crowd. He tore down his first attempt at architecture and completely remade Monticello, filling the large house with art and artifacts from around the world and throughout the ages. I must say that I would have liked Jefferson. He was a flawed man, but so are we all. He was brilliant, sociable, and generous, and he enjoyed every minute of his life until the very end. He was an avid reader, and as a librarian, I must add that he donated his personal library to the federal government, and his contribution formed the foundation of the Library of Congress. He collected specimens from the Lewis and Clark expedition, which he enthusiastically sponsored while he was president. He was also a dedicated farmer and gardener, and experimented with new varieties of plants, from flowers to corn.

I can highly recommend Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson to those who want to know more about this towering figure, about the early years of our nation, and about the skillful use of power. Do not be daunted by its size, as the last third of the book is actually references and notes. Then get ready for a field trip. I hear Monticello is lovely in the spring.

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Disclaimer: Opinions expressed are entirely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else. I read an advance reader copy, provided by the publisher, Random House.

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The Land of the Free

I had jury duty this past week, and it looked just like this. Everything was in black and white, and we all wore ties. Did you know that women could not serve on all juries in the United States until 1975? Sometimes I am stunned by how backward we really are.

Although my name was never called, I was sweating it. You see, we have our first vacation in years next week. David and I paid our portion out of our tax return last February, which is the only spare money we’ve had all year. Our ferry reservation to the Outer Banks is for 7:00 Saturday morning, and if we’re not there by 6:30, we lose our reservation. So when the judge said that the trial should go no longer than the middle of next week, I panicked. He asked if anyone needed to be deferred, and I stood up. Of course, I felt pretty lame pleading my case after the single mom who was pleading financial hardship, since she has two kids, is the sole breadwinner, and works hourly, so she won’t be paid for the days she is doing jury duty. He didn’t excuse her, so I figured I had no chance. I didn’t. It did take two days to seat thirteen people—twelve jurors and a spare—but at the end of it all, I was excused and don’t have to go back for at least two years.

I had never been to jury duty before, and I learned all sorts of disappointing facts about my fellow citizens. For example, when the judge asked if any of the original twelve jurors had any convictions, almost half of them raised their hands. They’d all had DWI convictions. Call me naïve, but half? The prosecuting attorney spoke in the long, languorous tones of North Carolina, and the defense attorney was a short guy with a big bow tie. Why are short men the main users of bow ties? It is not a good fashion choice. The two bailiffs, who maintain order and security in the courtroom, did not appear to be up to the task. From the looks of them, I’d say the bailiff position is your reward for a job well done for many years. They sipped from cups all day, hitched up their pants quite often, and basically lounged. The word “intimidating” did not come to mind; more like “Grandpa.”

Each juror was asked an extensive list of questions, and we all had to sit there and listen to them over and over. After more than an hour of trying to find twelve people who could pass all of the tests, they called up a young man who admitted that he had been convicted of possession of marijuana. Since the case in question was assault and resisting arrest, that would have been alright if he’d completed the sentence and probation, which he had. However, the prosecuting attorney tapped away on his tablet for a minute, and then said, “Mr. Brown, is it true that you’ve also been convicted of resisting arrest?” Mr. Brown  was gobsmacked. He had forgotten all about that! Sure enough, he had been convicted of resisting arrest, just like the current defendant! How many crimes do you have to commit for you to forget one of them? Is there an app. for that? “Hang on, your honor, let me check on iDidit to see if I’ve ever been convicted of breaking and entering. I just can’t recall.”

The most unsettling part of jury duty is that you can’t get out of it. Oh, sure, there’s the whole civic pride thing, doing your part to maintain justice in this great country, yada yada, but at the end of the day, if you get a summons, you have no choice. I could have tried the Bartleby the Scrivener route and told them, “I would prefer not to,” but the Judicial System of North Carolina is not really big on Bartleby. Once you sign in, you can’t leave without one of the adorable bailiffs seeing you to the bathroom and back. What if I left and didn’t come back? I suppose I’d be arrested for contempt of court. As Robert Kiyosaki (Rich Dad) says, if you think you really own your own property, try not paying taxes on it. Losing control of my life or even my basic freedom makes me anxious. I am always voting for and supporting those who believe in the greatest amount of individual liberty, but when it comes right down to it, you are only free within limits, and you’re not the one setting the limits. Many younger people today have never known a military draft, but I remember my brother’s number coming up in the Vietnam War when I was a child. It’s not that it’s a bad thing to take freedom from dangerous people so that the rest of us can have freedom from fear, but taking freedom from everyone is shocking when you think about it, so we don’t usually think about it. Courtrooms aren’t fearful places for innocent people, but no matter how charming the judge may be or how many bow ties are worn, it’s remarkable to me that here in the land of the free and the home of the brave, a complete stranger can tell me where I need to be and how long I need to stay, even if I prefer not to.

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So Glad That’s Over!

Now that the election is over, we can return to our own lives and remember that it’s easier to come up with answers to the world’s dilemmas than it is to keep the kitchen floor clean. My brain has been so scattered lately, and although I’ve been journaling madly, it’s nothing you’d be interested in. Here’s what else I’ve been up to.

About two weeks ago, I decided that enough was enough, I was going to pull myself up by my bootstraps, seize the reins of power, and stop using clichés. No, I was going to eat less and exercise more. I’ve done pretty well. I cut out all desserts (even though they were sugar-free), cut back on portions, and managed to walk or somehow exercise every day. After a week of this strict regimen, I gained two pounds. Since then, I’ve lost 1.6 of them again— such are the absurdities of a digital scale. So I’m almost back where I started. I am soldiering on, checking Craig’s List for an affordable treadmill, and staring the holidays in the face.

Speaking of the holidays, my extended family has rented a huge and gorgeous beach house in Salvo on the Outer Banks for Thanksgiving week. It’s right next to Rodanthe, which, as you know from sobbing over all those Nicholas Sparks movies, is where the wild horses run! I hope we see some, but not too close. We have all been excited about this vacation since the spring, but then this little thing called Sandy happened, and the roads are still out. We will have to take two ferries to get to Hatteras Island! One from the mainland to Ocracoke Island, which takes three and a half hours, and another from Ocracoke to Hatteras, which takes another forty-five minutes! That doesn’t even include the hours that you could wait for each ferry. Just when we’d reconciled ourselves to spending an entire day just to get to the house, we called to make reservations, and the ferries are full! According to the mild-mannered and seemingly stunned man at the ferry office, our options are to hope that the roads are repaired by then, buy a four-wheel-drive vehicle, hope that they add extra ferries, or begin our vacation on Monday. I want to tell you that this house is not cheap, and we’ve already paid for it. The company will not give refunds because, after all, the ferries are running! So we are on pins and needles this week.

On Thursday, I went to a workshop for the latest in children’s books and had the opportunity to see some of my youth services peeps. I miss them so much! Our library system has some of the most creative and passionate people working with children, and, because of new organizational rules, I have not been able to see them as much as I would like lately. So, we had a big day having all sorts of fun and learning about new books for kids. I’ve been to this workshop four or five times, and it is presented by a talented and extraordinarily energetic woman who also served up side orders of political opinions, sort of like a free bonus. I don’t know why I’ve never noticed this before, or perhaps it was just because it was two days after an election? In any case, it was like an intermittent power outage in an otherwise charged-up room. What a shame.

David and I have started the series William and Mary, suggested to us by Netflix. It is so fun! We’ve watched several other British offerings starring Martin Clunes, including Doc Martin. How in the world the BBC considers Martin Clunes to be a romantic lead is beyond me. I guess Colin Firth doesn’t do television. In any case, Clunes is a terrific actor, and we love him. In this story, Mary is a midwife and William is a… well, I can’t tell you. It’s part of the surprise. Anyhow, they get together through a dating service, and, of course, madcap hijinks ensue. It is startling to see what British television will put on the screen. In one episode, a woman in labor is in her front yard, squatting and holding onto a tree, and she is stark staring naked! Not a pretty sight, actually. The relationship between William and Mary is both sweet and troubled, so the episodes are very absorbing so far. Before we get disc two, though, I have to make sure that we’re completely caught up to date with Elementary, my new favorite program. If you haven’t seen this new Sherlock Holmes spinoff, you should. I wasn’t sure that I would be able to handle a female Dr. Watson, but Lucy Liu does a fabulous job of underplaying. Johnny Lee Miller is also a splendid Sherlock. We love it.

Are you thinking, “Didn’t she say she wanted to watch less TV?” Yes, I did, and I meant junk news shows. I’m doing pretty well with that, and the only regular shows I watch are Castle, which has improved lately, and Elementary, which we watch on demand. Oh, no! And Big Bang Theory. I never make it through a Castle episode, since it runs until 11:00, so we have to record it.

There you are. This is a faithful (sort of) narrative of every event of the past two weeks. This week: jury duty. *sigh*

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