going home again

The day before we
The day before we left to go home for Christmas, Jean, James’ mom, came to the end of her nine-month battle with cancer. She was still young, vibrant and feisty, so this was a huge blow. Jean used to send me a mother’s day card from Stella the rat dog every year, and she always remembered dates like our anniversary or the day my brother died. Her house was full of things she made with her hands–from paintings on the wall to ingenious inventions to deal with the minor irritations of life (like a lost remote). We shared a lot of laughs over the years, including after the ill-fated whale watching trip where I spent the entire time puking into the Pacific. I’m so glad she was able to visit us out here in 2014 and wish she’d been able to make the second trip we’d been talking about.
When we left
When we left in our rented mini van to make the three-day drive to Houston, we knew it was possible this soul wouldn’t be making the return trip with us. She’d been declining for a few months, and she was in pretty bad shape as we set off. Dali died on the shortest day of the year, December 21, the winter solstice and the day before Jean’s funeral. She’d been with us for almost 13 years, and we think she was a year old when we got her. Not a bad run for a crazy dog with two different-colored eyes and a bit of an attitude. She had many nicknames, but a favorite was “Cooj” (rhymes with Baton Rouge, short for Cujo because sometimes she liked to bite us).
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We broke the drive up like this: Pacific Grove to Blythe, CA (just inside the border with AZ) –> Blythe to Van Horn, TX –> Van Horn to Houston. After fighting our way through the gridlock that is the western half of Southern California, we expected smooth sailing across the desert with just a few semis to keep us company. But CalTrans decided to do a little road work on the Saturday before the Christmas holiday, and it took us two hours to go seven miles. I considered using this random port-a-potty in the median–I could have easily done my business and caught up with James and the van walking at a casual pace–but I was a bit afraid of using an interstate terlet in the middle of the desert as night is falling.
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Van Horn, Texas is just a blip of a town in the moonscape that is West Texas. But it has a super cool, old school (but renovated) hotel with a great restaurant. This is the sister hotel to Hotel Paisano in Marfa, and they share remarkable physical similarities. The hotel in Marfa is a bit cooler because the rooms have patios with fireplaces in them. This place just has a view of the railroad tracks, empty lots and a gas station. But the rooms are nice, the lobby is beautiful and the chicken fried steak with jalapeño gravy is pretty hard to beat.
While in Houston
While in Houston, we had the chance to check out a few new places. This is Lei Low, a “rum and tiki lounge” in the northern end of the Heights and just a short walk from the house we rented for our stay. I had a drink with an umbrella in it that was tasty and not overly sweet. The drink, not the umbrella. I didn’t taste the umbrella. We also had really amazing brisket at Pinkerton’s Barbecue and a delicious breakfast (twice) at Morningstar–both in the Heights. When we lived in the Heights, dining options were Andy’s, Someburger and King Biscuit. The area is an embarrassment of dining riches now, and I wish we’d had more time to try more places.
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After a few days in Houston, we headed up the country to see my family, stuff ourselves with my mother’s nonpareil cooking and drink all my dad’s booze. My nephew and niece, almost 8 and 6.5, are at that great age where they’re smart and fun to talk to but aren’t too cool to hang with the old people. I was thrilled to see Molly reading real, live, 3-D books and watch Rowan build intricate Lego creations instead of being buried in electronic devices, staring and swiping like zombies. They both have great senses of humor and a surprising handle on absurdity.
Here's a shot Molly took of me and my mother with the (pink) camera we gave her for Christmas.
Here’s a shot Molly took of me and my mother with the (pink) instamatic camera we gave her for Christmas. She took her photography very seriously and captured some seriously great shots. She also learned a lesson about angles to avoid (like not shooting up toward people’s faces/double chins).
My car is
The two times we’ve driven back to Texas since the move, we’ve rented a mini van. Our cars are nine and 15 years old, both on the small side, so the van provides lots of room for dogs and luggage and the confidence we’ll actually get from A to B and back to A without mechanical difficulties. It was nice driving a brand new vehicle for a couple of weeks, but I was happy to get back to my no-computer-display, no-warning-when-a-car-is-in-your-blindspot, stick-shift Mazda. I can’t get behind this no key thing. Pushing a button to start a car, then turning a knob to put it in gear makes for a completely unsatisfying driving experience. On our long drive, James and I talked a lot about automated cars and how in the somewhat near future a kid will be talking to her grandmother about road trips and will be incredulous–“You mean you had to steer the car and make it go by pressing your foot on a pedal? For hours? How did you pay attention? How could you be off (insert relevant social media tool) that long?” And the grandmother will think longingly of a more simple time when you had to balance your intake of caffeine with truck stop availability so you didn’t consider using a port-a-potty in the median of the interstate in the middle of the desert as night is falling.

Links
Hotel El Capitan
Lei Low
Pinkerton’s Barbecue
Morningstar

a plan for the future

IMG_0600Should I have the privilege of living to a ripe old age, I anticipate having to work until 70 before tapping into retirement benefits that may or may not exist by 2040. If I continue making my living by writing, that means another 24 years spent sitting at a desk, staring at a lighted box and type-type-typing the day away.

This is assuming my mind stays sharp, and someone is willing to pay me for whatever it is I’m writing about.

As jobs go, I’m pretty lucky. I love words and have always been a writer. But sometimes I have the fantasy of freedom. Of selling everything, getting a rolling home and moving from one beautiful state or national park to another with James and the dogs, picking up odd jobs that keep gas in the tank and food on the table.

Even in this fantasy, I know I’d find myself craving a home rooted in the ground. A place with a bathtub. Something with a view and room to grow food and flowers. But I wouldn’t want to be saddled with a 30-year mortgage, so I’d need to take a non-traditional approach to finding a permanent place. Which I think I’ve figured out.

A commune.

But not just any commune.

A special one.

Here’s the appeal of the commune concept. A group of like-minded people pool their resources to buy a big piece of land upon which they each have their own small home. They share chores–like keeping the garden, tending to the chickens, feeding the livestock. If there are children (which there won’t be in this scenario because we’ll all be old), the adults share parenting responsibilities.

This all sounds idyllic and lovely to me except for one thing–all those people. Can’t you just hear the screen doors creaking and slamming all day as people come and go in each others’ homes? The chortles of laughter in the garden since it’s weed-pullin’ day and everyone participates? The good-natured ribbing about how Jeremy doesn’t know how to make good coffee from people standing around on his porch holding their mugs with both hands as little puffs of coffee steam rise in their faces?

It’s not that I don’t like people. I do. I just don’t want to be around them all the time. Which brings me to the way this commune will be different.

It’s a commune…for introverts. A non-communal commune.

Same deal as described above. Garden. Screen doors. Coffee. Porch. The difference is, no one really hangs out at each others’ houses or shows up unexpectedly. There’s one communal area where you can go when you want to be social or need to discuss who’s not pulling enough weeds, but other areas are treated like a typical urban neighborhood. A friendly, non-committal wave in the morning, maybe a comment about the weather, then go back inside.

Anyone interested? There will also be wifi.

 

catastrophe jackassery

bug-out bag: A portable bag that contains essential items to help you survive the first 72 hours of a disaster, whether you shelter in place or head for the hills. Typical items include water, dehydrated food, energy bars, fire-starting tools, first aid kit, hand-crank radio (ideally with a cellphone charger built in), duct tape, hatchet, poncho, etc.

Living in hurricane country most of my life, I usually had a small stockpile of bottled water, canned food, candles, crackers and granola bars. The only time I ever tapped into it (other than raiding supplies when there was no other food in the house) was during Hurricane Ike when we were without power for a week. Compared to the people who were flooded out of their homes and lost everything, our week without power was a slight inconvenience. A technology vacation that saw us getting together with neighbors each night to grill what was left of frozen steaks while we drank wine by candlelight and listened to night noises usually obscured by air conditioners and other comfort machinery. You don’t realize how much a city buzzes until it stops making noise.

Here in earthquake country, we have a shelf full of Mountain House dehydrated food, a propane stove and propane, water, candles, batteries and a few other items. Where the San Andreas fault runs right by San Francisco, it goes inland when it passes the central coast, and our house is a couple of blocks up the hill from the tsunami inundation zone. If we lived closer to the forest and had to worry about fires that drive you from your bed in the middle of the night barefoot and running to your car, I’d probably keep photos and other irreplaceables in an easy-access container near the door. But for now, I’m comfortable with the minor level of preparedness we have.

I think bug-out bags are an interesting concept, but I haven’t felt the need to actually put one together. In Houston, there’s no place to bug out to–the mass (and needless) evacuation for Hurricane Rita showed there’s no escape from the fourth largest city when everyone’s trying to leave at the same time. And here, there are a lot more wilderness options, but unless we also have a tent and other supplies too large to fit into a big backpack, I don’t think a bug-out bag’s going to do it. If we have to shelter in place, we’ll grab the stuff from the cabinet as we need it. Having it in one bag wouldn’t make a difference.

Which brings me around to this: the Prepster, a “luxury 3 day survival bag.” It comes with the usual bug-out bag items, only in “luxury” form. Like grapefruit face cleanser and cilantro hair conditioner. I don’t know about you, but when I’ve been driven from my home due to some horrible disaster, I’m not fucking around with split ends. And who wouldn’t want their hair to smell like cilantro, am I right?

You can even get the bag monogrammed, bringing your grand total to $420. I’d love to know who their target demographic is. All I can picture is a tanned woman with a yoga body and long fingernails crying as she tries to rip open the packaging around her dehydrated “astronaut” ice cream while her boyfriend is cranking the radio in hopes of charging his cellphone as they sit on the small spot of grass in front of their townhouse. Their manicured dog keeps inching further and further away, unnoticed, and their neighbors are watching through the curtains to take a break from their own drama. What are they going to do on day four when their bag is empty? Smell their cilantro hair and hope someone saves them?

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A bug-out bag wouldn’t have helped clear our driveway of tree limbs, post Hurricane Ike. Beer and whiskey did that trick.