December 22, 2009

One of Those Days

You ever notice nobody ever says, “One of these days I’m going to have one of those days?”

I got a call last night from my son’s teacher, more evidence that we no longer live in the big city. She wanted to find out if it was okay for her to personally deliver, on her winter break, the gift she’d guided the children into making for their parents for Christmas. Awww…!

I did some quick calculations: appointment with Toyota to get a new tire at 11am meant I’d need to leave the house at 10:30am. Assuming I had my usual poor night’s sleep (snoring hub, cat on and off the bed all night and/or playing the drums in the catbox, nightmare/bathroom/thirsty son) followed by the rare opportunity to sleep in until an incredible 8am, I would have about two hours to tackle the mound of dishes in the sink that I swear breed like bunnies and vacuum the dog and cat fur embedded in the carpets and blowing in the corners like wispy white tumbleweeds.

Morning comes. At 9:38am I’m wearing sweatpants, a stained shirt with no bra, hair unclean and uncombed, and nothing on my face but a layer of sweat as I frantically vacuum so I can get into the shower before my son’s teacher arrives. Just as a memory of the previous night’s conversation poinks into my mind (“Okay, great! I’ll be there around 10:15 OR A LITTLE EARLIER), the dog begins to go nuts in his crate, a sure sign the doorbell rang and I didn’t hear it.

With a resigned look on my face, I open the door. She’s standing there in her holiday finery, cheeks rosy from the cold, holding a wrapped gift with a photo of my son wearing a red Rudolph’s nose on top. Just as it occurs to me that maybe she won’t want to actually intrude on my obvious domestic dishevelment, my son, still wearing his Wall-e pajamas, arrives at the door. It’s an affectionate reunion, a pleasant surprise for my boy, who proudly takes the gift and presents it to me. In comes teacher.

“Oh, dear,” I splutter. “As you can see, I’m running a bit behind this morning.” (I may have actually said something more along the lines of, “I’m so mortified. I’m simply gross and as you can see from the half that I was unable to get to, my home is usually a disgusting pigsty,” but my state of extreme fluster wiped the conversation from my mind.)

Mrs. Teacher assures me that my home is lovely and commiserates with me that she, too, barely managed to get out of the house on time this morning (or EARLY you mean? -I probably thought uncharitably as I got a whiff of yesterday’s failed deodorant).

Once she’d gone (up the street to my son’s classmate Anna’s house, where I’m utterly certain the floors were spotless and the smell of pungent dog didn’t permeate the air), I could only shrug and smile that wry “Murphy’s Law” smile.

Fast-forward to the end of my day. I’ve just endured the following:

a.) Cold coffee from McDonalds. Clearly someone forgot to turn the burner on. This may not seem like a huge deal, but when you’re looking forward to a hot cuppa joe and you’ve driven too far to make another trip through the drive-through to complain, it sours you.

b.) Tire ordered by Toyota staff is not only the wrong tire, but I can’t even have both front tires replaced with stock on hand because the height of my tires isn’t “standard” and only a few tires exist in the whole world that can be used without disrupting the four-wheel drive, should I engage it. Plus, replacement of the malfunctioning heater motor is going to really cost us.

c.) The Geek Squad at BestBuy still hasn’t diagnosed my husband’s computer, even though they’ve had it for eight long days in which my hub has gone into severe video game withdrawal. I am not looking forward to telling him that he’s in for another few days at least of enforced “family time.”

d.) The clerk at Big Five can’t demonstrate the treadmill I’m thinking of buying for Christmas (for my hub to give me) because she can’t find the safety key. I assure her it isn’t her fault. Clearly my Karma is paying me back for some past indiscretion(s).

The good news is: we are all relatively healthy and reasonably happy. Christmas will come despite this one poopy day, and my son’s face as he tears into the gifts “Santa” brought him (we got one extra year of “you better watch out” out of him) will brighten the whole house.

Happy Holidays!

November 7, 2009

Why I’m Not Doing NaNoWriMo This Year

According to, the first NaNoWriMo event took place in 1999 with 21 participants, a “literary marathon” that got bigger and bigger every year until it became the phenomenon it is today. For those non-writers among my three readers (hi, Mom!), NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. Beginning on November 1st and ending on the 30th, wannabe authors all over the world knuckle down and write, write, write, pounding out a minimum of 50,000 words in order to “win.” The prize, of course, being the rough draft of an actual book, something a lot of people dream about, but can’t always find the inner wherewithal to accomplish.

I’ve participated several times, but this year I chose to pass, watching wistfully from the sidelines as a good portion of my writer friends and online acquaintances entered the fray. I had a lot of reasons for forgoing the “fun,” not the least of which was the demanding task of setting up a writer’s alliance book review blog ( with several outstanding writers. Plus, my WIP (work in progress) is the second in a series—the first of which, The Gossamer Sphere, is with my agent right now, making the rounds of editors at honest-to-goodness publishing houses.

I started The Gossamer Sphere last year on November 1st.

On their website, the good folks at NaNoWriMo have this to say about what to expect:

“Valuing enthusiasm and perseverance over painstaking craft, NaNoWriMo is a novel-writing program for everyone who has thought fleetingly about writing a novel but has been scared away by the time and effort involved.

“Because of the limited writing window, the ONLY thing that matters in NaNoWriMo is output. It's all about quantity, not quality. The kamikaze approach forces you to lower your expectations, take risks, and write on the fly.”

That’s why I didn’t win last year, and the final reason why I chose to set aside my writing shoes this year. I’m way too OCE (obsessive/compulsive editor) for the official doctrine of “write your brains out and ignore that your manuscript is likely chock full of glaring errors.” On November 30th last year, I had only written 10,000 words on The Gossamer Sphere, so unless you count the fact that I went on to finish it within six months, secured an awesome agent and it’s actually (actually!) being considered by the folks who can Make It Happen for me, then, no, I didn’t “win” NaNoWriMo.

But I miss the excitement, the feeling of satisfaction when I’d eked out 1000 or more words in a day. I miss the feeling of accomplishment, and the mounting belief that this time the words on my screen were something the powers-that-be just might lean forward in their ergonomic chairs to take note of. The Gossamer Sphere is a fantasy/sci-fi, so I often hit the old “research” roadblock, which, along with my OCE, really prevented me from whipping that particular horse across the NaNoWriMo finish line.

I’m not participating this year, but I’m so glad I did last year. I consider myself a NaNoWriMo success story.

If you’re in the thick of it this month, what are you doing here wasting your time reading my silly blog? Get back to your writing space! Make this your year.

October 30, 2009

I tweet, you tweet, we all tweet for..

Conceit? Well, it rhymes anyway.

As fun as some of the social networking sites can be, I’m getting a little disillusioned with the whole process. I’m trying to get myself out there, to link up with other writers and professionals in the publishing industry. It’s just…how do I, with the limited time at my disposal, succeed at this networking game (stand out from the crowd), and how do I even measure my success?

I love that sites like Twitter exist, but I can’t keep up. I’m a parrot posing as a small brown bird—one among a flock of billions flying in perfect synchronization, turning on the wing this way and that—all chirping madly for attention. We mellow, brightly colored squawkers just can’t summon the same energy level as those hyper little brown birds who somehow come up with interesting things to tweet and re-tweet all day long. And how on earth do they keep up with what anyone else is saying? My follow flock is modest at less than 70, but even so, with everyone tweeting at once, the rare epiphany is often drowned out in the cacophony.

Those of us putting ourselves out there suffer from varying levels of narcissism, that’s just the way it is, but some (and yes, I realize I’m beating the bird analogy to a pulp with the following) fly where the air is a little too thin. I was under the impression that in order to be successful at self-promotion, a person needed to sort of *hide* the fact that self-promotion was their goal. So we tweet about this, that and the other thing, and toss in a few “hey, come read my blog’s” now and then, hoping someone will accidently click on the link we provide and maybe even read a sentence or two. An actual comment on my blog has been known to put me in a good mood for several warm, fuzzy minutes and a re-tweet puts me over the moon.

So anyway, I’ve noted several social networking personalities. There’s the Blatant Bird, who posts the same series of tweets over and over again as if the pressure of coming up with those interesting comments made him/her snap and go over to the Spam Side. There’s the Re-tweet-a-holic, who can’t seem to come up with his/her own amusing musing, so they forward the best of the best and take credit for it. There’s the Daily Doings folks, who let you know every time they have a satisfying cuppa joe or someone ticked them off at the supermarket. There’s the Social Networking is my Life group—these folks seriously must spend the majority of their days online, dedicated to being in their followers’ faces. There’s the Official Spammers, who don’t even try to hide that’s what they’re all about.

And there’s people like me, I guess I’d call myself a Professional Novice who freezes up half the time, deciding that no tweet is better than a lame-o tweet, so I only buckle under and update every three days or so. But I’m out there, in the thick of it, flapping my wings, leaving a trail of stressed-out feathers wherever I go. ;op

October 7, 2009

Chicken Bean Artichoke Stew

The first version of this recipe was an experiment that turned out surprisingly well (unlike the greenbean cornbread that my family and friends won’t let me forget!) Even my husband liked it, and he’s hard to please with anything even vaguely healthy. After several more tweaks, the below version stood out above the rest. The processed marinated artichoke hearts are essential, since they add a characteristic flavor that might surprise you. The beans and lentils are mix and match, use whatever kind you like. The artichoke bottoms aren’t necessary, but I like putting them in for an added vegetable – diced and cooked soft, my six-year-old son can’t tell they’re in there. The best tool to use for dicing them is the Chop Wizard, one of the few gizmos I’ve tried and found to be indispensable in my kitchen. My son, who normally refuses to eat vegetables, WILL eat this stew and ask for more, and even leftovers get eaten.

Toss the following into your crock pot (or in a pot on the stove if you’re in a hurry) and enjoy a tangy, hearty and healthy meal:

1 store-bought rotisserie chicken, pull all meat off and cut into bite-sized chunks directly into the pot (add some skin, too, for flavor)

1 can artichoke bottoms, drained and diced

1 small jar marinated artichoke hearts, pour entire contents into food processor or blender and process until smooth

3-4 cans of any kind of bean (lentil, red, black, pinto) mix and match, drained and rinsed

1 32 oz. container chicken broth

This is my signature dish, the one I’m asked to bring to every potluck, picnic and family dinner. I hope you like it!

September 26, 2009

Products I've Loved and Mourned

Just like television shows that eventually have to be taken off the air, companies sometimes stop making our favorite products. Below is a list of the ones I still miss:

Chicken and Cheddar Nuggets, I think Banquet brand—I was addicted to these in college. I would literally walk to the store to buy a box with all the change I could scrounge and that was all I’d eat that day, then the next day I’d do it all over again. I still dream of the crunchy-on-the-outside, moist and cheesy-on-the-inside goodness. Sure, I was probably malnourished, but those nuggets had me under some kind of spell. Maybe they took it off the market because one of the ingredients was highly addicting, like Chicken and Crack Nuggets. I’ll never know, but I’m still Jonesing for them.

Flex Shampoo—update! I found some in my local Fred Meyer! Same old bottle, same familiar fragrance! I remember the first time I smelled it. In elementary school, I think the fifth grade, my friend Greer (yes, that was her first name) had the thickest, most enviable hair, and to top it off, it smelled great. I asked her what brand shampoo she used and begged my mom to buy it. It didn’t change the texture of my wispy flaxen locks, but I left a trail of musky scent behind me wherever I went.

Screaming Yellow Zonkers – according to Wikipedia, ConAgra bought out the company that made Zonkers and then discontinued the product in 2007. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot? Not everyone likes peanuts in their sweetened popcorn, ya know!

Lysol Direct—I liked this household cleaner because of the scent, but they discontinued it soon after introducing it. Makes me wonder why. I tried Googling it to make sure my favorite cleaning product wasn’t coating my lungs with some deadly chemical each time I inhaled the clean, musky scent (hm, kinda smelled like Flex, come to think of it), but I didn’t find out why it suddenly disappeared off the shelves. Let’s hope “Lysol Direct Disease” doesn’t start appearing in lungs everywhere!

Mounds—they still make the sweet, dark chocolate, coconutty goodness of a Mounds bar, but the darned thing is hard to find! Sometimes even in the drug store, when facing a wall of candy choices, the Mounds, which was introduced in 1920, is nowhere to be seen. “Sometimes you feel like a nut; sometimes you don’t!” Well, I NEVER feel like a nut in my choice of candy bar. I’ve even been known to pick most of the nuts out of a Snickers bar before eating it, yes, indeedy.

Jimmy Dean frozen omelets—another product that still exists, but is hard to find. I buy these for the picky, picky little eater in the house: my six-year-old son. He’s like me, not a big breakfast eater, but there’s no way he can skip eating before going off to school, so I tempt him with the ham-and-cheesy goodness of these two-minutes-in-the-microwave meals. When I started seeing them with red clearance labels at the local Target, one of the few places I could even find them, I panicked. No way did I want, nor would I be capable of, playing chef that early in the morning, every morning, whipping up omelets for a boy who won’t eat a bowl of cardboard and sugar like every other kid on the block! Luckily, they still have them at Fred Meyer, so I stock up whenever I’m shopping in that neck of the woods.

Sunbelt Chewy Granola Bars, Fudge-dipped Coconut—okay, here’s a slightly healthier version of the Mounds bar that I found recently, just long enough to get addicted and then Bam! Can’t find them anywhere anymore! So, nobody but me loves coconut and everybody but me must have nuts in their candy? Not fair.

What products did you love and then mourn?

August 3, 2009

Pacific Northwest Writers Association Conference

One attendee’s perspective.

This was my second writer’s conference. I wasn’t able to attend as many sessions as I wanted because my family tagged along on the trip to Seattle, but those sessions I did attend were enjoyable and informative. We didn’t stay at the Hilton, but the conference center was nice. My only complaints, and they’re mild, were the butt-numbingly average chairs—nothing ergonomic there—and the conference rooms air conditioned to within an inch of freezing (however, I’m sure the men in attendance found the temperature perfectly comfortable). Oh, and some of the rooms were too small for the crowd. The chairs were set so close together, I spent one session squished at an angle up against the wall while the man next to me enjoyed the space I created for him. After that, I got to the sessions early to get an aisle seat.

In between sessions, I usually hung out in the large, windowed room beyond a prominently placed sign with the words, “The Writer’s Café,” where they’d set up tables by genre for the attendees to drink the provided coffee, nosh on the good eats and chat up the competition. There, I met a wide range of writers: retired folks with stories to tell now they no longer had a day job; newbies young and old with no idea what they were doing; aggressive, business card-carrying scribes hungry for that first sale. I didn’t see any editors or agents mingling at the Writer’s Café (which is not to say none of them ever ventured bravely inside), and when I happened to run into someone in the ladies room or in the hall whose face looked familiar (because I’d heard them speak or saw their photo in the brochure), they invariably refused eye contact. I didn’t mistake this for unfriendliness. The prevailing undercurrent at a writer’s conference is desperation. Just because I wouldn’t stoop to waylaying conference royalty in the bathroom, doesn’t mean it never happens.

The attendees who had appointment interviews with agents or editors received a numbered instruction sheet (rules) in the mail before the conference. In it, we were given advice such as, “Speak clearly, pleasantly and loud enough to be heard, but not so loud as to disturb other interviews,” “Listen to what the agent, editor or book doctor says and answer concisely,” and “It is perfectly permissible to take two pages of your finest writing with you to the interview. Hand it over ONLY when asked to, not on your own initiative.” This guidance might seem so obvious as to be insulting (who doesn’t need to be reminded not to mumble in a surly whisper?), but it isn’t. I wish I’d gotten such an instruction sheet prior to attending my first conference (in San Diego) with one of my early manuscripts. I was such a newb I broke rule number eight, “DO NOT thrust a sample of your work at the agent/editor.” At that conference, I handed an agent my entire manuscript the instant she expressed interest. It would have been great if she’d have smiled kindly, handed it back and asked me to email her preferred sample length. Instead, I never heard from her again. It simply didn’t occur to me that she might not want to haul reams of paper on the airplane back to New York.

Since I’m newly agented, I canceled the appointment interview with the agent, but I did attend a group meeting with St. Martin’s Press editor Rose Hilliard. Even though one of my fellow attendees tromped all over rule number five, “Be considerate of others. Don’t take over the conversation,” Rose was gracious and charming.

The following are a few of the tidbits I jotted down, bits of advice from the pros, in no particular order:

Know your fan base.

Read your competition. Know who they are and what they’re doing.

If you make a book trailer, make it something someone would want to watch outside of your
book. The goal is to go viral.

They work hard for you, so don’t forget to send your agent a Christmas present.

Contact blogs and websites in your genre and ask them to review your book.

Lawyers charge by the hour to review your contract. If it takes your lawyer more than two hours to do so, find another lawyer.

75% of all books are sold in Nov-Dec, so go for a fall release.

Get a hardcover deal, since libraries mostly buy hardcover.

If you’ve written a non-fiction book and speak about the topic regularly, self-publishing may benefit you.

A book event is theater. Learn how to make it an interesting experience for your audience.

Put free content on your website.

Don’t tweet unless you say something that matters.

People smell BS a mile away. Shameless self-promotion is bad.

Agent Verna Dreisbach got a hearty laugh from the audience with, “Friends don’t let friends read first drafts.”

Agent Michelle Brower is BIG on zombies right now.

Editor Celia Johnson loves anything with a bit of science in it (science-based fiction).

I mostly attended sessions on author/book promotion, and came away with some solid ideas on how to find and retain a readership once I’m published. The dessert reception with Terry Brooks as keynote speaker was delicious and Terry was amusing and inspirational. All the speakers were well-versed in their craft and willing to answer even the most perplexing questions from the audience with frank honesty and humor.

Verdict: the PNWA conference is a class act.

July 26, 2009

Moving Day! New Blog Site.

I’d like to formally welcome myself to Google Blogger/Blogspot. I chose this forum to replace my old blog location on the advice of my daughter, who, by virtue of being younger than me, is far cooler, and more knowledgeable of all things Internet. My old blog was buried under ads so thick it was hard to find the actual posts on the page. I copied The Best Of and posted them here under the archives, noticing as I did so that the majority of my faves are about my son, the dog,
and the cat, in that order.

Hm. Doesn’t quite reflect the hip, happenin’ attitude I’m going for, but hey. Who doesn’t have kids and pets—or want them? They really are an endless source of amusement. And husbands. Husbands are fuh-uhn-ny. I’ve never written a blog about mine, not yet. He’s such a sitting duck, it’s almost a crime to poke fun at him. I had a vague idea in the grocery store today that I’d start one by commenting on his habit of periodically growing tired of the same old lunches I pack for him. Even though he always tells me afterward that he didn’t like whatever new and exciting thing I made, he’ll ask me to shake it up once in awhile and surprise him with something other than his usual turkey and provolone sandwich with the tomatoes on the side so they don’t make the bread soggy. So today I went to the deli and read the ingredients on a package of Bavarian head cheese. On the front, in prominent lettering, it says “Chopped onions, select herbs, and imported spices.” Hum, yeah, but in the tiny lettering under ingredients, it says “Pork snout and pork tongue.” Pork snout? Like…nostrils? I started laughing like a loon right there in the aisle, picturing his face after the first bite. He’d peel back the bread and examine the strange composite of mystery meat chunks held together with something resembling that meat jelly you get on cold, leftover roast beef. Yeah, the same ol’ turkey sammie sounds pretty good about now, doesn’t it, honey?

But I digress most heinously.

As a writer of young adult urban fantasy (my agent, Marlene Stringer, is guiding me through revisions for my latest manuscript, The Gossamer Sphere), and humorous contemporary women’s fiction (formerly known as Chick Lit), I should probably bestir myself to blog about subjects more fascinating than those I encounter daily in my current domestic situation. I’m a stay-at-home writer now—after we moved from the fast tempo of a large metropolitan city (San Diego) to a smallish town in southeastern Washington state, so the level of excitement has been dialed waaaay down. A particularly hairy spider or a sprinkler that gets stuck watering the same spot on the lawn can cause my blood pressure to sky-rocket nowadays.

So, I’m glad to be here. Next post will be on the Pacific Northwest Writers Association conference next week. Now, that’ll be exciting.

July 25, 2009

Wash Your Mouth Out

July 2008

This morning my husband had to go to work earlier than usual, so my five-year-old son woke up early, too. I was too groggy to get up and start my day, so I informed the boy that he needed to stay in bed.

After a few minutes, he shouted that he had to go to the bathroom. From my nice warm covers, I yelled back permission. Mind you, he knows the rules: get up, do your business, get back in bed.

Of course, he rarely follows the rules and I know it, but I was too exhausted to care. Unfortunately, I was only to get a few more precious minutes of "sleep."

It was just after 6 a.m. when I got out of bed. My son was sitting on his bed, back against the wall, holding his "cloth" up to his face (really a cloth diaper that he uses as a handkerchief every night after I put him to bed - hey, it's better than putting his boogers on the bed sheet, 'cause you know he's going to go digging in the dark). He was whimpering in a forced kind of way, like he knew he was in trouble and was trying to drum up some pre-punishment sympathy.

I asked him what he'd done. No answer, just an increase in the fake crying.

Did he hurt the kitty? No answer, but the crying was turning real.

Without patience, I shrugged and left him to it. Downstairs, with my coffee brewing, the crying increased and got louder. I ignored him, figuring I'd get the answer eventually.

I could hear it when he stood at the top of the stairs crying, and as he slowly descended. Finally, when my son had worked himself up to sobbing, I informed him that he had to the count of three to tell me what the problem was, or he was going to suffer a time out.

He came downstairs and stood miserably before me. I pulled him into my lap and comforted him, thinking, shoot, he must have done something pretty bad to put on such a show. I entreated and cajoled, but now he couldn't tell me what he'd done because he was crying so hard.

I was certainly getting worried at this point. Much as I wanted to know how much damage-control was needed, I hesitated promising him he wouldn't get into trouble if he would just tell me what he'd done. Maybe some other kid might be okay with it, but I know my son, and it would be a huge mistake to give him immunity like that. He'd for sure remember it the next time.

So I patted and rubbed his back as my neck got soaked with tears. Finally, finally, he calmed down enough to tell me, but the words were garbled.

He repeated himself three times until I made out the confession, "I ate some soap."

I was glad his face was pressed against my shoulder so he couldn't see my wide grin. "You ate some soap? How much soap?"

He sat back and pinched his front teeth between his finger and thumb. "It got stuck on my teeth."

I knew immediately he was referring to the peach-colored bar of Dial sitting in the soap tray in his bathroom. We mostly use liquid soap for hand-washing, but that bar has been around for ages.

After he calmed down enough, I gave him a glass of rice milk to take the bad taste away and snuck upstairs to examine the soap. The bar was fully intact, no big chunks missing, just two tiny parallel marks, like a snake bite, gouged out of one end.
Once I stopped laughing, I went down and gave my boy a refresher lecture on poisonous things in the house. He didn't get a "lick" of punishment - I figure after all that fuss, the residual taste in his mouth was punishment enough!

My Puppy, My Kitten, My Sanity

April 2008

We have two new members of the household. Vipper, our Engish Springer Spaniel puppy, has been with us for six weeks now, and last night little bitty kitty Palooka joined the family. In preparation for Palooka's arrival, I read up on how to introduce them, and found that the expert consensus was to confine the newcomer to a room of his own and let them smell each other under the door, then slowly increase contact time, keeping a close eye on how they react. As soon as I saw (and fell in love with) Palooka, I knew the meeting between puppy and kitty would happen later rather than sooner. Palooka is so tiny I can cradle him in my hands. Vipper, in comparison, is huge. King Kong vs. Shrimpzilla. Vipp will be a fifty-pound dog one day. Only last week, at four months old, the vet weighed him at a (spastic, willful) seventeen pounds.

Vipper's breed is very social, so one day I expect him and Palooka to be the best of chums. Right now, however, Vipper's social tendencies are a major hindrance. He absolutely hates to be alone. He loves his crate, as long as the only time we put him in it is at bedtime when he can sleep in the knowledge that I'm within arms-reach. Every other attempt to crate him for even a few measly minutes results in an anxiety-induced mess, to be euphemistic. This has created undue tension between him and me. I'm the alpha dog, but in this he has the upper hand - I either take him with me wherever I go, or I get an unpleasant surprise when I return. My solution was to get him potty-trained lightning fast. He's much happier alone if he is unconfined, with free access to sneak onto the Forbidden Sofa or chew up Daddy's flip-flops.

I know this because a few days ago I aimed the video camera at his kitchen enclosure and told him pointedly, "Be right back," which I'm trying to teach him is code for "I will return, I promise. Please don't make me regret returning."

I left, and upon arriving home, I was greeted by a happy wiggle puppy with Daddy's flip-flop in his mouth. I reviewed the video to see how he'd escaped. Although he chose a path of egress outside the camera's view, the moment the door shut behind me, I could hear the whining. It increased in intensity for two minutes as sounds of a violent struggle ensued, then all noise ceased. The video continued to tape an empty enclosure, but the physical evidence was clear: he'd climbed on top of his crate and skittered onto the kitchen island, knocking over a vase and apparently attempting to open a package of Pupperoni treats while he was up there (I guess the zip-lock technology was too much for him).

So yesterday, after two weeks of only having accidents involving his piddling in excitement or submission, I arbitrarily decided he was ready to graduate out of the kitchen. I say arbitrarily because I think I did it less because he was actually ready and more because I was projecting onto him my desperate need for him to be ready. So I took down the blockade to his section of the kitchen (the sides to my son's old crib) and gave him free access to the downstairs. Less than 24 hours later, he lost the privilege.

You see, Vipper's second endearing quirk is that he's a big chicken. Other than the embarrassment of a big dog who will run from a Chihuahua, this is not a problem in and of itself. The problem involves the necessity for him to "hold it" longer than his little puppy innards can manage. The last several potty runs of the evening are usually a waste of time. It's dark out there, and the sounds of the neighborhood (dogs barking, grass bending in the breeze) scare him silly. He doesn't heed my endless stream of entreaties (why do you eat the head off every dandelion you see?, must you stop and bury your nose in every patch of smut?, are you hiding a rock in your mouth again?) to "make potty!" Instead, he spends an inordinate amount of time suspended at the end of a taught leash with front paws scrabbling off the ground, body determinedly pointed at the beacon of light shining from the back door. Last night he refused to go, which meant that by this morning he'd stocked up on his most effective weapon - poop. His poop is like Kryptonite to me. I can be in a perfectly good mood until I see a steaming pile of insult, and then I get weak with fury.

Most experts will tell you that even if you catch your dog in the act, it won't help to yell and force him to smell his mess. I think that's a bunch How's he supposed to know if you don't tell him? When Vipper makes potty outside he gets enthusiastic kudos, and he was quick to pick up on cause and effect (sit, treat, sit, treat). So when he trotted around the corner into the front entranceway and dropped a triple on my shiny wood floor, I pointed out his mistake so he would have no doubt. Then I reconstructed the kitchen barrier lickety-split.

Even the barrier is no guarantee, though. The experts say that a dog doesn't like to potty in his enclosed area, thus the effectiveness of the crate (exception: Vipper). Our problem is that Vipper whines when he needs to potty. He also whines when he wants to get out of the kitchen and socialize, which is whenever he isn't unconscious. I wish I could distinguish between the two whines, but to be honest, he knows more English than I do Dog. So I take him out...a LOT. Because you never know if he's a loaded cannon or he just wants to chew on Daddy's flip-flop.

Which brings me to Palooka, our Ragdoll kitten. I so wanted to make his first day with us a wonderful one. Instead, he spent a good portion of it alone in the laundry room because Vipper used the Kryptonite on me and was particularly alert all day. Usually we can count on some relief in the form of puppy naps. My son and I took him for a long walk to tire him out (using the Halti, an invention of pure genius that stops Vipp's third endearing quirk, pulling on the leash). Once he was snoring in the kitchen, we locked ourselves in my bedroom with (hands down) the cutest, fuzziest, bounciest, purringest kitten in the history of kittens. Now, for those who've read my other blogs and gotten to know my son, you are aware that while his energy is unflagging, his interest can be hard to keep. Palooka had that boy following him around the room with a wad of feathers on a stick for hours. The giggling was non-stop, unlike the giggles Vipper gets whenever he knocks my son to the ground - those giggles quickly change to cries.

I comfort myself with the knowledge that a year from now I'll have a well-mannered dog whose best friend is a floppy cat. Getting there will be an adventure. (Be right back.)

A Homebody Takes Flight, or Hate and Discontent in the "Friendly" Skies

March 2008

I have a friend who's stayed in cheap hostels all over the world. Here's a woman who can tell at least a dozen fascinating stories about exotic locales and people. I'm not going to do that, chiefly because I only travel when I must. What I am going to do here is describe my recent experience travelling domestically.

First of all, I hate to fly. Some people equate air travel turbulence with the thrilling sensation of a roller coaster ride. I'd rather keep my hands and feet inside the car at all times than contemplate having to use my seat for a flotation device any day. For me, each time the bottom drops out of the plane, I get a glimpse into what it will feel like to know I'm going to die.

It took five airplanes to get me to and from my destination. I flew out very early on a Friday morning and got home late on Saturday, the next day. This tight schedule was intended to spare my husband from having to care for our son and new puppy any longer than was absolutely necessary.

On the first plane I sat next to a man who fell asleep soon after take-off. He was not a large man, but he made up for his size by sitting with his legs wide open and hogging the armrest. I got a crick in my neck leaning away from him. On the second airplane, I chatted with my seat neighbor. We exchanged abbreviated professional information. He seemed really nice, but upon getting home, I looked up his website and found that it did not belong to the man I met, unless he really was a mustachioed weatherman from Milwaukee...a creepy discovery, to say the least!

Once I reached the San Francisco airport, the fun began. The boarding pass I printed at my home airport for the third plane instructed me to go to the ticket counter. I had all of a forty minute window to do so, and I would have to make it back through security. I got lost immediately, but found an information counter and was told that in order to get to United Airlines I would have to hike through an abandoned terminal. Tossing my heavy carry-on bag over my shoulder, I practically ran through the airport. Then I waited in the wrong line, followed by another wrong line. Finally, I made it to the right kiosk. Boop boop boop, I entered my information and was told that I was too late. A series of prominent warnings painted across the wall above the counter told me why: 45 Minute Cut-off. Why I was booked for this connection I will never know, because it was doomed from the get-go. I simply could not have made it on time given the size of this airport. I must have looked pretty pathetic (or perhaps I was blocking traffic), because a "Helper" steered me to a live person. This woman was very pregnant and very mean. As she created a standby ticket for the four o'clock flight, two people interrupted us with complaints of their own.

I actually spared a moment of concern for the health of her unborn child as I considered how the stress of her job must be affecting her. I asked if "stand-by" meant I wouldn't be guaranteed a seat, and she coldly told me it was the best she could do. I fought back tears as I told her I would miss my daughter's college graduation. She shoved the ticket into my hand and said if I hurried I might make it to the original flight, but her voice told me it was unlikely. I tried anyway, running through the vast crowd, knocking into people. Once I made it through security (furious at the lady in front of me who hadn't put her liquids in a baggie - she took forever pulling her lotions and makeup and whatnot out of her luggage), I zoomed up to gate 70, where I discovered that the plane I was supposed to be on had broken down. Salvation. I was the only happy person to get on the replacement plane an hour later. During the wait, I was at least able to get my first meal of the day, while I called several friends to cancel the lunch I'd planned.

So far, things had not gone terribly smoothly.

In San Diego, I took a shuttle to the rental car office, where I discovered I had no credit cards in my wallet. All I had was my husband's debit card. Don't ask how that happened; suffice it to say it involved a disagreement about credit card spending and a pair of scissors. This was not good planning on my part. I sheepishly handed the debit card to the guy at the counter and tried to act casual, la la la. Somehow I got over that hurdle and soon climbed gratefully into my rental car. The gratitude lasted maybe five minutes, just enough time to get lost before finding the freeway. Then: what was that awful stench? They'd tried to hide it with some kind of cleaner, but was it...? Urine? Had a homeless man spent the night in this vehicle? If I wasn't already late, I'd have turned back around. As it was, I spent the rest of the trip, when in that car, with a faint frown of distaste between my brows.

I found to my utter dismay that the "hotel" I'd booked was in reality a "motel." I should have paid more attention to the two-star rating, I suppose. The only good thing about my accommodations: the debit card situation didn't faze them. To get to my room, I had to pass a shady-looking young man on his cell phone who appeared to be a permanent fixture, dodge a large bag of leaking garbage and traverse a severely uneven second-floor walkway that surely would collapse if we had an earthquake or a mild breeze. Inside, I took note of the cigarette burn-holes in the curtains, the poorly patched holes in the walls and, again, a stench - this time of bleach, one of my least favorite odors.

My mother and my aunt were in another room, blissfully unaware of the lack-of-quality in our accommodations, as any truly thrifty person would be. We travelled together to the graduation ceremony. I drove confidently to my daughter's college campus, but unfortunately, that's not where the ceremony was being held. More great planning on my part. When we finally arrived at the hotel ballroom, the security Nazi provided by the school refused to let us in, saying that all the seats were taken and it would be a fire code violation. I can't decide whether I'm proud or ashamed of the fit I threw at that point, but we did get in after my mother loudly played the handicapped old lady card. It's embarrassing, but it trumps 'em every time.

Inside, I was furious to see that there were at least forty empty chairs intended for the graduates. Fire code, my eye.

I have three blurry shots of the whole event because I couldn't get my camera to work (by then I was so exhausted I was running on fumes and unable to comprehend the simplest of tasks). Two of my bad photos appear to be the back of someone's pointy head, and the third is a distance shot of my pride and joy walking in her gown. Afterward, we went to dinner at an Applebee's located in the parking lot of a mall. I found out the hard way that this particular establishment has only one small entrance. It was like a shining Shangri-La. We ended up circling the mall twice and once were even forced to get back on the freeway before I figured out how to get to the restaurant.

After a late meal in which much of my attention was spent preventing my mother from telling dirty jokes to my daughter's friends, we went back to the motel. To my chagrin, no amount of rummaging in my bag unearthed a toothbrush or toothpaste. I placed a chair in front of the door and lay down on the stiff mattress fully expecting to be awakened by a battering ram bursting through the door followed by DEA agents or a SWAT team or the Vice Squad. In the morning, I took a shower, peering into every crusty corner for hidden cameras.

After spending a few hours and a few dollars on my daughter at the mall, I pointed the stinky rental car towards the airport. I was early enough to hit the McDonald's in the terminal. I ordered and stood back to wait for my meal. And waited, and waited. After ten minutes I managed to get the young cashier's attention with a raise of my eyebrows. No, they hadn't even cooked my chicken nuggets, so I waited some more. Finally I had my meal and as I headed towards my gate, I nibbled on French fries - stone cold French fries.

On the plane, just before landing in Salt Lake City, the stewardess announced that all connecting flights were cutting it close. She requested of the passengers that those with connections be allowed off first. Once we landed, it turned out I was at the head of the line to deplane. Only problem: the ramp didn't quite fit and everyone was going to have to sit back down so the pilot could back the plane up and pull in properly. I heard myself announce to the plane at large that this was all my fault, since nothing on my trip had gone as planned. Luckily, the stewardess convinced the ground crew to let us take the stairs, and after yet another breathless dash through an airport, I made the flight with five minutes to spare.

On the last plane I began to read a book I'd purchased at the mall, straight literary fiction, not my usual genre for one important reason: it made me cry within the first forty pages. I like to cry about as much as I like to travel. Irritated now on top of being just plain worn out, I shut the book and reached to turn off my overhead light. Instead of pushing the off button, I tried to twist the light off, as I had earlier twisted the air vent closed. I burned my fingers on the scorching hot glass cover when it fell off and I tried to catch it.

At my home town airport, it took me twenty minutes in the dark and freezing cold to locate my car, but soon I was driving home.


Nothing felt better than being greeted at the door by my husband and the very excited puppy. I went upstairs and kissed my sleeping son and then came back down to listen to my husband tell me how he'd coped (barely) for two days without me. Other than my pride in seeing my daughter graduate, the only good thing about my trip was that my husband now has a renewed appreciation for all I do.

And I have a fresh take on why I hate to travel: whereas I usually find the humor in all variety of tribulation, travel merely stresses me out. My friend the world traveler probably experienced similar, if not downright hair-raising, predicaments on her adventures. After all, she went to other countries, with foreign customs and language and people. She comes home a la Jacqueline Kennedy, crisply dressed, tan and relaxed. I don't even leave the west coast and I limp off the plane in desperate need of a chiropractor.

Ah, well. My next involuntary travel plans will probably be to attend my daughter's wedding...unless I can convince her to come here for her nuptials. Nah. That would take planning...

Kids Won't Eat Veggies? Green Juice to the Rescue

March 2008

As a baby, my son ate his pureed peas like a champ, but as he got older he began to reject all but the most carefully disguised fruits and vegetables. It wasn't always the taste, as most people assume it is with picky little eaters; it was often the texture that made him balk at the dinner table.

I followed the advice of the experts and placed the scorned veggies on his plate anyway. The pros assured me it would take time, but eventually my son would develop a liking for his vegetables.

Not only did that not happen, but soon my son's aversion grew so strong he flat out refused to even lick a slice of apple, melon, pineapple, you name it. No amount of cajoling or bribing got compliance. He literally gagged if an uninvited vegetable made it past his lips. After one too many ruined meals, I made sure to pick out the chunks of tomato in the spaghetti and the wedges of zucchini in his linguine. Through much trial and error, I found a few items of the grown variety that he would eat. But beans, bananas and applesauce leave wide gaps in the nutrition spectrum.

Enter Green Juice.

In desperation, I purchased a good quality single auger masticating juicer, the kind with what looks like a big screw that forces the vegetables and fruit against a metal screen until the pulp is separated from the juice. Juice drains out one hole and pulp is pooped out another, into two separate containers. I made a big production out of the purchase and took my son to the grocery store to help pick some "starter" fruits and vegetables. When we got home, I let him stand on a chair at the counter, and with close supervision, guided him in feeding the sliced apples, pears and carrots into the juicer. He helped me rinse off all the juicer's parts afterwards, thrilled to have been included in this fun and exciting activity. I mixed the resulting juice half and half with commercial apple juice and held my breath as he gave it a try.

I needn't have worried: he was proud to drink the juice he'd made. I put the pulp into banana bread and because it was ground so fine he didn't know the difference. Over time, we tried adding a variety of fruits and vegetables in different combinations. My son drank each and every concoction, and asked for more. Now when we go to the grocery store, he will remind me to get a bunch of kale or ask if we have enough carrots. To be honest, he nags me to make green juice he adores the process so much! The key is allowing him to stuff those fruits and vegetables into the juicer.

We don't follow recipes, but there are recipe books out there. In order to get the most out of our juicing experience, I did find a wonderful book, though. The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth by Jonny Bowden not only pinpoints the best foods, the author warns you about foods most likely to be contaminated by pesticides. For instance, we spend a little more for organic apples so we don't have to peel them before juicing. That way we get the benefit of the vitamins, minerals and fiber in the peel, without the chemicals.

When I'm feeling lazy, I also enlist my son's help in making smoothies in the blender. No veggies there, but he gets the fiber from the whole frozen fruit, and he drinks it so fast he gets an "ice cream" headache.

My son still won't eat his peas and he still gags at the distinctive crunch of a stray onion. But with green juice, I know he's not only getting the nutrition he needs, he's also developing a taste for the grassy-green flavors most kids shun.

Puppy Proof: Adventures in Early Potty Training

March 2008

I'm perched on a stool in the kitchen typing this on my laptop. The legs of the stool and my socks have been liberally sprayed with a bitter-tasting chew deterrent. Oh, hold on, I need to pause for a minute to go spray my pant legs, too...there. I'm puppy-proof.

We've had Vipper for two weeks now. Two long weeks.

Two weeks in which I am no longer free to do anything, anything at all, without considering how it will impact the puppy.

Two weeks that have taught me why it is that puppies are so darn cute - so we don't throttle them!

A typical day in Puppyland involves planning. If my husband is not home to puppy-sit, I must take Vipper with me when I drop off/pick up my son from preschool because Vipper doesn't have the usual distaste for pooping in his crate that all of our dog-eared puppy books say is the norm.

I blame this on his breed, English Springer Spaniel, because they are a hugely social dog. He gets Very Upset if one of us is not within licking distance at all times. And when he's Upset, it appears to stimulate his digestive system, so to speak.

So I'm forced to haul Vipper around in his crate if I need to make a short trip in the car. I put him up front so he can see me, and haul butt dropping my son off and picking him up from preschool so Vipper doesn't have time to get worked up enough to unload a special surprise for my return.

We get home and I let him out into his blocked off kitchen area. I feed him and take my son upstairs, rushing ("Go, go, go - hurry up! I don't want Vipper to go potty!") for his nap. Abrupt kisses, hugs, tuck my son in and less than two minutes later I come downstairs to a relieved puppy.

Relieved? -you ask.

Relieved to see me? Well, yes, that, too.

It's just a puddle, though. A puddle that he ran through, skidded through and generally tracked all over the kitchen.

According to one of the puppy books, I'm not supposed to let him see me clean it up. (I haven't quite figured that rule out. Is it because if he sees me, he'll laugh his stubby tail off? Look at that human. She is my slave. She's working so hard to clean up my doo-doo. She seems to enjoy it. I like her. I think I'll leave her another over here.)

So I put him back in the crate and break out the mop. Less than five minutes later - nice clean floor.

Does Vipper appreciate my efforts? No, sir, he does not. He has, however, taken a major dump-ola in the crate.

Which he stepped in and skidded through and generally got all over his paws and the towel I gave him for his comfort. This is the fifth towel I've had to discard (really, there's no way I'm going to put that into my brand new washer).

Instead of taking him upstairs into my new deep bathtub (I've had one good soak in it since we've lived here; Vipper's been here two weeks and has had four, you do the math), I take him outside and wash his paws with the hose.

I know we're not supposed to be angry when a puppy can't hold it (for TWO LOUSY MINUTES), but do I want to reward him with a nice warm bath and a towel snuggle afterward? You bet your squeaky toy I don't!

Just exactly like a child who instinctively knows when mama is distracted enough not to notice that he's about to pour the sugar canister out on the kitchen table, a puppy knows when it's a good time to sneak into his favorite corner of the kitchen to whizzle. The puppy books will tell you otherwise. They say that your midget canine simply cannot hold it. I beg to differ. If Vipper has no bladder control whatsoever, why have I never caught him in the act? Why does he always just happen to be on the opposite side of the island in our kitchen when the waterworks start?

Oh, I long for the days when he figures it out. I want to be staring into his hazel eyes and catch a glimpse of the intelligence I know has to be in there somewhere. To date we have not gotten through one day without a potty mishap.

Hey...where's Vipper?


What Happen If? Questions from a Four-year-old

January 2008

My son doesn't ask why, why, why, like other kids.

He never phrases his questions like a typical preschooler, "Mommy, why is the moon in the sky?" or "Mommy, why do airplanes fly?"

No, my boy practices his own special brand of repetition in his quest for knowledge. His developing intellect wants to know, "What happen if..?" followed by a scenario that is invariably ridiculous, impossible, and where someone always gets hurt.

For instance, he might ask, "What happen if an airplane crashes into the moon?" Then he waits a fraction of a second before repeating the question until I'm forced to come up with an answer my son, with his limited logic, can understand. "An airplane can't fly far enough to reach the moon," I'll say.

Now that he's successfully engaged me, the questions escalate. "What happen if a Martian on the moon jumps on top of the airplane?" I try to stop the silliness by saying, "That wouldn't happen, honey. Martians are from Mars, not the moon, and besides, there are no such things as Martians."

He quickly counters with something like, "But what happen if the Martian is from Texas and is so bad and mean that he ates the man's arm up – his arm and his feet, and the man got so mad that the Martian ended up in his tummy?"

I know better than to enable the conversation further by asking where the angry, hungry man came from. He came from my son's limitless imagination, which I am loathe to suppress, but really, there's just so many ludicrous situations I can wrap my mind around in any given day.

"The Martian will probably get put into a major time out if he can't stop bugging the man," I say, shooting my son a meaningful look.

Ah, if only it were so easy. The incorrigible youngster barely gasps in enough air to fill his little lungs before beginning what will surely be a dizzyingly complicated and implausible narrative.

In desperation, I point over his shoulder and exclaim, "Oh, my gosh, Spongebob Squarepants just came through the front door!"

He whips his head around. "Where?"

By the time he turns back around, I'm in Texas with the Martian.

The following is a recent conversation, as near as I can remember:

"What happen if blood is on my finger and I see something coming out?"

(I tell him we go get a Band aid.)

"What happen if a termite comes out?"

(There are no termites in your finger.)

"What happen if it is really big?"

(That's just silly, now knock it off.)

"What does knock it off mean?"

(It means stop it.)

"What happen if we find a dinosaur bone when we're at school?"

(That would be cool.)

"What happen if the dinosaur bites me on the butt?"

(Dinosaurs are all gone and we don't talk about your butt, remember?)

"What happen if you have really strong pants? Then the dinosaur can't bite you."

(For goodness sake, will you stop?)

"And if he did, his teeth would all fall out and break like glass and be on the ground and somebody would step on it and it would cut their feet all into little pieces and-mmmph!)

(This time it's my hand, next time I'm breaking out the duct tape, do you understand?)

Shakes his head no.

(Oh, for gosh sakes, never mind. )

Holiday Aftermath

December 2007

The last of the chocolates have only three corners and the final drop of wonderful thigh-expanding eggnog is gone. Gone also is that familiar nostalgic feeling that begins in September when the stores display such gems as the endlessly entertaining singing monkeys, shuffling penguins and hip-swinging Santas.

We have so much to be thankful for at my house, namely: the end of the Holiday Season. On Christmas morning, after Spongedad Grumpypants finally made an appearance in all his bah-humbug, morning-breath glory, the wrap-ripping carnage began. Soon we had three bulging plastic bags of re-fuse that my husband re-fused to take out (he stretched the excuse that the dumpster was overflowing for almost three days).

The ringing in our ears from piercing shrieks of excitement hadn't begun to fade before we regretted the vast majority of "Santa's" gift selections for our son. It wasn't just that I needed a crowbar and flame-thrower to get the packages open - I spent more migraine-inducing time putting the toys together then my son spent playing with them.

I still catch myself humming "Jingle Bells," the song I painstakingly taught my four-year-old for his preschool stage debut in which he completely ignored the teacher and instead ran around in circles and tried to "accidently" kick over a pile of gifts. More than any other holiday blessing, I'll be mourning the passing of the "Santa can see you!" threat...
Happy New Year! (sigh)

San Diego Wildfires: One Woman's Evacuation Story

October 2007

Mid-morning on Sunday of this week, my four-year-old son was putting together a puzzle while I did laundry and vacuumed. The windows were open to allow the warm autumn breeze to freshen the indoor air. I sat on the couch for a moment to rest, and noticed the slight smell of smoke. Within the hour a haze darkened the skyline visible from the windows of our apartment a little south of the community of Rancho Bernardo in San Diego. I turned on the television and switched channels, hoping to catch any news of what I assumed was a small, local brush fire. From recent news reports, I knew that the fire danger was high due to the dry conditions and Santa Ana winds, but I didn't think it was possible we'd have a repeat of the 2003 Cedar fire, much less something worse.

I tuned to channel 9 because they had hourly news breaks, and sure enough, I soon heard confirmation that there was a fire. It was far from our home, so I closed the windows and forgot about it for the rest of the afternoon.

By the time my husband returned home from work, the smoke was so bad in our apartment, even with the doors and windows shut tight, that we turned the television back on. Now it was easy to find a news update. The Witch Creek fire burned out of control in the gusting wind, and it was headed our way.

My son's room was smokier than the rest of the apartment, so he slept between my husband and me that first night. This is tantamount to no one sleeping at all. I am the lightest sleeper on earth, my husband is the heaviest of sleepers and the least conscious of his movements (read: bed hog) and my son prefers never to sleep at all. No threat, whispered, growled or even yelled, dampened my child's uncontrollable wiggling - he seems to suffer from a bizarre form of restless leg syndrome affecting his entire body. At 3:30am, the radio woke me from a light sleep, and I got my husband up. He and his friend Jeff were flying out of state for job interviews and would be gone until Wednesday.

My son had finally settled into a deep sleep, so he was unaware when the alarm went off for the second time at 5:30am. I got up and got ready for work as usual. Because the smell of smoke was still strong in the apartment, I went into the living room and turned on the television. Every major station had coverage of the fire and they were talking about mandatory evacuations in my neighborhood. I turned on my laptop and found a website that showed a map of where the fire was estimated to be - five miles from our apartment. There were so many structures between us and the fire that I knew in my heart that it would never reach us. Still, I hesitated to follow my usual routine, and instead of heading for work, I sat in front of the television and watched the news coverage. A reporter alerted viewers in my area to expect a "reverse 9-1-1 call" to evacuate.

When the phone rang less than an hour later, I instinctively knew I was one of the unlucky ones. Sure enough, a recorded message in a woman's voice told me it was mandatory that I leave.
I like to think that in my 4 decades I have developed a measure of common sense, but lack of sleep seemed to have rerouted the synapses of my brain controlling logic. In other words, I kind of panicked. In my defense, I'd been listening on the news about the seriousness of heeding the reverse 9-1-1 call. "Ignore it to your peril," "Don't misuse precious fire fighter resources by forcing them to evacuate you," "Get out before you die a terrible fiery death, you fools!" Okay, so the last warning was a product of my sleep-deprived imagination, but I remembered the horror from the Cedar fire, hearing how entire families were trapped on the road and burned to death in their cars as they tried to evacuate. I didn't want to be stuck in traffic with the rest of my neighbors as the fire swept over us.

First I fired off an email to my employers letting them know I wasn't coming in. Then I hurriedly emptied my gym bag of a week's worth of clean exercise clothes and started shoving in what I thought might come in handy. As I looked around the apartment, I realized that I had no idea where our photo albums were, nor our little fire-proof safe. We'd recently sold our house and were only here in this apartment temporarily. We hadn't even unpacked the majority of the boxes.

Into the gym bag went my laptop, six cans of soda water, two bananas, my son's portable game player, four random children's dvds, and a fistful of papers from my bill-paying binder that I erroneously thought were the birth certificates, etc. (I later flipped through the paperwork to discover that I'd saved my typing certificate and the warranty on our couch, among other embarrassingly non-essential documents.)

I called my husband and left a voice mail that we were leaving. I dressed my son and led him out to the calm, vehicle-packed parking lot. He watched, motor-mouth running under an adorable mop of uncombed sleep hair, as I opened the truck door, stirring up a flurry of ash. In almost three months of residing in this neighborhood, other than the occasional wave hello, I had met none of my neighbors. A lethargic-looking young man shuffled from the garbage bin on his way back to his apartment.

"Did you get the call to evacuate?" I asked him.

"No," he replied, looking at me like I was a little insane.

"I did," I said.

He shrugged and walked on. I fastened my son into his car seat and drove out.

The entrance to the freeway was blocked by orange cones and police cars with lights flashing, so I joined a long line of vehicles down a side street. Every gas station I passed had cars lined up out into the street. Most everyone was polite and patient as we inched forward, and the entire scene seemed surreal. I turned on the radio and heard that we should limit cell phone usage.

Ten minutes into the evacuation, my son announced that he had to go potty. I informed him that he'd best hold it unless he wanted to go on the side of the road. The little scamp proceeded to argue with me that yes, he would very much like to go on the side of the road - that sounded like fun!

It took about a half an hour to get on the 15 south. Due to the freeway closure to the north, the lanes were free and clear even with the steady stream of vehicles evacuating to the south.

My cell rang and it was my husband, calling from his layover in Salt Lake City. I apprised him of the situation and he and Jeff insisted that I go straight to Jeff's house. I was hesitant because I had yet to actually meet Jeff's wife Jennifer, and it seemed like a poor time to do so, but my husband put Jeff on the phone and I was obligated at that point to foist myself upon the kindness of strangers.

My son and I stayed with Jennifer for several hours. I never really believed that I would be ousted from my home for long. I didn't think that our apartment was in real danger. What couldn't occur to me was that city and county officials were prepared to keep entire neighborhoods in limbo waiting to get back home while they assessed the damage.

Jeff and Jennifer's son is a two-year-old just as active as my son. Our boys proceeded to bounce off the walls, further stressing me out. I love my son more than anything, but right about then I sure would have liked to have an off switch installed on him somewhere. Compounding the frenetic activity, Jennifer kept trying to introduce her poor little dog into the equation. Every time fat little Sasha came indoors, my son would let loose with his particularly high-pitched screams. He wanted to see the doggie, but the doggie also wanted to see him - and whenever Sasha approached with any kind of enthusiasm, my son freaked out.

I removed my boy from the chaos temporarily, out into the smoky air to pick up pizza for dinner, a particularly grating chore considering I had just the day before committed to a new diet that definitely did not have large amounts of cheese and bread on the menu. But food is a necessary evil, and easy food was the most appealing under the circumstances.

After eating pizza in front of the television, where every station blared fire news coverage, I began to panic in a different way. My son and Jennifer's were getting along surprisingly well, but I knew that would not last. Under pressure of forced confinement, the boys would soon begin to squabble. I understand my son's nature - after all, my four-year-old handful inherited his level of energy from me. Under duress I will admit I'm high-strung, but in opposition to my own nature, I have little tolerance for it. I most desire to be admired for my calm, logical intelligence - a cultivated personality trait that flew out the window soon after the first fire began to burn.
I wanted to go home, or at least be someplace where I had the autonomy to do what I chose without concern that I must follow my host's rules. Jennifer had been nothing but gracious to us, but I just couldn't stay.

I spent about half an hour online trying to find hotel rooms, but even the five-star accommodations were all sold out. Because there were now several fires burning in the county, there had been more evacuations, hundreds of thousands of displaced people. There were plenty of useless hotel rooms available in the evacuated areas, of course.

One after the other, I got phone calls on my cell from two friends checking up on me and my son's preschool director, who told me the preschool was closed for the rest of the week. Just as I'd resigned myself to ousting Jennifer's innocent two-year old from his bedroom, my grown daughter called.

Of course! She and her boyfriend had an apartment in a safe location in the county - safe for the time being, anyway. Why hadn't I thought of staying with her? Well, it probably had to do with my feelings of obligation after my husband and his friend colluded to put me with Jennifer. In addition, I did not want to hurt Jennifer's feelings by rejecting her offer of hospitality.

But I went ahead and did it anyway.

Jennifer was upstairs changing the sheets on her son's bed when I announced that I was leaving, but would she mind if I borrowed her inflatable mattress and a pillow and some blankets because my college-student daughter lived in a one-bedroom slum that barely had basic amenities?

My nebulous plan as I high-tailed it out of Jeff and Jennifer's comfortable home was to buy them a big fruit basket in thanks and apology as soon as things were back to normal. There was no way I could erase the first impression I'd left Jennifer with - that I'm a scatter-brained stressed-out lunatic who can't properly pack an evacuation bag - but my impression of her was that she's smart and understanding and perhaps even forgiving.

Driving in the dark to my daughter and her boyfriend's apartment calmed me. I was back in charge. (Sigh.)

The first thing that greeted me upon entering my daughter's apartment was the unsubtle ammonia stench of unchanged cat box. Right away my son began entertaining himself chasing the fat, lazy flies that buzzed about. My daughter explained that they'd had a stubborn case of flies for some time, and she didn't know why. That attractive-to-vermin cat box in the bathroom came immediately to my mind, but I tried to be charitable, because when I was in college I'd lived in more than one place that was sub-sanitary, including an unforgettable stint in a bat-infested locale. However, the first time my son pinched a dead fly he'd found on the windowsill between his little fingers, I nearly had a conniption.

Since my son hadn't napped at Jennifer's house, he was like a ball bearing in a pinball machine, pinging off the furniture in my daughter's tiny apartment. She and her boyfriend retreated to their bedroom while I tried to calm my son down enough to sleep - a difficult enough task on a good day. Once he was finally out cold, I took a moment to lovingly study his quiet profile, appreciating that our situation may not be optimally comfortable, but we were unharmed and out of the danger zone.

I watched television for another hour before the stress-induced headache I'd been battling all day forced me to try to sleep. I lay down on the spring-loaded, sagging day bed, fearful with every move that it would collapse. My sleep was once again fitful and unsatisfying.

In the morning, the San Diego County Office of Emergency Services, or OES, had a press conference. The county supervisor, the mayor, the police chief, the sheriff, the fire chief and various other grim-faced officials spoke one after the other, each spending huge chunks of precious air-time thanking each other, followed by a few short sentences reiterating what we already knew.

My neighborhood was thus far the hardest hit, with hundreds of homes lost. There was no estimate at that time for "repopulating" the area.

We went out to breakfast. My daughter's boyfriend informed me that any attempt to fight him for the check would result in my losing, so I let him buy. Then we went to Target so I could purchase the items I should have brought with me. Luckily, my daughter had no compunctions accepting my offer to buy her a few household necessities, and we left with an overflowing cart.

The southern California day was hot and windy and our eyes burned from the thick, unhealthy air. Inside the apartment, the tiny air-conditioner struggled to keep the temperature below 90 degrees. I'd purchased a toy for my son to keep him occupied: a remote control spider that he promptly broke. It was clear I'd need to make another toy run, and I wanted to give my daughter and her steadfastly patient boyfriend a break from the exhausting dynamo that was my son, so I packed him up and went to Henry's for some groceries.

My husband called while we were there.

"How's it going?" he asked, like I was out for a Sunday stroll.

"Um...I'd like to go home," I said.

"When are they letting you back in?"

"Every time we call 2-1-1, they ask us for our zip code and tell us we can't go back. But when we look at the evacuation maps online, some of them look like we can. It's very frustrating," I said.
My poor husband wanted to share with me how he thought the interview had gone well, and how they'd met with a (young and pretty) real estate agent and toured homes for sale, but my cell phone battery pooped out. Besides, I wasn't in the mood to hear about how fresh and cool the air was there, how comfortable his hotel room was, or that he'd chugged a few beers with his pal and watched the game the night before. It wasn't his fault that through a strange coincidence he was out of town enjoying himself while I was alone with our son dealing with a major disaster, but I didn't have to be happy about it.

Back in my daughter's apartment, I began to suffer from claustrophobia.

I. Wanted. To. Go. Home.

My daughter, too, started to unravel around the edges. Not, as she told me, because her little brother was bugging her, but because my stressful reaction to the situation was dragging her down. The spaz gene is strong in my branch of the family tree, and she, too, has it in spades. I forced myself to wear a mask of Zen.

The news was not encouraging. More press conferences, full of officious good-ol-boys-and-girls who just could not stop spouting thanks and offering congratulations to each other on what an exemplary job they were doing handling this emergency. We were told that my neighborhood should be able to go home in 24 hours, a promise that had already been made 24 hours ago. We learned about the outpouring of support from the unaffected community, and I couldn't help but be thankful that I wasn't sitting in a shelter somewhere, amongst strangers and at the mercy of strangers.

We saw sobering footage of the roaring fires burning out of control and the devastation they caused and continued to cause. Most people left when the evacuation order came out, but some stubborn (and stupid) folks didn't. A few of them died. More of them pulled firefighters from their jobs to take the time to rescue them.

We heard rumors that some of the fires were arson, not a surprise to those of us who've lived here for awhile. When the Santa Ana winds come, the arsonists are never far behind.

My son went to sleep faster that last night, as if even his boundless energy was flagging under the strain of unfamiliar routine. The glow of the television faded as I made myself as comfortable as I could, looking forward to the 7am press conference in the morning, when I hoped the evacuation would be lifted.

It wasn't. In the morning after yet another press conference jam-packed with, "Before I begin, I'd like to thank the blah, blah, blah-blah-blah," I was beyond disappointed when they announced that Rancho Bernardo was still off-limits. I logged onto several websites with fire burn and evacuation maps that showed that my little community, which, although it shares a zip code, technically isn't even Rancho Bernardo, was not under evacuation order.

It was then that I began to doubt I'd ever been evacuated. I got the call, but did I really listen to what the message said? Why didn't any of my neighbors seem to have gotten a call at the same time as me?

My husband flew in and called on my daughter's cell phone. I begged him to go straight home and see if he could get into the area. Then I looked up businesses in my neighborhood and called them to see if anyone answered the phone. No one at the grocery store picked up, but I got an immediate answer at the craft store. I asked the guy if they were open and he responded in the affirmative, leaving out the word "obviously," even though it was in his voice. For good measure, I called the book store.

"Barnes and Noble."

"Hi. I was evacuated and every time I call 2-1-1 they ask for my zip code and tell me I can't come home, but I'm right across the street from you."

"Yeah, I've been hearing that from customers all morning," the guy said. "2-1-1 is not very reliable."

2-1-1 is the official information hotline for this particular disaster, and his words started a slow, furious burn in my stomach.

"How long has the area been open?" I asked through gritted teeth.

"I guess when they opened the 15 freeway last night people just started trickling back. They can't get in a few miles north, but it's starting to look like business as usual here," he said. "I got home this morning and came right into work."

I thanked him and the instant I got off the phone began to shove our new clothes, toothbrush, toothpaste, shampoo, food and toys into bags. For some reason, the urge to hurry was so great I ran to my truck to move it to a no-park zone, where I could load it up.

"Calm down," my daughter told me.

"I could have gone home yesterday!" I cried. "I might not have even had to leave in the first place!"

My husband called back and told me that he was home. I shot out of my daughter's place like it was, well...on fire.

Other than the heavy smoke hanging in the still air, my apartment complex seemed normal. The first thing my husband told me was that the one neighbor he spoke to said she had not gotten a reverse 9-1-1 call and had stayed throughout. She did tell him that she'd been pretty scared, though. Despite the pitying look in my husband's eyes, I decided to trust myself.

I had been evacuated. The whole ordeal was not the result of my panicked imagination. The majority of maps we'd seen online showed that a vast area, including my neighborhood, had indeed been told to leave. The problem was with the much-lauded reverse 9-1-1 system, which clearly did not alert everyone - could not, in fact, alert those who did not have a land line installed in their homes, because it did not work with cell phones. The problem was compounded by a flawed and overburdened 2-1-1 system, which should not have relied upon zip codes to distinguish neighborhoods. In addition, much of the televised information was woefully outdated. I recall watching the scrolling news at the bottom of the television screen as the newscasters struggled to fill air time with information that would keep their viewers from switching the channel in hopes of finding something they hadn't already heard. The scrolling words said, "BREAKING NEWS!" but it lied. It would have been more truthful to say, "SAME OLD NEWS!" Long after the denizens of areas just south of Rancho Bernardo had been trickling home, the scrolled words still told us it was off-limits.

So now that the fires are almost out and the people are almost all home - those who still have a home, that is - much of the congratulatory back-slapping and never-ending stream of gratitude from those in charge will be replaced by recrimination and accusation from the inconvenienced public. All that the Powers-That-Be can do is compare one emergency to another to see what they might do better next time. The ratio of property loss to loss-of-life is evidence that the evacuations worked. Removing people before they were endangered freed up time for firefighters to attack the fire fronts that would do the most towards stopping the monster from advancing on populated areas.

As for me, I located our safe, our photo albums and our important papers, and I'm now prepared to evacuate.

July 24, 2009

Take your Precocious Child to Work Day

April 2007

I woke up on Thursday, national Take Your Child to Work Day, with a free-floating anxiety that I attributed to my plan to introduce my four-year-old son to my workplace. I’d already told my coworkers he was coming; had signed him up, in fact, for the program put on by the office. He was looking forward to seeing real fire fighters and their fire engine, so I suppressed my apprehension and buckled him into his car seat.

I’d been lecturing him for days on how to behave, to the point where I’m sure he tuned out my words and heard instead a voice like the adults on a Charlie Brown cartoon, whah whah whah whaaah. I was hoping that haranguing him to be good would pre-empt his tendency towards naughty behavior, which has lately been the norm at daycare. His daycare provider is a wonderful woman who updates me via email several times a day, and I’ve always considered that service especially nice since it gives me insight into his day while I’m at work. This last month I haven’t even wanted to open the dreaded updates anymore. She’ll start out her email with something like “Everything was fine until…” or “The kids were playing nicely until…” and then I’ll get a numbered list of paragraphs outlining my son’s infractions in excruciating detail.

As we drove into work, I briefed my son on what was expected of him, being sure to inform him that if he misbehaved I’d whisk him home so fast his head would spin (with no real intention of doing so, since it would involve actually leaving work).

He did very well for the first part of the morning. They separated the kids and took the younger ones into a conference room to do fun activities. Later, I got comments from the staff that included the descriptive terms “adorable” “entertaining” “enjoyable” and “sweet heart,” which gave me hope that the day might not end up a complete disaster.

Then thirty children trooped into the big conference room for the demonstration by the fire department. The tables were assigned by age, so my son was front and center. I stayed on the sidelines by his table since he seemed a little wound up. Because the group went in age from two to twelve years or so, the younger kids didn’t understand the terms the speaker, a fire fighter, was using. Most sat and listened anyway like good little boys and girls. My son discovered that his chair could spin and he began a series of distracting back and forth rotations. I hissed at him to knock it off, but he sensed, in the way that all children do, that I was helpless to stop him. The fire fighter was quizzing the children on Stop, Drop and Roll, a concept that I’d never presented to my son, since he’s so very interested in all things “fire and destruction” that I’m afraid to broach it in any capacity, when my son loudly announced to the room that he’d had spicy chips for snack.

Okay, that wasn’t so bad. Everyone smiled indulgently and the fire fighter went on to talk about dialing 911, another thing I’d never covered, since I’m not eager to give my son the go-ahead with the telephone. He’s a true “take a mile” kind of kid and I’m sure the very moment my back is turned we’d have emergency personnel at the door, not smiling indulgently.

Then the fire fighter asked the kids what they would do in a fire emergency if they were in their homes. One kid said “feel the door,” another said “crawl down low,” and my son, who still didn’t understand the topic, but who enjoys the spotlight and apparently felt the continuing urge to contribute to the conversation, said, in a loud, perfectly projected voice, “You take a shower! Or a bath! And you wash your BUTT!”

After a nano-second’s worth of shock, the entire adult population of the room burst out laughing, myself included. I felt my face burn in embarrassment, so much so that I broke into a sweat and my deodorant failed on the spot. Knowing how unsightly my blushes can be, especially coupled with my paroxysmal laughter, I put my hands over my face and turned towards the wall, so that I didn’t see what happened next. When I finally got control, I saw that my son was seated in a tall chair at the front of the room, facing the audience. Standing behind him with a hand on the back of the chair? The taciturn, hard-faced fire captain.

My son did not say one more word throughout the rest of the presentation, nor did he attempt to leave his chair or otherwise disturb the proceedings further. I thought maybe he’d gotten a “time out,” a concept he’s entirely familiar with, but his contented expression belied that idea. Surely his bottom lip would be sticking out about a mile if the fire captain had chastised him.

As the group of children excitedly went outside to tour the fire engine, someone told me that the captain had plucked my son out of his chair and invited him to be “Fire Fighter of the Day,” a brilliant move from one of America’s finest.

My early morning premonition had come true, but not in the way I’d anticipated. Now I have another precious memory of my precocious child, something particularly suited to share with his very first girlfriend…