Monday, December 26, 2005

A high-tech holiday

After a too-big dinner yesterday, we went out looking at lights. We have plenty of people around here who go overboard. Less than a mile from my home is an entire street that was filled with cars and people who were there to see the lights. They must have one of just about every wooden, inflatable, and light-up holiday decoration available, plus a few homemade ones, a pandemonium of lights and creatures.

Last night, though, we went to a different part of town and saw the most over-the-top holiday display I've ever seen at a private residence. Two neighbors, who shared a large lawn between their houses, had clearly gotten together for the display. Each of five large trees in the yard sported lights, plus they had lights on the eaves and in all the bushes and shrubs, and lights spiraling up two city lightposts on either side. They had a light-up deer on the roof and one on the lawn, but none of the huge inflatable things. It was mostly just lights.

In the middle, they had a box. The box had a scrolling LED display, and instructions to tune your radio to an FM station. They had a microtransmitter playing Christmas songs. (The signal vanished even a block away.) All the lights in the yard were timed with the music, and it must have been choreographed in advance because exactly the right ones were going at the right times. They must have had them on dozens of different circuits.

The scrolling LED display offered additional information. It said to watch for the laser in Rudolph's nose, which indeed there was. It also requested donations of canned foods or money for a local food bank, which the owners of the display planned to match. So far, it said, they had collected 6 barrels of food plus $20,000.

We stood in the drizzle watching the spectacle for easily thirty minutes before putting our contribution in the slot and heading home.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

A pleasant potluck

I attended a potluck dinner tonight. The evening began at six, and at five I was still pondering what to bring. I took peanut butter cookies, one of the quickest recipes in my arsenal. They are simply 1 cup of peanut butter, 1 cup of sugar, 1 egg, and 1 teaspoon of baking soda, mixed, dropped onto a cookie sheet, flattened with a fork, and baked at 350F for 10-12 minutes. They drew so many accolades I ended up writing the recipe down for two of the people in attendance.

The party also included a full concert by the early music group Camerata California. It was something of a dress rehearsal for a concert they will give later this spring, meaning mainly that they spent a few extra moments between songs hunting for music and reminding one another whether or not to play repeats. By early music, I mean that they play pieces from the 1700s and earlier. The most modern piece on the program tonight was Telemann.

The seven musicians played to only nine listeners, in our hostess's living room. I must give them credit for getting something musical out of a crumhorn. They also have a wide variety of other early instruments, including a full complement of recorders, a sackbutt, a rankett, a viol de gamba, a harpsichord, and many others. Most of them also sang if they were not playing an instrument.

Those interested in hearing the ensemble can download recordings of some of their previous concerts here.

Thursday, December 15, 2005


Some of the readers tonight spoke through tears; some fought nerves; some struggled to read the words at all. Yet each had his or her story, all worth telling, all worth hearing. They told stories of courage, persistence, and survival. They told stories of their own lives and their own worlds, and they told them in their own words.

What made it all the more remarkable is that all the adults who spoke are just learning to read and write. They are discovering their voices. Tonight they published their own book, and they stood up in front of friends, tutors, and family to read their writing.

They did not learn to read and write as children for any number of reasons. Some came from other countries and other languages. Some moved around a lot as children, or advanced through school just by age, not by ability. Some had disabilities that went unidentified or unaddressed. One learner summed it up nicely when she said, "Stupid has nothing to do with it."

They told their own stories of overcoming tremendous challenges: breast cancer, drug addiction, brain surgery, cerebral palsy, immigration, parenthood and illiteracy. For some, the act of writing and reading a story was completely new. The mayor, who spoke after the learners finished, dabbed at tears and remarked that she should know better by now than to wear mascara to these gatherings.

I attended the book launch as one of about one hundred volunteer tutors in the program. I tutor on weekends, helping a woman from Taiwan to learn English and establish a life in this country. I have Sundays when I get caught up in my own activities and don't feel like leaving to tutor, but once I arrive, I nearly always stay longer than I planned. Language and the culture necessary to understand it are endless.

I always learn something, too. I learn bits of her culture and her life, and I learn her persistence, determination, enthusiasm, and above all, courage. I thank them all for finding the courage tonight to speak.

Monday, December 12, 2005


Scott changed the oil in his car Saturday. He did it himself, and I don't think he saved anything, by the time he spent two or three hours wrestling with it. He knows perfectly well how to change oil, but the oil filter was on too tight and wouldn't budge. Eventually, he put a pipe on the end of the wrench for better leverage, but by then the cup of the wrench was slipping on the filter.

He battled the problem unsuccessfully every way he could think of, while I made a great point to do something else. Finally, he explained the problem and asked if I could think of a different way. He was wondering if we had anything that might help clamp the filter better. I suggested a rubber band, the flat kind they use to hold broccoli together at the store.

I happened back a little later. He said, "this is why I love you so much!" It worked on the first try.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Paid to do nothing?

In a conversation I had last night, a friend remarked that she would like to have a job doing nothing, reasoning that she could do something else with the time. I met someone doing such a job once, and I don't think I'd want that job!

This woman works up at the top of a mountain. I went up there to see the view, and it is beautiful. You can see for miles in every direction. In fact, that is the purpose of the job. She is a lookout. Every six minutes during daylight hours, she is required to stand up and survey all 360 degrees thoroughly. She looks for smoke. If she sees any, she uses an instrument to measure its direction accurately. Then she radios in the information, and lookouts on other hilltops do the same to triangulate the location.

The shift for this job is seven days on, followed by seven days off. Another woman works the other seven days. For the seven days on duty, the lookout lives in a small, single-room cabin, with windows all the way around. I don't remember whether the cabin has electricity. If it does, it comes from a generator, and is probably just enough to power the radio equipment and a few lights. Except for the occasional hunter (and even those usually stop at the end of the paved road, a couple of miles below), she is completely alone for seven days at a time. She is nonetheless expected to wear the uniform for the California Department of Forestry.

This particular lookout passed the time by crafting elaborate duck decoys, carved in wood and decorated. I don't know if she uses them as decoys or just as decoration, but she showed me one, beautifully sculpted in six-minute increments.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

California Weather, part 2

I left the house a bit earlier than usual this morning (but still running late) and found frost on my windshield. It has been clear, so the nights have been quite cold.

I think I have an ice scraper somewhere, but I really don't know where. I haven't needed one in 11 months. Luckily, the sun was up, so I got away with using a watering can full of lukewarm water.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

I'm not listening

Some local radio station has been plastering ads around on buses and elsewhere, reading

So-and-so radio
70s, 80s
we want!

Pardon me, but what about all that has happened since the 70s and 80s? And why, exactly, should I listen to whatever they want and not whatever what I want? If their radio is half as good as their ads, I think I'll pass.

Friday, December 02, 2005


How is it that I can receive only two telephone calls in the course of a full business day, and the second somehow rings while I am taking the first?