Monday, January 29, 2007

Article: Weird weather and wild horses

I know every drought ends on a flood. It’s one of my favorite sayings. So it came as no surprise when we got over five inches of rain at my house a couple of Saturday’s ago. Around five in the morning I heard the patter of raindrops with lightening in the distance. By six, the pounding sounded like someone beating a drum on the roof. Thunder and lightening provided counterpoint, like the cannons in The 1812 Overture.

Even so, when I got up around 7:30 and looked out the front window I was amazed to see that Garlic Creek, which runs across our property, had already risen over its banks and flooded the driveway. The creek has been dry these past two years; I’d almost forgotten it could carry water. As I looked out the front porch, raging waters engulfed our gazebo, perched precariously on the far bank and stretched all the way to cattle guard in the front.

For the next two hours I stood on the porch admiring the downpour and contemplating feeding the horses. The two in the back have a run-in where they can get out of the weather. I knew they were huddled there waiting for food. Thing is, it’s in the very farthest corner and slogging through the rain and mud figured to be pretty unpleasant. Nevertheless, I had to do it. The reality proved the premonition. The three in the front had to wait for the creek to go down, I didn’t get to them until well past noon.

The flood seemed like a good sign, with hay up to $10 per bale, we could use some grass growing around here. I can put up with a lot of mud to save some money. But then came the ice and the freezing rain. Those three equines in the front pasture don’t have any real cover, just a few scraggly trees that have lost all their leaves this time of year anyway. Normally they’re fine. I kept a horse in Missouri and in the winter I’d find icicles hanging from his chin and a hard crust of snow on his back. Horses can take the cold.

It’s not like that here. It hadn’t gone down to freezing much even at night before that ice storm. The horses were still wearing their fall coats, more like fluffy sweaters than down parkas. The cold hit them harder than I’ve ever seen. The only thing I could do was clean out the garage and let them hang out in there for the duration. I didn’t like the idea but I couldn’t come up with anything better. So I threw a bunch of hay on the floor, liberally mixed it with grain and invited the horses in.

Horses do not make good garage guests, let me tell you. They messed up the whole place. Food everywhere, trampled-on hay, horse manure. The garage looked like a barn! But I felt a better looking out the kitchen window and seeing their long faces lined up. At least they were dry if not exactly warm.

I could tell the weather had warmed up when I saw only one horse high and dry in the garage. A quick search of the property revealed incriminating evidence. The flood knocked the fence down where it goes over the creek and hoof prints were on both sides. The other two were gone, escaped onto sixty acres of cedar elm, oak, mesquite and juniper.

As I tramped through the woods tracking the rebels, the sounds of falling ice and creaking branches surrounded me. The weight of the ice had knocked down a lot of dead wood and caused low hanging limbs to hang even lower, blocking my path. I called to the missing horses but, of course, they didn’t answer.

Finally I spotted them, frisky as foals, running along the fence behind the neighbor’s house. No doubt they were visiting his horse. Tails in the air, they galloped toward me looking for breakfast. I locked them back up in their regular pen and filled their food bowls. They were knee deep in mud but hungry as horses.

Photo: View out the front porch of my house during the flood.

Photo: View out the front porch looking to the left. Somewhere through those trees is where the fence went down that the horses escaped through.
Photo: View out the front porch to the right. Our driveway runs along that right fence and through those raging waters.
Photo: This is poor little Phoenix with freezing rain in her mane.
Photo: Here is Buzz eating hay in the overhang of the garage. Notice all the icicles.
Photo: Phoenix has taken Buzz's place from the last photo with Buzz and Chesapeake in the garage. They always stand facing out. In fact, I saw them back in rather than go in and turn around.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Article: My father's memories

One of my projects for the new year is to compile a passel of slides I inherited from my father.

Dad died when I was in high school but we hadn’t lived with him since I was four. He worked for UNESCO as a professor and spent much of his life teaching in Latin America. When he died. I didn’t have the sense of immediate loss that many children would. Instead I mourned what might have been. Dad was living in Sylmar, California at the time, less than two hours drive from our house. Once I had the freedom of a car, I hoped to develop a real relationship with him. His death put an end to that dream and I have always resented him for that.

My slide project didn’t start out as something I did for myself. I was going to compile these memories for my younger brother for his fiftieth birthday coming up in March. His reaction to Dad’s death was different from mine. He developed something of a hero worship of our father, pulling all of his meager memories together to form an image of a man who may never have existed. I knew Stephen had few photos of Dad or of our early childhoods. A photo album would be the perfect gift for him. Then last year Stephen died suddenly.

As Stephen’s birthday approaches, I decided to go ahead with the project. I imagine him sitting down with his kids, who are about the same ages we were when our father died, opening the album and pouring over the ancient images with them. He’d spin tale after tale, weaving what few memories he had into the tapestry of a person, his father, a great man. Even though he won’t be there to do that, I thought he would still want his children to know our father as much as possible. So I began scanning in the slides.

I have maybe three-hundred images, paper-mounted and color distorted. I haven’t taken as good care of them as I should for they are scratched and dusty. In the margins of many is Dad’s elegant handwriting giving a simple explanation of the image. On one he wrote “Beauty and the children.. Oct. 1955” I stopped when I read that and examined the photo. My mother, with pins in her hair, sits on the edge of a bed talking to her two oldest children. It’s not a very good photo and not flattering to anyone in it. But it is Dad’s life, distilled into tiny bits and frozen forever.

Gradually, as I’ve gone over my inheritance, I’ve realized I should have done this years ago. Not just because I could have given it to Stephen rather than to Stephen’s children but because it has given me something I missed. I missed knowing my father the way these slides let me know him. I missed day-to-day life with him. I missed knowing what he loved and cherished. He took a series of slides of the UC Berkeley campus where both he and my mother attended college. I wish I’d had those shots when I went to Berkeley. I’d like to stand where he stood to take the photo. I’d like to imagine him there as a young man living in a foreign country and meeting the love of his life.

Another group of slides focuses on a trip to Death Valley he took with my grandfather. I’ve taken my children there many times. It’s one of our favorite places. Is that something I got from him? And across all the years, a moment is captured where he plays with baby Stephen and a rubber giraffe. There’s no way Stephen could have remembered that. Except the photo would have given him that instant. He could have looked at it and known his father loved him.

It’s a lot of work scanning and repairing the slides but it is worth it. In a way, I am scanning and repairing my own life.

Photo: A scanned slide that my father took of his five kids in 1962. This is what it looked like before I started working on it.
Photo: The same photo after extensive repair. From left to right: Stephen, Melanie, Sylvia, Cynthia and George.
Photo: A rare shot of the family with my father's parents. Taken in 1955. This is after I repaired it.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Article: Puzzling fascination

During the course of our New Year’s celebration this year, I brought out my trump card--possibly the most beautiful jigsaw puzzle in the world. I placed the box on the table and waited for my family to cluster around, awed at the vivid image of a classical Japanese painting depicted on the front. We, in the course of a few hours, could recreate that magnificent artwork out of a jumble of irregularly shaped pieces of cardboard. How could anyone resist?

I’d like to say that all settled in and brought the incipient masterpiece to fruition in one glorious display of family unity and shared interest but, to my complete surprise, the assembled crowd quickly dispersed. Some moved off to get something to eat, others to refill their drinks and, sadly, a few just sat down to watch TV. I broke the box open and splayed the pieces across the table. No one remained. Dejected, I rejoined the party that seemed to have moved to a room without a puzzle.

Over the course of the next several days, I completed my gorgeous Japanese puzzle, virtually alone in my efforts. As I placed the final piece into the last hole, I was overcome with a feeling of accomplishment. I stood back to admire my creation. Beautiful! So much bigger and brighter than its portrayal on the box.

That feeling drives me to complete jigsaw puzzles. All I need to do is spend a few--read that many--hours pouring over a thousand or so pieces and I know I can capture it again. I can sit back and admire a work of art that I have created. And it’s not like creating real art, which is a hit or miss affair. As I worked on my puzzle, my son struggled to create a mosaic tile picture frame. He didn’t complete it before he left but I could tell he was already disappointed in it. Real art is like that, it requires talent and perseverance and even then might not live up to expectations. Jigsaw puzzles never let you down.

I did a 3-D puzzle last year. It was a small globe. Although I’m pretty familiar with what the Earth looks like, that was about the hardest puzzle I’ve ever done. Never mind just trying to make it all hold together! If the pieces weren’t numbered, I’m sure I never would have completed it. The two-thirds of the world that’s water all looks pretty much the same on a globe.

Once I did a map-of-the-world puzzle where the pieces were shaped more-or-less like the countries or states they depicted. I’m not sure if that qualifies as a jigsaw since the pieces were not interlocking which definitely added to the difficulty. And some of the pieces were tiny. Those eastern states don’t amount to much even when several of them are combined on a single piece.

The Japanese understand the appeal of jigsaw puzzles better than most Americans. The stores where they are sold often have large displays of jigsaw puzzle frames. In the US, I think most people laugh when they see a framed puzzle.

I left my completed Japanese puzzle out for about a week before I realized no one was going to come marvel over it. When I opened the box to put it away, I found a foil packet and a sponge. I couldn’t read the directions but I assume the packet contained special puzzle glue so I could immortalize my work in the Japanese tradition. It was a temptation.

Pulling apart each piece of my puzzle hurt. How painstakingly I had created this beauty! With such effort I had tried each piece, eager for it to find its home. Now they were so much flotsam adrift in a plastic bag. I closed the lid on their pathetic state of increased entropy. As always, chaos wins.

Photo: Detail from the beautiful Japanese puzzle I recently completed.
Photo:The completed Japanese puzzle in all its glory along with a couple of more memorable puzzles from my past, stored as jumbled masses in their boxes. The Rosetta Stone puzzle was purchased at the British Museum in London where the real Rosetta Stone resides.
Photo: 3-D globe puzzle given to me by my son. Without the numbers you can see on the backside of each piece in this photo, I never would have been able to complete the puzzle.
Photo: This puzzle currently sits on the mantel in the livingroom of my home. It might not look like much to you but it was a major accomplishment for me.
Photo: The map-of-the-world puzzle I did. Luckily it depicted native animals from each region, including the seas. That made it much easier to piece together.
Photo: Detail from the animals of the world puzzle.